Monday, July 5, 2004

Desktop Olympics

During the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, August 13 to 29, 2004, spectators the world over will have a wider range of viewing options than ever before. For the first time the Olympics will be beamed to computers and cell phones during the games.

During the Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympics, the International Olympic Committee conducted web trials involving about 100,000 homes. As a result of the success of this trial, the IOC is now permitting more than a dozen broadcasters, mostly in the US and Europe, to show online video of the Athens Games.

But while many Europeans will be able to see live Olympic coverage on the Internet, Americans will have to settle for tape and post-broadcast delays.

Web-broadcast footage is restricted by the same lucrative broadcast contracts – which are sold by territory – that limit television media. To protect the $793 million NBC paid to secure their coverage rights, employs technology to block viewers from outside the US Likewise, US web surfers won’t be able to access BBC's live coverage. site will check computer Internet addresses to make sure they are going through US Internet service providers. The site will also measure how long it takes data to travel back and forth from their servers to the visiting computer, further weeding out visitors from afar.

US viewers must also verify their identity using a Visa credit card, though at no charge. Not a Visa cardholder? Sorry.

NBC will offer clips of key events in every sport and a daily highlights package at Broadband Olympic footage will appear online only after it is broadcast on television – NBC plans 1,210 hours of coverage on seven networks: NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, USA, Telemundo, and a high-definition channel.

Brief highlights from NBC will also be available to US customers of AT&T Wireless' mMode information service.

Some European broadcasters are limiting online video to broadband, as well. In the United Kingdom, the BBC Web site will simulcast five broadband television feeds and carry as many as 30 highlights at a time.

News websites not affiliated with official broadcasters can’t carry competition video at all; unaffiliated TV stations can show only three highlight segments a day, 2 minutes apiece. anticipates 20 million unique visitors in August, a record for any NBC website. The BBC Sport website, which already averages 1 million unique users per day, also expects record traffic during the Games.

The official ATHENS 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games website – the most comprehensive site, worldwide, for a single sporting event – will feature extensive video and news coverage as well. is hosted on 16,000 servers worldwide to meet the anticipated demand of 5 million visits a day.

Despite video delays for US customers, this move by the IOC and affiliate networks remains a tremendous step forward. NBC will offer, online and off, more than four-times as much coverage for these Olympic games than they offered for the previous four games. The IOC, as well, is now including Internet broadcast rights in their contracts for the upcoming 2008 and 2012 summer games. fb

A Prayer for the Beltline

View the proposed Beltline track mapIt goes without saying that Atlanta has something of a transportation crisis on its hands. Our highway system is bursting with traffic, choking to a stop in every direction at least twice a day. Our under-funded rail network – the only metro rail system in the country to operate without any local government funding – is slowly losing its battle with aging equipment and a malevolent city government that pines for its bankruptcy.

It’s no wonder road rage has become such a popular Atlanta pastime.

In this atmosphere of commuter desperation and aggravation, it’s a pleasant surprise to learn about the Beltline – a proposal to combine four disused light freight rail lines to create a European-style tram system circumnavigating the metro Atlanta area and linked to the existing commuter rail system.

Metro-area commuters unite: Hallelujah!

Imagine walking a few steps from your Grant Park home, catching a European-style tram, and zipping off for lunch at the King Plow Center. This is not a MARTA station bursting with noise and fast-paced transients, but a quaint station on the Beltline connecting you to other metro-Atlanta communities and parks, including Piedmont Park, Grant Park, and the Zoo. Imagine bicycle and pedestrian paths engaging diverse parts of the city. Imagine opening 4,000 acres for redevelopment that could accommodate 100,000 new residents – all of whom are a short walk from an environmentally friendly transit system that does not cut through historic neighborhoods but flows along the seams between them.

Sounds pretty good to us.

The Beltline concept began life as a Georgia Tech student's thesis. Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard then took over, transforming this college dissertation into a bona fide transit proposal.

The Atlanta Beltline proposes to connect over 50 of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods with a new transit line and network of parks. Bicycle and pedestrian pathways will follow the 22-mile loop, which would connect with existing MARTA stations at five locations (Lindbergh, Inman Park/Reynoldstown, West End, Ashby and Bankhead).

The promise is that intown Atlanta has a tremendous amount of neglected urban real estate ready for reinvestment, particularly to the city’s south and west. The city also has a large quantity of urban redevelopment underway, increasing density and straining traffic, particularly on the city’s north and east. Perhaps too conveniently, many of these redevelopment sites are strung together by several old "belt line" railroads. After the Civil War, these minor freight lines developed to serve the city’s expanding industrial base. Since they preceded urban expansion, bungalow streetcar suburbs were nestled up against them. The railroads, therefore, tend not to cut through historic neighborhoods, but instead lie at the seam between them, making these in-between spaces ideal sites for urban redevelopment.

More than just an improved network of public transportation, however, the Belt Line is a transportation greenway, circling the central city as a linear park, connecting big city parks like Piedmont, Freedom, Grant, Perkerson, and Maddox Parks and little neighborhood parks like Stanton, Adair, Washington, and Tanyard Creek Parks. Bicycle and pedestrian paths join light rail or bus transit, engaging parts of Atlanta as different as Brookwood Hills and Pittsburgh, Piedmont Hospital and Zoo Atlanta. It connects Ansley Mall to the King Plow Arts Center and City Hall East to the Wren's Nest in West End. Furthermore, with an influx of new residents moving closer into the City, the Belt Line accesses developable land and re-uses historic urban fabric in ways that contribute to the health of urban neighborhoods. Stations would be designed for neighbors and would more resemble bus stops than MARTA stations, eliminating elevated platforms, turnstiles, escalators and parking lots.

Atlanta Beltline planners point to the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon as a flourishing example of this type of light rail project. Portland has developed an urban streetcar that now runs through an old warehouse district. Since the Portland project was finished, $1 billion in real estate sales along the streetcar’s path have been grossed and business growth in the newly connected communities has surged. The Atlanta Beltline may have a big price tag – almost $600 million – but the Beltline may encourage an amazing amount of growth and help revitalize vacant land through the metro area.

But as many metro Atlantans can tell you, this is not the first public-transit solution to step up to the plate only to be knocked flat by local bureaucracy and the overpowering almighty love of the car.

So far, only $100 million of the estimated $583 million the project needs will come from guaranteed sources. And three large sections – nearly a fifth of the Beltline's proposed path – are currently impassable for passenger travel. Owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern these tracks see as many as 15 freight trains a day. Other sections are owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation – the GDOT doesn't agree with Beltline's planners on how the project should proceed.

But the project is moving ahead. As of this writing the Beltline proposal has made the short list of transit projects that will get millions in funding over the next seven years – beating out four MARTA line extensions and every commuter rail proposal except one. On May 12, Mayor Shirley Franklin announced the formation of a steering committee to guide the Beltline through the quagmire of transportation planning's bureaucracy to completion. A feasibility study is underway to be completed in Fall 2004. The project has been included in Atlanta’s Comprehensive Development Plan and received a funding commitment from the PATH Foundation. A nonprofit organization has been founded to support the project, “Friends of the BeltLine,” and discussions have begun with CSX and Norfolk Southern, who still use a few miles of the anticipated beltline network for freight, and GDOT.

And revisions are being made to the original plan. Engineers with the Beltline's feasibility study are designing alternative routes to bypass CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, leading the beltline down Moreland Avenue, from the Carter Center, through Little Five Points, and past the Sembler development now under construction on the old Atlanta Gas Light property. A plan also has been suggested to lay light rail tracks into Marietta Boulevard and Northside Drive, a route that would swing by the new aquarium, the proposed World of Coca-Cola mixed-use development, the Georgia Tech campus, the Georgia Dome, and the new developments – including the massive Atlantic Station development – on the west and northwest side of downtown.

Keep your eyes open next time you drive around the city. The kudzu-shrouded tracks are plainly visible across town, beside the Park Tavern and through Peidmont Park, by the MLK center, inside both Ansley and Inman parks. There is even a driving tour of the Beltline course that you can follow at

Is this the ultimate solution to Atlanta’s commuter woes? Far from it. Would it go a long way to alleviate our persistent traffic headaches and improve the quality of our metro lifestyles? Absolutely. fb

How Terror Markets Online

View a screenshot of Hamas' official websiteView a screenshot of Hezbollah's kid-oriented websiteView a screenshot from Hezbollah's online game, Special ForceA note from Fight.Boredom’s editors: The writers of Fight.Boredom in no way endorse any group defined by the United States as “terrorists.” Nowhere in this article are terrorist group websites linked to or are their addresses specially mentioned. The following critique is intended to be objective.

Terrorists have entered the information age with a vengeance.

The West is already familiar with some of their techniques. They use the Internet to communicate their demands and to distribute grisly videos of hostages and beheadings. They use the Internet to threaten and intimidate while protecting their hidden locations.

But the marketing of terror and terrorist groups is far more sophisticated than most Westerners realize. With many of the same goals as our own political organizations, terror groups in the Middle East and elsewhere use the Internet to distribute propaganda, to find and profile potential recruits, and to raise funds. They also use the Internet to research and coordinate upcoming attacks and to communicate – often anonymously – with one another.

"The messages on the beheadings spread out worldwide in seconds," said Professor Gabriel Weimann of Haifa University, Israel, a communications professor who monitors the activities of terrorist organizations on the net. Indeed, the distributive power of the Internet has alleviated one of the terrorist’s greatest complaints about modern media. Before Internet distribution, terror groups criticized the presentation of their video footage. They claimed the Western press focused too much on the suffering of the victims, not on the political or ideological message of the terrorists. With greater control over their electronic media, terrorists now control how much, and what, the audience sees of its message and crimes.

And this communicative power is being used the world over. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that nearly a quarter of Americans online turned to the Internet to view some of the graphic images of the war in Iraq that they could not find in mainstream media coverage. Images, in many cases, provided by middle-eastern militant groups.

According to a BBC interview with Professor Weimann, over the course of seven years the number of terrorist websites has blossomed from 12 to 4,000, maintained by hundreds of militant groups. These sites include conventional information websites, chatrooms, forums, and bulletin boards. Some groups, including Hamas – an anti-Israeli Palestinian Islamic organization established in 1987 during the first Intifada – have separate websites aimed at adults, potential recruits, news outlets, and even children.

Al-Fateh, Hamas’ monthly children’s magazine, routinely decries the Americans, the Jews, and the English. Aimed at an average audience of 10 years old, al-Fateh publishes short editorials against Hamas’ enemies and features cartoons and other youth-oriented content. In describing the US-led war in Iraq, al-Fateh editorials remark that “Americans are ‘barbaric rapists and murders’” and that “The blood of Iraq was forsaken … They have murdered elderly, women and children and have sent Ba’sra, Mou’sul and Baghdad up in flames … may the curse of Allah be upon them all.”

Hezbollah – an anti-Israeli Lebanese group of Shiite militants opposed to the West that seeks to create a Muslim fundamentalist state modeled on Iran – has even created a downloadable video game called Special Force based on the battles fought between the group's fighters and Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. Special Force is a first-person shooter military video game created using the open-source Genesis 3D graphics engine developed in the United States.

Special Force puts the player in the role of an armed member of the Islamic Resistance to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon. It also allows players to attack Israeli positions and Israeli politicians. It carries a deliberate and specific pro-Arabic and anti-Israeli political message. The Special Force website describes the purpose of the game as “Educational for our future generations and for all freedom lovers of this world of ours.”

The entire design of the game is expressive of Hezbollah’s ideals. A row of burning Israeli flags marks the time while the computer loads a "training session" where the player shoots targets of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – 10 points each. "Victory comes from no one but Allah," exhorts the screen before the mission begins. The opportunities for martyrdom, from exploding land mines and snipers, are rife.

Special Force is the hottest selling video game for the teenagers of Beirut's southern Shiite neighborhoods and can be played in Arabic, English, French, and Persian. The game quickly sold old its first run of 100,000 copies when it was released in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates in early 2003. A subsequent, more sophisticated version allows multiple players to link up on a network.

Some Internet cafes in Beirut have wholeheartedly embraced the game’s popularity. In one café, bamboo partitions, intended to evoke the Vietnam War, and red sandbags line the walls. Camouflage designs and rows of plastic Kalashnikovs adorn the walls. Photographs of Sheik Nasrallah and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sit on a display shelf.

And, while Western critics may decry the game as propaganda, Arab consumers embrace the game for its positive depiction of Arab warriors. And in much the same role that the US military’s video game America’s Army is designed to express the ideals and values of the US armed forces, so too have the designers of Special Force designed and targeted their product.

Since the war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, too has moved to cyberspace. They use the Internet for communication and online training. Indeed, Al-Qaeda regularly moves between approximately 50 different web addresses to provide online training. Since January 2004, the group has also maintained an online spiritual magazine, called the Voice of Jihad, and al-Battar, a training periodical. According to Professor Weimann, issue number 10 of al-Battar was devoted to kidnappings. Its release came just before the wave of kidnappings and executions that recently swept Iraq.

This online trend is certainly not limited to Middle-Eastern Islamic groups. According to BBC, several groups scattered across the globe maintain strong web presences as well: The Peruvian Marxists, Tupac Amaru (MRTA); the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc); Kahane, a Jewish group designated as a terrorist organization by both the US and Israeli governments; the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers; and the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

How can these groups maintain these sites with impunity, given the West’s dominance of the medium? A fair question to ask when you consider where these sites are hosted: The official website of Hamas, for instance, is registered in Sofia, Bulgaria and hosted by Hurricane Electric in Fremont, California, and Powersurge Technologies Inc. in Cedar Falls, Iowa; Hamas’ children’s website, al-Fateh, is registered in Beirut, Lebanon and hosted by Corbina Telecom in Moscow, Russia; the Website of the Hezbollah Secretary-General is registered in Beirut, Lebanon and hosted by ServePath LLC in San Francisco, California; the Hezbollah Special Force website is hosted in Longboat Key, Florida.

Sophisticated groups like Hezbollah – which also maintains TV and radio stations – have at their disposal myriad off and on-line media with which to communicate their populist militant messages. In the war on terror, the Internet has become as valid an ideological battleground as the nebulous “Arab Street.” fb