Monthly Archives: May 2014

Do Recent Cable Mergers Signal Lower Customer Satisfaction?


By Thursday Review staff

(Originally published May 20, 2014) Even though big mergers have become more commonplace in a highly deregulated technological marketplace, a few recent marriages have been staggering to behold.

Disney’s massive merger with ABC ESPN (followed by its acquisition of Pixar) was a monster deal. Comcast, which just a few years ago purchased outright NBC Universal, just this February announced its intention to buy a controlling stake in Time Warner for a hefty $45 billion—effectively merging the two largest cable television companies into one mega system. Then, in mid-May, AT&T and DirecTV announced their own merger plans, a $48.5 billion marriage that tops any previous buyout in history.

Comcast’s recent merger plans have met little resistance, either before Congress or among the various regulatory agencies whose approval is required before the deal can be signed. In the meantime, Comcast has sought to preempt concerns by agreeing to two important concessions: continued net neutrality, at least for a couple of years; and a selloff of some of its footprint to rival Charter. (See: Comcast: The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend; Thursday Review; April 29, 2014).

Comcast expects to win the day with regulators, in part because of its recent concessions, and in part because its lobbying efforts may be the most intensive and slick in Washington. Despite some of the worst case fears by consumer advocates, a few business analysts suggest very little will change in the way of customer experience or exposure—and certainly not within the first year or two.

In the meantime, AT&T’s proposed merger with DirecTV—though its price tag is even bigger—may ultimately face less scrutiny in Washington. AT&T and DirecTV do not compete in any traditional sense. DirecTV supplies millions of North Americans with access to television and cable channels via its network of small dishes. It also has some exclusive programming of its own, including a popular NFL package which allows sports fans in many markets to have access to pro games not otherwise available to them with the local broadcasters or their cable company. AT&T has a product called U-verse, a cable-like service which provides direct access to television programming through AT&T’s architecture.

The two behemoths do not compete, at least not using a conventional apples-to-apples comparison. For that reason, regulators may have fewer specific grievances about the proposed merger, other than the general concern about lack of competitiveness on a global scale—i.e., yet another major merger in which there will be fewer content and delivery options for U.S. television viewers and internet users.

But what about the matter of customer satisfaction? A recent report by the independent consumer organization, American Customer Satisfaction Index (a component of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan), cable television companies, satellite dish firms and internet providers are rated as the worst in the U.S. in terms of satisfaction. The ACSI Index measures customer happiness across a variety of fields, retail footprints and service industries. ASCI tracks 43 industries in its annual survey. Internet service providers fell to a score of 63 out of 100, and cable TV companies fell to 65 out of a possible 100. AT&T and DirecTV occupy a middle spot in the low range on that same survey. Dish Network receives a worse score that DirecTV, and Cox Communications (cable and internet) comes in even lower with a low score of 63.

But Comcast and Time Warner, separately, give even lower scores on the most recent survey. Comcast receives a rating of 60, and Time Warner comes in dead last with a score of 56—the lowest ever. (Wireless and cell phone companies had a big improvement in recent years, and the current survey shows an uptick in scores for Verizon and Samsung; Samsung beat out rival Apple for the first time in the ASCI tracking).

So this begs the question—obvious and even compelling to many Americans, but not so easily asked by members of Congress and Federal regulators: why doesn’t customer satisfaction play a greater role in debates and discussions when such massive mergers are brought to the table?

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, director of the ASCI project, “still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations.”

VanAmburg says that under such circumstances, customer service remains poor, and in some case deteriorates further. Indeed, AT&T’s brief foray into cable TV over a decade ago showed how badly these things can go for customers. AT&T famously outbid Comcast for control of Media One in 1999. At the time, Media One had a poor reputation among its customer base—long on hold waits, frequent outages, long delays in service calls and repairs. After AT&T folded Media One’s operations into its own, things actually got worse. In many markets, local and state governments were flooded with complaints as there were reports of on-hold waits of 45 minutes or more, lines that lasted an hour in local offices, and repair and service delays that could last three to four days.

Comcast’s argument—and it will likely be the same argument deployed by AT&T—is that the newly merged giant will have economies of scale crucial in a rapidly-evolving technological landscape: improved technology, integrated operations and digital platforms, greater bargaining strength with broadcasters and content creators. Plus, merged customer operations will be more efficient, and can incorporate the combined strengths of the two giants. Comcast says it needs the merger to remain competitive with technology giants like Amazon, Google and Apple. But there are plenty of skeptics, to say the least.

“It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers,” said VanAmburg.

Particularly low on ACSI’s scale are internet providers. “High prices, slow data transmission and unreliable service,” the report says, “drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few alternatives beyond the largest Internet providers.” The report cites ISPs with low scores of 63. More telling perhaps is that non-traditional forms of internet have seen scores increase. Verizon’s FiOS leads the category.

The emergence and rapid development of mobile and handheld tools for internet access has challenged the business model for many of the largest cable and telephony companies. The survey cites the continued decline in land line usage as millions of Americans migrate toward households which use only cell phones and other mobile devices.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Kings of Content: Why Comcast is Inevitable; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 28, 2014.

Comcast: Don’t Worry, Be Happy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 9, 2014.

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New Yorkers Nix Plan to Gut Famous Library

NYPL Lion_crop

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

(Originally published May 14, 2014) In April we published the first in a planned series of articles about how the digital age has reshaped libraries, and our first segment examined how a small college media center in southwest Georgia was adapting to a world of wired, interconnected data. We travelled to Bainbridge State College where we spent several hours interviewing librarians and staff, looking at the technologies they deploy to help students, and examining how the library thrives in a digital environment.

One inescapable fact: the book—the printed book, just to be clear—still plays a vital role in many libraries. Print is neither dead nor even on life support, though the great American newspaper has taken a beating over the last 15 years. In fact, it is not even clear that the printed book has suffered from much more than a mild case of identity crisis. And when it comes to libraries, books still matter.

Bainbridge, Georgia is small, but just take a look at the current brouhaha in New York City, where a huge reversal of fortune took place recently when N.Y. Public Library and city government suddenly shifted gears and decided to leave, fully intact, its basement level stacks area underneath the famous Stephen A. Schwartzman building—the library facility within the New York Library system which is used primarily as a research center.

As part of a complex series of budget plans—begun during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now under review by current Mayor Bill de Blasio—that lower level was to be fully renovated and converted into a new, high tech lending library branch, complete with computers, dazzling forms of internet access, and a full range of digital adaptations. But that proposed change met powerful and well-organized resistance—in the form of attention-gathering protests, and in the form of legal action on several fronts.

The famous research library, located on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, where it shares a city block with Bryant Park, was due for a multi-million dollar renovation. Although its main reading and research level would remain intact, the vast space underneath would be transformed into a new, modern lending library and digital center. The city had allocated approximately $150 million for the transition and transformation. Part of the deal was that the library system would sell off two other prime locations—the Mid-Manhattan Library, also on Fifth Avenue, and the Science, Industry & Business Library on Madison Avenue—and use the revenue from those potentially high-value real estate transactions to supplement the conversion.

The library system, using mostly privately donated funds, has already paid a well-known British architectural firm headed by Norman Foster at least $9 million for the re-design and retrofit work.

Instead, the iconic 1911 Schwartzman building will be left unmolested and unaltered, for now.

Among those who were skeptical of the transformation were Mayor de Blasio himself. As candidate, de Blasio expressed concerns not only with the high cost of the reconstruction and renovation, but also with the re-allocation of resources. At issue has been the movement of thousands of books and documents—all currently archived in the basement—to other facilities in New York, including a significant percentage which would be moved to a new climate-controlled facility in New Jersey. Researchers and writers who use the Schwartzman facility say that such redistribution of books from the stacks would create long delays in access and retrieval. There were also fears that some materials might be lost forever.

As the new mayor, de Blasio ran headlong into controversy which included lawsuits, mass protests on the steps of the library, and high profile, celebrity intervention on behalf of keeping the landmark building a repository for research and the printed word. Writers Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa, among other literary figures, had publicly opposed the renovation plans.

But some librarians and archival experts say that the vast basement area under Fifth Avenue and under Bryant Park is not an ideal place to store the materials. Much of the area included in the stacks lacks adequate climate control; books and archival materials face long term damage from heat, humidity, cold, pests and other elements. Furthermore, rising water levels (and the possibility of another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy) increase the chance that some books could be destroyed in a matter of hours by heavy flooding. Proponents of the renovation say that a serious fix of the basement area would require many more millions of dollars than the originally proposed plan to relocate the stacks to a specially-designed facility in New Jersey.

But in the end, opposition to altering the grand old library—known for the huge stone lions which grace the entrance area along Fifth Avenue—won the day. Library officials readily accepted a compromise version which will keep the Schwartzman building and its contents more-or-less intact—for now.

Other literary figures who had opposed the renovation included Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, author Jonathan Lethem, and cartoonist Gary Panter.

The new library plan will include a substantial renovation of many of the oldest areas in the Schwartzman Building. Part of the proposed solution, which library president Tony Marx describes as “comprehensive,” will also involve expanding the stacks to additional areas under Bryant Park, additional exhibition and special features space, and more space for writers and researchers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 18, 2014.

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Can Angkor Wat Teach Us About Water Management?


By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review associate editor

(Originally published May 4, 2014) Man has experienced problems with water management systems dating to Ancient Rome and beyond, but archaeologists say those issues may have also driven residents from Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex 1,200 years ago.

Airborne laser technology (lidar) uncovered roadways and canals, producing a detailed map of a vast cityscape which reveals a bustling ancient city linking the complex, according to a peer-reviewed paper released by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in June 2013.

Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s top tourist destination and one of Asia’s most spectacular landmarks, constructed in the 12th century during the Khmer Empire. Cambodians are extremely proud of the temple, placing it on their national flag and having it named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Those high tech airborne lasers show numerous highways and previously undiscovered temples in the city known as Mahendraparvata, which archaeologists had suspected lay beneath a canopy of dense vegetation. The site is located on present-day Phnom Kulen mountain in Siem Reap Province.

“No one had ever mapped the city in any kind of detail before, and so it was a real revelation to see the city revealed in such clarity,” said Damian Evans, University of Sydney archaeologist and the study’s lead author. “It’s really remarkable to see these traces of human activity still inscribed into the forest floor many, many centuries after the city ceased to function and was overgrown.”

Researchers loaded equipment onto a helicopter in April 2012, spending days crisscrossing the forest from 2,600 feet. In 20 hours of flight time, they covered 370 square miles of terrain, studying Angkor and the two nearby complexes of Phnom Kulen and Koh Ker. Their findings were later confirmed by Australian and French archaeologists who slogged through the thick vegetation on foot. Researchers had previously spent years doing ground research and excavations mapping a 3.5-square-mile section, but the lidar revealed a 14-square-mile downtown which had a larger population than previous estimations.

“The real revelation is to find that the downtown area is densely inhabited, formally-planned and bigger than previously thought,” Evans said. “To see the extent of things we missed before has completely changed our understanding of how these cities were structured.”

Archaeologists are unsure exactly why Mahendraparvata’s civilization collapsed, but some theorized water management issues may have driven out residents, he said.

Researchers are anxious to begin excavating the site in the near future, seeking clues concerning those who lived there. They will recover and analyze material and environmental data left behind, including artifacts, architecture, biofacts (eco-facts) and cultural landscapes.

The medieval Khmer Empire traces its origin to Jayavarman II, who proclaimed himself King of the World in 802 CE. History shows the great ruler may have jumped the gun slightly, noting several centuries passed before the Khmers eventually built Earth’s largest religious monument. Angkor Wat became the crowning glory of a kingdom that by the 13th century spanned an area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers, located today in northwestern Cambodia. The vast urban landscape is hidden in Kulen’s jungle and in lowlands surrounding the temple.

The laser imaging reveals a cityscape at the heart of the Khmer Empire (9th to 15th centuries CE) that was more sprawling and complex than previously thought, leading archaeologists to consider the possibility that climate change and the kingdom’s sprawling waterworks made the complex unlivable. Angkor was considered to be the most extensive city of its type in the pre-industrial world, with its waterways and reservoirs vital to produce enough rice to sustain hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. At its height, the empire covered much of modern-day Cambodia, central Thailand and southern Vietnam, and the lidar information “is astonishing,” according to Roland Fletcher, a university of Sydney archaeologist and member of the international team. “We found the great early capital of the Khmer Empire,” he said.

Their research in recent years shows Angkor’s waterworks began breaking down as the kingdom faded into history, which can probably be traced to decades-long mega-monsoons and droughts in 14th century Southeast Asia (according to 2009 tree ring data), Fletcher said. “Things are going wrong by the 1300s.” Massive sand deposits in canals and spillway ruins the Khmers may have ripped apart were red flags for researchers, he said.

“The discovery of this early Angkorian city is a very exciting example of lidar’s use in the region,” adds Miriam Stark, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who has recently started conducting research at Angkor but wasn’t involved in last year’s investigation.

The lidar research shows medieval settlements at Phnom Kulen and Koh Ker had extensive hydraulic engineering on a scale comparable to Angkor, showing a much wider reliance on water management systems “to ameliorate annual-scale variation in monsoon rains and ensure food security,” the team reports. Some readings uncovered cryptic coil-shaped rectilinear embankments covering several hectares near Angkor.

“It was an unbelievable surprise,” Fletcher said. “Nothing like them had been seen before in Khmer architecture.” They may have had some role in farming, but the team cannot say for sure what their function was. Also the lidar data showed “very serious” erosion in parts of the ancient city, accounting for deep sand deposits found in excavations, Fletcher said.

The UNESCO website describes Angkor and its wider footprint “as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.” UNESCO is seeking to establish a comprehensive program to balance the vast historical importance and cultural significance of the huge site with the always-increasing pressures of tourism. Some UNESCO representatives are concerned that the nearby development of large hotels, huge restaurants, shops and other tourism-related construction could disrupt the water suppply and the water table, eventually causing severe structural damage to the ancient site. According to the British news site, The Independent, Angkor Wat receives over 3000 visitors in a typical day, making it one of the world’s busiest tourist attractions.

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U.S. Space Travel Without Russia?

Falcon 9 Launch January_crop

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Published May 15, 2014: With U.S.-Russia relations at a low point for cooperation—and many would make the argument that the tension between the two nations is at its worst since the Cold War—the future of the International Space Station is now in serious doubt.

Tensions over the Ukraine have led the U.S. and some of its partner countries to enact economic sanctions against Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tossed about some of his own economic actions, including the threat of cutting off desperately needed oil and gas to Europe. Few of Russia’s tit-for-tat sanctions would actually have a direct impact on the U.S., however, aside from the ripple effect caused by oil price increases worldwide.

But Putin has one ace up his sleeve which, in fact, does present an immediate problem for the United States and a few of its technological allies: for the last decade or so the U.S. has been largely dependent upon Russian rockets to get American hardware and U.S. astronauts into space. The decommissioning of the shuttle program in those heady days of cooperation between Moscow and Washington meant that the U.S. could save a bundle of cash by letting the Russians handle the heavy-lifting of travel into Earth orbit. At the time there were few—if any—military or techno thinkers who foresaw the kind of political and military trouble now spilling outward from the Ukraine.

Furthermore, several U.S. companies, including Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, have been using rocket engines built in Russia for several major defense department projects. Why not American rocket propulsion systems? The Russian-made engines are cheaper and ready for use inside American missiles and rockets, or so the logic went until a few months ago.

Force majeure, as they say in the law. That was then; this is now.

The U.S. Air Force (along with other agencies) very badly needs to get some cutting-edge hardware and gadgetry into space. NASA has neither the funding nor the capacity, and few U.S. allies have space programs which are fully operational and at-the-ready.

So, after being routinely bypassed by the Pentagon and numerous U.S. government agencies, Space Exploration Technology, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, is now feeling the rush of vindication. The Air Force has put all of its leverage and resources behind getting Space X fully certified for the purpose of getting military hardware and spy satellite swag into space.

In late April, Musk had even filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals contending, among other things, that a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, called United Launch Alliance, was little more than a monopoly with a cushy, exclusive contract with the Pentagon for the long term EELV project (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle). The Space X website contains a press statement in which that joint venture is described by Space X as “on a sole-source basis without any competition from other launch providers.”

“Space X is not seeking to be awarded contracts for these launches,” the statement says, “we are simply seeking the right to compete.”

Musk told Congressional members in March that the Pentagon has been essentially supporting a two-partner monopoly by using only the Lockheed-Martin/Boeing cabal at a time when others should be invited to the table to offer their own technologies and make bids for space flights.

Now the Air Force is so willing to work with the California-based Space X that the Pentagon has an entire team of experts devoting their entire workdays to getting Space X certified for a variety of military launch applications.

Musk heads not only Space X, but also Tesla Motors, a firm devoted to creating workable, low-cost fuel cell, battery and high-tech cars. Musk told Congressional leaders that “space launch innovation has stagnated [and] competition has been stifled” as a result of the collusion between top Air Force brass and the partnership between Boeing and Lockheed.

The Air Force now hopes that it can work with Space X and forge a partnership which may bring about new flights using the California-based company as early as 2018. Space X has used its Falcon 9 rocket on three previous occasions to deliver materials to the space station, each time using its Dragon spacecraft atop the rocket. The Dragon capsule is equipped with a large payload area (23.5 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter) specially designed for cargo.

Meanwhile, some in Congress are asking NASA directly: how do we proceed if we do not have Russia as a partner in future space projects? Sanctions cut both directions over the last few months, and Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced earlier in May that his country would halt any further sales of Russian-made rocket engines or boosters to the U.S. or its partners. Russia has also threatened to withdraw completely from the space station program, putting the future of the civilian and science project at risk.

With its funding cut deeply at the end of the last decade, NASA ended manned space exploration in 2011. Space X has been working with NASA for several years, providing launch services for satellites and other payloads.

The U.S. government also has open competitive arrangement with several companies—Space X among them—to develop low cost, innovative rocket systems for shuttling astronauts and supplies into space. The other companies who have been asked to develop technologies for space travel include Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, and Amazon.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Space Bots; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 12, 2014.

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How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age

Photo: Alan Clanton

Photo: Alan Clanton

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Bainbridge, Georgia is like many small towns across the Deep South. The busy east-west main street through town sums up the diversity and complexity of the city, with three or four blocks of stately mansions, rows of azaleas and camellias in full bloom, and ancient live oaks—followed, almost immediately, by a busy stretch of road lined with retail shops, fast food restaurants, real estate and law offices, automotive stores, and shopping centers.

But driving a little further east through town on U.S. 84, just past the point where the bypass meets the main road, one will come across the campus of Bainbridge State College, where students from an equally diverse mix of background and culture come to learn and study.

If you are a traveler simply passing through Bainbridge, it would be easy to miss the campus were it not for the imposing Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center, a multi-use facility equipped for conferences, musical events, speaking engagements, meetings and special events (the facility recently hosted a lecture by former President Jimmy Carter, for whom Kirbo was a close associate and advisor). The auditorium wing of the building sits close enough to the road to make it impossible to miss the fact that there is an academic campus nearby.

Once inside the campus, which is heavily shaded with oaks and other trees, you realize that the college is much larger than it appears from the highway, with handsome buildings constructed in a large square around a vast center green space, and parking areas neatly arranged in a decentralized layout. On the north side of that grassy commons area is the school’s library, and like most campus media centers, large or small, it is filled with students busily at work. On the day of my arrival, it was quiet, with about half the tables and workstations taken.

The library at Bainbridge State College is typical of most media centers found on campuses all across the country: students can be found at work at a variety of tasks: engaged in research for reports and term papers; cobbling together key elements of class projects; sitting at personal computers culling through online sources for book reports or reviews of current events. Many students are at work with laptops as they prepare papers or complete exams and quizzes, while others work on homework assignments.librarian helping a student

Still other students, wearing headphones, are immersed in the study of foreign language, and some of those students are using computer applications like Rosetta Stone, which—since it requires the student to engage in verbal responses—means that young people can be found hunkered down in small, glassed-in rooms where their spoken responses will not disturb others in the library.

A brief walk through the BSC library, down the main aisle which divides the traditional rows of bookshelves from the open areas designated for study and reading, reveals a wide, 8000 square-foot glass-enclosed section, recently added, which extends airily into the campus’ green spaces and into the shade of those stately oaks and tall pines. On the day of my visit, only a few students were using this attractive space, but it was easy to see (at least from my perspective) that the area was ideal for reading, studying or essay composition. (Yes, I am a library nerd: within about one minute of arriving in the recently added space, I had picked out what would have been my “favorite” table for studying or writing).

Friendly disclosure: before I spent the last 30 years working in media, mostly in print journalism, television production or cable TV, I worked in a library—for eight years, in fact. It was a big public library, brimming and bustling with activity, but with the majority of its foot-traffic circling around the all-important main reference desk and the inescapable, handsome, maple card catalogue cabinet which sat in the center of the main floor. Most libraries, large or small, still look this way, except that you will be hard-pressed to find an actual card catalogue. They turn up now in antique stores, where folks pay premium prices to have these vintage cabinets in their homes and offices.

The demise of those durable card catalogues in libraries is just a small element in a world being transformed by computers, the internet and big data.

There is no stopping the conversion of information to the digital realm. The process began in the 1950s with the large, mainframe computers built by companies like IBM. Much of that data was stored on large reels of analog tape. Digitization accelerated somewhat in the 70s and 80s with the arrival of ever-more-inexpensive forms of business and personal computing, along with cheaper ways to computerize data in offices, retail environments, government offices and academic venues. The upward curve grew more frenzied by the 1990s as the price of computing came down even more, and as millions of people worldwide migrated toward the internet. But even then, the vast majority of data and information was largely analog, and libraries were no exception.

By the start of the new millennia, the pace of digitization became feverish.

In their 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, authors Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer Schoenberger stress just how much the transformation has accelerated just within the last decade.

“As recently as the year 2000,” the authors write, “only one-quarter of all the world’s stored information was digital. The rest was preserved on paper, film, and other analog media. But because the amount of digital data expands so quickly—doubling around every three years—that situation was swiftly inverted. Today, less than two percent of all stored information is nondigital.”

By the beginning of the aught years, there were wild and hyperbolic predictions of the death of print, and, by extension, the inevitable obsolescence of the library. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, those reports were greatly exaggerated.

Though the transition to the digital age has been a costly, awkward and sometimes lumbering process for many media centers in the United States, in some ways the library at Bainbridge State College got there first. BSC was the first academic institution in Georgia to convert its microfilm and microform records of the local newspaper (The Bainbridge Post-Searchlight) to a fully digital format. Previously, BSC’s back issues of the Post-Searchlight and older local papers were found on 111 reels of analog film, which, like most libraries in the pre-digital age, meant its users needed to view images of newspaper pages using a large, expensive device designed to read formats like microfiche and various flat or rolled film storage technologies. When BSC completed the conversion to digital reel in 2007, its first-in-the-state achievement made headlines, including those of the Post-Searchlight.

Students can now access older editions of The Post-Searchlight (or its Bainbridge predecessors) using a computerized database familiar to anyone even moderately comfortable with computers. Other than a few gaps—normal after a century or more—the BSC’s digital newspaper archives can access past issues of the Post-Searchlight (or its predecessor, The Bainbridge Argus) as far back as 1869. On the day of my visit, Library Director Susan Ralph assisted a student in pulling up back issues of The Post-Searchlight which dated to the early 1980s.

Another element immediately apparent at BSC’s library: security. Like many newer media centers, and some older ones easily retrofitted for the task, BSC has a walk-through security system near its entry and exit areas. Its modest purpose is to prevent theft—intentional or accidental—of library materials. But like many campuses, there is also the more serious issue of safety and security for the students themselves. Another staff member gave me a brief tour of the main reference desk, and one of its prominent features was a full-sized monitor upon which was displayed high-resolution video images of almost all areas inside the facility. At any given moment, librarians and staff can easily monitor what’s happening with a simple glance at one of the live images on the multiscreen display.

Computers are now a fact of life in libraries—both for internal purposes, and for the benefit of library users.

And in an age in which so much data and information is now online, the library at BSC has large areas devoted entirely to computers and web access. Sitting at individual workstations, students can search the internet for materials related to their studies—newspapers and magazine websites, trade or professional journals, electronic news sources, and online databases and research websites. On my visit, I saw students reviewing websites related to nursing, physical therapy, transportation and logistics, and early childhood education.

At numerous other workstations, students have the option to make hard copies of papers and class materials by using printers located nearby. Scores of the computers are equipped with the usual battery of Microsoft Office products for word processing, spreadsheet management and other tasks—an obvious benefit to students who may not have access to a computer at home. Students can compose book reports, term papers, essays and other written projects, and print copies of their completed work with a keystroke. Unless the quantity of printed pages is excessive, the use of library printers is already covered by student fees appropriate to their coursework. BSC also employs a tech support person, available during most hours of operation, to contend with the myriad of potential issues faced by both library staff and students—hardware or software problems, internet disconnections, application failures, glitches with screens, keyboards, servers or routers.

Still, no amount of conversion to digital replaces the printed book. Like most campus libraries, the floor space at BSC’s media center contains a vast footprint devoted to rows of shelves filled with books, thousands of books (about 45,000). And like most academic libraries in the U.S., these books are arranged using the Library of Congress Classification system (most public libraries, and some public school systems, use the Dewey Decimal Classification system).

And that brings us back to the matter of the vanishing card catalog.

Digital databases and ever-advancing search engine capabilities make finding a book relatively easy, which is arguably the most transformative change in the 21st century library—much in the same way that the search engine has transformed how much of the world’s population thinks and acts when in search of information (for better or worse). Indeed, the card catalog’s inevitable obsolescence was made even more irreversible by the search engine’s singular ability to locate specific types of data within seconds. The more specific the request, the more narrow the results—sort of. Go to the search window of Google or Yahoo and type in, say, small business ideas, and you will get over one billion results, “ranked” more-or-less by the frequency of clicks by all Google users worldwide, and an indication of not only how much data linked to that is now available, but also how broadly the search request harvests items related to that query. Type instead small business ideas using noodles, and the results narrow greatly, to under three million. But type small business ideas using noodles from Croatia, and the results widen again to over 16 million. Adding “Croatia” does not help to narrow the search. Thus the paradox: less is more, unless it is too little.

This is where libraries have the edge. Searching for information in the library can be a refreshingly targeted process, especially if you know exactly what kind of information you want. Therefore the college library—and the library at BSC is no exception—still requires some nuance and out-of-the-Google-box thinking on the part of students.

BSC participates in vast system called the GALILEO Interconnected Libraries (GA Library Learning Online, or GIL), an education intranet database which connects all 35 college and university libraries in the state. Using GIL, one can access articles in magazines, academic journals, trade and professional journals, books, and thousands of other kinds of research data—from any library within the GIL system.

I watched as a library specialist, Kaye Guterman, worked with a student to show him some of the finer points of searching for information using GIL. Not long after he signed in to the database (using his assigned username and a password), she asked him what subject he wanted to research. He chose coaching, then, narrowed it to high school and football. Still, that search request brought up thousands of results spread out across dozens of categories—sports medicine, sports records and game stats, motivation and self-help, biographical and autobiographical, along with educational data. But with a little prompting, she was able to counsel him in the art of fine-tuning his search to find materials most relevant to his topic. Soon, he was able to see an easily-ranked list of journal articles and books relevant to one of his preferred career paths: coaching high school sports.

GIL can give more-or-less instant access to articles and web-based research, Librarians helping studentsbut it does not necessarily guarantee that books listed are within a 60-second walk within the same library. But because the GIL database also includes all books in its huge statewide system, users can request delivery of books and other items not found in their closest library. Using a network of couriers, books can be quickly pulled from one library and delivered to another, often within 48 hours or less.

In other words, students need merely to have a working knowledge of how to use the GIL system, and, then, plan ahead to request a book which may take a day or two to arrive.

GIL does not entirely replace a much older, largely national program called Interlibrary Loan, in which books can be shared between public and academic libraries, typically using traditional forms of delivery such as the postal service. The library at BSC is a member of both the Georgia Online Database (GOLD) and the Southeastern Library Information Network (SOLINET). But GIL, through its dynamic, mass statewide database, speeds up the process and—in the long run—saves millions of dollars by reducing duplication of materials.

GIL also has the secondary advantage of giving librarians a real-time, user-friendly tool for understanding and developing their own collection: books or materials in high demand can be purchased for the home collection; books in less demand can remain accessible through GIL. This takes the guesswork and crystal ball-reading out of library acquisition (an expensive process), and greatly reduces money spent on books which may spend the next few years of their shelf life collecting dust. This real-time data also means that students need not suffer from a lack of appropriate research material because of missed cues on the demand side of the equation. Like most states still struggling to recover from the budgetary effects of the Great Recession, this makes interconnected data programs like GIL a win-win. State legislators love win-wins.

GIL is also constantly expanding to include more digital materials and the resources and books of libraries outside of the strictly academic environment; GIL includes not only the 35 college libraries, but also the combined materials of technical colleges, the Georgia Department of Archives and History, and other historical and research centers. (GIL’s main website includes a listing of all participating libraries, complete with links to library websites, library hours, locations and maps.)

And like much of our search-engine world, GIL employs a quick and easy way for users to check the status of their requests, retrace previous search requests, and painlessly renew a book which may be approaching its due date.

The BSC library also offers a self-service program called LibGuide, a carefully developed set of reading lists and study guides formed through collaboration between librarians, instructors and department heads. This gives students instant and round-the-clock access to a full range of appropriate research material crafted specifically for a student’s coursework.

Another high tech tool indicative of the transformation wrought by computers and social media: during regular library hours, students can use an online chat service to talk directly to a reference librarian.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-part series about libraries in the digital age; future segments will include a look inside public libraries (large and small), historical archives and collections, and other academic libraries.

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NYPD: Social Media May Not be Your Bag


By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review associate editor

(Originally posted April 30, 2014) The New York Police Department is looking for other ways to help connect itself in a positive way with the community, according to Fox News. Its most recent public relations campaign—encouraging citizens to share photos of themselves with officers using the Twitter hashtag “my NYPD.”—seems to have backfired and morphed in unexpected ways.

There are millions of people in the world who are tone deaf, and this even extends to governmental agencies on occasion. When you’re the largest and most high-profile police force in the western world, you should probably keep your mouth shut and your head down. Indeed, so many people have either had bad interactions with the police or know about inappropriate actions, that it is safe to assume that tens of thousands of folks would love nothing more than to find ways to make the NYPD look bad.

Moreover, the popularity of the internet and vast improvements in photographic clarity are not always your marketing friend. Many people shared heartwarming and smiling images, but others sent extremely unflattering or suspiciously posed pictures.

Some were taken during the Occupy Wall Street occupation and protests. “NYPD engages with its community members, changing hearts and minds one baton at a time,” @occupywallstnyc tweeted.

CNN reported one tweet which read “The NYPD will also help you de-tangle your hair,” which was sent out alongside a photo of a police officer pulling the hair of someone apparently under arrest.

Plenty of the negative tweets involved overt cases of police brutality, or, at the very least, police overreaction, according to USA Today. One photo shows helmeted, heavily armed cops wrestling with two unarmed street protesters, both of whom are being tugged by their arms and legs. The tweet reads, “Police help couple do Yoga with proper form!”

Embarrassing episodes from the department’s history were also front and center, including a photo of David Ranta, who served 23 years on a murder conviction that was overturned, followed by his release from prison due to police misconduct.

One posting showed a policeman apparently writing someone in a Minnie Mouse costume a ticket in Times Square, while another showed an officer sleeping on the subway. And how about the one taken at a West Indian Day Parade showing an officer simulating a sex act with a citizen? Oh, it’s just gotten bigger by the minute, and by Tuesday afternoon #myNYPD was the most popular hashtag in New York, No. 2 in the nation and No. 4 in the world.

“The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community. Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city,” said Kim Royster, NYPD deputy chief.

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GOP: Not in Kansas Anymore

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

(Originally published May 3, 2014) For Democrats, the only candidate that matters at the moment is an ex-United States Senator and former Secretary of State. Indeed, Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a pre-primary, pre-caucus lead that would be the envy of any non-incumbent or potential presidential candidate of the last 40 or 50 years.

The Republicans, by contrast, have no such superstar. But among those most frequently discussed, it is governors, not senators, who dominate the conversation. In March and April, Thursday Review posted several articles about former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Indiana governor Mike Pence, and current New Jersey governor Chris Christie—once the GOP’s de facto front runner, but now locked in a politically awkward, slowly evolving battle with scandal, the result of what has become known as Bridgegate. Despite his defiance, Christie’s future remains uncertain—at least for 2016.

Other chief executives—current and former—are on the presidential radar as well, including Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Sarah Palin (Alaska, and of course her famous pairing with John McCain in 2008), and Mike Huckabee, a former resident of the governor’s mansion in Arkansas and a veteran of the presidential campaign of 2007-2008. There are others on everyone’s long list of potential GOP candidates, many from the House and Senate, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul. Rick Santorum, too, has begun a campaign of vetting his message through emails and other outreach. A casual perusal of some conservative websites also reveals that some in the GOP are looking at South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, a popular Palmetto State governor since 2011. Another name mentioned in some surveys is John Kasich, Ohio governor.

But in the absence of any obvious heavyweights, and with Jeb Bush deferring a decision until later this year, the field becomes more level, offering lesser-known politicians a chance to enter the fray—or at least giving them the option to field test their messages. Almost everyone in the GOP has their favorite horse, and most have a second or a third. After we published those articles in March and April, we received a flurry of emails and social media posts reminding us of even more names, including that of Pence. Also among those emails and posts came one from a reader in Atlanta who said simply “don’t forget about Sam Brownback of Kansas…the conservative’s conservative.”

Brownback has been on the long lists before. As far back as late 2006, when he was a U.S. Senator, his name was floated as a dark-horse contender. When early polls indicated strength among the GOP’s most conservative wing, he entered the race officially in early 2007 with the modest goal of rallying Republican conservatives—especially social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks—at a time when the race was ill-defined and the destination of the party’s right unclear. In those days, New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Arizona’s John McCain were taking turns in the lead position, Huckabee was still low on the radar screens, and restless Reaganites were seriously considering Fred Dalton Thompson, whose campaign would not become official until summer. Mitt Romney was drawing some support from mainline conservatives.

Brownback was an early supporter of intervention in Iraq, and was a vocal advocate (like McCain) of The Surge in 2007. At a time when the war in Iraq was at its lowest level of popular support at home, this put him at odds with the opinion of many that the U.S. had already overstayed its welcome and its usefulness in what had become a bloody and costly war. Only later, during McCain’s phoenix-like return from the bottom of the heap to the top, did the view of the Surge prevail again.

But this was too late for Brownback in 2007. Stuck in single-digit numbers, and after a poor performance during the September 5, 2007 GOP debate on Fox News Channel (see: Road Show, Thursday Review; September 15, 2007), talk of Brownback as conservative dark horse began to fade. Within days, his fundraising efforts began to dry up. He eventually withdrew from a crowded—and sometimes confusingly muddled—field which included Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore and Tommy Thompson. On October 19, 2007, he endorsed John McCain, much to the chagrin of some conservatives, and raising the hackles of the high-profile commentators at Fox News.

But Brownback’s conservative credentials are about as solid as they can get. His first arrival to the Senate was, in fact, a precursor to a Tea Party movement which would not solidify or even define itself for over a decade. When Bob Dole resigned from the United States Senate in 1996 to campaign full-time for President (Dole was challenging President Bill Clinton), Kansas Governor Bill Graves appointed Sheila Framm to fill Dole’s vacant seat. Framm—a lifelong Republican, a majority leader in the state senate, a Lieutenant Governor, and someone with a record of voting alongside the GOP in 93% of all roll call votes in the legislature.

However, Brownback challenged Framm in the GOP primary, outflanking her to the right and edging her into the role of the “moderate” in a state with a predominantly Republican political template. Latching onto the after-effects of the Republican Revolution of 1994, Brownback went on to easily defeat Democrat Jill Docking in November 1996. Upon his arrival in Washington Brownback quickly established his reputation that “conservative’s conservative.” In his 1998 and 2004 re-election campaigns, Brownback crushed his Democratic opponents, defeating Lee Jones in 2004 by more than 69% of the vote.

He served out his terms until he ran headlong into his own commitment to term limits. Later, he ran for governor—a new favorite of Plains States Tea Partiers—and he again easily defeated his Democratic opponent by taking nearly two-thirds of the vote statewide. Brownback came into the governor’s office with what was then the most popular of all possible Tea Party combinations: a commitment to his pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage stances, and a robust position on fiscal restraint and lower taxes. Brownback was also an early and vocal critic of Obamacare, famously refusing a $31.5 million grant from Health & Human Services—money designated to help Kansas set-up an statewide exchange under the provisions of health care reform. The irony is not lost on his supporters (and a few of his detractors) that one of his predecessors in the governor’s office was Kathleen Sebelius, until very recently Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and the person at the center of the storm when the health care website failed and registration numbers lagged below administration forecasts and estimates.

As governor he also engaged in a high-profile defunding of the Kansas Arts Commission. The legislature fought him, but in the end he vetoed all bills to restore funding that arrived on his desk, declaring that the arts should be funded privately or through community and local support, not on the backs of taxpayers struggling to make mortgage payments and feed families.

Already conservative on abortion, Kansas became even more strict in 2011 after Brownback signed into law several bills limiting abortion—including legislation which bans any abortion after 21 weeks. He also signed into law a requirement that any patient under 17 must have the legal permission of the parents or guardians before an abortion can be performed.

All of this would seem to put the former Kansas Senator and current governor on the fast track for the 2016 early handicapping—especially considering his fierce opposition to Obamacare and his tenacious commitment to lower taxes and restrained government spending.

But despite some discussion by a few analysts and commentators, Brownback’s timing may not be ideal for 2016. Kansas under his guidance has run into a few fiscal problems as a result of ill-timed tax-cuts and reduced spending. Some of those tax-cuts were the work of his immediate predecessors, Sebelius, and later Mark Parkinson, but Brownback pushed hard to sustain those tax cuts at the exact moment when the economy was still in the deepest recessionary valley. Later, in 2012, he pushed even harder for deeper tax cuts, and the resulting spending curbs affected nearly every aspect of the Kansas economy. Though the long-term effects may eventually prove Brownback to be a visionary, the near-term judgment is that the cuts were too deep. Especially hard hit were public schools, where a disparity formed between the wealthier school districts and the poorer ones. Per student spending has dropped slightly, according to a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek, and the state’s own courts have weighed in on the problem—ordering that allocations for education be increased quickly to remedy the problem facing K-12 funding.

As a result, other tax-cut hawks are wary of endorsing Brownback’s Kansas template until the Sunflower State’s situation improves. Kansas has seen jobs growth, but it has been neither better nor worse than the national average. Brownback’s supporters say that with any fiscal plan which embraces austerity comes some degree of pain, and a few have even suggested that Brownback’s ambitious spending cuts could have gone much deeper.

Fiscal conservatives suggest that these things take time, especially in the wide and turbulent wake of the Great Recession, and Kansas is no exception. Recent jobs numbers from the U.S. Labor Department indicate a mixed bag of national news ranging from good to fair-to-middling to not-so-good. Unemployment reached its lowest level since the start of the recession, but many of those jobs were in retail and temporary sectors. Worse, hundreds of thousands have dropped from the workforce entirely—some through retirement, perhaps, but surely many more after long and fruitless searches for jobs. Underemployment still persists in every state.

Then there is the obvious concern that Brownback might be too unrepentantly conservative, especially in the context of internal GOP concerns over the party’s inability to reach effectively past its base. In this sense, Brownback may be judged incompatible with a kinder, gentler Republican tack going into 2016. Brownback’s positions on same-sex marriage and abortion will appeal solidly to social conservatives, but will surely negate any chance of crossover from the blue side of the electorate.

Meanwhile, with Jeb Bush watching his name float to the top of some GOP lists—the parlor game begins in earnest. A complex dance will almost certainly begin later this year as potential candidates jostle for attention, inevitably contrasting and comparing themselves not only to Bush, but also to Hillary Clinton. The question is whether Sam Brownback ends up on the top half of that list, the bottom, or not at all.

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First Among Cosmonauts


By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Size does matter, and sometimes smaller is better. Such was the case in the earliest days of the space race.

Indeed, the first human in space was chosen because out of his total class of 20 space voyagers-in-training, and out of his elite class of six, he was the shortest. The first two Russian Vostok space capsules were so small—and weight was such a key factor—that the 5-foot-2 Yuri Gagarin beat out others in his class of six original Vostok cosmonauts by several inches. His closest runner-up was Gherman Titov, who was only one inch taller than Gagarin.

In Russia, on April 12 each year, citizens celebrate something called Cosmonautics Day, an annual event recognizing the great achievements of the combined space programs of the Soviet Union and post-communist Russia. Back in 2011, the holiday was officially rechristened as International Day of Human Space Flight, more cumbersome to write or say perhaps, but the commemoration remains the same: recognition of that day in April 1961 when Gagarin became the first human to go into space.

Gagarin’s launch atop that Russian rocket—like the previous Soviet achievement of putting the small Sputnik satellite in Earth orbit—vastly accelerated the great space race between the Russians and the Americans, arguably the most intense technological battle between the Cold War superpowers, and, some historians have argued, a way for those powers to convert military animosity and the looming threat of mutual annihilation into scientific competition.

In those early days of the space race, the United States lagged behind the Soviet program. Sputnik came as a shock to the West, as did Gagarin’s achievement. But the challenge posed sparked a battle of wills which the Americans would eventually win with the 1969 Apollo mission moon landing (and subsequent lunar missions), and the space programs of both powers produced overnight heroes and a whole new vernacular of space science (see The Golden Age of Space Exploration: 30 Years After The Right Stuff; Thursday Review).

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born 80 years ago (March 9, 1934) in Klushino, in the Soviet Union, to a father who was a bricklayer and a mother who worked as a dairy milkmaid, both toiling on a collective farm in a small village. As a teenager, Gagarin worked briefly in a steel mill before narrowing his job preference to tractor engineering and repairs while in technical and vocational school. He excelled at his studies, and according to his biographical data, he showed an early hobbyist interest in aviation. As a volunteer in what is the Russian equivalent of the Civil Air Patrol in the U.S., Gagarin learned to fly, first, small biplanes, and later more advanced airplanes. A quick learner, Gagarin was flying MiGs for the Soviet Air Force in 1955 at the tender age of 21.

His skill made him an ideal candidate for one of the most challenging assignments in those days: reconnaissance and border flights along the Soviet border with Norway, north of Finland, and along the icy, stormy edges of the Barents Sea north of the Arctic Circle, ever-vigilant for the possibility of incoming American nuclear bombers which would surely arrive by way of the Arctic regions. It was lousy, dangerous work producing endless hours of solitude and sensory deprivation—nearly ideal endurance training, as it happened, when the brass in Moscow went looking for candidates to fill the bill in their top-secret space program. Along with 19 others, mostly pilots, Gagarin was selected to be among the first cosmonauts.

Like the early American astronaut program, much stock was placed in not only physical strength and stamina, but also mental capacity and psychological stability. Psychologists and military doctors rated Gagarin as a prime candidate, much in the same way that the “lab coats” and “smock docs” in the U.S. sought to filter out any aviator who might have difficulty with cramped spaces, vertigo, complex batteries of multi-tasking, sensory deprivation or sensory overload, or abject fear. It was understood, almost from the very beginning, that space travel was a risky adventure, subject to the caveat that pilots might die. Certainly most American and Russian aviators—like their pilot counterparts worldwide—accepted the risks of flight. But going into space was riskier still, subject to testing certain laws of physics not yet fully understood, much less mastered, by those bound by gravity.

Gagarin also possessed that same trait which could be vaguely understood, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe’s famous vernacular, as “the right stuff.” These attributes included not merely courage, but also rapid problem-solving, high math skills, attention to surroundings, attention to detail, clarity and brevity of communication, but especially a package of gifts among which were seemingly contrary combinations: modesty plus bravery; intellect plus physical prowess. Gagarin was also likeable, and a favorite among his peers. He often broke the tension with humor and jokes. His looks were boyish and affable, handsome and rugged; in a helmet, he looks to be an eerie composite of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong—easy grin, smiling eyes, dimpled cheeks and cleft chin, trademark gap between the two front teeth.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first man to enter space, and the first to orbit the Earth. The achievement would propel the American program to singular importance, as it was not acceptable to those in the U.S. or among its closest allies that the Soviets might gain an insurmountable dominance in space. Though the early space program was marketed by both powers as peaceful, there was an underpinning of military conflict accompanying every step and every launch; millions worldwide understood that the outcome of the “space race” might very well include an existential conclusion for either Marxist-Leninism or capitalist democracy.

Indeed, as Wolfe wrote with aplomb in his non-fiction work, The Right Stuff, the space race sparked the greatest surge of patriotism since the end of World War II—especially in the United States. American astronauts like Alan Shepherd and John Glenn were perceived as single combat warriors, trained to be launched into the heavens to joust with the likes of Gagarin, or Titov, or others. In the context of the early 1960s, the very fate of the world depended on meeting this challenge.

Gagarin became an overnight sensation in the Soviet Union, and a superstar for the Soviet marketing message worldwide. He travelled to every continent and scores of countries, making public appearances, participating in ribbon-cutting events, joining in radio interviews and making appearances on television. Among the Soviet-bloc nations, sitting next to him at a formal dinner was the highest honor, and standing next to him on a reviewing platform was the paramount photo op. At home in Russia, he was awarded the highest honor: Hero of the Soviet Union, the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor in the U.S.

But just as many in the U.S. space program were challenged less by fear and physical demands and more by the intense public scrutiny, Gagarin suffered from the smothering layers of press attention and celebrity. A Beer Call social drinker in the sense that many pilots drank, after his Vostok flight Gagarin soon went from a drink or two each day, to a pattern of heavy alcohol consumption. Friends and associates say this was due in part to the trappings of celebrity—toasts, honors, parties, dinners—but others have said he was simply overwhelmed by the fish-bowl that had become his way of life.

He was also becoming embittered by his handlers in Moscow: a micromanaged schedule, intense scrutiny of his personal life (famously loyal to his wife prior to Vostok, he was rumored to have had affairs in his days as a celebrity), and the Kremlin’s growing concerns for his safety. He was greatly limited in his flights, and he was banned from any duty which might include serious risk. By the time he was promoted to the rank of colonel in 1963, he spent hardly any time in the cockpit or in the air, save for commercial flights for PR work.

After Vladimir Komarov was killed in his Soyuz 1 flight upon a failed re-entry, the military brass and Nikita Khrushchev prohibited Gagarin from future space travel and quashed any further discussion of the matter: Gagarin was far too valuable to the Kremlin for propaganda reasons. He was elevated instead to the position of assistant training director at Star City, essentially serving as liaison between the young cosmonauts and their superiors in the chain of command (Deke Slayton filled a similar role in the U.S. astronaut program).

But despite being grounded from space and facing heavy restrictions designed to minimize risk, Gagarin flew occasional missions in a MiG, sometimes routine training activities, sometimes for public relations purposes. In spite of every precaution to insure that he was kept safe, he was killed in a crash along with pilot Vladimir Seryogin, the result of unexpected bad weather. After his death, Gagarin was given the highest posthumous honor possible in the Soviet Union—his ashes were buried in a prominent location in the Kremlin wall on Red Square in Moscow.

Gagarin was indelibly stamped into the history books as the man who took those first steps into space, and the man who also served as the smiling catalyst for one of the greatest technological and scientific superpower showdowns in history. It is not possible to tell the stories of Americans like Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Jim Lovell, Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin without first telling of Gagarin’s pivotal role.

Ironically, democracy also played an important role in Gagarin’s selection. Out of the total 20 military men chosen for the initial Russian space program, Gagarin was their own fraternal favorite. After working together for many months of rigorous mental and physical training, the 20 cosmonauts were asked to participate in a secret vote—a sort of straw poll to decide who, as a group, they thought most deserved to fly in the first Russian rocket. Gagarin received 17 votes out of 20.

Though for decades the Kremlin would not acknowledge it, that informal election decided the outcome of the decision of who would be first in space.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Golden Age of Space Exploration: 30 Years After The Right Stuff; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review.
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The GOP Challenge: Find the White Knight


By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

In early April, Thursday Review published an article about the possibility that former Florida governor Jeb Bush was considering his options for a presidential run in 2016. In a Republican field in which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is no longer a major contender—and it is not clear that he will survive the current storm of scandals now surrounding what has been called Bridgegate—Jeb Bush rises easily to the top tier among Republican candidates.

Bush has been non-committal, but for some GOP strategists (and for some of the big cash donors), Bush resides at the very top of a list of other probable candidates: Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio. Others waiting in the wings, perhaps also watching to see whether Bush gives an indication if he is officially in, or out, of the GOP sweepstakes, may include Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (each veterans of past primary and caucus seasons), and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

In the days after we published the article several folks wrote to us via email or social media to point out that among the stalking horses is Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a former U.S. Representative and a favorite of the biggest of the big money GOP political contributors, the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers have been reported recently to be worth over $100 billion, and the recent Supreme Court ruling which rules unconstitutional limits on political contributions means that the politically active brothers can lavish cash upon their chosen candidates.

More importantly to some GOP centrists, Pence is a fully-vetted stand-in for Jeb Bush, but without the inevitable baggage that would accompany anyone with the last name Bush. Many in the GOP are squeamish about an election which might be a rematch of previous Clinton-Bush battles, and despite Jeb Bush’s likeability, success as governor of a big state, and current high approval ratings, there is fear that many voters would reject the specter of Bush facing off against Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is the presumed front-runner among all potential Democratic candidates eyeing 2016, though she has repeatedly insisted that she has not made a decision. Her cageyness has essentially frozen other potential Democrats in place, preventing even early exploratory committees from developing organically around names like Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Brian Schweitzer and Deval Patrick.

Bush, on the other hand, does not necessarily create the same deep freeze among potential Republican rivals. Even with home-brewed scandal swirling around Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor has powerful fundraising capability, drawing huge sums for the Republican Governors Association and raising cash for current Florida governor Rick Scott. Fundraising aside, the central question for most Republicans is whether Jeb Bush lends enough potency and credibility to outweigh the inevitable baggage associated with the last name of two past presidents.

If Bush decides not to run in 2016, Pence—largely unknown among mainstream Republicans outside of Indiana—may easily benefit by stepping into Jeb Bush’s role as big-tent conciliator.

In the run-up to 2016, both parties face an odd confluence of circumstances, and both parties could face the specter of The Seven Dwarfs, a term associated most memorably with the early Democratic race of 1988. That year, after a sex scandal brought about the implosion of presumed front runner Gary Hart, and after other popular fence-sitters like Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn opted to not run, the remaining field consisted of Rev. Jesse Jackson and six other largely unknown faces, including Bruce Babbitt, Al Gore, Paul Simon, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden and Michael Dukakis. Likewise, in the unlikely event that Hillary Clinton decides not to run, Democrats are left with a dusty Rolodex and few well-known names to call upon. Joe Biden would rise to the top tier by default, and some Democratic strategists fear the outcome would be dismal. One Democratic friend told me that supporting Biden would be an experience similar to the “eat-your-Brussels-sprouts non-enthusiasm Republicans felt in 1996 for Bob Dole.”

Likewise, in a race without Bush, the GOP might produce a cadre of lesser-known candidates, but unlike the Democrats, some of those among the GOP hopefuls have substantial charisma and untapped star power. Both Rand Paul and Paul Ryan have proven their mettle as speakers and campaigners, and Rick Santorum already maintains a substantial list of supporters and backers from his 2013 run. Jindal has high-caliber likeability, and Marco Rubio may be the GOP’s biggest star when it comes to attracting Latinos. Likewise, Ted Cruz combines a Latino heritage with high ratings among the GOP’s social conservatives.

Ultimately, what GOP strategists seek most is a candidate who can best bridge the seemingly widening divides between the party’s warring factions: pro-business, pro-growth advocates; social conservatives and evangelicals; less-government, less-taxation fiscal hawks; anti-Obamacare legions; pro-life advocates; immigration hardliners; market libertarians. The primary and caucus seasons of 2008 and 2012 show just how fraught with danger these fractious differences can be, and especially how difficult the challenge becomes to moderate such language after the close of conventions and in the approach to that first Tuesday in November. (See: Anatomy of a GOP Loss: Parts One and Two; Thursday Review; fall 2012).

Though the process is like herding cats, top Republican strategists have already begun planning for that difficult convergence. The Republican National Committee voted unanimously last summer to greatly limit the total number of debates between Republican candidates in the run-up to the primary and caucuses. The RNC also threatened to walk away from specific networks (CNN, NBC) if planned films and documentaries about the Clintons went to air without a promise of equal time for a GOP message or response.

In the meantime, Pence and his supporters are marketing his skills and attributes, and spreading the word that the Indiana governor knows his way around fundraising. His backers and promoters also say that Pence can win over social conservatives—the same types that would have supported Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012—without offending mainstream Republicans or Main Street business interests.

Pence is also a strategic hawk—supporting Israel, and openly backing any move by Israel or its allies to take unilateral military action against its aggressive neighbors, most especially Iran. Pence wins over neo-cons for his opposition to the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and his vocal concerns about a date-certain for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. And Pence is a foe of earmarks, which makes him popular among libertarians and fiscal conservatives who see Congress as unable to control its penchant for spending.

And Pence gets high marks from tea Partiers for his vocal opposition to Obamacare.

Concerned that Jeb Bush may ascend unchecked to the top slot, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, a few savvy strategists are talking more openly about Pence’s chances.

Pence, whose shock of white hair makes him appear more mature than his relatively young 54 years, says he has not given a lot of serious thought to running for president, though he has acknowledged to reporters for the Indianapolis Star that numerous influential Republican movers and shakers have approached him. Pence, who says he is devoting his energies to Indiana, does not completely rule out the possibility that he will make a run at the presidency. He has said he and his staff and family will work out a decision no later than the beginning of next year.

For Republicans who fear carnage in 2016 at the hands of the Hillary Clinton steamroller, Pence may seem a long shot. But the renewed talk of his prospects and the recent heavy marketing accompanying the mention of his name is an indication of how much the GOP wants to get it right in the next presidential election.
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What Really IS Inside That Taco?


By Thursday Review staff

What’s your favorite gadget on Star Trek? Phasers? Those could do some damage, and they’d still be useful in making household garbage disappear. Transporter. Yes, that would save on your transportation costs—especially for you Thursday Review readers who live in Manhattan and the District of Columbia. Handheld communicators? Well, never mind. We already did that.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many folks’ favorite Federation gadget was the tricorder. What a way to tell if something was exactly as advertised, and what a tool for instantly verifying the components of something, anything. It was like having a scanning electron microscope, but without spending the $2.5 million to get it. What was in that smothered meat-like substance they used to serve in the school cafeteria? (You may recall it by the name of Beige Gravy Surprise.) Those fried burgers from White Castle, Milligan’s and Krystal? Here comes the disgusting truth. And we could at last learn whether the five-second rule applied to things like bologna sandwiches and Hostess Twinkies.

If we’d only had one of those tricorders.

Now, a small tech company in Toronto has taken us to that next phase. TellSpec has developed and tested a small device which—when properly used—can detect the contents and compounds of foods or biological items. The computer mouse-sized tool works by scanning the food substance up close and personal (a few inches away, at most), reading and analyzing reflected light. The device is basically a portable spectrometer, verifying the contents of food products by identifying their wavelength on the spectrum.

Its designers envisioned it for use for people who suffer from extreme allergies, or for people with conditions like diabetes—a simple to operate device that would take the guesswork and risk out of shopping in the grocery store, buying a burrito from a street vendor, or purchasing a corn dog at the carnival. The scanner can easily and accurately read levels of sugar, gluten, carbs, sulfites, tannins and more, and the data can be transferred within seconds to an app on a smartphone.

The food scanner is pricey for now—about $500 per unit. But TellSpec says that soon the price of the small unit will come down to such a degree that anyone can own one, and they envision a day when health-conscious folks can verify for themselves the MSG content of what they order in a restaurant, or the exact quantity of a life-threatening allergen like peanut oil, wheat or pine nuts.

TellSpec plans to beta test the device with a few hundred customers as early as June. If the testing goes well, they can begin marketing it to retailers, food companies and health stores soon after that.
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