Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Voting to fail

It is a few days now after our national presidential election where our country selected Donald Trump as our 45th President. The metaphorical dust is still settling, and likely will be for some time as people react to a new President like none before, a brash businessman with literally zero political experience or national service. In our deeply divided nation, some people are ecstatic right now while others are fearful, depressed, and unhappy.

While we all desire a better future, a stronger, more just and prosperous nation, I’m struck by the inescapable fact that we come upon our voting decisions in a variety of ways, reflecting our upbringing, lifestyle situation, and values. People can and should select the candidate who best represents them; that’s what living in a free country is all about. But oftentimes, those decisions harm them economically.

Three years ago when I was campaigning for the House of Delegates, I spoke with hundreds of voters. Every one of them who called themselves “single issue voters,” was devoted to the same issue: abortion. One woman said, “If you’ll allow a woman to get a legal abortion, I’m not voting for you.” I said, “If I can describe an economic plan that will make your family and your community more successful, would you re-consider?” “No.” All she cared about was abortion. This was her prerogative. She was willing to sacrifice prosperity to ensure that women who had abortions would be punished.

Another man I spoke to was a rigid gun rights adherent. In a similar conversation, he acknowledged, somewhat reluctantly, that preservation of his right, and the rights of other gun owners, to have unfettered and unrestricted access to any level of firepower they desired, was more important than living in an economically prosperous community.

I’ve just released my eighth book, Chasing the Powhatan Arrow. It is what I describe as “a travelogue in economic geography,” following the corridor of the original main line of the Norfolk & Western railway and the iconic passenger train that plied the route from the end of WWII until the late 1960s. In it, I compared the economy then to now in the towns and cities where it stopped: Norfolk, Suffolk, Petersburg, Blackstone, Crewe, Farmville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Christiansburg and Pearisburg in Virginia, Bluefield, Welch, Williamson, and Kenova in West Virginia, and Ironton, Portsmouth, and Cincinnati in Ohio. Many of these communities are successful economically. Others are spectacular failures.

Here’s what I learned: communities choose to failure or success.

I’m not making a value judgment about this. On a personal level, for example, people can make health decisions to fail. Everybody knows that smoking kills people prematurely. If someone wants to smoke, it’s their call.

Here are a couple of examples of how communities have chosen failure.

West Virginia’s economy has long been undergirded by coal mining, including many of the communities I studied. Employment in mining has been on an unsteady but terminal decline for six decades. Mr. Trump told West Virginians that he’d bring back mining. Coal’s demise is based upon a number of factors, but principally geologic. Succinctly, natural gas and western coal are cheaper per BTU to extract and deliver. Nobody can change that. But West Virginians overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Trump and his empty promises anyway.

President Reagan is a hero to many conservatives, but his policies – the decimation of unions, the deregulation of many industries, his “trickle-down” economics and its tax cuts for the wealthy, weakening of regulations, and the overall denigration of government at all levels – paved the way to middle class stagnation that we’re seeing today. Graphs showing the point where steadily increasing productivity and wages diverged as productivity continued to rise where wages flattened, coincides exactly with Reaganism. Thought to be a great champion of enterprise, Reagan actually advocated policies that destroyed the middle class and seriously hurt all American businesses. Even with this hindsight, I’m convinced if he were alive and eligible, millions would vote for him anyway.

When we look today at the red/blue maps that show how Americans voted this week, we see that the most economically prosperous states with the highest per capita income voted Democratic and the poorest voted Republican. It is a fact that the most successful economic states in America right now (e.g. Maryland, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut) are the most liberal and the most economically depressed (e.g. Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee) are the most conservative. This is not coincidental. It is the result of many factors, but decades of voting decisions are a big part of it.

It’s frustrating to me when someone chooses economic failure just as it’s frustrating when someone chooses to smoke. But it’s their decision.




* * Virginia Tech’s Cube may be the world’s most futuristic theater

So the other day, I got invited to the Cube in the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech. My mind is blown.

The Cube is a research laboratory and performance “space” that combines a series of futuristic technologies to build virtual environments. It is run by the Institute of Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), a multi-disciplinary center that is an inter-departmental, inter-college bridge between music, arts, and engineering.

Succinctly, it’s a five-story tall black-box theater in the round, where viewers stand in the middle of a cylindrical wall and view that wall through 3-D glasses while sound and music from 148 speakers is focused at them. I watched as geometric and nature-inspired figures danced before my eyes almost as if I could touch them. I could walk away from the virtual placement of one figure towards another. It was psychedelic!

One of the technologies at the Cube is optical motion capture. What that means is that a real being, human or animal, can be affixed with electronic “markers” that infrared motion cameras can watch and then digitally monitor their motion. When you walk, it can model your walk. It’s used in biomechanics and in video games to make them more realistic.

Imagine walking through a 3-D virtual space, something as mundane as walking through a building that hasn’t been constructed yet, but as exciting as walking on Mars, through an atomic supercollider, or through a simulated tornado. You can see yourself in pedagogical visualizations of sub-atomic particles flying around!

It also has spatial audio component. With directionality of sound at three stories of speakers, each person in the Cube can literally hear a different concert, reminiscent of the old proverb about every person seeing a different rainbow.

After my brief demonstration, I spoke with Eric Lyon, a music professor who is one of the lead researchers in the Cube.

He said, “I’m a faculty fellow, splitting my time between the music department and ICAT. I spend a lot of time developing audio systems, software, and composition to take this beast for a ride.”

“What do you expect from this beast?” I asked.

“We know that sound is fundamentally a three-dimensional phenomenon. Sound radiates out into space and each listener’s ear receives the sound waves in a different way. Even a single loudspeaker’s sound becomes a three-dimensional artifact in your ears. Here, we have a high-density array of speakers. We can control the sound field with precision. We can put sound wherever we want to create movement in space. The sound is sculptural! You can move around the room and hear something different depending on your location in the Cube. We encourage guests to do that. It’s a highly interactive listening process.”

“Other than this being really fun,” I asked innocently, “why?”

“This is an alternative media delivery space. These days, much of our performance arrives over the Internet: news, YouTube videos, television, sports. Home viewing is personal and non-immersive. Here in the Cube, we can provide a group, immersive experience that is completely engaging to the point that you don’t want to leave. It’s like being enveloped in a warm bath. It’s a social experience, as you share it with others. It’s not a stadium, it’s intimate.

“The idea of spatial sound exists on many levels. There is a concept called binaural sound, which recreates spatial sounds or music for headphone listening. Here at the Cube, we are concerned with music played through many loudspeakers. There is a lot of research into personal reception of sound. Psychoacoustics is the study of the human perception of sound. You can distinguish sound coming from in front of you compared to sound coming from behind. Technologies have evolved from monaural to stereo to commercial surround sound to higher-density surround. In the Cube, we have a high-density loudspeaker array. There are perhaps only 10 to 15 like this in the world. We expect more to come, but Tech is on the leading edge.

“We need to prove the validity of our ability to create theater experiences that don’t exist anywhere else. We have to prove it is intense enough and of sufficient artistic value and sufficiently distinguishable from what you can get in other spaces to justify it.

“Our research into audio is likely to intersect with some other creative trajectories. Here at Tech, we have brilliant engineering and scientific minds to collaborate with and accentuate the skills we have in music and the performing arts. The density of engineering and scientific expertise here makes it a sensible place to have a space like the Cube.

“I’ve been here three years. I love Blacksburg! Seriously, this is such a nice place. The people are the nicest in the world. The Cube is here at Virginia Tech because we Invent the future.”




* * Fixing our elections

By the time you read this, hopefully Election Day will soon be upon us and blissfully this worst-election-in-our-lifetimes will be over. The refrain I hear most often is that, “With 320,000,000 people in this country, how could we have ever ended up with two worse candidates?” Esteemed television newsman Bob Schieffer said following the October 9 debate, “I just hope to God I don’t see another campaign like this one. America can do better than what we have seen here tonight. This was just disgraceful.”

Hopefully we’ve reached the nadir, but I have my doubts. The system under which we nominate and elect people at both statewide and national levels is deeply flawed. We need a systematic way to fix it.

The first problem we have is that our districts are gerrymandered to such a degree that representatives are picking their voters and not the other way around. For those representatives picked by districts here in Virginia, the U.S. Congress and our state House of Delegates, there is almost never any competition. When I ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates three years ago, out of 100 seats, there were 88 incumbents running. 86 were re-elected. A year ago, not a single incumbent was defeated. The problem with this, for example in congressional races, is that an incumbent’s greatest challenge is typically not from the opposition party but from his own. Consider the case of Eric Cantor, a strong conservative who was ousted in the primary by an even more conservative challenger. This forces representatives to cater to the most extreme wings of their parties. We need non-partisan districting.

Adding to the advantage of incumbency is the extreme disparity in fund-raising opportunities. To illustrate this, as I write, 9th District Congressman Morgan Griffith is being challenged by Army veteran Derek Kitts. To date, Griffith has amassed $636,507 to Kitts’ $23,154. This is not a typo. Griffith’s endless pit of money is put there largely by corporations, political action groups, and lobbyists. There is no doubting whom he truly represents. We must overturn Citizens United and impose strict campaign finance laws that return our representatives to servants of real, breathing human people.

Our elections are relics of an earlier era, making voting far more difficult than it needs to be. Today we have a single day to vote (other than absentee voting, which requires an excuse), and it’s on a working day. This puts undue stress on working people. All voting is vulnerable to fraud, but with the great minds our country possesses, I’m certain we could devise a safe, trustworthy Internet based system where people could vote anywhere they have computer access. Why not an Election Month instead of an Election Day? We need to make voting as easy as possible rather than as difficult.

Speaking of relics, our system of “winner-take-all” elections is producing results that our Founding Fathers would have never intended. Today, to win an election, a candidate merely needs one more vote than his or her opponent. While this is simple and makes logical sense, it produces legislatures that are not representative of the people. John Adams once said our country’s legislatures “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” Right now, ours are emphatically not. Consider our state’s 10 westernmost districts. Overall, we may find a Republican majority of voters at around 60%. Even with non-partisan redistricting, each could easily select a Republican winner. Ideally, 60% of the delegates would be Republican and 40% Democrat. The situation exists in the reverse in Democratic-rich areas. Modern scientific voting techniques such as proportional representation voting yield results that are more representative of the people.

Finally, our Electoral College system, another relic of an earlier age, makes no sense in the modern world. How could we ever justify a Presidential candidate winning more votes and then losing the election?

One of the most disheartening comments I got while running was from a Christiansburg woman who said, “I never vote; my vote doesn’t matter.” Sad to say, she’s right; in most contests her vote doesn’t matter. Today’s systems drive away potential voters in the millions nationally.

The rise in this Presidential cycle of “protests candidates” is indicative of the dissatisfaction and anger of voters who know they are not being represented. A happy, potentially positive outcome of this most disgraceful and agonizing cycle is that our attention might be directed to fixing the process. Otherwise, we’re doomed to face even more rancorous and unbecoming elections in the future. 



* * Loving the place you live

Melody Warnick is where she belongs. And she wrote a new book about living in and loving Blacksburg. I met her recently and was enthralled by her story. In fact, the title of the book is This is Where You Belong: The art and science of loving the place you live.*

She said, “I wrote the book because I’d been moving around a lot for jobs and graduate school. My husband and I had lived in Iowa, Maryland, and Utah. We were living in Austin, Texas. We weren’t too satisfied with it. It was hot and there was too much traffic. We had heard about Blacksburg from a friend in Iowa, and he raved about it. So when an opportunity came up for my husband at Virginia Tech, he applied, got the job, and we moved here.  

“We told the friend that we liked Iowa. He said, ‘This town is nice, but it’s no Blacksburg, Virginia!’ He was born and raised here and was a huge fan. He talked it up in such a way that it lodged in our brains that Blacksburg was Mecca. He was so loyal to Blacksburg and loved it so much that no other place could compare.

“We’d never been here. We had high hopes. When you move, you have a fresh start. You anticipate being a different person and your life will be amazing! We got here in 2012 and it was a rough start. It was rainy. People said ‘We call it “Bleaksburg.”’ We were used to living in places with amazing restaurants and there weren’t as many here. The library wasn’t as big. We were thinking we’d made a huge mistake. I was thinking we’d move again in a couple of years. But I realized I didn’t want to keep doing that. It wasn’t fair to keep uprooting our kids. We needed to settle someplace and be happy there. I decided to try to fall in love with my town. And that led to the book.”

I asked if there was a day when that became easy.

“There was not a single day, but there were epiphany moments. I spent a year writing. I did ‘Love where you live experiments.’ I made actions to feel more connected to the community. Eating at local restaurants. Shopping at local businesses. Going to the farmer’s market. Hiking. I remember a day when I rode bicycles with my daughter down the Huckleberry Trail to the Farmer’s Market and thinking how awesome it was. I found I’d started to love it!

“We did a hike to a local falls. It was a beautiful day. Driving home I was struck by how beautiful it is here. I started having moments of looking around and feeling lucky to be here.

“People are mobile, and they have a hard time settling. Twelve percent of the population, around 38 million people, move every year. But there are few books about it. Moving is overwhelming. Once you arrive, you can feel lost. I quoted a woman in the book who said about her new community, ‘If I was to die, nobody within 50 miles would care.’ I realized lots of people were having this experience. What was the process of feeling at home? How could someone accelerate that process?

“One of the things that helps you love the place you live is an appreciation for what it offers. There’s really lots to do (here). There are amazing people. Research has shown that small towns are easier to love and people are more attached. But there are challenges. Sometimes people feel isolated. Where are the art museums, and amusement parks? You have to rethink your idea of what to do on weekends and what entertainment is. If you consider yourself more urban, it can be hard.

“People here are incredibly friendly. People say hello to strangers. Shopkeepers are friendly and try to remember who you are. Nobody should take that for granted.”

I asked what surprised her as she worked on the book.

She said, “I was surprised at how malleable it is to change your feelings about a place. The landscape here was initially confining and claustrophobia-inducing. That was internal to me. Some people love mountains. Some love the beach. It’s who you are. But I wanted to resolve my issue with that claustrophobia. So I went hiking, canoeing, and bicycling. That experience of being in nature totally changed my feeling. By getting out in it and having fun altered my perception. You can work at changing your perceptions.

“The ideas of place attachment work everywhere. Being an active participant in your community will help you appreciate what your community is good at.”


* * Life has no dress rehearsal

Everybody loves a good romance story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. They live happily ever after. While the basics have been the same since Adam fell for Eve, the way eligible people make connections has changed with the times. Love Story in 1970. You’ve Got Mail in 1998. And now it’s Kiley Facetimes Mark in 2016.

“I turned 40 and got my divorce papers the same week,” Kiley Thompson told me as we chatted in a Blacksburg bagel shop. “My papers were finalized on October 30, 2011, and I turned 40 on November 3. People talk about chapters closing in life; that was a slamming chapter closing.”

Kiley and I have known each other for over half her life. She was a customer of mine, managing her Virginia Tech student literary magazine that my company printed. We’ve somehow managed to stay connected. She keeps up with modern trends as well as anybody I know.

“There are all kinds of apps these days for people looking to find each other on-line. Tinder. Match.com. E-Harmony.com. I live in a small town where the main demographic is between 18 and 24. I’m 44. I was a single mom.

“I was never of the opinion that I’d get married again. I tried leaving Blacksburg twice, but it didn’t work. If Blacksburg wants you, it keeps you. Dating options were few and far between. Dating a student or graduate student seemed a little creepy.

“Then this whole thing happened.”

Kiley met a guy. Mark. He lives in Scotland.

“In April, 2015, a friend named Susan who works for the Nautilus project was on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. They lowered a camera into the water and a whale buzzed it repeatedly. It was amazingly cool. A bunch of friends loved it. The video got on Facebook and went viral through Buzzfeed.”

Long story short, a friend of Susan’s saw the video and “friended” Kiley. People get friended by strangers all the time. “If he was a friend of hers, he couldn’t be too bad.

“I learned from his settings that he worked for the University of Glasgow and for CERN (the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland). Being a bit of a geek, I found that sexy. He was a single guy with a couple of kids. He was cute.

“We started talking on Facebook and did that for six months. Then we decided to Facetime. That’s video calling. I was in L.A. for work and he was in Minneapolis for a conference. Our first call lasted three hours. ‘Well, this is interesting!’ I thought to myself.

“We Facetimed more. We were flying back to our respective homes, me from L.A. to Blacksburg and he from Minneapolis to Glasgow. I sat next to a woman and told her about Mark. She said, ‘This isn’t a coincidence. This is the universe talking to you. You need to listen.’ She was an older woman flying from Phoenix to Philadelphia to Manchester. Her sister had died and she was leaving her sister’s funeral. She said, ‘I just buried my sister. Life has no dress rehearsals. You’d be a fool not to see what can happen with this. You don’t get a second chance.’ This really resonated with me.”

Simultaneously, on his flight, he sat next to two women, recent widows, going to Scotland as a memorial trip. One had met her husband 20 years earlier in an Internet chat room. “She told Mark it was the happiest 20 years of her life. She told him, ‘You have to meet her.’ We got home, immediately Facetimed each other, and told each other about what had happened, our stories. It was a vacuum kind of moment. He bought a ticket for three months later to come over and meet me.

“We wrote letters, actual snail-mail. We read to each other. We talked about our children. A month and a half into that, I couldn’t wait. I bought the most expensive airline ticket I’ve ever bought and I flew to Glasgow. It was old-school courting. But I needed to see this man in person. It was movie-like. (From the airplane,) I saw myself descending into Scotland. We landed and I stopped at the bathroom to put myself together, knowing he was in the building. What was this going to be like? He’d made a sign saying, ‘Improbably Wonderful Person Kiley Thompson.’ He ran to me and kissed me. Luggage dropped. This type of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. I’m an optimist but a realist. The only way I can explain it is that it was like falling into a space that had been created for me.”

Sadly, my word count has elapsed and there’s much more of the story to tell. Kiley and Mark are engaged to be married next springtime. Stay tuned.

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