Monday, March 31, 2014

When Is an Inappropriate Word Appropriate?

The debate about "appropriate" language in public forums continues to rage. This all but absurd essay by Jesse Sheidlower in today's NYTimes (absurd because it has to be stated at all) contains this explanation:

"Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

"Taste is a legitimate concern. But this isn’t a matter of sprinkling salty words around to spice up the content. These circumlocutions actually deprive readers of the very thing these institutions so grandly promise: news and information. At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories."

I got into a little disagreement the other day with a friend who sees language differently than I do. She had posted a quote that made a lot of sense, but it was sprinkled with so much profanity--including the liberal use of "fuck"--that I got lost in the vulgarity of it and almost missed the point.

I use a lot of profanity in speaking (regretfully) to certain people. I contain it in certain circumstances. "Fuck" is a word that generally does not make me uncomfortable unless it is overused (it was nearly the only word I understood in the movie "Trainspotting" where people spoke Highland Scots). I use it and I understand--I think--its power when used judiciously. OK, yes, "judicious" use of "fuck" might be a contradiction of terms, but I don't think it always is.

Newspaper language has almost always been behind what the public accepts because the conservative backlash at something as innocuous as "damn" can be pretty severe. So, they go safely into the night and sometimes leave the reader wondering, "What the fuck did he say?" That's not reporting. It's obfuscating in order to avoid offending the lowest common denominator. And it's damn well not journalism.


Let's All Take College Football Down a Notch

The reality of college football: Violence and severe injury.
I'm slowly coming around to the Ralph Nader conclusion (here) that money-generating college sports should be eliminated or vastly renovated at the scholarship level. That's everything above Division III where there are no athletic scholarships.

Athletes are basically unprotected, under-appreciate, free labor for football factories that spend upwards of $75 million a year on their franchises and pay head coaches more than $4 million a year. The athletes often get a dubious education and many are left with little time for study or class after spending 40 to 50 hours a week on football-related activities. A lot of these splendid athletes get to college without the ability to function at even the most basic level in an academic setting and little willingness among the colleges and universities to train them for what's ahead--outside the football stadium.

Their bodies are abused (the injury rate in major college football is more than 100 percent per year with some athletes suffering two or three per year and many having permanent disabilities--like me with a bad knee) and when they are hurt, they are simply discarded. They have no real uniform protection (like unions) and are at the mercy of their coaches and school administrations. They are not allowed to be paid for their work.

They are the "gladiators" and we the blood-thirsty crowds who care little for their futures once we've finished watching them perform. If that sounds harsh, I don't believe it is any harsher than the reality of using and abusing our young people for this dubious level of entertainment.

All that being said, I will plead "guilty" to being a college football fan. I would be willing, however, to attend a University of Tennessee-Alabama football game where the athletes are at the same amateur level of those you'll see when Washington & Lee plays Bridgewater. It's about the competition for me and when I'm 50 yards away in the upper deck at Neyland Stadium, I can't tell if the guy's 6-3, 240 pounds or 5-10, 180 or if he runs a 4.3-second 40-yard-dash, or a 5.2. I can see if he catches the pass and scores with it, though, and that's what it's about for me.

We'll mention here, as well, that the W&L and Bridgewater kids can generally read, have solid work prospects with their educations, and don't often suffer massive injury. And that's a good thing.

(Photo from

From Tech's Bickel, Another Key Finding on Addiction

VTC's Warren Bickel
Virginia Tech-Carilion researcher Warren Bickel continues to turn addiction research on its head in a way that offers hope for many. Bickel's research had previously shown that addicted people tend to discount the future and look to the short-term of their lives for gratification.

This is an area that especially interests me because of my own history with addiction and recovery.

Now, Bickel and an international team of researchers, which he leads, believe they could have broken through in the area of treatment for certain types of dependencies, according to an article in Clinical Psychological Science. “It was an incongruity in our data that caught my eye,” Bickel says. “I realized that the people who discounted the future the most—the ones we least expected to be able to recover from addiction—also showed the best outcomes when they received an effective treatment. And the ones who discounted the future the least improved the least.”

Bickel says the study is likely the first to identify measurable change in decision-making among addicts. “A simple cognitive test that measures the degree to which individuals live in the moment might help us personalize treatments for their addictions,” he said. Those who least consider future are likely the ones to benefit the most from certain treatments. Bickel notes that it is human instinct to choose instant gratification (a drug high, for example) over benefits that may come later (good health). That's known as future or delay discounting and it is stronger in addicts.

Bickel and his team believe there is "an inverse relationship between people’s rates of responding to something at the outset and then again after an intervention. This phenomenon is believed to be the reason stimulant medications work for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Stimulants that would make most people bounce off the walls actually slow these kids down.”

Study results show that "participants who are more concerned about future consequences showed little change in how much they delayed gratification, but those who tend to live in the moment showed large reductions in how much they discounted the future. More tellingly, the treatments caused the greatest drop in substance use among people who had begun with the highest rates of future discounting."

Effective treatment involved training a subject’s working memory. “These findings extend our understanding of how interventions can change future discounting as a measure of self-control,” said Bickel.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

'Budapest Hotel' Good But Not Great

If you're going to see "The Grand Budapest Hotel," go with lower expectations than I had and you'll fully enjoy it. I think I was expecting the Movie of the Year and it ain't that.

It's beautifully photographed. It's fun in a wacky 1930s way. The performances--especially Ralph Finnes'--are solid. The directing's above agerage and the writing's ... well, the writing's not at the level of the rest of the movie.

It's an enjoyable hour and 40 minutes and my guess is you'll like this dizzy romp through extravagant riches and extraordinary countryside.

I heard several people today call it "great" and I didn't see that movie. I saw "good" and I'm happy with it. Could have been a heck of a lot worse and lost all that acting talent (everybody who's anybody is in it, if even for a few seconds).

Photo of the Day Again: Faces of Marginal Arts

Marginal arts is about color, smiles and fun. All here.
My mama woulda said, "Brazen hussy!"
Kinda like maybe a good witch. You think?
Founder Brian Coonihan loves costumes.
Blllllllah, clown!
Clown full length.
I asked if the nose was real. He's not amused.
I like this one. The smile's real.
I have no words.
Keep your onions turning boys and girls.

Yes, it rained. No, it didn't matter. The chicken stayed dry.
Flower child half a century late.
To the barricades, boys!
No explanation for this paramilitary monkey.
Homemade? You betcha!
Dahlin' I'm suffering the vapors. Get me a julip.
How 'bout them thumb suckers; ain't they sweet ...
Beauty is in the eye of ...
Let's talk rainbow cattle here, hon ...
Hot dog! A parade.
Polly Branch always carries Earth Day.
The end. (I did not make this up.)
What we have here are the faces--and one behind--of the Marginal Arts Festival, a goofy little celebration of the arts put on by Community High School every year about this time, usually in the sunshine. Today, it was rainshine, but the shine was still there as you can tell from these faces of those weird enough to take the walk.

More Photo of the Day: No, It Wasn't a Big Fire, But ...

This assemblage of fire trucks, including one with a good-sized ladder was outside Roanoke City Market Building about noon responding to a ... uh ... grease fire. I was not allowed to go inside the building to get some lunch because of the ... grease fire. I'm left to wonder what the response would have been like if, say a trash can had been ablaze.

Photo of the Day, Too: Shooting the Photographer

Anne Sampson at her best (except when she's dancing).
Here's all of Anne. There's not much.
Photographing her fave editr.
Focusing in on the Marginal Arts talent.
Shooting from the wrong side.
Shooting the mayor and his chicken.
Waiting for the parade to pass her by.
Shooting, uh, rolling shoes. Sometimes ...
Anne loves getting right up in your face.
This is my good pal Anne Sampson taking photos--hundreds of them--at today's Marginal Arts Festival kickoff parade in downtown Roanoke. This is the loonybin of all Roanoke parades and one of the most fun. Anne captures that, I think. She's one of my favorite photogs.

Anne shot me shooting her shooting me shooting her shoo ...

Photo of the Day: David Bowers Campaign Poster

Roanoke Mayor David Bowers poses with one of his supporters in his re-election campaign today at the Marginal Arts Festival in Downtown Roanoke. Rumors of a massive skate boarder protest were unfounded. The skateboarders, instead, were practicing their art form in Elmwood Park.

Friday, March 28, 2014

'Noah': This One's a Real Dead Fish

What I had read about "Noah"--that the Christian right was pissed about it--made me want to see it. I saw it late this afternoon and now I'm pissed, too, but probably for vastly different reasons.

This turkey is a complete waste of time, a combination of "The 300," "Mystery Science Theatre" and "Elmer Gantry." This version is filled with sci-fi rock monsters and some of the worst looking urban gang members I've seen in years. Noah is a vegetarian liberal who is enough of a religious zealot to be standing over his grandchildren with a serrated knife ready to slice and dice them at one point because the voices told him to.

The movie is so dark that there are long stretches where you have to guess what's going on. The story is often silly. The whole parable borders on the absurd; how in the hell could you even suggest that two of every species would fit in a home-made boat?

When "Noah" wasn't being ridiculous, melodramatic or so slow that it could have run backwards to gain speed, it was simply without imagination.

A lot of high-end movie people were involved in this turkey, which is so bad I don't even want to say their names in this context. They're better than this movie. So was "The Texas
Chain Saw Massacre."

Evidence Mounts on Gun-Suicide Relationship

Gun suicides: Not inevitable.
Gun advocates rarely talk about the relationship between gun ownership and suicide, but it is significant, as a number of studies in recent years have demonstrated.

Columnist Evan DeFilippis of says in an article today here, "The latest available data on suicide rates, published by the Centers for Disease Control, shows that 38,364 suicides occurred in the United States in 2010 -- an average of 105 each day. This made suicide the 10th leading cause of death for all age groups.

"More people kill themselves with guns than all other methods combined. Males are at particularly high risk of firearm suicide, given that guns account for 56 percent of male suicides, but 32 percent of female suicides. Firearms tend to be the weapon of choice for a suicide given their lethality factor -- for example, one study from Dallas found that, of those attempting suicide with a gun, 76 percent died."

As usual, the National Rifle Association, which has devolved from an organization centered on gun safety and training to a manufacturers' lobbying organization with gun sales as its primary goal, says the studies are nonsense. DeFilippis writes, "Despite this fact, the same bad arguments forwarded by politicians against suicide barriers are being used by the National Rifle Association to challenge gun regulation. This insistence by gun advocates that suicide is a foregone conclusion is not only factually incorrect, but incredibly dangerous because it impedes the most useful strategy for preventing suicide -- means reduction."

Not a lot new here, except for the overwhelming number of studies with the same conclusion. This is the Climate Change of the gun world. The deniers are obviously focused on self-interest (gun sales) only.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Divergent': What You'd Expect in an Expensive Teen Movie

Scene from "Divergent".
There's no rational explanation for the eager anticipation I had to see "Divergent," a Lion's Gate teen drama that is comfortably paired in any sentence with "Hunger Games" and plays to the same people as its "Twilight" series.

I was not knocked out by "Hunger Games" and didn't see any of the "Twilight" stuff, but still, this one looked promising because it was one of those "bad guys take over the world, but for the heroism of a young girl" dealies--much like "Hunger Games," which was/is a lure because of Jennifer Lawrence.

The delivery, from the plot, the cinematography, the nod-off writing, and fair special effects one would expect here is, well, what you'd expect. No surprises. Basically an average movie with a monster budget ($100 million), a star (Shailene Woodley) with one expression and a totally wasted "bad guy" (a portly Kate Winslett, who may have been preggie when this was shot). Woodley has the advantage of looking a lot like a young Winslett at some angles here, but she's not in the same universe as an actor. Neither is Kate in this one, though I think she's one of our best actors. Slumming, I'd guess. And Woodley is no Lawrence.

On the flip side of all this negativism is that "Divergent" is a nice diversion, a movie that does what movies are supposed to do: takes us to another world and lets us forget that the Republicans are in charge of this one for a bit.

The Value of 'Required' Credentials Brought Into Focus Again

Steve Masiello: Does he need a degree to coach?
For years I have questioned  the value of required credentials, the "college degree  required" line on job descriptions that simply do not need a college degree.

When I began in journalism in 1964, a significant portion of the people I worked with in the newsroom at the Asheville Citizen-Times had no degrees. I moved to the daily paper in Roanoke in 1971 and the same situation existed here. I didn't have a degree and hadn't really even begun college, unless you count that tiny exploration in 1965.

Today we're reading about a basketball coach at Manhattan College, Steve Masiello, who was denied a job at South Florida University because he said he had a degree in communications from the University of Kentucky (2000), but he does not. Manhattan has put him on leave. (Story here.)

The guy's a good coach, one sought after by programs a step up from Manhattan's, a school that made the NCAA tournament field this year--the gold standard for lower level NCAA programs. He has an excellent resume for a basketball coach: he played for a national champion at Kentucky, was an assistant under Rick Petino (who coached him at Kentucky) at Louisville, and was an assistant at Manhattan and Tulane before getting the head coaching job.  His Manhattan team nearly beat Louisville last week.

My thought is that he should be judged on what he delivered, not on what he did the last half of his senior year at UK. By then he knew he wanted to be a basketball coach and was pursuing the goal. The degree would have been nice, but not necessary in a practical sense to teaching zone defense.

The unnecessary credential is a self-perpetuating element of academia and the status quo in business. HR directors require degrees where they aren't needed because they can and they rarely make exceptions. Those newsrooms I worked in early in my career, where people had come up as apprentices, were every bit as accomplished and professional as any newsroom I know of today, where bachelor's and master's degrees are required to be editorial assistants, the bottom of the pecking order.

For those of you who see this as a matter of lying, not a credential issue, let us consider some numbers. According to a study by Accu-Screen, Inc., ADP, The Society of Human Resource Managers, 70 percent of college students would lie on a resume to get the job they want and 53 percent of resumes contain falsification. The percentage of resumes that are "misleading" hovers at 78. That's nearly 9 in 10.  None of that forgives the lies, but it gives you an indication that Masiello's resume is not an abberation.

A basketball coach doesn't need a communications degree if he has the skills to coach, to teach and to win. Professional human resources people love one-size-fits-all because it makes their jobs easier. It also leaves a lot of extremely competent people outside the bubble of the credentialled society.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Looking Back: An Interview with Samantha Fox, Porn Star

Samantha Fox, one of the most popular porn actresses of the 1970s and early '80s, gave me this authographed shot of her following an interview I conducted with her in the lobby of the old Lee Theater on Williamson Road in Roanoke in about 1979. The story was for the local daily in Roanoke. The Lee had segued from showing All-Disney/children's fare to porno (or vice/versa; I don't recall which way it went). The Lee, which had a huge audience capacity, eventually closed.

She was appearing at the Lee to promote one of her films showing there. Part of my research for the story I wrote for the Extra section of the paper was to watch the film. I have no specific recollection of anything she said to me, nor do I remember any of the movie.

Difficult assignment, but then Features was never a place for the faint of heart.

The autograph, appropriately written with a red pen, reads, "Dear Dan, Thanks for the intelligent, mellow interview. Now what? Love, Samantha Fox."

Sam was really Stasia Therese Angela Micula, a Brit who was in about 100 porn movies between 1977 and 1984 and is in the porn hall of fame. I found her to be bright, energetic, playful, funny, outgoing and good company. From what I read of her later, she was an excellent business professional and a talented legitimate actress. She was not especially pretty, but had a thoroughly attractive air and apparently had a screen presence not unlike that of some big stars. I liked her.

This is the only autographed photo of anybody I ever asked for. Samantha kissed me when she handed the photo to me. I've haven't washed that spot on my cheek since.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Tim's Vermeer' a Fascinating Look at Techinque

Tim Jenison sets up an image to project and paint.
I sat down to watch "Tim's Vermeer" late Sunday afternoon with low expectations. Documentaries of late have often been tiresome political political rants that preach to small choirs of like-minded liberals who already know the story and don't need to be convinced. "Tim," which is playing at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke, didn't do that.

The documentary centers on television photography inventor Tim Jenison's fascination with the work of Johannes Vermeer, the 16th Century Dutch master who painted notable works like "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" and used techniques still not fully understood. Among them was Vermeer's early version of a camera, the theory goes and Tim tries to prove here by painting Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" as it might have been originally painted.

It was a tedious process that took months and tested this non-artist to his limits, but the result was remarkable. I found the attention to detail riveting--much as I found it that way in the book The Girl with the Pearl Earring where a good portion was spent mixing paint.

It didn't hurt that I went with a photographer who loves gadgets (I recently compared a shot of hers to a Vermeer) and sat behind Roanoke's best known and maybe best artist, Eric Fitzpatrick, both of whom--all three of them if you count Eric as both best and best known--were transfixed.

The movie was produced and directed by Penn and Teller, which gave it a professional polish you don't often find in docs. I found the non-bouncy camera to be reassuring.

In the Kitchen: Pie Are Round, Cookie Are Square*

Admission of the Day: I can't make a round cookie, no matter how hard I try. This is my latest batch of mint-chocolate chippers and they're once again squareish because I can't gauge the amount of dough to put on the pan correctly.

I know if I gear it down, put them a bit further apart (and bake two batches of nine and six that I'll have round-er cookies, but I'm still not sure they will be, like really round.

But they taste good. Damn good. And no, I'm not eating them. Diabetes says "no." They're a bribe for somebody.

(*With apologies to the late commedian Brother Dave Gardner who said, "Pi are square; cornbread are round.")

Radio Stories Back in the Day

Jim, Elizabeth and me.
This is a shot of my favorite radio editor, Jim Davis, and young Elizabeth Montgomery in March of 1998 on the occasion of Elizabeth and me recording an play-like essay I wrote for WVTF Public Radio.

Elizabeth, who was 9 or 10 at the time, played a little girl named Julia that I was teaching to pitch a softball in a story about what kids teach us, based on real events. She was quite good. Better than I was, in fact, which is a pretty low, truth be told.

Elizabeth is now the young mother of two children and the daughter of my friend John Montgomery, who publishes Play-By-Play magazine in Roanoke. She has always been one of my favorite young people.

Jim made me sound like somebody who could actually read with his editing. Truth is I'm a truly lousy out-loud reader who's given to fumbling, bumbling and shouting "SHIT!" in the middle of sentences. He edited that out, bless his heart. He and VTF parted for reasons I've never determined, but he was a good editor and remains a good guy.

Sci-Fi Book Signing Diminishes the Big Stories

Local author signs for kids at the Science Museum.
Yesterday, a huge day in sports in this region when Virginia Tech hired a nationally-prominent basketball coach and Virginia escaped the first upset ever in the NCAA basketball tournament by a 16 seed over a No. 1, the local daily's lead story was about a local science fiction book signing at the Science Museum.

I hadn't noticed this until I saw a paper on a rack late yesterday afternoon on the way home from a hike.

The lead story even had this sentence up high: "The Science Museum of Western Virginia was louder than a basketball arena during March Madness." Yep. At least in the paper, it was.

OK, I get that local is good, that playing up things like book signings by former newspaper employees are feel good to the community (and you know I love book signings, especially local book signings, since the paper rarely gives them much notice at all). But not at the expense of big stories that are big all over the country. The two sports stories were played at the top of the page, but as "refers," which means you needed to go to Sports to find the story and not just the headline.

Tech's new baskeball coach surpassed the expectations of almost everybody who cares at all about NCAA basketball--quite a few of us, I'd guess--even at what is essentially a "football school" (though I wouldn't try to convince the engineering department of that). The reporting on the story was quite, good, as well and today delved into the loss of one of Tech's starters, a kid whose cell phone went off during the team's first meeting with the new coach.

Virginia's escape from one of those "nobody" No. 16 seeds (the University of Myrtle Beach or "Coastal Carolina," as some call it), teams that have never, ever, ever beaten a No. 1 seed, was a pretty big deal, too, if you watch any of the CBS broadcasts of the tournament or read the NYTimes.

I'm second-guessing an editorial decision, but I'll second guess it this way: Put the Tech hire on the top, the Virginia escape with a 1-column head at the top left and put the science fair on the Virginia page (local news). That still gives you two essentially local stories at the top of Page 1. And it gives the signing a nice ride, too.

(Don Peterson photo for Roanoke's local daily newspaper.)

Digging Up Bones: My Pal Porkchop

This is Porkchop Smith, my favorite cat of all time. The Porkster adopted me (and I say "me" and not "us" because I always thought of Pork as mine and not Christina's) one afternoon when I was married and living in Raleigh Court in Roanoke. He came into the house and settled in, not so much as a "fair thee well."

Under any circumstances prior to Porkchop's arrival, he would have been bounced without a lot of fanfare. I don't dislike cats, but I've never had much of an affinity for them, either. Until Pork showed up and took over, anyway.

Pork was a Himalayan with big blue eyes and just about the most easy-going, non-pretentious, unspoiled disposition I've ever known in a cat. He rolled with the flow, as they'd say in California, and always seemed to do and be what/where he was supposed to. He was an outdoor cat who wanted to be with his peeps when the sun went down, but he was mildly affectionate when he wasn't catting around.

Damn good feline. I still get a little buzz when Pork comes to mind. On one of those nights when he was looking for love in all the wrong places, a neighbor's car did him in--as I was always afraid would happen. I don't think Pork heard too well and the car was likely on him before he knew it. Didn't stop and didn't knock on the door. My buddy deserved better than that. It still hurts a bit when I remember finding him in the street the next morning.

Wherever you are, Porkchop, I'm still thinking about you, buddy.

Throwback Thursday (on Sunday): Tender Years

This is my 16-year-old daughter, Jenniffer, with her best friend Ashley Phillips in August of 1983. What they were doing, other than posing with their spectacular '80s haircuts and beautiful faces is lost to history (at least to my history; they probably still know). Ashley had probably as pretty a head of red hair as I've ever seen (and you know how I love that red hair).

This photo exemplifies why dads have such a difficult time with daughters. The beauty is almost too painful to watch.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

First Hike of Spring: Camp Alta Mons

Here's the payoff view.
Open field beside the road.
My hiking buddy Janeson Keeley and I took advantage of the first pretty Saturday of the spring today to walk up to the waterfall at Camp Alta Mons in Montgomery, about a 20-minute drive from my house.

This is a lovely Methodist church camp with big fields, lots of cabins and play areas, a swimming pool, multiple streams and the hike up to the 75-foot-or so waterfall about 2.5 miles away from the main camp.

This time of year, there's not much color, but if you've been cooped up for this long winter as much as I have, this was a breakout day and, frankly, I didn't give a hot damn if it was green, brown or chartrusse. The sky was blue, the breeze gentle, the sun mild and it was just about perfect.

This is not the softest hike out there because there is a good bit of climbing and scrambling across the stream--back and forth, forth and back--involved. We both got wet, but neither cared. Here are some shots from the day.

Janeson's shot of me shooting some moss.

Fisheye fence.
Moss on a rock.
Janeson distorted.
Janeson crossed safely this time, fell in later.
Trout pool draining between rocks.
Up through the gorge.
This little climb is trickier than it looks.
Here's what we came to see.
Janeson gets a waterfall shot.
Pampa selfie with water on head. Nice trip.