Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.



November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another economic development scam falls apart

When times are tough and you have millions in grant money sitting around for economic development, it’s easy to fall for the lure of the economic development con man.

He rolls into town and promises everything to everybody.

Want jobs? You’ll have them.

Need a tenant? I’ll sign a long-term lease.

Got cash to give to me? I’ll take a check.

I don’t seem to have enough cash to get started? Fear not, I have investors in Minnesota, oh, I mean, investors in Singapore, or maybe it’s Albania?, whose identity I can’t disclose who’ll lend me $20 million.

You insist that I meet your requirements before you disburse the money? Oh, if you want to be “that way” about it, I’ll still do the deal.

I think the word is getting out about the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, and it’s that they’re the biggest bunch of suckers since that lollipop truck overturned on I-75.

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the EDC, gushed like mad over the wonders that Major League Football would bring to the area. As I mentioned before, and before, and before, this bankrupt pseudo-football league is run by people who are adept at making economic development jumps to different parts of the country, making wild and vague promises, and then walking away, leaving vendors and lenders in a pinch and seeking legal relief.

It was hardly a surprise when the league, after holding tryouts, canceled its inaugural season and then announced that it was all part of the big strategy, and then this past week it was revealed that the league has been living “on the arm” at Lakewood Ranch, and the landlord decided to make a move and file eviction papers.

(You can follow the story at the newspaper where I work, the Bradenton Herald.)

The Bradenton EDC managed to avoid being taken in the Sanborn Studios scam, but remember that they fell for the Gulf Coast Swords hockey team deal, the rowing competition and now Major League Football.

What’s next? Cat racing?

June 25, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

Pat Conroy wore the ring, and much more

Pat Conroy died Friday night, after my newspaper was put to bed.

I wanted to cry.

The son of the man who inspired the book and movie “The Great Santini,” the product of a military childhood and a military academy, who rejected the military but loved the men who defended the nation.

The son of the man who was so abusive, Conroy said once in an NPR interview that whenever the family moved to a new house his mother would have him look for hiding spots for when the “Great Santini” came home drunk and wanted to beat his wife and kids bloody and senseless, just for the hell of it.

I read Pat Conroy’s books when I was in the Marines. “The Lords of Discipline” touched me in so many ways. People keep talking about “The Prince of Tides” in Conroy’s obits, but it’s his book about “The Institute” that really got to me. It’s a tale of betrayal and stunning hatred and racism, and about a boy growing to be a man.

The betrayals are astonishing and maybe a bit overwrought, but hey, Conroy was the man who lived the hell and made the good money, so we can allow him a little leeway.
Plus, as he said in a memorable speech at his alma mater, the Citadel, He wears the ring.

After “The Lords of Discipline” was published, he said in his first speech at The Citadel in a long, long time, in May 2001, he had about as much chance of speaking there as Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda. We writers like to settle our scores in the things we write, and you all know that I have settled plenty in my writing about the Postal Service. Except I didn’t hide behind fiction. I named names and described crimes and incidents in the post office that will never go punished.

Even then, the book hit close to home.

In his books “My Losing Season” and “The Death of Santini,” Conroy takes you into a family in which there is no fun in dysfunction. Pat recounts a beating from his father in which his mother coaches him on what to say in the emergency room.

On another occasion, at an awards ceremony for high school sports his father wrongly accuses him of playing a practical joke on another student and beats him bloody and senseless in the hall, in front of all the other people there.

Pat gets his rescuers off his father, they get into the family car and his father continues to beat him while driving them home, and after they get home.

Another trip to the ER. Another excuse.

And yet, there was a man – flawed though he was – who wanted to understand his father and his father’s rage that often flowed toward his wife and children.

In the book “The Great Santini,” the son says before the funeral of his father, who died after he crashed his Marine F-4 jet because a ejecting from the doomed plane might have sent it into a populated area — that in spite of everything he wanted to join the Marines, become an officer, graduate from flight school and come home as a Marine 2nd lieutenant with wings over his breast pocket.

Pat Conroy believed in the power of words over the power of fists. In “Lords” he is taunted because he’s majoring in English at the Institute, and because he plays basketball. Read that book and the description of the last game his character plays, a multi-overtime game against another military college that takes every last ounce of his strength and power.

OK, many of his books are overwritten. The critics will always have their say. I say, give the man his due. He wrote from a broken heart about a broken family and the broken lives it yielded. I nearly cried at the end of the nonfiction “The Death of Santini.”

The father, the monster and destroyer of his family and his youth, who drove away everyone, eventually dies. Still and all, the father says he made Robert Duvall a great actor in the movie version, though he insisted to the end that the beatings and all were just the product of a son’s overactive imagination.

Even at the end of “The Great Santini,” the son comes to understand the father amid his determination to never be that father.

Pat Conroy was imperfect. He drank too much. He ate too much. Some in his family said he remembered too much and wrote too much down.

That’s the thing about writers, and I include myself in that category. We see and hear too much, read too much into it, and then put our business on the street for all to see.

In August 1978, I was at a little place in South Carolina, you might have heard about it, called Parris Island. Platoon 2066 was doing the obstacle course one fine morning and those of us who were “eyeballing the area” could see that there was a large group of civilians watching us go through our ordeals.

I heard that they were cast and crew members of the movie “The Great Santini,” which was shooting in nearby Beaufort. They had come to see Marine training.

I fell from the ropes and into the water that day, and I sometimes wonder if Robert Duvall saw me fall. Or Pat Conroy. Or Blythe Danner. Probably not.

Hollywood had to tone down Conroy’s book to get military cooperation for it to be filmed and shown on military bases.

Pat Conroy is at peace now. I will miss him, but I will be sure to remember that when I do my next writing project that no one is feared more than the writer with the facts.

He wears the ring. He can say what he wants.

March 5, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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