Notes from the right bank

Lee closes State Bureau. On May 21 the Great Falls Tribune carried a front page story about the end of the Lee Enterprises Helena office that's responsible for covering Montana government. Skilled, long-time reporters Charles Sackett Johnson and Mike Dennsion, the Tribune reports, will vacate the office next week. Johnson, for many years the premier political reporter in Montana (and a college pal of ours), will retire. Dennison is looking for another job. The move signals yet another dimishment of quality for the Missoulian and its sister papers in Montana. Meanwhile, there has been not a word in the Lee's Treasure State newspapers about this egregious business failure and blow to the craft of journalism in Montana. National journalism columnist Jim Romenesko points out that Mary Junck, Lee's CEO, awarded herself fat bonuses after reducing the editorial staffs of the corporation's newspapers. (22 May 2015)

Earthquake relief. How can you be sure the money you donate to help the victims of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal actually does anyone any good? Unless you deliver the cash from your hand to theirs, you can’t. However, there is a watchdog group that rates the performance of philanthropic organizations. This is CharityWatch, which analyzes efficiency, accountability, governance, and fundraising to determine whether your donation stands a good chance of actual aiding victims instead of lining some administrator’s pockets. Although CharityWatch gives the American Red Cross a grade of “A” for its overall work in many situations, when it comes to its efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, this charity rates an “F”. Although it collected $255 million in donations from private citizens only $106 million were used for relief projects on the island. What happened to the rest of it? (29 April 2015)

Clarification: On the April 5 edition of Last Week Tonight John Oliver discussed the fact that President Obama has visited every state in the union except South Dakota. Then Oliver presented a mock promo film that gushes about the Corn Palace and the guy who opens and closes the buffalo gate. Please visit us, the narrator pleads, pointing out that South Dakotans love presidents so much they carved their heads on a mountain. After all, she says, “You’ve been to Montana. That state’s nothing but barbed wire and goat fuckers.”

We feel compelled to set the record right. No self-respecting Montanan would ever bed a goat. Now, sheep, that’s another matter, as in that old joke: “Officer, I was just trying to help that ewe get through the fence.”

War of the Nests: Because geese migrate north a couple weeks earlier than osprey, they sometimes invade the nests the smaller birds have built and refuse to leave when the raptors show up to claim their homes. In order to keep geese out of the famous osprey nest on a pole outside center field at the Missoula Ospreys minor league park, ornithologists erected a "goose deflector," then hastily removed it after the nest's builders showed up the first week of April.

Ten miles downstream from the stadium, Dark Acres also has a famous osprey nest, which was invaded two years ago by geese, forcing the osprey to find new digs. This year a pair of geese hung out at the nest for a couple of days in late March, but moved on. The male and female osprey arrived on April 10 and began remodeling their home with sticks they ferried from our forest. We're looking forward to watching another noisy show these birds put on every summer as they dive into the river for fish, raise their chicks, and teach them how to hunt and fly. —Bill Vaughn (12 April 2015)

Despite the bad press fraternity and sororities
are not going away

They yelled at us and made us do pushups. We slept on the floor like dogs. At four a.m. they switched on the lights. Screaming and banging on pans, they swept into the room like screech monkeys and kicked anyone who wasn’t on his feet. There were more insults and pushups, then we cleaned toilets. After six days of this abuse they ordered us to strip to our skivvies. We were blindfolded and led into another room. It was so hot and humid I was instantly drenched with sweat. After what seemed forever I was grabbed and carried somewhere—down a stairway, it seemed. Someone recited the words to a ritual—mumbo-jumbo about the Nile and how after I crossed it what had been cloudy would be clear. I was so exhausted and sleep-deprived the words meant nothing. I was thrown into a coffin-sized box. It rocked back and forth, slamming me against its sides. I was flooded with cold water. Just as I started to panic hands grabbed me, pulled me to my feet, and dragged me back up the stairs.Homer Simpson Frat Boy

This was Hell Week, a pale imitation of the rigors of Boot Camp that millions of guys my age were not privileged enough to avoid by going to college. Although the national office of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity had banned Hell Week in 1938 the fraternity’s chapter here at the University of Montana apparently had not gotten the word.

That night, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with French cuffs, I stood in a formation with the rest of my pledge class. Some of the guys who started the week weren’t here to finish it. I felt a surge of joy and relief when my Big Brother pinned a gold rhombus to my lapel and shook my hand. It was the winter of 1968, what would turn out to be a watershed year for the United States. The cultural and political tumult that was just beginning to leak from the coasts into backwaters like Missoula would soon become a flood. That summer, Delta Sig’s president attended the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He left Montana a starched, conservative fraternity boy, and returned vowing to fight the draft and the War in Vietnam. Within months he quit the fraternity, taking several members with him, and began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.   

Meanwhile, I fell in love with a rich hippie from California and began spending evenings with her in my room, breaking the rule that barred women above the first floor of the fraternity. Such was the sudden unraveling of discipline that no one objected. In a secret basement chamber some of the brothers gathered after class to smoke hash. I resigned from Delta Sigma Phi in 1969 and moved into an apartment. I read Marx and believed I was a Marxist. I read McLuhan and believed I was the product of television. I read conservative zoologists such as Desmond Morris and believed that because genetics had beaten out everything else for control I no longer had to suffer the inconvenience of self-determination. In 1973 Delta Sigma Phi disbanded. The old three-story Victorian we had lived in was demolished to make way for an expansion of the high school next door. I was drafted into the Army, then released when Nixon announced the U.S. intended to wind down the War.

Looking back on these events it’s surprising that any fraternities survived the sea changes of the Sixties and Seventies. Yet most of them not only survived, they have grown. And despite recent nationally publicized scandals involving sexual assaults, outrageous racism, and hazing that resulted in deaths, guys are joining fraternities at the highest rate in fifteen years. And women are joining sororities at a rate almost as high. Why? Consider the vast, impersonal degree mills many American colleges have become. Ohio State and University of Texas boast undergraduate enrollments of 40,000. Even a third-rate academic institution school such as the University of Montana has more than doubled in size, to almost 14,000, since the day I first stepped on her campus (a gorgeous spring afternoon, wafting from the dorms the sound of Herman’s Hermits singing “There’s a kind of hush all over the world.”)

Fraternities and sororities seem like anachronisms. Racist cesspools such as the Sigma Alpha Epsilon houses at Clemson and Oklahoma embody the worst of Southern “culture.” But the Greek “system” offers a lonely freshman instant friends, a sense of community, and a sort of purpose. A “good” fraternity requires its members to get decent grades, something I failed to do once I resigned, turning my back on classes because they got in the way of my reading.

So as long as colleges are run like factories fraternities and sororities will continue to be part of the scene. (1 May 2015)


It’s time to eliminate anonymous posts
from internet news sites.

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)

The Pentagon is arming Missoula law enforcement

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) 

Country mice: beware of Kirkland brand toilet paper

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) 

Is a journalism degree worth the expense?

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.Hello sweetheart 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) 

Missoula stores sell products that have been banned from shelves in New York

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) 

Buyer beware: Saltwater masquerading as medicine

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)







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