Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

Rubble and mud
A 7.6 magnitude earthquake let loose a mud-slide and jolted a mountain range in El Salvador, sending tremors as far as 600 miles away in Mexico City. Mud and rubble from the quake, centered off El Salvador's southern coast, killed at least 600 people and buried up to 1,200 more. Those victims were still missing nearly a week after the Jan. 13 quake and were believed dead as live rescues dwindled. One man was rescued after calling from his cell phone. Rescuers pulled pianist Sergio Moreno, a popular act among El Salvadorans in the United States, from under 10 feet of mud and rubble, 33 hours after the quake. He lost a leg and was in critical condition. Relief workers say clean water, shelter materials, and medicine are the greatest needs and are stressing the need for cash donations over clothing and other items. Seattle-based World Vision airlifted water purification systems to San Salvador just after the quake. Wheaton-based World Relief said it was working with local churches-including a Nazarene congregation that remained intact after the mudslide in Las Colinas passed just 50 yards from its doors-to set up homeless shelters and to deliver food and medicine. Central American rescue workers have ample recent experience with disaster, including the devastating 1998 Hurricane Mitch and last year's mudslides in Venezuela. A 1986 earthquake centered near San Salvador killed an estimated 1,500 people and injured 8,000. INQUIRING READER: BOGUS E-MAIL ...
Evangelist Bush?
George W. Bush drew a high percentage of conservative, Christian votes, but WORLD reader Alex Vance wanted to know whether it was true that the president-elect was involved in drawing a teenage boy to Christ. Our inquiring reader questioned a widely circulated e-mail reporting that Mr. Bush recently led a 16-year-old boy to faith in Christ. According to the e-mail, Mr. Bush spent 30 minutes with the teen after a thank-you banquet for about 1,000 campaign volunteers. Alas, the story appears not to be true. The question came up at a Jan. 9 Bush-Cheney transition press briefing, and spokesmen Ari Fleischer and Dan Bartlett knew nothing of any such event. "I don't recall any banquet with 1,000 campaign workers or volunteers," Mr. Bartlett said. Last week, a transition official repeated to WORLD doubts about the e-mail story. Then we checked with the supposed source of the account. Dennis Lake of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas, says he was wrongly cited as the source of the e-mail, and he and church staff fielded hundreds of calls. "Somebody put my name at the top of the e-mail." We wish we could give a World wear cap to all of you who asked, but Alex Vance was first. ... AND BOGUS REPORTING
Still can't count
Yes, claims that a full recount in Florida would have given Al Gore the presidency are far from proven. The Palm Beach Post (Jan. 14) recounted Miami-Dade County and found that it did not give Mr. Gore thousands of extra votes, as his partisans claimed it would. When the press recount-flawed, as all such counts at this point inevitably are-was done, George W. Bush had gained six more votes than had Mr. Gore. And no, Mr. Bush did not win the popular vote nationwide. Several wishful readers requested that WORLD check out a report that he had. The report, originally published at www.originalsources.com, resulted from an error in tabulating votes from Michigan. The website corrected the error on Dec. 20, but the old report continues to circulate on the Internet. Mr. Bush lost the popular vote by 533,001 votes. CALIFORNIA BLACKOUTS FOLLOW UTILITIES' PLUNGE INTO VIRTUAL BANKRUPTCY
More heat than light
ATMs shut down. Traffic lights went black. Elevators stopped. No, it wasn't Y2K 12 1/2 months late; it was the slow-motion collision of supply and demand in the micromanaged California electricity market. California's first rolling blackout saw utilities shutting off power to 200,000 to 500,000 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers, mostly in the San Francisco area. This California fiasco is the stuff of national mockery (How many politicians does it take to turn on a lightbulb?), and popular press reports reinforce claims that "deregulation" in California brought on the crisis. In truth, the market was only partially deregulated: As wholesale power prices that once averaged about 3.5 cents a kilowatt-hour hit the current price of 30 cents, a 1996 state rate freeze blocked utilities from passing on higher costs to their customers. The coming blackout was just a matter of time. According to the keepers of California's power grid, the problems are made worse by scarcity of electricity nationally and a lack of snow and rain in the hydroelectric-dependent Pacific Northwest. Between them, PG&E and Southern California Edison have lost at least $10 billion. The latter said it will run out of cash Feb. 2 and cannot pay $596 million in bills. California's energy policy was more micromanagement than deregulation, according to economist Adrian Moore, executive director of the Reason Public Policy Institute. He says the 1996 rules forced utilities to sell power plants and kept out competition with price controls. "Many pundits and politicians are condemning electricity deregulation as a failure because of the California crisis, yet other states have demonstrated that the move toward markets does deliver when implemented properly," he said. Mr. Moore proposes phasing out price caps and making the state power exchange voluntary. Others want more regulation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would propose legislation to give the secretary of energy authority to cap skyrocketing wholesale electricity prices in 11 Western states. The governors of Washington, Oregon, and California jointly proposed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission impose immediate wholesale price controls. For some, the lights just won't turn on. GAY RESERVIST RUNS OUT CLOCK, SLIPS DISCHARGE
Army of none
The Army-with its new slogan, "I am an Army of one"-is abandoning the battle against reserve lieutenant Steve May, a public-relations wrecking crew of one. Mr. May, also an Arizona Republican state representative, violated the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy with an in-your-face coming out of the closet during a public legislative debate. After the bombshell revelation, a military panel recommended honorable discharge, but Mr. May's army of lawyers tied up the matter. Army brass dropped the case after Mr. May agreed not to reenlist once his current term expires May 11. "Time was going to run out in the next four months to get this man out," Army spokesman Bill Wheelehan explained. "You can't [dismiss] an officer that rapidly when the officer is using everything at his disposal" to appeal. INDY CHURCH AWAITS FEDERAL MOVE
Under law, not grace
About 80 people were attending a Monday morning service at 50-year-old Indianapolis Baptist Temple when word arrived that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the church's case. It meant the government was free to evict the congregation and sell the property at auction to satisfy an IRS lien of about $6 million. Pastor Greg A. Dixon announced "the death of religious liberty." At issue: The church has not been withholding employee income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes since 1983, when then-pastor Greg J. Dixon (Greg A.'s father) decided to implement complete separation of church and state. All employees of the church, whose membership climbed to some 8,000 in the 1970s (but is now closer to 2,500), were classified as self-employed "ministers" and required to pay their own taxes; the church no longer paid its share of Social Security taxes. The IRS disagreed, leading to a long series of court clashes, including a decision last year to allow the government to seize and sell the property to satisfy the lien. A 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled last summer that the church had to comply with "neutral" tax laws that didn't single out the church. Scores of church supporters have been camping on the premises to resist federal marshals if and when they show up. U.S. Marshal Frank Anderson said he will not be pressured into acting hastily: "I'm going to do this thing when it's going to be safe for everybody." Mystery invention receives a mountain of hype
Scooting to a revolution?
Talk about publicity: Inventor Dean Kamen's mystery product, code named "Ginger," is getting tons of press even though its function is obscure. What could the great invention be? Here's the fuss: Harvard Business School Press paid $250,000 for a book about the invention, which has attracted millions in venture capital. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos supposedly called it a "product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it." Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs apparently said it will change the ways cities are designed. Mr. Kamen says the quotes were out of context and that the mania about Ginger is unnecessary. "We have a promising project, but nothing of the earth shattering nature that people are conjuring up," he said. An amazing amount of buildup has surrounded Ginger, as if it will be the greatest thing since internal combustion. Patent applications show the gizmo to be a motorized scooter, which explains Mr. Kamen's quote about his creation. He calls it an alternative to products that "are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities." Last month the inventor filed to patent a "personal mobility vehicle." The application refers to a "class of transportation vehicles for carrying an individual over ground ... that is unstable with respect to tipping when ... not powered." Supposedly the device can be assembled in about 10 minutes. Mr. Kamen himself lives in a hexagonally shaped mansion on a hilltop outside Manchester, N.H., and previous inventions include the first portable insulin pump and a wheelchair that can climb stairs. He's not commenting on reports about "Ginger" except to play them down, and he says his company, DEKA, is working on several projects. The details of one were exaggerated in a book proposal. "This," he said, "together with spirited speculation about the unknown, has lead to expectations that are beyond whimsical." -Chris Stamper Author vs. fast food
Burger police
Put down that Big Mac! Atlantic Monthly correspondent Eric Schlosser takes on McDonald's and other chains in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin). His muckraking says that one out of four Americans grabs a quick bite at these restaurants every day-and it isn't a good thing. Mr. Schlosser doesn't have a single core argument against fast food. He did a lot of reporting and spends over 250 pages focusing on problems: notably obesity, marketing to kids, and problems in the meatpacking industry. Charges range from manipulating kids in public schools to profiting off the Holocaust. Finally, there's a call to action. Mr. Schlosser wants a boycott: "The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: Stop buying it." He also wants a centralized food safety agency to act as a national health department. Fast food restaurants have been under attack for years in Europe, and the war is creeping over to the United States. To elitists they are signs of mass-marketing, uniformity, and American kitsch. Don't laugh too quickly at the seeming absurdity of the anti-fast food movement. National geographic society comes to cable
Ocean of documentaries
As if cable television didn't have enough documentaries, it now must make room for the National Geographic Channel. After decades of magazines and years of TV specials, the National Geographic Society this month launched a cable channel with science, nature, space, health, and environmental programming. Fox owns two-thirds of the operation and plans to promote it aggressively to cable operators. The TV industry spent much of the 1990s loading up with documentary fare that is cheap and easy to reuse, and now cable is home to an ocean of history, science, and personality profiles. In addition to The Learning Channel and The Travel Channel, a whole fleet of sister networks shares the Discovery brand: Kids, Home & Leisure, Civilization Channel, Science, Wings, and Animal Planet. A&E begat The History Channel, The Biography Channel, and History Channel International. All these choices are a dream come true for television pioneers of a half-century ago: They hoped the new medium would become not a vast wasteland but a vast opportunity for in-home education.

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