Thursday, May 17, 2007

Slow chase: The New York Police Department has just bought a fleet of ten Segways for its patrols. I have to admit that I’m skeptical: How, exactly, is this any different from walking? Even at top speed, a Segway is only a little faster than running. But apparently the NYPD thinks otherwise. Thanks to the Times for picking this up:

Ten of the two-wheeled Segways are to be deployed today as patrol vehicles on pathways and boardwalks in parks, at beaches and at stadiums, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference yesterday.

Twenty-five officers have completed training as Segway drivers, he said, enabling them to maneuver the devices safely for up to eight continuous hours.

“Their obvious advantages are visibility and mobility,” Mr. Kelly said. He was referring to the battery-charged agility of a Segway, which can roll up to 12.5 miles per hour, and to the imposing stature the devices tend to give officers, who are eight inches off the ground and ride standing up.


The potential for preventing crime, and arresting lawbreakers, remains to be seen. Mr. Kelly said that the Segways would be driven only on marked pathways or boardwalks, and that officers would be under strict orders not to venture on city streets or sidewalks.


Whitewash: After the 2004 election, the Election Assistance Commission ordered a study on vote fraud and voter intimidation throughout the country. The end result was, in a surprise for those of us who have seen no data indicating significant vote fraud, a study that said that vote fraud was a pervasive problem. Slate got their hands on a first draft, though, that says exactly the opposite — just like the chapter on global climate change in the EPA’s annual Report on the Environment, which was edited by political apparatchiks to downplay the evidence for global warming. What insight the draft of this paper on vote fraud lends us into this White House.

In their “predecisional” draft (excerpted below and on the following four pages) [Job] Serebrov and [Tova] Wang reported that “the only interviewee who believe[d] that polling place fraud is widespread” was Jason Torchinsky of the American Center for Voting Rights, a conservative organization that’s been accused of fronting for the GOP. (It’s Republicans who typically complain about voter fraud, because the allegations are usually directed at minority and low-income voters who tend to vote Democratic.) Most other interviewees, though not unanimous, showed “widespread … agreement that there is little polling place fraud” (Page 4). Nonetheless, the draft report observed, the Justice Department’s public integrity section is pursuing voter fraud cases energetically: “While the number of election fraud related complaints have not gone up since 2002 … the number of indictments the section is pursuing” against “alien voters, felon voters, and double voters” has risen substantially (Page 5).

Serebrov and Wang submitted their initial findings to be “vetted and edited” by an Election Assistance Commission working group. That’s when the hackwork began.

The final report asserts, falsely, that “there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud in elections.” Wang, the Democrat, has objected in writing that this and other revisions were made “without explanation or discussion.” A gag order in the original contract forbids her to discuss the matter. Serebrov, the Republican, isn’t happy either. The New York Times reported (subscription required) that he complained to a staffer for the Election Assistance Commission that neither consultant “was willing to conform [their] results [to] political expediency,” and that Serebrov “could care less that the results are not what the more conservative members of my party wanted.”


A train runs through it: The Times’ “The Lede” blog reports on the first trains to cross the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, one going each way. This is the first time that a rail link — even just as a publicity stunt, like this one — has existed between the two countries since 1951. Holy cow:

Aboard each train were 100 South Koreans and 50 North Koreans, including "celebrities, politicians and a South Korean driver from one of the last trains to cross before rail links were cut in 1951," Reuters said.

After traveling about 15 miles past the zone into the other nation, both trains returned to their starting points. No plans to begin regular rail service were announced.

In South Korea, the event was covered live by all major networks. North Korea noted the event in its enigmatic way, releasing a four-paragraph report from its official news agency, according to Reuters. That report does not appear to be posted on the official site so far, but a visitor can find “Greetings to Norwegian King” and an ode to “Favorite Bean Foodstuffs.”

As the Northern train arrived in South Korea, it bore a sign on the front reading "The Train Once Boarded by Great President Kim Il-Sung," the nation’s version of "Elvis slept here."


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Now they'll really love him on the South Side: If you go back far enough, everyone has some interesting historical footnotes. Like me being very, very distantly related to Johann Strauss the composer, for instance. It doesn't say very much about you, if you ask me. Nevertheless, seems to have discovered good, solid evidence that Barack O'Bama has a little Irish brogue in him:

The junior senator from Illinois, seeking the Democratic nomination for the White House, has made much of his background as the son of a Kenyan father and American mother. Far less publicized is the European side of his family tree -- including, new research has found, a great-great-great grandfather from the heart of Ireland.

A genealogy Web site,, has spent months looking to pin down the origins of Obama's ancestors -- including Fulmouth Kearney, who immigrated to the United States at 19 and has ties to Obama's Kansas-reared mother, Ann Dunham.

Kearney is a common name in Ireland with roots in many counties. But the Utah-based organization got lucky when it made a call in March to Canon Stephen Neill, a parish priest from the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland.

Neill had just inherited rolls of baptisms, marriages and deaths dating back to the 1700s from a late parishioner, who had kept the records in her home. In the index he found Joseph Kearney, Fulmouth's father, a cobbler in the village of Moneygall, County Offaly -- which, back in those days of British rule, was known as King's County.

Neill hadn't been told by researchers why they wanted to know about the Kearneys of Moneygall. When he called them weeks later with his find, he was surprised to learn that Fulmouth was an ancestor of the Democrats' rising star.

"Everyone here says he's going to have to call himself O'Bama from now on,'' Neill said in an interview. "People are fascinated that such a remarkable man, and a potential president of the United States, could be connected to such a tiny, unremarkable place as Moneygall."

The village today is home to about 300 people, has two pubs, a Catholic church, and a Gaelic sports ground. A busy highway cuts through the middle.


Road to somewhere: Where I live in Orlando, all but one of our limited-access highways are toll roads, and the tolls are expensive enough. In China, where tolls are comparatively more expensive and where the rule of and respect for law has always been compromised by bribery and money, people are going to seemingly ridiculous lengths to avoid tolls. So some villagers are striking back:

By 2020, if all goes as planned, China will have completed almost 53,000 miles of expressways, a network roughly equivalent to the Interstate System in the United States. China considers expressways crucial to maintaining its economic growth and developing its western and interior provinces.

But the cost is so exorbitant that China is financing much of the system with tolls that are, by Chinese standards, pricey.

Two people who should know are Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu. The two men — who were nervous about divulging their first names to a snooping foreigner — are posted at a dingy intersection in this farming village in Hebei Province.

Not far away is a highway tollbooth. Every day cars and heavy trucks, as steady and determined as a trail of ants, try to skip the toll by cutting through the village on a narrow road.

Mr. Wang, 65, and Mr. Gu, 58, try to send them back. They say the tollbooth operator is paying the village a monthly fee to help crack down on toll jumpers. For its part the village is trying to stop heavy trucks from ruining its roads. The two men regulate traffic with a long, crooked stick that goes up and down like a crude crossing barrier.

Mr. Gu does the talking. Mr. Wang wields the stick.

“Can I get through?” one motorist asked on a recent afternoon as other cars waited.

“No,” Mr. Gu replied. Only local people are allowed to pass.

“Is there any other way around the toll?” the driver asked, smiling. “Come on, let me through.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

Someone needs less caffeine in her life: In Springboro, Ohio, an admitted Starbucks addict is giving up the juice after she found an anti-religious quote on her paper cup as part of the company’s program to spur discussions between their customers. The cynic in me says that, having just about killed local coffee shops like Evanston’s Unicorn Cafe, which have served as discussion-places since the 17th century, now Starbucks realizes their value. Anyway, only in America could this happen, I think:

[Michelle Incanno would] buy the company’s coffee beans every week. Whenever she’d get the chance to drop by a Starbucks, she would, placing the same order every time: a large, house brewed coffee with nonfat milk and two Splenda. When the Seattle-based chain opened a drive-through near her Springboro home, she was in java heaven.

That was until she got an unexpected jolt last week from her coffee cup.

Printed on the cup was: “Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.”

It is attributed to Bill Schell, a Starbucks customer from London, Ontario, and was included on the cup as part of an effort by the company to collect different viewpoints and spur discussion.

“As someone who loves God, I was so offended by that. I don’t think there needs to be religious dialogue on it. I just want coffee,” said Incanno, a married mother of three who is Catholic.


P.S.: I know I’ve been away awhile. My time at work is much, much busier now than it was when I started this blog. But I’m going to try to get back into it.