Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

When committing astronomy can get you killed

Get a bunch of amateur astronomers together and eventually, after the tall tales of seeing the Horsehead Nebula and the wisps of the Veil Nebula, you’ll get to the strange encounters we’ve had.

It’s hard not to notice an amateur astronomer, alone or in a pack. We have this weird looking object that may or may not look like everyone’s definition of a telescope; we perform weird rituals around it, peering through a smaller scope or looking at a book or magazine; and we might be seen punching numbers into a handheld device, smartphone or laptop and then watching as the telescope mount points the telescope.

There’s the weird language, too. “Go from Enif in Pegasus and then across the Great Square, and you’ll see M31.”

Or, “I swear, I saw a star flare up in the Double Cluster. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

We in the U.S. might meet up with bad guys while observing the stars – though a look through the telescope might mollify them – or even law enforcement.

A story steeped in legend is about the time a group of amateur astronomers gathers on a hill overlooking their city on a dark, clear night, and soon had their array of telescopes set up.

Most telescopes of that time, and today, bear quite a resemblance to mortar tubes. It’s not intentional. The Schmidt-Cassegrain design is compact and easy to transport, and offers some pretty good-sized apertures up to 14 inches. They do look like mortars in the dark and at a distance.

The group noticed that there were several cars of law enforcement racing on the road up the hill, with lights flashing and sirens wailing. They felt a sense of relief. At least someone was out there protecting them.

Soon, though, the police arrived and cautiously approached. It turned out that someone had called 911, thinking that a group was assembling mortars and about to start raining shells on the town. A few minutes later, after the police were shown that the telescopes were for extracting secrets from the sky and not harming anyone, the officers left and the amateurs resumed their work.

That story had a happy ending, but for some people the very act of not only looking at the sky but knowing about it can be a death sentence.

Carl Sagan once said that you never know where the seed of knowledge will sprout. Sometimes, in the most unexpected places, you will find people with a driving desire to know how the universe works, he said.

We know of Afghanistan as a place of endless war and tumult, murderous religious fanaticism and where young Americans have died to protect a government that seems incapable of supplying toilet paper.

And yet, among all that, there is a dedicated group of amateur astronomers. According to a story in Newsweek and other sources, the Afghanistan Astronomy Association has an 11-inch telescope and other gear supplied by Astronomers Without Borders. Its members try to find locations to observe and often are harassed by the local police, religious leaders and military troops who all believe they are up to no good.

In a society where the only knowledge worth having seems to be religious or military, and the only skill you should show is how to plant an IED, these men want to learn about the sky and teach others.

Here’s an excerpt from the start of the story:

“In most of the world, an amateur astronomer can drive to a dark place, set up a telescope and enjoy the beauty of the sky above.

“But in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 36 years of war, a few men gathered around a telescope pointing toward the sky, in the middle of nowhere, looks pretty suspicious.

“From a distance, the police thought the telescope might be a rocket launcher.

“After careful inspection, the police still couldn’t comprehend why anyone would sit in a field, in the cold, to look at stars. Although they’d never seen a telescope before, they conceded that this probably wasn’t a weapon.

“Calling the astronomers halfwits, the police left. Spooked, most of the stargazers took off too, leaving Bakhshi and two others.”

Religious leaders aren’t helpful, spreading wild stories about eclipses and other superstitions.

But the amateurs keep at it.

“On another late afternoon, as the sun disappears and the evening call to prayer echoes across the city below, Bakhshi, Amiri and a small group of men gather on the outskirts of Kabul.

“As he sets up a large telescope, cigarette dangling from his lip, Amiri recalls the first time he saw the moon up close. In an old schoolbook, he had discovered a guide to making a telescope and managed to fashion one out of an old chimney pipe.

‘I couldn’t move my eye away from the telescope that night,’ he says.

“One by one, the men peer at the moon through the telescope. The clarity is remarkable; the moon luminous and rugged with craters and mountains.

“For those who are looking through the telescope for the first time that night, each has the same reaction: astonishment and wonder, followed by a barrage of questions.”

Maybe there will be a time when amateur astronomers the world over can live and work in peace. In the meantime, there are those who are willing to risk it all for a glimpse of the moon or Saturn. It definitely makes you appreciate what we have here.




January 11, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Wonders of science no longer reserved for a select few

On Saturday night, Dec. 5, I took out the 14-inch for some driveway observing.

It was not the most propitious night to gaze at the universe. No planets are visible in the evening sky right now – you’re better off looking east before sunrise – and there were pesky clouds to contend with, but the night went off well.

The folks across the street from me are moving soon to a new house that they’ll own, and perhaps I’ll have new neighbors across the street in a month or so. They came by for a last look through my telescope, and we talked about the latest discoveries in space.

There’s so much going on out there. The Cassini probe – in orbit around Saturn since the mid-2000s, soon will send back its last pictures and then begin its final death plunge into the planet. Entire libraries of books on Saturn are now quaint museum pieces thanks to the discoveries made of Saturn, its wondrous rings and its amazing moons. In a photo that almost brings tears to my eyes, a crescent Enceladus seems to hover above the rings.

It’s sad to say that Cassini must die eventually. It’s running out of reaction control fuel. A mission that began at first proposal in 1982; launch on Oct. 15, 1997, atop a Titan IVB-Centaur rocket; gravity assists around Venus in 1998 and 1999; and the Saturn insertion burn on July 1, 2004, will end as follows, according to Wikipedia:

“The chosen mission ending involves a series of close Saturn passes, approaching within the rings, then an entry into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017, to destroy the spacecraft. This method was chosen because it is imperative to ensure protection and prevent biological contamination to any of the moons of Saturn thought to offer potential habitability.”

I hope that, like the Galileo probe that went to its death in Jupiter, the Cassini will tell us even more about Saturn as it plunges to its fate. We will miss Cassini.

The year of Pluto
I was telling a neighbor, “All our lives, Pluto was a dot of light with an arrow next to it. Now, it’s a world of wonders. And we’re seeing it as it’s never been seen before.”

On the night of July 14, people around the world watched as NASA TV broadcast live the wait for the first signal from New Horizons. For years, since the Jan. 19, 2006, launch, we had waited for the spacecraft to make its long, long journey to Pluto.

The Atlas V rocket accelerated New Horizons to an amazing speed, and after a Jupiter encounter in September 2006, the probe went to sleep – with periodic awakenings – until it was time to get to work.

From a dot, Pluto and its moons grew in size. On July 14, we received the greatest signal in the history of space science. New Horizons had survived its close fly-by of Pluto and had acquired all the data it was expected to acquire, and now would begin the long, long process of transmitting it all back to Earth.

The other day, we got the best pictures we’ll ever get of Pluto. What a wonder it is.

And now, New Horizons is heading out for a Jan. 1, 2019, flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. If funding is achieved, we’ll be seeing a world so distant as more than a dot again.

Ceres and Vesta
The Dawn probe has achieved some amazing results around to minor planets in what used to be called the asteroid belt. As with the above missions, the data is put out to the public on the Internet, and we have a chance to see pictures of worlds we could only just imagine a few decades ago.

Abandon exploration?
Some say we need to focus on Earth, where we have plenty of problems that need solving. While we in the “West” wonder at the discoveries that are being made, others are in thrall to their favorite deities and obey the commands of self-appointed representatives, who seem to be ordering mass death and destruction.

Fighting them is a tall order, but we should not abandon our efforts to learn and discover. We have plenty of resources to fight and learn.

What Vesta is made of might not help us beat ISIS, but it shows that we’re able to focus on the cosmic issues.

Let’s close with a reading from the book of Sagan. “Cosmos,” episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”:

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.”


December 6, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worrying about a fellow student and his anger

Back in my community college days at Palm Beach Community College, there was a general assumption that the campus was a safe zone where education could take place without fear of violence or other wrath.

While the college police department was often considered the joke of the campus, and its officers and managers little more than Barney Fifes, there was an understanding that you were protected from other students if they got out of hand.

The biggest worry was that because the campus buildings were basically open to the outside someone could intrude. One building had its bathroom access on the outside and I’ll never forget the morning I went into the bathroom to use the facilities and found a homeless man inside. It was a cold day and he was seeking the warmth of the bathroom, while I had to go. I actually smelled him before I saw him, and felt bad for him.

I’m sure women were even more worried about what they might find in their bathrooms.

Our college newspaper, the Beachcomber, was prone to mistakes and other hilarities, and I was a staffer at the newspaper then.

Mind you, lots of people signed up for the paper but very, very few actually showed up at the offices to do any work. For most, it was just so they could put on their resume that they were on staff at the paper. (This was true at the university, too.) It’s sort of like the scam that’s pulled at Harvard. Everybody and his brother is an assistant editor at the Harvard Crimson because everybody and his brother sign up to get on the masthead, but only a few people actually do the work.

The really committed (or crazy) folks like me who wanted a future in journalism actually showed up at the paper, attended meetings and wrote stories. I eventually became news editor basically by the process of elimination – or graduation.

I also came in and wrote and edited pieces. Layout was done at the printing plant, and because I worked nights I couldn’t participate in that.

My job meant I could only have a couple of outside activities at the school, and while my work is cringe inducing now (and I have two PDF files with it; someone digitized the old papers years ago) it shows that I was moving in new directions and learning new things.

But one time we had an incident that actually frightened me, and that’s not easy to do. I mean, I was sometimes worried that someone might be pushed over the limit and “go postal” at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, but it nearly happened at the college.

The crux of the dispute was that over a semester break, someone had stolen a computer from the newspaper offices. A report was made to the college police and an investigation ensued. At one point in the investigation, a suspect was named. I was in the clear because I knew I hadn’t taken the computer, though I had used it in the office.

The report with the name of the suspect blacked out finally was released but someone erred in the police department and missed an occurrence of the suspect’s name in the report. A student who had previously shown a volatile temper wrote a story and used the name of the suspect in his story, and was advised that while he could run the story, it had to go without the name of the suspect because it could interfere in the investigation.

The student became so angry and upset he began to act out, began to get violent in the newspaper offices and started throwing things around the office and making threats.

He was ejected from the offices, and then the campus altogether. He eventually was barred from campus after re-entering the campus to use a pay telephone.

I had seen him in full cry and was worried about my safety. Imagine if he had had access to a gun and brought it on campus. We have seen of late the result of people bringing weapons on campuses.

The ex-student wasn’t close to being finished with us, though fortunately it never escalated to weapons.

He bought the trademark for the newspaper and other college publications (Beachcomber had never been trademarked, even though it had existed as the college paper since 1939), and one day announced that he had “published” a sheet of paper that he called the Beachcomber. It was a single page of “news,” and he demanded that the college stop publishing everything with the name Beachcomber, and also sought damages because, he wrote in a legal filing, the college had published two “illegal” editions of the newspaper and the staff of the north campus was working on a magazine with the same name.

Oddly enough, we students were able to bring the right kind of firepower to the issue now. We were upset because the president of the college – whose ego is so enormous that I won’t profane the pages of my blog by printing it, but those in the know will find it easy to figure out – shut down all student publications.

He began bloviating that it might take years to straighten the mess out, but the editor of the magazine was a woman in her 40s whose husband was a lawyer, and he said that the college could publish “illegal” (by the bogus standard the ex-student had claimed) issues because the ex-student had no case. If the college was sued, it would win in court without even going to trial, as the case would be thrown out. The college had been using the Beachcomber name for decades and the ex-student had lied when he applied for the trademark because he said he knew of no other publication with such a name as Beachcomber.

We students who worked hard on the publications were upset, but our anger was directed in an appropriate way, and we eventually got our publications reinstated, then crowed over our victory.

The ex-student still occasionally made news, but mostly for being a jerk.

It was such a different time back then. We never even conceived that someone might come on campus armed and commit violence.

I’m glad it was resolved, of course, and that I got to move on and have a great career, but I wonder about what could have been, and it scares me.

November 20, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , | Leave a comment

The purpose of college

When I first began considering attending college, my main focus was not to be any kind of activist or rebel – save against postal authority – but to create opportunities for myself beyond what I realized I could reasonably achieve in my current situation.

To me, college was about change, self-improvement and enlightenment, plus a chance to expand my personal contacts.

I suppose because of my relatively advanced age – I was in my late 20s – and my experience – I had served in the military and worked full-time for several years – I was in a better position than an 18-year-old undergraduate, also known as the “traditional” student.

I had had my adjustment to being away from parental authority and had taken on a whole set of responsibilities – job, car payments, mortgage, utilities, etc., that were outside the experience of many of my peers in community college. Others in the college were my age or slightly younger or older, and were also there for the purpose of improving themselves and acquiring knowledge.

Maybe I’m out of step with the current generational thinking on college but something seems to have gone wrong.

Today’s undergraduate, regardless of age, seems to be more concerned with making sure that the college or university administration is aligned with their views rather than pursuing an education.

What I mean is that when I was in college, I knew I’d encounter people with views and opinions different from my own. I was eager to hear other views and was not going to college to shut other people up. In the free and open exchange of ideas comes enlightenment – if not agreement.

I remembered one woman at the post office who told me about her first day at college was her last day. She’d been young and naïve, and had started her first day of classes with great excitement and anticipation. But in a class, she said, the instructor had mentioned evolution. She said that since evolution was against her religion and her views, she had to quit college immediately.

It was sad. She never achieved anything personally or professionally because she quit college on the first day.

In my days at community college and university, I often encountered views opposed to mine. Sometimes people did not bow before my holy body because I was a veteran of the military. Others didn’t agree with me politically.

Instead of marching in protest and demanding that others conform to my views, I listened to them and defended their right to speak out and present their views.

Today in colleges, students want “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to avoid opinions and news that might upset them. Well, going to college means going where you will become upset and even frustrated. In the real world, you can’t just declare “safe space” and remove those who disagree with you.

I actually found that I learned more from those with whom I disagreed than with those I agreed with.

College was a totally enlightening experience for me. Much of what I knew and believed was challenged or held up for close examination, and I loved it.

I feel sorry for the kids today who are so closed-minded to ideas and insights that are not their own. I might still disagree with some views but they all have to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

I know it’s just a few students who are making it bad for the rest. But the overall view of college is being sullied, and someone has to defend the academy.

College was a great experience for me, one that I will always cherish. I miss the academic atmosphere sometimes, and wish to someday return there.

But if it’s to protests because students don’t agree with a speaker’s or a professor’s views on an issue, then I’d rather avoid the whole place.

College is where you become open to knowledge and ideas, not closed to them.

November 14, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | 1 Comment

The lost world of PC games

A new book has proclaimed 1995 as the year the future really began for us, and lately I have been immersing myself somewhat in that culture.

I just finished a book from my personal collection on the 1996 presidential campaign, watched the film “The Martian,” where Matt Damon’s character uses an artifact from 1997 to help himself survive on Mars and now am reading the late Richard Ben Cramer’s spectacular 1992 book, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” which is about the 1988 campaign.

I have to confess that in some ways I miss the late 1980s to 1990s. I was in the middle of my big effort to rework my future, I had money in my pocket and it seemed like every week there was some new innovation in technology that made life so much more interesting.

I have always been a big fan of computer games on the IBM-compatible PC, and in the late 1980s to 1990s it seemed like the floodgates of innovation and creativity had been opened up.

Every Sunday afternoon, I’d go to my second cousin Angelo’s house, and we’d go to the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic College in West Palm Beach for the free live broadcast of Craig Crossman’s Computer America show. Craig always had great guests on his show, and they always came with free stuff you could win.

Sometimes we’d meet Angelo’s brother-in-law, John Martin, at the show. They were always fun to be with, and I miss them more than I can tell you.

If I went by myself, I’d stop at CompUSA at one of the big shopping centers on Okeechobee Boulevard and check out the computers, software displays and other technology for sale. CompUSA was a big chain then and the store had a lot of money. I know because I put it there. Its software department was epic in size, with countless games for the PC in long rows on display shelves. Truly, it was the golden age of PC games.

Getting them to work on your machine was another matter, of course. Still, I learned a lot from the technology of the time.

On the night of Aug. 24, 1995, a big tropical storm was threatening the West Palm Beach area, but people still lined up at CompUSA and other stores for the first shot at buying Microsoft’s Windows 95 upgrade. The hype was insane. I was working part-time at The Palm Beach Post, and we were putting together special feature sections on computers. The Internet was starting to be a big deal and there were big plans that somehow never came to fruition. Still, we were putting news online there and it was the beginning of something amazing and awesome.

Nonetheless, it was the games section that to me always was a barometer of the health of the industry. Today, computer games are a big part of the shelf space, but the hardware is from consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox series. I’m a PlayStation 3 man myself, and enjoy games like “NHL 14” and “MLB 13: The Show” (too cheap to upgrade), but there’s a special place in my heart for PC games.

The new distribution channel of the Internet means that games can become big deals without filling store shelves, and the game “Kerbal Space Program” has become a phenomenon since 2011. Now that it’s been formally released – and you have to pay $40 for the game (though updates and mods are free, for now, at least) – it’s really shown the potential for PC-based games, and is being expanded to consoles.

I always was on the lookout for a space program simulator, and Kerbal lets me not only run and direct a space program, but also design and control the rockets. The genre of “god games” was always a popular one in PC games, and Kerbal really lets you let your imagination run wild, with a sandbox mode, where everything is available at once, as well as a career mode, where you have to earn advancement and new technologies.

We’re far from a new golden age of PC games, but I guess this is as close as we’ll get.

CompUSA died several years ago, and electronics retailer Circuit City also bit the dust. In Bradenton, the old Circuit City was taken over by HHGregg, which seems to be doing fairly well. The granddaddy of them all, Best Buy, seemed to be a goner but had made somewhat of a comeback despite the fact that shopping there can be very unpleasant.

One day, I walked in and I guess the new “advice of the week” was for employees to chase customers, shouting out recommendations.

The PC game section is mostly shovel-ware now and occupies a segment of a shelf. It’s so sad. There was a time when you would have seen rows and rows of games, even at Best Buy, and it’s reduced to this.

I sometimes go through the boxes in my garage and find those old game I bought years ago. They probably still work, but I just prefer to mourn over the lost old times.

It was fun, though, to take home a new version of “Civilization” or “Rail Tycoon” or “SimCity” and wonder at the new worlds you’d get to rule. I suppose we have to move on, but let’s never forget that those games gave us hours of fun and insight.

Kerbal does that now. For that, I suppose, we should be grateful.

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why people flee their homelands

Immigration is one of those topics where there is so much more heat than light that it can seem pointless to even weigh in on the topic, but here goes.

Most people in the United States have a view of immigration and it’s understandably negative. The perception that new arrivals to the country drive down wages, are a strain on social services and limit opportunity is not a new one. I was thinking the other day of the movie “Gangs of New York,” which I really ought to watch again, and how there was one scene where new arrivals to America in the Civil War era were greeting with the tossing of offal and filth, even as they signed up for military service in the Union Army.

Why do people leave the lands where they have lived, have family roots, speak the language, worship the same way as everyone else and subscribe to a strong set of traditions?

Beyond the legalities, I believe that it’s driven by a simple wish to have a better life than is available where they are, and they believe that such a life – despite many challenges and even the hatred of those already there – is possible even at the most basic level in the countries they are going to.

Look, the United States and Western Europe are pretty far from perfect, but when your country is basically self-destructing either through government action or inaction, or is completely beyond repair, you are willing to risk death and extreme indignity to come to a place like the United States or Germany and try to build a new life.

Subsistence in a democracy, even as you are hated, despised and used to generate extremist political rhetoric, has to be preferable to the hell-countries that many migrants are escaping.

I was listening to an NPR broadcast in which a young man educated in Syria described how he thought that he had a lot more to offer than just being cannon-fodder in the army. He had a degree in economics and believed that his life was worth something. He had tried and tried and tried to find some sort of life in his own country, torn apart by civil war and a mindless dictatorship, and just could not. Taking to a boat and trying to make it to Germany was, for him, a no-brainer.

Lots of young men have decided to basically vote with their feet if any sort of opportunity to affect conditions in their own country is lost.

For immigrants, it is a terribly dislocating experience to leave their country. “The West” has a lot of differences from the countries they are fleeing and an open society like the U.S.’s creates much tension.

Still, many people come here and want to stay. Why? Because we at least try to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of liberty and freedom. We may not always succeed, but immigrants are convinced that America and Western Europe are worth a try.

It’s easy to say to immigrants, “Just go back and try to fix your native land,” but the leaders of those lands often don’t believe that they need to be fixed. Seeing people leave makes these leaders very happy, as they figure that they are unloading troublemakers. The ones who stay will take up the slack for those who are gone.

My biggest decision
In 1985, I faced a situation that was akin to the one that immigrants faced. I had been working for the post office for a couple of years and (I know this sounds unbelievable) even had a girlfriend, and we were seriously discussing marriage. I wanted more than anything to make a life on Long Island but found the housing situation impossible at my wage level.

I cast about for ideas and finally one day a letter to the editor of Newsday opened my eyes.

There was much talk on Long Island 30 years ago about the need for affordable housing, and much of the effort to build such housing was opposed by those already there, who thought that it would not bring their children to the community but people of a different racial makeup who might then drive down property values.

There were many people complaining that the lack of rental housing and reasonably priced “starter homes” – as well as astronomical property and school taxes, and the scourge of the Long Island Lighting Company – would drive away people and businesses. Someone wrote to the newspaper and said, in effect, “If you can’t afford to live on Long Island, you should leave.”

It hit me like a punch between the eyes. The letter writer was right. Why was I killing myself trying to do what was pretty much set up as impossible?

I had served in the military and had seen many other places where people seemed to be making it or at least existing. Someplace else could hardly be worse than Long Island, I realized.

Unlike immigrants, of course, for me moving was a lot simpler and involved some pretty complex but very doable planning and then a long drive south on I-95. A year after moving to Florida, this immigrant from New York missed the family, missed the pizza and missed the Chinese food but had found a new life.

I bought a house and did so much more with my life that I couldn’t have done in New York. The potential fiancée was gone, and I won’t get into that here, but I had found a new and better life. I am convinced that when I’m 95 and start toting up the things I did in my life, moving to Florida will be one of the best things I ever did.

Best of all, it made me open to moving within Florida later on, and I have sometimes entertained the idea of moving elsewhere, but that is far less likely now.

Still, I think what New York lost, Florida gained when I came here.

Those immigrants trying everything they can to get away from failed countries and despotic dictatorships are doing what they can’t do for real: voting.

They know they are hated, and they know they are symbols and they know they are creating a problem, but they also know that whatever’s waiting for them in their new land – if they survive to arrive – it has to be a damn sight better than what’s behind them.

Sometimes in a situation, giving up and moving on is better than staying and wasting your energy. Those folks escaping their countries have made a go of it, and they’re doing what so many of us and even our predecessors did before: taking a shot at a better life.

I may not agree with them coming here, but I can see why they’re doing it. If you can’t agree with them, at least try to show a little compassion and humanity.

You can’t expect that from politicians, who love to play to our basest instincts, so just do it because it’s the human thing to do. And it’s way beyond what these people got in their native lands.

October 9, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college killer can’t kill the spirit

When I moved to Florida in 1986 on a transfer within the U.S. Postal Service, I was focused mainly on work and advancing myself within the organization.

As a high school graduate and a veteran, I mistakenly thought that I was ready for the challenges ahead and was eager and ready to work within the defective system to make it better. Little did I know that for many postal managers then – and today – the goal was to prevent change and improvement.

It was almost like coming to a military base for the first time, and hearing of all the places “in town” that are off-limits to the troops. When I was in the service, there were places that sold drug paraphernalia (carburetors, roach clips, KISS posters (It was the late 1970s, remember), etc.) where you could get into a lot of trouble if someone in the higher ranks saw you.

At the post office in West Palm Beach in 1986, there was one place that was considered to not even exist. Back then, it was called Palm Beach Junior College. Employees considering taking courses were warned to stay away from that place. The very idea that you – a career employee – might be considering training for a job outside the Postal Service was anathema. To many postal managers, the workers at the General Mail Facility were “stuck” and could never function in another workplace.

It was important to consider the source, though many of us were so indoctrinated into the postal mindset that we failed to do so. Most top postal managers have high school diplomas or GEDs, and you can even find a few who didn’t finish elementary school.

To them, the notion of college was so far beyond what they had attained, they believed that attendance at college could turn a submissive worker with no options into someone who might leave and tell the world about what went on in the postal facility.

And believe me, there was a lot to tell. I remember watching fellow workers ripping damaged and destroyed mail out of machinery, and throwing it on the floor, where it was run over by equipment and sometimes obliterated.

At the “nixie” table, employees on light duty sat and either tried to piece the mail back together, or simply rifled the envelopes for cash. I will admit that the latter eventually were caught by the postal inspectors, who usually were trying to set up drug busts using unreliable informants and were themselves often very corrupt.

The place of hope
Despite all the warnings and threats from the post office, one day I decided that I needed a future. I passed the renamed Palm Beach Community College on the way to the postal facility every day and fantasized about taking a class or two. I actually did take classes in postal management through the college, but when those failed to get me advanced, I realized I had to go all-in.

One day, I drove onto the campus, found a parking space, went into the right building and said, “I want to go to college here.”

I often think about where I am today in life, and realize that thanks to those words I am so much more than I could have ever been, even if I had advanced in the Postal Service, because I took the big chance.

I was handed a sheaf of forms and informed that I had to take the American College Test, to be given in a couple of months, and then I could try to get in.

It was a lot of work, but I was determined and I plowed through the paperwork. I told a few people at work about my efforts, and most of the responses were negative. One woman told me her first day at the college had been her last because someone mentioned evolution. Others told me that the people there were wasting their time: there were no jobs to be had “out there” outside the Postal Service.

I felt sorry for those people who had let themselves be led by the nose into such a negative view of life.

A day of horror
For this reason, I was horrified to hear about the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon. The person who did this attacked so many people and for no good reason. They were building their future, starting at the bottom at a level of college that is often mocked and derided, but can lead to so much more for those who work through it and take advantage of the help that’s offered.

Community college kept me sane during the worst years of my Postal Service torment and reminded me that there was a world of opportunity out there that didn’t involve mentally defective and corrupt bosses, moronic top managers and a babbling ding-dong of a postmaster general.

I would come from the college and into the disaster that was the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, with mail hidden in every nook and cranny and machines tearing through paper and supervisors wielding mindless authority, and then leave and return to college, where sanity ruled.

I met some of the most amazing people at Palm Beach Community College, who made the low-life trash at the post office like Shirley Cordle, Terry Cahill, Gary Miller and so many other postal sleazes look like wastes of humanity.

You’ve heard of Burt Reynolds, right? Well, I knew the man who first encouraged him to appear in a play. Watson B. Duncan III was one of the greatest men you never heard of. He could have been the president of not just a college but a college system, but he preferred to teach English literature to giant classes of eager undergrads in a theater that was named for him.

I’ve written about Duncan before, so I’ll just say that I was privileged to know him and take his classes. I’ll never forget what he wrote on one of my test papers: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.”

He told me that he loved teaching so much, he hoped to “go” to his reward while in front of a class. His passing was a terrible tragedy and the life seemed to leave Palm Beach Community College after he was gone. Watson B. Duncan was everything to me that the post office wasn’t: educated, gentle, compassionate, respectful, rewarding.

And he taught at a community college.

I eventually moved on to the university after graduating from Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College) and sometimes would see the campus at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and wish I could just go back as an un-degreed undergrad and do it all over.

Hang out with the students before class, talk under the trees about our instructors and maybe even take in a sports event or two.

Back in my day, we’d argue and debate, and sometimes there were creepy people who needed to be removed, but the idea that someone would come on campus and shoot others was beyond our belief.

That happened at the post office, people said back then, not at a college.

Well, things have changed, and disturbed people have realized that college students make great targets.

I want these shootings to stop. I want community college to be what it was for me, a place of learning and education and enlightenment and new opportunities.

Postal managers would ridicule me and tell me the college was filling my brain with nonsense and absurd ideas that I mattered and was a worthwhile person.

At the college, the instructors were telling me that I was someone who could go far if I applied myself. Sadly, I remember by name those who disdained me at the post office and have forgotten the names of many of the wonderful people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. Here’s one: Ernest Parbhoo, the journalism teacher at PBCC and student newspaper adviser, who not only encouraged me but also had me come into his journalism classes at PBCC later on to talk about my career. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

I ache for those who lost family members in those shootings. I ache for those who were injured, and the hero Army veteran who took multiple bullets to protect his classmates.

The next time I’m in the Palm Beach County area, I will make a special trip to Palm Beach State College, and I’ll drive past and murmur two words to that place that gave me so much: Thank You.

October 6, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beware of those who downgrade a college education

A recent letter to the editor of the newspaper that employs me noted that, among the very many failures of our “socialist” education system, there is the idea that every student should go to college.

Whenever there is a shortage of a particular kind of blue-collar worker, one of the first institutions to be blamed is education because of the belief that teachers are inculcating children with the idea that factory labor is bad, and office work is good. When you consider how much American manufacturing has gone overseas, some might think it’s a good idea to direct students to education for career fields that have nothing to do with the factory floor, but there are many who are nostalgic for the old days when America was a manufacturing behemoth and believe that if we just had enough available workers we’d have factories humming again.

What most people who advocate these views fail to realize is that there is something in our nation called personal choice. Many, many students want to attend college for the very reason that they want to be employed in fields that will provide work, pay and benefits. Training youths for jobs that no longer exist may make people feel good about their own past careers, but it won’t put food on the table.

Many people say college doesn’t teach any practical skills. Well, I say that you have to start somewhere, and the skills that college teaches go beyond just the bare minimum. For me, for example, completing my degree opened so many doors that I could see why so many people I knew were opposed to me pursuing college.

Need vs. want
According to many people whose bad advice I fortunately ignored. I didn’t “need” to go to college. I had a job at the post office, and could spend the rest of my work life there, make a good, blue-collar wage doing work that was dull, repetitive and seemingly guaranteed to last forever.

But I was dying of boredom. There had to be more out there than what I was seeing, and the vehemence of the denials I encountered were, oddly, convincing me that I was being lied to by a lot of people. Some people – and I’m not naming names here, but you know who you are – deliberately gave me bad advice.

I’m glad that I learned the most important lesson you can learn when managing your life: Some people want you to not achieve because of their own lack of achievement. And they will advise you into the worst decisions of your life.

I dipped my toe into the water of college in the summer of 1988, against the advice of some who I realized had nothing to say to me.

Many of these people had never tried to do anything or take a risk. I looked like a whacko at the time. Look, at the postal facility I worked at, I was one of only two blue-collar workers actually pursuing a college degree. My thinking was that the organization had told me multiple times that I would never advance within it, so I would have to take the bull by the horns and take charge of my own career and my own development.

I did that, though many people told me that my pursuit of a college degree was more of a “want” than a “need.”

It wasn’t easy. It took me nearly six years to get a four-year degree. And I did some college beyond my degree.

But I want to point out that the college degree I worked so hard to attain began to pay off soon after I walked across that stage.

Take that job and leave it
I had decided that at some point after my graduation from Florida Atlantic University, I’d have to make a serious move. The post office was a sea anchor that was dragging me down and keeping me from achieving. I was job-hunting without much success and I realized that my current employment was preventing me from really chasing hard for a new job.

I had passed up opportunities before based on bad advice but now I needed to put myself into a situation where I had to find a job, so I decided that I needed to make a clean break.

I decided to quit the post office outright, then make a job search my full-time job.

Was it risky? Yes. Was it crazy? A little, maybe. Did it work? Damn right it did.

Soon after quitting the post office in June 1994, I landed a job at an Internet service provider. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Soon, I also had a part-time job at a newspaper. Then a full-time job at a newspaper. And the rest is history.

There have been bumps along the way, I’ll confess.

But I have never regretted that decision in 1994 to quit my brainless job and basically roll the dice on something new.

College was the difference between me and failure. I have never forgotten that.

September 29, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , | 1 Comment

Why businesses kill customer service

“There you go again, givin’ a f— when it’s not your turn.”

The “Bunk,” a Baltimore detective from the TV series “The Wire,” to anyone who answers the homicide unit phone when they’re not “up.”

Recent columns in my local newspaper by a business columnist lament the decline of customer service and attribute it to the younger generation of workers, who, he says, lack a lot of the skills needed to deliver good customer service.

Of course, that’s coming from someone whose columns often are full of spelling and grammar mistakes such was “the tenants” of something instead of “the tenets” of something, and calling Warren Buffett by another name, Warren “Buffet.”

Still, the columnist makes an interesting point. The reality is, though, that many old-line businesses have an attitude about customer service that is prehistoric, to say the least.

To me, everyone in a business is a customer service representative, even if that’s not their job title. When a person calls a business, that person doesn’t care if you’re the president of the company or the cleaning person. He or she wants his question answered or his issue resolved.

So on a recent evening when someone called to deliver the results of a boxing match, it might not have been my specific job that night to deal with sports but I took the call and took down the results. Later, I gave the results to the person whose job it was that night to handle them and they were in the paper the next day. Customer satisfied, mission accomplished.

In some businesses, though, it’s not so simple. Companies become stratified and maybe certain workers are told not to try to help customers. These are the companies where customers become frustrated and take their business elsewhere because they get the runaround. It is true that, for example, I cannot fix a delivery problem with the newspaper I work for and I don’t have the time to help people connect to the Internet, but I can be pleasant and friendly while I try to direct the call in the limited time I have to the person who can help. A little decency and friendliness can go a long way, I have learned in my 54 years.

I once read in a book about car sales that the author learned from a funeral director that the average person knows about 120 people, so if you make a good impression on one person you are making a good impression on 120 people if he or she tells everyone they know about what happened to them. This can work the other way, though. Upset one person, and 120 people might know about it and remember it when they’re looking for a good or service.

I have often written about the Postal Service’s approach to customer service, which is basically to create barriers and prevent employees from helping customers. For decades, the attitude was to basically tell customers to f— off if they didn’t like the way they were treated and blame it on the customers if they called the wrong number for service.

Today, for example, if you have a problem with your mail delivery you have to call an “800” number and talk to someone in another part of the country or file a form online. Your local postmaster or a postal manager or employee is not permitted to talk to you at all. The fear is that if the local person does something good for you, everyone else will expect the same favor. By bringing the level of interaction down to zero, the Postal Service hopes to limit expectations of good service. It’s easier and cheaper, by that logic, to provide bad service than to raise people’s hopes.

Back when I was a mailhandler at the post office in the late 1980s, I made the mistake of thinking that I should be responsible for more than what I was assigned to do. One day, I was in the bulk mail acceptance unit and the phone rang, so I answered it. The person had a question about something that I knew nothing about, so I asked a person I knew what to do about it.

“Give me the phone,” he said, and I gave it to him.

He took the phone and hung it up.

“We’re closed,” he told me, “and anyway it’s not our job to answer their questions. They need to call the right number next time.”

I persisted. “But they don’t know that.”

“Too bad,” the worker said. “We don’t have time for their problems here.”

I was warned not to answer the phone again and to not try to help customers. It wasn’t my place to question anything, and anyway, as one manager told me, “If they want good service, they should use UPS or Fedex.”

One thing I have noticed is that the decline in good service in places like the Postal Service usually begins with a change in authority. For example, a neighborhood post office run by an old-line postmaster with decades of experience often is a pleasant place, postal customers report, and the postmaster is known in the community as someone who can be relied on to be friendly and open.

The windows clerks are longtime employees and community members, and the letter carriers are also longtimers who know their routes forwards and backwards.

Often, such postmasters and staffers are living on borrowed time and know it, and eventually they are retired out. Then, things change.

The postmaster usually is the first to go. Then a minimally qualified replacement comes in, often eager to rid the office of the longtime staffers. They have enough time to retire and leave as the disciplinary actions pile up. Soon, customers are directed to call the “800” number for problems that used to be solved locally.

The cooperative workplace becomes a frantic mess as mail arrives late every morning and carriers are pushed harder and harder. As the old-line workers leave, much cheaper new hires are brought in, given very little training and are fired or quit when they can’t keep up.

Soon, customers notice that their “regular” letter carrier is gone and the new ones can’t deliver mail to the right addresses with any consistency and can’t learn the routes because they are constantly being switched around. Plus, their schedule leaves them with no regular hours or days off, so they’re exhausted and in a rush to get back before overtime kicks in.

Complaints about service to the “800” number increase – and are ignored – until a congressman is contacted. He or she can do little, and members of the management bureaucracy will usually tell the media that the post office has to cut costs and that things will improve soon. Soon never happens, and service gets worse, so customers keep complaining and postal managers develop the attitude that customers are just natural gripers and begin to ignore them even more.

By this time, there has been a complete turnover of staff in the post office and no one really knows how to do much of the work. There is no time for training (in the Postal Service, training time is considered wasted time; you are supposed to learn on the job and if you don’t know instinctively how to do a job, it’s because you’re stupid, and no wonder you’re working at the post office. It means you’re too dumb to get a job anywhere else) so workers are allowed to do work wrong and send mail anywhere.

The postmaster, by the way, now is buried in paperwork and reports so even if he or she wants to be helpful to customers, they can’t with all these high-level eyes on them. Eventually, the Postal Service decides to close the office or merge it with another post office miles away.

What’s really odd is that the Postal Service tries to persuade customers that it’s listening when in fact it’s ignoring customers because they’re asking for a level of service that they’ll never get again. For example, if told by customers that they want things to go back the way they were, customers are given a lot of doubletalk about how committed the Postal Service is to holding rates down and delivering good service. In the meantime, the hidden message is that the old service is not coming back, so you might as well accept the new reality.

You see this everywhere now. To managers, providing good service seems to be an added cost, so just train customers to expect bad service and require workers to give bad service while blaming said service on said workers’ “lack of commitment to good service.”

In fact, some companies can even use bad service to make themselves look good.

Before Adelphia Cable collapsed, it ran in a cycle where it would respond to the flood of complaints by periodically sending out letters claiming the company was recommitting itself to customer service because there was a new manager in charge of something with the word “customer” or “service” in it.

Since Adelphia had a monopoly in the area, it really had no incentive to improve anything and eventually the new effort would run down, then there would be a new “recommitment” six months later.

At one point, Adelphia opened an office in Stuart (near where my newspaper employer was at the time) as part of this alleged recommitment to improve service. About a year later, the company closed the office, fired the staff and redirected all customer complaints to the Miami office, telling customers it was again recommitting itself to customer service and “we can serve the Stewart (sic) area better from Miami.”

The companies that are doing well are those in which customer service is a commitment from the top down to make customers satisfied and glad they are doing business with the company. Too bad so many old-line companies have forgotten that.

September 1, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

Jimmy Carter: The man and the president

In January 1981, as President Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated and the American hostages in Tehran were being released, the general mood on the USS Tarawa was one of glee.

We weren’t going to war with Iran; the ship was heading to Australia for a liberty call; and Jimmy Carter no longer was president.

Carter was felt to symbolize an age of limitations and the so-called “malaise” of the late 1970s. Relations with the rest of the world were crumbling and the United States seemed like a former major player now trying desperately to convince others that it still mattered on the world stage.

Compared with Reagan, Carter seemed to be afraid of using power and I recall hearing later on that Carter was such a micromanager that he even ended up doling out parking spot assignments to the White House staff, something that was way below a president’s pay grade.

He had taken office in a time when people were trying to put the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate behind them, but nothing seemed to go right. It was unfortunate that he projected an image of a reduced America at a time when people wanted to feel better and his legacy will always be that of a president who failed.

That’s a shame because quite a bit happened on his watch. Apple and Microsoft were forming in his years of service as president, and the personal computer revolution was just getting started. The man from Plains, Ga., was just too plain. Maybe we needed the larger-than-life figure of Reagan to reassure us in those times.

Carter was a man who felt deeply the need to be careful with the military. He had graduated from the Naval Academy and qualified in submarines, but found that he preferred civilian life and politics.

Like today, he ran on his outsider status in Washington as the plain-spoken man from Plains who would take us beyond the mess of Watergate and scandal. Instead, we had scandals galore and soon Carter was the butt of jokes.

Look, he was far from the greatest president we ever had. But afterward he continued to try to make a better nation and world, even if people prefer to forget those years when he was president and the excruciating final year when it seemed like America couldn’t do anything right.

He’s 90 years old and has cancer. He’s still smiling and optimistic about his chances but we know that time is the stealer of those whom we remember from our younger days.

I hope his radiation treatments work, and we have a few more years of Mr. Carter.

His legacy will be that he tried, and maybe didn’t succeed totally, but afterward he continued to fight for peace, justice and a better life for all.
Sometimes it’s the fight that matters. Others will take up his cause, I am sure.

When I was in the service, we acted like saying that the top person in our chain of command was President Jimmy Carter was a statement of shame. Maybe he wasn’t the best or the greatest, but he gave his effort to the country. That doesn’t count for much but it’s more than most of us ever do.

Best wishes, Mr. President. And I will say with pride that in my early years in the Marines, the first person in my chain of command was President Jimmy Carter.

August 21, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment