Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sidebar: Slow lane

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Under the terms of the deal, by 2013, 90 percent of FairPoint’s customers in northern New England will have access to DSL Internet service. (Unless, of course, FairPoint takes the extra year Maine regulators have allowed with no penalty, which would mean waiting until 2014.)

In that time, FairPoint plans to provide exactly none of its customers with the option for fiber-optic connections, which is the real high-speed Internet, already available to 10 million homes in the US, but none in northern New England (except a handful around Portsmouth, New Hampshire; see “Internet Disconnect,” by Jeff Inglis, August 24, 2007).

DSL is the slowest of all the services that can be called “broadband,” though it is faster than dial-up. In 2007, as many as 40 percent of DSL customers were dissatisfied with the speed of their service, according to a report by Michael Render, a fiber-market analyst for RVA Market Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Imagine how many people will think DSL is too slow in 2014!

By 2010, three (or four) years before FairPoint’s rollout of DSL will be complete, 25 million homes nationwide (22 percent of all homes) will have access to fiber, Render says.

As everyone else is eagerly awaiting the connection of fiber-optics, we in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont will have our feet up, enjoying life in the slow lane.

A bad idea triumphs: Verizon: $500,000,000 — Public: $0

Published in the Portland Phoenix

From time to time, we all wonder how bad public-policy choices make it through “the democratic process,” being vetted and scrutinized by “the appropriate agencies,” and incorporating “public input.”

The Verizon-FairPoint Communications deal (in which Verizon will sell its landlines in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to FairPoint for $2.4 billion) is an ideal case study. It’s roundly criticized by nearly everyone. Even the regulators who were asked to approve the deal are wary. At first, Vermont’s regulators rejected it outright, then later voted to approve a revised version. Maine Public Utilities Commission chairman Kurt Adams made it clear he was holding his nose while voting to approve it, and New Hampshire PUC chairman Thomas Getz declared that the initial version was “not in the public interest,” though his board voted 2-1 to approve a revised proposal Monday. (The dissenter, commissioner Graham Morrison, wrote that “the public interest ... requires something more than ... good intentions.”)

Apart from Morrison in New Hampshire, regulators in all three states have chosen the devil they don’t know over the devil they do, by agreeing to let Verizon sell out (and avoid tax obligations of more than $500 million) in the hope that promises from a financially strapped communications company (FairPoint) will give us something better than neglect from an incredibly wealthy communications company.

Bad ideas like this one survive first and foremost because someone thinks they’re good ideas. Not surprisingly, FairPoint and Verizon love the idea — FairPoint gets to collect more money from more customers and pass it on as dividends to shareholders; Verizon gets to keep $500 million it would have paid in taxes and use that money to invest in fiber-optics and cellular technology elsewhere in the country. (Those of us in mountainous rural areas are stuck with older, slower technology, and that’s just our bad luck, as far as Verizon is concerned.)

But even more important to the survival of bad ideas such as this merger is that state utility regulators behave like powerless functionaries whose job is to moderate corporate rapaciousness, rather than seeing themselves as empowered defenders of the public interest.

Even when regulators are presented with fundamentally terrible deals that endanger the public interest, threaten economic development, and may end up risking people’s very lives, they see their responsibility as exacting just enough concessions from massively wealthy companies to let the regulators claim they got something for the people, even when they have given away much more.

It’s not as if they haven’t been warned. Union representatives and industry experts have been railing against various aspects of the deal since it was announced back in January 2007. Customers have expressed significant concerns, in letters, e-mails, and phone calls to regulators in Augusta, Concord, Montpelier, and even Washington DC. And the consumer advocates who represent the public in utilities proceedings in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have all expressed reservations about this deal in uncharacteristically bold language — saying FairPoint’s assumptions are “inappropriate” and “do not reflect reality.”

Wimpy regulators
One member of the three-person Maine PUC didn’t even ask any questions of Verizon or FairPoint during the public hearings. Sharon Reishus remained silent, even though this deal is the largest and most controversial piece of business to come before Maine utilities regulators in state history, and despite the fact that the telecommunications sector is the one that state officials, economists, and activists alike see as a key to Maine’s prosperity for decades to come. But her silence is not the problem: It’s the symptom of the real problem.

Regulators have expressed frustration with Verizon’s well-documented lack of attention to serving residents and businesses in northern New England. The solution, though, is not to hand Verizon a pass on its $500 million tax liability on profit from the sale. Regulators have standards (and can increase the standards), and they have enforcement tools to punish companies that don’t meet the standards, such as fines and penalties.

They have not used these tools very much, or very well. And they don’t seem to feel they are in a position of strength, with Maine officials making the “demand” that if North Carolina-based FairPoint does not roll out its slow-speed “broadband” Internet service, DSL, to enough homes by the end of 2013, the company would get an extra year to meet the same goal, with no penalty. “Our history with some utilities enforcing merger conditions after we issue a decision has not been great,” Maine PUC chairman Kurt Adams admitted in a January 3 hearing.

But rather than hold themselves to a higher standard of performance and actually enforce their rules, regulators have passed the buck — hundreds of millions of them, really — to us, by letting Verizon off the hook. And it is we, the public, who will pay for their complacency.

In the first place, FairPoint’s economic projections were shockingly optimistic (see “No Raises For Seven Years,” November 16, 2007, and “No Raises — It Gets Better,” November 20, 2007, both by Jeff Inglis). And those fragile projections were made before we entered the economic downturn most economists now believe we are in.

Financial peril
There has been a lot written about FairPoint’s financial problems, both current and future. Normally, when seeking to impose conditions on a sale, regulators ask for financial guarantees from the buyer.

Not this time. State officials are so worried that FairPoint is — or will be — in financial peril, that they’ve wrung more money out of the seller, Verizon, making the multi-billion-dollar behemoth throw a few bucks our way as it heads out the door, almost like a charity contribution for the privilege of abandoning northern New England.

Indeed, when Vermont’s Public Service Board initially rejected the deal, it ruled that “FairPoint had not demonstrated that it would be financially sound” after the sale went through, and could end up incapable not just of expanding phone or Internet service, but even of keeping service at the current, below-standards level.

Put charity aside: we are paying Verizon to leave. State officials will probably deny that, but think again. The cost to us is more than just the missing $500 million in tax revenue.

FairPoint is taking on more than $2 billion in debt to do this deal, and the company is expecting not only to pay off that debt, but also to make a profit. Every dollar the company spends on Verizon’s landlines will have to come back in, paid by the customers in our monthly bills. The more FairPoint pays, the more we, the public, will ultimately have to pony up over time.

If FairPoint isn’t making enough money to make its executives or shareholders happy, the company will come back to regulators in all three states, crying poor, and asking for higher rates. Of course, FairPoint really will be cash-strapped and poor, so the regulators will find it hard to refuse. And if they approve rate increases, they and their agencies won’t feel the pinch; we will.

The regulators may even forget that Verizon overcharged telephone customers in Maine more than $30 million in 2005 alone, and that our state made FairPoint promise to cap its rates for five years to help make up for those excess charges. The only way the regulators could abandon their duties more would be to develop amnesia in addition to their weakened spines.

Beat the clock: Does anybody really know what time it is?

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

“The Earth is a terrible timekeeper,” says Geoff Chester, the spokesman for this country’s official clock-master, the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC.

The first problem is the Earth, but the second problem is us. We cheat to make the movement of the Sun and Moon match up with the calendars on our office walls, and, at a more rarefied level, we cheat so that physicists and astronomers can synchronize their scientific watches.

The Earth doesn’t rotate exactly 365 times during a full revolution around the Sun. (It rotates 365.2422 times, on average, if you must know.) To make up for that, since the time of Julius Caesar (45 BC), we have added a LEAP DAY to the calendar every four years. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII made a slight modification, saying a leap day would not be added in years that are evenly divisible by 100, unless the year was also evenly divisible by 400 (which is why 2000 was a LEAP YEAR; 1900 was not, and 2100 won’t be, either).

That’s still not good enough, though, so we need more cheating.

The Earth doesn’t cooperate with physicists’ super-specific definition of “one second” (derivation of which is so complicated we’ll just mention the outermost electron in a cesium-133 atom and skip the parts about microwave radiation, vacuums, and magnetic fields). That definitely doesn’t change, but the Earth’s rotation is generally slowing (because of resistance from ocean tides and the movement of molten rock at the planet’s center). From time to time, to keep things matching, we need to add a LEAP SECOND. The last one happened on December 31, 2005; the next may happen on December 31, 2009, but maybe not, Chester says, depending on how much the Earth’s spin actually slows between now and then.

We could avoid leap seconds altogether if we were like the physicists who want time to run based solely on the atomic clocks. But that would force some other adjustment at some point. Some propeller-heads have proposed passing the buck to future generations via a scheme requiring someone to add an entire LEAPHOUR to some year a little more than 1000 years from now. Not likely. So we’re probably stuck with leap seconds. Adjust your watches accordingly.

Could be worse: some people are burdened with much, much more. Accountants and other people who need a fixed number of exactly-seven-day weeks per year use an occasional LEAP WEEK, giving some years 52 weeks and some 53. That makes them happy, but is too confusing to the rest of us and generally of very little import.

And then there are the people who use a LEAP MONTH. “The Moon does not go around the Earth exactly 12 times in a solar year,” says Chester. It’s about 11 days behind, which is why events on a lunar schedule (such as Easter in the Christian calendar, and nearly every holiday in the Jewish calendar) are “movable feasts” — i.e. their dates move around a bit from one year to the next. The Hebrew calendar uses a leap month every two or three years to keep itself relatively close to the solar calendar.

Perhaps you’re ready to give up. (I know I am.) If so, try out the Islamic calendar, which is a purely lunar calendar, and ignores the solar calendar completely, not using leap days, weeks, months, or years. Happy February 29!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Press Releases: Gender confusion?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Press Herald watchers have long since tired of editor Jeannine Guttman’s roughly weekly “Editor’s Note” columns, which more often than not should be called “Painfully Obvious Self-Promotion.”

At least then we’d be warned in advance about the rewritten corporate memos that Guttman passes off as her thoughts on the news business and running the paper. Take as an example her January 27 quote from a middle-level sports editor that the writers the Press Herald spent thousands of dollars to send to Arizona would “cut through the media circus that is Super Bowl week.” She went on to say those writers would bring “Maine perspective and insight” to an event on the other side of the country in which a team from another state competed for a national title.

But Guttman shows herself to be even more out of touch with reality in her latest column, “Poll Shows Gender Gap in News of Interest.” After the muddled headline, Guttman spends 1000 words (including nearly 300 words of direct quotes) summarizing a 980-word report from the Pew Research Center, and still somehow completely ignores the study’s most interesting finding.

She spends most of her space explaining why “gender differences” are the reason “newspapers offer different kinds of content sections and pages — from lifestyle to sports, from recipes to NASCAR.” That’s not entirely accurate: newspapers publish niche-topic sections as much to draw advertisers as readers.

Guttman even appears to find the major point, but then skips over it — twice. She does discuss the study’s report that both men and women are very interested in breaking news and the top stories of the day — including topics such as the presidential campaign and the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. But she treats that idea as an aside, going on to highlight more differences between what topics men and women are interested in, and from what mediums they get their news.

Even in a study attempting to delineate differences, the Pew researchers found similarities. Among the study’s lists of specific recent news stories preferred by one gender over the other were subjects in which both genders reported very significant interest: tensions between the US and Iran, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, and the recall of toys made in China.

This was a national study, so it didn’t test people’s interest in Maine’s biggest stories. It did look at general subjects, though, and found large proportions of both men and women follow news about local government, consumer issues, and the weather. The biggest gender “split” is in sports; the rest are in niche areas such as science, religion, finance, and health.

But when concluding her column, Guttman observes that the Press Herald is a “general-interest medium,” and professes uncertainty about “how to keep the content useful, valuable and newsworthy to a broad audience that includes both men and women.”

The Pew study’s road map is clear: cover major news stories, which are of very strong interest to both genders. Maybe she missed that while looking for story ideas on NASCAR or cooking.

Three firsts at NEPA

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland Phoenix contributing writers and staff took three first-place awards at the New England Press Association’s annual awards banquet February 9, and three second-place honors as well.

In first place were: for LOCAL ELECTION COVERAGE, the staff and freelancers, for work published between September and November 2006; for COVER DESIGN, “Why Bath Stinks,” a gas mask against a fetid background by Phoenix staff, published April 6, 2007; and for HEALTH COVERAGE, “What’s Wrong With Healthcare in Maine?,” first-person accounts of dealing with the healthcare system by contributing writers Sam Pfeifle and Caitlin Shetterly, published July 27, 2007.

In second place were: for RACIAL OR ETHNIC REPORTING, “‘I’m Done Killing Hyenas,’” excerpts from a Telling Room non-fiction writing project by local high-school students Ali Mohamed, Aruna Kenyi, and Kahiye Hassan, published May 4, 2007; for GENERAL NEWS, “Unvarnished,” former staff writer Sara Donnelly’s story about the Brookings Institution study of Maine’s economy commissioned by GrowSmart Maine, published September 29, 2006; and for GOVERNMENT REPORTING, “State: One Santa Okay; Another No Way,” about state censorship of beer-bottle label graphics, by managing editor Jeff Inglis, published December 8, 2006.

Behind the mask: What we don’t know about the Valentine’s Phantom — and why that’s a good thing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The identity of Portland’s Valentine’s Phantom is the city’s best-kept secret, bar none. And that’s not changing here, so if that’s what you expect from this article, turn the page and see what someone else will do for love, because we won’t do that.

In a city where secrets are few and far between — the PortlandPSST blogger; how much Reynolds Wrap the Tinfoil Man uses each year; the real meaning of the “Tracing the Fore” sculpture — this one has lasted. And lasted.

Each year since 1976, someone (or some group) hangs white pieces of paper with bright red hearts on doors, windows, and walls all over town, and caps off the display with a few large banners and flags slung from prominent buildings (though not the Time and Temp Building yet — we’re waiting...). A similar phenomenon has been going strong in Montpelier, Vermont, since the early 1990s, and someone from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, posted a Craigslist note in December expressing interest in bringing the tradition there.

The most surprising thing is that people don’t actually want to know who is doing it. Even here in the office, as we tried to score an interview with one of the perpetrators, we didn’t want to know. It would have been an anonymous interview. It’s much nicer to not know, really. (One person we talked to did relay a message said to be from the Phantom, saying the Phantom doesn’t want to be contacted, and that if the Phantom wanted to surface, it would have happened long ago.)

The first report of a Valentine Phantom in Portland was in the February 14, 1976, issue of Portland’s Evening Express: a photo and a long caption describing the sudden appearance of red hearts on white paper taped all over the city on Valentine’s Day morning. (The three-year-old girl pictured with the unexplained decorations, now an adult living in Wisconsin, says she remembers it “like it was yesterday,” and has a copy of that picture in her family photo album, but disclaims any knowledge of the people behind the hearts.)

There have been other media mentions throughout the years, in local papers and TV stations, and even on CNN. But only once has anyone actually interviewed the Valentine’s Phantom (and nobody has asked him, or her, or them, whether “Phantom” is the preferred term — “Bandit” is the word as often used in conversation).

That was back in 2005, when Portland City Council candidate Carol Schiller claimed to have started the tradition in the early 1980s (see “City Council Race Hearts Up,” by Beatrice Marovich, October 21, 2005).

As we said earlier, the Valentine’s Phantom doesn’t like publicity, but he apparently likes even less the idea of someone else taking credit for his work. He promptly responded with both paper evidence and a phone call to the Phoenix offices, in which he provided, among other tidbits, a receipt from a now-defunct Forest Avenue printing shop, purportedly for making the signs for the 1977 banditry (see “She Said, He Said,” by Sam Pfeifle and Sara Donnelly, November 11, 2005). And he offered more info on the phone, including the night-time temperature on February 13, 1979 (8 degrees), and the number of people helping out that evening (six).

It’s that last tidbit — long assumed by those who spend much time thinking about it — that makes this annual tradition most interesting. The fascination goes beyond amazement at the increasingly brazen and difficult nature of some of the displays — hanging a heart on Fort Gorges (the same night a Casco Bay ferry reported just barely avoiding running over a small boat containing as many as seven people), running a flag up the Central Fire Station flagpole, hanging huge banners from the Portland Museum of Art and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The mystery surrounding the Phantom/Bandit’s secret identities is an integral part of the tradition.

If there were just one person involved, the secret could be easily kept, even for more than 30 years. But if six people helped in 1979, how many more have participated over the years? How many of them have roommates, partners, parents, children who might have noticed a door opening and closing late on Valentine’s Eve?

There are a lot of people who claim to know someone who is involved; we’ve talked with dozens of them this week. Perhaps we have actually talked to the Phantom him- or herself, but nobody admitted anything. That’s the most fascinating part of the secret — we’re keeping it from ourselves. We really don’t want to know.

“Historically, graffiti has been about fame,” says local legal-graffiti artist Tim Clorius. (He denies being part of the Phantom group or even knowing anyone who is; we are pretty sure we believe him.) Graffiti artists seek to get their tags in as many visible public places as possible, earning props from peers for particularly difficult-to-reach or especially prominent spots. But in this effort, the tag being distributed is simply a heart, making the anonymity itself the art.

Clorius sees the hearts as a suggestion for something more. He would love to see small, simple, non-destructive works of art all over the city. There is potential, Clorius says, for “all this site-specific work” to move beyond the basic, friendly message of a red heart on Valentine’s Day and raise deep, pressing questions about our society.

The Phantom’s pioneering work in this realm has made for us a model of direct artistic action, aimed dead-on at the general public — unfiltered by the media or a gallery — and with a message whose impact is heightened by serendipity.

Which, it seems, is the precious Valentine the Phantom is really giving us. That secret, at least, is out.

Heart history
1976 The first Valentine’s Phantom strikes in Portland, and garners reports in the Evening Express and Maine Sunday Telegram newspapers.

1977 Printing the flyers cost $22 at Colonial Offset Printing on Forest Avenue; a Portland Press Herald effort to discover the Bandit’s identity fails.

1978 Hearts went up a day late, and bore a note: “It’s not only ONE day!”

1979 The weather was 8 degrees and windy, according to notes made by one of the six bandits.

1984 Massive heart banners, roughly 20 feet by 35 feet, hang from the Cumberland County Civic Center and the Portland Museum of Art.

1986 A heart banner is hung on Fort Gorges in the middle of Casco Bay.

1991 Down East magazine imagines that “the phantoms roam the city in a pack, dressed in red or white capes emblazoned with huge hearts.”

2001 A heart flag flies from the roof of Portland’s Central Fire Station; a fire lieutenant denies any knowledge.

2005 A heart banner hangs from the roof of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Commercial Street.

OCTOBER 2005 Portland City Council candidate Carol Schiller claims to be one of the phantoms.

NOVEMBER 2005 An anonymous phantom responds with information that his effort predated hers, and that she has never worked with them.

2006 CNN mentions Portland’s Valentine’s Phantom in a national report.

DECEMBER 2007 A would-be Portsmouth Valentine’s Bandit posts a message on Craigslist, hoping to get some pointers from Portland. No dice, apparently: “If anything does happen in Portsmouth, it won’t be any of my doing.” Sure. Like we’re supposed to believe that.