Sunday, August 29, 2010

The cost of big time college football

It should have been seen as a harbinger. The championship-hungry power brokers who tore down the idyllic and iconic Kenan Stadium Field House (seen in the center background in this 1927 photo) in a push for more seating and high-priced suites for wealthy fans should have seen it coming. If all you care about is winning, there is a price to be paid. They tore down the charming old Field House at the east end of Kenan Stadium, even though it had been there since the 1920s, when the stadium was built. They wanted an exclusive new edifice, one that would charm and fete the wealthy donors who were highly sought after to feed the big-time football program's hunger for big money for coaches and equipment. They wanted to close in the stadium, to make it a complete oval, like Michigan's stadium, or the Rose Bowl, or the Lowe's Motor Speedway. A few years before, they had cut down the trees and enclosed the west end zone with a huge, multi-storied football center, making Kenan Stadium, which had been built in a natural ravine with seats on each sideline, in a horseshoe-shaped stadium. The new facility was supposed to make Carolina football competitive with the Big Boys. That wasn't enough; only a complete oval would do for a Big Time College Football Powerhouse.

But just a week before the start of the 2010 season — in a nationally televised game, no less — the UNC Tar Heels are wondering whether they'll have enough skilled players to field a team. An NCAA investigation into players' relationships with professional sports agents threatens to decimate the team. Double-digit player disqualifications are being rumored. On top of that, the NCAA investigation led to a subsequent university investigation into irregularities involving a tutor of football players. There is even the possibility that last year's wins, which came after the allegedly illegal contact between players and an agent, might be vacated.

In just a couple of weeks, the Tar Heel team has gone from top-20 preseason excitement to potential disaster.

That's what you get when all you care about is winning. The old mission-style Kenan Field House has been demolished. It cannot be resurrected. I searched for a recent photo of the Field House and could not find any online. The closest I came was this photo of the building's demolition. The Field House had stood, with many renovations and additions, for 80 years. It had seen many championships and many All-Americans. It was good enough for those glory years, but it wasn't "Big Time."

Personally, I'd prefer to have the Field House back, along with a little integrity.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It was Greenlight's glitch, not revenge

It turns out that there was nothing nefarious in the rejection of emails from Greenlight subscribers by Time Warner email servers. In an earlier blog post, I suggested that blocking email from municipal broadband customers would be a perfect way for Time Warner and its commercial allies to get back at cities that offer broadband.

But that's not how it went. After querying Time Warner, Greenlight and a contact at city hall, I received a call from an official with Greenlight. The problem originated with Greenlight servers. A glitch on the Greenlight server made receiving email servers, including Time Warner's, think that the Greenlight server was generating huge amounts of spam. As a defensive maneuver, the receiving servers blocked email from Greenlight. The glitch has been fixed, and Greenlight email is back in the good graces of the receiving email servers.

But this should be a lesson for Internet service providers: Having email kick back for no apparent reason will not endear the service provider to subscribers. The frustration is almost enough to drive you back to the U.S. Postal Service.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Suppose all your email was blocked ...

I've been getting a lot of emails kicked back to me lately. Many, but not all of them, were from Time Warner's Road Runner accounts. The mail server message indicated that the problem was that the Time Warner server identified my Greenlight server as "spam" and blocked delivery. I filed an "unblock" request with the Time Warner server and also alerted my Greenlight provider about the problem.

But I also realized that Time Warner and its commercial Internet provider colleagues had just lost a legislative battle against municipal broadband, such as Wilson's Greenlight. If Time Warner wanted to get its revenge against the providers of municipal broadband and their customers, wouldn't disrupting their emails be a great way to do it? The thought certainly occurred to me as I sifted through my kicked back emails.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mountain goodbyes are always sad

Faced this morning with the prospects of leaving the mountains after two relaxing and awe-inspiring days, my daughter appealed to her parents: Wouldn't you like to take Monday off and stay another day? The cottage at Montreat had worked an extraordinary change in her children — they slept nine or 10 hours after a couple of long, sleepless nights. Their parents and grandparents likewise relaxed to the point of limpness. Whether it was the serenade of the cicadas or the mist floating between the mountain peaks or the view of sunlight dancing off the mountains while all below was in shadows or the cozy screened porch with views across the valley, it had been a truly relaxing couple of days. Regardless of age, from 1 to 61, we all hated to leave.

As I shifted our car into a lower gear to hurtle down the steep Appalachian slope just east of Asheville, my wife in the passenger seat noted that this stretch of interstate with its frequent warning signs and runaway truck ramps always saddens her. It means she's leaving the mountains. Although we've lived east of Interstate 95 for 30 years, we still love the mountains, and this weekend, when we went to Asheville for a family reunion, reminded us just how much we've enjoyed our lifetime of visits to western North Carolina and western Virginia. A hike at Linville Falls Friday and another at Montreat Sunday invigorated us. The air is different there, and the light filtering through hardwood leaves is different. To stand on a mountain peak and look back on the valley where you'd begun your hike carries a sense of accomplishment too often missing in modern life. To see the thick forests and rock-strewn paths of the Appalachians unites us through some genetic memory connection to our Scot-Irish ancestors, who found the ridges of the Appalachian range reminiscent of their Scottish Highlands. Those ancestors fell in love with these mountains and valleys, and our own passions are infused with that love of place.

Monday, August 16, 2010

State's paving priorities make no sense

Last week, I got stuck in a traffic jam on London Church Road and had to turn around and take a detour to avoid a long delay.

That's right: London Church Road, the rural two-lane that meanders (with a couple of cool S-curves) between N.C. 42 East and N.C. 97 near the Rocky Mount-Wilson airport. I use the road as a convenient shortcut on frequent trips to Rocky Mount. The route isn't shorter, but it is far less traveled and has fewer stoplights than U.S. 301. It's a pleasant rural course flanked by tobacco and cotton fields and rural homes.

The hold-up on London Church Road was a paving project. A contractor had milled all of the asphalt from the road, leaving a dusty bed of crushed run or gravel. A flagman had set up to stop traffic, and a pilot car would lead drivers through the maze of heavy equipment to next flag stop far down the road. After sitting idle for about 10 minutes when I needed to be back at the office, I turned around and took another lightly traveled two-lane over to N.C. 58 and back into Wilson.

But you have to wonder: Why was London Church Road, a smooth, well-maintained road, being milled and repaved when so many other state roads (take a look at Nash Street, Goldsboro Street, U.S. 301 and others in the Wilson vicinity) that are in far worse shape are left to crumble into traffic hazards? One can only assume that this is another example of the state Department of Transportation's wasteful and misguided sense of priorities. North Carolina used to proclaim itself "the good roads state," but that moniker is an embarrassing joke these days. It's not that North Carolina isn't collecting plenty of highway money. It has the highest gasoline tax in the region, but it can't seem to keep roads paved or even patched. Rebuilding a perfectly good road that relatively few people use while badly damaged and heavily traveled roads are left to serve as obstacle courses gives a hint as to why we are no longer the "good roads state."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back at a crime scene one more time

Four years removed from running a newsroom, I found myself back at a crime scene Monday, standing behind the yellow tape and enduring the heat and boredom of waiting for law enforcement to reveal what had happened. I was there today near the corner of Forest Hills Road and Ward Boulevard where an apparent abduction and murder had ended tragically. My role was to provide water and nourishment to dozens of police and fire personnel who were investigating the shooting that ended with one death, closing a major highway and attracting hundreds of curious onlookers.

News helicopters flew overhead, and TV news trucks were parked all along the streets by Cavalier Park. The curious competed for shade from the trees at the edge of the park while in the distance police walked to and fro, and investigators took pictures and measurements from every possible angle. The basics of the situation were reported by a number of unofficial sources, bystanders and news people: Neighbors reported shots fired in the 600 block of Whitehead Avenue, and police either followed or chased the alleged gunman to the Forest Hills intersection, where his car ran into two other vehicles. Shots were fired near the scene of the wreck, but no one was saying officially who the suspect was, who the second shooting victim was or who shot the man who allegedly started the whole thing. You didn't need 33 years of news experience to surmise that a police officer shot someone. Domestic shootings just don't get this kind of attention, which even included a visit from a Fire Department ladder truck to get "aerial" views of the scene. Laser devices took precise measurements of every angle. This investigation would be thorough with nothing left to dispute.

It had to be an expensive operation. I was told around 50 personnel were involved. Figure an average of $20 an hour for more than four hours, and you're talking about some substantial spending. That doesn't include the fancy mobile command posts with their own generators, two police forensics vehicles, one or more SBI agents, at least one fire truck and other vehicles. Your tax dollars at work. TV stations were dropping some coins, too. Those choppers are expensive to keep in the air, those big trucks with satellite dishes cost money, and there were more than enough reporters and cameramen to stage a talk show.

I've perused, via the Internet, the area news organizations with reports on the incident. The best I've seen at this hour is WRAL's coverage, which included interviews with witnesses at both shooting scenes. When the cops are keeping the facts to themselves, you have to look elsewhere. Events like today's bring out TV reporters from all over — "If it bleeds, it leads," the cliche goes. But good news — the daily sacrifices of volunteers, the triumphs of children thought to be beyond hope, the goodness of ordinary people living ordinary lives, a park built around an old man's fascination with windmills or an old school or home saved from demolition and brought back to vitality — attract no helicopters and scant news coverage.

A religion to kill for?

Nothing proves the moral and strategic bankruptcy of the Afghan insurgency like the murder of 10 medical aid workers last week in a remote part of Afghanistan. The Taliban bragged that its soldiers had killed the aid workers, whom the Taliban described as spies and proselytizers. The group of seven American medical professionals, one Briton and two Afghan interpreters had a long history of providing aid and relief to the neediest in Afghanistan. One leader of the medical team, Tom Little, an optometrist, had been providing free medical care to Afghans for more than 30 years, through all the turmoil of the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war.

The entire medical team was executed by gunmen who captured them after they had spent weeks providing desperately needed care in a tiny, remote village. One can only explain these murders as the acts of paranoid people who distrust and hate everyone unlike themselves, no matter how kind, helpful and loving the strangers might be. The many kindnesses and sacrifices of these strangers were rewarded with bullets, unquestioning and undistinguishing. It's little wonder that Americans are questioning the wisdom of a war amid a population so filled with irrational hatred.

Even if, as the Taliban claimed, the medical missionaries were preaching Christianity — a claim firmly denied by all associated with the mission and by friends and relatives of the victims — what does that say about the state of Islam? If Islam cannot survive a test of allegiances when alternative faiths are explained and can only be maintained by the threat of execution for apostates, what real chance does it have? The murderous Taliban, claiming to be defenders of Islam, are actually proclaiming the weakness of their faith. A religion that cannot be contested, doubted or questioned cannot survive in a modern world of ideas and intellectual rigor.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

After the accident comes the onslaught

Last week, I was involved in a minor auto accident. A driver in an SUV ran squarely into the side of the van I was driving as I passed the side street where he had stopped at a stop sign. I called 911, and a Wilson police officer dutifully responded, took down the information and posted the accident report on the city Web site. I drove away and later reported the accident to our insurance carrier and received a call from the other driver's insurance company, which was eager to settle and fix the big dent in the van.

Yesterday, our mail box was overflowing. Seven — count 'em — letters and packages arrived from personal injury lawyers urging me not to settle with the other driver's insurer and to hire their law firm in order to protect my rights as a victim. All of the envelopes prominently displayed the phrase " This is an advertisement for legal services." I assume that must be some new law or state Bar regulation. These solicitations ranged from simple, business-letter size envelopes and one-page letters to elaborate, 9-inch by 12-inch packages with elaborate brochures and testimonials. They came from Rocky Mount, Greenville, Goldsboro, Jacksonville, Durham, New Bern and Raleigh. Two even included compact disks touting the law firm. I haven't played the CDs and have no desire to. Four enclosed a copy of the official accident report, which I had already downloaded from the city Web site.

I am tempted, however, to reply to one or more of these solicitations with this question: "Is this what you spent three years and $50,000 in law school to do?" And if this is the typical response to a very minor, no-injuries accident where the fault is obvious, it's no wonder car insurance rates are so high. If law firms find it worthwhile to go to such great lengths to land a personal-injury client, the rewards for this type of lawsuit must be enormous, and that's scary.

The accident was primarily an inconvenience, delaying me on my list of errands for the day. The van was drivable, and the battered door could still be opened and closed. I find myself more disturbed by the attorneys' response to this incident than by the accident itself.

Monday, August 2, 2010

It's still true: All is vanity

It was my turn to be lector Sunday at church, a task I relish because it requires me to focus on the Scripture lessons. This lectionary seemed especially poignant. "Vanity of vanities," the Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiastes began. "All is vanity. ... all is vanity and a chasing after wind." It goes on: "I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to all who come after me, and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. ... For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity."

I have been awakening frequently at night and lying awake, thinking about things I need to do at my job, wondering whether I remembered to do this or that or whether I would remember in the morning. The ancient wisdom speaks: All is vanity. This, too, shall pass. If only we could remember that wisdom when worries invade our minds.

And then, in the New Testament lesson, I read from Paul's letter to the Colossians: "Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. ... But now you must get rid of such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth. ... In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all."

A few hours after church, in a supermarket parking lot, a man was holding his face close against his car and loudly swearing that someone had scratched his car. He could not see the scratch unless he held his face at just the right angle, a fraction of an inch from the paint, but he was shouting to the woman standing by him, screaming abusively about the unknown person or thing that had left a tiny, nearly invisible mark on the paint of his car. I passed by him as quickly as I could, not wanting to hear his language or bear his anger. "All is vanity," I thought, but kept it to myself.