Political Spectacle

My inclination this morning was to talk about something other than last night’s Republican debate and the second rate nature of the candidates who showed up. It’s so easy these days, during the latter days of empire and covering its politics—whether you’re a famed journalist, or an obscure blogger—to simply talk about you-know-who, the presidential candidate in the room who garners all the attention, even when he decides to take his ball with him and not show up. I decided to go with the latter. I’m not proud about it, either.

After working last night at a part-time job I picked up in December, I got home after 9:00 and flicked on the television. Like millions of other Americans, I was intrigued to know how the debate was going without the star of this year’s presidential horse race. Also, I wanted to see how things were going wherever Mr. Trump took his ball, and went off to play with it.

On what was originally intended to be the evening’s big political event when it originally was scheduled by Fox News, Donald Trump again turned this year’s election protocol and rules upside-down. His fans loved it, as they always do, irrespective of what Mr. Trump says and does.

"Please vote for me!!"

“Please vote for me!!” (Doug Mills photo/New York Times)

Continue reading

Drinking Dirty Water in Flint

Water is an essential element of life.  We require it for drinking, cooking, and bathing—as well as other household functions common to civilized life in the U.S. Biologically, humans are 60 percent water, including a higher composition in vital organs like the brain, heart, and lungs. So when a major municipality’s water supply is compromised, it becomes a serious issue and even a domestic threat.

In Flint, Michigan, a depressed Midwestern city in the heart of America’s Rust Belt, city officials—in an effort to save money due to a shrinking tax base—switched the source of the city’s water supply in April 2014, from city of Detroit’s, whose source was Lake Huron—to the Flint River. Incidentally, residents of Flint recognized the river as a filthy tributary where a host of industrial chemicals and solvents had been dumped for decades. As soon as the switch was made, residents started complaining that the water looked, smelled and tasted funny. They said it often “looked dirty.”

The Flint River-just one of the sources of the city's water disaster.

The Flint River-just one of the sources of the city’s water disaster.

But it gets worse, for those living in economically-ravaged Flint. The local water treatment plant (with the approval of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) failed to mix chemicals to the river water that would have lowered its corrosive nature. This resulted in lead from the ageing service lines leeching into the water. Lead levels spiked, exposing thousands of children to lead poisoning. Continue reading

Making Promises

We love our smartphones.

We love our smartphones.

If you’ve been paying attention over the past few decades, you should have learned this important fact about technology. It nearly always over-promises, with the delivery on that promise coming up short.

Back when Governor King was sitting in the Blaine House, he made a big to-do about introducing laptops into our schools. The intent, at least as publicly pronounced, was to make Maine “the most digitally literate society in the world.” He touted how this would be an economic boon for Maine, too. Anyone doubting King and his plan were seen as malcontents and neo-Luddites. It’s how tech evangelists always try to bully the cautious into submission and get their way of adding more technology to our overly-digitized lives.

Fast-forward 15 years and one could make the case that King’s laptop plan didn’t deliver much of a return on the $50 million price tag accompanying laptops for all Maine seventh graders. Digital snake oil for the Pine Tree State.

Sherry Turkel was quite enthusiastic about technology as a tool for learning and like many, believed that technology would greatly enhance our quality of life. Turkel’s spent the past 30 years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology and our digital culture. It’s safe to say she’s “cooled” in her ardor for technology’s ability as a tool to teach; she actually presents scenarios where it inhibits the ability to learn, even in her own classroom at MIT. Continue reading

And the Powerball Winner Is…

It wasn’t you. I knew it wouldn’t be you, or any of your 318 million fellow countrymen. But the argument you will throw back at me is one I’ve heard countless times in my life, dating all the way back to my days working at the power company.

These weren't your Powerball numbers.

These weren’t your Powerball numbers.

That went something like this: a co-worker who sat across from me always bought lottery tickets each morning (usually 3-5) when he stopped for his coffee. When he got to work, he’d scratch them off. I’d sit there and look at him and think, “fool,” and semi-regularly say, “you’re not going to win.” He’d then get all indignant and give me his best, “well, someone’s going to win” argument and it was easy to follow it with, “well it won’t be you.”

As far as I know, he’s never won anything more than a few minor payouts; certainly not any of these other national Ponzi schemes like Powerball. While I’m no longer with the power company, I still see him drive by on occasion, so I’m guessing he hasn’t won the big payout. But, I guarantee you that he purchased a bunch of Powerball tickets over the past two weeks, believing that he was going to win a billion dollars.

Continue reading

Ziggy Played Guitar

[I wrote this Monday night]
As we age, it’s an ongoing battle not to become a nostalgia act—in the music we listen to, the books we read, the clothes we wear—especially when others our own age are entrenched in the past.

I see it on Facebook. In the people that I once knew, went to school with, and most of whom I likely haven’t seen face-to-face in 35 years. And yet, we somehow have some tenuous connection that Mark Zuckerberg is able to exploit?

Last week I was listening to KEXP, one of the stations I enjoy streaming, given the sad state of radio in my own region. I prefer to listen to music that was written and recorded in the last decade and stations like KEXP (from Seattle) play a mix of newer music, while recognizing some of the pioneers and icons of rock and their contribution to the history of the genre.

David Bowie would be one of the latter. In fact, KEXP highlighted Bowie, celebrating his birthday last Friday, with what they were calling “Intergalactic David Bowie Day,” playing a shitload of his music, old, and new, including his latest (and last) album, Blackstar.

David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust (circa 1973).

David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust (circa 1973).

Continue reading

Desperately Seeking Simpatico

I like words. I even used to have a blog with the title, Words Matter. Yes, they do.

One of the many benefits to being a reader is that unless you are reading material aimed at second graders, you are apt to find unfamiliar words that stretch and if you take the time to look them up—build your vocabulary. I know—having a robust vocabulary puts me back in the 1950s when we still had a middlebrow culture—rather than the dumbed-down, brain-addled one here in the second decade of the 21st century.

Can you spell as well as a 14-year-old? (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Can you spell as well as a 14-year-old? (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

I’m halfway through my second book of 2016. It’s a book about the collapse of Detroit City. On page 62, there is the following sentence, about midway down the page:

In the same way that the microsocieties formed at Zuccotti Park and other Occupy encampments in 2011 provided, for the simpatico, an exhilarating glimpse of freedom, postindustrial Detroit could be an unintentional experiment in stateless living, allowing for the devolution of power to the grass roots.
Mark Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis Continue reading

Becoming Extraordinary

We are officially into 2016. It’s also that six-week block on the calendar when resolutions are both foremost and in danger of extinction.

How would you like to be extraordinary this year? Let’s start by looking at some definitions of the word.

Extraordinary (adjective):

  1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established: extraordinary costs.
  2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable:

Last Friday—officially, “New Year’s Day,” Mary and I participated in our first Lobster Dip. Basically, it was a dash across a portion of beach, running into the surf and then, plunging into ice-cold ocean water guaranteed to numb you from head-to-toe. It was also friggin’ exhilarating!

Miss Mary; keeping warm pre-dip.

Life is short. Why spend so much of it muddling along with the mundane?

My wife is exceptional (and extraordinary). It’s only taken me about 35 years to truly understand her qualities (I’m a slow-learner). Continue reading

Another Year of Books and Reading

With the commencement of a brand new year, I set out once again reaching for what I’ve established as my personal baseline figure for books to read over a twelve-month period. While far from being scientific, I arrived at my number of books to read per month, and in the course of setting the bar, I learned that I’m way above the average number of books read annually by almost all other Americans. I now believe that doing so keeps me sharper (I think) than less ambitious types.

As it shakes out, my bedrock number of 36 books read is triple the U.S. average, at least according to Pew Research, my researcher of choice in this matter. The “average American” in the U.S. reads 12 books per year.  That’s a paltry number, but it’s the average. That means many of the people you work with and interact with read a lot less than that.

My wife reads a lot of books. My son once more hit a reading number that dwarfs my own 2015 total of 53 books, which exceeded my goal for the year, but fell short of last year’s total of 66.

Previous end-of-year book summaries also served as attempts at advocacy, citing the benefits of being a reader. Two would be broadening your awareness and increasing knowledge. But I have to remind myself periodically that we live in a time when ignorance trumps all else—most wouldn’t consider broadness an asset—and they wear ignorance like a coat of arms.

Not only are Americans light readers, I’d go one step further—if they do read anything at all, their tendency is towards books offering cover and validation to their views on politics, culture, and any other subject that they have an  awareness about. Or, they read simply for pleasure and escape. I get that and I’m not opposed. Miss Mary is a reading-for-pleasure kind of girl.

My 2015 reading list seems a bit more pell-mell than some of my previous ones. Scroll down and take a look back at 2013 and 2014, and you be the judge.

John Gould and a few other books from 2015.

John Gould and a few other books from 2015.

Continue reading