Friday, January 20, 2012

Last Man Off or "Don't Give Up the Ship."

It's been nearly a week since the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast near the Tuscan island of Isola del Giglio.  News gathered since the crash indicates that the ship was "saluting" those on shore by pointing its prow towards the island when the crash occurred.  Apparently this was a common practice among captains for the cruise line even though company officials strenuously deny that claim.  So far every attempt has been made to heap blame for the ship's running aground upon the head of its captain--Francesco Schettino.  He is currently still under house arrest and charged with multiple counts of manslaughter as well as criminal negligence.

The death of eleven people in a clearly avoidable accident deserves an in-depth investigation.  Capt. Schettino also deserves to carry his portion of the blame for this crash, but there is more than enough blame to go around and not all of it should rest on the shoulder's of the ship's commander. 

Reports from passenger's indicate a woeful lack of training for the ship's crew who spent most of the time immediately following the crash denying that it happened and trying to entertain the passengers.  This simply reflected the reality that the majority of the ship's personnel were entertainers or service industry professionals rather than seaman of even indifferent skill.  No amount of training could have prepared this overwhelmed staff to abruptly change roles from floating hotel employee to boat crew.  Those with maritime skill were either in the wheelhouse of far below decks tending to the ship's engines. 

I wish I could say that this is uncommon, but it is not.  Years of working as a deckhand on fresh water ferries and tour boats in the United States exposed to me a very similar tale.  The crews I worked with were just lucky that nothing terrible happened to us during our watch. 

Captains were required to have extensive training to meet Coast Guard requirements but the crew had widely varying experience.  We were simply cheap and easily replaceable labor.  I had no prior experience on a commercial vessel when I started working on the water and tried to learn on the job the skills needed to help passengers in the event of an accident or mechanical malfunction.  We did have a few cursory drills.  Particularly to deal with fires or someone falling overboard.  Never was there a discussion, however, of what to do when the boat needed to be evacuated.  Such accidents were viewed, apparently, as unthinkable. 

One asset on the crews I worked with that the Italian cruise ship lacked was that we at least all spoke the same language.  This made it possible for us to communicate in the event of an emergency.  Costa Concordia's crew lacked not only the training but also a lingua franca to figure out what to do in lieu of an established and well drilled evacuation plan. 

Although I happen to agree with the truism the Captain should be the last man off the ship, it is not the main lesson to be learned from this crash.  Instead the Costa Concordia should force consumers to demand a better trained crew.  They are, after all, on a ship and not a floating hotel.  The gods of the sea demand respect and will have it with or without our cooperation.  All we can do is plan to meet any emergency that might arise. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust

On Sunday Barbara's Bookstore quietly closed its UIC location at Roosevelt and Halsted street.  This deprives Chicagoans of yet another physical space to purchase books and meet for literary events.  It also leaves a gaping hole in the blase shopping district that UIC hoped would replace the old Maxwell Street market area they bulldozed under eminent domain for south campus expansion in 2001.

Few details were available this week about why the bookstore closed.  My suspicion is that many of the same forces that led to Borders bankruptcy have been pushing on Barbara's.  They did, after all, close their venerable Oak Park location in July 2010.  All that currently remains of Barbara's business are their smaller boutique shops in Macy's, Northwestern Hospital, O'Hare airport as well as two stores in the suburbs.

Because of the abruptness of its closing, I was not able to be at the UIC Barbara's on the day of its closing.  This is somewhat unfortunate as I seem to have a knack for being at bookstores during their last days.  When the Uptown Borders closed as part of their company "restructuring," I was there to purchase a few books and movies and I stood in line to buy my final book from Borders (John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie) at their flagship store in Ann Arbor, MI not long before the chain permanently closed its doors.

Hopefully this cutback doesn't signal worse days ahead for Barbara's but it does remind us that physical bookstores are increasingly rare. Amazon's business model allows it to offer books (even with shipping) at a much lower price than brick and mortar stores.  Their e-reader, the Kindle, also is rapidly making paper texts objects for collectors rather than everyday readers. 

Lest I sound like a technophobe, let it be known that I own a Kindle and also a smart phone that allows me to read e-texts.  I love the convenience of being able to carry multiple books on a small electronic device and the search feature is a nice touch added to the e-text that makes an index seem rather quaint.  However, I'm concerned that losing physical bookstores simply adds to the "echo chamber effect" that seems to dominate our culture. 

Once upon a time you could wander to the front table of a bookstore like Barbara's.  There you could see new releases as well as books that other readers recommended (usually store employees or frequent customers).  Often these books were on subjects I would not have searched for on my own.  They helped broaden my interests and add to my store of knowledge.  I felt like the bookstore's front table was challenging me to be less insular and discover what the next big thing in my life might be. 

In its place, I now have google searches and the Amazon website's helpful recommendations following each book I buy.  These searches simply reconfirm my already existing beliefs and tastes.  No challenges here.  No serendipity.  Everything is planned and shows up as described and on time.  Where's the fun in the that? 

Oh for a pile of musty books in a beat up storefront where you wander without looking for anything in particular and suddenly end up finding the narrative that changes everything.  I wonder if the next generation will know or even care about these quaint spaces we once called bookstores. Perhaps the iPhone will create an musty bookstore app.   If they do, all I ask is that they don't forget the cranky old owner with his cat and the faint smell of stale pipe tobacco.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

IL Duce Del Chicago

Karl Marx once remarked that "history repeats itself.  The first time as tragedy the second as farce."  Whether this observation can be applied to Chicago's new Mayor remains to be seen but one thing is clear--Rahm Emanuel is working really hard to outdo "The Boss" (a.k.a. Richard J. Daley) and his son Richard M. Daley. 

His latest move was the press conference this week where he told reporters that he "misspoke" when he said that changes to protest rules and regulations would be limited to the period leading up to and during the G8 and NATO summits this May.  Now, it appears, the higher fines and legal limits to how, when, and where citizens may protest are permanent.

The maximum fine for "resisting or obstructing a police officer" will rise to $1,000 and the minimum fine is now $200.  Demonstrations are limited to two hours max, public parks and beaches are closed until 6am, noise ordinances are extended to prohibit amplification before 8am and after 10pm, and EVERY piece of sound equipment (including bullhorns) would need to be registered with the city A WEEK IN ADVANCE. 

Of these changes, the only one that makes sense is the noise ordinance regulation but that is primarily as a matter of courtesy to the residents of the neighborhoods adjoining the protest sites.  The rest are part of a shameless clamp down on public dissent in Chicago that is getting even worse now than it was under Richard II. 

What exactly is Emanuel trying to prove?  He claims that his actions are done in the name of public safety and should have no adverse impact on protester's free speech rights.  Emanuel also argues that protecting the conference sites are essential to promoting Chicago as a destination for future meetings of this kind. 

The first of these claims is patently ridiculous as Emanuel must know that protest movements are often ad hoc in nature and can never meet the pre-registration requirements he has set up.  And good luck convincing any of the members of these groups to limit their protest to specific sites and times.  Their very existence as a group consequently becomes a violation of the law. 

As for the second, businesses are aghast at the prospect of lost revenue that the G8 and NATO summits will cause to Chicago's economy.  Security for these events will make it nearly impossible to navigate the city's downtown and where security cordons will be established and how they will work remains a mystery.  This has led to such major changes as Columbia College starting a week earlier to get its students, faculty, and staff out of town before the shit hits the fan so to speak. 

Clearly the only reason for this display of power is its display.  Emanuel wants to show us that he's the boss.  Well sir, I can tell you that we are all impressed.  VIVA IL DUCE!!!!