The editors of many websites have become uncomfortable allowing readers to post anonymous comments. That’s because the screamers, ranters and character assassins who tend to dominate comment pages drive away advertisers. Like some sites, the online version of the New York Times tries to mitigate this vitriol by recommending opinions the editors consider constructive, and believes its policy of requiring commentators to supply their names and other identifying details (which aren’t published) has a chilling effect on hate-mongers and mudslingers.
Smaller sites, such as that of the Missoula, Montana Missoulian offers readers a chance to complain about abusive posts. Still, the braying of some serial commentators has become a staple of the inevitable shouting matches accompanying most every controversial Missoula story. For example, there’s the reactionary allegations of “Miss Perfect” and “Walter12” about the “socialist” politics of one city official or another and the evil of “leftists.” Hardly hate speech, so why do these cowards continue to hide behind their hoods?
While the First Amendment rightly protects anonymous speech--which has encouraged the good work of whistleblowers--newspapers are under no obligation to do so. In fact, the Missoulian requires a legitimate and verifiable name published with each of the letters-to-the-editor in its print edition, and ought to make such disclosure mandatory on its website.
Here at Dark Acres we don’t publish comments of any kind, figuring that, hey, if you want to post stuff on a blog, go start your own. —Bill Vaughn (23 March 2015)
Cops dressed as combat soldiers rumbling through the streets in personnel carriers as they tear-gassed crowds in Ferguson, Missouri were images that revealed to a larger audience the militarization of America’s civilian police forces. In 1990 Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a section of which facilitated the transfer of surplus military equipment to civilian police forces. Under current section 1033 the Ferguson police and most all other local and tribal police forces can get their hands on anything from reflector sights to armored utility vehicles.
According to Lieutenant Larry Irwin of the the Montana Highway Patrol, who coordinates the state's 1033 Program, in 2014 the Missoula City Police received six M16A1 assault rifles, a dozen M14 rifles and a pair of night vision goggles. The Missoula County Sheriff received in the same year twenty M16A1 rifles and seven military-grade radio sets. Although these weapons were valued at $121,130, Missoula law enforcement got them for free, presumably to help it wage war on drugs, the alleged intent of the law. —Bill Vaughn (15 March 2015)
Although Dark Acres is only eight miles from a box store we sometimes feel like we’re living on Mars. Well, yes, we have cell phones, mail delivery, wireless internet, and a morning newspaper. But life here isn’t like life in the city. For one thing, our neighbors enjoy shooting their guns and blowing things up at all hours of the day and night. In and out of hunting season they like to get drunk and climb up to their platforms in the cottonwoods to shoot at whitetails with their bows and arrows. In the winter they roar around on their snowmobiles, terrorizing the neighborhood dogs. The whine of chainsaws is nearly constant.
At least the Clark Fork is quieter than it used to be, after the state decreed our stretch of the river a No Ski-Jet Zone. While we have a well and a septic system ensuring that we don’t have to pay money to Mountain Water or the City of Missoula, things often go wrong with these utilities. One day as we took a shower we looked down to discover that we were standing in six inches of tea-colored water. The plunger did no good. When we flushed a toilet it overflowed. A bathtub filled with blackish water.
We knew the septic tank was full and would have to be pumped. But where was it? We’d lived at Dark Acres for twenty-five years and never had this trouble before. Dropping down into the crawl space below the house we traced the plumbing to the point where it exited the west side of the house, but had no idea how far away and how deep the tank was buried. When we rifled through our mortgage papers we found a rough sketch. The tank lay fifteen feet west of the house. But how deep was it? We started digging. Three feet down our shovels hit concrete.
When our three-bedroom house was hauled here in two pieces on a truck in 1969 and placed on a poured foundation it was common practice to bury septic tanks without risers, those tubes that allow access to the three ports atop the tank. Back then people rarely needed to pump out these concrete reservoirs because the chemistry of decomposition was sufficient enough to break down the solids that normally entered the system and convert them into liquids, which then flowed into drain fields, where most of the bacteria in this effluent died.
Once we removed the dirt above the main lid we hired a company to come out and pump the tank. But that wasn’t the end of our problems. The plumbing that led to the tank was clogged somewhere. Normally, this would require removing a toilet and sending a plumber’s snake through the pipes to clear them. But because of the architecture of our system the snake hit a junction that prevented it from advancing to the clog. Finally, after excavating the lid above the intake pipe, our company was able to insert the snake. After a few moments of noisy scouring, a satisfying gush of sewage shot into the tank. The tub and shower drained, and peace descended again on Dark Acres.
“We see this problem with these old systems more and more,” our septic experts told us. One of the culprits is Kirkland toilet paper from Costco, he said. It’s so thick the system has trouble breaking it down. And because it’s so cheap everyone is using it.
We dissected a piece of this toilet paper. Indeed, it was soft and luxurious, quilted with an embossed floral pattern, and two plies thick.
We will miss it. —Bill Vaughn (2 March 2015)
According to a new study from Georgetown University the job market for college graduates has improved for everyone except those with degrees in journalism and communications. So why waste money on a degree that’s likely going to get you nothing? The fact is, you don’t have to take classes in one of these pseudo-disciplines in order to write a newspaper story or present a radio or television report. Look at Adam Painter, for example, a Missoula weatherman with a degree in meteorology from Iowa who until recently wrote and delivered excellent coverage of all sorts of news events for NBC Montana. As Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi said: “I don’t think people should go to journalism school. I think it’s a waste of time. . . . I don’t know what they actually teach there, ‘cause you can learn the whole business in three days.”
One of the reasons it’s difficult to find a job as a reporter these days is because of social media such as Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, which put the tools of reporting into the hands of anyone with access to the Web. Plus, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans under the age of 45 who read daily newspapers has dropped in half since 2000, to less than 20 percent of this demographic.
This brings up the current budget challenges facing the University of Montana. For a number of reasons, including its tarnished image following a series of sexual assault cases that will receive even more national scrutiny with the April 21 publication of Jon Krakauer’s book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, enrollment has been dropping since 2007. Because the school is looking for ways to cut costs, administrators might consider dropping journalism. The building housing this increasingly pointless program could be leased to the private sector.
Consider the School of Journalism’s stated mission: “To teach students to think critically, act ethically, and communicate effectively; to help them understand the challenges and changes in the news media; and to inspire them to use their talents to improve journalism and enhance a diverse and democratic society.” Do higher education officials in Montana really believe a dedicated building and expensive teaching staff is necessary to address these ambiguous goals?
(Full disclosure: Bill Vaughn attended the UM J-school from 1968 to 1973, dropped out to write for magazines, and finally received a journalism degree from UM in 1998 in exchange for teaching three semesters of publication design there.) —Bill Vaughn (25 February 2015)
On February 13 two Missoula box stores were still selling worthless and possibly dangerous products that have been removed from the shelves of these chains in New York State. On Feb. 2 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asked that Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC halt sales of certain herbal supplements his office claimed in some cases contained none of the allegedly beneficial substances listed on the labels, and in other cases contained substances that were not listed. Verification of this fraudulent practice was determined by DNA analyses of seventy-eight bottles of echinacea, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and three other herbal products. Almost 80 percent of these bottles were found to contain none of these allegedly beneficial herbs, or contained fillers and contaminants such as powdered rice, wheat and house plants. Some common house plants, including English ivy (Hendera helix), oleander (Nerium oleander), and philodendron (Philodendron species), are poisonous.
On Feb. 13 the Walmart on Mullan Road in Missoula was selling echinacea, gingko biloba, ginseng and saw palmetto under its “Spring Valley” label. According to Schneiderman’s study, Walmart was the worst of these retail offenders, with only 4 percent of the bottles his office tested containing even a trace of these herbs.
The Missoula Target store was selling echinacea, saw palmetto, and St. John’s wort under its “Up and Up” brand. The New York study found that there was no St. John’s wort in the Up and Up bottles labeled “St. John’s wort.”
By Feb 13 the Missoula Walgreens had removed the echinacea, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and St. John’s Wort products sold under its “Finest” label. It was still selling bottles of saw palmetto, which the New York study concluded actually contained this botanical.
On Feb. 11 Schneideman’s office issued subpoenas to these retailers demanding that they offer evidence for a number of health claims promised on the labels of their products sold in New York. The Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group representing dietary supplement manufacturers, said Schneiderman’s investigation was a "self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of public health," which employed flawed methods.
Unlike drugs, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, even though this was a $13 billion industry last year. Federal rules require only that these products contain the ingredients printed on their labels and that they contain no harmful substances. The industry is also supposed to report adverse reactions to its products, which it did six-thousand times between 2008 and 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Even in their pure and unadulterated states do these botanicals have any medical benefits? Yes and no. Some studies have concluded that echinacea has the ability to treat and prevent the common cold. Gingko biloba may be useful for treating dementia and poor circulation in the legs. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has no proven value in the treatment of impotence, cancer, diabetes or herpes. St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been shown by numerous clinical trials to be useful in the treatment of mild to moderate depression in some people. Saw palmetto (Serenoa serrulata) has some moderate use in reducing an enlarged prostate. —Bill Vaughn (14 February 2015)
So called “multi-level marketing” companies pay their sales force not only for the stuff they sell but also for the work of other salespeople they recruit. The theory is that the higher up on the feeding order you climb—as you recruit bottom feeders who then recruit bottom feeders beneath them—the more money as a sales “associate” you’re likely to make. But most of these business plans are unstable, and the products are often no more than snake oil. Plus, because of the high sales resistance “associates” encounter, the work is ridiculously time-consuming, and the lower echelons often make little or no money at all. Like “Needlenose” Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day they become obnoxious street corner buttonholers who prey on their families and couch their messages on social media with born-again bullshit about the “Creator” in order to hustle people in the congregations they join.
And despite their serial failures some people become addicted to these pyramid schemes, believing that someday they’ll get in on the ground floor of one that will finally make them rich. They stand a better chance of winning a lottery. Most pyramid schemes are built on selling health products whose efficacy has never been validated. We know people who have sold, or tried to sell all of these scams: Amway water filters, Herbalife multivitamins, copper bracelets for the treatment of arthritis, and magnets to promote healing. Then they hawked Melaleuca products, which claim all sorts of medical benefits, none of which have been tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Despite promising that their stuff “supports” everything from prostate to cardiovascular “health” Melaleuca’s labels are required by law to state that “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” (To be fair, the company also sells tea tree oil, an extract from an Australian shrub called Melaleuca alternafolia that’s a proven anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent; but you can buy this substance most anywhere.)
Pyramid junkies are now mainlining on a company called ASEA. Based in Utah and owned by Mormon businessmen with no scientific training, this is the weirdest of them all. The company takes municipal water, adds salt and runs an electric current through it. Bam! Fountain of Youth! This whore of a product is dressed in the fine clothes of science. One of the hottest topics in molecular biology right now is redox signaling. This is a range of chemical reactions produced when certain short-lived molecules generated by the mitochondria and other organelles in plant and animal cells race around telling the rest of the cell and other cells what to do. These activities include tissue repair, the transfer of energy, immune responses, and scavenging, the chemical reaction in which cancer-causing molecules called free radicals are neutralized before they can erode cell walls. ASEA claims that the human body produces smaller amounts of redox signals as it ages. So you should drink the company’s expensive saltwater because it’s chock full of these awesome molecules, and you’ll become a better athlete and live longer. However, actual redox signals in the body exist for only a few milliseconds before their job is done, and cannot be “stabilized,” as the company claims. ASEA water has never been validated by a single double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In the end there’s simply no scientific evidence that this stuff will do anything except drain your bank account. —Bill Vaughn (28 Januray 2015)