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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

You only make progress by moving forward

    “Where you come from matters less than where you’re going” is the title I gave to the book of my essays that was published in Zimbabwe in 2011. That’s a long title, and there are those in the writing world who think book titles should be short and snappy. I don’t disagree with that generally, but I also believe they should convey a message about the contents, and my lengthy title was intended to do just that.
    It also generated a lot of comment, some negative; one critic panned it, saying that I was attempting to rewrite or erase history. That person missed my point entirely. I did not say, nor was it my intent to say, that where you come from doesn’t matter – anyone who reads the title carefully, as well as the essays contained in the book, will see that. I said that your origins matter ‘less’ than your eventual destination. Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” The essential meaning of that phrase is that time is an ever-moving stream, proceeding inexorably into the future. The past is just that, the past, it can be recalled, but never recaptured or relived. We will all get to some point in the future, but the quality of that journey will depend on whether we’ve set our sights in the right direction.
    An obsessive preoccupation with the past; using the past as an excuse for present failure; will diminish the quality of the future when it arrives. Where we come from provides the foundation from which the building of our future springs, but we can improve upon that foundation if we deal effectively with the present as we prepare for the future. Whether the past was good or bad, while it can affect us, is not all that relevant. You can’t undo the past, but by letting it anchor you too much, it can undo your future.
    We are all the captains of our own ship; the masters in the end of our own fate. Perhaps another way of putting it is “Where’re you’re going is more important than where you’ve been.”

    Sunday, December 4, 2016

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    Saturday, November 26, 2016

    The latest Al Pennyback mystery - Murder on the Menu

    Competition in the restaurant industry is cutthroat, but it’s not supposed to be literally fatal. When Al and Sandra accompany Buster Mayweather to upstate New York to attend the opening of a new restaurant by Buster’s old college friend, things take a turn for deadly when the restaurant’s head chef is found frozen to death in the freezer.
    Was it an unfortunate accident, or was the chef the victim of one of the town’s many long-standing feuds? Buster, a DC cop, is outside his jurisdiction, but when a friend’s in need, jurisdiction be damned. Al just hates to see injustice, and is a sucker for a difficult problem, and what’s more difficult than a murder with no motive, but a town full of suspects?

    Sunday, November 13, 2016

    Can Trump put the racist, misogynistic genie back into the bottle?

    In his successful run for the presidency Donald Trump activated several demographics that don’t normally play a significant role in national politics. He tapped into their anger and frustration, and ultimately won just enough Electoral College votes to be declared the winner.
    I’m not happy with the election’s outcome, but I’m willing to honor it because that’s the way our system works. The candidate who wins the Electoral College gets the job.
    The problem, though, is that among those Trump spoke to, there are those for whom his signature phrase, ‘Make American Great Again,’ means make it Anglo-Saxon again; those who aren’t satisfied that women in the workplace still make less than 90 cents for every dollar a man makes, but would, I fear, rather see them back in the situation where a woman needed her husband’s signature to get a loan or buy a car—or, even worse, when a woman was considered a minor and a ward of her father or husband.
    The problem with having activated this group, if Trump is to truly be the President for all Americans, he will have to find a way to curb their baser instincts, and prevent the violence and instability they can bring to society. This will be easier said than done I’m afraid. Already, there are signs that the cage has been opened and these feral beasts are roaming free. At the University of Pennsylvania, black students were enrolled, without their consent, in a frankly racist, and scary, Web site. There was an unverified incident where a young black woman was accosted at a gas station by four white men; called vile names, and threatened with a weapon. This might not be true, but the fact that such a story would arise is troubling enough.
    I wish I could say that these are isolated incidents, outliers that won’t be repeated. Unfortunately, this type of behavior has a stimulus effect. Just hearing about it, even if the incident was fabricated, is likely to inspire copycats.

    Trump has let this genie out of its bottle. Now, we’ll have to wait and see if he is able—or willing—to do what’s necessary to put it back in.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2016

    The world didn't end, but it might never be the same

    I went to bed last night before the results were in, but it wasn’t looking good. When I woke up this morning, my worst fears had been realized. The American electorate took leave of its senses and elected a failed businessman, con man, reality TV personality, misogynist, bully as president.
    Now, while I am not at all pleased at the outcome of this election, unlike the designated winner, I’m willing to accept the expressed will of the voters even if the candidate I supported didn’t win. That’s what American democracy is supposed to be about. Rather than bemoan the results or whine about a ‘rigged’ election, I’ll just say I hope Mr. Trump is as savvy a businessman as he claims to be and will figure out that the bombast that got him the job is totally inappropriate once he’s actually in the job.
    You see, now the real job begins. There’s the matter of staffing the administration. One can only wonder what caliber and quality of individual will step forward to serve in senior leadership positions in a Trump administration. Bullies tend to attract bullies, and I can think of a few that I worked with when I was an appointee in the George W. Bush administration who will be at the front of the line—and, heaven help the country under their stewardship. The wrong people in one or two key positions can create a lot of havoc over a four year period.
    Next is the question of how Trump will address the issues he stressed during a down and dirty campaign that appealed to the anger and frustration of a demographic of people who, angry at the ‘establishment’ for letting them down, decided to express that anger and frustration by electing him. They’ll be expecting him to address their frustrations. But, globalization and the inexorable march of technology is at the root of a lot of their problems, along with the apathy of citizens (themselves included) who sit and wait for someone else to solve their problems. I can’t think of a thing any president can really do in the short term to address these problems, and we know that Americans are not long-term thinkers. I predict that many of the core Trump supporters will be pissed at him before the first year of his administration is out.
    That’s the big issue, but there are also the specific issues he hammered home again and again, issues that he’ll have to address in one way or another or his credibility will go down the drain in a big swirl of toilet water.
    -         The Wall. A logistical and political nightmare, if not an outright impossibility, the wall between the US and Mexico (which he’ll make the Mexicans pay for) is going to come back to bite him in the ass if he doesn’t figure out a way to put it to sleep.
    -         A ban on Muslims entering the country. A policy that raises constitutional and legal questions in addition to the foreign policy imbroglio trying to implement such a ridiculous policy would unleash.
    -         Bombing the shit out of ISIS. A little shorthand there. He also said he’d support bombing members of their families and using any methods (read torture) to extract information. The military and intelligence community has already taken a beating on these issues, and I don’t think they want to go back into that barn.
    -         Make NATO countries pay more. Again, a little shorthand. As usual, he took a valid issue and wrapped it in bullying bombast. The bottom line is, we need our NATO allies as much as they need us, so using harsh, ‘my way or the highway’ language with them is just plain stupid.
    -         His relationship with Russia and Putin. A lot of questions here that need answers. One can only hope the mainstream media pulls its head out of rectal defilade and digs into it.
    -         Putting Hillary Clinton in jail. Sounding like a third world dictator, Trump averred that if he was elected, he would prosecute Clinton for unspecified crimes. This is a no-win issue that he might be better off keeping his mouth shut about.
    -         Working with Congress. His party still controls both houses of Congress, but during the campaign, he slammed them as much as he did the Democrats. Now, he has to figure out a way to work with them across a broad range of issues. I predict it’ll be like watching a pack of hyenas fighting over a wildebeest’s carcass.
    -         His own legal and credibility issues. The ‘grab them by the p***y tape,’ allegations of rape and sexual assault, the Trump University legal suit, and the many times he’s been proven to have lied. If he or any in his camp think these issues will go away now that the election is over, they are in for a hu-u-u-uge surprise.

    Watching Washington over the next four years promises to be interesting. Presidents are a target for comedians, caricaturists, and op-ed writers, and their every fault will be chronicled across the globe. A president has to have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. The American voter has just elected a man with a very thin skin who doesn’t take at all well to being attacked. In a perverse way, this will be fun to watch.

    Sunday, November 6, 2016

    Representing America abroad - a tough row to hoe

    Even a blind squirrel gets the occasional nut, and sometimes,
    it seems, out diplomatic success abroad is such a nut.
     In the 1950s and 60s, with many former colonies gaining independence (many of them in sub-Saharan Africa) and the U.S. and the USSR struggling for dominance in these newly independent countries, American diplomats faced an uphill struggle. How could the overwhelmingly white US diplomatic corps convince the governments and citizens of nonwhite nations that it had their interests at heart when at home we segregated, exploited, and lynched our own citizens of color?
    American diplomats were, nonetheless, sent abroad like sheep in wolves clothing to convince the world to support us because we knew what was best. And, regrettably, they still are.
    I spent 30 years as an American diplomat, from 1982 to 2012, and even though U.S. civil rights legislation has eliminated legal Jim Crow and there are no longer ‘legal’ barriers to advancement by people of color in America, I faced my own challenges representing my country abroad. Pushing other countries on their performance in the area of human rights is difficult when you have the level of gun violence, gender violence, and violent acts based on gender orientation that exist in the U.S.; when we have a larger percentage of our citizens in prison than any other country. When, after over 200 years of elections, we have the ‘hanging chad’ election of 2000, it is a bit embarrassing to criticize a developing country for not performing well on its third ever election.
    Despite those challenges, though, I am just glad I don’t have to represent this country abroad in 2016. The election campaign of 2016 has, in the eyes of many foreigners, undercut almost every positive image of America. We’ve seen on live TV, scenes that one would expect to see in a tin pot, third world dictatorship; or a movie parody of such a government. We’ve seen a candidate threatening to jail his opponent if he wins, or not accepting the outcome of the election if he loses. We’ve seen that candidate encourage his followers to ‘beat the sh-t out of a demonstrator at one of his rallies. And, if that’s not enough, we’re now seeing attempts at voter intimidation that would make any foreign despot proud – out of state supporters of one candidate pushing to be allowed to ‘observe’ voting in certain neighborhoods where large numbers of people who don’t support their candidate live. In a voting precinct in one state, armed police will be stationed at polling places, and in the state of Arkansas, the early election ballots misspelled one candidate’s name, inserting an insult in it, and then claimed that this was just an ‘error.’
    I’d hate to be a diplomat abroad right now trying to explain that to an audience of inquisitive and concerned foreigners. Worse, I’d hate to have to explain why so many people are happy to support a man who believes that because he’s a star he can get away with anything, who had a long track record of fraud, duplicity, and lying; much of it proven by his own words, because they don’t ‘like’ his opponent—mainly because of the rumors about her, many of which have not been proven, and most of which have been overblown. How can you explain voters like my friend who has decided not to vote because he doesn’t ‘like’ either candidate, or the friend of a friend who will vote for a bombastic bully because he didn’t like the people around the bully’s opponent when she was secretary of state? He feels that the bureaucracy will be able to control the bully. Are you hearing that? The bureaucracy, according to this individual, couldn’t control the bully’s opponent but they’ll ‘control’ him. How, as a diplomat, do you explain such stupidity and complacency to people, some of whom have risked their lives to vote?

    As my grandmother would say, ‘It’s a hard row to hoe.’ I’m just glad I’ve left the farm.

    Wednesday, November 2, 2016

    How to be a great boss

    During his tenure as Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage often met with newly appointed American ambassadors just prior to their departure to their countries of assignment.  In one such meeting in 2002, he gave the following admonition to an ambassador, “You can negotiate treaties, write great political dispatches, and make the officials of the host country like you.  But, if at the end of your tour of duty, the staff of your embassy can’t say they were better off for your having been there, you’re a (expletive deleted) failure.”
    Never one to mince words or dance around an issue, Armitage outlined in these few words the key to being a great boss – focus on your people.
    The U.S. military has a motto, “Mission first, People always.”  What this means, and how it relates to the Armitage directive is simply this; if you as a leader take care of your subordinates, they will take care of you, and get the job done.
    As a boss, you are responsible for the job getting done, not doing the job yourself.  That’s what the other people in the organization are there for.  Your task is to create conditions that enable your team to, in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Get ‘er done.”
    Easier said than done, you might say.  When you’re the person in charge, you’re expected to get results, and you have no time to experiment with leadership fads.  The flat organization with empowered people sounds good on paper, but how do you make it a reality?  First, let us acknowledge that leadership is not easy.  But, the philosophy of empowering people is no fad.  From infantry platoons to factory floors, history has shown that leaders who care for and motivate their people are more successful in the long term.
    So, how do you go about becoming a ‘great boss?’  Here are a few hints on how to become the boss you’d like to have, and the kind of boss you need to be if you want to be successful.
    -          Let your people know that you value them as individuals.  Every individual, given the right training and resources, can make a positive contribution to the organization.  It’s your responsibility as the boss to ensure they have what they need to succeed.  Their success is your success, and if they know that you value their success, they will work to achieve yours.
    -         Encourage work-life balance.  People who are encouraged to develop themselves as well-rounded individuals bring more value to the workplace.  Family and friends provide a support structure that enables the individual to be more effective at work.
    -         Use positive reinforcement.  People do what they are rewarded for.  Singling out good performance and publicly acknowledging it, fosters further good performance, not just in the individual honored, but all others who observe it.
    -         Learn to listen.  No one has all the answers.  Learn to listen to your subordinates and use their knowledge to build your own.
    -         Lead from the front.  The U.S. Army infantry motto is “follow me.”  If you are out front and demonstrating the direction in which the organization should go, others will follow.
    -         Take the blame, give the credit.  As the boss, you will be credited by your superiors for the good things your organization does.  Never forget, though, without followers committed to your goals, you achieve nothing.  Give them the credit for the organization’s achievements.  In the same vein, if the organization fails, you are the person responsible.  Never blame your subordinates for failure; instead, look at what you could have done to make it possible for them to succeed.
    -         Make the hard decisions, and then move on.  Your job as the boss is to make the decisions, good or bad.  This sometimes means you will have to do things that will make someone feel bad.  As long as you communicate clearly the reason for the decision, and then don’t dwell on it, the people in the organization will understand and respect you for it.

    -         Walk the talk.  Set the standards of achievement and behavior for your organization, and then model those standards in everything you do or say.  Whether you like it or not, your subordinates will look not at what you say, but what you do, and their actions will be shaped by that.  The key to effective leadership is to gain the trust and respect of your followers.  

    My election prediction as of November 2, 2016

    Click the map to create your own at

    2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map

    2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map: Interactive map for the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Use it to predict which candidate will reach the necessary 270 electoral votes.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2016

    James Comey's ethical dilemma: a no-win situation

     When FBI Director James Comey chucked protocol out the window and took it upon himself to hold a press conference to announce that no charges would be recommended against Hillary Clinton in the private email server case, rather than passing his recommendation to the Justice Department as is usually done, he put himself, the FBI, the Justice Department, and the American electoral process in a difficult situation.
    Apparently unaware of the old dictum, ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ Comey on Friday, Oct. 28, publicly announced that in the investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner for possible criminal violations, there might (my emphasis) be emails on a computer shared by him and his wife, Hama Abedin (a Clinton aide) related to the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server when she served as secretary of state. According to news reports, this announcement was made over the objections of the Justice Department and some senior FBI officials, because, coming as it did just days before the election, it could be seen as impacting the outcome of the election (intended or not).
    Now, while many have excoriated Comey for his actions, others have sprung to his defense. The Republicans who damned him for not recommending Clinton be prosecuted, are now hailing him as a hero. Even some of his critics are saying that he is an honorable man who has done the wrong thing for the right reasons.
    I’m not going to get into the argument of Comey’s honor or lack thereof, but there are some things about this situation that bother me, and I do believe they should be considered.
    One: during the first press conference in which he said he would not recommend prosecution, he went on to make some snarky comments about Clinton’s judgment, which had no bearing on whether or not a crime was committed. During the second, however, he said these new emails might be related to the email server case (which means that they also might not), but he gave no details, nor did he make any editorial comments. The fact that the FBI didn’t even get a warrant to search the computer in question until Sunday, two days after the announcement, leads me to believe he hadn’t even seen them, so was, therefore, only speculating on their relationship to the previous investigation, which then causes me to wonder why he couldn’t have waited until carrying out the search and knowing whether or not they bear on the case.
    Oh sure, there was the fact that his fellow Republicans had savaged him before, and if he didn’t come forward now, and the emails later turned out to be the smoking gun they’ve been looking for, he’d be accused of withholding evidence. That, of course, nicely ignores the fact that coming out with incomplete information before the election, which fed the GOP rumor mill for an entire weekend, could affect the outcome of the election, and if it turns out that there is no there there in this situation, what a shame that would be. This is one of those ethical dilemmas people in government sometimes face, and in this case, I believe Mr. Comey failed the test. In worrying more about his reputation than the integrity of the electoral system, he has set a bad precedent, and has put himself and his agency in a no-win situation. Will the FBI now ignore Justice Department rules and make public announcements in sensitive cases based on the personal feelings of the director? Will partisan pressure be what determines what is made public and what is not?
    Maybe James Comey felt pressured and took the actions he did to relieve some of that pressure. Maybe it was not his intent to influence the outcome of the upcoming election (a blatant violation of the Hatch Act if he did). Whatever his intent, his actions have set a dangerous precedent in an era when hyperpartisanship is the rule rather than the exception, and will have a long term effect on the conduct of elections in this country.

    Maybe he should have given a bit more thought to that before opening his mouth.

    Monday, October 31, 2016

    The 7 Keys to Effective Leadership

    Today, more than any time in our history, we need effective leadership.  Whether it’s in the White House or in a state house, we need leaders who are capable of finding solutions to the astonishing array of problems we face, and the vision to anticipate and mitigate the unknown future problems that await us.
    The list of problems facing us in the 21st century is daunting.  From climate change to transnational threats such as pandemics and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to the dislocations and disruptions caused by globalization, humanity’s survival will depend on leadership that can chart a course through an uncertain and turbulent sea of constant change.
    We no longer have the luxury to wait for the emergence of a great leader to take the helm.  Each of us must take responsibility for effective leadership in our own little corner of the world.  The aggregate effect of all these little effective corners of transformational leadership can move spaceship earth into a safe trajectory and off the path to chaos and destruction.
    The good news in all this is that, with a little effort, we can all be effective leaders.  Remember, a house is built brick by brick or board by board.  By applying the following techniques of effective leadership, we can build a strong and enduring structure.
    The 7 keys to effective leadership
    -          Put people first.  People are the most important asset of any organization.  The U.S. military’s motto is “Mission first, People always.”  This is an explicit recognition that without people, nothing is accomplished.
    -         Encourage risk taking and innovation.  Organizations that stick to the ‘tried and true’ often stagnate.  Progress comes only through moving into uncharted territory and trying new things.  Identify and reward the risk takers and innovators in your organization.
    -         Embrace change.  Change is a constant in life; in fact, the only constant.  To be an effective leader, you should not only embrace change, you should promote it.
    -         Emphasize honesty and integrity.  The most technically competent people who lack honesty and integrity are little more than charlatans.  If an organization is to prosper and endure, it must exude trust, and the integrity of an organization is a function of the honesty and integrity of every member of that organization.
    -         Establish open communications.  Knowledge is the key to power and success.  As a leader, it is essential that you have access to the knowledge of those around you.  An atmosphere of open, candid communication provides you the knowledge to make effective decisions.
    -         Foster a learning environment.  Each decade, science and technology increases exponentially.  Learning should be a life-long pursuit.  In addition to continually learning yourself, as a leader, you should encourage your subordinates to constantly upgrade their own skills and knowledge.
    -         Be a team builder.  No man is an island.  Except for certain works of art, nothing is created without the effort of a number of individuals working together.  Leverage the diversity and different talents within your organization through the creation of teams.
    When building a house, there are a number of ways to put on the finishing touches to make the house unique.  But, whether it’s a skyscraper or a summer cottage, it is essential that it have a strong foundation.  These seven principles form the basic foundation upon which a solid leadership structure can be constructed.
    Abrashoff, Captain D. Michael, It’s Your Ship:  Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, New York, Business Plus (Hachette Book Group), 2002
    Bennis, Warren, Managing People is Like Herding Cats, Provo, Utah, Executive Excellence Publishing, 1999
    Blaber, Pete, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a former Delta Force Commander, New York, Berkley Caliber, 2008
     Johnson, Spencer, Who Moved My Cheese?, New York, G. P. Putnam, 1998
    Oakley, Ed, and Doug Krug, Leadership made Simple:  Practical Solutions to Your Greatest Management Challenges, Centennial, CO, Executive Leadership Solutions, 2006
    Ray, Charles, Things I Learned from My Grandmother About Leadership and Life, Baltimore, MD, PublishAmerica, 2008
    _______, Taking Charge:  Effective Leadership for the Twenty-first Century, Baltimore, MD, PublishAmerica, 2009
    Smith, Perry, Rules & Tools for Leaders:  A Down-to-Earth Guide to Effective Managing, New York, Penguin Books, 1998

    Friday, October 28, 2016

    The simplicity of Amish life

    In today's high-tech age, we can sometimes forget that it's really the simple things in life that matter. A recent visit to an Amish community in Lancaster County, PA reminded me of how, even without a lot of modern amenities, life in the 1950s (if you overlook segregation) wasn't really all that bad. Back then, we learned to rely on ourselves and each other, and not some gadget.

    A simple, unadorned room in an Amish house

    The Amish aren't in to conspicuous consumption. They don't have electricity, but contrary to myth, they don't eschew ALL modern conveniences. They use battery- and gas-powered machinery and equipment, including refrigerators, they shop at the same stores regular people do, and they make use of modern medicine when they're sick.

    Gas-powered range and refrigerator.

    Thursday, October 13, 2016

    Government 101: The Art of Bullying

     Among the many things coming out of the Republican primaries and from the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, was a desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Tea Party Republicans have been gnashing their teeth and wailing against this law since before the ink was dry on the legislation on the President’s desk.
    Now, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but the outcry against ACA puzzles me. Opponents claim that most Americans don’t want it, despite surveys showing that a majority of Americans in fact do support it. They whine about White House overreach, but fail to mention one salient point; the ACA was passed by both houses of congress, and if I remember my civics and government classes from decades ago, it takes a majority to do that.
    So, what you have is a vocal minority determined to overturn the decision of the majority, even going so far as shutting down the government in their protest against it. Some call this democracy. I call it an effort by a fringe group to impose their will on the rest of us, at any cost. It doesn’t matter what the majority of the population wants. They only answer to their base, and their own base instincts. They’re a lot like schoolyard bullies who, when they can’t get their way, kick the toys and hide the ball. They’re not above using bullying tactics to get their way, or punishing those who disagree with them, and they have supporters who aid and abet them in this churlish behavior.

    Regardless of your party affiliation, think about this when you go to the voting booth in November.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2016

    Trump's plan to ban Muslims won't make us safer

    When GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wildly suggested closing America’s borders to all Muslims (later modified somewhat, but still aimed primarily at Muslims), the subject of radical Islamic terrorism has been the subject of numerous media stories. A lot of people seem to buy into this idea, almost as much as the equally idiotic idea of building a wall on our southern border. I’m willing to bet that most of those who most loudly support the proposal of banning entry to the U.S. to a group of people solely because of their religion, have never even met a Muslim, and know nothing about Islam.
    To subscribe to the belief that all Muslims are terrorists is about as rational as saying that every white person from the Deep South is a member of the KKK, or is a Klan sympathizer. Anyone familiar with the Civil Rights movement knows this not to be true. Of course, back in the day, it might have been difficult to convince a young black student being attacked by a police dog or pummeled by a fire hose of this, but there were southerners who were not bigoted, rabid racists. Few had the courage to identify themselves publicly or too vocally, but they had to live in a society that was by and large controlled by those who were racist, and who didn’t take too kindly to anyone who didn’t share their views. Remember Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white civil rights activists, who were killed along with James Chaney, a black activist in Philadelphia, MS in 1964. Not all that different from what radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) does to Muslims who don’t toe their hard line these days.
    I give that little piece of historical background in order to make a point; be careful about painting everyone with the same brush. Get to know the individual before making such a decision.
    During a 30-year career as an American diplomat, I spent time in a number of countries with significant Muslim populations. What I saw and experienced contradicts the belief of many Americans that Islam is a religion of violence, and all Muslims are prone to radical violence.
    When I worked in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, roughly 40% of the population was Muslim. Christians and Muslims lived in the same villages, intermarried, and basically, got along well. The first democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, a retired UN diplomat, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. One of my closest contacts in the military was a Muslim captain married to a Baptist woman. Such unions were common, as was seeing churches and mosques in close proximity to each other in upcountry villages.
    In Thailand from 1988 to 1991, I worked in the north. There was a small Muslim population there, which was totally unlike the radical southern Muslim population. Many of the northern Muslims I knew worked with or for the government, and got along quite well with their Buddhist neighbors. I worked closely with a Muslim doctor who had more Buddhist than Muslim patients.
    Fast forward to Cambodia in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks. That country has a small Muslim population, less than five percent of the population. The ethnic Cham originally came from Vietnam (where a few still reside). Among the most peaceful people in the country, they’re also among the poorest. After 2001, there were efforts by Jemah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Indonesian Muslim group, to radicalize the Cham. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh had a modest English scholarship program for Cham students—spending less than a tenth of what the Saudi Wahabbi-funded JI was spending. What was the outcome? A French anthropologist doing research among the Cham found that the U.S. popularity rating among Cham was over 80%. The validity and credibility of that survey has to be respected since the anthropologist in question was somewhat anti-American.
    What am I trying to say here? Simple; in any population you will find a diversity of opinions and beliefs. Muslims are no exception. I have no doubt that some Cambodian Muslims dislike America; after all, during the 1969 incursion into Cambodia from Vietnam, Cham villages took the brunt of U.S. bombing raids. Actually, I was surprised that only something under 20% viewed us negatively. In Thailand, I had dinner frequently with my Muslim doctor friend; who was not averse to the occasional cocktail. And, in Sierra Leone, roughly half the people I dealt with on a daily basis were Muslim, and never did I get a sense that they were any more violent or anti-West than the Christians. As a matter of fact, the rebel army that was laying waste to much of the countryside during my time there was mainly Christians, but with Christians and Muslims fighting side by side on both sides of the war.
    So, let’s stop the labeling, and try to get to know people as individuals. Going after Muslims just for being Muslims will not make us safer. It will blind us to the dangerous people who are non-Muslim (let’s not forget Timothy McVeigh). And, it’s likely to serve as a handy recruiting tool for the radical terrorist groups.

    Some people are violent and some are not, and their religion doesn’t really have that much to do with it.

    Friday, October 7, 2016

    Trump sinks to a new low

    On a soap opera set in 2005, unaware that there was a hot mike nearby and that his remarks were being taped, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump bragged that he could ‘kiss and grope’ women because he was a star, and ‘when you’re a star, they let you do anything.’ Immediately, his minions and apologists have jumped to his defense. His former campaign manager, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on October 7, tried to downplay this by saying he’d rather have a president who was ‘gross’ than one who was ‘dishonest,’ conveniently omitting the number of times Trump’s lies have been exposed, often in his own words.
    The question that comes to mind for me is, if Trump feels that being a star makes it possible for him to get away with ‘anything,’ what will he think being president would entitle him to? This is a guy that a majority of respondents to a Newsmax poll recently said they’d let babysit their children. What that tells me is that hardcore Trump supporters and hardcore Clinton haters will forgive this guy just about anything, and the country be damned. Maybe Trump was right, he could kill someone on the streets of Manhattan and no one (among those who support him like well-trained house pets) would dislike him.
    What’s really frightening is that while I’m sure there are some decent people left in the GOP, I’m still waiting for one of them to step up and condemn him for his remarks, for his behavior. They will no doubt gasp in dismay in private, but in public – silence. In the meantime, those angry people who support him because he is so gross and disgusting will continue to cheer.

    We’re no longer in an age of dirty politics. Thanks to Donald Trump, we’ve sunk even lower.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2016

    #PoweredByIndie: My Fascinating Journey in Self-Publishing

     Shy and withdrawn as a child, my only solace was found in books, books that I devoured voraciously from the time I was seven or eight years old. The worlds I found between the pages gave me comfort in ways that human contact did not. By my early teens I’d overcome my shyness, but my love affair with the written word endured.
    Transitioning from reading to writing was, perhaps, inevitable. I’m not sure when or how it really began, but by the time I was twelve, I was already writing little short stories, creating worlds like the ones I’d encountered in the books I read—but, only for myself.
    When I started high school, not long after my twelfth birthday thanks to a special program that put students in grades based on their test scores not their age, I met Paulyne Evans, my home room teacher and the English teacher in my high school, Booker T. Washington elementary and high school in the small East Texas town where I grew up. She helped me get over my shyness, but she also recognized my love of writing, and encouraged it. When I was thirteen, she talked me into entering a national Sunday school magazine short story contest, and to my surprise—but, she insists, not hers—I won first place. The prize was small, about ten dollars, if I recall, but seeing my byline on a piece of writing in a publication that was circulated throughout the U.S. hooked me forever.
    After graduating from high school, and without the resources for college, I joined the army. Over a twenty-year career, I often moon lighted as a writer/photographer/artist for local newspapers near the bases where I was stationed, did freelance articles and art for a number of magazines, and wrote poetry. After retiring from the army, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and for most of that thirty-year career, I pretty much put my creative writing on hold, except for the occasional opinion piece, book review, or poem. I didn’t return to fiction, or try my hand at a book-length work until about twelve years ago; eight years before I retired from government service.
    After four years of rejection slips, I almost gave up on ever being able to get a book published. Then, eight years ago, I got a bite from what at the time seemed like a reputable publisher for two books on leadership. I won’t, for legal reasons, name the ‘publishers,’ just suffice it to say, it was a rip-off. I got hooked into an eight-year contract, and incessant requests that I buy my own books. They haven’t sold well, although the first one did get a few rave reviews, and does still get the occasional sale. My royalties have been miniscule at best. The experience soured me on publishers, and almost killed my desire to write.
    Then, I started seeing articles about self-publishing. I researched it, and discovered that many other writers, including some who already had relationships with traditional publishers, were taking that route. This was, unfortunately, just before indie publishing began to be viewed with a little respect, and I was hesitant. But, I finally decided that if others could do it, so could I.
    I dusted off a manuscript that I’d been working on for three years, did some rewriting, enrolled in one of the POD self-publishing programs, and after a year, had my book available for online sales in paperback and e-book format.
    Surprisingly, it got a few good reviews, and even a few sales, despite being roughly done. I was just learning that self-publishing involved more than merely writing the darned thing; you had to know formatting, editing, and cover design, and . . . yuck . . . marketing. But having a book out there for all to see, and getting even a few sales was energizing. I then dug out my journal in which I’d written down ideas for other books, and started writing seriously.
    Over the past eight years, I’ve managed to create a substantial list of published books, fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction, and get modest, but steady, sales in both paper and electronic versions.
    More importantly, with each book, I get better—at least in my own opinion—and, I learn something new. I can now format a book’s interior almost as well as a traditional publishing house, I’ve learned to edit my work as if it was written by someone else—which means cutting, changing, or adding  to that first creative outburst with a reader’s eye. I’ve learned to do covers. Oh, none of them will ever win an award, but they’re technically acceptable, and a few of them aren’t half bad. My experience as a photographer, editorial cartoonist and magazine artist helps there.
    Am I ready to make the NYT Bestseller’s List? Not hardly. But, I’ve gotten some good reviews, my books continue to sell, and occasionally I get an email from a reader telling me that they found themselves immersed in my book and loving the characters. I get the occasional review that pans a book. I even learn from them. If the criticism is valid, and not just trolling, I make a note of it, and incorporate it into my next book, or as I did in one case, unpublish, rewrite, and republish the book.
    Independent publishing has been for me an exciting journey, one that is just beginning. Along the way, I’ve learned some fascinating things, and met some wonderful people. Indie publishing might not be for everyone. It’s a daring thing to do. But, if you want some excitement in your life, and if you want to write, it’s a combination that will change you forever.

    Saturday, October 1, 2016

    Spilled Blood -- a John Jordan short

    Clinton will have no trouble getting under Trump's skin

    It’s a sad commentary on the state of American politics when the debates between candidates for the highest office in the land, instead of being heated exchanges about issues of importance sound like spats on an elementary school playground. Of course, when one of those candidates is a thin-skinned misogynistic bully who, when he’s losing or feels that he’s been bested, lashes out like a spoiled brat. While I am disappointed that the Clinton campaign has decided that getting under his skin is the way to deal with Trump, given who and what he is, I understand it.
    From his actions since the first debate, that tactic seems to be working. Even before going into the debate, he was classic Trump; threatening to bring up Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities in the debate, or inviting a woman who claims to have had an affair with him when he was governor of Arkansas to sit on the front row. He, of course, did neither, and then after the debate, he and his minions portrayed this as a sign of his greatness and compassion. Hah! His dawn-hour Twitter rant, attacking former Miss Universe Alicia Machado—using language that no civilized gentleperson, much less a presidential candidate, should ever use. I won’t repeat h ere any of the things he tweeted; there’s no sense giving this crap any more air time. I will, however, talk about the author of said crap.
    Whenever he’s criticized, or suffers a setback, Trump gets personal and combative, and if the source of his discomfort is a woman, he really dives into the gutter, getting into their sexual behavior—either they’re having too much, or too little. I imagine that even a cloistered nun would be attacked if she were ever to disagree with the Donald. Of course, when doing this, he conveniently ignores his own past somewhat sordid sexual history.
    This man has no shame. He’s always right—according to him. And, what really makes this an American tragedy is that he has so many people who aid and abet him in his atrocious behavior. The debate fell short on discussion of issues, and his minions and supporters blame it all on Clinton, without mentioning that he offered nothing in the way of rational policy proposals during the debate, and when he wasn’t sniffling and looking uncomfortable, was interrupting Clinton in an effort (I imagine) to throw her off stride—which he was singularly unsuccessful in doing.
    All he’s managed to say throughout the campaign is that America is in shambles, and it’ll stay that way unless he’s elected president, because, you see, he’s so smart and so successful, he’s the only one who can get the job done.
    So far, his only concrete proposals, some of which he’s backed off on and picked back up again, have been things that’ll cause more harm than good. You’ve no doubt heard them numerous times, so I won’t dignify them by repeating them—in that, I’m stealing a page from the Trump playbook. Trust me.
    Trump has been proven a liar on numerous occasions by his own recorded and video-taped words. Does this change the way his hard core supporters feel? No! Even Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump slammed in a most disgusting way during the primaries, is supporting him now. Same goes for Chris Christie, who was humiliated on national TV and in public appearances by Trump. Want to know how Trump’s legions feel? I recently took a poll on Newsmax, a conservative news site, which asked to compare Trump with Clinton on things like honesty, would you let him babysit your kids, would you trust him with your bank account, etc. By a margin of two to one and more in some cases, Trump was categorized as honest and trustworthy. I’m willing to bet that none of the contractors or workers he’s abused over the years took that poll.

    So, while I’m not particularly fond of negative campaigning, I’ll hold my nose and wish Clinton well in her efforts to get under Trump’s skin, and say this, once you’re under there, twist it a few times for good measure. 

    Monday, September 26, 2016

    Schemes and scams from an unlikely place

    U.S. computer networks, government, commercial, and private, are under almost constant attack, many of these attacks coming from abroad. Computer, mail, and telephone scams abound, many also coming from abroad. The standard villains when we hear of hacking attacks against our computer systems are the Russians, the Chinese, and on occasion the North Koreans. When we hear of computer scams, we usually think of the Nigerian groups who are famous for this activity.
    There is, however, another source of both these assaults that seldom gets mentioned in the press; India. India, location of many computer self-help desks for U.S. companies, supplier of many IT techs who keep companies here going, is also the source of a lot of vicious computer hacking attacks, and at least one telephone scam that I’m personally aware of.
    My son is a computer engineer for a Virginia-based company that provides hardware and software globally. Many of his colleagues are Indian nationals, who he describes as some of the best in the business. But, every coin has two sides. If some of the best programmers and computer engineers come from India, it’s safe to assume that there are also a fair number of black hat hackers who will try to penetrate networks either for the sheer challenge, or to do harm.
    I have personal experience with this. This morning, I woke up to find emails from my email provider, and some of my social network accounts informing me that there’d been an attempt to access these accounts from in IP address in India. Fortunately, my firewalls and notification protocols prevented total compromise of my system and accounts, but I had to spend hours that could have been devoted to other tasks, changing all my passwords—a real pain in the . . . neck.
    I’m pretty sure I’m not the only victim of this penetration attempt. Another thing that’s come out of India is a phone scam that is really, I mean, really annoying. Your phone rings; caller ID shows a number and the label ‘Wireless Caller.’ If you’re the type to answer calls from unknown numbers, you’ll pick up and hear what gets left on my answering machine; a clearly digital voice of a woman with no discernible accent informs you that the IRS has filed a court case against you and that you must call the number they give you to get the details. I’m not sure what this phishing expedition is looking for, but no way in hell am I calling that number. I’ve reported this to the IRS twice—because I’ve received this call from at least two different area codes and numbers. Not that it’ll help. My son-in-law, who is a postal inspector (the Post Office’s law enforcement arm), informs me that this scam is known to be based in India, but U.S. authorities are unable to track it to a specific address, and even if they did, it’s unlikely the Indian government would cooperate in shutting it down.

    So, what am I saying here? The threats to our computer systems are real. Con artists are lurking behind every computer screen or at the end of every phone call, looking for a weakness to exploit. A lot of them come from the places that get the lion’s share of the news, but not all of them.