Friday, March 25, 2011

U of I sends alert for shooter who doesn’t exist, social media backlash follows.

About 87,000 emails and cell phones received a startling message around 10:40 CST, when the minders of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign emergency alert system mistakenly sent the following message:

“Active shooter at BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION. Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location.”

Almost immediately, students began texting and updating their online social networks to gather information.

Until this, the campus was at a lull -- most students had migrated home for spring break. But the previous day, U of I police sent out alerts about a large fire which destroyed a longstanding gyros eatery on Green Street, a popular destination for students. Some thought it was a poor use of resource meant to keep students abreast of life-endangering emergencies, not to be abused by broadcasting contained situations.

Then, about 11 minutes later, U of I police send this message:

“The previous message was sent in error. For details, please read forthcoming MassMail.”

Then, six hours later, the mass email arrived:

“To the campus community: This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.”

The message continued, “The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.”

But the incident had already reached national attention. The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, the Associated Press, Time and Gawker Media.

Even Funkmaster Flex, hiphop DJ on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, tweeted and wrote about it.

This is a Streamgraph of messages containing “U of I” on twitter. Tweets made on Wednesday, March 23 with “U of I” frequently mentioned Zorba, the name of the restaurant that was destroyed in a fire that day. “Tuition” was another big topic -- as U of I trustees were preparing to vote Thursday on a 6.9 percent tuition increase for incoming freshman.

After the erroneous alert, though, the most common words in tweets containing “U of I” were “sent,” “alert,” “talk” and “shooter.” The dramatically increasing slope of the line at about 12:00 shows a flurry of activity on twitter relating to the false alarm.

This is a similar chart, but specifically looks at tweets that had both “U of I” and “shooter” in the message. The chart doesn’t go back far enough to show 10:40 a.m., when the first alert was sent out, but the height at the beginning of the chart suggests a great deal of activity around that time.

The activity then tapers off at around 11:41, but then has an echo -- possibly relating to one or more major news outlets breaking news online -- which subsides at 12:38 p.m. There’s silence, then another bubble at 3:04 p.m., again possibly relating to a news update.

The next bubble comes at 4:53 p.m., which correlates to the time when U of I police sent out their long-awaited mass email on the situation, at which point the chart ends.

Shortly after the mass email about the mistake went out, I emailed Chicago Tribune reporters Liam Ford and Gerry Smith. At the time, Smith was using Twitter to locate students who were on campus during the false alert for a news story. Smith received my email, called, and asked about the climate around Champaign and Urbana (some of my response can be read in the Tribune story, in the final graphs).

The Trib reporter was most interested in the student response, which I told them was varied. Some students like myself read the “BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION” and knew it must have been an error, because the all-caps phrase seemed like a generic placeholder in a computer program that would have been replaced with a real building or intersection in the event of a real emergency. However, given the severity of the message, many students chose to err on the side of caution and treat the warning as credible. Their fears were evident in Twitter and SMS messages.

But the larger point, I told the Trib reporter, was the use (or abuse) of emergency alert messages at the U of I.

A team of 41 U of I students, myself included, created to gauge if alerts adequately reflected the status of crime on campus. We found that the alert system contributed to a climate of fear that did not reflect a minor uptick in crime on campus. Just one alert was distributed in 2006, while 34 were sent in 2010.

More than just a misconception about the volume of crimes occurring, the alerts also created misunderstandings about the source of crime and contributed to racial tension. contributors were recently notified that they’d won a Region 5 “Mark of Excellence” award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

As I told the Trib reporter, the recent error was “totally unacceptable,” and was just the most recent demonstration that authorities need to better understand how mass-alerts can impact the campus, and perhaps should re-evaluate their use of the technology.

Read on...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nebraska Has The Most Fire-Prone Nuclear Plant in the U.S.

While the international community focuses on Japan and its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the safety of which was seriously compromised following a massive earthquake, the United States has a renewed interest in the safety of nuclear power at home.

A probe into the safety of US nuclear plants, using data from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and data visualization software, suggests that America's plants are relatively safe overall, but that some power plants are more prone to incidents than others.

Number of Significant Nuclear Power Plant Fires 1999-2009 Many Eyes
(Click the link to interact with the data on nuclear plant fires in the US on the IBM ManyEyes website)

The Cooper Nuclear Power Plant, near Brownville, Neb., has the worst record in the country when it comes to fire safety. From 1999 to 2009, it reported six significant fires to the NRC. The plant reported two other significant fires in 1996.

The plant makes Nebraska, which only has two nuclear plants (the other being Fort Calhoun, in Washington County), the state with the most nuclear plant fires in the past decade.

Additional NRC fire inspection reports show that the plant had 14 violations between 2000 and 2009. One of those violations included a "white" violation, "an issue with low to moderate increased importance to safety," where plant operators had improper procedures to safely shut down the plant in the event of a fire.

[Download the full spreadsheet of NRC fire inspections for this and all U.S. nuclear plants here]

"Between 1997 and June, 2007, the licensee failed to ensure that two emergency operating procedures which controlled activities affecting quality were appropriate to the circumstances," regulators reported. "Additionally, the licensee failed to properly verify and validate procedure steps to ensure that they would work to accomplish the necessary actions."

Other fire inspection violations included:

2006: Failures to Properly Control Combustibles in the Plant.

2004: Failure to ensure redundant safe shutdown systems located in the same fire area are free of fire damage.

2002: Failure to follow procedure resulting in a fire.

2001: Failure to install fire detectors in accordance with federal regulations.

In one 2009 inspection, NRC regulators made several findings about the safety of the plant, and noted an event where a maintenance tech tried to replace a leaky O-ring in a control valve hydraulic fitting, but used a wrong-sized part. This caused a leak at the plant, forcing operators to take the turbine off-line and shut down the reactor.

"The finding is more than minor because it adversely affected the configuration control attribute of the initiating events cornerstone, and adversely affected the cornerstone objective to limit the likelihood of those events that upset plant stability and challenge critical safety functions during shutdown as well as power operations, in that this finding resulted in a condition that prompted a plant
shutdown from 70 percent power," regulators wrote.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), which owns the Cooper plant, was among 16 nuclear energy providers who sued the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop collection of a nuclear waste fee.

According to the Lincoln, Neb. Journal Star, the DOE currently charges the providers 0.1 cents-per-kilowat to dispose of nuclear waste. But the plaintiffs argue that the DOE hasn't been complying with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and shouldn't have to pay the fee.

The Journal Star reported that NPPD built a $80 million storage facility at the Cooper plant to store spent fuel rods.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on March 8. The 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake happened three days later. The Christian Science Monitor wrote that reports are emerging from international regulatory agencies about lax oversight of the Fukushima plant.

NPPD officials are confident about the plant's ability to withstand natural disasters. A recent Associated Press story quoted the NPPD spokesperson as saying the Cooper plant can withstand 300 mph winds, a 6.0-magnitude quake and a 1 million-year flood.

Read on...

Friday, November 12, 2010



One of the things I love about being a journalist is the randomness. One day, you’re working in rural Missouri, talking to a rancher about the time his bison went AWOL and tied up traffic on Highway 47. Another day, you’re wading through smoke of an illegal origin in a college student commune in Austin, Texas, getting your tympanic membranes abused by South by Southwest bands.

It’s not all amusing and weird, though. Sometimes you’re in a newsroom when a well-respected member of the community cuts his battle with cancer short by going into his back yard, kneeling on a tarp, and pulling the trigger on a shotgun aimed at his chest. Or when a state trooper, who is texting, talking on a cell phone, and using a laptop computer while clipping along at 120 mph, crosses the interstate median and kills two young sisters on their way to have family photos taken for Thanksgiving. (The trooper later plead guilty to reckless homicide and was given 30 days probation)

Lately, randomness means being a graduate student of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and instructing young, aspiring journalists on the craft (or perhaps some students who just need the English credits, but it’s all good, as they say).

Graduate school also entails doing some work for the community news and social networking site It’s a project funded in part by the John S. Knight and James L. Knight Foundation, and we collaborate with the local paper, the News-Gazette, to publish content.

I came to with the goal of understanding the poverty situation in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, and reporting on the success or lack thereof of programs that aim to uproot people from that poverty (a.k.a., “upward mobility”). According to the 2000 census, the poverty level in Champaign has a poverty rate of 22.1 percent, and Urbana has a poverty rate of 27.3 percent. For comparison, Chicago has a poverty rate of 19.6 percent.

Originally, I conceived this blog as a straight-news site. No commentary. Just the facts. But as my role as a journalist, and now educator, have changed, so too has my vision for this outlet.

What I envision this site becoming is a digital reporter’s notebook. I hope to repost clippings here, so you can get background information. But I hope to add extra content (or “value-added,” if you’re hip to web 2.0 pitch-speak), including commentary and notes that go beyond what I’ve done in the field, hoping to give people more perspective on the issues I write about.

And that’s partly because digital journalism and convergence journalism are changing the way we do our work. Journalists are coming to the realization that we, too, are human, and we can’t keep hiding behind the false promise of objectivity. We need to bleed a little for our cause, and show that blood to the public, if only to regain their trust. We’re not the Neutral People. That’s not why we’re here.

Be seeing you.

Read on...

Monday, February 22, 2010


[A computer render of the potential Meridian Wind Farm in western Sangamon County, Illinois, courtesy of American Wind Energy Management]

Green energy is marketed by politicians as a solution to an economy in shambles. But when it comes to making those jobs a reality, this national initiative takes a back seat to local politics.

On February 4, the Illinois Times published a story I wrote about a feud between those who want to bring wind energy to Sangamon County, Illinois, and those who don’t want to live next to wind mills. The locals claimed many worries:

Concerned that a potential wind farm would reduce property values, create noise pollution or present a fire hazard, homeowners showed up to three informational meetings held in January.

“We’re not opposed to wind energy, but we’re concerned about the proximity to homes as it relates to property values, health issues and everything else,” said Cindy Bomke at a Jan. 25 meeting in New Berlin. Bomke, cousin of state Sen. Larry Bomke, collected about 450 signatures last year in a petition for more setbacks.

Steve Frank, New Berlin village president, witnessed growth spurts in the towns of Chatham, Rochester and Sherman, and worries that a wind farm could restrict New Berlin’s own progress. “We’re in the growing mode here, and I don’t want to be landlocked if a wind farm comes in within half a mile,” Frank said at the meeting.

Wind farm proponents also had concerns. The contingency of citizens opposed to wind farms were petitioning the Sangamon County Public Health, Safety and Zoning board to increase the setback requirements for turbines. This, green energy advocates feared, could squeeze green energy out of Sangamon County.

Will Reynolds, who is on the board of the local Sierra club and is part of Sierra’s coal campaign, said in an interview in early February, “These are going to be built somewhere, so it’s a matter of whether we want some of those turbines and the jobs to go with it in our county or whether we’re going to watch them go to other counties and other states.”

Reynolds had sharp criticism for the members of the zoning board, writing in his blog that the county gave International Coal Group nearly $1 million in tax abatements to expand a mine in Sangamon county, but offered no such incentives to wind developers.

“Going back to coal mine, had they done any hearings around the county, about the health and safety violations of the coal mine? Did they talk about that, when they consider giving hundreds of thousands of dollars of subsidies to promote a very small number of new jobs,” Reynolds said in the interview.

When Tim Moore, the chairman of the Health, Safety and Zoning Board was asked about this in late January, his answer was that ICG requested a subsidy, and the wind developer, American Wind Energy Management, made no such request.

“I don’t recall what the incentive was for the coal company, other than it was a very competitive coal environment. We probably want [ICG] to stay here in the county… You don’t have to give someone a subsidy who is coming in and saying ‘we want to give this much money to that property owner for that project and we’re going to pay all of these taxes.’ And they’re not asking, and we’re not offering,” he said.

After approving the ICG’s abatements in January, the county zoning board told the State Journal-Register the mine expansion would yield 12 to 18 new jobs. AWEG’s Meridian wind farm could potentially create 20 permanent, full-time jobs, with many additional jobs supported in the initial construction phase (calculated from the company’s plans to install 200 turbines and job estimates from Matt Aldeman, a technical assistant at the Center for Renewable Energy).

Reynolds also noted in his blog that the ICG Sangamon county mine, the Viper mine, had numerous safety violations. He referred to a statement from Illinois senator Dick Durbin, who mentioned the Viper mine had 124 safety violations from 2005-2006.

Regarding the stock photo of a wind farm used for the IT story, American Wind Energy Management sent me a graphic of how the Meridian wind farm might look. AWEM wrote that because of the current ordinances, wind farms “would average one machine per 100-200 acres.” (Click AWEM's image at the top of the post to see it at full-resolution)

The zoning board has not yet convened to discuss the ordinance amendment that could extend wind farm setbacks to 1 mile from non-participating homeowners (the current setback being 1,200 feet). The board was due to discuss the amendment in February, but scheduling conflicts killed the meeting before it took place. The amendment may be discussed in the board’s March 18 meeting.
Read on...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Springfield Spared from Hate; “Laramie” A Devastating Reflection

[This image, posted by Twitter blogger @inkedgiff, shows the counter-protest at the Hoogland Center for the Arts]

About 300 people from Springfield and surrounding areas came to the doorstep of the Hoogland Center for the Arts Friday for what they anticipated would be an intense evening protest. The Springfield Police Department thought the same, and brought at least five officers for crowd control and a paddywagon in case things got dicey.

All were awaiting the arrival of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an anti-gay hate group based in Topeka Kansas, founded by Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who once campaigned to be governor of that state. The church operates the web site, and protested t numerous funerals of American soldiers, because, according to the Web site, the soldiers “voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Inside the Hoogland, the Springfield Theater Centre production of “The Laramie Project,” was beginning its final weekend. The play retraces the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, who was savagely beaten and left for dead at the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. After the 21-year old college student succumbed to his injuries and the trial of his killers began, the WBC gained national notoriety for picketed the highly-publicized trial. And now, more than a decade later, they protest the production that revisits Shepard’s death.

Among the WBC’s many targets included an Albany, New York high school that held “Laramie,” and a college at Basingstoke, Hampshire, in the United Kingdom who also held a “Laramie” production.

[Springfield blogger and tweeter @bishoponair took this photo from across the Hoogland center]

On both sides of sixth street, the would-be counter protesters held signs that read “FREE,” and “God Loves Fags.” One young man held a cardboard sign that had the word “Fag” inside a pink heart. There were two American flags and at least one rainbow flag. Bypassing cars honked in solidarity, and the crowd responded with cheers and hollers. A woman took signatures on a petition for equal marriage rights.

Anticipation for WBC’s arrival was building since at least “Laramie’s” premier the week before. Tuesday, Nov. 10, local radio personality Jim Leach, an STC board member, sparred with Shirley Phelps-Roper, a WBC leader.

I would absolutely gag if anyone in this nation turns from their rebellion because the time for your destruction is IMMINENT! It’s not going to happen. Christ said it’s going to look like Sodom when I come back, Phelps-Roper said.

Can you narrow that down a little bit when you say 'Imminent'? Because it's been imminent for a lot of years with you people and I was just wondering if you can narrow it down?

Leach's guest then repeatedly shouted
No, insisting her church has only been insisting imminence for a couple of months.

You've been telling us it's been imminent for a long time, Leach said, to which Phelps-Roper shouts "WRONG, and calling Leach a liar before explaining that she had to learn to speak and spell the word just recently.

The church never did show up in Springfield. At about 8 p.m., the paddywagon left Hoogland, and the counter-protesters went their separate ways.

Some of the Twitter chatter that evening:

“The Laramie Project,” which opened Nov. 6, gives an impression of the town that wasn’t broadcast in 1998. Instead, it is an account of Tectonic Theater Project members who visited Laramie six times over a year and a half and collected interviews and insights from the townspeople.

The resulting production is a stark juxtaposition between the serenity of the landscape and the depth of human brutality. It is carried out by 21 cast members who take turns playing 40 different Wyomingites, each having a unique identity, but each indivisible from the landscape of Laramie. The sheer number of characters would be confounding, if it weren’t that each of them exemplify

There are the playful busybodies Alison Mears and Marge Murray, who speak their minds and have plenty to say about the social structure of Laramie. There’s the town’s sergeant, who insists it’s a good place to live. In a town like Laramie, as one townie says to the theater project, everyone is pretty much once-removed. Everyone is a part of the great, blue sky, endless earth, and all stand in funeral-like silence as the accused are lead to the courtroom.

That’s not to say “The Laramie Project” shirks its journalistic pretense and flinches when hate is uncovered. There are cold truths when one of the murderers, Aaron McKinney, explains how he beat Shepard with a pistol, or when townspeople say murder is wrong, and in the next breath admit reservations about gay people. Hate just doesn’t bloom under Laramie’s insular clique, it is trucked into town in cable news vans, threatening emails and agenda-driven preachers.

But there also are moments where light floods in, where Laramie grieves and rallies and protests around the part of them that they lost. The only rule here, it seems, is what the town’s catholic Father warns the theater company: “Just say it right. I think you have a responsibility to do that.”

For those who are unprepared, it is a devastating experience. There are moments when testimony drops jaws and sucks the air from the room, if to be re-inflated and crushed when the humanity of Laramie is revealed.

Read on...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Making a Stand for MAP: Triumph & Uncertainty in the Fight for Higher-Ed in Illinois

[A student from Southern Illinois University readies a lapel microphone before being recorded for a newscast. He was joined by nearly 1,000 other students Oct. 15 for a rally to restore financial aid grants in the state.]

It was quickly apparent what they meant. Throngs were crossing the street, chanting, whistling, air-horning, taking long, purposeful strides to the white tent at 100 East Edwards, next to the Capitol, where the others were. People were at the threshold of the sidewalk, some were beyond it, waving at cars and beckoning attention to homemade signs.

The audience under the tent was dense, impenetrable, so the reporters and cameras milled about the perimeter and picked students off where they could. Not all of the picking was spontaneous. As these events go, media are given the names of particular people who are the most affected. My contact at the University of Illinois Springfield, Derek Schnapp, director of public relations, did the same for me, but ultimately I thought it would be a better to poll the audience randomly.

“I don’t know… if there’s any way to know, to estimate the number of students who will be coming state-wide,” Schnapp phoned in the day before the rally. “I’ve heard rumblings of a thousand or more.”

I’m not a bean counter, but the turnout seemed close. I was suspicious of his assessment at first, having made a wrong turn that took me on a journey to the wrong side of the capitol building, where there was only the empty chartered busses, clinging to the side of the road like abandoned cocoons. I wrapped my coat tighter and sped up my pace. It was a couple more blocks before my climate-bred surliness morphed into a blushing contrition that perhaps I didn’t adequately know the geography of my hometown.

Outside the tent, a young man with a square jaw and short, styled hair clipped a lapel microphone to his black peacoat, while a camera man issued directions. The name tag announced the subject was from Southern Illinois University, and he squinted into the camera and announced his name, its proper spelling, and his student government position at the university. His brow lightened and shoulders eased as he explained how, due to a series of medical circumstances and other financial obligations, his pursuit of higher education wouldn’t be possible without financial aid.

“I don’t know if I could get student loans. My credit isn’t so good,” he said. The camera caught a wisp of his nervous laughter as he ended his sentence.

His education, along with the education of many students at the rally, hinged on something called the Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant. It’s a need-based program that aids nearly 137,000 college students, including those who enroll directly from high school and independent adults continuing their education in order to sustain some kind of a middle-class lifestyle.

The maximum each student can obtain from the program is $2,500 per semester. That covers a quarter of the tuition and fees at a public university, or 35 percent of the education at a community college. Due to a combination of forces, both economic and societal, demand for the program ballooned 25 percent this year, according to (established by the Illinois Student Assistant Commission).

At the July armistice that ended 2009 state budget crisis (or merely postponed it, depending on your politics), Governor Patrick Quinn signed a budget that gave the MAP program $220 million, about half of the money it needed to meet its demand for the 2009-2010 school year. He didn’t tap into the $1.6 billion in discretionary funds the budget set aside - opting instead to maintain social services. Something else Quinn didn’t do was spread that money over both college semesters, thus sparing the fall 2009 semester and leaving the spring 2010 semester twisting in the wind.

In late September, just ahead of the veto sessions that could provide a correction of the budget snafu, Quinn launched a campaign to reinstate MAP funding, speaking to students at the University of Illinois Chicago, where 6,000 receive a total of $20,000 in assistance. His tour would roll through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Bradley University, Black Hawk College, John Wood Community College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before it was over, all the while proposing to tax cigarettes more heavily and raising the income tax. “When it comes to this important education funding issue, we will not accept a grade of incomplete from the Legislature,” an AP reporter quoted Quinn as saying.

Skeptical minds never let rest the fact that Quinn was the executive whose signature made the state’s inadequate budget a law, a budget which he reportedly had “no reservation” in signing off. “To me, at least, it’s beyond obvious what the governor is doing here,” concluded Rich Miller, blogger for The Capital Fax Blog, in his Illinois Times column. “Quinn got himself in big trouble and now he’s lashing out at somebody else to draw attention away from him.”

Those weren’t the concerns of the college students at the Oct. 15 rally. From inside the rally’s tent came a voice that, although encumbered by the lack of a public address system, resonated with the listeners who could barely hear it. “People united cannot be defeated!” the man said. Shouting and applause answered the proclamation.

Without amplification, it was difficult to identify the speaker, but the deliberate cadence that marched like an army of words in some victory parade, the rising grumble that coalesced into a brusque dĂ©nouement, gave the voice away as that of Governor Quinn. His phrase, which he often wielded as a battle cry in similar populist demonstrations, also identified him. From behind, two people mused how it could have been Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard talking (a former democratic gubernatorial candidate), but I knew this couldn’t be. The speaker’s forceful turn-of-phrase didn’t fit Poshard’s mellifluous M.O.

“I can’t hear anything. Can you hear anything?” a woman said.
“No, I can’t hear anything,” a man answered. “It’s for the press, anyway. These things are always for the press.”

[People at the rally jammed a tent across the street from the Capitol, listening to speeches by students, college officials and the Governor before taking the protest to the rotunda.]

The easiest way to get through a mass of tightly-packed followers of a political rally, besides plowing your way through with a liberal application of impolite force, is to follow closely behind someone else who is already weaving through the crowd. I stopped at a point that was closer to the tent, but even raising my cell phone above the crowd to snap a picture didn’t result in a better understanding of the of the rally’s locus. Instead, I asked a Blackburn coed to show off her sign for a quick snap. A mother of three began to speak from the tent’s podium, but I ducked out early, overhearing the fact that this was the last speaker, and the rally would be marching to the rotunda of the Capitol.

Shuffling up the Capitol steps and finding the end of the entrance line, five people from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights quickly followed and arranged themselves in the queue. I spoke with Ryan Zantingh, a tall, slender man with a slightly dimpled chin and short, scruffy hair. His business card told me he was a financial aid coordinator, so I asked him what the cut to student funding would be, and what that might do to the population at TCC.

“We would lose about $1.5 million in funding,” he said. “There are a lot of students who would have to withdraw.”

One of the TCC contingency gripped a rolled-up poster, and I asked him to unfurl it for my camera phone. Zantingh and the other students helped unroll the poster, nearly ten feet long, revealing dozens of signatures recorded in black Sharpie. “FROM THE STUDENTS AT TRINITY CHRISTIAN COLLEGE / WITHOUT A MAP STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO FIND A WAY.” The poster caught the attention of others waiting in line, inspiring them to shout “Save Map Now, Save Map Now” and hold up signs of their own.

I took the shot as the line began carrying me off to the doors. “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now” was played on repeat, at volume which no other conversation could be deciphered, to which air horns trumpeted in compliment, successfully blocking out any immediate thought save “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The assembly, despite not having entered the rotunda yet, had all the sincerity and fervor of a homecoming pep rally, although it was for a game where the consequences were much direr.

[A contingency from Trinity Christian College show a poster which students signed in support of the effort to restore MAP grants.]

When the uproar subsided and conversation again was possible, I was next to Dr. Malinda Carlson, the dean of students for Illinois College in Jacksonville.

“Where is it that you are from?” she asked
“I’m from Springfield, but I’m not a student here.” I said, picking out a crisp business card to hand her. “I’m a writer, you see. I thought I’d come to blog about all this.”
“I see.”
“So, how many students use the MAP grant at Illinois College?” I asked.
“About one-third.”
“And how much funding does that equate to?”
“About one million,” she said above the din of students joining in the latest round of chanting.
“And if MAP funding isn’t restored for the next semester, what do you think will happen to the student population?”
“Many of them would have to drop out. We’re really concerned about that.”

I could hear the conversation between two college students in the background. “How would they feel if we took $40,000 from their budget?” one said. Another said, “They look kind of angry.” Carlson turned to an IC student behind her.

“Is there a story you might be able to tell?” She asked the student.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to come back next semester without the MAP grant,” the student answered. “My grandmother has lung cancer, and I have to spend a lot of time with her. The treatment is really expensive, I don’t know if I could afford college if I didn’t have the grant.”
“And what are you now? Sophomore, junior, senior?” I asked.
“I’m a senior,” she said. “I have one semester to go.”
“You’re so close.”
“Yes, very close.”

Carlson turned again to the student. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“What is your name?” I asked.
“Andrea.” She said.
“Andrea, I’m sorry to hear about that.”

[A view of the line to the metal detectors inside the Illinois Capitol building. Air horns and other noisemakers were confiscated here.]

Nearing the metal detectors, another burst of chanting and air horns sounded. Knowing the system, I worked on unbuckling my belt and coiling it into a tight package. Two guards were shuttling trays of belongings through the X-ray’s conveyor. Another man was waving a wand over someone who caused the metal detector to burp a noise. A young man produced a silver multi-function pocketknife with a pronounced corkscrew. The device, which the tending guard indicated was not too big a size to allow, was about the width of a good-sized adult palm. I worked on putting my belongings into a basket and moved forward, crossed the threshold of the detector, and was relieved to find the alarm had not sounded.

There was a podium inside the rotunda that the young protesters used to re-launch the chant, “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The Trinity Christian College contingency stepped on the podium and stretched out their signature-adorned sign. Beside the podium was a guest book, where students lined up to record their name, address and purpose. A Capitol guide tried to politely make her way through the pack, repeating “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” clutching to her breast what appeared to be a bundle of maps. Eyes, pairs belonging young students and weathered lawmakers alike, watched from the railings on the second and third stories. The protesters below silenced their chants and coagulated on the rotunda floor around a single figure.

Centered in the orbit of multicolored neon placards doused in black Sharpie ink, young black and white and male and female and blue jeans and thick eyeliner and puffy coats and sweaters with college names in block font, and earpiece-wearing sentinels draped in weighty trench coats and fat neckties, was Governor Quinn, each arm corralling a student, his face locked in a grinning pose reserved for the fleeting, exceptional occasions that cameras were made for, but due to his avocation seemed to be perpetual and immutable, leaving one to ponder if it were actually ingenuous and not a pose at all. The students he was being captured with were from Bradley in Peoria.

[Light from a news camera washed out the face of Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn as he meets with students and answered questions from the press.]

What ensued was loosely-choreographed waltz. The students would approach, deliver a compliment, a response was given, they would shake, assume the stance for the camera, strain their eyes at the flash, and Quinn would pivot 90 or 180 degrees to address the next person. I watched this with a student reporter from a small, private college.

“Do you know if anyone is going to give a speech here?” he asked.

“Uh, no, probably not. I don’t think so,” I said. “You see, during the summer when there was all the budget turmoil, they actually had a rally here in the rotunda, and Quinn spoke at that podium over there. But it had microphones, and there was a speaker system and everything. They don’t have it set up like that, so I don’t think that’s going to happen today. Were you planning on asking Quinn a question?”

The reporter, who wore a black pea coat like mine and squared glasses like mine, shuffled a camera phone, a black voice recorder and several reporter’s notebooks in his hands.

“I was just going to ask him if he had any words for the students back at the college,” he said.

I kept silent my thoughts that it were a bit of a softball question, perhaps thinking that I didn’t have so many hardball questions myself, and said only “Sometimes, you just have to strong-arm your way in there.”

After observing Quinn’s waltz for nearly ten minutes, scouting for an opening, I found a route to the sanctum of the Governor/Student waltz and readied my silver Olympus WS-311M Digital Voice Recorder.

“How are you going to do it, Quinn? How are you going to pull it off?”

His brown eyes registered a response, but his face was locked for the camera, and he waited until the photo was taken. When that was accomplished, he gave an answer.

“Interfund borrowing is going to be one of our strategies,” Governor Quinn said, before pivoting to address the next person.

But nothing about cigarette or income tax. The last time interfund borrowing was practiced in Illinois was when the state transferred half a billion dollars from the retirement system into the hospital provider fund (Medicaid). Quinn signed that bill, The Interfund Borrowing Act of 2009 (which began life as HB1027), into law February 27. A week earlier, The Illinois AFL-CIO flagged it as a “shell bill,” or something that has no real legal content until it is replaced by a later version, sometimes just before committee. It’s a tactic used to shuttle legislation under the radar, or pulled as a trump card when things go badly late in session.

[Quinn poses for a photo with a troupe of Bradley students.]

Unbeknownst to the students chanting in the rotunda, senators boosted MAP funding to $425 million while the rally was going on. Nobody in the House said “nay,” and the only senator to vote against the bill was Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from Moline.

Beneath the widespread consent about the need for the funding boost, a bitter divide amongst lawmakers remained. A Murphysboro Republican told the State Journal-Register “Is this like writing a check when there is no money in the account? This doesn’t put any more money into our budget, and we are broke. It does give the governor cover to say ‘I have done something.’”

Democracy happened. Citizens were heard, and the lawmakers were pressured. Quinn’s signature would complete the legislative circle of life three days later. site changed to encourage thank-you notes to legislators, notifying visitors that “even with the passage of Senate Bill 1180 and subsequent signing into law, approximately 130,000 eligible applicants were still denied aid, as the state’s means was far less than the demand for the program.”

“Additionally, a funding source for the appropriation has yet to be identified.”

[Eyes closely watched the rally from the second and third stories.]

Before he left the rally, Quinn joined the TCC contingency on the podium for a last few frames of public interaction. Zantingh and his cadre beamed for the camera. Those associated with the rally began to make way for the exits, a process preempted by news crews who had deadlines to meet. I followed, but became transfixed by an enigmatic young man who began to chant “No MAP?” To that, the sign-wielding students around him answered “No Future.”

“No MAP?”
“No Future!”
“No MAP?”
“No Future!”

Time seemed to melt around this happening, at least until interest waned and the young man, for all his energy and character, struggled to keep the chant going. In a matter of hours on that brisk October day, the sanguine chant of “Save MAP Now” changed into a diffident mumbling of “Now What?”

Read on...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On the Verge of a Musical Breakthrough - a Moment with Band of Skulls

It began like a finale - an eruption of fuzz from guitar, bass and drum, occupying the ears of the crowd long after the cut off, like the sun burnt into a bloodshot retina. Singer/guitarist Russell Marsden wringed the strings on his Fender Stratocaster, torturing the guitar to cry out to his vocals. “I want to see you in the morning.”

Bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward tag-teamed the final two beats, meshing the Strat with a blast of snare drum and a humming bass. Then, a pause for effect. The guitar groaned, and cried out again. “I want to see you when the breaking day is dawning,” Marsden sang through the straight, bleached hair masking his face. The strands whipped out with his exhale.

“You gotta go, you gotta go, it’s alright… I want to see you in the- see you in the- light of the morning! Hey!”

It was on - the crowd was seduced into a mob of nodding heads and swaying hips. Band of Skulls ripped through at 10 songs off their first and only album “Baby Darling Doll Face Honey” at St. Louis’ Fubar. Richardson’s boots stomped to a rhythm rife with a bluesy, down-and-dirty ethic. Marsden wrestled the tremolo arm of the Strat, juicing his instrument for every last drop of 70s-psychadelia with a consummate deftness. Hayward drove the band forward with a solid, unflinching beat, evoking the 90s garage movement.

It’s easy deciphering the influences of this power trio. Perhaps the band’s strongest asset is that while its sound was done before (as recently as Kings of Leon and any number of Jack White bands), the catchy lyrics and undeniable energy forces one to accept it on its own terms. As one reviewer explained: “The history of popular music might very well lie within this promising band from England. But its’ the future they ought to be concerned about...because it’s going to be a bright one.”

By some standards, the band’s rise could be considered meteoric. Having formed in January, by March they cut and released a full-length album of 11 songs. The next month, ‘I Know What I am’ was the iTunes single of the week. In August, they were featured on Lollapalooza’s BMI stage, although it was a lightly-attended show before noon on the Saturday of the festival. Also that month, Band of Skulls provided HBO’s popular series “True Blood” with background music in a scene. That wonderfully appropriate song, ‘Blood,’ may have reached up to 5.2 million viewers.

Perhaps the band’s biggest boost will come in October 13, when the highly anticipated teen-centric vampire flick “New Moon” releases its soundtrack, where Band of Skulls will take a spot on a track listing alongside monstrously famous acts such as Radiohead and Muse. November 20, the same track will be played for tens of millions of theatergoers.

(This writer’s best guess is that the track will be the same as featured on HBO’s “True Blood,” although a recent Tweet indicated the band recently spent time in its LA studio, and so may just have created the track. Or, perhaps some completely unrelated new music.)

None of this was apparent at the St. Louis gig. Only 23 showed up on that Monday night. It was an uneventful evening for the band, who enjoyed a bite at a nearby outdoor café in near anonymity. Shortly before the show at the venue, when a fan did approach at the bar, the band looked stunned.

“I was wondering if you could sign this,” the fan said sheepishly, holding a copy of the band’s vinyl record.

“Of course!” Richardson said in a proper British accent, taking the album and dispatching its plastic wrapping with haste. “The cover is a bit slippery to sign.” She opened the album and took out the complementary poster.

“I don’t like what they did with the artwork,” she said, explaining that the record company took her original painting, cropped and mirrored it for the album cover. She passed the poster and a sharpie to the nearest band mate.

“We wanted to catch you before you get so big that we’ll have to pay $80 for a ticket to a stadium show,” the fan said as the guitarist, Marsden, made an autograph.

“That would be great,” Marsden said. “Not that you have to pay $80, but that we would have lots of people come to see us.”

Band of Skulls went on to make their performance, and ended in a massive crescendo. With Richardson and Hayward playing loud and hard, Marsden struck a chord on his Strat and laid the guitar on the stage. Bass and drums continuing to blast, Marsden cranked his effects pedals for maximum reverb, with the chord ringing and ringing and ringing. To the sound of a Strat blasting a hypnotic cacophony of fuzz and whatever happy noises a crowd of 23 could muster, the musicians left their instruments and headed to the adjacent bar.

I sat with my colleague, Joe, the one who approached the band before the concert, and watched as fans struck up conversations with the trio. This was a rare, strange moment, we considered.

“My son really likes your music,” one man, who appeared to be in his early 40s, said. “Would you mind signing this for him?”

Joe and I were at a neighboring booth while Richardson hovered nearby, cigarette burning between her fingers like a post-coital habit.

“Could you sign this poster for my co-worker?” Joe asked.

“Sure, what’s her name?” She said.

“Beth,” he said. “I got her turned on to you guys. She likes the band ‘Heart,’ and you really sound like the band, ‘Heart.’”

“Who’s that?”

“You don’t know who ‘Heart’ is?”

“No, how do you spell it? Just H-E-A-R-T?”

Joe nodded as she scribbled her name, the name of the classic Seattle rock band from the 70s featuring Ann and Nancy Wilson, and how she didn’t know who they were, but was confident that they rocked.

“How can you not know who ‘Heart’ is?” Joe said. “Your vocals sound just like theirs.”

Richardson, the member of the band with a collection of 20,000 records, looked at Joe, puzzled. I felt nervous and turned to Joe, murmuring, “Come on, man…”

“You better keep that Sharpie,” I said to Richardson, changing subjects suddenly. Joe and I scoured a six-block radius in my car, looking for a single felt-tipped marker, in preparation to score pre-concert autographs.

“You’d think a fan should have manners enough to bring their own pen to a concert,” I added.

“Yeah, really!” she said, pointing the end of the marker in the air, and resting her free hand on her hip. “Who do they think we are? Michael Jackson?”

Richardson turned to acknowledge a group of three girls. Emma’s black tank top, and hip-hugging jeans clashed with the suburban-mall-party-girl-esque outfits of the girls.

“We really like your music and think you’re going to get real big someday,” one of the fangirls said, holding out a poster to be signed. Emma nodded approvingly and left her mark on the memorabilia.

The audience, satisfied with autographs and posters and CDs, filed out of the bar, leaving the joint near empty. While the band spoke to punk-rock looking girls who stayed after, Joe and I nursed our beers and debated what next to do. Before long, I decided to embark on a buzzed journey to relieve the burden of my newfound, Mexican friend, Sol Beer. Joe left to the adjacent table.

“You know, Emma says she doesn’t know who ‘Heart’ is,” he said to Hayward.

Hayward turned to Richardson, astonished. “What?! You’ve never heard of ‘Heart’!?”

I returned shortly after to find the band table sans-Richardson. I was informed that everyone at the table gave Richardson grief about not knowing who ‘Heart’ was, to the point where she left the table in mild frustration.

Hayward wrote on Beth’s poster “Beth!! You like Heart!? I like Heart! Let’s get together!”

We shook hands with Hayward on the way out the door. The band would finish its American tour August 30, before knocking out 11 shows in Canada and returning to the UK for another 19 appearances, all before September. Next stop, the unknown.

“I’m busy booking our next tour,” Hayward said as we made our exit. “Just keep checking our MySpace, it will be on there.”

Set List, 8/24/09:

“Light of the Morning”
“I Know What I Am”
“Diamonds and Pearls”
“Cold Fame”
“Holywood Bowl”

Read on...