Monday, August 27, 2007

Baseball online

The city of Billings plans to post photos every few days for those who wish to keep track of construction at the new ballpark. Here's the link.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Letters like this one appealing to the conscience of a thief appear commonly. Other than perhaps making the letter writer feel better, do you suppose such letters ever do any good?

Somehow, I doubt it. I don't see thieves as regular readers of the editorial page. Nor would they, I suspect, be thieves in the first place if their consciences could be so easily touched. Anybody ever hear of someone who returned a stolen wallet because of a guilty conscience induced by a letter to the editor?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Viva Cambodia

This week's best delivery day talk radio rant came from Bill O'Reilly, who said that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was "off the charts" on the far left.

Off the charts? I thought the chart pretty much ended at Karl Marx. So if the P-I is off the charts, with whom is it aligning itself? Pol Pot? Next time you see a pro-Khmer Rouge editorial in the P-I, be sure to give O'Reilly a call. You might get a free copy of his latest best-seller, "The No Sense Zone."


I'm a little confused. If you are the top dog in the state for the biggest media company in the state, and you get a chance to become at the same time the head of the state's largest advertiser, is that really a community service?

Winding down

School starts next week, so this blog may be headed into hibernation again shortly. I'm teaching three classes this fall: two German classes at MSU Billings and my usual fall journalism class at Rocky. I will also be tutoring at the Academic Support Center a couple of evenings a week and, of course, trying to hold the Outpost together.

I will make an effort to keep the blog from going completely dark, as it has in some past semesters. Since it is now linked to the Outpost website, I have a financial incentive to keep it up, which is more than most people have. But I also am going to try to devote more of what writing energy remains into the Outpost, where the payoff is potentially higher.

I must admit that I don't feel quite ready for all this. I did work on my German some this summer -- saw a few movies, read a couple of books -- but I didn't do a very good job of clearing up the backlog at the office. I didn't get out enough, didn't take enough days off, didn't write enough, didn't even get my desk cleaned off. It's still August, and I feel a bit stressed, tired and overburdened already. Dang it.

There is something invigorating, though, about heading back to school. It's just the right mix of the familiar and the new, a charge of adrenaline, a chance to try new things. That's the best part about the job, and other jobs would be wise to try to do something similar.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007


In his infamous style, Glenn Reynolds sort of but not quite accuses a TV station of showing bias by burying the party affiliation of a politician charged with assault. Reynolds invites the smug reader to guess that the politician's party was buried because he is a Democrat.

Where was it buried? In one version of the story, party affiliation apparently was in the lede. In another, it was in the second paragraph. It the current version, the station placed the fact that it broke the story in the second paragraph and dropped party affiliation to the third. Apparently, in no version has the party been named lower than the third paragraph. Even on TV, most people listen that long.

I've always wondered how some people are able to spot liberal bias in places it would never occur to me to look. Apparently, they have more vivid imaginations. To me, it would have appeared that a reporter who broke a story about political corruption and put the party affiliation before the jump was just doing his job.

Now I know better. Thank God that Reynolds is looking out for me. I might have wound up hating Democrats one trillionth of a percentage point less. And that TV station -- who knows? -- might not have mentioned the party until the fifth paragraph.

Small people

The Outpost is a free publication that relies upon the kindness of businesses to allow us to place racks. Because of that, I resolved long ago that I would never hold it against a business that wouldn't allow us in or that asked us to leave. But I do take manners into account.

Last week provided a good example of how this can work. When I delivered papers to the West End Wal-Mart on Thursday, our rack was missing. I called on Friday to ask if anyone knew what had happened, and I was told that the rack had been removed because it had not been "authorized." I asked to speak to the manager. The guy who answered was immediately rude and defensive. When he repeated the "unauthorized" claim, I told him that wasn't true: We always get approval before we place a rack, and our Wal-Mart rack had been in place for years (more than seven years, my research revealed later, since June 14, 2000, with never a complaint that I know of).

"Are you trying to argue with me?" he said. I said I wasn't arguing; I was just stating a fact. Eventually, he said that the order to remove racks had come from Bentonville. “So you don’t really have the power to authorize racks?” I asked. “Not really,” he conceded. So I asked why other racks remained where ours had been. "Guess what?" he said, they're gone.

But they weren't. When I went to pick up our rack, which had been stuffed out back, four or five other racks were still in place, just as before. I don't know why, but I do know this: I would no longer believe any explanation he gave me.

The second removal came at Godfather's Pizza on 24th Street West. The manager left a message on the machine. He explained why the owner wanted the rack removed and asked us to stop by and pick it up. He said there was no rush and left his name and number in case we had any questions. In short, he was a pro. I'm not much of a Godfather's customer, but nothing he said would make me less inclined to eat there.

Readers of this blog know I have my complaints about Wal-Mart, but this isn't a Wal-Mart thing. When we were asked to remove our Heights Wal-Mart rack, the manager there was perfectly decent about it. It's a human being thing: Small people should not be given power, even the modest power of a store manager. I saw it happen often enough in the Army: Small people who got small promotions would sometimes act like they ruled the world. In the Army, there was no escaping them, but in civilian life, they do not get my business.

UPDATE: Just got word from the real manager at Wal-Mart. The rack is back.

Al Jazeera -- nowhere near you

The refusal of American cable companies to carry the English language version of Al Jazeera is one of the great disgraces of our time. The fact that Al Jazeera presents points of view that Americans object to isn't a a negative; it's a good thing. We need to hear that perspective, even if only to avoid blundering into ill-considered wars (hat tip to Paul Stephens).

At the fire

We headed out to the Ford fire for a while on Sunday to see if there was anything useful we could do. I heard about the fire from an Outpost staffer who saw the smoke as she drove home from work. A few minutes later, my friend Gary Svee called, and we went to see what was up. From initial reports, it might have been a refinery going up or something equally dramatic, and we wanted to know for sure.

Lots was going on, but it was an impossible story for a weekly newspaper to cover. Becraft Lane was blocked by a fallen tree, and so we stopped by the Lockwood fire station. We heard that 400 homes had been evacuated in a three-mile radius around the fire. We talked to a woman who said the strong winds that accompanied the afternoon storm had riffled the tiles on her house -- the first time that had happened in 11 years out there. Other people were standing around anxiously, waiting for news. Smoke hung heavy in the air. No word at that time on any injuries or any destroyed homes. That news came later.

So what to do? We had a sneaking feeling that we were more likely to get in the way than to do any good. Gary had to get home. We would have to wait a while to try to get up in the hills to shoot pictures. Any breaking news we dug up would have been ancient by Thursday, when the paper comes out. I could have hung around and dug up feature quotes, but considering how uncertain it all was, even those likely would have been obsolete by press time. Theoretically, we could provide daily coverage on the website, but with tons of work waiting at the office, there was no chance to update meaningfully today and Tuesday.

So we made a brave decision. Gary went home, and my wife and I drove to Tiny's Tavern to drink a couple of Schoonies and listen to Norrine the Outlaw Queen and her band. She had been urging me to come hear her for several years, and it at least seemed possible to work off that longtime obligation.

What a contrast. The beer was cold, the chicken was hot, and the band was relaxed and enjoying itself. Tunes by Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Eddy Arnold filled the evening air. Norrine gave the Outpost a half-dozen good plugs, which meant that going to hear her play probably was a better business decision than trying to cover the fire.

The smoke in Lockwood seemed very far away.

UPDATE: The governor will be in Lockwood at 2:30 p.m. today for a look at the fire.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Taking the pledge

I'm behind on my reading, as usual, and just saw 4&20 Blackbirds' discussion of a resolution requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at Missoula City Council meetings.

I have expressed my own reservations about the pledge often enough. In short: I was raised to believe that the pledge undermines religion and borders on blasphemy because it uses the name of God in a rote recitation that promotes secular purposes.

So much for that. But it did strike me the other day that quite a few allegedly religious people who are sensitive about protecting the fragile beliefs of creationists have no such sensitivity to religious qualms about the pledge. How come?

Talk about screws

Your tax dollars at work.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Partisan goofiness

Montana's two major political parties appear to be competing for the goofiest news release of the week.

First, the Democrats attack Denny Rehberg for taking a "junket" to France, Brazil, Argentina and Chile while brave Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus are fighting it out on the front lines against raging Montana fires. Right.

Then, the Republicans attack Tester and Baucus for continuing to "question military commanders on the ground from the comfort of the US Senate" while Rehberg has made two trips to Iraq -- one as recently as 2005. "Congressman Rehberg continues to seek out the facts for himself, while others choose to sit on the sidelines," said Chris Wilcox, executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

Note to both parties: If you really think that having a couple of senators in the state is going to help get the fires out, and if you really think that a couple of quick trips to Iraq are going to help you understand the war, then you really don't get either situation.

For the rest of us, there is at least the consolation of knowing that if the two parties can waste their time on this garbage, not much of importance must be going on in the world.

UPDATE: Here's a better explanation than I gave of why a couple of trips to Iraq don't make you an expert, especially if you are a traveling congressman.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Left in the West recants its acceptance of reports in The New Republic by now notorious soldier Scott Thomas Beauchamp. "I backed the wrong guy," writes Jay Stevens.

I'm not so sure. I was an agnostic about Beauchamp's honesty before the Army investigation, and I remain one. The only remarkable thing about his story, it seems to me, is the war-backing blogosphere's surprise at learning that soldiers can be cruel and insensitive during wars.

I served in the Army and used to subscribe to The New Republic. Given a choice between the Army's version of events and The New Republic's, I tend to lean toward TNR. For every Steven Glass at TNR, the Army has a Pat Tillman cover-up. Taken in sum, the Army has more incentive and more power to get the results it wants out of an investigation than TNR does.

A couple of other things incline me Beauchamp's way. One is that at least one of the anecdotes he tells makes him look like a real jerk. In my experience, people rarely tell lies that make themselves look bad. The only exceptions I can think of are professional comedians and people who concede a small indiscretion in hopes of concealing a larger one.

The other thing is that the stories are so unexceptional. If I were willing to risk my writing career and professional reputation on a pack of lies, I would print more sensational lies. Admittedly, I have been burned on this point before. When questions were first raised in the "60 Minutes" forged documents scandal, I figured the documents had to be authentic because anyone who would take the trouble to forge documents would have put a little more smoke in the gun. But I may have been wrong. Some people lie just because they can.

So I remain agnostic. But I do hold out against those who argue that Beauchamp's admission that one incident occurred in Kuwait rather than Iraq changes everything. They say that if the incident occurred before he went to war, then that undermines his point that war leads to cruelty. Wrong. The cruelty of war begins well before actual combat.

Water, water

While delivering papers in the heat this week, I had another thought about the national decline in customer service that I harp on from time to time. Maybe this is a North-South thing, but I remember when I was a kid that lots of businesses had water fountains for customers. Nearly every gas station did, usually right by the pop machine, plus lots of department stores, grocery stores, even fast-food restaurants. I think every Dairy Queen in Texas had a water fountain.

Now? On my delivery route, with well over a hundred stops, I can think of two with water fountains, at the courthouse and at a home for seniors. Maybe there is one at Rimrock Mall. When I do the Medical Corridor route, I can hit the water fountains at Billings Clinic. Are there others? I can't think of any. If I want water (and I constantly do), I have to pay a buck a quart for it.

P.S. The general comment should not cover up the kindness of certain businesses, or at least of certain employees. Off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen occasions when businesses either offered me a drink for free or refused to take my money when I tried to buy something. I won't name names for fear of endangering the job of a good-hearted employee who may be working for a hardhearted owner.

Crash and burn

I don't get many days off, and occasionally it catches up to me. Yesterday was one of those days. Slept and read, bought groceries, hot tub, finally scraping together enough energy to cook some Indian food in belated recognition of my wife's birthday. The simple life -- it's easy to miss.

The Babe

In all the hoopla over Barry Bonds and the home run record, it's worth remembering that no modern player comes close to Babe Ruth in terms of overall dominance of the game. In his prime years, Babe Ruth hit more home runs all by himself than any other team in baseball. In 1927, the Red Sox and Senators combined didn't hit as many home runs as Ruth did -- and neither of those teams finished last in the league in home runs. To have that kind of impact today, a player would have to hit 200 home runs a season.

Had he remained a pitcher, Ruth probably could have made the Hall of Fame on that alone. As it was, he set a World Series pitching record that lasted for decades.

And then there was the Ruth charisma: rags to riches, a boy in a man's body, abounding in excess, full of life and charm, the American dream in a pot-bellied package. He was one of a kind, and no number of asterisks will ever change that.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Aren't they transferring the wrong guy? Seems to me that failing to back up a fellow officer, whether you like him or not, would be extremely dangerous and a firing offense.

To me, if you have a left fielder who won't back up throws to third base because he doesn't like the third baseman, you get rid of the outfielder, not the infielder.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Somewhere over the striped apparition

I don't read much contemporary fiction, unless it has Montana or Wyoming roots, but I am wasting the summer reading "Absolute Power," a potboiler of a political thriller that was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman.

The only thing worth mentioning is that the author, David Baldacci, has sold 40 million books. Forty million. And he can't write a lick. Maybe he learned something after writing "Absolute Power," which was his first novel, but this one has clunkers on every page. The New York Times called it a "mountain of thudding prose" -- and that was the film critic. I can imagine what the book critic must have thought.

You'd think a guy who wants to write novels for a living would bother to learn the craft. But if he can sell 40 million books, maybe it doesn't matter.

I won't waste your time by quoting from the book, except for this brilliant bit: In one strained metaphor, he refers to "the pot of gold at the end of the striped apparition."

OK. I'm ready to die now.

UPDATE: 6 Generations asks, sensibly enough, why waste time reading a poorly written book? Several reasons:

1. Bad habits. I finish bad books for the same reason I eat everything on my plate. There's some poor kid in China who would give anything to have a badly written book.

2. Some poorly written books are worth reading. Exhibit 1: David Halberstam. Terrible writer, in my view, but a terrific reporter who must be read. He is the example I use when journalism students go into despair that they can't write well enough to make a living at it. This particular novel has an premise interesting enough that I still want to know how it turns out (although I have been reading very ... very ... slowly).

3. You can learn a lot from poor writing. The trouble with good writers is that they are so skilled I can't figure out how they do it. With bad writers, I can see all of the seams between the joints, all the badly fitted boards and missing nails. I think: I could do better than that. The good ones just intimidate me.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Nigerians still at it

Just got my all-time favorite Nigerian e-mail, this from an outfit claiming to collect money from "fraudstars" to refund to scam victims.

It starts:




And it ends:


If you aren't a victim, just wait. Your time is coming.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The government sector

KBLG has been running a promo for "The Radio Factor" in which Bill O'Reilly says that the only things that government can do are run the military and collect taxes. Even allowing for the usual O'Reilly exaggeration, this seems like an awfully short list.

And I'm not even sure it's accurate. Does government really run the military that well? Granted, the United States has the most powerful military history has ever seen. But since armies are nearly always run by governments, the U.S. military can't really be compared to a private sector army, can it? And while I don't doubt that the U.S. Army today is a better-run outfit than the one I served in 35 years ago, certain inefficiencies common to any bureaucracy appear to be built in to the military hierarchy.

To give just one of many possible examples: Since I was stationed with a small detachment of soldiers on the East German border, we had to drive to Bremerhaven to conduct much Army business: medical appointments, shipping goods, clearing up paperwork. On narrow and crowded German roads, it was about a seven-hour round trip, and a military vehicle generally made the run at least once a week.

One week, the Army changed its policy and decided that soldiers had to have an appointment before they could conduct any business in Bremerhaven. Nobody told us, of course, and we drove up as usual. And even though the clerk in Army personnel appeared to have nothing whatever to do, he wouldn't help any of us -- a half-dozen soldiers wasting a full day apiece for absolutely no good reason. This sort of thing happened all the time, and nobody in charge cared very much because nobody had to meet a bottom line.

Still, I don't really want to know how a government-run army would stack up against a privately run army because I don't want big private armies running around out there. This is one monopoly I'm happy for government to keep. The same goes for prisons and courts of law, where I'm willing to accept a little government inefficiency in exchange for the power to vote for or against the people in charge.

Beyond all that, it seems to me that government does do some things well -- at least as well and perhaps better than the private sector. A few come to mind:

1. National parks. Does anybody think that Yellowstone would be a better place if Disney ran it? I don't.

2. Campgrounds. Sight unseen, I would prefer any federal or state campground over
any private campground. In my experience, government-run campgrounds are nearly always prettier and cheaper. The amenities may not be as good, but I don't care much for amenities when I go camping, and I don't like camping close to people who do.

3. Highways. A few privately funded highways have been built in high-traffic areas, but government-built highways suit me just fine, even allowing for the occasional bridge collapse.

4. Public libraries. Nothing else comes close.

5. Mail service. People always bitch about this, but I have never understood why. Almost without exception everywhere I have lived, mail service has been reliable and cheap, and postal employees have been pleasant to deal with. I don't argue that my experience is typical, but I have no gripes.

6. Customer service. Another supposed government weak point, but again it doesn't fit with my experience. Private sector customer service keeps getting worse, in my view, and government service keeps getting better.

7. Fire protection. Who complains about the fire department?

8. Museums.

9. NPR. Not strictly government run, but it gets a few federal dollars, and it is vastly superior to commercial radio in every respect (except sports coverage).

That's not a complete list, but it's a fairly big chunk of what government does. And while you certainly might argue that turning all those services over to the private sector would save a few tax dollars, it's hard for me to see that we would ultimately really be better off.

UPDATE: Two more I neglected to mention:

1. Trash pickup. I never even see those guys, but the trash is always picked up.

2. Water. In all the cities I have lived in over the years, I can't recall that I ever once had any contact with a municipal water department. Why? Because I never once had a problem -- water always has been cheap, plentiful and clean.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Who's next?

Now that Rupert Murdoch has Dow Jones, which newspaper company will be the next to go? Most likely Gannett, according to the Wall Street Journal. Lee Enterprises doesn't rate a mention until deep in the comments (3:12 p.m. Aug. 1).

Bad Pat

I like Pat Buchanan because he is mean and smart and a real-deal conservative. But I think he would be a terrible president and would never vote for him. Today on MSNBC, I got a reminder of why.

Buchanan was bloviating on this story, which pits the forces of good (English speakers) against the forces of evil (Spanish speakers) over what languages beach rules should be printed in. That this should be news even in Merrimack is remarkable, but it is astounding that it became national news.

It happened, of course, because guys like Buchanan are willing to go on national TV to express outrage that any language other than English should be heard between the unpatriotically named Rio Grande and the Great Lakes. Judging from the comments, many Merrimack readers, no matter how slipshod their own grasp of English, feel the same way.

As someone who has spent a fair chunk of time struggling with unfamiliar languages (German, French, Spanish, even a semester of Old English), I think I have learned a couple of things:

1. The purpose of language is to communicate, not to make political statements. So if your goal is to have people understand what the beach rules are, you should print the signs in a language they understand. If you have some other goal in mind, then maybe you need to think about why you have signs in the first place.

2. Yes, English is the language of success in America, but even the most diligent students of English are going to struggle for a few years. They deserve a break.

3. In German, the beach is masculine, the sign is neuter and the sea is feminine. Do I have to make you a sign?

P.S. The German equivalent of "That's Greek to me" is "Das kommt mir Spanisch vor," or "That's Spanish to me."