Friday, January 31, 2014

The South's lack of snowplows is a rational decision

Schools are closed because it snowed three days ago, and, predictably, the complaints have come from transplants to the South from colder climates. The complaints are usually preceded by a judgmental, "You people are crazy," and followed by an explanation that in Chicago, Michigan or (fill in the blank), "we never would have closed the schools for two inches of snow! Learn to drive, people!"

It's true. You can drive on snow, though many southerners go apoplectic at the thought. And, if you're careful, you can get around following a snowstorm. But southerners have good reason to go into hibernation when snow falls. Take a look at Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon. Take a look at that horrendous and deadly traffic pile-up in Indiana (or wherever it was) this week. Driving on ice can be dangerous, even suicidal. And school administrators have learned that there are parents and lawyers ready to sue if their children are forced to travel over slick roads to school.

Then there's the snowplow and salt factor. The complaining transplants always want to know why southern cities don't have snowplows and salt trucks. Look at the economics of it. It's the same reason southerners don't have snow blowers. One would have come in handy this week as I cleared our walks, but if I invested several hundred dollars in a snow blower this month, I might not get to use it again for another two or three years. There's no return on investment. The same applies to snowplows and salt trucks. Sure, Wilson and Greenville could buy a fleet of snowplows, but they would rust and die before they got 20 days of use. Snowplows are not a good investment when even the biggest snowfalls are usually melted within 48 hours. And it's often 65 degrees two days after a snowstorm. Southerners love snow because it goes away fast, and they have never seen the black piles of snow that more northerly commuters see each year.

So go easy on us backward southerners. Being able to drive on icy roads depends largely on snowplows and salt clearing a path, whether in New Jersey or Florida. We don't have enough snowplows, but we know how to run the numbers on an unwise investment.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A snow day that I can enjoy

I'm enjoying a snow day. I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, read the N&O online, cleared a path across the deck and the side and front steps, and made a little snow cream. If I had to, I could get to the office, but there's nothing to do there, so I'll play it safe and not risk a useless skid into a ditch.

For 33 years in the newspaper business, "snow days" did not mean a day off. They meant a day or night of hazards and rushed work. Like police officers, firefighters, utility crews and a few others, newspaper folks had to work on days when no one wanted to. One cold morning after a huge overnight snowfall, I couldn't get my car out of the driveway, so I set out on foot for the newspaper office, about two miles away downtown. As the wind-driven snow whipped my exposed face, someone in a pickup gave me a lift after about a half mile, and I got to the office, got the paper out and went home. The next few days, I reported to work every morning, even though few others in town worked, and mail was not delivered. Unafraid of driving in the snow, I ferried co-workers to and from work. I kept a shovel in my trunk in case I had to dig out of a drift, which I did a couple of times.

When I was working for a morning paper (one that goes to press at night) in Danville, Va., a sudden storm blew in early in the evening, and we rushed to get the paper to press early. By the time the press cranked up, the snow was about 8 inches deep, and I couldn't really see the road. I realized I had to cross the Dan River to get home. I fell in behind an 18-wheeler and followed his tracks across the high bridge and up a long hill that I wasn't sure we were going be able to reach the top, where my road turned off.

Many more early mornings with the ground turned white greeted me during my years at the afternoon paper. Snow meant we had to get in early, gather the news, write it, edit it, send it to production, and then hope the newspaper carriers would show up and would complete their routes. Most of them did, most of the time. I took my wife to work and brought her home a few times, driving my car with a manual transmission because I thought it gave me better control. I still skidded frighteningly when I tapped my breaks on an icy sheet on a side street late one afternoon.

So being in a line of work that does not turn snowfall into a mandatory, harried, sometimes scary workday is a nice relief. I'll get to the office tomorrow, even if I have to walk.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Good editing requires continual practice

A former colleague asked me to do a little editing on a college student's project, and I readily agreed to do a favor. Other than editing my own writing and occasionally pulling out a pen to mark mistakes in the newspaper, I have done very little editing in the past five years.

Like all learned responses, editing skills get rusty after a spell of inactivity. Sitting before a computer monitor and looking for misspellings, subject-verb disagreements, verb tense errors and so forth is something you have to do continually to be good at it. Early in my newspaper career, I was not a very good editor. As a college student, I liked to quote Ernest Hemingway, who once defended his errors by saying, "Anybody can hire an editor." I was a writer, not an editor. But my career demanded that I become an editor, and so I did, with the help of some good grammar seminars and my striving to explain to reporters why my corrections were based on good grammar and syntax.

Editing is a thankless job. If you get it right, no one notices. If you miss one word — or even one letter — used in error, everyone thinks you must be an idiot. I've had the embarrassing experience of seeing errors once an article was in print, but I had missed that very error when I saw it on the computer screen — before it was too late. When I look back at old posts in this blog, I find simple errors I had overlooked before.

Newspaper readers frequently complain that no one proofreads any more, and that's true in the strict sense of the word. In the old days, when everything in the newspaper was typed into lead type on a Linotype machine, proofreaders would sit and compare the reporter's typewritten copy to the "proof" sheet from the Linotype. Typographical errors would be corrected.

With the advent of "cold type" — computer-generated copy on paper or in digital form — proofreaders were eliminated, as were Linotype operators. All of the burden of getting a story right fell on editors. And editors are as fallible as anyone. That's why I insisted on having what we called a "second read." After one editor finished editing story, he or she would hand it off to another editor for a second look in an effort to catch any oversights. It was not a fail-safe system, but it was better than relying on just two eyes.

Good editing takes practice. You learn to stop and look at certain words, such as "lay" or "its" because their misuse is very common. You also look at antecedents and plural nouns. When you're doing this kind of work every day, it becomes second nature. I am no longer doing this every day, so I have yet another excuse for any mistakes I make.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Celebrate the 30th birthday of a revolutionary

I'm writing this post on a Macintosh computer, 30 years after the Mac was introduced to the world in that memorable Super Bowl "Big Brother" commercial. At that time, my family had a PC Jr., or maybe it was an earlier Radio Shack computer. We could do little more than word processing on whatever it was. There was no Internet, and the only things online were birds and fallen limbs.

The Mac was revolutionary (which justifies the Super Bowl commercial) with its small, monochrome screen and its (voila!) mouse. The computers I used at the newspaper in those days were very basic, monochrome DOS machines with a blinking green cursor and green type. Commands had to be written in arcane code to do something as simple as boldface or italicize a word. There was no mouse and no icons.

It was a lot like the Apple IIC computer that I used in a BASIC programming class I took at Atlantic Christian College in 1981. Everything was in code, and you better get it right! The early Apples had been heavily marketed to schools, and many of today's adults got their introduction to computing on Apple IIs.

My wife got to use one of the early Macs when she went to work as a church secretary in the mid-1980s. She soon mastered the word processing, page layout and spreadsheet functions, creating her own church software package. Macs swept the newspaper business, and sometime in the late 1980s, my newspaper bought one Mac for the use of the entire newsroom. We used it for designing logos and occasionally for getting online. Later, the Associated Press stopped sending photos via its patented Laserphoto scanning machine and began posting photos online so that member newspaper could download them, via that Mac computer.

When that Mac, which cost about $8,000 with its software, monitor, printer, etc. became archaic, I purchased it from the newspaper for a few hundred dollars, and it became our family computer. We could dial up to get on AOL, and we used the installed word processing and other software. We used the mouse to get around.

It was the 1990s before the newspaper invested in Macs for the entire newsroom, and we became a truly connected newsroom for the first time. I loved the Mac and got into good-natured arguments with my older brother, a long-time IBM employee who sneered at all things Apple.

The newspaper stuck with Macs for as long as I was there. We had the basic rectangular box Macs and the short-lived Mac Cube (with its "toaster" CD drive), some early iMacs and some eMacs. When we were contemplating a major software change in the 1990s, we considered dumping Macs because Apple Computer was deeply troubled and rumored to be headed for bankruptcy. Then Steve Jobs returned, the iMac and iPod came along, and Apple became one of the most admired and loved companies in the world.

When our oldest daughter went off to college, we bought her an electric typewriter. Four years later, when her sister headed to college, we bought her a used Mac Classic — which looked just like the original 1984 Mac. When her Mac's screen failed to light up, I purchased from a friend (for shipping charges only) an original Mac — one without a hard drive; everything was on those revolutionary 3.5 inch discs — in hopes that I could swap out the monitors (picture tubes) and have her Mac working again. When I got the case off (no easy task, by the way), I discovered that the "yoke" that held the wires connecting the monitor to the guts of the computer had fallen off when she hauled the computer home from college. I put the yoke back, and it continued to serve her needs. I ended up using that original Mac for a bookend.

Our family is on its sixth or seventh Mac, some bought new, some bought used. My current working companion is a Mac Mini, a cube barely larger than a CD case that has all the speed and computing power I need. It's hooked to an HP monitor (I went cheap). We've had three iMacs, none of them the fruit-colored plastic blob that was the original iMac style, and now we own iPods, iPhones and iPads, too.

Computers have come a long way, and so have we, in the last 30 years. The ingenious, revolutionary Mac led the way.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Edenton Seven: hysteria, false accusations, ruined lives

I'm glad to see Lew Powell take up the cause of the Edenton Seven, who were persecuted (that's not a malapropism for prosecuted) during the strange hysteria over imagined satanic rituals and child sexual abuse. That hysteria swept the country in the 1980s.

At first the allegations were simply shocking: Day care employees were accused by preschool children of fondling or raping them. But the allegations grew and grew, eventually entangling everyone who worked at the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, even the business' cook, who had little contact with the children. And the accusations became more and more bizarre. According to the children's testimony, some children were murdered or mutilated in cruel and incredible ways, even involving a magical spaceship travel. Of course, there were no dead children and no physical evidence of abuse. Few people had the courage to point out that preschool children can tell fantastic tales that have no basis in fact and can swear it's all true.

Despite all the obviously incredible — that is, not believable, not trustworthy — claims, the prosecutors and ill-trained therapists marched on. The accused were locked in jail under million-dollar bonds. The prosecution dragged on, but none of the accused cracked and testified against the others. Prosecutors and some townspeople claimed this was evidence of a massive conspiracy, instead of the more rational explanation of a hysteria-driven persecution on a par with the Salem witch trials. The prosecutors got their convictions, but a state appeals court threw them out.

Reputations were destroyed. Lives were ruined. Years were stolen. All because some people were eager to believe that pedophilia-driven satan worshipers were lurking everywhere. This hysteria sprouted across the country, in Southern California, in Massachusetts, in rural Washington. None of the convictions stood up on appeal. I told someone at the time that you'd have to be crazy to open a day care because you would be helpless against an unfounded accusation of physical or sexual abuse. One writer at the time explained the hysteria as a result of parents' feelings of guilt over leaving their precious children in the hands of strangers all day every day of the week.

Powell is right. The state should exonerate those wrongly convicted members of the Edenton Seven and the wrongly accused who were never convicted but had their lives ruined. The Innocence Project has freed men wrongly accused of murder or rape, but there seems to be little interest in making amends for those wrongly accused of abusing children, no matter how fantastical the accusations.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The cold just keeps getting colder

This has nothing to do with global warming, but it may have to do with aging. I have found in recent years that I am far more sensitive to cold than I used to be. I just don't tolerate the cold the way I once did.

I vividly remember my early years, playing outdoors no matter how cold it was. All of my friends did the same. None of us had bulky down jackets, and rarely did we wear hats or gloves, but we managed to play football or soldier or cowboys for hours on end with temperatures in the 30s or lower. At school, we would skate on frozen-over puddles that were so solid, we never cracked the ice.

As a teenager, I walked down through the woods to the creek, which had frozen over, and I walked on the creek ice as if it were a paved hiking trail, clear of the brush and briers that clogged the banks. I recall spending hours there, all alone, oblivious to the dangers. If I had fallen through the ice, there was no one to help me out, and I likely would have frozen to death long before anyone found me. I doubt that I told anyone where I was going. In those days, we just went, and we came home when we tired of what we were doing.

I rarely wore gloves as an adolescent, and the gloves I wore to make snowballs quickly became soggy. Now, I need gloves simply to take the dog for a walk around the block on a day in the low 40s.

There's no doubt that I am more sensitive to cold. I have new sympathy for elderly folks (more elderly than I) bundled in layers of sweaters while keeping the thermostat on 82. I hope I am spared that sort of loss of control over body temperature, morphing into a cold-blooded animal, but I can see how it can happen.

The earth might be warming, but the cold just keeps getting colder as I grow older.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Football bowl games are not what they used to be

This is day — what? — of the college football bowl season. There has been at least one bowl game on television every day or night since sometime around the beginning of Advent. Who can keep track any more?

Gone are the days of New Year's Day bowls stacked one over another all day long and into the night. You had to choose which one to watch. You couldn't possibly watch them all, even if you had a TV remote control, which you didn't. You had to physically get up and turn the knob to get a different channel, and because all TV was broadcast, you might not get a clear picture on one or more of the games.

The big bowls were the only bowls at the time — the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl — and they were all played in warm climates so that those of us shivering in a poorly heated house could vicariously feel the tropical warmth shown on TV. Those days are long gone. Bowls have proliferated. Someone noticed that attracting 100,000 football fans for a holiday weekend was good for the local economy, so bowls grew in all sorts of places, such as Memphis, Nashville, Orlando, Atlanta, Tempe, and so on. It got to the point that there were so many bowls that teams with barely winning records received guaranteed bowl berths. Thus, we have bowls pitting two 6-6 teams against each other in stadiums that are more than half empty.

While they may have been money-makers for the local economy, bowls were expensive to put on, so corporate sponsors were added with companies like Continental Tire and Tostitos corn chips lending their names to bowls.

And, of course, television ruled everything in collegiate football (just as in collegiate basketball). The TV rulers determined that it would be better for their ratings if the big bowls didn't compete for viewers' attention, and so the bowls were spread out from early December to sometime in January with starting times determined not by local clocks but by the national prime time. Tonight's game starts at 8 or 8:30, which means I might watch the beginning of the game but probably won't watch the end.

For all its flaws, college football is a supremely entertaining and exciting athletic/art form. I have watched bits of most of the bowl games this season, excepting the arcane bowls in out-of-the-way places pitting two mediocre teams against each other. Some of the games (such as Duke vs. Texas A&M) were supremely suspenseful and entertaining, and some were runaways. That's the way college football is.