“Always Be Closing”: Sales culture is becoming a runaway train wreck for decent job creation

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Recently, I unplugged my telephone line from my digital voice router.  So right now, old landline robocalls get an answering machine, and I read the Xfinity log occasionally for messages.  About once a week, there’s an IRS scam message, among others.

I think the robocall epidemic is like a Runaway Train (like the 1985 movie, or the more recent “Unstoppable”).  Like email spam (and even some Twitter) it’s an end-stage symptom of sales culture imploding.

After recessions, we’ve had the mistaken impression that we can create jobs, especially for older workers (like me, after my career-ending layoff in December 2001 at 58) by having them sell stuff, especially leisure lifestyles, financial planning, life insurance, subprime mortgages, and so on.

One thing attractive for employers is, of course, is that most of the compensation can be commission, that is, production-related.

I was somewhat in favor of some of these ideas in the 1990s.  Sometimes, companies would pay associates for “piece work” instead of outright layoffs (an example was the Ohio company Lincoln Electric in the early 90s, during the post-Persian-Gulf-War mini recession that helped Bill Clinton get elected).  It’s true that the most successful artists or authors can earn their living this way, but it’s a winner-take-all (relative to niche) world.   Sometimes bloggers did the same, in specific areas, like Mommy blogger Heather Armstrong, starting in 2002, after she got fired by an employer who didn’t like what he saw on her personal blog.   A site that gives advice that may work for some bloggers is (Australia’s) Ramsay Taplin’s “Blogtyrant” (he started out as a physical fitness coach). But, again, this is all about niches, aggressive selling, in combination with content that actually helps relatively specific people.

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In 2002, an overwhelming portion of the “job opportunities” that came up quickly in Minneapolis (where I remained living until 2003) were sales-related.  One of the most striking was PrimeVest, which was predicated on contacting people with whole life policies to convert them to term.  That may be good advice for some people, but I doubt this is a $40 trillion market, as claimed.  I listened to the presentation, and wound up interviewing the interviewer myself, who became very defensive (he had set up a husband-wife team to run this little quasi-franchise as if it were Amway-like).  I could do that because I had a lot of knowledge of life insurance with my 12 years at ING (ReliaStar/Uslico). I wound up playing Donald Trump.   (By the way, when I happened to be home mid-afternoon for personal business 2 days after 9/11, which still at ING, I got my first unsolicited call from PrimeVest).

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In the good old days, life insurance agents sometimes had a nice world, with their convention qualifications.  But even then, it was an “aggressive business”, much more so than I had realized.  Agents had to keep after new business, setting up kiosks in shopping malls, for example.

I was approached by two life insurance companies, rather aggressively, to become an agent in 2005.  I went through some motions, but “declined”.  It seems that the ‘fast start” and “getting business” now has a lot to do with trailing consumer behavior online through tracking tools (for those who don’t use “do not track” correctly) and cold calling them.  No, this is not promising for me.

I would even be approached to sell subprime mortgages (in early 2007, just before the bust started), and to supervise “at risk youths” roaming shopping malls raising money for “charities” (in 2009).

My own father was a “salesman”, a manufacturer’s representative, for Imperial Glass, until 1971.  He claimed he could sell anything, but really he had a very stable business and worked only selling wholesale to department stores in the mid-Atlantic.  That sort of living isn’t possible today.  Mother helped him do the books by hand.  He did orders with a hand adding machine.

There is a snarky belief among “content creators” (including most “computer programmers”) that sales people aren’t “smart enough” to make it in really technical areas.   Of course, as any team from IBM or Univac in the 1970s (or from H Ross Perot’s old EDS, with its prudish dress codes) that’s rather condescending (although EDS used to send out memos to employees saying that dress codes were necessary to impress customers who didn’t really understand technology).  This maps to the old style conflict over “family values” and spills over into old divisions over race and “faith”.

True, there’s only so much room for 50-billion-dollar internet companies created in dorm rooms by Ivy League undergraduates (yes, Mark, you’re more convincing on SNL than Jessie Eisenberg playing you).  There’s more room for young scientists (who create “content”), like Jack Andraka or Taylor Wilson, but as for job creation that goes only so far.  I would rather have a self-concept derived from content creation than from “hucksterism”.  Yes, I have a couple of piano sonatas  I’d like performed and a sci-fi novel that I would like to groom so it can really sell.  I can admire the accomplishment of a composer Timo Andres, who at age 23 had composed the world’s largest (of “all time”) two-piano composition (“Shy and Mighty”), but indeed “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer” – and it takes commission money for income.

So, we come back to the world of weekend self-help promos (ranging from “feeling good about yourself” to something practical like “cash flow management’). We hear presentations on how to set up distributorships for telephone cards – for low income people who don’t have efficient Internet access – it sounds so predatory.

Donald Trump hasn’t gotten into any of this at all.  Hillary Clinton is more likely to talk about this problem this fall, I hope.

Remember the 2002 comedy film “100 Mile Rule” by Brent Huff, where salesmen were told to “Always Be Closing”, as the mantra.  I think of Trump University and the reports that sales people were pushed to get potential students to go into debt to attend, so they could learn “How to Get Rich”.  But to me, being a “salesman” sounds like a shameful identity,

Is this something to be gotten over?  Most of the calls and emails today are about “deals.  I’ve already mapped out my plans.  I don’t have time to listen to someone’s elevator pitch for a “deal”.  So I don’t respond to the calls, or emails (which could be spam and lead to malware or ransomware infections anyway).   Most SEO is probably no good – Google and other engines change their algorithms all the time to defeat it.  You can’t clean up your old Windows computer with a third-party product downloaded from a YouTube ad or from a thumb drive ordered from an 800 number.  Most of these sales pitches seem to come from sheer desperation, from people who have become unemployable and want Donald Trump to save them

So I don’t take these calls at all or open emails.  (Yup, I can tell when a headline mentions a warranty on a car I no longer own.)  Yet, I worked as a “telemarketer”, part time, for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2002-2003 for fourteen months, and that gave me some stability at the time.  I actually got pretty decent at raising money for music.  But then, after moving to DC, I tried selling subscriptions for the NSO, and that experience fell apart completely (details for another time).  But I found out that people who had majored in music (even like the character Shane Lyons in “Judas Kiss”, played with the charisma of Timo Descamps – the Other Timo) have to become salesmen and sell subscriptions to mass-market events (familiar classical or pop family events, never mind the esoteric modern stuff) to make ends meet and start careers more.  In that classic gay sci-fi film, “Danny” (Richard Harmon, “the greatest of all time”) is the only real and promising content creator among the major characters.

Does this mean we have to become more willing to answer the phone again?

(Published: Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 5 PM EDT)

 

Assessment of Donald Trump’s “nation in peril” claims: it’s the quality (and novelty), not quantity, of threats that matters

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So, let’s take another look at Donald Trump’s vision of a “nation in peril”.

The progressive establishment says that total crime and violence is down compared to decades past. Quantitatively, that’s probably true.  Since WWII, “I’ve” lived through a lot of history.  Despite racial violence today, there was much more of it in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Mob, organized crime, and drug-related violence was legion.  Rudy Giuliani’s cleanup of New York in the 1990s did make it safer (for Trump, especially), although probably exacerbating police racial profiling problems (bolstered by some notorious wrongful convictions, like “The Central Park Five”).  Some of this lingered for a long time (Rodney King) before resurfacing in many cities recently.

In fact, until probably the late 1970s, it was generally true that the big cities were less safe places to live (even in high rise buildings) than the suburbs.  That gradually changed in the 1980s, even as “white flight” continued with many corporate relocations (especially in southern cities). With a large classical record collection, I was concerned about property crime then, and I had a couple of narrow misses for burglaries in NYC and Dallas (in suburban-looking settings) from the late 70s into the 80s. Over time, technology has provided a lot of assist in protecting property (especially automobiles).

The real question seems to be about the kind of threat, and who could be in its cross-hairs.  It is a larger concern for “upper middle class” people today (especially whites) than it used to be.  Trump is right about that.  It’s useful to walk through the main changes in “quality” and play devil’s advocate for each point.

The first point seems to be that the pace of mass shootings and mass-casualty events have gradually increased since 1982, if you follow a Mother Jones report.  Supplementary charts at the Washington Post and CNN are helpful.  Most of these events were perpetrated by mentally unstable individuals with relatively little coherent ideology (although a history of bullying and workplace or school problems is common). But one can add to these (besides OKC) some mass casualty events overseas, especially in Europe, some by means other than assault weapons.  Radical Islamic terrorism has indeed (since 2014) increased rapidly as a threat to civilians, especially in Europe, and especially as a result of the implosion of Syria and Iraq. While Obama’s policies may have something to do with this vacuum, more important are European social and policy problems.  Peter Bergen’s recent perspective on CNN is relevant. There’s also an interesting counter-perspective today in the WSJ by Max Boot, “The Terrorist Past Has a Message for the Terrorist Present”.

All of this argues, it seems, and especially in a “law and order” campaign advocated by Mr. Trump, for a progressive position on gun control (background checks, closing loopholes, banning civilians again from assault weapons), and indeed gun control might prevent a lot of “ordinary” crime.  It seems that it does in Britain and Australia, but it doesn’t in some areas of Chicago.  Once so many weapons are out there, it’s pretty hard to keep them to the “good guys”.  And gun control (as we’ve seen in France and maybe other places, even Orlando) might weaken the public from self-defense against very deliberate, very malicious attacks.

The second point has a lot to do with our growing dependence on technology, especially the power grids, and the communications (less so transportation) that emanates.  I’ve already discussed the possible extreme disruptions from large solar storms, or from large scale terror events related to electromagnetic pulse or maybe cyber-war.  Again, it’s important to reiterate that this threat is more likely from enemy states (like Iran or North Korea) than ad hoc terror groups. It’s also important to understand that non-nuclear pulse threats exists, although they have never been deployed on civilians in the West yet.  It’s important to note the possible danger of a radioactive dispersion device (“dirty bomb”), which, in Donald Trump’s world, would be an existential threat to real estate values (he never mentions that, ironically).  Bioterror remains significant (was with the anthrax attacks in 2001) but a natural pandemic (like avian influenza or a SARS-like illness) is more likely (Zika seems relatively small in the grand scale of things, however tragic for the children affected).  The best protection for the public from biological threats remains rapid vaccine development.

I’ve just gotten Gretchen Bakke’s book “The Grid”  (not to be confused with Byron Dorgan’s novel “Gridlock”)   In the introduction, Bakke mentions “microgrids” that already exist (set up by financial institutions and technology companies) and these do help to start to decentralize the grids, making them more secure.  She also notes that some utilities will not allow consumers to hook up home solar systems to their grids.  Major security concerns include also the lack of ability to repair or re-manufacture large transformers and transport them.   As the CBS interview with Ted Koppel (“Lights Out”) above indicates, the perhaps inadvertent connection of many larger utilities to the  public Internet is risky and troubling.

New Gingrich mentioned the nuclear threat at the RNC, but not the EMP threat explicitly.  It’s true that an enemy could decide to go “all out”.  But against the kind of some of our enemies, the old MAD doctrine (“Dr. Strangelove“) no longer holds, as it had against the Soviet Union and Communist China.  An existential attack on our way of life seems even more sadistic.  I was in a bizarre situation at NIH in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, a point that seems ironic today.

It is indeed true that “we” have faced quasi-existential “way-of-life” threats before — the Arab oil embargo of 1973 was a starting point.  These  potentially affected personal mobility (and lifestyle choice) then — and, however clumsily at first, we worked and produced our way out of these problems, only to find newer ones.

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The third major area is even a bit more disturbing.  I remember back in 1968 during Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, the topic of the Geneva Convention.  We were actually tested on it before graduation.  Donald Trump says he wants to gut it.  But one of the most disturbing aspects of recent attacks is the idea that ordinary civilians should become bargaining chips for retaliation for US foreign policy.  We heard this back in the fall of 2001 when the U.S. allowed Osama bin Laden’s “speech” to be broadcast on a Sunday afternoon after George W Bush announced the start of operations in Afghanistan.  Even more offensive is the idea that civilians bear personal moral responsibility (even in a religious sense) for what their governments do.  There’s no question that this was the attitude expressed explicitly by terrorists in some attacks (Boston, with Jahar’s “boat manifesto” and Paris, with explicit statements made at the Bataclan).  Indeed, as with Orlando, military style weapons have been turned on civilians, resulting in war injuries that need to be treated by military combat surgeons and rehab programs, not just by “gofundme” drives for medical bills.   Even more disturbing are scenarios that could target ordinary civilians in novel ways (as long as persons connected to them as in families) to make ideological points.  Donald Trump may have baited this idea in the past by threatening the families of individual suspected terrorists.  It’s this sort of thing that can be manipulated into rationalizations to clamp down on user-generated speech online (like “we’re at war folks”, like many European civilians during WWII, going all the way back to Londoners during the 1940 shellings, recently discussed by Sebastian Junger in his book “Tribe“).  Another personal aspect of this problem is the idea that there is something morally wrong is someone has “made enemies” even if the enemy is in some abstract sense morally wrong, too.  This was an attitude common in my early upbringing that was largely forgotten for much of my adult life, but that seems to have come back in the post 9-11 world.  Sometimes enemies appear because they feel we have brought them into a world where nothing is “earned” and where they have nothing to lose. Suddenly, as Donald Trump has (however crudely and with a lot of hypocrisy) forced us to face, it seems not so honorable to become a victim.  You still pay for the crimes of others yourself.

As for Europe especially, a booklet-length story by Rukmini Callinachi in the New York Times, front page, Thursday Aug. 4, 2016, reinforces all these concerns.

(Published: Thursday, July 28, 2016 at 4 PM EDT)

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Note: I gave a 38-minute sermon on 9/11 at the Dakota Unitarian Fellowship in Rosemount, MN in Feb. 2002.

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Hillary Clinton’s server and email scandal(s), not quite as “bad” as Trump’s recklessness, but still a regrettable “process piece”

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So, does the “email server scandal” really create a serious issue with Hillary Clinton’s character and her fitness to become president?  Does it still leave some lingering legal questions about some unknown future prosecutorial or impeachment threat?   Indeed, the chant “lock her up” at the RNC (to Chris Christie’s mock court and Mike Flynn’s speech) and even among Sander’s protestors yesterday, is rather sickening.

First, let’s separate this from another email scandal that erupted Monday in Philadelphia at the DNC, the apparent Russian hack intended to show prejudice against Sanders and apparently improve Trump’s chance of election.  I cover this on Blogger here.  There’s also a story by Julian Assange on the hack here.

The problem with the Hillary Email Server Problem is that it criss-crosses several other issues and competing interests.

One issue is, of course, the specialized care in handling classified information.  But ethically it is comparable to the responsibility for private companies and sometimes government agencies to protect PII for customers.

The other big issue is that most “salaried professionals” in today’s workplace do want to work from home.  This creates issues especially during travel.  Generally, workers are expected to use corporate or government computers for business use only, and sometimes that’s a legal requirement. But, especially when “out and about”, workers can’t always carry two sets of hardware around everywhere (there’s a good question as to bringing multiple laptops through the TSA – you can, but I wouldn’t want to try it).

That’s one reason why many tech businesses have allowed BYOD at work. The major exposure in most cases is live consumer PII on a worker’s own device.  There are various discussions online of the security implications, but one of the best is on Digital Guardian.  It seems important that workers not save consumer devices on their own devices, but it’s hard to see how you could stop that from happening.

There are companies that hire work-at-home customer service reps who use their own computers, although there are strict security requirements.  One example is Sykes-Alpine Access.

In the days before the Internet when a lot of computing was on large mainframes, it was common for people to take work home – even listings of parallel test results (with live consumer data sometimes) before system implementations.  A home break-in could conceivably compromise consumers, but nobody worried about this in the late 80s and early 90s. I sometimes kept listings at home for reference  —  CYA proof at all times that I had done my job properly for something now running all the time in production with millions of clients.

Production “on-call” support at night for batch cycle abends could be done either from dumb terminals taken home (which were not very effective), corporate laptops, or personal desktops or laptops (which could be equipped with PROCOMM or similar product) to log on to a work mainframe.  I usually used my own hardware because of another “conflict” which I have explained previously.  I can recall that as early as 1985, when I logged on to a mainframe terminal, I was reminded of a state (Texas, at the time) law regarding computer crime.  Employees were held accountable for any misuse of their accounts, as if someone else knew their passwords or if they left themselves signed on when they went home.

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I’d add here that in September 2001, about 2 weeks after 9/11, there was a serious email virus problem where I worked, which could have infected me at home, and which led to some uncomfortable conversations, as I recall that period (seeing “discuss issues 1:1” in your calendar).

That brings us to the subject of jobs requiring government security clearances and access to military or state-department (or other agencies, like Energy) classified information.

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I do have some experience to bear.  In the Army, I was stationed at the Pentagon and later Fort Eustis (1968-1970) and had a Secret clearance and occasionally handled classified documents (not often). The same was true when I worked as a computer programmer for three summers at the David Taylor Model Basin (Navy) near Washington, and later for the Naval Command Systems Support Activity at the Washington Navy Yard (from 1971-1972).  The building I worked in is still there, if fully renovated.

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At no time did anyone take work home.  Documents were signed for.  Even when handling unclassified materials, there was a “clean desk” policy.  You had to put everything away before you went home.  Civilians took turns as post-work-hours “security inspection officer”.  All of this went on toward the end of Vietnam and during SALT talks.

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I would never have any further experience with security clearances except in June 1988 when I interviewed for a job with Mitchell Systems as a contract IBM mainframe programmer for the State Department.  I would have gotten that job, but instead chose to go to a health care company (now The Lewin Group).

All this would seem to make Hillary Clinton’s decision to “work from home” seem reckless.  Clinton understandably needed to work from her home in New York State on weekends with “Bill” as well as in her office in DC.  It would seem to an outside observer that the State Department should have installed a server following its own security rules.  Clinton reports there were some difficulties in getting this done (the libertarian “government doesn’t work” litany) so it was much easier to go to private contractors (Geek Squad, maybe) to get her set up.

Her main defense is “mens rea” – to the best of her knowledge, she handled only unclassified emails and other unclassified materials on her home server, as explained here on ThinkProgress (a few emails turned out to be classified, and more would become classified later – and, yes, overclassification is a big problem).   There are many accounts, such as the New York Times (with timeline) and even the Washington Times.  There is an account by Michael Arnovitz on “The Policy” that puts her “conduct” in perspective when compared to Gen. Petraeus (although “two wrongs don’t make a right”, as I recall Advocates for Self-Government broadcasting from Georgia back in 1998). It’s hard to imagine how she could have worked well at home if she got a 3 AM call about a terror attack in the Middle East on one of these weekends.  That’s why it sounds as though she should have worked harder to make sure the State Department fully equipped her with legally secured connections when taking office.  Government can do this for presidents (her husband), so why not major cabinet heads like State and DOD?   I’ve thought about these issues in my own career, but Hillary Clinton had a level of responsibility I never took on, even as eventful as my own career often seemed at the time.  Indeed, this is an issue where you’re too close to the “red button” even in your own bedroom, with your own spouse.   There would seem to be more of an issue for Hillary while traveling to other places (especially overseas) but she would have had a paid security staff with her to handle the clumsiness of security logistics.  I’m reminded of my own preparations when I travel. I have no such resources.

Hillary had made other careless remarks about technology.  Like, “I love Snapchat, those messages disappear all by themselves.”  Well, not always.  But Donald Trump has made plenty of reckless claims of his own, about “shutting down those tubes” which I’ve already covered.

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On balance, I feel more uneasy about Donald Trump’s instability and recklessness than Hillary’s, but I think we’re seeing the results of a system that doesn’t encourage the right kind of people to run for office (and “raise money” from other people’ sources).  If we had a businessman as GOP nominee, I’d rather have seen Mark Cuban (who knows my books).  Imagine Anderson Cooper (as a journalist) or Tim Cook as a Democratic nominee.   Johnson-Weld sounds like the most temperate and ethically responsible ticket.  Coming back to Hillary’s preplexing judgment on the her own BYOD server issue, I can only compare it to situations in my own career where I was in a canyon for a long time and accepted something based on compulsiveness of perhaps just immaturity and inattention as normal, because I couldn’t see out of it — but climb out I eventually did.  Likewise, when driving on a plateau, I eventually come to a precipice and can look out over the next valley.  Hindsight is not too comforting in accounting for one’s own past bad judgment.

First picture is the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia, about three miles from the DNC site, near the 2015 Amtrak derailment site. Philadelphia is not “another borough” of New York City.

(Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)

“Donald Trump”: How many times can I say his name?; Hillary Clinton needs Bryce Harper in her bottom-of-the-ninth lineup

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I could put a funny spin on Donald Trump’s “Be Very Afraid” speech last night in Cleveland at the RNC. In fact, the first subsection of Chapter 6 of my first 1997 “Do Ask, Do Tell” book was “Be Very Afraid”.  Let me dismiss some of the non-homosexual comedy, like the stuff about plagiarism, and Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement.

The “real” comedy is to say, well, Hillary Clinton gets to bat last and pull off a home team walk-off.  And maybe she could use Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in her lineup in the “bottom of the ninth”, suddenly one run down.  I remember a baseball game back in 1978 when the Yankees led the White Sox 11-9 going into the ninth at home, when the White Sox got a three run homer and went ahead 12-11.  Then Chris Chambliss hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth in the short porch to win 13-12.  But remember, the Yankees won that famous Bucky Dent game in Boston on the road.

The Washington Post greeted its readers Friday morning with the headline, “Donald Trump portrays a nation in peril.”  The lead-off editorial reads “Mr. Trump’s apocalypse now.” Comparisons to Nixon in 1968 may be apt.  A recent CNN series (“The Seventies” and “The Sixties”) documented the radical left wing (as well as Palestinian) terrorism of the day (I remember the threats made by the People’s Party of New Jersey back in 1972).  Cities, including part of Washington along 14th St, were devastated by riots (while I was in the Army).  We had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy assassination, and still bought the domino theory that led us into Vietnam, supported by male-only conscription and a divisive student deferment policy.

It may be true that absolute crime numbers are lower today.  But “average citizens”, middle class and up, may be in more peril today because of the “asymmetry” of the various threats, which might include WMD’s and cyberwar.    And I may closer to the “marginal” or even “slight” risk area because I’m somewhat dependent on “inherited wealth”, although not quite as much as some people think. Trump (and even Peter Thiel, below) neglected to mention specifically the strongest possible anchor for the “nation in peril” (or “western civilization in peril”) argument: the idea that our people have, for the most part (excluding the preppers, below) become so dependent on communications and physical technology. But a Trump with a pointing finger touching a red button could be another existential threat.

I don’t have the personal survival skills of a doomsday prepper, and I need civilization – and expressive, emancipating personal freedom to lead a meaningful life.   I wouldn’t be of any use in the world of NBC’s “Revolution“.  So I personally take sustainability and stability of out way of life — and threats to it from enemies, especially foreign — very seriously.  Processing some of the “threats” is problematic for me.  I experience locally weak social capital.  I don’t have anyone to watch my back, and I really don’t watch anyone else’s.  Yes, I call 911 if I see something.   But I can’t answer Remo Zero’s “Save Me”. I can’t make someone else “all right” when he or she isn’t.

In fact, a lot of people are irritated at me because I am always the one bringing up the peril posed by external events, and refuse to remain focused on the narrower needs of “my group” (and there is more than one group).   A lot of people just aren’t interested., in what happens “on the outside”.   They somehow believe their interpersonal ties (or religious faith, sometimes) will see them through if the external world around them is destroyed.   They would rather be “alive” than be proven “right” (a great line about this from the piano prodigy character Ephram appears in the TV series “Everwood”).  My concern about personal logistics and how external threats could derail it (and issue when I was coming out in 1973 and still in the suburbs) and need for personal mobility betrayed an unwillingness to form emotional attachments to people “where they were.”  Today, my concern about keeping my broadcast voice available (which Mr. Trump could conceivably turn off, claiming national security concerns over misuse of UGC platforms for terror recruiting) betrays a similar aloofness to “real people.”  When I am gone, people will go on without me,

Social capital gets talked about from two directions.  One is top-down, as with a recent sermon that I heard on “scruffy hospitality” to accompany “radical hospitality” as a foundation for a community’s resilience (from natural events or enemies).  Part of making everyone matter is allowing relationships with people with less obvious “ambition” really matter.  But the more troubling direction is “bottom-up”, which starts are a reaction to my own operations.  People wonder why I don’t like to “sell” other people’s messages, as if that were beneath me.  I’ll come back to this later.

I have to mention Peter Thiel’s peculiar speech last night.  He was dismissive of the attention given to the bathroom bills (“Who cares?”)  Trump sounded clumsy in saying “L G B T Q”.  The HRC blasted Trump as a “huge bigot” early this morning, somewhat perplexing supporters (story).  Maybe HRC regards Trump now as “Enemy Mine” (as in the 1985 sci-fi film).

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Still, I go on.  I think we can solve our problems.  I keep after the press to cover the most serious ones.  So far, only Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich have discussed the threats to electrical infrastructure specifically.  Why doesn’t Donald Trump talk about this, instead of bashing Hillary?  (The value of his own real estate holdings certainly can be undone by WMD’s).  Thiel, whatever criticism he earns for Gawker and other attitudes, is paying a lot attention to infrastructure and security as an investor – as all tech investors realize they must.  If we work smart, personal sacrifice and unwanted intimacy become less demanded.

One other thing:  no one person can “fix” the asymmetric peril for the country or for western civilization.  “No one knows the system better than me.  Which is why, I alone can fix it” is an absurd promise.  And a president Donald Trump can’t make you safe on day one of an administration without doing things we would all regret.

(Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016 at 11:30 AM)

Note: The iPhone baseball picture above, rotates in Google Chrome, but displays properly on IE, Edge, Mozilla, and Safari on any computer;  on any iPohone it rotates.  I had to rotate it in WordPress first.  This seems to be a small settings or software bug;  will report when i can find out.  Try this in Mozilla and Edge if you want to see the baseball picture display right.

Retail chains have policies forbidding employees to resist crime: is this a good idea?

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Many retail chains have employment policies requiring clerks to abstain from resisting robbery attempts at their premises.  Most will terminate employees who do so.  The policies have a lot to do with liability lawyers and insurance companies, who point out that a clerk who resists could put customers in jeopardy and other employees.

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There was an incident recently in Frederick, MD where a clerk was fired after successfully disarming a violent intruder, but then, because of popular support, reinstated.  Jeremy Arias has a story in a local newspaper (paywall).

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It’s a good question, too, how consumers should behave if encountering such a situation.  There was a spectacular incident in De Soto, TX, south of Dallas, where a consumer shot an armed robber (story by Tom Steele).  The government has generally refrained from issuing specific advice.  Maybe that’s a good thing, because of a consumer’s behavior is unpredictable (if he is a “good guy with a gun”) that might help act as a deterrent.  That’s also true about policies for employees.  There is a community, herd effect beyond a franchise owner’s understandable desire to avoid liability exposure. If some clerks are armed and able to protect the premises and unpredictably so, some criminals might be deferred from trying.  I think Ben Carson made that point in one of the early Republican debates.

Many minimum wage or low paying jobs expose workers to danger from crime.  Think about it.  What would it be like to deliver newspapers by car in the wee hours of the morning in bad neighborhoods.

I have my own  short fuse on this sort of thing.  One time I quit a “telemarketing” job in late 2003 after someone I called after 9 PM threatened to sue me personally – zero tolerance.  I have said that if I am caught in public in a hostage situation, my own life, as an individual cannot be bargained for against someone else’s (policy ).  But even that, if widespread, could open a door to some kinds of attacks.

I write this returning home from a mountain day trip, as Donald Trump finishes his dark-toned speech about law and order.

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(Published: Thursday, July 21, 2016, 11:55 PM EDT)

What can volunteers offering to help Syrian refugees in the U.S. expect? A session in northern Virginia tonight; also more on LGTBQ asylum seekers

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I did go to an information session and “training” for groups of two combined Presbyterian congregations in northern Virginia, that may help settle one or more Syrian or other refugee families in the next few months.

I’ll keep the report on what was said general, to give an idea what “volunteering” to help would mean.

There are nine sponsoring voluntary agencies that will work with the federal government in placing about 85000 refugees in the U.S. in 2016.  One of these is the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, of which Lutheran Social Services is an affiliate.  At some point, volunteers must apply through this group and undergo background checks (if they spend any significant time with refugees).

Some refugees may also be “asylees”, which (according to the presentation) means they have visas based on approved requests for political asylum. (That may not always be so, see comment below.)

Most refugees occur that status in a second country.  Very few are reassigned to third countries or are repatriated.

In the United States, “private sponsorship” is, for the most part, not legal, and refugees must be processed by one of the nine voluntary agencies working with the State Department (Immigration) and Homeland Security. The approved program is called the “Good Neighbor Program”.

Many states have requirements that refugees “know” someone in that state, whom they have met in person.  Virginia has this requirement, but Maryland does not.  In Virginia, the refugee is processed through an “assurance” step to prove the validity of the contact (usually a relative) before the refugee arrives.  In practice, in Virginia, most refugees would get considerable social assistance from such contacts, usually relatives.  It appears that some people may be attempting to set up contacts through social media, especially Facebook friends, to make these claims, but it is very unlikely in practice that social media contact alone would be considered “assurance” in Virginia or other such states.

Most people who come are families, usually two parents, with children.  But some single people, including young men, have been approved, and some of these are LGBT who come from other countries (besides Muslim countries) to escape anti-gay persecution.  In states requiring assurance, it is most common for single people to be placed in the homes of known contacts or relatives.  It is conceivable but rare that a member of a congregation assisting a refugee could offer a “spare bedroom” to such a refugee.  (This is in marked contrast to how Cuban refugees were placed in 1980, because they were already “here” from the Mariel boat lift.)

Most families are placed in apartments, as agencies are usually able to find landlords or property management companies willing to work with them on housing.  The federal government allows a three-month per-person allowance (which goes down per person in larger families).  Volunteers are not allowed to give refugees money (in contrast to Canada) as this would cause them to lose benefits.

Refugees are expected to start becoming “self-sufficient” and have jobs in 90 days.

Congregations will typically form “committees” to deal with specific processes like housing, finances, learning English, and employment, such as resume and interview coaching. In some cases, a few refugees may be highly skilled, such as in computer coding or software engineering.

Yes, I could help a refugee, especially in the technical employment area.  But I’ve got to finish a lot more of my own homework first before I can even sign up.

A family would probably have the attention of 20-30 people in a congregation.  But it is important when volunteering to be committed.  There is just a little bit of instant family in all this.

(Originally published Wed. July 20, 2016, 10 AM)

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Update: July 26

I am told that the DC Center for the LGBT Community does help asylum seekers and has an housing issue with one or more clients (“Center Global” link on Facebook or link on own site).  This is at odds with what Lutheran Social Services had said. I will look into this further and get the facts, which in this politically sensitive matter seem to evade the established media.

The concept of “asylee” of asylum seeking seems to present its own challenges, apparently not completely covered in the presentation. Here is the USCIS link, to get started. Affirmative asylum requires presence in the U.S. already (it’s not clear if this includes an embassy, or includes the normal screening).  Defensive asylum, during removal proceedings, is possible.  This will be covered later. Asylum usually refers to being a member of a smaller, marginalized group (which sometimes includes LGBTQ), whereas refugee status in today’s times typically refers to large(r) populations in one or more countries escaping physical danger and dictatorship, not so much to isolated groups or persons.  In practice, it seems as though the needs (especially for housing) for asylees refer to those who have been here for a while and were settled once already “through the system” (maybe not always, see comment below) and seem to need help again.  In that sense, they may not be so different from domestic poor (and even homeless).

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Update: Aug. 2

There is a Washington Post story by Justin William Moyer involving complicated litigation and the bonding industry in the Staunton VA area and gay asylees “stuck here”.  This is unclear and evolving.  I’ll have more later.

(Post publication note: “political asylum for LGBTQ” is a tag here, not a category; accidental.)

Journalists in peril, even in the U.S. now? What about the “amateurs”?

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Margaret Sullivan has an important article on the safety of journalists in the Style section of the Washington Post today, Monday, July 18, 2016, “Free speech in peril, both far and near.”  She talks about the self-defense training journalists took before going to Cleveland for the RNC this week, as well as the illogic of some of the security rules in a state which allows open carry.  She wonders if this (Indians’s) baseball game (Progressive Field is nearby, replacing the old “Mistake by the Lake” of my boyhood) will end “Second Amendment 1, First Amendment 0”, very much a visiting team’s non-walkoff.

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She does give a nod to the Committee to Protect Journalists and to “Pen America: The Freedom to Write”.

She also talks about the effectiveness of citizen journalism (my post here July 16). She makes the odd comment that this development adds to the number of people in peril (which in some cases could included people connected to the citizen journalists, like family, if they encounter combative enemies). She also credits citizen journalists for filling in all the details left out by the main media, “keeping them honest” (a trademarkable phrase from Anderson Cooper on CNN).  Still, her article leaves a nagging question about people like me who might not have “paid their dues” they way even Anderson Cooper (or Sebastian Junger) did early in their careers.

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Why do authoritarian regimes crack down so hard on “ordinary people” as bloggers?  Do they really fear their power bases are in real peril from what the amateurs expose?  I think it is something more basic and sinister: they imprison people (like Ai Weiwei in China) or hack them (like in some attacks om Bangladesh) “just for authority” (a phrase I used as a child to protest my father), to prove that a political hierarchy imparts real meaning (if in fact that meaning is “imaginary”).

There is something disturbing, sometimes, about some of my own postings, which seem gratuitous to some people.  Why would I discuss a case of a particular casualty of a random bomb explosion in Central Park in New York on a blog post unless I was prepared “personally” to raise money for the victim?  (There is a personal sensitivity which for now I will skip, but return to later.)  Or, later, why would I present  (by YouTube embed) the rant of a “deranged” man who had attacked police recently?

In the later case, I was discussing “self-published” books and that particular assailant had created a curious or bizarre series of “self-help” books on Amazon (taken down today). So I was covering another wrinkle about self-publishing, a very important topic for me.  The danger would be that an impressionable or immature visitor finds the post, watches the video, and then doesn’t see that it is layered in a discussion of another point,, and wants to act on what the video says, out of context.  Am I responsible for that?  (The New Testament might say, well, yes;  I must become my brother’s keeper.)  Actually, this posting has a second “layered” point: to present the nature of “combativeness” in many adversaries (the part about actually “fighting back” rather than just protesting hit a nerve ending).  This person was as aggressive and intolerant as anyone in radical Islam, but came from a different source of antagonism.

All of this goes to the subject of “implicit content”, which came up in the COPA trial (2006), It came up when I was substitute teaching in 2005 with respect to the context of an on-line “screenplay” I had authored (details ).  The basic point it that I did not have an obvious “purpose” for what looked like self-defamation, so others could presume that it had been intended to incite others. There was an unbelievable set of coincidences that had set up this incident, however. The whole concept of “implicit content” could mean that, if as an amateur “citizen”, I’m not entitled to be viewed as a “true” journalist (or author), then I should be held accountable for what any unstable person does if he just “looks at the picture” and (as my mother would have said), is “given an idea” when taking a portion of a posting out of larger “layered” context, as is common in real journalism. Does the validity of speech depend on the identity of the speaker?  Maybe sometimes.

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One other note: I get a little irritated by bombastic pleas from progressive news sites about their fund-raising campaigns, as if I needed them to speak for me.  I don’t need them now, but maybe some day I will.  What if Donald Trump actually wins?

(Published: Monday, July 18, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)

Facebook faces litigation for “allowing” anti-Semetic terrorism promotion; serious questions about downstream liability and “gatekeeping” persist

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Facebook has been sued for $1 billion by the son of a 76 year old man from the United States killed (by shooting and stabbing) on a bus in Jerusalem by a Palestinian or Hamas militant(s) on October 13, 2015.

NBC News has a story and video by Paul Goldman here today.

The father was a retired Connecticut school principal, Richard Lakin. The plaintiff and son is Michal Lakin Avni.

The theory seems to be that the US anti-terrorism act would not allow a “free speech” defense or similar downstream liability out like Section 230 for an Internet content platform.  Apparently the law allows liability for acts committed against US citizens overseas if a US company was “involved”.

This would be a good question for the “Legal Guys” on CNN.  At this point, I’m not sure if the plaintiff is simply referring to the Patriot Act.

The plaintiff claims that Facebook should be expected to search its databases for terrorism promotion the way if would search for child pornography.

Generally, social media companies say they take down content that violate their terms of service but need to be notified of infractions by complaints from other users.  There are many examples of objectionable material on social media being taken down after some publicly violent incident happens, but not before.

Social media and content companies also say they could not exist and allow ungated user generated content if they had to prescreen every post for potentially illegal content.  That would throw us into the pre-Internet world where most publication required the help of third parties and “getting published” had to be “earned” somehow.

This seems like a very important case that is getting overshadowed by media coverage or the GOP convention, Turkey, Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge.

There are a few videos on the litigation.

Even though the story surfaced today, the litigation seems to have been going on since the beginning of the year, and other Israelis have joined the suit.  PBS explains, with the help of George Washington University law professor Johnathan Turley.

The suit seems to focus on the graphic nature of the “inciting” videos.  On the other hand, Facebook can obviously say it cannot take sides on other peoples’ political conflicts.  Palestinians are enrage not only by religious issues regarding locations in Jersualem, but also by Israel’s settlements on the West Bank and taking land without compensation.

I see that the Washington Post had covered this matter as early as Oct. 30, 2015 in a story by Michael Miller.

This litigation needs to be processed in the context of reports, for the past two years, that ISIS recruits vulnerable young adults on Twitter.  But previously the sites, especially Facebook, had been instrumental with the Arab Spring, which then crashed.  As I noted June 30, abuse of these sites can be perceived as a serious homeland security threat.

(Published: Sunday, July 17, 2016 at 10 PM EDT)

Are social media sites really for “social connections”, or for ungated news distribution?

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Are social media sites really intended to facilitate social interaction, or are they really intended as channels for personalized news feeds?

The recent launch of Facebook Live provides “case in point.”  When girlfriend Diamond Reynolds streamed the bleeding put of Philando Castile at a traffic stop near St. Paul, MN on July 6, the whole world knew immediately (although some factual questions remain as to whether she really reported everything).  Her broadcast apparently contributed to the mindset of Micah Johnson when he launched an unbelievable commando lone-wolf attack on Dallas Police at a peaceful demonstration the next night.   But for a while during the incident, I wondered if this was an ISIS attack, exploiting the confusion and demonstrations inevitably following a police shooting. It wasn’t, but it could have been. But any kind of terrorism is as bad as any other kind, whatever ideology motivates it.

Today, Newt Gingrich streamed on Facebook live a presentation arguing that we are “at war” (with an enemy without uniforms).

Facebook has indeed delivered the most “pertinent” stories for my own world view.  It saves time checking the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Vox, local television stations, and several friends in movies, music, books and other arts.

This is no surprise.  It’s easier to get reaction and other comments on Facebook pages (or in one’s comments on other people’s pages) than it is on your own blogs – although that fact has developed a lot since about 2009.  I used to get a lot of comments to my own books and sites by direct email, back in the good old days before 9/11, and before so much spam. I could also get comments in forums, like the Independent Gay Forum, or on AOL forums.

Myspace had somewhat less success doing the same thing.  But some people, notably actor Ashton Kutcher, had used Myspace as an effective blogging tool around 2004.

Twitter is less “effective” with news itself because of the high volume and reverse time sequence. I don’t use Instagram a lot, but it seems it can deliver news, too.  I do use Google+, and get surprising amount of comments on music-related postings.

But, originally Facebook was conceived as true “social networking”.  In the movie “The Social Network” the 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) says “I will map all social interactions online”.  It was, at first, limited to college campuses.  It didn’t become really important until about 2008, about the time of the financial crisis.

Now, I do have a couple friends who announce everything they do on Facebook, and try to get others in their “groups” to do the same.  Is this about organization?  About solidarity?  Is it about having friends who will watch your back if you watch theirs?  That does sound like some people’s concept.  It doesn’t seem real to me.  You can only “know” maybe 5-10 people really well, outside of immediate family and romantic partners, well enough to want to know their “movements”.  Indeed, a lot of my contacts in social media (in the “arts”, etc) are important to me personally, but it wouldn’t seem appropriate for me to expect to know the details of their comings and goings.  I couldn’t have “minded other people’s business” in the pre-Internet world.  I don’t think Facebook should change this.

There is indeed a debate about “courtesy” in the social media community.  Some people think it is rude to respond to tweets from people who don’t follow you.  Some people think it is rude to forward tweets to Facebook, as if not everyone wants bad news (“I told you so”) from “me”.  But then, what do people really want from others on social media?  It varies so much.

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The nature of social media, however, is relevant to what I call the “conflict of interest” debate. You can set up your social media profiles (of “friends” or “followers”) so that only known people can see your content.  That would be relevant for people whose professional positions (making judgments on others as part of the job) makes it inappropriate for them to broadcast their personal views without gatekeepers and let others just find them. I’m a little surprised that I don’t hear this point made more often.

I could add a comment about dating sites.  I’ve recently gotten communication from a couple of them.  I can’t see the point of needing a corporate service to “meet the right people.”  Maybe somebody can explain it.

(Published: Friday, July 15, 2016 at 4:15 PM EDT)

An amateur journalist (me!) covers disasters (the W Va floods), and incurs self-righteous resentment

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Tuesday (July 12) I attempted to survey the West Virginia flooding as part of a brief 3-day trip.

Northbound on I-77 from I-1 in Virginia, I had passed through the Big Walker Tunnel and then the East River Mountain Tunnel. A rig almost clipped me while illegally changing lanes and cutting in inside the tunnel, which would have led to a Stephen King-like catastrophe.  After I was in West Virginia,  I stopped at the first “visitor center” which was a little hard to get to, requiring getting on to public streets, off I-77, now called “The West Virginia Turnpike.” I went in to look for a state map and asked about road closures through the affected areas.

The information desk did not have any of this, and the woman (at the customer service desk) acted offended that anyone would travel through the area out of “curiosity” if he weren’t a “volunteer”.  I went back to the car, and finally found a road closure list on the website of a Hungtington W.Va. television station. I went back inside and showed it to her.  She became even more upset, even unhinged.  She insisted that “they” didn’t want people traveling in the region at all unless they were there to help.

I drove on to a service plaza, and got somewhat the same information, although the person was much more courteous.   I would then have a bizarre “character test” in the parking lot (narrative here ).

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I had heard in Washington DC news media (like station WJLA) that the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs had re-opened (it had housed people displaced by the floods).  So I decided to go only through the southern section along I-64 (and not try to go through Richwood, a town I have visited numerous times before) on SR 39, even though WSAZ said it was open.

I got off at Lewisburg, where there was a “Traffic Jam” unrelated to the flooding     But I drove down to Ronceverte, W. Va., down in the valley along the Greenbrier River.  Most of the buildings downtown showed evidence of high water up to about two feet, but businesses were open.  I had lunch in a cash-only family restaurant fried chicken buffet, and picked up a West Virginia news paper that talked about a library in Rainelle W. Va. that had a Gofundme to replace its books.   Remember, at the Public Library, “It’s free, it’s free.”   Homes near the water appeared damaged but it seemed most people were still able to live in them, and a church was undamaged.  Only one street was closed to non-residents because of a bridge safety problem.

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I then drove to White Sulphur Springs, where the relief activity was much bigger.  Along the main street into town there was a lot of refuse piled up, near the Greenbrier Golf Course, which itself appeared to be pretty much restored. There were numerous signs “Sulphur Springs Strong” and “West Virginia Lives” or words to that effect.  There was a relief station at the St. Charles Catholic Church and one other one downtown.  Businesses appeared to be open and welcoming.  Toward the river, just north of downtown, businesses and homes appeared damaged, but again it appeared people lived in them.  Most of the people needing relief would appear to have come from more rural areas down the river.

The West Virginia Daily News covers the disaster with many stories, such as this one about the volunteers, or this one about therapy dogs.  The newspaper has articles on how FEMA works, and addresses the question of whether homeowners had procured flood insurance.  After disasters in lower income areas, we always hear horror stories about people without reasonable property insurance.

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I have visited the Greenbrier area numerous times before.  I placed one copy of my first DADT book there in a store in 1997, and I took the tour of the Greenbrier nuclear bunker at that time (another story).

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I had visited WSS overnight in December 1996 right before an important meeting about my “conflict of interest” problem that I have discussed elsewhere (May 30).

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There is also a “tunnel to nowhere” just south of WSS.

I have visited disaster areas before, without issues, such as after the February 2016 tornado near Tapapahonick. VA.

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I saw the aftermath of the 2014 tornado in Tupelo MS, where many homeowners were still rebuilding and considerable debris was still left (hotels were open but some wireless services didn’t work)

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And I noticed the effects of the  2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa, AL, where some areas south of campus haven’t been rebuilt.

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In March 2013, several months after Hurricane Sandy, most areas of the Jersey Coast and southern Long Island were open, but one community Rockaway Queens as closed, and various streets or neighborhoods in coastal towns (like Seaside Heights) were still clearly marked as closed except to local traffic.

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Generally, after most disasters (like large tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes), authorities (usually the governor) clearly announce which areas are closed to the public (sometimes open only to residents with identification).  This does not seem to have happened this time in West Virginia, maybe partly because of the widespread area of damage.

Should “amateur blogger journalists” cover disasters?  Should someone “like me” play real-life “Star Reporter” (that very geographical 1950s board game, now forgotten)?  This really is not about earning ad money off of other people’s tragedies (which is what that first clerk could have been thinking).  Note that this blog doesn’t even carry ads yet.  “Amateurs” after all, probably haven’t paid their dues covering conflict journalism and taking the risks (look at what happened to Bob Woodward).  Anderson Cooper and Sebastian Junger both started out by “paying their dues”.  I came to all this on my own as a “second career”.

Should amateur bloggers claim that expected journalistic objectivity is a good thing?  Or should they be ready to “join in” “other people’s” causes, with some self-directed passion?

(Published: Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at 3:15 PM)

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Update: Sunday, July 17

Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA said this morning that a youth volunteer group will go to the Richwood area and live and work under somewhat primitive conditions. Whatever the media reports, word of mouth suggests that conditions along SR 39 may be more difficult than what I saw along I-64, twenty or so miles to the south.

Update:  Thursday, Sept. 8

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I drove through the WVa 55 and 39 area, through Richwood and other communities on Aug. 26.  Most of Richwood was high enough not to have damage, but a few houses were destroyed by rockslides, too.  Along streams, homeowners seemed to be doing repair work themselves.  People who live in this part of the country are self-reliant and know how to do construction on their own, even without hiring many contractors. Outside volunteer help in the area did not seem to have been that significant.

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