Notes from the right bank by Bill Vaughn

Action. The latest project by filmmaker Andy Smetanka is an homage to Missoula called A Place, Sort Of. The core of this project will be home movies the artist recorded in gloriously grainy, mostly black-and-white Super 8 film. To that palette he plans to add silhouette-animations, time-lapse sequences, scenes from movies in which Missoula appeared as a setting, and the results of a scavenger hunt around town for discarded and forgotten footage extracted from camcorders and old movie cameras. To finance these efforts Smetanka is campaigning to raise $25,000 on Kickstarter. The campaign released fake news clips featuring Missoula Mayor John Engen dissing the filmmaker and his work and calling for an end to the cult of weirdness promoted by people like Smetanka. Play the clip below for an example of the film’s sensibility, a warping of time and space you might also experience by taking psilocybin. Update: Although it appeared for several days that Smetanka's campaign would come up short, in the last hours backers poured in more than $5,000 to put the project over the top. The final tally was $26,309 kicked in by 359 pledges.(22 September 2015, updated 29 September 2015)

Religious Notes. If you’re like us you cringe every time you see Pope Francis embrace a little boy. . . . . And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Church Francis decided to canonize Junipero Serra, a eighteenth century Spanish Franciscan friar who forced “religion” on native people in Baja California, and established the first nine of twenty-one missions between San Diego and San Francisco, the avatars of Spanish imperialism. In 1752, during the Spanish Inquisition’s reign of terror in both the Old and New Worlds, Serra was appointed inquisitor of the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, where he denounced several Christians for practicing witchcraft. . . . You may have received a postcard recently from the owners of a website called warning that “Survival is not possible on this continent. You must evacuate.” The website says “The Polar-Axis shift will drastically and permanently re-arrange earth’s land masses; it will create new coastlines across the globe; mountains will go down and new mountains will come up; rivers will change course.” The only salvation for us is to embrace the Great Creator Yahweh, who apparently wants us to survive Armageddon by getting on board a spaceship called the “Time Ark.” More could be learned on the website about this “Divine Cleansing of earth” but we’ve had enough unpleasant experiences with malware to avoid the temptation to click on the link. (24 September 2015)   

Hell-a-na. To us, one of the most tedious and boring towns in the world is Helena, Montana. Its denizens are members of one of only two classes: government employees, and trailer court trash. The employees frequent downtown eateries, attend amateur theatre productions, and engage in wholesome outdoor activities such as hiking and cross-country skiing. The trash gambles in casinos and takes meth. That's why it came as a shock to see Montana's capital listed at No. 61 among's list of "Top 100 Best Places to Live." If it were called "Top 100 Best Places to Exist" then maybe we would understand. (22 September 2015)

Rabies alert.The Flathead Beacon reports that on Sept. 9 a rabid skunk bit a denizen of the Harpers Bridge Road area of Missoula County, home of Dark Acres. The Beacon says that the Montana Department of Livestock claims this is the first case of rabies in Missoula County in almost two decades that doesn't involve a bat. According to livestock officials, area residents have been notified. Here at Dark Acres we have received no such notification. But at least our dogs, Hanna and Zoe, are current with their rabies vaccinations. As of noon on September 17 the online edition of the Missoulian had still not reported the incident. (17 September 2015)

Getting what you pay for. Lee Newspapers announced September 15 that the corporation has hired two reporters to cover Montana state government. The journalists, aged 24 and 31, replace veteran political reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, who were forced in May by Lee and its disintegrating revenue stream to give up their jobs running the corporation’s State Bureau. Johnson has retired, and is serving on the board of the Montana Historical Society. Dennison was hired in August as the chief political reporter for the Montana Television Network, which owns KPAX in Missoula and six other stations.

They brought to their work a combined experience of more than sixty years covering elections and state government. They know everyone who’s anyone in politics and government. Their replacements have no political experience and know no one. But Lee is happy to be paying them a fraction of what Johnson and Dennison earned. In the sort of dreary and uninformative business-speak adopted these days by corporate minions, Montana Standard editor David McCumber said that these bargain-basement reporters will be helping “to set the state’s agenda with high-impact, multi-platform news coverage.” Huh?

Meanwhile, Lee Enterprises is peddling some of its real estate in order to pay down its enormous debts. The corporation, based in Davenport, Iowa, has sold its Napa, California newspaper building and property for $5 million, according to the online news organization And in June Lee’s flagship newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, announced that the corporation was offering the paper’s six-story downtown building for $4.25 million, and the building’s parking lots for an additional $1.35 million. (How much, we wonder, would the market pay for the Missoulian building?) Despite Lee’s desperate efforts to dig itself out of the muck its stock has plummeted from $3.95 a year ago to $1.82 today.

Trojan. On September 4 one of the computers at Dark Acres received an email notification that a fax was waiting for us from a Montana auto dealership from which we bought a pick-up a few years ago. We assumed that the fax was about a recall issue or, since we had expressed interest in trading in this truck for something newer, an offer of some sort.

The fax turned out to be a member of a family of viruses called ransomware, which immediately infected most of the files on this laptop by encrypting them so they couldn’t be accessed. A notice suddenly popped up on the laptop’s screen from something called CryptoWall 3.0. “ . . . the structure and data within your files,” it said, “have been irrevocably changed, you will not be able to work with them, read them or see them, it is the same thing as losing them forever, but with our help, you can restore them.” The cost of this restoration would be $700. It’s reported that CryptoWall accepts Bitcoin, wire transfer, Paysafecard or Ucash, but we didn’t investigate further to see what form of payment these Russian gangsters were demanding.

The extortionists warned us that “if you really value your data, then we suggest you do not waste time searching for other solutions because they do not exist.” We determined that we had previously backed up most of these files to an external hard drive, which was not cabled to the laptop at the time of the attack, and that the Quicken files we had forgotten to back up were strangely not infected. Then we set about ridding the machine of its disease. We ran a virus killer called Security Reviver. However, this vaccine was not effective. After doing some research online, we went in, scalpel in hand, and manually cut out all the “help-decrypt.html” files we could find. A few of these had lodged deep inside Window XP’s startup program, but we managed to track them down and destroy them.

We aren’t the only victims of CryptoWall, which became pandemic in April of 2015. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center reported in June that the crooks have raked in at least $18 million, a figure that doesn’t include wasted time or money paid to IT guys to doctor sick computers.

According to a website called ars technica, “the FBI's advice for avoiding ransomware is fairly standard: use antivirus and firewall software from ‘reputable companies’ and keep them updated; enable pop-up blockers to prevent accidental clicks on malicious webpages that could download malware; always do backups; and ‘Be skeptical . . . don't click on any e-mails or attachments you don't recognize and avoid suspicious websites altogether.’" (5 September 2015)

A Montana Noir. In Heads or ? rough-looking customers named Tailfin and Boxcar play a game of Cards in the Hat. Filmed in grainy black-and-white, the apparent Depression-era setting is a shabby 75-cent-a-night hotel room in Miles City, Montana. As the game begins we see next to the hat on the floor the bare feet of someone sleeping or someone passed out. Or could it be a corpse? Are Tailfin and Boxcar playing for money, or something else?The Turf by Ray Ottulich

The director of this quirky four-minute film is New York native Ray Ottulich, who generously allowed me to use his inventive paintings and photographs of downtown Missoula to illustrate my own noirish story, “A Taste for Murder,” featuring private dick Sid Moran (“Somewhere in the land of the living my cell whined like a frightened nun.”) Ottulich is making what he calls Neo Noir Videos using locations around the country, but collectively calling the films Noirsville. A film featuring 1970s Missoula is planned. (4 September 2015)

Insider trading? Newspaper watchdog Jim Romenesko reports that Mary Junck, the CEO of Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian and four other daily newspapers in Montana, dumped more than 200,000 shares of stock in her own company ahead of a dismal third quarter earnings report. On July 22, before the trade, Lee's stock was valued at $3.09 a share. The price per share on August 18 had fallen to $2.49 per share. (18 August 2015)

It's accurate but it's not true. On August 7 Montana Governor Steve Bullock appointed Charles Sackett Johnson to the Board of Trustees of the Montana Historical Society. In its "reporting" of the appointment the Missoulian claimed that Johnson "retired." Actually, Johnson was forced to quit and accept a cash settlement when Lee Enterprises, the Missoulian's floundering parent corporation, closed its state bureau in Helena, where Johnson and Mike Dennison ruled for years as the state's premier political reporters. Meanwhile, On August 1 the Missoulian jacked up its newsstand price from $1 to $1.50. (8 August 2015)

Another Lee buyout.We hear that Sherry Devlin, the editor of the Missoulian since 2005, has been offered a deal by her boss, Lee Enterprises: Quit, and we'll buy out your contract. Or you can stay on as the features editor, and we'll pay you half of what you were making before. Devlin has apparently chosen Door Number Two. (1 August 2015) [Her replacement, the unfortunately surnamed Matthew Bunk, got off on the wrong foot when he began his tenure by editing a front-page news story August 18 that announced his appointment as editor and the apparent demotion of Devlin. We say demotion because there's not a word in the piece about Lee buying out Devlin's contract, and most readers would assume she screwed up and was replaced. In the past, publishing the truth was not the Missoulian's strong suit when it came to the newspaper's reporting of the Missoulian. Under Bunk this policy is apparently not going to change. (18 August 2015)

Previous Lee Buyouts. In 2012 four veteran Missoulian reporters were forced out by the Iowa-based corporation, which owns fifty-four daily newspapers in twenty-three states, five of those in Montana. Lee filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, citing more than $1 billion in debt. This followed its failure to issue junk bonds to finance the purchase of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We don’t know what Devlin’s salary was in the fiscal year ending in 2014 but Lee’s CEO, Mary Junck, was paid almost $3 million. The Missoulian newsroom has not responded to our email regarding the newspaper’s alleged staff changes. (1 August 2015)

Death by intersection. The most badly designed cities in the world are Jakarta, Indonesia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Missoula, Montana. This is according to a digital media company called Thrillist, whose website boasts more than fifteen million subscribers. Missoula made the list of nine hopeless cities, which includes Atlanta and Boston, because of the ridiculous Slant Streets platted in the 1890s as a result of a feud between the city and a rival group of developers, and also because of its infamous Malfunction Junction, where people have died waiting for the lights to change.

For anyone planning to move to Missoula because you believe Outside Magazine and other dubious sources about the Garden City’s amenities, you need to spend Happy Hour on a gray, slushy, polluted day in February trying to drive down one of its major thoroughfares. Try Reserve Street, for example. But make sure to bring beverages and something to eat. (27 July 2015)

Were the Celts real or imagined? The ten-thousand people who attended the Celtic Festival in Missoula July 24 and 25 watched young women dance Irish dances, listened to bagpipe bands and applauded as a scowling seven-year-old won the red-hair contest. Some of the revelers wore kilts, and others drank themselves into a stupor. No one seemed to care about the academic debate raging in Europe about whether a people called the “Celts” ever existed in Ireland and Britain.

The war of words heated up in 1999 with the publication of The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? by an Iron Age archaeologist from England named Simon James. He pointed out that “no one in Britain or Ireland called themselves a ‘Celt’ or ‘celtic’ before 1700.” The idea of a “Celtic” identify, he argued, was a fanciful product of the rise of Irish and Scottish nationalism in the Eighteenth Century, whose advocates conjured up a past for themselves that included the superb swordsmen and chariot drivers who sacked Rome and were called “Celts” by the Roman historian, Livy.

The archaeological evidence, James says, doesn’t reveal any “Celtic” invasion of Ireland or Britain from the Continent, but rather a slow and intermittent migration of several Iron Age tribes who shared vaguely similar languages and technologies. How closely they were related to Rome’s conquerors is at the core of the debate. Critics point out that the weaponry of these tribes derived from the tradition of La Tene, a physical culture named after a lakeside village in Switzerland where a large armament of swords was discovered in 1857. Shields, blades, vases and a wealth of implements have been unearthed all over Europe, including Ireland, that bear the distinctive La Tene look.

Simon maintains that Celticness was seized on as a cultural lifesaver when the Industrial Revolution began to devour what had been entirely rural economies. His critics have attacked his ideas as an English reaction to growing contemporary nationalism in Scotland, which helped fuel the success of films such as Braveheart, in which William Wallace famously trumpets: “They can take our lives but they can never take our freedom!” (26 July 2015)

Missoula plants trees that pollute. On any hot day in the Garden City the 100,000 “hybrid” poplars planted by the City of Missoula near the frenetic intersection of Reserve Street with Mullan Road emit several tons of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These include isoprene, methanol and terpene, substances that combine with atmospheric elements to create an aerosol cloud the plants use to reflect sunlight, thus cooling themselves. It’s thought that this form of air conditioning evolved when the earth was considerably warmer than it is now. The best example of the phenomenon is the blue haze that shrouds the spruce and fir forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.

VOCs are natural emissions generated by many plants, and are also produced by the evaporation of petroleum products. When they react in sunshine with airborne pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, which is produced by gas and diesel engines and thermonuclear explosions, they accelerate the accumulation of ozone, the major ingredient of smog. Different species of trees emit various levels of VOCs. The highest floral discharges come from eucalyptus, the genus Populus, which also includes cottonwoods, and oak. Hawthorns emit no VOCs at all. Some researchers advise urban foresters to think twice before they plant poplars in large numbers.

The poplars on Missoula’s 130-acre poplar plantation are fed more than a million gallons of sanitized sewage effluent per day from the nearby Wastewater Treatment Plant. Officials claim that the nitrogen and phosphorous in this effluent that would have been poured into the Clark Fork (because the city can’t afford better pollution control equipment) is processed by the poplars instead. The trees apparently like their diet, having grown almost twenty feet high in only a couple of years. (Hybrid poplars are basically giant, messy weeds—the surface-spreading, tentacle-like roots of the fifty-foot specimen we cut down at Dark Acres this spring throw up a small forest of suckers that we must mow once a week until we can find the time to excavate the roots.

City officials plan to harvest their poplar plantation in 2027 and sell the wood, which is too soft for use as anything but ceiling molding and painted furniture (as firewood, it produces more ash than heat). Documents claim the project will cost $1.375 million but will recoup its expenses when the lumber is sold.

Maybe. Removing the stumps and restoring the land, which is leased from a family, will be considerably more difficult than the city has estimated.

Officials also claim that the plantation will “sequester” at least 8,000 tons of the carbon in the carbon dioxide that trees inhale.


However, what has not been figured into this apparently happy win+win=win equation is the amount of ozone being produced by the reaction of the VOCs emitted by the city’s plantation with huge volume of nitrogen dioxide emitted by vehicles idling at and finally crossing the busiest intersection in Montana. So far there hasn’t been a word from the Missoula County Health Department regarding ozone levels in this smelly, noisy neighborhood, which includes an asphalt plant and a Walmart. (24 July 2015)

Friends don’t let friends drive skinny. In June what I believed was a case of the flu turned out to be the complete failure of both my kidneys. It was my poisoned bloodstream that was causing the fatigue, muscle aches, ocular migraines, and nausea, and not some virus. Nephrologists at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula diagnosed the cause of this massive shutdown as a bizarre condition called Milk Alkali Syndrome. The culprits were the baking soda I was taking for chronic heartburn, and the calcium/potassium supplement I was taking because I thought it was preventing cramps when I played tennis. Because of this stuff I had lurched within a day or two of dying.Tastykake

After eight days in the hospital, hooked up to tubes, watching my blood spin through a dialysis machine, and hallucinating, I was healthy enough to go home. I was anemic. My gums and nails were white. I had lost fifteen pounds. This is a lot of vanished flesh for someone who only weighed 160 pounds to begin with (on a six-foot frame).

My sister-in-law, a New England nutritionist whose patients have eating disorders, advised me not to worry about what I ate because when it comes to gaining weight all calories are equal. So I have embarked on an eating binge featuring food I haven’t touched in years: pizza, ribs, Ben&Jerry, toasted ham and cheese, muffins, cinnamon rolls, pasta, and bread. Also Daily’s bacon. And more Daily’s bacon. I eat a hot pepper cheeseburger with a chocolate milkshake at the Missoula Club whenever I’m in town.

To help out in this restoration project, the Greenfields, friends who live on the Main Line, sent me four family-sized cartons of Tastykakes. These are Philly’s iconic dessert products, sweet, spongy, supercharged with calories, and sold only in twenty downtown locations. At morning coffee I start with a Banana Kremie Junior. After lunch I have two Butterscotch Krimpets. At tea time it’s a pair of Chocolate Cupcakes (for some reason they’re not spelled Kup Kake). And after dinner I have a Kandy Kake, a chocolate concoction frosted with more chocolate. (It’s like beer in Mexico: at breakfast you want something light, like a Pacifico. But as the day rolls on you want increasingly heavier beer--Corona at lunch, Dos Equis in the afternoon, Tres Equis in the evening.)

Total Tastykake calories for the day: 940, a third of which come from fat. This is about 40 percent of the 2300 or so calories I need to maintain my current weight, which is now 154 pounds (of course, I’m eating six meals a day and taking in more than 3000 calories.)

The Liebermans, friends who live in Southern California, sent me eight pounds of prime beef. This is the famous Cardiff by the Sea Tri Tip marinated sirloin. I’ll sear these luscious cuts on all sides, then continue broiling them until they’re medium rare. Along with a bowl of crab bisque, and an entire baked russet drowning in butter and sour cream, this meal will mark a new personal best in gluttony. But will it turn into more of me? (23 July 2015)

Another domain scam. If you own domain names you may have received an IMPORTANT NOTICE from something called the “Search Engine Optimization Domain Service Registration Corp.” in Coconut Creek, Florida. The company urges you to send them money immediately through a “secure” website, implying that if you don't your rights to the name will soon expire. In the case of the "expiration notification offer" they emailed us on July 12, the "renewal" cost would be $67. The actual registrar of this domain charges us $9.99, and the renewal isn’t due until October.

This scam would have you to believe at first glance that you're in danger of losing the rights to your domain. The scare tactic is slightly mitigated by the tiny pale type at the bottom of the notice that says: “THIS IS NOT A BILL. THIS IS A NOTIFICATION OFFER. YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO PAY THE AMOUNT STATED UNLESS YOU ACCEPT THIS NOTIFICATION OFFER.” (12 July 2015)

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 reduction in quality for the Missoulian and its sister (brother?) 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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