Of the three major issues inflaming the denizens of Missoula County, the looming deconstruction of the old Missoula Mercantile building on Higgins Avenue is the most emotional. Neither the fiscal freefall brought on by the incompetence of the University of Montana’s enrollment recruitment “program,” nor the expensive and possibly doomed effort on the part of the city to wrest control of its water system from a foreign corporation has caused as much widespread teeth-gnashing. That’s because of the fond memories people have of their happy hours inside the old store. (Mine included making out with a girlfriend in the photo booth on the mezzanine, and pretending to look at books in the bookstore when all I really wanted was a chance to ingratiate myself with the gorgeous red-headed clerk).
Even many of those who want see this crumbling, abandoned old eyesore torn down don’t want it replaced with the prospective owner’s cookie-cutter hotel, which could pass as any dull box in Tampa or Omaha. But there’s no reason that the façade of a new structure could not be built to echo the late nineteenth-century feel of the Merc and other smaller buildings downtown. This façade, of course, would have to be built from reinforced, earthquake-resistant, high-quality brick (the Merc’s brick is more like Play-Doh than it is masonry). Examples of the look of this new/old building might be the 1996 Johnston building designed by James Hoffmann on S. 3rd St. W., or the Gleim Building on Front St., a whorehouse built in 1893. (25 March 2016)
The Johnston Building
The Gleim BuildingWeed Control.
Some places, like some people, are lucky. For example, over the past quarter-century a large pasture on the eastern border of Dark Acres has been threatened several times with ruinous development schemes, but has emerged each time in one piece. A decade ago it was owned by a greedy redneck who couldn’t make enough money from the land as pasture for cattle so he decided he could turn a few bucks with a gravel pit, an asphalt plant and a cement factory, which would poison the air and require a parade of big trucks on our narrow country lanes to haul this ruinous shit to market. The Missoula County Commissioners nixed that hare-brained notion, so the jerk decided to subdivide it instead. Despite aerial photographs showing this pastureland flooded in 1997 by the Clark Fork, they approved the scheme. Then the financing fell through, and the jerk sold the land to another jerk who tried to go forward with the development, but was defeated in 2008 by the recession and the crash in home construction.
The pasture was sold again, this time to a family that is now using it to pasture sheep and goats that they intend to rent to landowners who will use them for weed-control. The land sighed in relief. The animals are protected from our backwater’s mountain lions and coyotes by the kinds of dogs shown here, the one on the right being an Anatolian Shepherd. (11 February 2016)
Weed controllers and their bodyguards.
It's a Wonderful Life
. When Bernie Sanders bashes Wall Street and Big Banking his rhetoric tends to be a broad brush that paints a large, impersonal seascape, with financial institutions as crashing waves and working class Americans as the beach.
But for us, getting screwed by banks has been a deeply intimate experience. In 1990 we bought Dark Acres with a mortgage supplied by First Bank of Montana, which promptly sold the debt to Mellon Mortgage without our permission. Over the years the mortgage was bought and sold by a number of financial institutions, none of which gave us any say in the transaction.
The former Bank of America in Isla Vista, California.
In 2007, after Countrywide Financial Corporation bought the debt, they informed us that they were going to charge us for extended flood insurance because the coverage in place wouldn’t be enough to replace their property if it was ruined by high water. Since the 1997 Missoula flood brought the Clark Fork within inches of swamping the house we had no argument with this demand. Although it wasn’t technically our
house, we liked living in it. The following year the housing bubble burst and the roof fell in on Countrywide and its arch-fraudster CEO, Angelo Mozilo. Countrywide’s many good and bad loans were bought up by the odious Bank of America (Remember Isla Vista!
), which continued over the years to extract money from us to buy extra flood insurance.
In 2014 we were informed by lawyers that Countrywide and Bank of America had been bad boys.
Here’s the account from topclassactions.com:
“An Oregon federal judge has preliminarily approved a class action settlement worth $31 million that will resolve allegations that Bank of America NA illegally forced homeowners to purchase overpriced and excessive flood insurance policies.
“The plaintiffs filed the class action lawsuit, which alleged that Bank of America sent letters to homeowners that claimed they did not have sufficient flood insurance coverage because they lived in flood-prone areas.
"The plaintiffs argued that there was no federal requirement for the homeowners in those areas to carry extra flood insurance. However, they claim that the bank forced them to purchase expensive flood insurance policies and received kickbacks
from the insurers.”
Although the settlement didn’t cover all of our losses, the Bank of America was forced to deposit $148.92 into our escrow account, a pitiful sum but a comforting symbol. We will sigh with relief in ten months when our mortgage is finally paid off and we won’t have to deal with these crooks any longer. (4 February 2016)
Has the Missoulian given up?
We don’t need no stinking ethics.
On Feb. 22 the online edition of the Missoulian posted a piece about several agencies in the Garden City that offer mental health help to children aged 10-18. The article, “Missoula project scoops up kids in crisis, prevents unnecessary hospitalization,” was published with a photograph of one of these troubled kids, shown with his grandmother. The paper not only used the boy’s name and age, it published the name of his brother, who had mental health problems several years ago that were serious enough to to compel authorities to move him to a group home because there were no other options available at the time. The Missoulian clearly violated the right to confidentiality possessed by these people, and it was pulled from the online edition of the paper on Feb. 23. (23 February 2016)
In its Valentine’s Day article
“Best of times for MSU, worst of times for UM,” the Bozeman Chronicle
reported that one reason enrollment at Montana State University has been growing (while the student body at the University of Montana has been shrinking) is the fact that for the last fourteen years MSU has been paying Royall & Company of Richmond, Virginia $1 million a year to find out-of-state students for the school’s five recruiters. (We’re familiar with this process because our niece works as a recruiter in China for Johns Hopkins University.) Anyway, we wonder: (1) What are UM’s recruitment plans? (2) Why hasn’t the hapless Missoulian
run the Chronicle
piece? (16 February 2016)
A post at Intelligent Discontent
reports that the Missoula County Commissioners and the Missoula City Mayor and Council have been receiving threatening emails and phone calls from anonymous cowards apparently unhappy with the willingness of these officials to accept Syrian refugees into the community. (9 February 2016)
NBC Montana reported
Feb. 7 that five retired faculty members remain on the University of Montana's payroll, despite the beleaguered school's financial woes so extreme the Board of Regents has begun firing faculty members. Former UM President George Dennison is receiving $30,000 a year under a deal that pays him for writing a history of UM (NBC reports he's only gotten to the 1940s). As of noon on
Feb. 8 Feb. 9 Feb. 10 Feb. 11 Feb. 12 Feb 13
never the local daily, the Missoulian
, has published not one word about the the $137,000 a year UM is paying Dennison and the other four retirees. (8 February 2016)
University of Montana student newspaper the Montana Kaimin reported
on Feb. 10 that the administrator responsible for recruiting foreign student will be laid off at the end of the semester. Udo Fluck's dismissal is the beginning salvo in UM's misguided effort to trim the budget by firing staff members. The Missoulian didn't report Fluck's termination until Feb. 12. (12 February 2016)
On Feb. 12 NBC Montana posted an interview with the father of a Hellgate High School student whose medical records were exposed when an email was sent to 28 Missoula parents in December that contained detailed and highly confidential records of some 1100 current and former students. (13 February 2016)
The Missoula Independent
, whose arts and entertainment coverage is far superior to that of the hapless and lazy Missoulian
, reviewed my book, Hawthorn
, on June 25, 2015 and later named it one of the notable books of the year. The Missoulian
didn’t bother with a review, giving it a passing mention in a boilerplate squib by a local bookseller.
The Missoulian’s hapless, inexperienced editors, apparently having given up trying to compete, are relying more and more on story ideas stolen from other news organizations. For example, the Jan. 11 issue carried an interview with Maria Sascha Khan, a Montana native who rose through the world of ballet to become a principal dancer at one of Russia’s premier ballet companies. Four days earlier the weekly Missoula Independent carried a much more professional piece by Erika Fredrickson—more insightful, better written and better reported, offering many details about the dancer’s life and career neglected by Missoula's daily. (11 January 2016)
More better reporting.
NBC Montana has again beaten the Missoulian
to the punch. On Jan 11 the television network reported that if it’s approved by the courts and the Montana Public Service Commission the sale of Mountain Water to Liberty Utilities will likely result in bigger water bills for Missoula’s consumers. Liberty, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Algonquin Corporation, owns water companies in five states. NBC Montana reports that its questioning of regulators in two of those states revealed that Liberty-owned water utilities were granted rate hikes in the last six years of between 18 percent and 68 percent. Liberty’s motto says: “Local and responsive. We care.” We can only guess what it is Liberty cares about. (12 January 2016)
Water is always political.
Children poisoned by lead in the municipal water supply of Flint, Michigan is an environmental tragedy that's entirely the fault of local government. To save a few bucks officials switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, and then ignored complaints from families about funny colors, tastes and smells in their drinking water.
Because the City of Missoula has been trying to wrest away ownership of its water supply from a series of private corporations Mayor John Engen and the city council are compelled to answer hard questions about whether the culture of Missoula's government is capable of supplying clean and safe water to its citizens at a reasonable price. (26 January 2016)
Best and worst schools.
According to Niche, a for-profit rating service based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that reviews educational institutions, Missoula’s three public high schools rank in the middle of some 16,000 schools across the U.S., D.C. and Puerto Rico. Big Sky High
was rated 7,370 nationally and 19th of 69 in Montana. Hellgate.
was ranked 7,609 nationally and 25th in Montana. And Sentinal.
was ranked 8,883 nationally and 36th in Montana. The best grades in Montana were given to Bozeman High School
, ranked number one in the Treasure State and an impressive 1,811 nationally. The worst ratings in Montana were given to high schools on several of the state’s Indian reservations.
The teachers and academic programs at Missoula’s schools received C’s and B’s, in comparison with Bozeman High, whose curriculum and teachers were awarded A’s. (8 January 2016)
Morons for Gianforte.
Greg Gianforte, ultra right-wing fundamentalist entrepreneur who believes humans and dinosaurs romped together before The Flood, announced on Jan. 20 his candidacy for Montana Governor. Git along little triceratops. (21 January 2016)
If you graduated from the beleaguered University of Montana you may have received a letter recently from the Alumni Association saying that you’re “pre-approved” for something called a “Montana Visa Rewards Credit Card.” Because this offer is backed by a Kansas financial institution called the Commerce Bank we wondered why UM couldn’t find a Montana bank to underwrite this credit card, thus keeping the interest dollars in the Treasure State. Especially since the card that Commerce Bank offers is not a good deal (for example, at a time when most balance transfers are charged between 0% and 4% Commerce wants 5%).
So we asked the Alumni Association for an explanation. “We would have preferred to place our credit card program with a Montana bank,” Associate Director Susan Cuff told us, “but none of them offer a collegiate affinity program. In fact, the number of banks nationwide that do offer a collegiate program is decreasing rapidly—and particularly for a school our size. We were dropped by both Bank of America and Capital One because we didn't produce enough revenue for them to continue to service the program. Commerce Bank in Kansas was our only option to continue the credit card program.” (21 January 2016)
It won’t sell itself.
In light of the budget crisis at the University of Montana, the failed, two-year effort on the part of UM vice president for finance, Michael Reid, to sell a $6.5 million property the school doesn’t need was pathetic. Reid should be fired. UM awarded the listing for this property, an eleven-bedroom log McMansion on Sourdough Island in Salmon Lake, to a backwoods real estate agency in Seeley Lake, Montana. The property was never advertised in two of the places where rich people go to window shop for exclusive digs: a glossy magazine called Farm & Ranch West and a website called privateislandsonline.com.
The University has ample resources for producing the kind of hype that’s necessary to sell this sort of property. For starters, a video could be produced in the media arts program, written by students in the writing programs, hustled to outlets by students in the business school, and papered by UM law students overseen by their professors. (12 January 2016)
We don’t need no stinking recruitment plan.
The University of Montana’s failure to recruit students has resulted in a budget crisis that may well cost three-hundred staff and faculty people in Missoula their jobs, and the local economy a small fortune. Meanwhile, Montana State University has been dipping into the coffers of its departments for money to fund recruitment, resulting in enrollment increases four years in a row. A friend of ours who graduated from a private performing arts high school in southern California last spring was one of MSU’s targets. Although she chose to attend Oregon State instead, she was impressed and surprised by the glossy brochure that arrived in the mail from Bozeman just as she was beginning to visit prospective colleges.
Some angry taxpayers consider the 2 percent wage hike
that the Montana Board of Regents will award staff and faculty at the University of Montana on Jan. 19 as a form of graft, considering UM’s administrative incompetence. However, this wage increase was negotiated in a 2013 collective bargaining agreement between the Commissioner of Higher Education and the numerous unions representing faculty and staff. Still, for Social Security recipients UM’s wage bump grates. Boomers will not get any cost of living increase in their 2016 checks because the government has determined that they will make up for inflation by taking advantage of the plummeting prices of gasoline and heating oil. (8 January 2016)
We woke up on the last day of autumn to see cars lined up along our snowy country road and people with binoculars and cameras on tripods pointing in excitement at a copse of crabapples.
“You’ve got a very special bird here!” a woman told me. “It’s a fieldfare!” She pointed as a robin-sized bird with a white breast and mottled reddish-brown plumage flew from thecrabapples across Dark Acres to the cottonwoods lining the Clark Fork.
Fieldfares aren’t native to Montana. In fact, they’re not native to North America. Turdus pilaris
is an omnivorous member of the thrush family common in the summer from Norway to central Siberia. It eats insects in the summer and ripe berries such as the pomes of hawthorns in the fall. In the winter it migrates in noisy flocks to southern Europe, India, southern China and North Africa. Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon for “traveler through the fields.”
How did it make its way to Dark Acres? It was probably blown off course, one of the birders told me. I tried to imagine the journey, and plotted a possible route. It flies with its mates from the river Aldan in Siberia for points south. But along the way it’s caught in a storm and loses its bearing. It touches down in Alaska for food and rest, then instinctively heads south.
The sighting of this rarity was a highlight of the Five Valleys Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, conducted by volunteers every year on a single day inside a twenty-five mile zone around Missoula. (photo by Gordon Yates
) (20 December 2015)
Into thin air.
On Dec. 14 the daily Missoulian
published a letter from former University of Montana President George Dennison asking Missoula Mayor John Engen to clarify his remarks published on Dec. 8 about how current UM president Royce Engstrom has been “cleaning up messes” that he inherited when he was appointed President in 2010. Dennison’s letter appeared briefly in the online edition of the newspaper, then disappeared. Of course, very little that’s uploaded to the internet evaporates. Here's the full text of Dennison’s letter
. (15 December 2015)
The editors of the Missoulian,
struggling to prevent the paper from being sucked into its own news hole, have embarked on two strategies to fill the growing spaces between its occasional print ads.
First, its dwindling staff of reporters is encouraged to write more than is necessary when covering stories that are easy to report. For example, on Jan. 3 the paper carried an interview with the new CEO of Missoula’s Community Hospital. The questions were softball, and the answers were self-serving. This lard-packed article ran to more than 1700 words. It deserved no more than 800 words, and would have been more appropriate as a ghost-written guest column.
Second, the Missoulian
and its four sister dailies in Montana owned by the Lee Corporation republish one another’s stories and pass them off as their own. For example, on Jan. 5 the Missoulian
ran a piece about Ryan Payne, a denizen of Anaconda, one of the leaders of the armed thugs who invaded Federal buildings in Oregon last week. The reporter, who works for the Montana Standard
in Butte, did no original research for the story, instead quoting news sources such as the New York Times
In an embarrassing moment for the Missoulian
she also quoted a 2014 article published by the paper’s arch-nemesis, the weekly Missoula Independent.
Rather than identifying the reporter as an employee of another newspaper, the Missoulian’
s byline said "Renata Birkenbuel for the Missoulian." (6 January 2016)
Revenge is a dish that's yummy however it's served. Last May newspaper conglomerate Lee Enterprises shuttered its state bureau in Helena, Montana, and turned out to pasture the bureau’s veteran political reporters, Charles Johnson and Mike Dennison. Johnson retired from journalism and accepted an appointment to the board of the Montana Historical Society. Dennison landed a job with the eight-station Montana Television Network.
Using his contacts in state government he developed while working for Lee, which had decided it couldn’t afford his salary, on Dec. 11 Dennison detailed a rift between Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Angela McClean, who has announced her resignation as Bullock’s Lieutenant Governor. Dennison obtained emails sent between Bullock and McClean that illustrate their strained relationship. (Although the emails indicated that she was locked out of her official Twitter account and excluded from Bullock’s brain trust meetings, one reason Bullock may have compelled her to resign was the possibility that she might become a political liability. David McClean, her father-in-law and her husband Mike’s law partner in Anaconda, Montana, was sentenced Dec. 3 to forty-two months in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud and identity theft. Bullock is up for reelection in 2016.)
Bullock's office ignored Lee's requests to see these emails, and Lee's newspapers in Montana were forced to base their covernage on MTN's scoop. Like a hungry beagle, the Missoulian
whined miserably. “Attempts to reach Bullock’s chief legal counsel, Andy Huff, who earlier acknowledged receiving Lee’s request, at the Capitol on Friday were not successful, nor were attempts to work with Bullock’s staff Friday to get the documents.” (12 December 2015)
Uncivil Discourse. The Montana Standard
has announced that on Jan. 1 the newspaper’s online edition will no longer carry anonymous comments. A Lee Enterprises paper that publishes in Butte, Montana, the Standard says that not only will it cease giving a forum to people hiding behind pseudonyms, it will retroactively change these phony names in its comments sections to real names. If writers want their fake names removed from the Standard
’s online portal they will have to petition the newspaper by Dec. 26.
Although we are sometimes amused by the angry ravings of hooded commentators at missoulian.com, especially the reactionary and undereducated walter12 and his bunkmate, Miss Perfect, we believe anonymous speech has no place in publications we expect to be transparent. This includes not only the Missoulian
but also political blogs such as Montana Cowgirl and 4&20blackbirds. (9 November 2015)
On the morning of Dec. 7 Missoula television station KECI broke the story about an email sent to parents that included a sixteen-page attachment containing the highly confidential psychiatric, medical, criminal, disciplinary and attendance records of hundreds of students attending Hellgate High School. Calling the incident a “data breach,” administrators at the school called some parents and asked them to delete this explosive email without reading it. Instead, one parent presented it to KECI. The station’s story was picked up by the Associated Press that afternoon and published in the Great Falls Tribune
and the Billings Gazette
and other papers around the country. It wasn’t until 7pm that missoulian.com posted something about the incident.
The Superintendent of Missoula Public Schools held a terse and self-serving seven-minute “news conference” on Dec. 8, during which he read a statement warning parents and others not to disclose the contents of the email, which was intended simply to recount events at a Dec. 3 meeting called to discuss the school’s disintegrating football program. That afternoon NBCMontana.com, KECI's website, carried an article about the news conference and posted the Superintendent’s entire statement. The Missoulian
didn’t get around to this until several hours later.
In subsequent posts NBCMontana.com has published interviews with students about their reactions to the “breach.” And the station interviewed a lawyer about the legal problems Hellgate and school district administrators might face. As of 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, missoulian.com has not posted anything new about the situation. Meanwhile, KECI reported that the contents of the attachment have spread all over town.
endorsed a pair of $158 million bond issues the school system wanted voters to pass in November (which they did), and devoted a series of articles trumpeting the expensive needs of Missoula’s schools while giving opponents of the bonds almost no coverage at all. (10 December 2015)
Eliminate a trade school, save a university.
By most economic measures journalism is one of the most useless degrees a student can earn. According to The Daily Beast,
over the next five years journalism will offer its graduates less opportunity to get a job than any of the other dozen fields of study on
the website’s list of worthless degrees, which includes religious studies, fine arts and philosophy. A graduate in journalism from a public college who somehow manages to find a job as a reporter will see only a 58 percent return on his (or his parents’) investment, according to salary.com
. And bankrate.com
reports that it will take twenty-two years for a reporter, news analyst or correspondent to pay off the student loans that financed his degree.
There are even some prominent journalists who argue that journalism school is a waste of time. Rolling Stone
writer Matt Taibbi
said “I don’t know what they actually teach there, cause you can learn the whole business in three days.” Speaking to the New Republic
, Joel Achenbach, a Washington Post
writer, said “Whenever I hear someone went to journalism school I immediately assume they are inferior in one way or another. All we do is ask questions and type and occasionally turn a phrase. Why do you need to go to school for that?” New Yorker
writer Katherine Boo agrees. “It’s just a huge hoax. I think how you become a journalist is that you write. You don’t see any correlation between journalistic education and an ability to write a story. When you get a great piece, and you call the person to see who he is, he never says ‘Oh I just came from journalism school.’”
This leads us to the budget woes of our alma mater, the University of Montana. UM’s president announced on Nov. 24 that 201 full-time staff and faculty positions will have to be eliminated because of falling enrollment. We suggest that this budget shortfall could be addressed by eliminating the School of Journalism and leasing its lavish but unattractive building to the private sector. (BV, 29 November 2015)
The worst job in America.
Journalism enrollment at the University of Montana has dropped a staggering 48 percent since 2008, according to census figures compiled by the UM Office of Planning, Budgeting and Analysis. In 2008 there were 482 undergraduates enrolled in journalism, pre-journalism, radio-tv and pre radio-tv; in the fall of 2015 this figure was 250. The decline reflects a national trend away from the pursuit of a journalism degree. The reasons are low pay, job security, and workplace stress.
According to glassdoor.com
, reporters working for Lee Enterprises, a corporation that owns five daily newspapers in Montana, are paid as little as $13.64 per hour, which works out to an annual salary of slightly more than $28,000. Veteran reporters and editors and routinely forced to take buyouts of their contracts so that their relatively expensive salaries can be replaced by lower wages paid to journalists with less experience. According to careercast.com
, the worst job in America of two-hundred jobs the website rated is not prison guard or lumberjack, but newspaper reporter. (25 October 2015)
Police id body.
Nbcmontana.com reports that police have identified the dead woman discovered Dec. 21 in the Super 8 Motel on Brooks Street in Missoula as Lonette Keehner. In 2003 the Missoula Independent
newspaper wrote about a Lonette Keehner, a housekeeper at the Super 8 on Brooks, preparing to compete in the Super 8 Regional Bedmaking Competition in Cour d’Alene, Idaho. While training for the event with another housekeeper Keehner made a bed in one of the motel’s rooms in under two minutes. The Independent
quoted Keehner as saying: “You can practice all you want, but once you’re up there and everything, it’s a whole different story, and it’s just how you do your bed at that moment, you know. It’s how the sheet falls.” (22 December 2015)
One of the most expensive places in America to raise a child is Montana. According to a financial website called gobankingrates.com, because of the high cost of food, housing, and child care coupled with a low average income and the fact that state law doesn’t mandate any parental leave policies for working parents, the Treasure State ranks fourth behind Hawaii, New York and New Mexico. In Missoula County the financial burden of raising a family will become even heavier when property taxes and rents are jacked up to pay for two recent school bonds totaling $158 million. (11 November 2015)
Alarming portrait of obsession.
Players clearing snow December 6 from the tennis courts at the University of Montana. (7 December 2015)
What’s the lowest form of art?
Included on the short list would have to be karaoke
. As would photo manipulation
, especially when the process is employed in Photoshop to mash together several images into a new montage.
Also, oil-on-canvas paintings produced by a hundred artists employed by the Lysee Art Limited factory in Xiamen, China. These are hand-painted copies
of the work of not only masters such as Van Gogh and Goya, but contemporary painters, as well. Lysee will also produce custom paintings from your photo or poster. Prices vary mostly according to the size of the canvas. For example, you can buy a three-by-four-foot copy of one of Cezanne’s 1890s series, The Card Players
, for a mere $140. Once you’ve got it mounted on the wall of your den, it might strike you that it needs a nice companion piece, say a copy of Bold Bluff
, one of Cassius Coolidge’s paintings of dogs playing poker, commissioned by a Minnesota ad agency in 1903.
But for our tastes, the very lowest form of art is the book reading
. You write a book, and then hype it by appearing in a bookstore or some other literary venue to read an excerpt to a few people, who are then obligated to buy a copy, which you will sign.
Depressed by the cultural poverty of this scene, some writers have said never again. Unless you’ve been smitten by the sound of your own voice why read your work to people who know how to read?
Some years ago I drove from Dark Acres to the Great Falls Public Library for one of these events. Initially, the only person who showed up was my sister. But eventually a half-dozen very old people shuffled into the room and suffered through my reading of an essay about a strange sport the Dutch love called mudwalking
. When I finished they looked confused, and were escorted back into a van and returned to their rooms in a nursing home. No one bought a book. Another entourage had been planning to attend, a writing class taught by an old college friend, but on his way to class he was arrested and jailed for failing to pay a series of speeding tickets. (14 November 2015)
In response to the World Health Organization’s warning Oct. 26 that red and processed meat can cause cancer, American carnivores rushed to feed their bacon to the dogs and, holding their noses, scurried to stock up on kale. Red meat, said the report from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, is classified as “Group 2A,” meaning it’s probably carcinogenic to humans. “The classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer,” the report concluded, adding that cooking meat over flames or on very hot surfaces compounds the risk.
Maybe. However, we’re reminded of a 1979 report from the World Health Organization concluding that acupuncture was effective in treating some twenty maladies including tennis elbow, angina and migraines. This was followed up by a 2003 report from WHO maintaining that there were actually ninety-one conditions that can be successfully treated with acupuncture, ranging from morning sickness to serious maladies such as stoke. This conclusion, like WHO’s warning about meat, was based on a summary study of clinical trials.
Critics have torn these reports to shreds, basing their scorn on major errors in method. For one, the study included too many clinical trials, some of which poorly designed and skewed the conclusions. For example, in the treatment of addiction WHO concluded that acupuncture was effective. This was based largely on trials conducted in China. When trials were conducted the West the results indicated that acupuncture in the treatment of addiction was largely worthless. Chinese researchers, critics said, had succumbed to publication bias. The Oxford-based Cochrane Collaboration, which compiled and analyzed the results of hundreds of well-designed clinical trials (meaning that they were double-blind and employed placebos), concluded that there’s no significant evidence that acupuncture is of any use in treating Bell’s palsy, whiplash injury and some twenty-three other serious and less serious conditions, including epilepsy, glaucoma and acute stroke. (5 November 2015)
rolled out its new website last week to a chorus of boos. While the newspaper trumpeted its online edition as “interactive, immediate, visual and dynamic” readers complained that it’s “awkward, annoying, garish, and horrible.” Plus, they said, it looks like a video game. Local developers had nothing to do with the redesign—this came top-down from Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based parent corporation of the Missoulian and four other daily newspapers in Montana plus forty-nine papers across our land ‘tis of thee. The site was developed by a company called TownNews.com, which uses a template-driven approach to online portals called Blox Content Management System. TownNews.com is wholly owned by Lee, and was born twenty-five years ago in the back shop of the Bigfork Eagle
in Montana, which is now owned by Warren Buffett. The only other Lee paper in Montana using Blox so far is the Billing Gazette
, which explains why its website is the Missoulian’s
One of the problems with missoulian.com is the design’s requirement that an image must accompany every headline. The result is a confusion of photos, some of them stock images that lend nothing to the story. For example, an article about the Montana Supreme Court hearing medical marijuana arguments is wedded to a photo of, well, marijuana. Does anyone not know what hemp looks like? Also, the subscription price for a website few readers like is too expensive—$12 per month, compared to $6.95 for access to bozemandailychronicle.com.
According to the Missoula Independent
a previous incarnation of missoulian.com was built on code stolen
without attribution from the Roanoake, Virginia Times
(4 November 2015)
Valley of the Liberals.
The Rattlesnake Valley on the north edge of Missoula is one of the wealthiest non-gated neighborhoods in Montana. The McMansions sweep up the narrow valley for four miles, flanking Rattlesnake Creek from Interstate 90 to the edge of the Lolo National Forest. Dennis Washington, one of the richest men in Montana, owns an enormous home here with its own small lake. There are three private tennis courts in the Rattlesnake and fifteen swimming pools. The valley also boasts two of the prettiest parks in the state. Curiously, considering the Rattlesnake’s affluence, in the 2014 general election voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate and Montana’s lone seat in Congress. There is one public elementary school in the Rattlesnake and two private schools, including the Missoula International School, offering K-8 Spanish immersion classes. There is one church, and one grocery store/restaurant. (16 November 2015)Overpaid? On Nov. 4 Missoula County elections administrator Rebecca Connors told Russ Thomas at KPAX news that she didn’t anticipate that there would be any recounts of the ballots for the Missoula school bonds. On the same day she told Jon King of KGVO radio that there will “very likely” be at least one recount. At 9:30 on the night of the Nov. 3 election she told the media that there were still 1,100 ballots to be counted. In fact, that number was actually 2,523, and it took six hours after the polls closed to count them. Connors was appointed in 2014 by the Missoula County Commissioners to be a full-time elections administrator for a three-year term. This is a new position that was created when the Missoula County Clerk and Recorder complained about a workload that included but was not limited to issuing marriage licenses, in addition to overseeing elections. Connors’ annual salary is $76,336. (6 November 2015)
A tale of two cities.
The siege to convince Missoula County voters that they should tax themselves $158 million to fund an extensive wish list of elementary and high school “improvements” is similar to—and also quite different—than the efforts behind a $70 million school bond turned down resoundingly on June 18 by voters in Helena, Montana.
• Invest in Missoula Schools, the Political Action Committee supporting the bond, has received large donations from several corporations; most of the money given to Yes for Helena Kids were modest contributions from individuals and small businesses.
• The Helena PAC hired a campaign manager for $4500 to oversee a group of volunteers; according to its initial finance report the Missoula PAC paid a national public relations company called M+R almost $38,000 to run its school bond campaign.
• In Helena, opposition to the bond was widespread and organized—a PAC called All Kids Matter convinced voters that the bond would contribute to urban sprawl by giving money to schools on the fringes of the city and denying downtown schools significant funds for renovation. In Missoula, evidence of opposition to the bond is demonstrated by a few grumpy letters-to-the-editor.
• The daily Missoulian
endorsed the bonds, and has contributed thousands of dollars worth of free advertising by extensively covering the “needs” of every school on the District’s list of supposedly blighted structures. The Helena Independent Record
sponsored a debate on the issue in which the opposition demolished the bond's proponents. (31 October 2015)
A Halloween memorial for Josh Carter, who lost his life in 2012 in a single-vehicle accident on Pulp Mill Road near his Frenchtown, Montana home.
Follow the money.
Invest in Missoula Schools, the political committee that is trying to convince voters to approve a pair of costly bonds to fund construction projects, reports that it has raised almost $58,000 in contributions. The committee has spent almost $40,000 of that amount and says it has almost $17,000 left in the bank. The financial report
, which was required by law to be filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices on Oct. 22, lists major contributions from Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula ($20,000). Washington Corporation ($10,000), whose companies are involved in the construction business, among other things; Beach Transportation ($10,000), which has a contract to operate Missoula school buses, and MEA-MFT, Montana’s teacher union ($3,000).
Missoula County Public Schools is asking voters to tax themselves $158,000 over the next twenty years in order the pay for an extensive wish list of construction projects. The bonds would add $200 per year onto the property taxes of the median home in Missoula County.
Listed among those contributing smaller amounts to the campaign are employees of the WGM Group, a civil engineering firm in Missoula, Morrison-Malerie, Inc. an engineering and design firm, Jackson Contractor Group, which builds structures, and a gaggle of lawyers and “consultants.”
The Committee spent most of the money contributed to it during the reporting period to a national public relations company called M+R. The firm’s website says “M+R is 100 smart people who help nonprofits achieve real, lasting change. We mobilize supporters, raise money, and move the media, the public, and decision-makers.” (23 October 2015)
Because the two bonds Missoula County school trustees want voters to approve Nov. 3 are extensive wish lists containing several dubious line items, we think these measures should be turned down and sent back to the drawing board. After all, you can still vote for a candidate whose platform contains a thing or two you don’t like, but you don’t have to support a budget that is flawed in any way because budgets were made to be rewritten. Here are some suggestions for bringing these bond requests into the realm of reality:
1. The Missoula district football stadium doesn’t need artificial turf
2. Seeley-Swan High School can get by without a theatre and performing arts space
3. Because Paxson Elementary was torn down and completely rebuilt only twenty-three years ago it will function fine without any physical improvements save for $150,000 to beef up its security
4. C.S. Porter Middle School doesn’t need a new music wing
5. Washington Middle School doesn’t need to remodel its library, music space and cafeteria
6. The performing arts classrooms at Sentinel High School don’t have to be moved closer to the theater. Let them walk.
7. The Vocational Agriculture Center doesn’t need to spend $100,000 on a meat processing kitchen, which some voters believe constitutes an effort to compete with local farmers and ranchers by facilitating the butchering animals raised by students and then selling the product for a profit.
In addition, no site for the proposed construction of a new Cold Springs Elementary School has been chosen, meaning that the cost of the land has not been determined. Voters should not be asked to approve vague what-ifs. Also, the $23.7 million price tag for improvements to Hellgate High is excessive. For example, the school will likely continue to excel academically without a “well-defined front entrance and office.”
Although the property taxes on an average home in Missoula County will go up more than $200 a year for twenty years if these measures pass, school trustees have not voiced any official concern for people living on fixed incomes. Not so the case in the neighboring Frenchtown School District, which is asking voters for $750,000 spread out over five years to fix roofs and boilers. According to the Missoulian
, the chair of the Frenchtown school board, Debbie Lester, said the district isn’t asking for more money than it absolutely needs. School officials, she said, understand the effect property tax increases will have on people with fixed incomes.
Some people on fixed incomes are about to take another hit. There will not be a cost of living increase in Social Security payments in 2016 because the price of gasoline has fallen so low. For some 30 percent of recipients in Missoula County that means their Medicare Part B premiums will go up because the annual cost of living increases have traditionally covered any rise in the cost of premiums, which are typically subtracted from Social Security checks. (23 October 2015)
Vote no on school bonds.
As my ancestors and their neighbors in County Waterford knew full well, you don’t need a fine building to educate children. In fact, you don’t need a building at all. After the English and their Irish Protestant lackeys imposed a series of Penal Laws on the island’s majority that included a ban on Catholic schools, people sent their kids to what were known as “hedge schools.” These were clandestine classes sometimes held outdoors behind the concealment of thorny hedges. Thousands of people learned Irish grammar, English, Latin, history and math in this manner.
So we have to wonder who’s going to profit if Missoula County Schools manages to convince voters to approve two bonds totaling $158 million that are intended to repair and refurbish school buildings, all in the name of improving “education.” These expensive upgrades include a performing arts and theater space for tiny Seeley-Swan High School, whose enrollment is only 116. Other “improvements” include a $3 million replacement of grass with artificial turf at Missoula’s district football stadium. Almost $24 million would be lavished on Hellgate High, the largest sum in this scheme earmarked for one school. We assumed that officials determined that Hellgate needs this much money because it is graduating the under-educated. But in fact U.S. News and World Report
puts Hellgate in the top eight percent of public high schools in America, ranking it at number 1,746 of 21,000, and awarding its educational programs a silver medal. Indeed, Hellgate was ranked the third best of the 166 high schools in Montana (behind Bozeman and Red Lodge).
We will disappoint architects, contractors and school district bureaucrats by voting against these bonds, not because we don’t have children or grandchildren, but because we believe this is a waste of taxpayer money. The bonds would cost the average Missoula County property owner $243 every year for twenty years for a total of almost $5,000. Add to that the potential for yet another bond proposal next year, this one to build a new $35 million library in Missoula, and we begin to understand what our conservative friends are talking about when they rail against tax-and-spend liberals. We want it! And we want you to pay for it!
(By the way, if you rent rather than own you won't be spared because landlords will pass on the property tax increase to their renters.)
We say if you want to improve public education spend money on teachers and books, not security cameras and light switches. (13 October 2015)
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)
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 www.atabase.info 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 livability.com'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 bettendorf.com. 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 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.
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.
Despite the bad press fraternity and sororities
are not going away.
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. (12 April 2015)
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.
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. (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. (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. (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. 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.) (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.
Buyer beware: Saltwater masquerading as medicine
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. (14 February 2015)
. So called “multi-level marketing” companies pay their sales force not only for the stuff they sell but also for the work of other salespeople they recruit. The theory is that the higher up on the feeding order you climb—as you recruit bottom feeders who then recruit bottom feeders beneath them
—the more money as a sales “associate” you’re likely to make. But most of these business plans are unstable, and the products are often no more than snake oil. Plus, because of the high sales resistance “associates” encounter, the work is ridiculously time-consuming, and the lower echelons often make little or no money at all. Like “Needlenose” Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day
they become obnoxious street corner buttonholers who prey on their families and couch their messages on social media with born-again bullshit about the “Creator” in order to hustle people in the congregations they join.
And despite their serial failures some people become addicted to these pyramid schemes, believing that someday they’ll get in on the ground floor of one that will finally make them rich. They stand a better chance of winning a lottery. Most pyramid schemes are built on selling health products whose efficacy has never been validated. We know people who have sold, or tried to sell all of these scams: Amway water filters, Herbalife multivitamins, copper bracelets for the treatment of arthritis, and magnets to promote healing. Then they hawked Melaleuca products, which claim all sorts of medical benefits, none of which have been tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Despite promising that their stuff “supports” everything from prostate to cardiovascular “health” Melaleuca’s labels are required by law to state that “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” (To be fair, the company also sells tea tree oil, an extract from an Australian shrub called Melaleuca alternafolia
that’s a proven anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent;
but you can buy this substance most anywhere.)
Pyramid junkies are now mainlining on a company called ASEA. Based in Utah and owned by Mormon businessmen with no scientific training, this is the weirdest of them all. The company takes municipal water, adds salt and runs an electric current through it. Bam! Fountain of Youth! This whore of a product is dressed in the fine clothes of science. One of the hottest topics in molecular biology right now is redox signaling. This is a range of chemical reactions produced when certain short-lived molecules generated by the mitochondria and other organelles in plant and animal cells race around telling the rest of the cell and other cells what to do. These activities include tissue repair, the transfer of energy, immune responses, and scavenging, the chemical reaction in which cancer-causing molecules called free radicals are neutralized before they can erode cell walls. ASEA claims that the human body produces smaller amounts of redox signals as it ages. So you should drink the company’s expensive saltwater because it’s chock full of these awesome molecules, and you’ll become a better athlete and live longer. However, actual redox signals in the body exist for only a few milliseconds before their job is done, and cannot be “stabilized,” as the company claims. ASEA water has never been validated by a single double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In the end there’s simply no scientific evidence that this stuff will do anything except drain your bank account. (28 Januray 2015)