Thursday, April 27, 2017

1960s visions of the future of newspapers

When I was a student in the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, professors and textbooks talked about the future of newspapers with wildly futuristic visions. Some sources proposed newspapers that would be delivered to your house via telephone wires or broadcast frequencies and printed out in your home on some sort of personal printing press. Others envisioned a newspaper that would appear on your television, and you would be able to read the newspaper by sitting in front of the TV.

All these fantasies were widely dismissed by students and professors alike. The public would not want to give up the printed newspaper that had been part of American life for 200 years. How would you divide up the sections of these news platforms with each family members getting to read a section at the time? That home printing press would be expensive and would fill an entire room. Current technologies couldn't possibly handle the abundance of information contained in newspapers to squeeze that info onto a home printing press or a TV screen. The broadcast or wire transmission of this volume of news would clog the air waves and phone lines and make them collapse from the volume.

The traditional printed newspaper, available for hundreds of years, should be good enough for another few hundred years, most everyone thought, perhaps until messages can be transmitted directly to the brain by brain waves or thoughts transmission.

Earlier this week, I decided not to trudge through the rain to the end of the driveway to pick up my copy of the Raleigh newspaper. Instead, I sat comfortably inside, drank my coffee and read the News and Observer online version on my antiquated, first-generation, hand-me-down iPad.

This technology, far superior to anything the textbooks and professors of the 1960s ever dreamed of, is satisfying and near-perfectly replicates the print version of the newspaper. I see each page as it appears in print. I click on a story I want to read, and it enlarges to a comfortable reading size. I tap to turn the pages. I get to see every story that's in the print edition but without getting soaked while walking to the end of the driveway.

This technology and its cousins have given us a parallel means, arguably a better means, of reading the morning newspaper. At the same time, technology has destroyed the business model of traditional newspapers. Classified advertising, which once consumed a dozen or more pages of high-dollar income for newspapers every day, has now retreated to specialty websites that are searchable and cheaper than anything print newspapers could offer.

As a member of the last generation raised on print newspapers, I am often shocked that young people don't feel a need to read a newspaper, in whatever form. Television and the internet, including news sites on that phone in your pocket (I have one of those, too), have made information more accessible but, often, less enlightening and less reliable than traditional newspapers. Younger generations seem less connected to local, national and world events because their exposure to "news" is selective and often slanted.

Journalism professors of the 1960s were wrong about the future of newspapers. The great cataclysm came sooner than expected and in a way no one could have imagined 50 years ago. Many thousands of newspaper jobs, including one I held, have disappeared. No home printing press, no TV newspaper but a different medium has disrupted newspapers, which are still trying to find a means of providing information to the public in a profitable, reliable way.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War memories

A North Carolina legislator has compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler, calling our 16th president a tyrant and holding him personally responsible for 800,000 deaths. People like him are running this state's education system?

First, some admissions: Many southerners reviled Lincoln, partly because he threatened the economic system of the South, which was based on slave labor, but also because of his decision to forcefully prevent the Confederate states from leaving the Union. The Civil War wreaked horrendous damage upon the South, where nearly all of the battles were fought, and where federal policy called for destroying the ability to wage war, which included destroying crops and farmland that could support armies and civilians.

An elderly teacher from my childhood told about a Confederate veteran she had known when she was a child. Given change at a store, the old man refused to accept pennies because they bore the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, a man he hated. That is how ingrained and intense feelings toward Lincoln were.

News coverage of the Lincoln-Hitler analogy raised the question of whether secession of states was constitutional. Some "experts" said the states' ratifying of the Constitution made secession unconstitutional. That, it seems to me, is a stretch. There was nothing in the Constitution that forbade secession or made a state's ratification irrevocable. Secessionists claimed, with some validity, that their decision to leave the Union was no different from the Continental Congress' decision to leave the British Empire.

Even if we assume secession was a legitimate course, it need not lead to Civil War. This disagreement could have been fought in the courts instead of on the fields of Manassas, Gettysburg, Shiloh and other places. Secessionists in South Carolina are primarily responsible for turning the disagreement into armed conflict. They fired the first shot, bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in an effort to unseat the Union garrison. Lincoln responded by attempting to reinforce and resupply that garrison and by raising an army to enforce Union authority throughout the seceded states.

Small miscalculations often lead to tragedy. The secessionists were certain they could expel federal troops from the South. Lincoln was certain that a show of force would bring the secessionists to their senses. Both were wrong. What followed was the greatest tragedy in American history, but it came with one benefit: It ended slavery decades before that economic system would have died from its own shortcomings and the public's revulsion.

Lincoln did cancel habeas corpus and jailed people without trial, but he was facing imminent assassination and sabotage by Confederate agents and sympathizers. For any errors Lincoln might have made, he gets a pass based on his soaring rhetoric that defines American principles of "government of the people, for the people and by the people," and "malice toward none and charity for all."

His assassination denied the nation an opportunity for more peaceful and amicable reconciliation, with charity for all.

Lincoln as Hitler? Ridiculous! A shameful analogy!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why the years go by so fast

It's an accepted fact that as one grows older, the years go by faster and faster. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, seasons all come faster than they did a few decades ago, when it seemed Christmas would never arrive. Now, a new Christmas season comes before the detritus from the last one is cleared away. Birthdays click by before you can do the math on the last one.

My wife and I have discovered a complement to this accepted fact about years: as we grow older, there is less time to do the things we have to do, need to do and want to do. Keeping the house clean, keeping the yard mowed, keeping the garden weeded and pruned, keeping the laundry done, preparing meals, shopping for groceries — the time to do all these things gets more difficult to find as the years rapidly pass.

If the years are flying past, I suggested to her, then the hours of each day must also be speeding by like a meteor flashing across the night sky. Look aside and you miss it.

We are trapped in this vortex of continuously shortened years. These shortened years require shortened months, which require shortened weeks, which require shortened days, which require shortened hours, and, therefore, we cannot find the time in these perniciously shortened hours to do the things we need to do and want to do.

We cannot slow down the passing years, no matter how much we'd like to freeze time at moments with our children and grandchildren or with siblings, parents and friends. We can only accept the loss of time and the rapidly compressing windows of opportunity to go to the places we want to go, see the people we want to see, do the things we want to do. We can only live in the moment and accept the unmowed yard, the disheveled house, the unweeded garden. Concentrate instead on what is most important, what is most precious, what matters most, and reserve your shortened hours for those times. Time flies, so grasp it while you can.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Senate filibuster dead and buried

The filibuster is dead. Long live majority rule.

Senate Republican leaders tripped the switch Thursday after Democrats vowed to filibuster the confirmation of Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and executed the rule that a super-majority will be required to end debate on the Senate floor.

The filibuster had been rarely used in Supreme Court nominations, but these are rare times, and Democrats had enough votes to stop the nomination with more than 40 votes pledged to force the traditional, 60-vote super-majority to end debate over the nomination. Frustrated by this barricade, Republicans vowed to destroy one of the most hallowed traditions of the Senate, the liberty to continue debate indefinitely so long as a substantial minority of senators allowed such a delay.

Republicans had a nominee in Gorsuch who was as moderate as any Republican nominee could be expected to be. He was well qualified and well respected. In an ideal world, judges like Gorsuch would be confirmed with minimal debate. But this is not an ideal world, and Democrats were united to fight the nomination. Republicans vowed to do anything to get Gorsuch seated on the Supreme Court, even if it meant tearing apart the Senate.

Democrats had some righteous indignation on their side. President Obama nominated a well-respected jurist, Merrick Garland, to replace Antonin Scalia a year ago. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, contending that the voters in the 2016 election should decide — a unique piece of illogical reasoning in the annals of American politics. Democrats argued that Republicans' refusal to even discuss Garland's nomination was even worse than a filibuster.

Democrats' record in defense of the filibuster has not been pristine. When Obama's federal court nominees languished for months because Republicans filibustered their nominations, Democratic leader Harry Reid pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster in federal judgeships not including the Supreme Court.

Now the filibuster is gone, and no one knows what its demise might mean in the Senate. The hyper-partisanship in Congress can hardly get any worse, and the 60-vote cloture requirement seems quaint in an era of non-stop debate and non-stop campaigning outside the halls of Congress. The death of the filibuster might mean little in the long run. Filibusters have not been what they originally were for years now. Rarely has a senator talked non-stop for days to block legislation as was done in the first 150 years of the Senate. For years now, only the threat of a filibuster was enough to stop legislation. We had filibuster-lite, a watered down, painless blocking movement.

What is being lost, and has been lost for years, is the sense of camaraderie, of principle above party, of public interest over partisan interest. The dead filibuster is just one more symptom of the disease.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thirty years ago, a new title

On Saturday, April 1, I will observe the 30th anniversary of my promotion to editor of The Wilson Daily Times. I had been managing editor for seven years, and when Roy Taylor retired, he pushed for me to succeed him, rather than bringing in someone from outside.

With that 1987 promotion, I changed desks and earned an actual office with a door that could be closed, instead of a desk in a corner of the wide-open newsroom. My work changed relatively little from what I had done the previous seven years. I wrote editorials, as I had done part-time as M.E., and I hired a city editor to directly supervise reporters, but I still kept close tabs on local news coverage, editing and newsroom standards. I retained supervision of the sports and lifestyle departments.

The next few years were the most satisfying and rewarding of my three-decade career in newspapers. James J. Kilpatrick, the late Richmond editor and columnist, once wrote that being a newspaper editor was the best job in the world. I cannot argue.

At the WDT, we worked hard at giving our readers the best news coverage we could provide. We broke some good stories, and we covered two devastating hurricanes in 1996 and 1999, each of which was a "story of a lifetime." At the same time, we battled the readership and advertising changes that sent the newspaper industry into a near-death spiral. Consultants hired to "fix" the newspaper offered desperate and sometimes contradictory solutions that ultimately failed to repel the societal and technological trends that wiped out newspapers' long-successful business model.

Desperate to stay afloat, newspaper owners shed employees by the dozens at newspapers across the country, and tens of thousands of newspaper jobs disappeared nationwide. I became one of those statistics after 33 years in the business and 29 years at the same newspaper. I chose not to be bitter about that and to seek a new career rather than mope.

On this anniversary, I prefer to remember the good times, which were many.

Monday, March 27, 2017

All Supreme Court nominations are divisive

"A pox on both your houses," Shakespeare might say, were he around to observe the U.S. Senate's "advise and consent" duties in recent years. 

The Senate is headed toward a filibuster over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Democrats say they cannot in good conscience approve the nomination of such a man. The Republican leadership appears ready to eliminate the Senate's cloture rule, which has been around since the first years of the Republic, in order to get Gorsuch approved.

President Trump's nomination of Gorsuch came a year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a year in which the Republican-controlled Senate refused to even hold hearings on the nomination by President Obama of moderate Judge Merrick Garland. The Republican rationale was that voters might elect a Republican to the White House in 2016, and that president might nominate someone more conservative and more to their liking. The reasoning they presented to the public was that the 2016 electorate should decide who fills that Supreme Court seat; it shouldn't be filled by the 2008 and 2012 electorate that chose President Obama or by a president who has held office for seven years. It didn't matter whether anyone accepted their thinking, the Republicans controlled the Senate and got their way.

My hope was that Hillary Clinton would win and take revenge by nominating someone far less to Republicans' liking, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. (Check with William Howard Taft about the willingness of former president to accept appointment to the Supreme Court.)

(Not that I wanted Hillary Clinton to be president -- I simply wanted the GOP leadership to learn a hard-earned lesson. I thought voters might punish Republicans for obstinately blockading a qualified nominee, but I was wrong.)

What I've heard of Gorsuch's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and what I've read about Merritt persuades me to believe that both men are well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. A court with five Gorsuches and four Garlands, or five Garlands and four Gorsuches, it seems to me, would be a good, reasonable court.

Consider this: A recent poll found that more than half of Americans surveyed could name even one current Supreme Court justice. It's true that Supreme Court justices serve for decades and almost always influence events long after their sponsoring president has left office. But most voters don't know a single justice.

Judicial nominations have not always been so partisan. When Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan, it was assumed that the old rules would apply: a qualified nominee would be approved by the Senate in deference to the president's preferences, so long as no ethical or competency issues arose. But Bork's nomination unexpectedly faced a concerted effort by Democrats and interest groups to stop him. Hence, the verb "borked," meaning to be demonized unfairly by lobbying and media campaigns, was born. Suddenly, Supreme Court nominations became national elections without a popular vote (by people who can't name a single justice).

The nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush took a similar path, but he eked out an appointment, 52-48, after an extremely emotional and divisive hearing.

Since then, the partisanship has extended even to federal district court nominations, prompting Democrats, who then controlled the Senate, to change the time-honored rules and stop debate on lower-court nominations, but not Supreme Court nominations. 

Now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears ready to use the "nuclear option" and halt debate with a simple majority vote on Supreme Court nominees. If that happens, the Republic will not fall, but this change will likely only make the nomination process more partisan and divisive.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Freedom Caucus sells out constituents

The House Freedom Caucus succeeded yesterday in stopping a vote on the Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. Even after President Trump met with the coalition and begged them to come around and allow the bill to pass, the caucus refused. They wanted more concessions. Already, they had wrangled enough concessions out of the GOP leadership to frighten some more moderate members of the party.

The Freedom Caucus leaders criticized the GOP replacement for the ACA as "Obamacare Light." They wanted more than just a halt to some of the essential elements of the ACA; they wanted every vestige of the 2010 legislation ripped from federal law. A ban on pre-existing conditions as grounds for refusing coverage? Out! Allowing 26-year-olds to remain on their parents' insurance? Gone! Coverage of contraception? No! Coverage of mental health as well as physical health? Nope! Limits on higher premiums for older people? No way! Ending limits on lifetime coverage? Out!

The Freedom Caucus is getting its way (even as Republicans in and out of Congress work to find a way to shove their bill through the House), but Republican candidates everywhere might rue the day when the Freedom Caucus succeeded. For all the criticism of "Obamacare" and the GOP's ridiculously redundant votes to repeal "Obamacare," much of the legislation in the ACA has been quite popular. As Americans pay more attention to the details of the law that is being eliminated, it is growing in popularity, even as conservatives in Congress try to eliminate any clause that has any resemblance to the ACA. 

Republicans have a quandary. They can vote to destroy every whiff of "Obamacare" and hope the electorate does not rebel against the loss of decent health insurance coverage, or they can leave the ACA or popular parts of it in place and face questions about why they wasted time voting against the ACA dozens of times but couldn't pull the trigger given the opportunity, at last, to destroy it.

The Freedom Caucus, a basically Libertarian organization, has taken an odd role as the defender of insurance companies' profits. Instead of quashing government intrusions into personal lives (the Libertarian philosophy) and cutting federal spending, the Freedom Caucus is demanding changes that hurt individual taxpayers and benefit wealthy insurance companies.

Have the high principles of the Freedom Caucus been sold out to the insurance industry's billions in campaign donations?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

House Committee begins search for truth

I listened to part of the House Intelligence Committee hearings yesterday as I drove back from a meeting in Raleigh. For a few minutes, dazed by the monotony of that familiar ribbon of U.S. 264, I imagined I was listening again to the Watergate hearings or the subsequent impeachment hearings.

The partisan divide was in place. Republicans seemed unconcerned about the apparent attempt of Russia to interfere with U.S. elections, just as their predecessors had been unconcerned about apparent illegal activities by the Nixon administration — break-ins, using federal agencies for political purposes, lying under oath, disregard for individual rights and so on. Democrats were more attuned to what they saw as the larger — much larger — issue. While Rep. Trey Gowdy listed the names of Democrats in the Obama administration who might have had access to information that had been linked — a suggested sort of guilt by awareness — some Democrats sought to pull the issues out of the partisan divide.

Rep. Adam Schiff offered a Barbara Jordan-like speech that urged the committee to get to the bottom of the Russian influence in the U.S. election. He saw this attack as a threat to democracy. Jordan, if you don't remember, was the Texas congresswoman who gave a galvanizing speech that laid out the absolute necessity for the House Judiciary Committee to bring a bill of impeachment against a president guilty of utter disdain for moral limits on his power.

Where all this will lead is unclear after one day of hearings, but it is encouraging to see the House tackle the matter and seek the truth, not the "alternative facts" that have twisted the nation's moral compass.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Health care for all has only one option

After dozens of votes to repeal "Obamacare," Republicans in Congress have gotten their wish. They have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they now face the reality that repealing the act does not improve health care. The repeal leaves huge gaps in health care and eliminates many popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act, such as protecting patients from being punished for having pre-existing conditions.

The reality has hit the GOP leadership: They can't just repeal Obamacare. They have to replace it. A proposed replacement was rolled out this week, but the Congressional Budget Office has found that the GOP health care plan leaves an additional 24 million Americans without health insurance. That figure frightened some less ideological Republicans, and votes to pass the GOP plan are dissipating.

The GOP plan is under attack from the left, as Democrats decry numbers of people who are left out of the new plan, and from the right, as far-right Republicans complain that the new plan is just warmed-over Obamacare.

Maybe this is an opportunity for a bold new approach. Both the Obama plan and the new GOP (Paul Ryan) plan are built on an inherently flawed premise — that America has to keep its network of employers paying premiums for employees and insurance companies paying the bills (or part of the bills) for U.S. healthcare. This system leaves out the unemployed, under-employed and just plain unfortunate. Obama's plan, like the one Hillary Clinton tried to push through during her husband's first term, tried to force the uncovered into buying insurance. Obamacare used tax penalties and government subsidies to make people get health insurance. It increased the percentage of people with healthcare but still left many people uncovered. The new GOP plan uses the same basic strategy but uses incentives to get people to buy health insurance rather than penalties and subsidies. It would leave even more people uncovered.

Perhaps the time is right for a new strategy — one that was rejected in earlier debates, but the only one that will truly cover "all Americans," which President Trump promised the GOP plan would achieve. That option is "single-payer," which is the model nearly all Western democracies use to provide truly nationwide coverage. In this option, all Americans would pay into the system, just as we all pay into Social Security and Medicare, and a federal agency would disburse payments to health care providers. Overhead would be sharply cut with just one agency handling accounts payable rather than hundreds of insurance companies, many of whom pay their CEOs multi-million salaries.

Taxes would rise, but health insurance premiums would be eliminated for both employees and employers. How much does the average worker pay for health insurance? $500 a month? $1,000 a month? How much do employers pay? That amount (or less) would be collected in taxes and used to pay for health care of everyone. The uninsured, who are a drain on the system now, would be eliminated. Taxation could be designed to be fair to all, with the lowest-income paying lower taxes and the most affluent paying more. Making the healthcare tax a separate form of tax on both employees and employers just like Social Security and Medicare, would keep the system transparent. Some co-pays would be appropriate to keep the public from abusing the system.

This is the only way everyone would be covered. Everyone would share the risks in a risk pool of 300 million-plus people. Insurance companies would fight for their survival, but the advantages of this system is too great to allow one interest group to sabotage it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Fake news" comes from an official source

"Fake News"? It's a real phenomenon — inaccurate, misleading, outlandish, incredible, mendacious — but out there.

Where does it come from? Turns out it's not just from frustrated, anti-social millennials sitting in their parents' basement in their pajamas or entrepreneurial Macedonian techies making a lucrative living by dreaming up wildly enticing stories that lure people to click on their social media posts. Fake news also comes from ... the majority leader of the N.C. Senate.

Phil Berger, the majority leader, has posted grossly exaggerated and mean-spirited headlines on his official Facebook page with links to actual news stories from legitimate news sources, including the News & Observer. Caught and challenged about his practice, which violated Facebook's terms of use policy, Berger was unrepentant, accusing Facebook of misinterpreting its own terms of use.

Any astute user of social media should recognize Berger's wildly accusatory headlines as unprofessional and beneath the standards of the news organizations his posts link to. But Berger knows that many people won't click on the link or read the actual headline, much less read the straight-news story without Berger's partisan twist to it. He knows the headline does its damage, accusing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, of all sorts of malfeasance.

What is most disturbing to the legitimate news sources, such as the N&O, the Charlotte Observer and WBTV, is that they are listed as the source, the link, below the misleading headline. Experienced Facebook users will often check the source before clicking on a link. Berger's fake headline makes it look as though honest-to-goodness real news organizations (the "mainstream media") have the goods on the Democrats. Berger's fake news make its Democratic target and the news media both look bad.

For Berger, that's a perfect combination, a two-for-one score. No wonder he sees nothing wrong with fake news.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Trump presidential mask doesn't last

Whatever good President Trump had done for himself in his speech to Congress last week abruptly fell apart early Saturday morning, when he tweeted angry, unsupported accusations at former President Obama. Trump claimed, without any evidence or even any rational strategy, that President Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.

Government officials quickly pointed out that the president does not have the authority to order wiretaps. That action has to go through the Justice Department and a federal court established to review and limit wiretapping of American citizens. FBI director James Comey and others treated the accusations with the lack of credibility it deserves, as the equivalent of claiming Obama was intercepting Trump's brain waves through telepathy.

Trump was his old self Saturday morning, lashing out incoherently at perceived enemies. But his target, Obama, made the irrational claims even more distasteful. Since his election, Trump had praised Obama for his cooperation and advice as America transitioned from one administration to another. Obama, who strongly opposed Trump during the campaign, was overwhelmingly gracious and graceful toward the president-elect, promising him full cooperation from himself and everyone in his administration and offering insights and advice Trump. Trump thanked Obama with apparent sincerity for his cooperation and advice.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress six days ago, Trump carefully read from the teleprompter and appeared more presidential than at any time during the campaign and presidency. Then, four days later, it all imploded as the Twittering Trump lowered the boom on his predecessor without any evidence or corroboration but with plenty of malice and mendacity.

As Trump himself would say: "Sad." 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Trump who stays on message

President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night surprised me. He seemed rational, even thoughtful. A few times during the speech, he reached out to Democrats and others with promises to protect clean air and water, to provide paid family leave, and to allow at least some of the 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. He even channeled John F. Kennedy with his reference to a torch of liberty handed down from generation to generation. Kennedy in 1961 had said, "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, ..."

What he didn't do is even more important. He didn't lead his supporters in the chamber to shout "Lock her up" or "Build the wall." He didn't insult and call names the members of the press covering his address. From my observations of Trump's administration so far, none of these repulsive actions would have surprised me. In the past year, he has dismissed or insulted members of the military and their families. He called the press "enemies of the people." Tuesday, he led an extended applause for the widow of an American sailor killed in a raid. The lingering focus on her and her grief must have been agonizing for this widow of only a month, tears streaming down her face, which was contorted by grief.

Trump demonstrated that he could stick to a script, that he could use a teleprompter without wandering off message or striking out at perceived enemies or distorting some perceived slight. This was Trump's best, most presidential speech. It will help him with independents and Democrats without hurting his standing with his loyal base.

The question for the next few weeks will be whether the president has turned over a new leaf. If he has, a Trump presidency might not be nearly as bad as so many detractors (as well as mainstream Republicans) have feared. If not, if Trump reverts to his campaign mode, it will be a long four years.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Other worlds are beyond our rreach

For all the folks excited about the discovery of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, or those folks who are hoping to live long enough to join the crew of the Starship Enterprise, please curb your enthusiasm. Getting to exoplanets is a lot more difficult than just calling out, "Warp speed!"

Take the latest discovery, touted by NASA in a press release complete with artist renderings of the surface of these planets that have not been actually seen by the human eye but only surmised because of the planets' darkening of their star's light. Before you buy your tickets to travel to these new worlds, know that this solar system is 40 light years away. That's 235 trillion miles! It takes light from that star 40 years to reach Earth. Given that accepted science contends that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and current space vehicles travel just a few thousand miles an hour, sending a space capsule to these new planets could take longer than modern man has existed on this planet. Even supposing that great advances will be made in interplanetary speeds, a capsule traveling at half the speed of light would take 80 years to arrive in the solar system and another 80 years to return. Anyone want to volunteer for that assignment?

Some science fiction dreamers suggest that we are wearing out good ol' Earth, and we should find us another place to homestead for the survival of the species. But even sending a manned craft to Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, risks killing all crew members from exposure to interplanetary radiation. That's a problem that hasn't been solved even for "short" trips in the neighborhood. If astronauts can't survive a two- or three-year trip to Mars, how would they survive an 80-year trip to exoplanets?

These "astronomical" distances even present a problem for the highly touted efforts to contact extra-terrestrial life in other solar systems. Any speed-of-light communications we might receive and reply to would require a response time of many years, even centuries. Would civilization and technology last that long?

Rather than focus on the fascinating but rather pointless search for exoplanets and intelligent life beyond our solar system, humanity would be better served concentrating on repairing the damage being wrought on Earth, the only place in the universe we know is capable of supporting human life — if we don't destroy it. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Facts and truth are at issue, not leaks

President Trump and his defenders, clobbered by news reports showing dishonesty and infighting in the White House and the firing of the president's national security advisor, are attempting to change the subject. To hear Trump tell it, the secret (and lied about) conversations between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, as well as other contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign and transition teams, are nothing. What's important, Trump claims, is the fact that the actions he and his minions have been trying to cover up were leaked to the press and broadcast to the public.

What could be worse than a fully informed electorate? 

In a rambling press conference Thursday, Trump attacked the news media with his usual accusations of dishonesty and "fake" news. Nowhere did Trump explain or excuse the contacts with the Russians.

Trump defenders have claimed that Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador were not only legal but routine. If that's the case, why did Flynn find it necessary to lie to the vice president about his conversation? After Flynn was fired, the New York Times reported the discovery of frequent contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Trump has branded those reports as "fake news" but has not addressed the issues involved.

Many Americans, and especially elected officials and foreign policy specialists, are uncomfortable with the Trump administration's cozying up to Vladimir Putin's Russia. To have Russian contacts shrouded in secrecy and lied about only raises the level of discomfort.

Soon enough, Trump will find that he can rant all he wants about the "dishonest media" and "fake news," but, as Ronald Reagan once said, "facts are stubborn things," and in a free marketplace of ideas, truth will eventually win.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump's presidential action: playing golf

It was a quiet weekend, relatively speaking. It was a weekend when President Trump acted more presidential than he had the past three weeks of his presidency. What did he do that was so presidential? He played golf with Japanese premier Shinso Abe.

The guest at Trump's golf resort in Florida said he and the president spent time getting to know each other and discussing worldly matters on the luxurious lawns of the golf course. Trump refrained from attacking anyone on Twitter while he kept a golf club in his hand instead of a smart phone. That made him seem presidential.

Ever since President Eisenhower played golf at every opportunity, hitting the links with golfing greats such as Arnold Palmer and with members of Congress or foreign visitors, forging those bonds that are needed in Washington and in the diplomatic world, presidents have played golf with people they needed to schmooze or ask favors of. News reporters were kept at a distance, far out of hearing distance from the golfers but still breathlessly reported the president's day on the links.

A president did not have to be as accomplished as Eisenhower to engage in golf diplomacy. John F. Kennedy explained why he didn't release his golf scores, as Eisenhower sometimes did; he said, unlike him, Eisenhower had never beaned a Secret Service agent with a tee shot. Richard Nixon was too intense to relax on the golf course, but he played anyway. Bill Clinton played often and invited celebrities to join him. George W. Bush played but preferred running or biking. Barack Obama loved to play golf and managed to work in outings for business or pleasure.

Donald Trump used to complain that Obama spent too much time playing golf, but now he's discovered that golf can have a presidential purpose. He flew hundreds of miles to reach a course of his choosing with his Japanese guest and spent the weekend on a golf vacation. It was the most presidential thing he's done so far.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Betsy DeVos confirmation educates voters

Opponents of the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education can take one benefit from Tuesday's vote: It taught us what really counts in the U.S. Senate.

It is not the opinion or desires of constituents exercising their right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." Nor is it the outrage of so many American voters who are astounded that a woman with no experience in public schools — as a student, parent, employee, administrator, elected school board official or any other direct contact with public schools — would be nominated to lead public education in America. Switchboards on Capitol Hill were overloaded with phone calls from upset constituents telling their elected representatives not to confirm DeVos. Voice mail systems in congressional offices, both in Washington and in district offices, were overloaded with pleas from voters opposed to DeVos. Complaints about DeVos' nomination jammed email systems in congressional offices. Constituents who could get to their representatives' offices expressed in person their opposition to someone who denigrates public education and seems intent on destroying public schools by whatever means necessary.

No, none of that counts. All that matters in this information age, when it is so relatively easy to send a message or make a phone call to an elected representative, is not the voters' petitioning of elected officials; it is the money that the ultra-rich can bestow on political candidates. DeVos' one great qualification for her office is the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to (mostly Republican) candidates and elected officials. In North Carolina, where grassroots voters stormed the phones, email systems and mailboxes of their senators, DeVos had already made up the minds of Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis with more than $100,000 in recent campaign contributions. A siege of the senators' offices, which is nearly what happened, would have made no difference. DeVos had those two votes paid for and locked down.

The First Amendment guarantees the right "to petition the government," but when the government is bought and paid for by wealthy donors, petitions are not worth the paper or the email application or the recorded voice mail they're written on.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Books are made for reading

I have difficulty understanding or even conceiving of someone who doesn't read books. Our house is filled with books, books in every room, some neatly decorating bookshelves, some stacked in baskets beside comfortable seats, some lying patiently on bedside tables — books ready to be picked up and read. I read every day, and almost every day from books. On days when I don't read a book, I read magazines, which are also prevalent around our house.

So when the president of the United States says boastfully that he doesn't read, my mind is flummoxed. It's inconceivable. I'll admit that I'm not a great reader. I can't check out 10 books from the library and return them all in a week or two, fully consumed, as some people I have known can. I am a slow reader, perhaps in part because of the years I spent editing newspapers, parsing each word and punctuation mark for misuse or error. And my reading tends to be at night, an effective sleeping pill that allows me to put aside the tensions and worries of the day and relax until my eyelids fall closed and I lose my grip on the book I've been reading. Many nights I've awakened, the lamp still on, my book in the floor, my stopping place a mystery. The next night, I hunt for my stopping place and pick up the narrative again.

I also tend to feel obligated once I've begun a book to stay with it to the end, whether it is a novel with a beginning, a plot (or two) and an ending, or nonfiction that may only be a series of facts or arguments. I recently finished a book that I found engulfing. I could not get William Kent Krueger's "Ordinary Grace" off my mind and kept the novel close by my side to snatch a few minutes to dive back into the immersing plot.

But now I'm reading a novel (I won't mention any names) that I find a bit plodding and confusing. There are time shifts and new characters and plot shifts that fail to keep me interested. But I've devoted the time to get more than 100 pages into the book, and I won't give up yet. Still, that non-fiction book that is next on my bedside table keeps enticing me. Surely it's better than this bland and skip-about novel.

Even when I hit the inevitable bumps in the literary road, I cherish my books and my time to read. Even not-so-good books are better than not reading. With all due respect, you should try it, Mr. President.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Travel ban and border wall are aimed at Trump support

President Trump's temporary ban on travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries has filled the news space today. There have been suggestions that Trump is in retreat under a barrage of criticism from Democrats, civil libertarians, refugee advocates, employers of foreign-born workers, protesters and others. Don't believe it.

Trump is not losing much, if any, support with his executive order. Trump's base, the people who gave him his victory three months ago, are not crying over travel bans that target Muslims or Muslim countries, any more than they are crying over the border fence Trump says will be under construction soon.

The question is why all the critics who are filing lawsuits and staging protests are surprised by this action. As someone in another Muslim country said 70-odd years ago, "I am shocked! Shocked!" at gambling in Casablanca. Keeping Islamic terrorists out of this country and building a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants were two of Trump's most frequently repeated campaign promises. Why is anyone shocked that he is doing what he said he'd do?

Opponents may complain, but Trump's supporters will cheer. Their man has carried out two of his key promises. That means their support for him is stronger than ever.

The ban on persons from seven predominantly Muslim countries may be un-American, ill-conceived, offensive to European allies and Middle Eastern governments, and it may condemn former U.S. government employees to remaining in their native countries at great danger to their lives and their families. But the Trump supporters don't care about the tears shed by separated family members or the betrayal of interpreters for the U.S. military or the condemnation of other governments. They won't even notice that Islamic countries that were not included in the order included countries where Trump had business interests. After all, Trump said he was going to put America First, and by golly, he's doing it. So the rest of you can go to hell.

Besides the facts that the travel ban is totally lacking in compassion and will likely encourage radical Islamists to attack U.S. interests, its issuance reveals a more surprising fact about the Trump administration. News reports show that the executive order was issued after being drafted by a small cadre of Trump's close advisers without input from the agency heads and cabinet members who are in charge of homeland security, immigration and international diplomacy. 

Furthermore, Trump seems to be drawing the leash around his inner circle tighter and tighter so that he is getting advice from fewer and fewer people. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who famously appointed a "Team of Rivals" (Doris Kearns Goodwin's book) composed of former opponents and antagonists, Trump is building a Team of lackeys who will not disagree with the president on anything. He has banished the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Security from a key advisory committee to make room for his political adviser, Steve Bannon. Trump, it appears, is incapable of leading a team of rivals, only a team of sycophants who will hail whatever the Great Man does.

And that is more worrisome than either the travel ban or the border wall.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

From all the most dishonest people

Since I spent 33 years in the newspaper business, I'm thinking that Donald Trump includes me in his complaint that members of the news media are "the most dishonest human beings on the earth." Even though I have been out of the business nine years, I take offense at the president's insult.

Throughout my career, I had one goal in mind: to provide honest, accurate reports to readers of information they needed to know to be good citizens, good neighbors and knowledgeable voters. I repeatedly emphasized this to the reporters who worked for me. In an age when a few reporters "went undercover" to ferret out scandal and corruption, I warned the reporters who worked for me that they must always be honest about what they were doing. They couldn't pretend to be a survey-taker or a municipal official to get information they wanted. I did not require that they identify themselves as reporters upon greeting someone (though that is usually the best practice), but if asked what they were doing or who they were working for, they had to reply honestly. The only reporters I recall firing during my career were fired for lying to me about what they were doing or had done.

So I have good reason to be offended by Trump's attack on a profession that I believe is honorable as well as essential for a working democracy. Long ago, the press earned the nickname "the Fourth Estate." The name came from the French, who saw the church, the nobility and the common people as the three estates with the press tagged as the fourth. Although the press and government officials have often been at odds, never in American history has a president (even Nixon) been as hostile to the press as Trump is.

Trump speaks of "the media" and other politicians refer to the "mainstream media" as a monolithic organization with centralized management and orders issued from all-powerful and secret managers. As anyone who has spent any time in journalism knows, nothing could be further from the truth. The news media (a plural word — medium is the singular) comprise many thousands of news outlets, including newspapers, TV stations, broadcast networks, cable channels, radio stations and networks, magazines, and online news reports. No single hierarchy could control all these disparate and widely dispersed organizations, and no one would want to.

Yes, the Associated Press distributes news to news outlets around the world, but so do Reuters, New York Times News Service, and others. My experience with the AP was that it was exceedingly careful about making sure the facts were right.And most larger papers rely on their own remote bureaus for national and international news.

It is true that some news sources lean to the left or to the right, but the vast majority of news organizations, from the small-town weekly newspaper to the New York Times, aims to report fairly and completely all the news that their audiences want or need. The president likes to pick fights with people who threaten his self-image, so he condemns the news media for reporting facts that differ from his "alternative facts" (facts are facts, not alternatives).

The news media have gone through a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. Advertising sales, which pay for the news coverage you receive, have fallen off the cliff. Classified advertising, once the cash cow of newspapers, has gone nearly 100% to online sites. Hundreds of thousands of news personnel (including me) have been laid off. Newsrooms are hollowed out, yet newspapers and other outlets keep trying to keep their readers informed about the important events of the day. For that, they deserve the thanks of everyone who thinks an informed public is essential to democracy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When an inaugural address is a continuation

For 56 years, I've been a fan of inaugural addresses. I've watched most of them in those decades since I watched John F. Kennedy's on a small, black-and-white TV in a school auditorium. A few were excellent. Most were laudable, and many were inspiring.

I was not able to watch Donald Trump's inaugural address "live." I was in the car, traveling, but my NPR station carried the address and the ceremony leading up to it live, and I listened intently.

My reaction was immediate: This is not an inaugural address. It's a campaign speech. The new president made no attempt to extol American values or to inspire the citizenry. He spent his brief, 16-minute speech (bonus points for brevity) attacking U.S. policies, foreign countries, and societal trends and promising, with anger and vehemence, to make everything wonderful ... somehow. With all his promises, he never explained exactly how he would get those lost jobs back, how he would counter China's global strategy, or how he would fix the infrastructure, crimes and middle-class malaise in our own country.

He did something else no president I've heard ever tried before: He attacked the United States of America. His term "American carnage" was the most shocking of his address. "Carnage"? The word, with its roots in the word for bloody meat, suggests a scene of scores of dead bodies lying in the street following an artillery bombardment or air strike. The United States has some serious problems, but "carnage" is not a word most people would use to describe this nation. Certainly, there have been incidents, such as Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub, or 9/11, that warrant such a description, but the new president was referring to a national carnage — something on par with the Holocaust. Trump's use of the term is chilling and scary. Can he possibly believe "American carnage" is an apt description?

I was especially disappointed in the inaugural address because I had heard a Trump adviser say just hours before that Trump knew the difference between campaigning and governing, and he would begin governing as soon as he was sworn in. That didn't happen, and it's scary.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Single-payer health insurance has an opening

President Trump declared before his inauguration that his promised replacement for Obamacare would have a goal of "insurance for everybody." While that doesn't sound much like what Republican members of Congress have been saying for the past eight years, it does sound quite a bit like "single-payer" health insurance, which is the model most western democracies have in place to cover "everybody" with insurance backed by the government with payments to providers by the government entity that oversees health care.

Canada has this plan. Great Britain has this plan. France, too. Generally speaking, the citizens of those countries support their national healthcare plans. It's simple. It's more efficient than the dozens of separate private insurance providers and the thousands of individual businesses that pay insurance premiums for their employees. But whenever a similar system is suggested for the United States, conservatives complain that it's "socialized medicine." Well, yes, but so what?

America's messed-up system, which has given the United States the dubious honor of spending the largest portion of its gross domestic product on health care of any western democracy, evolved from labor union contracts. When World War II wage freezes took pay hikes off the table, the unions targeted health insurance as a way to increase worker benefits. Soon, employer-paid health insurance became an expectation of job seekers.

The 2009 Affordable Care Act attempted to keep the private insurance and the employer payments in place while guaranteeing coverage to all or almost all Americans. It didn't work perfectly, but it did reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

With the dominant GOP promising the repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with ... something, it's time to give the single-payer option a chance. It won't be cheap, but what we have now isn't cheap, either. Add what employers pay to the employees' "share" of the premium and the co-pays and deductibles employees pay, and it comes to large number, which could be replaced by health care taxes on employers and workers that would be approximately equal to what they now pay.

Cost savings from having a single organization paying all the bills (like Medicare) would result in cost savings. Instead of thousands of health insurers taking a cut of the money flowing to health care, on entity would cover all health care bills. With the federal government paying the bills, pressure on pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and other providers to reduce costs would result in a decline in health care costs.

If Trump is for it and his party controls Congress, why shouldn't it happen?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cassette tapes and other innovations.

Rummaging through a cabinet yesterday, I found a cassette tape of the Moody Blues' "On the Threshold of a Dream," an album I found both musically brilliant and romantic at the time of its release. Forty-five years later, it seems to have less of both qualities.

But, as I played the tape on a stereo we've had for years, I realized how many musical recording formats I've lived through and used. The cassette tape was a copy of the LP album I had bought while in college. I continued to buy LPs and play them on the stereo I sank what seemed at the time a small fortune on. When I added a cassette player to the system, I began copying the LPs, which would sometimes get scratched, no matter how careful and protective I was.

When car stereos became practical and I added a cassette player to the small station wagon we bought in 1983, I thought I had reached music listening perfection. No longer would I have to search the radio dial on long road trips. I could take my music with me.

About three or four cassette player/recorders into this era, everyone began switching to CDs. I was skeptical at first, partly because of the cost, compared to cassettes or LPs. But a Christmas gift from my sister about 25 years ago pushed me into the CD world. I now own bunches of CDs — between 100 and 200, I would guess, without taking an inventory. The CDs, tucked into a CD wallet, were easier to carry, and we eventually graduated to a car with a CD player sometime after the turn of the millennium. For 10 years, we owned a car with both a cassette and a CD player, all in one unit.

Then came digital music. An early Apple user, I quickly added iTunes to my collection, playing music on my computer and streaming it to my stereo via WiFi. The next step was digital in the car, which we achieved by loading an iPod with music and connecting it to the car stereo. That connection was the primary reason I wanted to trade my 12-year-old but still reliable coupe for a new car with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. Now I carry 1,129 songs on a device half the size of one cassette tape, and I can scroll through the music and find the song I want (though it's best to have a passenger do the scrolling if you are under way).

I cannot help being astounded at how far recorded music has advanced in less than 50 years, and how easily I have sailed along through it all. At least I missed the 8-track era, but only because I could not afford those tapes and the cars that went with them.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Trump and the intelligence reports

President Trump has been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about their conclusion that Russia conducted a cyber campaign to embarrass and discredit his Democratic opponent, but he doesn't seem to have understood the message. 

After the briefing, Trump said, "there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines." True enough, insofar as we know, but he misses the point. It's not that the Russians "stole" the election in the way of small-town (or big city) political bosses allegedly have in the past, by stuffing ballot boxes. U.S. intelligence did not find any intervention in the vote-counting mechanisms. But they did find Russian meddling in the election campaign.

What the president-elect should be alarmed about is that a foreign government sought to influence the election by using cyber warfare tools to steal emails and then release those emails through cooperative hacker or fake news groups. Did Russia's orchestrated release of embarrassing emails at strategic times or its dispersal of fake news posts targeting Democrats have an impact on voters on Nov. 8? It's impossible to know with certainty, but it is not irrational to think that undecided voters might have been swayed.

Trump's dismissal of the intelligence reports is worrisome because the 2016 meddling can happen again and can be more destructive in 2018 or 2020. This Russian strategy can also happen in upcoming elections in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain and other democracies.

President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump admires, has made no secret of the fact he would like to restore the old Soviet empire. He has shown a willingness in Georgia and Ukraine to use Russian troops to intimidate or topple governments or grab territory. How much easier it will be for him to use cyber weapons to effect regime change in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Estonia.

Trump had better take this threat seriously. All western democracies had better watch out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Inauguraton is not the place for protest

Protesters are vowing to conduct a series of demonstrations to disrupt the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. I wish they would reconsider.

A presidential inauguration does not signify that all Americans are of one accord or that the disagreements of the election campaign is over. It merely means that the United States is transferring executive power from one elected president to the next elected president. Trump opponents will complain that a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. True enough, but hardly unprecedented. Presidents elected in 2000, 1992, 1960, 1912 and 1876 were all "minority" presidents. What made them president was not the final tally of every single vote but the national consensus that they had achieved the required majority of electoral votes (or in the 1876 election, a majority of the U.S. House's vote).

John F. Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address (considered by many the greatest inaugural address ever) began, "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. ..."

Those who seek to disrupt an inauguration are not disrupting the newly elected president, who probably will see nothing of the protesters. They are disrupting the peaceful transfer of power, the "celebration of freedom," the "renewal as well as change" that characterizes American democracy.

So make your plans to oppose Trump appointees, block Trump policy changes, stymie Trump initiatives and prevail in the 2018 and 2020 elections, but let this transfer of executive power take place peacefully and deliberately. This "celebration of freedom" is not the time or the place to object to political change.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Visions of retirement from a four-day weekend

I was fortunate to be able to make New Year's a four-day weekend. Monday was a holiday, and I took Friday as my last personal day (read: vacation) of the year. Unfortunately, the weather was not conducive for doing the chores that called me outdoors, so we did some of the unappealing organizing, discarding and sorting activities we had pushed to the bottom of the priorities pile.

Nevertheless, we accomplished a few things, and still have some similar tasks to do the next rainy or snowy day off. We skipped social activities, except for a New Year's dinner (with black-eyed peas) at our daughter's home, and mostly just did the things we needed to do inside the home. We slept later than usual, but not obscenely late, and we set aside a little time most afternoons for some reading and potential napping. We downed an extra cup or two of coffee every morning and started dinner late. I found some good college football games on the television and watched a few impressive feats of athleticism. On a rainy Monday afternoon, we drove to the gym for an enjoyable workout of nearly an hour.

We enjoyed ourselves and our time together, the feeling of accomplishing some things without a strict time schedule. All of that made it harder to arise Tuesday morning and head to the office for work. That Tuesday feeling makes us more eager for the time when we will retire sometime in the next six to 18 months, when we will have the time to get to the bottom of our priorities, when we will have time to read every afternoon (or almost every one), when we will be able to travel to see kin, friends and places we long to see. We promise not to "flunk retirement" as one friend my age claimed he did. There will be time for volunteering as well as for the other important things in our lives.

Meanwhile, we anguish over the prospects of income after retirement, of health care costs, of long-term care, of our health, of the uncertainties of life. Retirement now is the dream we share, just as we shared a dream 45 years ago of a quaint, comfortable house, children and grandchildren (if we could imagine such a thing so long ago) and happiness unbound. Our long-ago dreams did not materialize just as we had imagined, but in some ways even better than we had dreamed. We will continue to dream.