Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remembering the time when I was quarantined

Talk of quarantine for Ebola-exposed people took me back to the early 1950s, when nurses in white uniforms from the Anson County Health Department posted a QUARANTINE sign on the front door of our modest farmhouse.

My older sister had scarlet fever and lay in a darkened back bedroom, so the other six members of the family were forbidden to leave the house. Our term in home detention was a week or 10 days, as best I remember.

The year was 1953 or '54, I think. I was small enough that when I peeked inside the bedroom where all the children, except the youngest, usually slept, I was looking upward at the bed, where my sister's silent, feverish body lay. My mother shooed me out of the doorway promptly. One sick child was enough.

My memory recalls only a couple of scenes from that period of quarantine. My father could not go to work, and the children could not go to school. I could not play with my sister, four years older than I, as I usually did. We could not even go to church on Sunday. My parents could abide missing school, but not missing church. So we all got dressed in our church clothes on Sunday morning, and Daddy preached to the little congregation sitting on the cedar chest and ladderback chairs in our parents' bedroom. We sang hymns and read Scripture.

When our time in quarantine expired, my oldest brother went out the front door and tore the sign down. My sick sister recovered, only to die less than a decade later in a tragic car accident.

About 20 years after that quarantine, my wife called me to say our toddler daughter, our only child, had a raging fever. I rushed home and we took her to the hospital. The diagnosis: scarlet fever. She received a prescription and medication to bring her fever down. She recovered quickly. We were not quarantined.

Medical care had improved, much for the better.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How to atone for academic scandal

It's disappointing and embarrassing. We are beyond shock now after years of embarrassing revelations about athletics scandals at the University of North Carolina.

Blame it on hubris. Blame it on ambition. Blame it on misplaced values. Wherever you place blame, it is deeply embarrassing to the university.

Easy classes with generous grading curves — what some have called "student-friendly classes" — have been around for generations and are present at virtually every university, college and high school. I heard about them when I was a student at UNC 45 years ago, and I was not above taking some courses because of their reputations for minimal work and favorable grading.

But what the Wainstein report revealed goes far, far beyond that universal appeal of classes students could "slide" through. Some members of the academic and support staff deliberately created classes that were designed to ensure athletes maintained their academic eligibility. Academic fraud was committed. The university's good name was trampled in the rush for athletic prowess. Some student athletes were denied a quality education, which many cared little about, in the effort to keep them on track for their true ambition to be stars in professional leagues.

UNC's misplaced values are painfully apparent in the push for more seats in the once-charming and bucolic football stadium. First came lights for night games that television favored. Then came the expansion of the stadium, enclosing the west end of the stadium to form a horseshoe with luxurious coaches' offices and fine training facilities and academic tutoring space. Even that was not enough, and the university raised money to tear down the landmark field house (which dated to the stadium's origins in the 1920s) at the east end of the stadium and build luxury booths, the "Blue Zone," behind the end zone.

UNC also expanded its recruiting in an effort to be a national football power. Enrollment standards had to be relaxed. Exceptions had to be made, and students who were not prepared for college-level work had to be tutored and assisted and remediated and academically coddled in order to stay on the field. Some believed, perhaps rightly, that these athletes couldn't make it without even greater efforts, such as classes that never met and grades that never fell below a B for even minimal effort or plagiarized papers.

How will UNC atone for this embarrassment? Chancellor Carol Folt seems to be on the right track with a new commitment to transparency, a pledge to fire or discipline those most involved in this scandal and an apology to students and alumni. But real atonement must come from a willingness to scale back the athletics empire. Strip athletics from its control of athletic tutoring. Put an end to admissions exceptions for athletes. Raise academic standards for admission. If necessary, drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has grown into monster with national ambitions and no standards. Fifty years ago, the eight-member ACC held athletes to high standards — an 800 minimum (out of 1600) on the SAT that exceeded NCAA standards. 

Standards: That's what Carolina needs again, and so do all colleges.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The election is two weeks from today, and at my house, you don't really need a calendar to know that. The imminence of the election is obvious on the television, in the mailbox and even on our home answering machine.

Yesterday, my wife retrieved a message from the answering machine from some unnamed caller who addressed her as "Virginia" — her legal name but one that no one ever calls her. He used the name twice in his message, each time with a brief, awkward pause before enunciating her name. He wanted to tell her about "cap-and-trade," a failed proposal to reduce carbon emissions by creating a global market in emissions permits. The proposal would have cost thousands of jobs, the caller said, and Sen. Kay Hagan voted for it, as if she hated jobs and wanted thousands of North Carolina residents to be unemployed. Never once did he tell "Virginia" to vote against Hagan two weeks from today. Instead, he urged her to call the senator and complain about her vote for cap-and-trade.

The caller's script was eerily similar to fliers we had received in the mail. The slick, brightly colored, over-sized fliers accused Hagan of the cap-and-trade sin and urged us to call her office and complain. Two of these fliers — similar in design and printing but different — arrived in one day.

Yesterday's caller identified himself as calling from "Crossroads GPS," a group founded by Karl Rove, George W. Bush's campaign guru. I believe the fliers also came from Rove's group, but I've thrown them away and can't remember for sure.

These intrusions into our home privacy are evidence of the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent on the North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign this year by both Democratic and Republican supporters. Some of the money is being spent in the traditional way by the candidates' campaigns and some by their respective parties, but even more is being spent by "independent" groups, which have been legalized by legislation and court decisions.

All this makes me wonder about the "opportunity cost" — a term from my two semesters of economics. Opportunity cost is simply what one forgoes in spending money. For example, if you buy a couple of $100 tickets to a rock concert, you forgo the opportunity to spend that money on other things, such as groceries or a car repair or a chair for the living room.

What is the opportunity cost of the billions of dollars being spent on this year's election campaigns? Imagine what a few hundred billion dollars could do to control Ebola in West Africa or to invest in child care for the poor or to improve America's passenger rail system or to reform public education.

One simple lesson I learned from economics (and from life) is that everything has its cost. Are we spending wisely?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Court victories could hurt at polls

Sometimes victories can have negative side effects. If Democrats didn't already have an uphill struggle in next month's elections, a victory in the courts could end up being a handicap at the polls.

Supporters rejoiced at a series of federal court victories that made same-sex marriage legal in a majority of the states, but those victories could cause pain at the polls for Democrats, who have generally supported the "marriage equality" efforts. But victories in court could cause a backlash at the polls. When same-sex marriage has been on the ballot, it has lost in almost every case. Conservative voters might rise up to protest the courts' imposition of a right that most state legislatures and most voters in statewide referendums had rejected. Polls indicate that public opinion has shifted on the same-sex marriage issue with a narrow majority now accepting the gay marriage. But it's turnout, not opinion, that determines election outcomes.

In elections that are extremely close or uncertain, firing up a small segment of the electorate to turn out can sway an election, and that might be what we will see in two weeks. Narrow Senate races, including the one in North Carolina, could be decided by conservative voters who turn out to protest federal court decisions that they see as immoral or unnatural. With the Senate so tightly contested, a shift in one or two states could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Already, some commentators are blaming the Senate for approving nominees to the federal judiciary. Voters don't have a say in judicial appointments, but they do have a say in who serves in the Senate. Blaming a Democratic candidate for the actions of a federal judge might be unfair, even unreasonable, but an emotional, irrational reaction can change an election.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The downsizing of the morning newspaper

My morning paper is downsizing. That's the clearest way of describing it, but News & Observer editor John Drescher took a different angle in his column in Tuesday's edition. He couched the changes as a means of emphasizing local reporting, but there's no getting around the fact that the paper is going to be smaller and, for me, at least, less well organized.

The N&O is eliminating the Triangle section, where they played most of the local and state news that was not worthy of front-page treatment. Drescher says the local/state news will appear in the A section henceforth, but that important news does not get its own section any more, and it will be disconcerting to see articles about the General Assembly mixed in with stories about Iraq and ISIS and typhoons in Japan.

I suspect the N&O had little choice but to cut the number of newsprint pages in each edition. After personnel, newsprint has traditionally been the largest expenditure for daily newspapers. I've been out of the business for six years and haven't kept up with newsprint prices, but I'd wager that newsprint costs are still a major concern for American newspapers.

In the past 10 years, we've witnessed the collapse of the newspaper business. Once one of the most profitable businesses in the country ("a license to print money," some called it), the news business now is tough. Thousands of newspaper veterans have been laid off, and many newspapers have ceased publication. Those that remain have had to make cuts wherever they can.

The heart of their problem is the shift of advertising from print to digital. I can well remember when the Sunday classified section of the N&O ran into dozens of pages — job listings, automobile ads, individual for-sale, services, etc., all neatly "classified" by type. The Washington Post, which was once my morning paper delivered to my doorstep, was so thick and heavy on Sunday, it was a workout just to carry it into the house. But that gold mine of classifieds was doomed. Digital ads made it possible to search through hundreds of thousands of pages for one particular make and model of car or a specific job specialty in a particular place. Print could not match that convenience, and both job listings and other classifieds have nearly disappeared, along with billions of dollars in ad revenue for newspapers.

Alan D. Mutter has followed these issues more closely than I, and he is brutal in his estimate of just how bad a fix print newspapers are in.

For those of us who enjoy a print newspaper (and there still are many of us), this is a sad time. Many newspapers have cut so deeply that news coverage has  suffered badly. Whole categories of news, once covered thoroughly by major newspapers, are largely ignored in this new reality.

I will continue to subscribe because I still find newspapers to be the most effective means of keeping up with what's going on in the area, in the state, in the nation and in the world. Digital searches can find specific items, but turning a newspaper's page can lead you to places you'd never thought of and make you think of things you'd never thought of. 

I have made one concession to the digital news world. When I am out of town and far away from my newspaper lying in my driveway, I can read the newspaper — the actual printed page — using a mobile app. But for as long as I can get my hands on the print edition, I will prefer it, even as it shrinks before my eyes.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

If we hope to compromise, we must speak the same language

No one doubts that Congress has difficulty getting anything done these days, as partisan belligerence bubbles just below the boiling point year after year.

Has anyone considered that there might be a language barrier?

It's not that Hispanic or other ethnic groups have gained seats in Congress or that women have won seats and do not speak (or think) the same way as men or that northerners can't understand southerners' drawl or that wide-open westerners think differently than intellectual, crowded easterners.

The different factions in Congress and throughout the country simply don't speak the same language. They have different words to describe the same issues. For example:
• One side's "Woman's Right to Choose" is the other side's "Right to Life." Pro-choice or pro-life. Both sides avoid the more straightforward word — abortion.
• One side's "Marriage Equality" is the other side's "Redefinition of Marriage."
• One side's "Right to Carry" is the other side's "Gun Violence."
• One side's "Election Fraud Prevention" is the other side's "Restriction of Voting Rights."
• One side's "Balanced Budget" is the other side's "Shredding the Safety Net."
• One side's "Tax Reform" is the other side's "Soak the Rich."
• One side's "Judicial Activism" is the other side's "Protecting the Constitution."

All of these catch phrases are not intended to enhance the chances for compromise. On the contrary, they are designed to further divide constituencies and turn out the vote for either side. Until we can agree on what to call issues and policies — until we speak the same language — we have no hope for reaching compromises on important issues. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Autumn has arrived

The chill in this morning's air signaled that autumn really has arrived. The walk in short sleeves to the end of the driveway to retrieve the morning paper was cold, the temperature below 50. I dug my hands into my pockets. The forecast calls for warming into the upper 70s and even warmer tomorrow.

But autumn surely is here. In the deep black sky this morning, I saw Orion leading his hunting dogs across the celestial sphere. Last night, a half moon shone like a beacon, peeking from behind the pines against the velvet sky.

On Saturday, I had dressed for a warm day on the sunny side of the college football stadium and came home with a "farmer's tan" along my upper arms. But when the sun went down after we arrived in Raleigh later that day for the Bluegrass Festival, the warmth of the sun disappeared, and the brisk breeze blew frigid air that had me wrapping my torso in my arms to keep warm. A borrowed long-sleeve T-shirt gave some relief, even as the musicians on the outdoor stage complained that they were so cold they couldn't feel their fingers.

More warm days are coming, but fall has arrived. Leaves have begun to litter my back yard, and soon they will be as deep as the sea foam at the edge of the surf. I will spend weekend days with a rake in my hand, trying to confine the botanical discards to their assigned places even as a wintry wind stirs them out of place.

Shorter days, harsher light, colder nights are upon us. Today, the briskness is invigorating, but soon the cold will reach my bones, the darkness will shadow my mood, the weather will turn treacherous and we will long for warmth and springtime once again.