Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Oct/14

22

Is this the day the world changed?

Last week we science fiction geeks got news that made our day. Skunk Works, an autonomous research division of aircraft giant Lockheed-Martin, announced they were hot on the trail of practical hydrogen fusion power. They said a working model in five years, production models in ten. If they could get the funding.

The initial euphoria dampened almost as soon as we pushed the “like” button on Facebook when we remembered that forty years ago fusion, like strong AI, was “just around the corner.”

(Strong AI, “artificial intelligence” means the day you can discuss the meaning of life with your laptop.)

Fusion is the nuclear reaction that powers the sun. Unlike fission which releases power from the splitting apart of heavy atoms into lighter atoms, fusion is the combining of light atoms, isotopes of hydrogen, into heavier helium atoms releasing heat and neutrons.

There is a lot of potential heartbreak in this. On the one hand, the Skunk Works, a.k.a. the Advanced Development Programs, is an old and established research organization with a solid record of accomplishment. Their best known product is the U2 spy plane. Others include the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor.

Better still, Lockheed-Martin claims their unit will be small-scale and portable, small enough to fit in a pickup truck bed, and generate enough power to run a small city or a big ship.

All other fusion research such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), funded by the European Union, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, and the United States, focuses on giant power plant applications.

And why is China throwing in with the U.S. the EU and other countries it is not necessarily on good terms with?

Because there is no downside. A hydrogen fusion reactor is not a bomb and can’t be made into one. If the reactor malfunctions, it just stops. Mildly radioactive byproducts are short-lived and easily disposed of.

Then comes the downer.

There is a lot of skepticism in scientific circles and “breakthroughs” in fusion technology have a history of disappointment.

Some have pointed out, if this is so great why is the Skunk Works looking for outside funding?

But just suppose they’re on to something and the time frame is realistic.

Then the whole world changes forever.

For one, the green energy agenda is moot. No more debate about windmills, solar, etc.

For another, the coal and petroleum industry is still there, not for energy but as sources of an almost endless number of different organic molecules.

We may keep gasoline to run our cars, or we may choose to switch to hydrogen produced locally by electrolysis.

No part of the world will be without power. Our civilization will start to radically decentralize with social and political consequences we can’t imagine yet.

We can build great ships that are essentially floating cities, capable of staying at sea indefinitely. Fast ship designs will become economical, vastly speeding up ocean cargo transport.

We can build great airplanes, perhaps with electric motors driving propellers or turbines, which can stay aloft indefinitely.

And space travel may at last come within reach of ordinary people with pioneering spirit if we can use fusion to power a practical laser or electromagnetic launching system to lower the cost of transport to orbit, which is 99 percent of the cost to getting anywhere in the solar system.

But though the reactor itself cannot be weaponized, the power produced will make practical cheap electric-powered weapons such as rail guns which shoot projectiles at literally meteoric speeds.

Economically, the cost of almost everything will come down by orders of magnitude.

Will we remember this as the day the world changed?

We’ll see.

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Oct/14

13

What Nobody Considers

Arguing is one of the great pleasures of my life, one which unfortunately I don’t get to enjoy much. Nobody wants to argue much these days.

“Huh? Haven’t you heard of Facebook?” I hear from a thousand incredulous voices.

Well yes. But what I meant was a formal ARGUMENT. That is, a set of propositions one of which, the conclusion, is claimed to necessarily follow from the others.

Logic is the study of the proposition, “it follows from.”
Logic was invented by a bunch of Greeks a long time ago, chief of whom was a guy named Aristotle.

Aristotle also wrote about something called “rhetoric,” the study of how to make your conclusions sound persuasive. Because it’s one thing to arrive at a correct, or at least supportable conclusion, it’s quite another to get people to buy into it.

“Would you rather have a nice thick juicy steak, or a segment of muscle tissue cut from the corpse of an immature castrated bull?” asked author Robert Heinlein.

What I’m reading a lot these days (on Facebook of course) are counterfeit “arguments” introduced by an attack.

“These people are awful and they’re the reason everything sucks.”

These awful people are depending on your politics, are somewhere between 20 to 50 percent of your countrymen. They’re either awful because they’re awful, or more charitably because they’re “brainwashed.”

This is then followed by a set of unsupported claims, just assumed to be true, with an attribution of motive.

“These congressmen voted this way because they want poor people to starve, they want America to go down the tubes, and they want the San Andreas Fault to open up and swallow the country.”

Counter-arguments are dismissed. “They just say that because they want to make money oppressing the poor and destroying the earth.”

This is a caricature of course. Sadly not all that much of one.

Oddly, some of the worst examples of this kind of counterfeit argument I’ve come across came from very successful attorneys. I’m not sure what that means but I wonder if they argue like that in court – and how well it works.

(And by the way, it irritates me to no end to be told I’m “supporting the one percent” by someone who makes more money off a single case than I do in a year’s worth of writing. But I digress.)

Like everyone, I have a side I prefer of course. I also think the side I incline towards generally does a better job of constructing valid arguments. Furthermore I think it’s because they hang around with people they disagree with, so they have to support their convictions a lot more than folks who associate with people they agree with all the time.

But there’s a couple of things I don’t think anybody considers.

One, could it be that the reason things suck is not because of awful people but because it is the nature of things to suck, and there are limits to what can be done about it?

“The poor we will always have with us,” a teacher who quit his day job as a carpenter once said.
We have made great strides in this country improving the lot of, well everybody. If you don’t think so, find me an American doctor who has seen first-hand beri-beri, pellagra, or scurvy.

But our good fortune has not spread evenly throughout the world, nor have we ever succeeded in creating a system without cracks that some people fall through.

Two, people arguing passionately for their beliefs almost never consider that they might both be right.

The argument for a social welfare state is (roughly) that modern society does not have a network of family and private charity sufficient to meet the needs of the destitute, handicapped, mentally ill or merely unfortunate. That government must meet those needs for ethical reasons, and practically to maintain minimal social stability.

The counter argument goes that welfare statism creates a culture of dependency resulting in an ever-growing underclass who become clients not citizens, to the eventual ruination of the state.

Has anybody noticed there is nothing mutually exclusive about these positions?

“But that would mean no state is stable in the long run!”

Looks that way to me too.

That carpenter turned teacher said, “The truth shall make you free,” he did not say it would make you comfortable.

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Oct/14

6

Ebola

The first ebola cases have been found in the U.S. but the government is assuring us there is no reason to panic, about a disease with a greater than 70 percent mortality rate.

We’d better not panic, this is a time for mature reflection – but we’d better do that mature reflecting in a hurry.

The reason nobody is panicking is there is now almost no one in the Western world who remembers a pandemic disease. I am fortunate enough to have interviewed a man on the occasion of his 105th birthday who told me a bit about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – 1920.

Spanish flu hit towards the end of World War I, and spread to every corner of the world including the arctic and remote Pacific Islands. It infected 500 million people and resulted in an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths. That would be three to five percent of the world’s population at the time.

By the way, the disease’s origin is not known. The connection with Spain is only because Spain as a neutral country did not have wartime censorship. Thus the false impression grew that Spain had been especially hard hit.

Mortality rates for the flu ranged from 23 percent to 71 percent, and oddly the overwhelming majority among young people. Of pregnant women who survived the flu, a quarter miscarried.

When comparing the two diseases, the alarming thing is how much is speculated but how little is known for sure. Where it came from, how it killed, how many deaths were caused by overmedication if any, and why it disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.

Almost a century later with the incredible technology we have available, there is so much we just don’t know about the Ebola/Marburg virus and how it kills.

It does seem to come from the Hot Zone, the tropics of Africa. Versions of the virus are found in monkeys, pigs, and bats. There is a less virulent strain found in monkeys and pigs in the Philippines.

It is spread by contact with body fluids, which leak explosively from the victim in the final stages of the disease.

According to the World Health Organization, “The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to onset of symptoms is 2 to 21 days. Humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms. First symptoms are the sudden onset of fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools).”

That’s good news about the incubation period, you can’t spread the disease until it’s evident you’ve got it.

The bad news is, it may be very difficult to contain. Some reports have it that surgical gloves and masks may not be enough and recommend full Hazmat suits. One of the highest at-risk groups has been medical personnel.

The worst news is, if an infected person does not show symptoms until up to three weeks after exposure that’s plenty of time to fly somewhere else and spread it. But so far the governments of the U.S. and Europe have ruled out suspending air travel from affected areas.

The administration has however announced plans to send 3,000 soldiers to Africa.

And if any of them become infected…?

In the developed world we’ve pretty much controlled the historically common plague vectors: contaminated water, droplet infection, and insects.

Incurable sexually transmitted disease reemerged with AIDS, but can be prevented by changing behavior. (With difficulty for sure.)

Ebola could be the wild card which potentially overwhelms our public health infrastructure if it ever gets a foothold.

I have no answers, but I’m going to recommend a very good book, “Plagues and Peoples” by William McNeill. And if you get ambitious, Hans Zinsser’s classic, “Rats, Lice and History: A Chronicle of Pestilence and Plagues.”

We can’t all be public health professionals, but we can start educating ourselves to have an intelligent discussion about this before it’s too late.

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Sep/14

25

What I’m learning about writing

I have been a professional writer, meaning I get paid for what I write, for going on two decades now. I’ve been making a full-time living at it for six years now.

I started with five goals as a writer:
1) Write regularly.
2) Publish what I write.
3) Get paid for what I write.
4) Make a living writing.
5) Make a lot of money writing.

I like to say I’m on stage four. However each stage is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last, so the jump from four to five…

When I started getting paid for writing advertorials for the English-language press in Poland, I looked on it as paid practice.

When I became a working journalist it imposed a certain kind of structure on my writing: more terse than my usual wont, and organized in the “inverted pyramid” style. It’s not quite how I like to do essays, and I think of myself as an essayist above all, but it’s great discipline.

Opinion columns are great practice too. You have to make your point within a certain word limit, which really makes you think about how to organize your thoughts and what is the minimum necessary to leave in to support your point.

I’ve also written quite a few movie/TV reviews and that is a whole lot of fun.

Now I’ve taken off six months from work to write a book, maybe two short books, and it’s a whole different ball game.

I’ve actually written two books already. One was a book of vocabulary-building essays for English students and teachers who are non-native speakers.

The other was a book on linguistic humor for the same audience. Meaning jokes that cannot be translated because they use a feature of the language, lexical or phonetic, for humorous effect: puns, play on words, spoonerisms, accent and dialect jokes, etc.

Now I’m working on a book with some of my thoughts on politics, “The Progressive Mind and Other Essays.”

Like my other books it’s partly a collection of essays, revised and expanded, and partly new material written to extend my original insight and bring it all together.

A lot of the work so far has been just copying and pasting the essays, writing transitions and editing. And boy has there been a lot of editing!

I have had to ruthlessly prune phrases down to single words or eliminate them entirely. I constantly ask myself, “Does this support the point or did you just include that because you thought it was interesting?”

And I have to organize thoughts I’ve had that previously just rumbled around in my brain.

It’s a challenge for sure, and win, lose, or draw it’ll make a better writer out of me.

But what’s really tough is the self-doubt and failure of nerve that threatens to overwhelm sometimes.

That nagging little voice that asks, “Is this really good? Is anybody ever going to find this insight as fascinating as you do? Have you got it in you to finish this?”

I’m discovering that writing can be an act of courage as much as discipline.

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Sep/14

9

Fathers

Well after a wild and well-spent weekend, both my kids are home sick.

I’d promised my little girl that Saturday we could go to Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thermopolis as the name suggests, is a town built around natural hot springs. My children’s favorite park has water slides and large pools filled with warm mineral water.

Next day they wanted to go swimming at the local rec center. So a great time was had by all.

Monday morning they’re vomiting, coughing and complaining of headaches. I keep them home from school. The girl installs herself in front of the television, big brother retires to bed with his computer.

How nice to know he’ll have a profession he can practice if he’s ever disabled (said Daddy, voice dripping sarcasm).

These days I’m working out of home so I don’t have to worry about checking up on them constantly.

On the other hand my writing schedule is shot and in the midst of running to the store for ginger ale (settles the stomach) and cucumbers (for my daughter the picky eater) their mother emails with links to articles about a new and ominous enterovirus that’s going around.

“Going around” these days means a total of about a thousand kids over a ten-state area have contracted it, a handful seriously. This is not what I’d call a pandemic but it’s enough for a journalist to view with alarm.

So I’m late with my column, have just made my second trip to the grocery store in 30 minutes and have just noticed that suspicious feeling of stuffiness in the sinuses on one side of my face.

Well here I am, about to spend another not very productive day out of the six months I’ve rationed myself for writing projects and looking up statistics about guys in the same boat.

The first thing I found out was, I was wrong about how many of “us” there are. By “us” I mean single fathers. I had thought 17 percent of single-parent households were headed by single dads.

Nope. According to Pew Research Center, a source I trust because they often come up with results they don’t like, of single-parent households 24 percent are headed by dads.

Out of all households with minor children, single dads head eight percent as of 2011, up from one percent in 1960.

In raw numbers that’s about 2.6 million, up from 300,000 in 1960.

During that same period single-mother households increased from 1.9 million in 1960, to 8.6 million in 2011.

Pew said, “Single fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41% versus 16%). Single fathers, on average, have higher incomes than single mothers and are far less likely to be living at or below the poverty line—24% versus 43%. Single fathers are also somewhat less educated than single mothers, older and more likely to be white.”

Well let’s see. Living with a cohabiting partner – no, and it ain’t gonna happen. Any lady I bring home will be thoroughly vetted. Till then there’s a fire wall between my kids and anyone I may date. Any day now. Line forms to the right.

Oh, and did I mention dates have to end early enough for me to tuck my kids in? No coming home at 1 p.m.

Income and poverty line?

Well since I’m currently working at home on a highly speculative literary venture I have no income, so poverty line.

Pfaugh! We don’t act poor or feel poor. Sometimes we’re broke though.

Education? Masters degree.

Older? Check. I could be their grandfather. A fact they tease me about often.

White? Well yes, unless you go by the “one known drop” rule.

So what else do we know about single-dad households?

Virtually nothing.

We know the effects of single-mother headed households. A generation of young men more prone to failure in school and in life in every significant metric: education, prison, drug use, divorce, etc.

This is NOT to denigrate the huge number of single moms doing a great job under difficult circumstances. I know many of them, and as an honorary single mom have been part of their support circles/child care collectives. But there’s not a one of them who wouldn’t tell you they wish it were different.

But single dads are flying blind. As best I can tell there is little to no research as to parenting outcomes. Perhaps because up to recently there hasn’t been a large enough sample size.
How wonderful! My kids and I are participating in cutting-edge research.

Pfffffffffffff! (Bronx cheer.)

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Sep/14

3

Beheading

Well we lost another one. Journalist Steven Sotloff was beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) early this week, two weeks after fellow-freelancer James Foley was decapitated by the same unlovely bunch.

I frankly don’t know how I feel about this right now. It could be that I’ve been enjoying life on the road with my kids so much I’ve been mostly ignoring the news. It could be that getting the kids into school and taking care of all those details I’ve left for the last minute is so consuming it leaves little energy to pay attention.

And it could be that I’m still numb.

In 2005 I was studying journalism at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at Oklahoma University on a fellowship. I’d gotten into journalism quite by accident while I was working as an English teacher in Poland.

I started out writing “adverticals,” i.e. advertising thinly disguised as articles for The Airport Magazine, a bilingual publication for tourists. As a bennie they’d publish articles I was proud of about the history and culture of the country.

I also contributed articles about the events in that exciting time for “journals of much passion and small circulation,” in Prince Kropotkin’s elegant phrase.

After writing stories such as an interview with the widow of a murdered dissident in Belarus, and covering the election that brought down the Milosevic regime in Serbia from the streets of Belgrade I thought, “I’ve got to get back to the States, get some formal training and turn pro.”

So there I was, getting that training and exercising my bragging rights back in my old university.

It was there that I made the email acquaintance of Steven Vincent.

Vincent was an art critic of all things, until the day he saw the twin towers go down on 9/11.

He was a supporter of the Iraq War, but felt obligated to go and see for himself. He self-funded and went as a freelance journalist to Basra, Iraq, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, Mother Jones, Reason, Front Page and American Enterprise, and others.

I contacted him via email and described a project I had started with friends, to organize English-teaching summer camps using the best writings in the English language to explain the principles of political liberty and free markets. That project, The Language of Liberty Institute, is still ongoing in the capable hands of my friend Glenn Cripe.

I thought we could get Vincent to come to one of our camps in Eastern Europe, and maybe he might share our dream of a camp in Iraq someday.

We were never more than correspondents, but I really looked forward to the day I could meet and become friends with this man I admired so much.

Then a day after our last email exchange I got up in the morning, switched on CNN, and read on the news feed that Vincent had been murdered in Basra.

It was like waking up from a pleasant dream to find a nightmare crouched at the foot of your bed.

Ever since then I’ve thought, I should have warned him.

I’ve traveled and worked in some dicey places. But unlike Vincent, Foley and Sotloff I generally go where I don’t look different from the locals at first glance. I usually blend in fairly well if I keep my mouth shut, and in a couple of instances I could just start speaking Polish and let people assume what they will.

What happens to you in these appalling countries where ordinary people are trying to hang on to some semblance of a normal life amidst the horror, is you come to love and respect them – and you feel you have to share their danger or no longer call yourself a man.

What you forget is that these people have a lot more experience dealing with that $#!+ than you do. And that can make you hesitate when it’s time to cut and run.

Vincent, Foley and Sotloff were freelancers, the kind we need these days when the profession of foreign correspondent has almost disappeared, and let’s face it the major corporate news organizations are corrupt and lazy.

They will be hard to replace after this.

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Aug/14

21

Buy your kids experiences, not things

We’re coming to the end of a longish road trip from Wyoming to Oklahoma and back, and what a trip it’s been.

We spend nights on the road in our tent, though last night we splurged on a cabin at KOA in Limon, Colorado. It’s still half the price of an inexpensive motel.

Since the kids are going to school shortly after we get back (Boo!) we took our time, didn’t try to cover too much ground in a day and stopped at a lot of places that looked interesting.

Yesterday we stopped at a family-run petting zoo sort of thing. We saw two live five and six-legged cows, lots of prairie dogs, goats, pigs – and a cage full of rattlesnakes.

Of course my kids wanted to spend my money on lots of things.

“Nope,” I said.

Well not entirely. I don’t stint on reading material and I have given in to requests to supplement their allowances to buy a few keepsakes. But most pleas I deny, to teach them discipline, that there is not an infinite supply of things they can have.

But what I don’t stint on is experiences. Things like that petting zoo, or a zipline ride, or tickets to the Children’s Museum in Seminole and Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, Oklahoma where their great-grandparents lived.

As I write this my kids are outside trying out some reclining tricycles the campground has for rent.

What I am buying them is memories. Things that will last longer than any thing I might buy them. Longer than I will last in truth.

Perhaps someday they’ll have some little thing they treasure, something they’ll tell their children Daddy bought them. But things get lost or broken, these memories they’ll keep. And they’ll know how to do the same for their children.

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Aug/14

18

It’s a riot!

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”
– The Riot Act, in force August, 1715

It seems like old times to this child of the ‘60s. Ferguson, Missouri, population 21,000 is burning. A curfew has been declared and as of this writing the Missouri National Guard has been called out to do the job a highly militarized police force, and the Missouri State Police couldn’t handle.

The immediate cause was the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a city police officer. Circumstances are still under investigation but a depressing series of revelations all seem to point in the general direction of exonerating the officer.

Would it were otherwise! Why oh why can’t he be a sadistic psycho bigot who somehow slipped through the screening process? Then we could arrest him and after a decent interval and the motions of a trial have him hanged, drawn and quartered in the city square.

If in fact it turns out the officer was assaulted by a huge man with a long rap sheet for offenses including theft and assault with grievous bodily injury then the officer will be exonerated. After which he’ll be hounded to his death with further trials for violating the civil rights of the deceased and endless wrongful death lawsuits. That is if he’s not murdered in his home whose location the media conveniently found and reported.

And of course, following the verdict there’ll be more riots.

In the course of the riots police will stand by while the businesses that make Ferguson an even marginally viable community are looted and destroyed.

Unless more business owners stand at the entrance to their property with guns and say, “Not here you don’t.”

And what if one of them has to shoot, and yet another “good boy who’d been in some trouble but was turning his life around” gets killed?

Al Sharpton may just have to move to Ferguson.

The fact is, the riot could have been stopped on day one. Draw up a line of armed men in the street where the mob is assembled and “read them the Riot Act,” i.e. command them in no uncertain terms to disperse, give them a stated time to do so, then back up the threat with deadly force.

Follow up by arresting the Revs. Sharpton, Jackson and New Black Panther Minister-of-Whatever and charge them with inciting to riot.

Of course we can’t do that.

The brutal reality is it would be career suicide, and very possibly real suicide for anyone who gave such an order. And perhaps this is a good thing. With all the surplus military equipment being handed out like party favors to local police forces this might start to look like the easy option whenever a crowd got out of hand.

What can we do? Isn’t there some way to address those fabled “root causes” of riots?

Here’s the root cause we’re all too polite to talk about. Rioting, looting and destroying property are fun.

Does any other explanation make sense? Does destroying the source of jobs and livelihood do anything to address poverty, unemployment and injustice?

What they’ll do is try to contain the damage as much as is possible with the tepid levels of force they can use and wait until the mob has had all the fun it can stand, for now.

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Aug/14

14

Old Buildings

I spent July 4 on the road this year. I had some business to attend to out of state on the 5th so I decided to take off early and spend a few days covering a few hundred miles at a leisurely pace and take the time to see some of small town America.

I packed my tent, cot, sleeping bag and of course my laptop and Kindle. That’s my notion of “glamping” (“glamour camping”), almost any campground is going to be about a fourth or a fifth the price of the cheapest motel.

As I drove down the Interstate I’d see small towns with populations measured in the low hundreds, some only barely within eyeshot of the highway. When the mood struck me (often) I’d pull off and drive through the town, note the houses and businesses and wonder why people lived here and what they did for a living.

In this part of the country many small towns are all about serving the needs of the surrounding farms whose business keeps small grocery stores, equipment dealerships and fix-it places alive.

I stopped in Medora, North Dakota, to check out the summer residence/hunting lodge built by the Marquis de Mores to run a failed cattle business from. (Hint: Monsieur Marquis, if you’re going to run a cattle business out west you need to be here more than three months a year and dispense with the lavish lifestyle while the business is starting up.)

A little further east I diverted down “The Enchanted Highway,” 32 miles of two-lane blacktop festooned with eight of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures. It’s a work in progress developed by local artist Garry Greff starting in 1989.

The so-called highway ends in a town with a population of less than 200.

Some of the towns were quite forgettable. Some were quite charming. At least one looked like a piece of hell. There’s something about a very wide main street in the hot glaring sunlight gives that impression.

As I toured I reflected on what makes a small town livable. What makes it a place people what to come back to and raise their children after they’ve sampled the bright lights and big city?

Some reasons are intangible. Motivated people who get together with other people to organize and run things: a community center, a baseball team, a park committee, a local museum or library.

A town needs these kind of people, and they need projects to occupy their time or they tend to become awful busybodies.

In this day and age, some reasons are technological. Cable/satellite TV, video rentals and lately streaming video give people access to movies and entertainment that used to be available only in larger population centers.

On the one hand this keeps people in small towns from feeling out of touch with popular culture. On the other hand it tends to be solitary entertainment, not a community activity.

But there’s something I’ve noticed about towns I drive through that makes me think, “I could live here.” They have trees, a center and old buildings.

Tree-lined streets give shade in the hot summers and mute the effect of harsh sunlight on houses that highlights the imperfections and age-spots. Moreover old trees show that people have lived here a while, and all that while they’ve taken care of those trees.

A center is usually pointed out with signs that say, “Business district.” Even better is when they say, “Historic business district.” That usually means the businesses will be housed in brick buildings that are connected down the length of each block. Here is where the cafes where people gather for coffee and conversation are.

Nothing says “built to last” like brick. Even if the building has to be gutted, with minimal care the shell will last centuries. And there’s something about being able to stroll down a row of businesses without having to pass an alley entrance.

Outside of the business district, old houses. In the decades bracketing 1900 people came to the rural west and built beautiful Victorian homes with turrets, porches and fancy woodwork trim.

Sometimes you find houses like that preserved by the local historical societies. It’s better still if they have owners who live in and care for them.

In the larger small towns with small colleges the last stage of a big house’s life is when the owner turns it into student apartments. After which you might as well burn it down. I just moved from a town that lost three of its oldest, most elegant houses that way. Touring the ruin while workmen salvaged what they could of the antique fixtures

I could see they used to be beautiful. And I wonder, can’t we build like that anymore?

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Aug/14

1

Taking chances

“He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, who dares not put it to the touch, to win or lose it all.”
– James Graham, Earl of Montrose

Recently I made one of those decisions.

Yes, one of those decisions. One that feels so right, except for the odd times when something shouts in your ear, “Are you blankety-blank crazy?”

A few things happened first. One was a friend died. Not an extremely close friend, but a dear lady who graciously took care of my children when I was a new single parent and trying to get our lives together.

She did it for a ridiculously low price while I worked during that first summer. Loved my kids and they loved her.

She had just seen her first married daughter present her with her first grandchild. Though she wasn’t very old, she died of congestive heart failure.

This reminded me that all flesh is grass, and we do not in fact have enough time to accomplish everything we want to.

While reflecting on this I realized something that had been bothering me about an old friend I’ve known… a very long time.

My friend, to put it mildly, is a pill.

Everything and anything in the news is evidence of what a thoroughly awful country we live in, how everything in the world is our fault and always has been.

He calls himself a libertarian, but in fact he’s a right-wing progressive. Since he believes we could achieve Utopia, anything less is not worth having.

His negativity is intensely irritating. My guess is he’s unhappy with what he’s accomplished in life and blaming it on the world.

I don’t want to be like him. So I’m quitting my job and taking six months off to write a book I’ve been talking about for a decade.

It’s not totally half-baked. I’ve had a working outline for a while, and the main points have been written up and published in various places.

My job as I see it, it to reorganize it and write it up in a more readable form. Looking back, I see that my writing has improved over the past ten years.
I also see there has never been a better time to get it done.

The working title is, “The Progressive Mind: Reflections on the Suicide of a Civilization.”

The theme is that in America in particular, and Western Civilization in general, the most affluent and privileged classes absolutely loathe the civilization that made them arguably the most fortunate people in all of human history.

This sounds seriously crazy, but I believe I know why, and I believe I can explain it.

I’m giving myself six months to write it before I have to return to regular work. I have the resources to live on, and beyond.

My children won’t suffer because of Daddy’s eccentric quest, quite the contrary. I’m going to set up a work schedule for the school year: take kids to school, write for three hours, exercise for health maintenance.

After school time and weekends are for my children, because that’s the other thing about being mortal.

I’ll also devote more attention to my neglected blog and continue to write columns and take the occasional freelance assignment.

Then we shall see if my “battle plan” survives contact with the enemy: sloth, procrastination and self-doubt.

With the responsibility of two children I can’t undertake adventures like I could when I was young, pack a bag and go.

But I can I hope, set them an example they’ll remember when I’m gone.

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