Sunday, March 28, 2010

Long flight for a short stay

What does it mean that President Obama visited Afghanistan in the middle of the night and was gone before sunrise? It means the Secret Service and others responsible for the president's safety don't trust the security in Afghanistan, even in Kabul and on an American air base. That doesn't say much for American achievements in this costly and bloody war, nor does it say much for the government of Hamid Karzai.

But give Obama credit for going to see things for himself and, apparently, to bluntly warn Karzai about the rampant corruption and ineffectiveness of his government. That message has been delivered before by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others, but either it hasn't sunk in or Karzai is not powerful enough to defeat the corruption and graft his government is famous for.

With a nominally successful election in Iraq and an agreement with Russia on nuclear arms, Afghanistan is Obama's biggest international worry. Unless the military approach gains success soon, Obama will be forced to rethink the entire strategy there.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Memories were served at 80th birthday celebration

Nearly 10 years ago, my wife's family gathered for a major milestone, her dad's 80th birthday. The unspoken message was that this might be the last good opportunity to celebrate the life of the family patriarch. It wasn't. Although he had experienced some fairly serious health problems before the year 2000, he made it almost 10 more years, and the milestones included some graduations and weddings and the births of seven great-grandchildren. It was not until January a year ago that we had to face his mortality head-on. Surgery 14 months ago revealed the cause of some pain he'd had — an aggressive tumor that had already spread beyond his gall bladder into his pancreas and liver. The prognosis was dire, but he accepted it with stoic good humor, with "equanimity," I wrote at the time. A good oncologist and some harsh treatments gave him nearly a full year of relatively good health before the tumor counter-attacked and ultimately prevailed. He died at his home March 24.

But back to that 80th birthday party. The gathering included his wife, brother and sister-in-law, children, sons- and daughter-in-law, stepchildren and grandchildren. Someone suggested that we give him our memories in the form of a scrapbook. A multitude of photographs were made into collages of his life. Several of us, the more verbal and less visual, I suppose, wrote their memories of him.

Here are two of those memories, from my wife, his eldest daughter, and from me, the guy who stole her away from her loving daddy.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. . .” Galations 5:22-23

Dear Daddy,

When I think of your influence on my life, I think of the fruit of the Spirit. The love you have given, the joy we see in your face when we’re gathered together, the patience with which you disciplined us, the kindness and goodness that are evident in all that you do, the gentleness with which you held and cared for your grandchildren, the self-control necessary to be a responsible husband, father, and son.
There is no way that I can adequately express how much your example. . .just the way you have lived your life. . .has meant to me.
There are some memories that remain vivid to me.
* You taking me downtown to the shoe store with the little carousel and buying me a pair of black patent leather shoes.
* Going to Howard Johnson’s for lunch and ordering banana splits for dessert. We had to wait while they went to the store and bought the bananas.
* When you came to Beulah’s to tell us that Mary had been born and that she was being named after your grandmother.
* Listening as you read to us from the big green storybook, “My Bookhouse.”
* Being comforted by you when I thought a little wind must mean a hurricane. That was in first grade after Mrs. Cockrell had told us all about Hurricane Hazel.
* When you sang the gasoline song in the car.
* Riding out to Long Island or just going for drives with all the windows down in the red Buick.
* Driving out to the lake after you got off work for a pre-dinner swim and looking at that spot where the house is and saying “Won’t it be great when all we have to do is walk up the hill?”
* Trying to learn a little about golf in the “field” behind the house on Broad Street.
* Sitting in Granny’s living room when Mama was having a rough time and you telling us how she was sick and how much you loved her.
* Having you hand me the keys to the other car after I wrecked the little blue Ford, so that Ann & I could still go get ice cream.
* Finding you waiting for me at the table when I came home from a miserable date with Timmy Moore, wanting to say or do something that would make me less miserable.
* Walking down the aisle with you at my wedding.
* Hearing you say “She’s just beautiful!” when I opened my eyes after Tracy was born.
* How you cared for Granny all of your life and especially after she went to the nursing home.

There are so many more memories, all of them warm and wonderful. I’m so thankful for all of them, and for you.

Happy Birthday!

• • •

In the photo from our wedding, which is sitting on our piano, you have taken off your dark-rim glasses and are wiping tears from your eyes. I can’t say as I blame you.

I had practically stolen away your first-born daughter, your Ginnybird, and I did not have what you would call good “prospects” at the moment. I had no job and few real hopes of getting one on a long-term basis. Although I was madly in love with your daughter (and still am), I had no realistic plan for feeding, clothing and sheltering her. Nevertheless, except for that one brief moment after the ceremony, when sentiment or nostalgia or anxiety overcame your composure, you were unfailingly supportive and cheerful from the moment you welcomed me into the family. And that has been your demeanor throughout these nearly 30 years that have passed so quickly. Your advice, support, assistance and cheerful presence have been constants in our lives.

I have seen that same positive good will exhibited toward the dates of your other children and grandchildren and could only wonder, sometimes, if I had been as unappealing as some of them.

When it was my turn to make a toast at the rehearsal dinner before my eldest daughter’s marriage, I said I wasn’t sure about how to be a father-in-law, but I did have the advantage of a great role model to show me the way. I could not have been more sincere. You have been supportive when we needed a boost, wise when we needed advice, understanding when we stumbled, patient when our desires or youthfulness took over our reasoning, sympathetic when we met troubles, happy at our joys, concerned for our worries and unfailingly positive about our lives and our future.

After 80 years, you greet life with the cheerfulness of a carefree child, although I know your years have been far from carefree. You have never let the tragedies of your life — losing your father, wife, mother and sister — wear you down or embitter you. After such terrible tests, the ordinary adversities of life seem to roll off your back, and I can only admire your resilience, steadfastness and faith. I only wish I could have learned better the lessons your life has to teach and that I could better emulate your great example.

With the greatest respect and admiration, I wish you a happy 80th birthday, and many more to come.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Doing our patriotic duty: filling out the census

I filled out the 2010 Census form last night. I did my duty. It will be back in the mail today. The Census won't have to send someone to knock on my door. And I resisted the temptation, out of fear of getting in trouble with the feds, to mark my race as "other" and write in "American."

But I did get some amusement from the official letter explaining the census sent with the forms. In it the director of the U.S. Census Bureau says, "Your answers are important. Census results are used to decide the number of representatives each state has in the U.S. Congress. The amount of government money your neighborhood receives also depends on these answers. The money is used for services for children and the elderly, roads, and many other local needs." That's what it's all about: Show me the money. That's the reason so many organizations, including local government,s are pushing for a "full and complete" count.

Somehow, I think the authors of the Constitution in 1787 might be amazed by this emphasis on money. Section 2 of Article I of the Constitution establishes the census by requiring an "actual enumeration" of the population of each state. But the enumeration had nothing to do with who got federal dollars — alas, in those simple times, the federal government wasn't handing out grants and entitlements; it was trying to pay off its Revolutionary War debt. The actual enumeration has one and only one purpose, to determine the number of representatives each state would have in the U.S. House. Each state would get two U.S. senators and a number of representatives based on population of the state. For starters, the Constitution establishes a base line of representation ranging from one for Rhode Island and Delaware to 10 for Virginia (North Carolina got five). The entire House comprised 68 representatives. The current number is 435.

The census, no doubt, provides some valuable statistical information, and its use as a determinant of federal largesse makes some sense. The problem is not the conversion of the census into a decider of access to the federal treasury but the transformation of the federal treasury into a jackpot for states and individuals.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Now the fighting will really begin

It's over. A landmark health care bill has passed. Now let the fighting really begin.

President Obama got his wish, a health care bill, though the bill that survived the U.S. House Sunday was not what he and many of his supporters had originally envisioned. The fight is hardly over. Eight months from now, Round 2 of this fight will be decided as voters cast their ballots on this issue.

If the past few months are any indication, it will be a down-and-dirty fight with blows below the belt, a lot of eye-gouging and ear-biting and plenty of disingenuous prevarications. The debate (which is too mild a term for the fight over this bill) started out early with blatantly (and knowingly) false claims that the bill contained "death panels" that would impose euthanasia on America's senior citizens. The public was treated to the comic sight of people holding up placards reading "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare." It got much worse. Over the weekend, some opponents of health care reform angrily shouted racial epithets at members of Congress.

Many Americans were turned off by the political maneuverings that squeaked this bill through Congress, but most Americans also agreed that the health care system was in need of reform. American workers were sick of exorbitant increases in their monthly health care premiums and the capricious manner in which insurance companies picked what procedures they would cover and what they would not. More seriously, many Americans found their coverage restricted by "pre-existing conditions" or found their coverage canceled when they became ill. To the extent that this bill will correct those abuses, most Americans will support it.

For supporters of the bill, however, the danger lurks not only in the disingenuous falsehoods being shouted by critics but in the fact that most provisions of the bill won't become effective until well after this year's election. Coverage of the uninsured and the requirement for employers to provide health coverage for most workers will not be effective for years. It will be hard for supporters to proclaim reform when much of that reform is still a promise of the future.

This bill is a modest step, perhaps too modest. There is nothing logical about the American system of having employers provide health care insurance, but that link will be difficult to break. Likewise, health insurers absorb health-care dollars in a system that benefits only the insurers while frustrating patients and physicians. But the political clout of insurers make it difficult to break that chain.

The 2010 bill is a first step toward a more logical and effective health care system, but its first test will come in November when voters will have decide whether all this fighting was worth it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Car shopping, and goodbye old paint

Cars have been an abiding interest of mine since I was a teenager, but I've managed to have enough self-control to resist buying a car every three or four years. In fact, I've tended to keep cars so long that I become attached to them, like family pets. I would learn their idiosyncrasies, such as an unwillingness to start on rainy days, and provide whatever special care they required. I kept one car for 16 years, another for nine, and I've had my current ride for 14 years. I would give them up with great reluctance, as if giving away a family heirloom.

But when the module that controls the air bags on my current vehicle quit working several months ago, I recognized that it might be time to dump this faithful friend. My wife refused to ride with me on the interstate knowing that if there were an accident, the air bag would not deploy. Since then all of our out-of-town trips have been in her car, which is eight years old, still a relative youngster.

A few weeks ago, I began perusing the car ads in the newspaper and online and rubber-necking as I passed by car lots. I envisioned several models that would satisfy my needs, mostly used cars because I didn't want car payments to control my budget. A couple of weeks ago, I found a car that fit my vision of my next car almost perfectly. This 2003 model with 119,000 miles looked remarkably well-cared-for, and it had a stick shift, which I wanted but is increasingly difficult to find. I drove the car. I liked it. I had a mechanic check it out. I went back and forth: Should I buy it, look for something newer or just stick with what I've got?

On a warm spring-like Friday afternoon, with the top off my old car with the non-functioning airbags, I took a spin around town and loved what I was driving as if I were driving it for the first time. After having visited a couple of car lots and having seen all the shiny new cars with their flawless sheet metal and fresh upholstery, I still couldn't convince myself that I wanted to give up the fun of my underpowered, glitch-ridden, well-worn but remarkably fun little car. Like a man with a "bucket list," I longed to get this car back on a twisty mountain road to downshift and upshift and twist the steering wheel. But mountains are far from here, and I don't know if we'll ever make it there again; I might have to look for curves closer to home. With the top off and the wind in the remnants of my hair, I lost my impatience for something new. I'll have to hold off the siren song of a new car for a few more months.

Next fall, when the cold returns and the rains leak into the car's interior and trunk, I might regret this decision, but today the sun is shining, and it feels right.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Students remind me of life's calling

This week, I participated in a panel discussion before a crowd of middle-school students about jobs and careers. We panel members were supposed to impress upon the impressionable students what our jobs were like and how we came to do what we do. The discussion led to something more for me — a reflection on just how I ended up at this time and place.

When I was their age, I told the students, I wanted to be an astronomer. Enthralled by the excitement of what was called The Space Age with its frequent breathless rocket launches, I read every astronomy book the county library had to offer, and I memorized minutiae about the planets, stars and galaxies. It was only when I discovered that astronomy had more to do with math than with peering through a telescope's eyepiece that I became disenchanted with that vocation. Soon after, I discovered, as I told the students, the magic of assembling words together, and I set my sights on being a writer.

Then came the admission: "I still think of myself as a writer." I had the good fortune of being paid to write every day for more than 30 years, but newspapers are going through a wrenching transformation with no certainty what the final outcome will be. The career path of writing for a newspaper or other news medium holds no promise these days. This blog and some unpublished fiction are my only outlets for exercising my writing muscles, with the exception of a few routine letters and speeches.

But if I do, indeed, still think of myself as a writer, I should take that appellation more seriously. When you work for a newspaper, I've told aspiring writers over the years, you have to write every day, or else you'll soon be out of a job. Writers need to write daily, just as athletes need to exercise and practice daily. That's not an easy thing when your time is being absorbed by so many other appointments, interests or obligations. "Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things," another writer (John Lennon) said. If I still do think of myself as a writer, I must set aside priority time to do the work that calling demands.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Social Security reaches day of reckoning

With all the talk this week about passing health care reform and throwing tea parties, you might have missed the news about Social Security. Its day of reckoning is here.

The trillions of dollars stashed away in the form of government bonds from nearly 30 years of collecting more money than was needed to meet current obligations are about to be tapped, an Associated Press story reported. Social Security has reached the tipping point where payouts are now exceeding collections from the payroll tax. A Social Security surplus is no longer available to hide the extent of federal operating deficits. A large number of politicians, economists and analysts have warned for years that this day was coming, but Congress has shown absolutely no inclination to fix the problem.

After his re-election, George W. Bush attempted to persuade Congress to fix Social Security by partially privatizing the system. Bush did not have the political standing to get what he wanted, and his plan depended upon rosy scenarios that the 2008 stock market crash refuted. But at least give Bush credit for recognizing the looming problem and proposing something. Other political figures have simply stuck their heads in the sand.

The hard truth is that Social Security is fundamentally insolvent, and its formulation must be changed, or it will have to renege on its solemn promises to a generation of workers. The retirement age must be extended, benefits must be reduced, taxes must be raised, or all three must be done together. The last scenario is likely to be the most effective. But if Democrats refuse to reduce benefits and Republicans refuse to consider tax increases, the system will eventually collapse.

Even the current fact that the federal government must now start repaying Social Security for the trillions it "borrowed" over the past 25 years involves a harsh economic reality: Taxes must be raised to pay off those bonds held by Social Security, or Uncle Sam, whose debt is already verging into the potentially catastrophic zone, will have to borrow more money.

One of the keys to effective management, the business school gurus will tell you, is identifying the problems that must be given priority, based on immediacy, magnitude and importance. President Obama and Congress have a problem with health care reform, but the nation has a crisis with Social Security. Effective management demands that the crisis be given priority.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Toyota criticism is accelerating

Maybe ambulance-chasing lawyers should change their nicknames to Prius-chasing attorneys. The Toyota unexplained acceleration adventure continues. Even after Toyota has recalled about 6 million vehicles and filled television breaks with "I love my Toyota" testimonials, new reports of unexplained acceleration keep cropping up.

I don't own a Toyota, but I did own one — the only new car I ever bought — for 16 years, putting around 125,000 miles on it. I bought it before my eldest daughter was born, and before I traded it, she got to drive the car that had brought her home from the hospital. That car experienced some problems (I think I was up to four water pumps by the time I traded it for a Plymouth "K-car"), but I loved the car and found it mostly quite reliable — just don't let it overheat.

When I bought that 1971 Toyota Corona, the brand was little known in North Carolina. Some co-workers asked me why I bought a "Tie-Yoda." In 1971, Toyota was trying to build its brand by emphasizing high quality at a lower price, and that strategy, along with the gasoline scares of the 1970s, succeeded in changing Toyota from a curiosity into an automotive juggernaut. By the time I decided to replace my old Corona in 1987, Toyota owned the market in quality design and reliability. I really, really wanted one of the new Camrys (the model that replaced the Corona), but its cost was a couple of thousand more than a comparable K-car. I opted for the cheaper car, which I drove for nine years before mechanical problems exceeded the car's value.

Now, with all the unexplained-acceleration complaints, Toyota's reputation for quality has taken a serious hit, and even the Japanese business culture is being questioned. But don't be too quick to judge. Automotive recalls have become pretty common. The Honda Del Sol I'm still driving was recalled soon after I bought it (used, two years old). A problem with the passenger-side airbag made it possible that a deploying airbag would be accompanied by a piece of metal that could decapitate the passenger. Just a minor problem. With most recalls, huge numbers of vehicles are recalled but only a portion of those have the flaw. And although every death is tragic, the number of deaths blamed on Toyota accelerator problems is minuscule in relation to total traffic deaths in a year.

Complaints about unexpected acceleration have cropped up before. In the 1980s, Audi was nearly run out of the American market by claims of "unintended acceleration" in its new Audi 5000 model. Some news outlets jumped on the bandwagon, but government investigators found the cause of the unintended acceleration: drivers. Audi's brake pedal and accelerator pedal were closer together, and the brake pedal was smaller than on many American cars of the day. Drivers accustomed to the wide brake pedal on their Buicks misjudged their footwork on the narrower pedals on the Audi; while they thought they were stomping the brake, they were stomping the accelerator. In the computer age, this would be known as "operator error."

Investigators have been unable to duplicate the acceleration problems many Toyota drivers have reported. Could operator error be a factor here, too? I don't know. But before this is all over, some Prius-chasing lawyers will have lined up a trunk full of class action lawsuits, and Toyota will spend years rebuilding its reputation.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

While others preen, Wilson supplies service

Today's News & Observer leads with a story about area cities "preening" for attention from Google, which has announced a pilot program to wire one community for high-speed, fiber-optic Internet connections. It will be a demonstration project to show what high-speed connections can mean for a community.

Notice the sidebar to the story: "Wired Wilson." Wilson, unlike its neighbor Rocky Mount and thousands of other cities across the country, is not vying for Google's favor. Wilson already has the high-speed connection that Google is offering to one lucky community, to be named later. Wilson City Council took a $28 million gamble on a plan to connect the entire city with fiber-optic cables, offering Internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second. That's the speed Google is proposing. According to today's story, 20 percent of city residents have already signed up, well on the way toward the city's goal of 30 percent connectivity by the end of next year.

Wilson has received some statewide notice for its foresighted venture into fiber, and it has received a lot of grief from the existing Internet providers who don't want competition from a municipal government. Legislative efforts promoted by these legacy cable suppliers to prohibit cities from offering this service have thus far failed. I signed up for Wilson's Greenlight service and have been pleased with it. My major motivation was saving money. By bundling Greenlight's Internet, cable and phone services, we are saving about $40 a month compared to our previous expenses with separate phone and cable/Internet service. The download speeds with Greenlight's basic service are noticeably faster than before, even with our computers, which would be considered antiquated by technophiles' standards.

But the big advantage to Wilson in Greenlight is not found among typical residential customers like me. Rather, the advantage is to business applications and technical uses. BB&T, for example, can use this ultra-high-speed service to upload/downloads tons of data from its financial transaction processing operations. A computer software or graphics business would find this service appealing, even essential. City officials, parrying criticism from the corporate competitors, contend that information transfer is a public utility, like water, sewer, electricity and natural gas, which many cities have provided for decades.

So while other cities hopefully cross their fingers for Google's selection, Wilson already has what the others desire.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Old media mention boosts new media

I was at the end of a radio interview touting the Fike High School blood drive when David Perkins, also known as "D.P. in the Morning," asked me about my former career and how I was managing the transition from offering my unsolicited opinion about most everything to being a mild-mannered manager of a nonprofit. What do you do with all those opinions, he asked.

Although I was not expecting this opening, I saw the gap and ran to daylight. Immediately after leaving newspaper employment, I told him, I started my own blog as an outlet for all those pent-up opinions. He asked for the address for this blog you're reading, and I gave it to him. He repeated it on the air a couple of times, and I joked that if I saw a sudden spike in page views, I would know that this oldest of the broadcast media still had power.

That evening, I checked my statistics on StatCounter and was amazed to see an obvious spike in unique visitors and page views. Compared to the previous Wednesday, my unique visitors and page views tripled. We're still talking about dozens of page views, not hundreds or thousands, but, still, saying "" on a local FM station had an immediate and dramatic impact on the number of people who were seeing — and presumably reading — this blog.

Since beginning this blog with no illusions of becoming a "professional blogger" (I still doubt that anyone can actually make a living at this), I have struggled to increase readership and keep the writing interesting. The secret, as I told bloggers when I was still working for an "old media" company, is to be consistent: Blog every day; always give readers something new to read when they open your page. I did that pretty consistently when I was unemployed and built unique visitors to numbers approaching 100 a day. But when I got a job, my blogging hobby faltered, and I saw my statistics falter as well. My advice — blog every day — was good, and I should have listened.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tales of the census, 2010 style

I got a letter from the U.S. Census Tuesday, promising that I would receive a letter from the Census Bureau next week and I should fill it out and return it. Some critics are holding this practice up as an example of government waste and redundancy, but perhaps there is an explanation. Maybe it's the Census Bureau's effort to reduce the Postal Service's red ink, or maybe it's a recognition that the Postal Service has a tendency to lose or misdirect mail, so sending two notifications provides a higher likelihood of success.

A retired friend took a job as a census worker. Recently, he said, he was directed from his home in Stantonsburg to go door-to-door in Spring Hope. The same day, another census worker was going door-to-door in Stantonsburg. She was a resident of Spring Hope. The two small towns are 30 miles or more apart, and the Census Bureau was paying each worker 50 cents a mile to get to their assigned neighborhood.

When I was enduring my year of unemployment, some helpful friends suggested that I apply for a census job, and I looked into a few openings but ultimately decided not to apply. All of the census jobs were temporary, and I wanted permanent employment. Now I'm glad I didn't get a census job.

Monday, March 8, 2010

90-second history lesson worth learning

This is quite an interesting illustration of the history of the Middle East and an effective use of computer graphics to visualize that history. I give credit to Ben Witherington III, who posted the link on his Belief Net blog.

What this "5,000 years of history in 90 seconds" shows is that this is a volatile region, as most regions are. Correcting historical conquests and other changes in the name of "justice" or "legal claims" is often futile and ignores history. Claims to a particular piece of land might go back generations or even millennia. Arabs and Israelis dispute the rightful ownership of Jerusalem, for example, but that piece of land has been "owned" by a dozen or so conquerors over the course of history. Which claim is valid? The oldest, the least disputed, the most morally substantive, the most recent? Few nations have undisputed historical claims to their lands. We are frequently reminded that the United States was formed from territory conquered from native Americans, but those indigenous people were not a homogeneous group. The different tribes sometimes fought over disputed territory. And let's not forget the Vikings and others who have claimed to have settled in North America before 1492. So whose claim is valid?

Nearly all ethnic groups were, at one time or another, subjugated by other groups. When Congress was debating an apology for American slavery, a letter-to-the-editor writer volunteered to make that apology if someone would apologize to him for his American ancestors who came here as indentured servants and for his Irish ancestors who were subjugated and enslaved by the British and for his Anglo-Saxon ancestors who were butchered by Vikings and conquered by Normans and for his Norman ancestors who were conquered and enslaved by the Romans and for his Roman ancestors who were slain by the Goths, Visigoths and others. ... You get the picture.

It is essential that we know history — a subject that is too often shortchanged by modern education and modern politicians — but it's dangerous, as Woodrow Wilson found out as he designed new nations following World War I, to try to "correct" history.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wilson utility rates gain wider notice

The Raleigh News & Observer has taken note, in a front-page article Friday, of the protests over city of Wilson utility bills. These protests have been the ingredients of City Council meetings and Facebook groups, but major media outlets have not paid much attention up to now.

The article by John Murawski plowed little new ground, though Murawski did a good job of explaining how Wilson and other eastern North Carolina cities came to this dilemma. Fundamentally, this is an investment gone bad. Thirty-two eastern North Carolina cities signed on at the end of the 1970s to a plan to purchase a share of the generating capacity of new generators being constructed by Carolina Power & Light (now Progress Energy). The purchase would guarantee the cities, which had been purchasing wholesale electricity from CP&L, a confirmed, low-cost supply of electrical power to resale to customers. The cities had gotten into the electricity business 70 or 80 years before when the large public utilities were not interested in extending their power lines to less-profitable low-population towns and rural areas.

The cities' purchase, which was supported by the state and allowed by a statewide voter referendum, was the victim of terrible timing. The Three Mile Island reactor scare increased the costs of building a nuclear power plant many times over. CP&L cut back its construction from four reactors to one at its Shearon Harris site, even as costs increased. The cities were saddled with higher costs in return for less electricity. At the same time, lending rates were hitting all-time highs. The prime rate topped 20 percent, so cities not only faced higher construction costs, they were hit with far higher interest costs. The end result for consumers was higher electric rates. The cities in North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency ended up with a $3.5 billion debt. They could not walk away from that debt without causing chaos in financial markets and facing other penalties. The cities and NCEMPA were probably at fault for failing to recognize the seriousness of their situation. Through the 1980s, most cities (including Wilson) continued to use their electricity business as a cash cow to pay for special projects (such as Wilson's Operations Center) and to keep property taxes low. Proposals in the 1990s to deregulate the electricity market resulted in strict new limits on electricity fund transfers.

The N&O story points out a couple of new issues in this debate: (1) the city of Wilson has raised its electricity rates by 58 percent in the past five years, in part to pay for a $35.4 million expansion of the city's power grid; and (2) Wilson charges 30 percent more for natural gas than PSNC does. While the higher electricity rates can be partially justified by the high debt created by a gamble undertaken 30 years ago, the same rationale does not justify higher gas rates.

The city of Wilson has aggressively expanded both its electricity and natural gas infrastructure, even as customers scream about rates and groups threaten legal action. The city's debt makes any proposal to sell its electricity business to a private utility unrealistic, but the city could get out of the gas business and save its residents on the costs of heating, perhaps plowing the revenue from that sale into a fund to lower electricity rates.

Given the excessive rates the city is charging and the debt payments stretching to 2025, it seems unwise to expand the current electric system. Expanding its gas lines, which the city has done fairly aggressively seems to be a disservice to the residents who theoretically "own" the system, which is charging them 30 percent more than a nearby competitor.

I've written many times in the past that there is no simple solution to Wilson's high utility rates, and that's still the case. But city officials' perspective on electricity and natural gas expansion should be re-examined. Rather than what decisions will make the systems stronger and more profitable, they should be looking for ways to reduce their residential customers' costs.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Could that be spring in the air?

March, having "roared in like a lion," is today showing a bit more restraint. Walking outside in the early sunlight, I could feel the hint of spring beneath the blue sky. Although the thermometer was stuck in the 30s, the air felt far warmer than it had in the past couple of days, when a shrill wind had me clutching my heavy coat tightly around me. This winter, which has seen more snow than eastern North Carolina had experienced in several years, seemed determined to hang on.

March snows can be the fiercest and heaviest of the year. Our first March in Wilson, in 1980, gave me the deepest snowfall I had ever known — about 18 inches. The snow was deeper than my toddler son was tall — well, almost, since he couldn't stand on his own; it was deeper than his seated height. The News & Observer reminded me this morning of an earlier March, one I remember well, though I often forget the year. It was 1960. The snow began on my 11th birthday (March 2) and continued overnight. (The N&O reports the snow as a March 3 event, but it began the day before where I was living, south and west of Raleigh.) For my birthday, I had been granted the privilege of inviting a couple of friends over for the afternoon. Oblivious to the hazards of slippery roads and such, my friends piled onto the school bus with me, and we rode to my house as the snow got deeper and deeper. When the bus arrived at our driveway, a parent's car was waiting to take my friends safely home. I was disappointed not to have friends over to explore the snow.

A week later, it snowed again. A week after that, it snowed again. For three consecutive Wednesdays, we had a crippling snow. As soon as the roads cleared, it would snow again. School was closed for a good portion of March. Sleet fell after at least one of the snows, making a platform strong enough for a child to walk on top of the snow. It remained cold enough that icy patches remained on the school grounds for weeks, giving my friends and I chances to "skate" in our shoes at recess.

But March 2010 looks to be not so cold and snow-ful as March 1960. Fifty years ago, I was excited by the snow and happy to be out of school. Today, I'm ready for spring, eager to see the daffodils and azaleas bloom, yearning to feel the sun's warmth in the cool air. I would contend that it's not because I'm growing old but because my tastes are more mature and refined. But you might disagree.

Monday, March 1, 2010

This is what a newsroom is really like

I had been eager to read John Darnton's "Black and White and Dead All Over" since reading a review a year or so ago. The Wilson County Public Library finally shelved a copy, and I eagerly picked it up. The reviews had promised an amusing take on the state of journalism in the 21st century, and Darnton certainly delivers that. Former journalists — and there are tens of thousands of us out here — will find Darnton's characters, personalities, egos, situations and attitudes familiar and dead-on. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom will recognize the reporter who is so good at dodging assignments that he never writes a story, the editor who demands an update from a busy reporter every few minutes and then chastises him for not writing fast enough, or the snippy, pedantic grammarian who can never see anything good in a story because he's so busy looking for misplaced commas. They're all there, and Darnton nails them all as he further amuses the reader with Dickensian names for these characters.

The novel would be enjoyable enough with just the descriptions of the insanity of a big-city newsroom, but Darnton throws in a murder mystery — make that three murders, all of them involving news employees of The Globe, a thinly disguised New York Times, where Darnton has been a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. The first murder, of the imperious standards editor who could never compliment anyone, only find fault, is the most effectively imagined. His body is found with an editor's spike (used during paper-and-typewriter days to "spike" or kill a story) driven into his chest. The flawed but likable protagonist is assigned to write the story of a murder within the newsroom of a man almost universally despised by anyone who has ever written a word for The Globe. Everybody is a suspect! There's even a subplot involving an unknown heir (or so it seems) of the newspaper's patriarch.

The effectiveness of the novel weakens somewhat as Darnton complicates the plot with additional murders. The painfully amusing descriptions of idiosyncratic characters give way to plot twists, and the book loses some of its comic flavor, but you'll stick around to find out whodunit and what creative ways the killer finds to send off his victims.

Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom, whether at the New York Times or the lowliest weekly, knows that the newspaper business attracts an array of strange characters with a combination of enlarged and tender egos. In describing this culture, Darnton has a sociologist's instincts. He captures the newsroom atmosphere with its adrenaline and tension as well as its dull assignments and boring routines. He aptly describes the reporters and editors we've all known — ones determined to avoid work and those massively over-judging their own talents and abilities. Readers will recognize some of the people, including a thinly disguised Rupert Murdoch character.

Darnton seems to be coming down on the side of traditional journalistic standards, where all-knowing (or at least skilled and experienced) editors decided what stories were important enough to be in the newspaper and where celebrity gossip and warm, fuzzy features never made the grade. But the defenders of the new attention to readers' desires also get their say. I have to recommend this book to all my former colleagues and to anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper. It's way to true to life to be considered fiction — or as they used to say in the newsroom, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."