Friday, August 30, 2013

Boost your skills: And improve your job prospects

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Want a new job? Or a promotion at your existing workplace? You have to learn more, do more, get more skills. It’s as simple as that.
But first, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Many employers want new hires to have skills they haven’t yet learned, even if they’re college grads. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, these are things like efficient work practices, how to handle customers on the phone, and how to communicate effectively in a businesslike way. Some of the people competing for job openings will have experience doing that stuff; if you don’t, your chances of getting a welcome-to-the-team phone call drop through the floor.
The good news is that you can acquire these skills fairly quickly, and without spending a lot of cash. Portland Adult Education — which is open to all Mainers (though Portlanders get a discount) — has classes on a wide range of job skills, in the realm of office work as well as the skilled trades. The fall schedule just came out, so check it over carefully at
Most classes happen a couple times a week for a few months, and cost between $85 and $125, though some are more expensive. In other words, this is a relatively cheap way to buff your CV, without taking a big chunk out of your bank account — or your schedule.
Some of the classes teach pretty basic material, but it can be good for an intro if you haven’t used a particular piece of software before (like Microsoft Access, a database-management program), or if you need to brush up on accounting, or practice public speaking.
They’re all taught by local instructors, many of whom are professional active in the fields they’re teaching about, and may be able to connect you with employers seeking people with just the skills you’re learning.
You can start new projects, taking classes in website design, or specific design applications (Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign). Or you can give your existing knowledge a boost, with “in a day” workshops, where people with basic knowledge of a piece of software can take just a few hours to pick up more complex techniques.
PAE also has courses to introduce you to a range of trades: woodworking, welding, electrical work, and plumbing. They can be good starting points to see if you like something enough to pursue a degree or certification, without risking a lot if it turns out not to be quite what you had hoped.
If you’re really committed to professional education, you can enter one of PAE’s certificate programs, which give you an unlimited amount of time to finish taking a prescribed set of courses. The three main certificates are for being an office assistant, accounting clerk, or working in a medical office. They each carry a core of eight basic office-skills courses, plus five certificate-specific classes to get you ready to take an entry-level job. (There’s also a “Microsoft Office Applications” certificate, if you take the classes teaching the basics of the five most commonly used Microsoft programs.)
And there’s a Certified Nursing Assistant program, which can be a good starting point for a career in the medical field. It’s true that being a CNA can be one of the toughest jobs in a hospital or nursing-home environment, but positions are always open for immediate work, and you might be able to score a post that will help you out with costs of getting more education and higher certification.
The long and the short of it is, if you want to learn something new to improve your work environment or job prospects, you owe Portland Adult Education a serious look.
Are you a business owner?Check out Corporate Training
Portland Adult Education also offers custom-teaching services to local businesses, helping them teach employees new skills and boost productivity.
Business owners can meet with a PAE consultant to see what classes might best serve the company’s, and workers’, needs. Then PAE will design classes to meet the goals you’re aiming for — whether with existing employees, new workers, or a combination of both. For example, Goodwill has worked with PAE to design a class to improve non-native speakers’ English.
PAE can also connect business owners with existing classes to improve workers’ skills, individually or as a group.

Learn from home: Take free online courses from top institutions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As long as you have a computer, you have access to some of the best classrooms in the world, for free. MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of California–Berkeley all offer massively open online courses (called MOOCs in edu-jargon) — classes that can have students numbering in the tens of thousands, all around the globe, getting course materials online, watching streaming video of the lectures, and participating in discussions in online forums. These digital learning environments are increasingly popular and accessible, so much so that the New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”
Sadly, there aren’t many such options originating in Maine just yet. The University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine, and Bowdoin College all have nothing of the sort. Colby College’s communications staff didn’t return multiple calls and voicemails.
Bates College is in the early stages of contemplating starting such a program; Al Filreis, a pioneer of massively open online courses at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke in May to the college’s faculty about his 36,000-student course on modern poetry. Filreis, who teaches English at Penn and is also a parent of a Bates student, had students from South Africa and Pakistan, among other far-flung locations.
And in July, Bates president Clayton Spencer joined a group of about a dozen college and university presidents from around the country in discussing MOOCs and access to higher education. She was the only participant from Maine, and the only representative of a liberal-arts college. That said, the college’s public statements about those two events make clear that Bates remains protective of the “liberal arts college experience,” which counts residence in a physical academic community as one of its key values.
Global humanitiesThe University of New England has done the most so far in Maine, through its Center for Global Humanities. While the CGH doesn’t offer courses per se — in the sense of classes that have multiple lectures and discussion groups — it does have one-off events quite regularly that are open to the public both in person and online.
“We wanted to widen the notion of ‘the humanities’ to include all kinds of people,” says Anouar Majid, who not only is the founding director of the CGH and UNE’s vice-president of communications and marketing but also serves as the university’s vice-president of global affairs.
If you head to, you’ll see options for both “Seminars” and “Lectures” on the right-hand rail. The “Seminars” page lists nine upcoming talks by university faculty or other scholars, accompanying reading (often the speakers’ own books), and specific event information if you want to attend in person. For the 2013-2014 academic year, topics include health-care, international relations, history, and philosophy.
If you can’t make it, first check with your local library: many of them around the state convene groups to read the books and watch the lectures, and then have their own local discussions. There’s no credit, and no writing assignments. You just read the book, watch the lecture, and learn something new.
If your nearest library isn’t participating (and you don’t want to start a group yourself), the video is streamed live on the site during the lectures; people watching on their computers can email their questions to an on-site moderator, who will add them to the list of possible topics to address during a question-and-answer period that follows each talk.
It gets better. Past years’ seminars, back to 2009-2010, are listed and archived on the site, letting you learn from international experts on a wide range of topics. What’s more, the “Lectures” page lists two other upcoming talks, and includes an archive of other speakers’ presentations (see sidebar: “UNE Highlights”).
Top-notch schoolsIf you want something more structured, or more like an actual college class, check out these free options from leading institutions around the world.
Introduction to Computer Science three-course package (Programming Methodology, Programming Abstractions, Programming Paradigms) | Stanford University |
Skynet University: astronomy classes, including remote control of telescopes for observations | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill |
“Edible Education: Telling Stories About Food and Agriculture,” taught by Michael Pollan | University of California–Berkeley |
“Global Warming Science,” an overview of the processes by which the climate changes, as well as its effects | Massachusetts Institute of Technology |
“Sets, Counting, and Probability,” a look at the math behind card games, sports, and election results | Harvard University |
“Doing Business in Latin America,” a business and economics class | University of California–Los Angeles |
“The American Novel Since 1945,” a literature class | Yale University |
“Logic and Proofs,” a course with a rationally self-explanatory title | Carnegie Mellon University |
There are, obviously, many more options — foreign-language classes, advanced scientific topics, and much more. Explore — the world is yours for the learning. 

UNE highlightsParticularly notable or interesting talks in the online archive
From the 2012-13 series“The Trouble with Malaria in Africa,” by James Webb Jr., author of Humanity’s Burden: A Global History of Malaria (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
“On the Brink of the Grave: Early Stories of Blood Transfusion,” by Ann Kibbie, with readings from an account of medical procedures from 1896, and from Bram Stoker’s 1897 thriller Dracula.
From the 2011-12 series“What’s Happening in Yemen?” by Daniel M. Varisco, with readings from Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen: The Unknown Arabia (Overlook, 2001).
 “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” by Pauline Maier, author of the book by the same name as the lecture, published by Simon and Schuster, 2010.
From the 2010-11 series“The President, Democracy, and Permanent War,” by Dana Nelson, author of Bad for Democracy:  How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
“Desperate for Some Kindness: A History of Asking for Help in Hard Times,” by Elizabeth De Wolfe, with readings from Horatio Alger and Mary Marshall Dyer.
From the 2009-10 series“The Russian Soul in the Twenty-First Century,” by George Young, with reading from James Billington’s Russia in Search of Itself (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004).
“You Are What You Read,” by Reuben Bell, with reading from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007).
From past lectures“Does America (Still) Need Unions,” by Robert Zieger.
“Lessons from the Emerald Isle: The Implications of Mass Tourism,” by Eric Zuelow.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Press Releases: Billions and billions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Billionaire John Henry bought the Boston Globe earlier this month. Billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post just days later.
They’re following a path blazed by billionaire Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, in 2007, and ran it into bankruptcy; billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Wall Street Journal the same year; and billionaire Warren Buffett, who in 2012 bought two groups of newspaper companies: Lee Enterprises, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Media General, whose flagship is the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Also on that path is billionaire Donald Sussman, who bought the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel in 2012.
Folks with that kind of money often aren’t too fond of being told what to do, but they also didn’t get to the top by reinventing other people’s broken wheels. Where Sussman’s paper has paved the way, Henry and Bezos should consider following.
Here’s what these billionaires should do — not just because fellow ten-to-the-ninthers are doing it, but because it works.
First, take themselves out of the picture. Sussman, as a hedge-fund manager, is probably more used to this sort of thing than Henry, who owns media-magnet properties including the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club. And Bezos, as founder and CEO of, is hardly a stranger to the spotlight. Zell, for his part, kept putting the spotlight on himself; Murdoch can’t seem to duck away. Buffett’s holdings are too far-flung for him to be in the local mix too regularly. But then, if Bezos allots his attention according to financial proportions, the Post will take up 1 percent of his time — that’s how much he spent of his $25-billion fortune to buy it.
The more the news, and the paper as a whole, are independent of the heavy hitter behind the scenes, the better for all involved. Readers will appreciate getting information through an editorial process with integrity (which should definitely include ownership disclosures in every story where that’s relevant). Journalists will dig for truth and understanding rather than spin and marketing. Advertisers will come to understand they simply don’t carry enough financial clout to sway coverage. And the owners themselves will avoid all sorts of questions about ethics, improper influence, and messing with the public trust. They should hire respectable, reputable journalistic leaders to helm their operations — whether keeping existing staff in place or seeking new blood.
Then, they should not expect to make much money. In fact, calling newspapers, as Sussman has, an “important community resource” — not a business — would probably be a good idea. ewspapers are no longer a license to print money, but they can make a modest profit. And much of the past financial pressure on newspapers was debt, of which all these papers are now free.
Next, they need to make the product better. Sussman has invested in editorial content, and it’s paying off. Witness major pieces by Colin Woodard, for example, shifting the political conversation around government hiring lobbyists to be regulators.
Sussman is also investing in internal systems improvements, smoothing the editorial process and allowing actual financial tracking in near-real-time. But those should only be in service to improving the finished product, which is what the general public sees.
Which leads to the final suggestion: The new owners must remember they still answer to the public. depends on having a good reputation among millions of customers — and the same is true of the Sox. With newspapers, the ownership still answers to the audience, and depends on its trust and support. These billionaires got rich by collecting other people’s money; they should not forget transparency and accountability, especially as employers of the key enforcers of those principles.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Renovations: Getting Congress (Square) to work

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Five years after launching a citywide effort to redesign Congress Square, the city of Portland is launching a citywide effort to redesign the area around and including Congress Square. But all is not as lost or absurd as that sentence may suggest. Rather, it seems a modicum of common sense may have invaded City Hall and resulted in this new twist in the saga of the city’s most beleaguered, maligned, and steadfastly defended public space.
In 2008, the City Council set up a 15-member committee, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group. As originally proposed by councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue, it would have looked at not just the park but also the public and open spaces around it, including sidewalks and roads. But the council limited the group’s scope to just the park area. Now that august body has seen the sense in the initial idea.
Since 2011 the redesign study group has been the focal point of controversy over whether the city should sell a portion of the park at the corner of Congress and High streets to the new owners of the former Eastland Park Hotel, soon to reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview. (See “Congress Square’s Controversial Facelift,” by Deirdre Fulton, May 24.)
While all parties agree that something must be done to change the park’s current underused, sunken hardscape (which city officials are now terming a “plaza”), the debate has been hamstrung: As even the city’s own Parks Commission pointed out in correspondence with the City Council back in May, a proper choice would not be between the RockBridge proposal (which itself has had several major variants) and the park as it is, but
between the RockBridge idea and other real alternatives, “such as a re-designed park in the same space, a fully designed smaller plaza, and other building or architecture options.”
Which is where this new citywide effort comes in. Many ideas have come forth from many parties about what could go there instead of a privately owned event center (including our own suggestion for an amphitheater with greenspace and benches, in Calvin Dunwoody’s “Reimagining Portland,” August 24, 2012), but there hasn’t been one centralized place to view and discuss all of these proposals.
Now, at last, there is. The city is calling it a “visioning process for the redesign and programming of Congress Square,” including not just the park but also the streets at that intersection, “the public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the H.H. Hay Building, and surrounding sidewalks and traffic islands.”
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg says the new conversation is a “holistic view,” but indicates that any outcomes will not stop negotiations with RockBridge (which the City Council has directed city staff to undertake), nor another process under way to determine whether it makes sense to make High Street a two-way road.
But it could serve as an umbrella conversation that may affect how those other efforts develop over time.
That’s the hope of Frank Turek, a leader of Friends of Congress Square Park, a group fighting the sale of the park to RockBridge. He’s  keeping “a cautious eye” this new effort. “The word is that they’re pretty set to go ahead with the park” — selling it to RockBridge, that is — Turek says. So this could be a diversion, “to sort of show that they’re open to all views but really they’re not.”
On the other hand, he hopes that city leaders are taking the advice Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces gave in a talk at the Portland Museum of Art back in June. “His idea was that we should step back . . . and get an idea of what does the city want this whole area to be,” Turek says. “It’s the important question that no one’s ever bothered to ask.”
His group, which has already begun collecting suggestions for how to make the park better, will participate in the process, though Turek stresses that is not a signal of a changed position. “We want to keep the park. This isn’t a road to compromise,” he warns.
Marshall, for his part, is pleased his original idea has finally been approved by the council. And while he favors keeping the full park public, he indicated city officials may already be leaving that debate behind. “This is designed to open up the conversation to be much more than the park itself,” Marshall says. “Regardless of what happens in that little corner of Congress Square . . . we need to work on some of the issues,” including vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and the overall layout of the area.
You can contribute to the community discussion in several ways. First, and perhaps most easily, propose your own ideas, and vote on others’ suggestions, at (yes, that’s three Ss).
Or take an online survey about your use of the area at (it’s in a tiny one-word link in very small print in the upper left corner of the Planning Department page, just beneath “p&d news”).
Also, tweet thoughts with the hashtag #CongressSquare.
If you’re more into meatspace, attend the public meetings that will be scheduled in August and September (check the city’s website for times and places), or go to Congress Square and write down your ideas on signs posted there.
All these ideas will be collected into a report for the public, and distilled into a request for proposals in the fall, seeking an urban-design person or company to develop a master plan of the area.
While an original timeline had data collection happening through September 6, the process is now more “rolling,” says Jeff Levine, director of the city’s planning department. “We’re trying to see which sources of input are the most fruitful,” he says. So keep the ideas coming.
The Friends of Congress Square Park will meet Tuesday, August 27, from 6 to 8 pm, at Portland City Hall, room 24.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Investigations: Book, film reveal the Third World War

Published in the Portland Phoenix

United States commandos answerable directly to President Barack Obama are killing countless innocent civilians every night in dozens of countries around the world.
Rather than fighting terrorism, these missions to kill alleged militants often come before the intended targets have ever done anything violent or illegal. And even if soldiers are lucky enough to hit their target — and often they don’t — these attacks, by covert raid or submarine- or drone-launched missile, also kill and maim innocent bystanders, turning actual and potential American sympathizers and allies into blood-feud sworn enemies of the United States.
Under the George W. Bush administration, and vastly and secretly expanded under the Obama administration, the US has created a self-perpetuating cycle of secret worldwide combat, robbing families in this country and around the globe of loved ones, peaceful futures, and the numberless benefits of security at home and abroad.
These are the theses — and the undeniable conclusions — of Jeremy Scahill’s newest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield (Nation Books, $32.99) and its companion Dirty Wars film, directed by Richard Rowley, which SPACE Gallery is bringing to screen at the Portland Museum of Art four times this weekend.
In many ways the 83-minute film, distributed by indie-movie kingmakers IFC Films/Sundance Selects, is a trailer for the book. Taken on its own, the movie is a slow, dark procedural, following pieces of Scahill’s extensive multi-year investigation into how the Joint Special Operations Command, “the most covert unit in the military, and the only one that reports directly to the White House,” has taken charge in the fight against terrorism. In the process, JSOC has gotten Obama’s permission to kill anyone anywhere in the world — even US citizens — without specific allegations of wrongdoing, any functioning oversight or real spending limits, and in ways that only inflame international anti-American opinion, ensuring a steady supply of potential targets for a neverending war.
The film has compelling moments, to be sure. In the first ten minutes, for example, we meet a man who was at a party that was raided by US Special Forces, killing his wife and other family members, including an Afghan police commander who had extensively trained alongside the US military. The man tells of seeing the soldiers dig the bullets out of the bodies — even from people who were still alive — with their knives. Then the man himself was taken prisoner and held for several days. Upon his return to his village, he had been radicalized: “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans,” he tells Scahill.
The corresponding scene in the book is stronger, by far. Of course it lacks the visceral video of a man dancing with friends and family only hours before he is killed by US Special Forces. It doesn’t include the actual sobs of a grieving woman. And the text also doesn’t let you hear the sweet, high-pitched voice of a six-year-old Afghan girl as she recites the names of family members Americans killed that night.
What it offers instead is page after page of an organized, sequential play-by-play of the events, explained clearly and vividly (including the important detail that the bullets were dug out of the bodies to cover up evidence that American troops had been there). The movie was filmed during Scahill’s reporting, so some quotes appear in both places, but the book uses them in better and more complete context, making reading them more effective even than seeing and hearing the tearful voices of the survivors of the attack.
And that gets at the basic difference between the two, and the reason the film is only really powerful when viewed as a selective sampler of the book. The movie is about the life and experience of being a war reporter digging this stuff up, as opposed to the book’s focus on what Scahill uncovered. And without question, the latter is more important than the former.
It’s certainly interesting to hear the inner dialogue of an investigative reporter’s brain — to hear how such simple questions (“Who were these American soldiers?”) require so much hard work to answer and untangle into a cohesive story.
Yet it is much more useful to read in full the stunning mosaic Scahill is able to put together than to watch small bits of his experience of locating the tiny pieces of that whole.
Scahill’s reporting on these issues, like his previous best-selling bookBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army(Nation Books, 2007; excerpted in the Portland Phoenix March 23, 2007) and his reporting in the Nation, on Democracy Now!, and elsewhere is a call to action, if not to arms, for Americans who still believe their country should be governed by its people, for its people.
What the film blasts through but the book explores — and explains — in depth is possibly the most terrifying development in the war on terror: Obama’s decision, made by him personally, that it was legal and permissible to kill American citizens overseas without trial, in direct contravention of the Fifth Amendment, which says “no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
As Scahill notes, even John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who joined the Taliban and actually engaged in combat against US forces, was given a trial under the Bush administration after his capture in 2001. Anwar al Awlaki, who had never done anything but write and speak passionately about how he saw the world, was not given the same rights by the Obama administration before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011. (Nor was Samir Khan, another US citizen killed in the same strike that targeted Awlaki.)
And neither was Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, killed a few short weeks after his father, while having lunch with some teenage buddies.
The US explained away the teen’s killing, calling it “collateral damage” of a drone strike targeting someone else, but didn’t apologize for the death. And the government downplayed the facts that the attack failed to kill any actual confirmed terrorists, and that it happened in Yemen, a country not publicly acknowledged as an American war zone.
Scahill’s conclusion is chilling: Abdulrahman al Awlaki was killed not for what he had done, but “for what he might someday become.” Even today, the American attacks continue, and continue to turn people around the world — and at home — into opponents of US government’s World War Three.
Dirty Wars | directed by Richard Rowley | 83 minutes | at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | Aug 2 @ 7 pm, Aug 3 @ 2 and 7 pm, Aug 4 @ 2 pm | $7