Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves



Earth shattering news of the world!

Well the mid-term elections are over and the news media can go back to covering other stuff.

Some of that other stuff is about naked ladies.

Actress Keira Knightley went topless to protest sexist photoshopping. Evening show host Chelsea Handler went topless to mock Vladimir Putin for being a sexist. Reality star Kim Kardashian went full-frontal and rear for reasons best known to herself.

Other stuff is about ladies protesting guys who wear shirts showing shapely ladies.

Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist at the European Space Agency, announced to everybody in the world who cares about science that ESA had landed a probe on a comet. That probe was launched about 10 years ago and performed flawlessly after the long journey to match the comet’s trajectory.

Rose Eveleth of The Atlantic however, was more concerned about his shirt. Taylor wore a shirt, reportedly made for him by a lady friend, which featured hand-painted lingerie-clad ladies.

“No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt,” Eveleth said.

Astrophysicist Katie Mack thought the sight of the sexist shirt would cause female students to shun STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).

“I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in science.”

So they hauled Taylor before the Inquisition – I mean the media, and made him cry real tears of apology.

A quick Google search resulted in reactions about half-and-half condemning Taylor for tastelessness or condemning the outraged ladies, both accusing the other of “ruining” a really cool

Oh puh-lease, this event is so momentous nothing is going to “ruin” it. Except maybe the maddening happenstance that the probe landed on a part of the comet that is shaded by the surrounding heights for all but about three-and-a-half hours a day, limiting the probe’s ability to recharge its batteries from the solar panels.

I don’t know about the scientists at ESA but I’ll cry bitter tears if the probe has to shut down at the end of that inspiring effort.

Folks, Dr. Matt Taylor is a science geek. Which means the chances are great that he is socially inept and has no fashion sense. It might be that a mind that can contain the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish this kind of thing doesn’t have a lot of room left in it for trivialities.

The fact that nobody at the facility thought to say, “Gee Matt, you’re going to do a media interview, perhaps you should change your shirt,” likely means he’s not the only one there.

The hi-tech industry has hired lots of these kind of people for years and knows enough to, 1) humor their eccentricities, and 2) keep them in the back room where they can think deep thoughts away from contact with the public.

I do not for one minute believe Taylor or anybody there meant to be offensive. If I had to guess, by wearing a hand-painted shirt made by a lady friend he might have been trying to say, “Hey look, this geek’s got game!”

But some people just love to be offended whether the intent was there or not, and it’s quite plain a number of them enjoyed Taylor’s public and unmanly humiliation.

Nor can I take seriously the claim this is going to discourage young women from the STEM fields. May I suggest that if a shirt decorated like a Victoria’s Secret catalog causes someone to give up a dream, one might suspect their commitment is somewhat lacking.

Oh and by the way, in case you missed it while some are agonizing over a shirt, Vladimir Putin is pouring men and heavy equipment into Ukraine, making bomber sorties into the Gulf of Mexico, and openly defying the President of the United States to do something about it.

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Post-election musings

Well the results were more-or-less as expected, Republicans keeping the House and gaining a clear majority in the Senate. But there were still a lot of surprises.

Races that were supposed to be close, weren’t. They were massacres.

Of the seats the Democrats were able to keep, a number of them were very near run things after all.

Polls in Virginia, Georgia and Illinois were seriously wrong, putting their methodology or objectivity, or both into question.

Republicans gained on the state level as well. Obama’s home state elected a Republican governor.

Senatorial candidate Wendy Davis started out as the bright hope of turning Texas blue. Then as we watched in either horrified or gleeful fascination, she made gaffe after gaffe, revealing herself to be a liar, an opportunist and a thoroughly unpleasant person.

(Note to Wendy: insulting a man in a wheelchair with an interracial marriage as a racist out of touch with people’s problems probably won’t fly.)

Democrat Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu made it into a runoff, but didn’t seem to realize that calling your constituents racists and sexists probably isn’t a vote getter either. The Democratic Party cut off her funds, not wanting to throw good money after bad.

Democratic candidates treated the president like an Ebola patient. Kentucky senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes actually refused to answer whether she had voted for him! Let that sink in for a moment.

Bill and Hillary Clinton actually did get in the trenches and stump for candidates, many of whom are now wishing they hadn’t.

What the heck just happened? And why?

For one, Obamacare is hugely unpopular and growing more so. There are winners who came out ahead, but even the winners know a lot of people who didn’t.
Of those that didn’t come out ahead, the reasons were capricious enough to be frightening. Such as a friend of mine with no children and past childbearing age whose “substandard” policy was cancelled because it didn’t cover pediatric dentistry.

To say the least, this does not reassure those hoping for a government more responsive to people’s needs.

Foreign policy may have been an even greater factor than the economy, and Obama has repeatedly shown he is out of his depth. Foreign heads of state from Chavez to Putin to the mad mullahs of
Iran have shown open contempt for him. Lines drawn in the sand have blown away with the first strong wind.

This was the year of the rise of black conservatives. Daughter of Haitian immigrants Mia Love was elected to the senate from a state that is 97 percent white. Tim Scot was elected from South Carolina, the state that started the Civil War!

There are more of them than anyone suspected and they are nobody’s tokens, but a significant influence in the conservative brain trust. It’s getting much, much harder to play the race card these days.

The libertarian presence in the Republican Party is stronger. However grudgingly they admit it, many libertarians have come to the conclusion third-party attempts are expensive exercises in futility.

The libertarian live-and-let-live image sells well with a lot of moderate independent voters.

The left on the other hand, looks increasingly intolerant. In particular to expressions of Christian faith in the public sphere.

(Note to the mayor of Houston: when you subpoena texts of pastors’ sermons, you don’t look like a fearless champion of liberty and tolerance, you look like the Gestapo.)

It’s become increasingly evident that for all their talk of “right-wing extremists” the Democratic Party is controlled at the national level by the extreme left – and we are starting to see signs it’s making Democrats at the state level nervous. Because the truth is, most Democrats are not hard leftists.

Obama recently made a casual remark that choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, “is not a choice we want them to make.”

Pick up your jaw from the floor and consider that for a moment. The President of the United States thinks he has a right to step into the most intimately personal choices a woman can make. And
he doesn’t even realize how totalitarian that sounds.

I see lessons for both Democrats and Republicans here.

For Republicans, the last time they capture both houses they elbowed their way to the trough and stuck their snouts in as enthusiastically as any Democrat. They might do it again, and if they do they’ll lose again – and people are watching this time.

For Democrats, the ideological leadership of their party is seriously out of touch with that part of America outside the D.C. cocktail circuit. Their ability to be competitive on a state level will be seriously compromised as long as the national leadership is Hard Left.

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Vote Early! Vote Often!

Like Chesterton’s realistic Irishman I prefer to prophesy after the event. Unfortunately this column will go to press after the results of the election are known, so I am forced into the uncomfortable position of making a prediction under circumstances that leave no wiggle room.

So OK, here goes. On Wednesday a great many people are going to be unhappy, and a great many people aren’t.

“Well duh!” I hear you say. “So what’s new about that?”

Nothing. But there are some things about this election that are kind of interesting.

One is the reports from Illinois and Maryland that people trying to vote Republican noticed their votes flipping to Democrat on the machines.

It was evidently a “calibration error.”

If it were anyplace else than Cook County, Illinois…

If it were anyplace else than Democrat-controlled Maryland…

The other thing is the North Carolina State Board of Elections has opened an investigation into allegations that Democratic campaign workers were assisting non-citizens to vote.

The investigation was opened after conservative gadfly James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas got a campaign worker on video appearing to counsel a “Brazilian immigrant” on how to vote. Doubtless taken out of context.

The fact that elections are not always honest is not news.

I remember some years back in Oklahoma a libertarian candidate ran against a notoriously corrupt sheriff. Due to claimed irregularities the ballot boxes were seized and taken into custody by… three guesses. First two don’t count.

Lyndon Johnson stole his first election to the senate, according to biographer Robert Caro.

And how do we know that? Because Johnson boasted about it! He even kept a photographic record of it so he could brag to his friends about it.

I have a friend who likes to brag he helped elect John F. Kennedy.

Well sort of. He was living in Chicago at the time and was called by a friend who asked his help moving some heavy objects. Which turned out to be ballots for Nixon, and they were moved into the river.

That sorry excuse for a statesman Nixon probably did the one noble thing in his life by not demanding a recount or investigation. But one wonders whether the feeling of having been cheated out of the presidency once led to the messy business of Watergate and his subsequent resignation.

By and large we tend to have faith that the system if not foolproof, works well enough most of the time.

But that faith seems to be eroding, and that worries me.

Republicans are pushing for voter ID, standard in many countries including Mexico.

Democrats claim voter ID is a ploy to keep minorities from voting, important to them because the Democratic Party is largely a coalition of minorities.

Republicans see their objections as a blatant attempt to open the door to election rigging.

And of course among many Democrats it is an article of faith that George W. Bush stole the election in the infamous Florida recount.

And now in an election where Republicans see the tantalizing possibility of retaking the senate, fears of stolen elections are running high.

So what happens if one or both sides becomes convinced that the system is broken and electoral fraud is widespread?

Whether you personally think this is true or not, maybe it doesn’t matter if enough people believe it.

Banana republic, here we come.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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