Wednesday, December 31, 2014

books and headlines


    Good teachers teach students that good readers make connections: text to self connections, text to text connections and text to world connections.
    Sometimes a good read is loaded with text to world connections that will help make sense of current headlines. I'll recommend three.
     If you had read the “Cuckoo’s Egg,” by Clifford Stoll and published in 1989, you would not be the least surprised at recent headlines concerning the computer hacking of Sony, nor about future headlines concerning hackings which threaten our national security.

    Since I’m not a techie type, much of the story was outside my realm of understanding, but I was left with one overwhelming impression: the government is not up to dealing with this type of warfare.

    The story is a non-fictional, technological “who done it” which begins with Stoll, an astronomer turned systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He noticed a 75-cent accounting error which led him to believe someone was trying to hack the lab’s system. He began to investigate on his own, and the investigation eventually led to the arrest of a small group of German hackers.

As he got deeper into his investigation, he took his findings to the local police, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The various agencies did little more than frustrate him. Though it was clear a computer spy was seeking information related to national security, the agencies declined to help during most of the hunt. Instead they used the information Stoll provided to gain an advantage in interagency squabbles.

It is 25 years since Stoll published his book about the problem of international computer hacking, and we apparently are still not up to handling the problem. The FBI quickly determined North Korea was responsible for the Sony incident, though it now appears it was probably a group of disgruntled former Sony employees. Who knows what tomorrow's headlines will produce?

    {I have a couple of other comments about the Sony hacking not related to this subject which I will get back to.)

    An interesting read which also will prepare you for current events is Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” This is considered a classic by libertarians. It has been around a long time, but it is worth the read every few years, though feel free to skip the lengthy speech by John Galt. It will help you understand what is going on with health care. Every time you read about legislative schemes and the political games played relating to railroads and steel, think “Obmacare.”

    A book that helps make sense about headlines relating to the environment, and especially global warming, is Michael Creighton’s “State of Fear.” It is a much more recent book and though the book is fiction, Creighton does his usual extensive research into his subject. He started the research with one perspective in mind and ended it with quite a different perspective. As you follow the story, much of what you see in current headlines will make more sense.

    Back to Sony and its computer hack: I have no sympathy for the people whose snippy little emails got public scrutiny, nor do I have any sympathy for Sony and its loss of money over being intimidated into not showing the film “Interview.” (It eventually did show the film, but not on the scale originally intended.)

    The people behind so much of our creative output have used their freedom of speech to denigrate groups they don’t like, such as Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. They know they can do this with impunity because these groups don’t tend to chop people’s heads off or put large bounties on them, and so, they have gotten use to little or no consequences when dissing their least favorite groups.

    But, there are those out there who are perfectly willing to retaliate when dissed: remember the Salman Rushdie episode. Like the creative community at Sony, Hollywood, and elsewhere, I too cherish freedom of speech. However, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you have to.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Racism, what is it?

    We are being asked by our President to have a national discussion on racism. Good idea. I would suggest the discussion begin with the word itself.

The First Lady said in a recent interview she was shopping incognito at Target when a short lady approached her and asked if she would mind reaching something for her off a top shelf, after all, Michelle Obama is tall. The First Lady used the incident as an example of racism. Really? She’s kidding, right?

    Just last week, I was in Target and a short, elderly lady asked me if I could get something from a top shelf for her. I think it was “tall-ism.”

    Yesterday, a black lady asked me if I could undo the oil cap on her car. She needed to add some oil and someone had put the cap back on too tight, and she couldn’t undo it. I think it was “strength-ism,” though I was dressed in jeans, a sweat shirt and wearing combat boots, so she might have thought I was a yard boy.

    Of course, in both cases, without thinking about it one way or another, I gladly and politely performed the request.

    However, the reporting of the Obama issue brings to mind something that has troubled me in recent weeks: Are the promiscuous accusations of “racism” causing the word to lose its power or significance?

    When black leaders of the 60s and 70s used the word racist, we all knew what they were talking about: Jim Crow laws, lynchings, attack dogs, segregated facilities, gross and blatant job discrimination, “n----r,” and “boy.” Today, it is not so obvious what will cause one to be labeled a racist, and I fear as a result, the word is losing its power to shame those who should be ashamed.

    Words do lose their ability to move people when abused or overly used. People my age can remember when the “F” bomb was shocking. But, along came the free speech movement of the 60s (Yes, I can remember the 60s, also the 40s and 50s.)when students and comedians demanded the right to use the “f” word wherever, whenever.

    I was at an Alaska state wide Toastmasters contest in Anchorage in the 80s when the master of ceremonies used the “f” word in a joke, and it brought stunning silence.

    At least two people rushed to the microphone to profusely apologize to the audience for the MC’s faux pas. But, with the proliferation of the use of the word in nearly every social context, except maybe church and elementary classrooms, it has lost its bombast. In many forums, it would still not be polite, but if dropped, there would be no rush to the mic to apologize. And, if there were an apology, it would go something like this: “If I have offended anybody…,” which is to say, the problem wasn’t with the speaker, but with the listener.

I fear the same is happening with the word racist. Forty years ago, you could have shamed me by calling me a racist. I was more than guilty in my distant past of telling racist jokes and making racist comments. Over the years I have repented of such behavior and avoid it. Having lived 20 years in the South and had positive experiences working with and at times for blacks, both as a teacher and a GI, and having black students made me more aware of the issues. And Journalists like Juan Williams and Leonard Pitts have done a lot to increase my sensitivity to the issues of race. But if you called me a racist today, I wouldn’t be shamed so much as confused.

We do live in a society where racism exists, and not just black on white. Through the eyes of my son who is married to an Asian, I have seen how sensitive to racism people of minorities must be when looking for a new job or a new residence. But, when we label every request for help in the store, every police stop, every firing, or every negative interaction with one of another race as racist, we become numb to the accusation or even confused as to what it really is; we destroy its power to move people. People will cease taking the issue seriously. I fear that promiscuously using the word racist has become akin to the boy who cried wolf too many times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A consumer's Christmas - commentary

This column first appeared in The Jonesboro Sun


     We are again spending our way through a happy holiday season with Christmas representing the epitome of a consumer economy, lured on by the plethora of ads stuffed into our daily newspapers.

     I am no economist and don’t understand that complex science, but I am troubled by an economy based on endless buying where the credit card has replaced the crèche as a primary holiday symbol.

     I think a consumer economy contains the seeds of its own destruction.  It works only if we keep spending more and only if we keep creating more people to consume.  However, we live in a world with limits of both space and resources.  To exacerbate the problem, our consumption has become a measure of success.  I was recently channel surfing and came across a documentary featuring one of my former employers and his $50 million yacht.   His conspicuous consumption lets the world know he has succeeded.

     A serious young salesman working for me would often receive a monthly commission check of $10,000 or more and ask, “how much is enough?”  In a consumer economy where the amount we are able to spend is our indicator of success, the answer is there is never enough.  So, we continue to build or rent more and more mini-storage space to house our purchases after we have stuffed our two car garage so full we have to park our cars in the driveway.

     Finally, we use all this stuff to expand the inventory of garage sales and flea markets so the less successful can also participate in the consumer economy.  If we can afford to store it for a lifetime, it will then pad the pocket of the estate auctioneer or become treasure for “The American Pickers.”

     It reminds me of Christ’s parable about the rich farmer who continued to build bigger and bigger barns.  I think the punch line was “foolish man.  Tonight your soul will be required of you.”  My serious philosophical bent began with a reading of “Walden.”  Thoreau, observing a railroad being built wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us.”  Was he prophetic?

     As a younger man wanting to join in this madness, I often attended success workshops where presenters would advise, “find a need and fill it.”  I think that advice has evolved into “create a product and convince the consumer it is a need.”  The line between wants and needs has become so blurred that most of us can’t tell the difference. In a consumer economy, yesterday’s wants become today’s necessities.  Consider the cell phone.

     Where does it all end and what are the true benefits?  Are we trapped in an unending cycle?  If we quit consuming, manufacturing slows.  If manufacturing slows, jobs are lost. On one hand politicians and bureaucrats want us to spend, spend, spend to stimulate the economy.  Keep those interest rates low so we can afford to buy those big consumer items.  At the same time we get public service commercials telling us to “feed the pig,” that is our piggy banks.  To be (a spender) or not to be (a spender), that is the question.

     Keep the interest rates low so we can borrow money for the real big items.  A modern car, well cared for, should last 15 or 20 years, but the consumer economy needs us to get a new one every three or four years. 

     Is there some other kind of economic system that works better? Are capitalism and consumerism necessarily tied together?  What was our economy based on before consumption began to dominate?  I wonder.

     Once I realized the things that interested me would never make me wealthy in a consumer economy, I redefined wealth to suit me.  To be wealthy is to achieve a life style that is comfortable and convenient and accrue enough assets to sustain it for a lifetime.  This precludes having to rent a mini-storage space or park the car in the driveway.

     Though consumption has become the hallmark of Christmas, it doesn’t have to cloud our understanding of what it is all about.  Yes, it is about gifts.  In that traditional nativity scene there were gifts representing two different economies.

     There were the gifts brought by the three wise men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  In many ways, we try to emulate these gifts with our own giving in our consumer economy.

     There was also a gift in the manager, the Christ child.  It was God’s gift to mankind from an economy of love, a sacrificial gift to inspire “peace on earth goodwill toward men.”  This kind of gift giving is much more difficult to emulate but much more worthy of the effort.  To again quote Thoreau, “Money is not necessary to buy one necessity of the soul.”



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Senate CIA Report

Since the senate intelligence committee decided to release its report today (12/09/2014) of CIA enhanced interrogations during the Iraq war , I will take the occasion to resurrect and revise a column I wrote a few years ago when President Obama was hot to investigate the matter. The report needs a contrarian view.

 Let me begin with some disclosure. I am retired military: four years active duty Air Force, six years U.S. Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard Combat Engineers. I respect the position of thoughtful people who declare themselves conscientious objectors. However, I also respect those who are thoughtful participants in the military

I understand Mark Twain’s sentiments expressed in his “War Prayer,” (It’s on the internet and worth the read.) and for this reason, I don’t pray about the outcome of war. If God is going to protect combatants on my side, it usually means some mother or father somewhere else is going to have to suffer.

Because of the destructive nature of war, it should not be entered into lightly. However, when our leaders do decide an issue is serious enough to go to war over, they have also decided that our end goal is of such magnitude that it is worth killing and maiming human beings over and that doing so is presumably ethical. And remember, the vote to go to war in Iraq was overwhelmingly in favor of doing so.

This is pretty serious stuff. Once we have decided the issue is serious enough to kill and maim for, by what logic do we then deduce it is unethical to make life miserable for a prisoner of war (POW) for a brief period, as some would have us believe. When the POW was on the battlefield, it was ethical to kill or maim him, but when he is in captivity, we are suppose to believe it is not.

 From all that I have read, our interrogators didn’t even come close to seriously maiming or killing the POW’s they questioned. They might have made their lives miserable for a time or instilled fear in them momentarily, but that is no more than the POW would have experienced if he had still been on the battlefield. And remember, our decision to go to war was a decision that killing and maiming was ethical in order to meet our aims.

We should use any means necessary short of killing or maiming a POW to get information that will help end a war as soon as possible. The immoral thing would be to let the war linger on at the expense of more deaths and more misery because we didn’t want to torture a prisoner.

I feel the same way about the rules of warfare. Rules of warfare simply dress a very barbaric act in a cloak of civility. This is war, not a football game, but rules help us feel right about ourselves when we really ought to feel badly for being pressured into doing this dastardly thing called war. If we felt badly enough, we would do whatever it takes to get it over with. This idea of limited warfare born out of the Korean Conflict has succeeded only in insuring that conflicts will linger on for years. This was true in Viet Nam, and the Iraq war came about because of the limited war policy followed in the Persian Gulf War.

You could argue, as those who oppose torture do, that information obtained through torture is not reliable. I’m sure this is often true, but I’m just as sure that the argument is often wrong. You could argue that our enemies are even more ruthless with their POW’s, and at times I’m sure that is true. But both arguments miss the point: if we have POW’s it means we are at war and have already decided our end game is important enough to justify killing and maiming humans to achieve, and the sooner we get it done, whatever it takes, the quicker we will be out this moral morass.

I think the whole purpose of the Democratic led Senate Intelligence Committee releasing this report today was  purely political. It will have some value as political grandstanding and salve a few bleeding hearts, but it will do nothing for the security and freedom of our country.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

chicken and dumplings

Chicken and dumplings
Quicker and better than
Mother used to make



My mother was a professional cook and very good at her trade. At home she occasionally made chicken and dumplings. As I remember them, the dumplings were fluffy balls of dough. Out of high school, I ran off to the military and that was the end of mother’s dumplings.

When I got to the South, I heard a lot of talk about squirrel and dumplings. I’m sure the squirrel was good, but the dumplings weren’t the same as mother’s. They didn’t seem like dumplings at all, but were rather wide, thick noodles.

I had pretty much forgotten about dumplings until I got interested in Dutch oven cooking, which I incorporated with my camping. While surfing the internet for good Dutch over recipes, I came across one for chicken and dumplings. I tried it and the dumplings were just like mother used to make. I have since modified the recipe, which I still make in a Dutch oven, though I cook it in the kitchen oven instead of over charcoal briquettes. I don’t know how they would come out using a regular pot. I think there is something about the heavy cast iron and heavy lid that makes then come out like they do. Here’s the recipe as I do it:

You will need
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 large already roasted chicken breast from your local grocery store
1 cup of self-rising flour
1 heaping table spoon of mayonnaise
1 can of mixed vegetables or an equivalent amount of
  frozen vegetables (the frozen are better)

1) Place soup in the Dutch oven.
2) Add two soup cans of water and stir up.
3) Place in the oven at 350 degrees or over enough
   coals to bring it up to temp. If using coals, also
   put some on the lid. Bring it to a boil.

4) Debone the chicken and cut into pieces.
5) Mix the mayo and flour.
6) Add enough milk to form a dough.
7) Put the chicken and vegies in the boiling water.
8) Drop large spoons of dough into the boiling water. It    should make five or six dumplings.
9) Cook for 25 minutes or so at 350 degrees;
after 15 or twenty minutes, turn the dumplings
over in the soup.

There you have it; a simple, quick recipe for good old fashioned chicken and dumplings just like mother used to make, that is a Washington State mother.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Second Thoughts About Death Panels


When the Tea Party advocates used those scary words “death panel” as relates to Obamacare, the left went nuts, denying they existed.

If I remember right, on some forum, I defended the need for a panel to decide at some level whether money was going to be spent on particular medical procedures for particular people. I believe I pointed out that insurance companies have been doing so for years.

When other people’s money is being spent for your health care, whether from insurance premiums or taxes, economic realities have to be taken into account. Insurance companies do it with panels, and also by placing a cap on the total amount they will allot. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of your own money and want to spend it to keep aunt Martha alive for 60 more days in intensive care, go ahead, but when other people’s money is being spent, expect economics to play a role in medical decisions.

However, with the recent IRS scandal, the incompetent roll out of Obamacare and the VA health care scandal, maybe I ought to be a little more sympathetic to the Tea Party in this matter. I do not trust the government to remain apolitical or even wise in these matters.

Dr. Zeke Emanuel, one of the architects of Obamacare, made the news this week (Sept. 22, 2014) by publishing an article in the September issue of “The Atlantic” in which he declared 75 years was long enough for a person to live.

“Here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: Living too long is also a loss,” he wrote. “It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.”

Emmanuel went on “Morning Joe” to explain his idea, saying that it all boils down to “the meaning and purpose of your life.”

When the issue of death panels was brought up, Emmanuel said he has been against euthanasia for 25 years, but he supported the idea of a person halting their medical care once they got to a certain age. “The question isn’t living longer. The question is high-quality life. This is what most people want.” So apparently, the question is not just one of economics but one of economics based on “high-quality life.” And, who is going to determine that?

Many years ago, when I was active in the pro-life movement, we talked about abortion as the slippery slope that would lead to infanticide and eventually euthanasia. The pro-choice people accused us of being alarmist and assured us that would not happen. Yet, people who follow the news know we have slipped way down that slope: consider partial birth abortions and assisted suicide, or do the names Dr. Kermit Gosnell or Dr. Jack Kevorkian mean anything to you? I guess I don’t want people who think like Emmanuel making life and death decisions on my behalf.

I have been a breath away from death and did not find it particularly disturbing. As such, I see no need for extra ordinary means to be taken to keep death away from my door, but I would like to know that decision will be made by me rather than a bureaucrat steeped in government regulations and policy manuals or swayed by personal prejudices, say a Lois Learner. There are too many variables at play in determining “high-quality” life to be determined in that way. Today I may volunteer to not seek medical help, but tomorrow, after the idea becomes acceptable, I will be told to end it.

    I’m not sure when we should give up on life, but I remember a friend telling me once that all life should be respected because it is the rarest thing in the universe. No, he was not a Christian, not at the time. In fact, he had placed his faith squarely in science and technology. But, his statement has had an influence on how I think about life, even as to how I view the squishing of insects, fishing, hunting or cutting down trees.

Maybe opposition to those “death panels” wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The elite revisited

            With the election results that would determine whether Scotland could leave the United Kingdom hot off the press, one article caught my attention. The premise of the pundit was that we were seeing an attempt by the common folk to shed themselves of the failed governance of the elite. He went on to conclude that that is what we are seeing throughout the Western World, even in our own country, with the rise of movements like the Tea Party.

            This analysis reminded me of an article I read a few months ago concerning a shift in Google’s hiring policies:

Google has spent years analyzing who succeeds at the company, which has moved away from a focus on GPAs, brand name schools, and interview brain teasers.  

In a conversation with The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, Google’s head of people operations, Laszlo Bock, detailed what the company looks for. And increasingly, it’s not about credentials.
Google looks for the ability to step back and embrace other people’s ideas when they’re better. “It’s ‘intellectual humility.’ Without humility, you are unable to learn,” Bock says. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

Those people have an unfortunate reaction, Bock says:

“They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved. … What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’”
Talent exists in so many places that hiring managers who rely on a few schools are using it as a crutch and missing out. Bock says:

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

The above motivated me to revisit and resurrect my column of a few years back on why commoners don’t like or trust our elite rulers.

 The Elite

                In his column published in The Sun July 26, 2010, Richard Cohen bemoans the fact that politicians have to dumb down their message and credentials in order to get elected.  He claimed they have to hide their academic degrees from prestigious universities and avoid their erudite vocabularies and play down their intellectual abilities.  He seems puzzled as to why we commoners don’t appreciate these elitists.

            When writing for The  Sun, for the most part, I have avoided politics, but I can’t resist taking this opportunity to enlighten Mr. Cohen.  To begin with, his column reflected the condescending attitude of so many elitists.  We commoners may not be the smartest people on the planet, but there are some things that insult our common sense.  Intuitively, we know it does not take a 2,000 page bill, unread by those who voted on it, to reform health care or our financial institutions.  In both instances, we were told it must be passed so we can know what is in it. Such actions tell us it is not intellectual aplomb that rules in our capital but rather political savvy and gamesmanship.

            Secondly,  those who are elite, erudite, and graduates of prestigious universities often promote an ideology unacceptable to us common folk.  They eschew the label liberal and prefer to call themselves progressives.  Either way, the ideology goes way back.

The late Malcolm Muggeridge, tells about his experience with progressives back in the 1920’s.  He had grown up with a socialist father, and Beatrice Webb, the famous British socialists, was his aunt, fore runners of modern progressives.

            As a young reporter, he moved his family to Moscow, Russia, where he intended to live out the rest of his life and contribute to the development of the great, people’s utopian experiment known as Soviet communism.  He was quickly disillusioned with this progressive ideology. Even as the failures of the experiment became obvious, there continued to be regular visits by American elitists, mostly college professors and government bureaucrats, to Russia to get a glimpse of this wonderful experiment.

            Muggeridge reports in his autobiography that these elitist so badly wanted this experiment to be a success that they would believe just about anything they were told, and so, he would try and see how far he could stretch their credulity.  It was common for the visitors to ask why there were so many lines of poor peasants at stores and government offices.  Muggeridge would explain that these people were so committed to the grand  experiment that they would work themselves from morning to night to make it happen.  The only way the government could insure that the people would get some rest was to engineer these long waits.  Yes, many of the elitists bought it, according to Muggeridge.

            As an ideology, progressivism has been around long enough that it has developed its own unthinking fundamentalists.  The latest iteration of this ideology is being expressed by politicians like Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.  It makes no difference that their progressivism has been tried and found wanting around the world in a number of venues, these current progressive fundamentalists are going to try it anyway.

            Those of us who live in what the elites dub fly over country, who graduated from common state universities, or didn’t even get that far, see political games being played with our borders, our taxes, our health care, our investments, our jobs and our energy.  We look at the messes in our country and around the world, and we realize that these things are the results of policies of the erudite, elitists who graduated from prestigious universities, and we become suspicious of those who govern.  We just want straight talk and solutions.

            Mr. Cohen might ask himself why an intellectual heavy weight like Bill Buckley would rather, “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”  Why didn’t Buckley, an erudite, intellectual elite, graduate of Yale University, trust people with his qualifications to run the government?  What did he know that we don’t?

            One of my college professors and a lifelong friend and novelist, the late Robert O. Bowen, once explained to me that a true intellectual is a person who observes life going on around him, thinks carefully about what he observes, and learns from it – nothing said about books.

So, Mr. Cohen, those of us who are suspicious of the elite, the erudite, and those with credentials from prestigious universities, are people who can learn from the past, something the progressives you want us to embrace don’t seem to do.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Gun Talk

Two well-known people at absolute opposite ends of the political spectrum share a common opinion: The late Chinese Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong claimed “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh claims “ours is a world governed by the aggressive use of force.”



At the outset, let me disclose my experience with guns.

My father was not a hunter and there were no guns in our boyhood home, which was probably a good thing with seven active, curious boys.

My first experience with guns was in Air Force basic training, and over my 20 years in the military, (four years active duty Air Force, six years Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard), I always qualified on the rifle range but never as an expert, though I did get a marksmanship medal on the pistol range once.

I own two guns, a single shot, 20 gauge shotgun and a .22 pump action rifle I found in the attic of a rented house. I probably haven’t touched either of them in over two years, and then because I was moving, not because I was shooting. I don’t shoot for pleasure and don’t hunt any more. I have never belonged to the NRA or any sportsman shooting club.

I don’t really get any pleasure wasting ammunition or time plunking at targets. So, no matter what is done legislatively about gun ownership, it won’t impact me much.

As a young reporter, the saddest thing I witnessed was a six-year-old boy lying dead on the kitchen floor of his home with a bullet hole in his neck. It was Christmas Eve and his mother and policeman father were out shopping for presents. The father had left his loaded service revolver high on a shelf, but the curious boy had managed to get to it unnoticed. That was the mess to which the parents came home.

I was a teacher at Westside in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the year four students and a teacher were killed and a dozen or so others injured in a school shooting. I have witnessed gun violence.

I listen to those who work for more and more restrictive gun ownership. As I listen, I sympathize but realize if they were to succeed, even to the point of getting a total restriction on guns, their sense of security would only be an illusion. There are many means for killers to carry out their murderous ways.

There was an interesting piece in a recent issue of the Seattle Times where the author argued persuasively for more gun control. He drew an analogy between restrictions placed on automobile ownership and operation in order to reduce deaths by automobiles and the tremendous success there. He argued people weren’t denied the ownership of automobiles, but rather who could drive and how was regulated, along with how cars and roads could be designed.

He argued that we could limit violent gun related deaths in the same way. We don’t have to take peoples guns away, just regulate them adequately to reduce gun related deaths. It all made good sense, except for one thing: Most automotive deaths are accidental. The gun related deaths that get so much attention and bring about a clamor for more restrictions on firearms are mostly intentional.

Restrictions on the use of firearms will no more stop intentional massacres with guns than restrictions on automobiles stopped massacres on those few occasions where cars were intentionally used for killing.  

I am reminded of G. Gordon Liddy, the notorious Watergate burglar, relating how he and John Dean, the narc behind the Watergate affair, wound up the only two people in an interrogation room. The only thing in the room was a table with a pencil on it and two chairs. This puzzled Liddy, as he knew the two of them should have never been left alone in a room. The thing he wondered about was whether this had been done on purpose by those in the Nixon administration who were trying to orchestrate the investigation. Was he supposed to kill Dean to keep him from further testimony? The thing that made him wonder was the pencil. He knew, and he knew those working behind the scenes making arrangements knew, that a pencil in the hands of a trained person like Liddy was a lethal weapon.

Think of mass killers who never used a gun: Richard Speck, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, the Manson Family, Jim Jones and others. There are many examples of killers using something other than guns.

The anti-gun advocates are expending a lot of time, energy and money working for legislative action that, if taken, will leave them with only the illusion of security.

Real security only comes when the roots of a problem are addressed. To understand one of those root problems, I suggest you read Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Ret. Dave Grossman, a former Army psychologist.

Grossman says that in World War II, when an American soldier was looking down the barrel of a rifle with his sights on an enemy soldier, only 15 to 20 percent would pull the trigger. That is to say, 80 to 85 percent of combat soldiers were non-shooters. The soldiers were alright with crew served weapons where the responsibility could be shared or the entire blame could be placed elsewhere, or with bombs or artillery shells where the targets were just coordinates on a map and they never saw the destruction they caused.

He said during the Viet Nam war, the military had reversed those statistics, so that only 5 percent were non-shooters.

How did they do it?  First they replaced the standard rifle range with its bull’s eye, stationary targets with pop up targets that were silhouettes of real people. They added video programs that allowed soldiers to practice with life like scenarios. Grossman said, “… there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” They had to desensitize the soldier to killing. His follow up book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, draws the connection between what the military did and what is going on in our culture.

Our policy makers don’t want to hear that violent media shapes public attitudes about violence any more than they will recognize that pornography affects attitudes toward sex and women. Why? Because, there are powerful economic forces at play in these issues.

When the subject does come up, gamers take to the media claiming they play violent video games, but don’t go out and shoot anyone. Or, they watch porn, but don’t rape women. So, such accusations must not be true.

Just as there are millions of gamers engaged in violent video games who don’t go out and kill their neighbor, so there are millions of gun owners who don’t go shoot up a grade school.

Grossman’s facts and conclusions have been challenged, as one would expect, mostly about the non-shooting statistics. But, even if he is off by a few percentage points, it is still a significant shift. Common sense should tell us that violent video games desensitize a person to personal killing without a study to quantify to what extent or for whom. The truth is, something in our culture is doing it. Just this week (Aug. 17, 2014)two men were shot to death in a near by town because they “dissed” the shooter's friend. In this morning’s Seattle paper (Aug. 25, 2014), there were at least three reports of similar shootings, as happens almost daily.

I find it somewhat amusing that pundits who will dismiss offhand any connection between porn and the abuse of women or violent video games and mass shootings, are quick to take to their keyboards or microphones after a shooting like the Gabrielle Giffords case, and blame it on hate speech coming from right wing talk radio. Where are the studies to quantify that charge?

However, I think we have seen that some of the mass killers in recent years have spent a lot of time playing violent video games. And, it is hard to find a current movie that doesn’t depict violent killing in the most graphic way. Playing such games by the hour does not necessarily mean a gamer is going to be a mass killer, but it does make it easier to go over the edge for those with a propensity to do so.

The truth is, something in our culture is desensitizing large portions of the population to personal killing.

We can restrict the use of guns, but by so doing, we will just be pruning a branch of the tree while neglecting real root problems, the one mentioned and others. We will only create an illusion of security.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Northern Lights and the 40-year-old virgin

This column appeared in the Issaquah Press.


The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

                     --Robert Service


I was the only one in the Providence Point pool that morning. There had been an exercise class, but it had cleared out. Large glass windows dominate one end of the pool and the sun was beginning its trek across the morning sky.

While floating on my back, I looked at the ceiling, only to be surprised by streaks of dancing light weaving and bobbing about. The sun was being reflected off the undulating water.  

Except for the lack of pastel colors, I could have been seeing a mini-performance of the Northern Lights. Soon I was day dreaming about one of my many experiences with the Aurora Borealis, which I consider to be among the great wonders of nature.

It happened January 2, 1977. I was travelling across the Yukon Territory in a Volkswagen micro-bus with my wife and 8-year-old son. We were headed for New York and on to Europe.

We were driving 24 hours a day, and I took the night shift. It was about 2 a.m. and at least 50 degrees below zero, as the Northern Lights danced about in such splendor that I had to pull over and watch. Under such conditions, the Aurora Borealis looks like huge curtains of pastel colored lights weaving and dancing across the sky. I have seen this dazzling sight many times, but never like this particular night. In my experience, the colder it is and the further away from city lights, the better the display.

A few days later, with this experience still fresh in my mind, I was sitting next to a middle aged stranger on a train in Switzerland. I inquired as to his work, and he told me he was a Ph.D. scientist. So, I asked in what area of study. “The Aurora Borealis,” he responded.

Thinking back on what I had just witnessed, I asked if he had ever seen them. “No,” he replied. So sad, I thought; kind of like a 40-year-old virgin totally conversant in the details of “The Joy of Sex” or the “Kama Sutra.”

There is also a greatly subdued display of the Northern Lights for more southerly folk. I was driving with my wife from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Eureka Springs. I saw a faint glow in the distance and said, “see that light, that’s the Northern Lights.”

“You can’t see them down here,” she said.

The next morning the headline in the Little Rock Democrat Gazette read “Northern Lights Visible in Arkansas.” I recognized them in their drastically reduced form from having seen them as a boy in Washington.

The lights on the pool ceiling stirred the memory. However, unlike the lights in the sky, I discovered I could influence them by the amount of turbulence I created or prevented on the water.



Saturday, May 24, 2014

Managing MC risk

The following column was published in the Issaquah Press.


With spring weather quietly coming in “on little cat feet,” more and more motorcycles are disrupting the silence. In another month, they will be thicker than fleas on a hog’s back.

As they roar, whine or putt putt,(depending on the type) wiping out the delightful sounds of birds, frogs and crickets, a spouse or mother somewhere is arguing, usually to no avail, with a loved one about buying one of these death traps.

Rather than fight this losing battle, which will leave everyone feeling badly, why not take the risk management approach. With a little education, the risk can almost be eliminated, which is more than you can say for many other adrenaline producing sports.

Start by reading the Hurt Report. A good summary can be found on the internet: Google it. It is an old report (1976), but will serves our purpose well.

According to the report, three fourths of motorcycle accidents involve a collision with another vehicle, usually a passenger car.

The most common words out of a driver’s mouth after hitting a motorcycle are “I didn’t see it.” That means conspicuity becomes the motorcyclist’s best friend. Don’t buy a black motorcycle, black leather jacket, black chaps and a black helmet. If you want to manage this risk, go for bright colors when you chose a bike, riding clothes and a helmet.

So, a fourth of the accidents were single vehicle accident, with the motorcycle colliding with something as a result of rider error. You manage this risk by making sure the object of your affection is properly trained.

Fortunately, in this state (Washington)the best way to get licensed is to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course offered at many sites around the state. Most of the motorcycle riders involved in accidents are essentially without training. Ninth-two percent were self taught or learned to ride from family or friends. Just like I would not teach my own son how to drive a car, I would not teach him how to ride a motorcycle. This is best left to the professionals.

Almost half of the fatal accidents involved alcohol. How often do you see a black motorcycle, with a rider dressed in black, pull up to a bar?

Motorcycles that have been highly modified, think choppers, are overrepresented in the statistics.

The most deadly injuries were those to the chest and the head. So, make sure your loved one wears protective clothing, whether he or she likes it or not. That includes a DOT or Snell approved helmet, leather or heavy canvas riding pants (not chaps) and jacket, with proper armor built in if made of fabric, and leather boots up over the ankles. Make your loved one stand at attention before every ride, even the short ones, and repeats after you, ATGATT, all the gear all the time.

All the above applies to those cute little motor scooters and mopeds that young people love to cruise around town on. Because they appear like a toy it does not mean they are a toy, and the risk with them is just as great as it is for the grandpa on his big Harley or Goldwing.

Let’s summarize, bright colors, good gear, proper training and no alcohol and you have managed your risk so well that your chances of getting in trouble are now no greater than you neighbor walking her dog down a city sidewalk. I would encourage you to read the entire summary.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Start the bus



This column was written for Issaquah Press

My 14-year-old granddaughter Kait and I caught the Metro for a trip from the Highland Park and Ride to downtown Seattle to board the Seattle Great Wheel. It was my first time on a Ferris wheel and her first time on the Metro.

The Ferris wheel was fun, but being introduced to the Metro will be more useful for her as she grows up. This was my second time since moving here to ride the Metro to downtown Seattle. The first time was to take in a motorcycle show at the Washington Convention Center.

Many years ago, I used the Metro when visiting Seattle from Alaska. I could catch it at the airport and make my way around Seattle without the hassle of renting a car. I have also found mass transit the efficient way around London, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C.

So, a Seattle Times headline of March 10, proclaiming “Public transit in U.S. nears 6-decade high in ridership” got my attention.

I am as much in love with the automobile as anyone growing up in my generation (born in 1942), and even more so in love with motorcycles, but there is something practical and convenient about mass transit, practical from the standpoint of fewer hassles, but also from a conservation point of view. It is a relief to go to Seattle and not have to even think about parking, to say nothing about how much gas is needed or how much traffic is jamming the freeway. Remember the old Greyhound slogan, “leave the driving to us.” Some slogans hit the mark.

The Times article said ridership on trains, buses and subways is up. It reported 10.7 million trips in 2013, the highest total since 1956.

The article said there is a fundamental shift going on with people as to options other than having a car, according to Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the transportation association. “This is a long term trend. This isn’t just a blip,” he said. “People want to work and live along transit lines. Businesses, universities and housing are all moving along those corridors.”

One of my brothers got caught in the recent T-Mobile lay off and landed a new job in downtown Seattle. He is now able to ride a train from his home in Edmonds to work. The only thing he has told me about his new job is how much he likes riding the train.

A recent trend that has automobile manufacturers worried is the number of young people who are not buying cars and not even bothering to get driver’s licenses.

Most of us who drive cars never sit down and add up the true cost of this convenience. To paraphrase a saying related to boats, a car is a pothole we pour money down. I do know this, if I could recover every dollar I’ve wasted on cars, my retirement could be much different. From my current perspective, mass transit looks mighty good. God bless the driver’s licenseless young people.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sustainability means what I say

The following was a column published in the Issaquah Press


I was proofreading copy for the Issaquah Press and the word came up again: sustainability. 

It must be a regional buzz word as I have never heard it used as much as I have here, but what does it mean? It is often used with stories about building projects but seems to have other contexts as well. I think it has to do with the fact I am now living in a more environmentally sensitive culture.

I believe it was the Mad Hatter who said to Alice, a word means what I say it means. The dictionary defines a word, but personal experience forms the many possible nuances.

When I hear “sustainability” the follow experiences shape its meaning for me: I was in Switzerland while the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial. One of the locals, curious about the celebration, asked, “What’s the big deal. The barn over the hill is more than 200 years old?”

A decade later, I was visiting with the wife of Malcolm Muggeridge in Robertsbridge, England, while he was outside being interviewed by a film crew doing a documentary on the early 1930s Soviet engineered famine in the Ukraine. Muggeridge had reported on the event from the scene.

Their home was a typical English country cottage, built of posts and beams. While looking at the ceiling timbers, I noticed a chiseled out indentation and asked about it.

She said the timbers had been brought inland from a wrecked Canadian sailing ship and the cottage was built 300 hundred years ago. Sustainability!

She then got a concerned look on her face and said, “you know, I don’t think the houses they build these days will last three hundred years at all.” While in Robertsbridge, I stayed in the newest of the three pubs in town. It was built in the late 1700s

After my visit, I continued to stay in Robertsbridge for a few days, and to pass time, I decided to take a walk to Battle, which was about six miles away. It takes its name from the famous battle between England’s would be rulers William Duke of Normandy and the Saxon King Harold in 1066. The battle of Hastings was an event so significant that it completely changed the course of English history, and I needed a history lesson. As I walked, I noticed a stone chapel across a field and detoured to see what it was about. It was a church built in the 1100s and was still in use. Sustainability!

In the early 70s, I was working for a skid row mission and built a 4,000 square foot, two-story building in Wasilla, Alaska, primarily from material salvaged from an old bakery building. Since most of the material was then already 40 years old, we could say the building is now 80 years old. The building appraised at $100,000 (1970 dollars) when it was finished, but it only cost about $24,000 to build. Sustainability!

I now live in a 17-year-old condo. I consider it a new building, yet I keep hearing that it is an old building and needs this or that renovation, or that it is too old to be considered for a reverse mortgage. Apparently it was not built to last 300 years. Sustainability?

Is sustainability just a buzzword to make us feel good in a planned obsolescence economy?  Is it a 300 year-old-house built with salvaged timbers? How about a house built with solar panels on the roof that will be torn down in 50 years to make way for something else? What is it?