Wednesday, July 1, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: U.S. Senate Races Now

In addition to the presidential campaign, the contests for
control of the U.S. senate are key to he outcome of the 2020
election.

The purely numerical advantage has shifted this cycle to the
Democrats who have only about half as many incumbent
seats as the Republicans up for re-election. In the most
recent cycles, the GOP had this advantage, and it helped them
keep their current 53-47 majority control.

Although 34 seats are up this year are up, only 10-12 are now
seen as competitive. Most of these are GOP seats, and this
has given Democrats hope that they might retake majority
control in January, 2021.

The senate minority now need either 3 or 4 pick-ups to regain
the majority (depending on which ticket wins the White
House; the vice president presides over the senate and
breaks any ties). That also assumes he Democrats lose no
seat they now hold.

The six senate seats which now appear most likely to switch
parties are in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine
(currently held by Republicans), and in Alabama and Michigan
(currently held by Democrats).  Of these, only Alabama seems
almost certain to change hands.  If so, this would change the
math for Democrats taking control by an additional seat.

Each party had recent good and bad news about the two most
vulnerable GOP seats. In Arizona, incumbent Martha McSally
has fallen behind former astronaut Mark Kelly. and in Colorado,
former Democratic Governor  John Hickenlooper is stumbling
badly in his last-minute effort to unseat GOP incumbent
Senator Cory Gardner.

Republican Senators Thom Tillis (North Carolina) and Susan
Collina (Maine) are facing challengers heavily financed with
out-of-state money. GOP challenger in Michigan John James
is strong candidate against low-profile Democratic incumbent
Gary Peters, but trails in the polls.

Other potentially vulnerable seats include those in Georgia,
Iowa, Montana and Kansas (now held by Republicans); and in
New Hampshire and Minnesota (now held by Democrats),
but pick-ups in these seats probably depend on whether the
presidential election is close or not.

Voter moods, as best can be measured, are almost always
volatile in the summer months before a national election,
and probably more so this unprecedented year.  In this
environment, media  propaganda news can prevail over
common sense., and a spate of partisan or flawed polls can
be misleading. Time and again over the years, I have
cautioned that the most accurate and useful polling occurs
just before the election in October when pollsters are highly
motivated to be as accurate as possible.

I also have long pointed out that some races rated as “safe”
early on by various pundits  unexpectedly become very
competitive as election day approaches. I will have more
about which ones these might be after the conventions and
Labor Day. Some senate nominees have not yet been
chosen.

The bottom line now in early July in the  U.S. senate races
is that senate control in 2021 is undecided, and dependent  not
only the presidential contest outcome, but also very much
on the quality of the candidates running this year.

Developing.....

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 26, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Ten Amazing History Stories You Probably Didn't Know About

[earlier version first published on The Prairie Editor blog in 2013]
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  THE WORST SHIP DISASTER OF ALL-TIME
      WAS THE SINKING OF THE WILHELM GUSTLOFF
      ON JANUARY 30, 1945.
      The Wilhelm Gustloff, built as a Nazi passenger
      cruise ship (and named for a Swiss Nazi demogogue)
      in 1937, had been stranded in the East Prussian port
      of Gotenhofen on the Baltic Sea since the outset of
      World War II. As Soviet troops overtook East Prussia
      in early 1945, over a million ethnic Germans, whose
      families had lived in East Prussia for centuries,
      attempted to flee to the German mainland a few
      hundred miles away via the Baltic sea route to avoid
      the feared revenge of the Russian soldiers as
      they reconquered the area. The Wilhelm Gustloff,
      built to accommodate 1500 passengers and 500 crew,
      was overloaded with about 11,000 men, women and
      children (some of whom were German soldiers), and 
      began a 200-plus mile sea trip in a storm. (The trip
      was no longer possible by rail or truck.) A Soviet
      submarine spotted the ship, and sent four torpedoes
      at it, sinking the ship in a brief time. Approximately
      9400 persons died in the sinking, making it it the
      largest loss of life from one ship disaster in history.
      [Further reading: Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince.]

  THE FATHER OF THE AMERICAN ENGLISH
      LANGUAGE WAS NOT A LITERARY PERSON,
      WROTE NO BOOKS, AND DID NOT EVER
      ATTEND A SCHOOL.
      Although his name is a household word in the United
      States and in much of the rest of the world for his
      role as president of the United States during the
      nation’s Civil War (1861-65) and his assassination, it   
      is much less known that Abraham Lincoln could be
      rated today as the father of the modern American
      English language. This role is usually assigned to
      a major literary figure (e.g., Shakespeare in British
      English, Dante in Italian, Cervantes in Spanish,
      Pushkin in Russian, et al). The only American writer
      who even comes close to Lincoln, and came after
      him, was Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”).
      Lincoln’s major speeches are still considered today
      as the finest examples of their kind by an American,
      and his collected speeches and letters form a unique
      body of the English language spoken and written in
      the U.S. as it was being transformed from its British
      origins. Lincoln’s language, almost alone among his
      19th century contemporaries (including Hawthorne,
      Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, et al) remains fresh
      today without the “dated” quality of almost
      everyone else in his era. Amazingly, Lincoln was
      entirely self-taught, and did not ever attend a school
      in his childhood.
      [Further reading: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,
      Rutgers University Press]

  THE FIRST MODERN NOVEL WAS WRITTEN
      MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS AGO BY A
      JAPANESE NOBLEWOMAN known as “Lady
      Murasaki” (her real name is unknown).
      A lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shoshi of
      the Heian period  of 11th century Japan, she
      wrote her extraordinary fictional account of life,
      manners and personalities of the Japanese 
      court life in an unprecedented work entitled The
      Tale of Genji. It is also described today as the first
      psychological work of fiction. The novel form did
      not truly emerge until more than 500 years later in
      the West. Remarkably, The Tale of Genji is even 
      today a highly readable, fascinating masterpiece.
      [Further reading: Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki]

  THE GREATEST AMERICAN NATURAL DISASTER   
      was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which
      inundated most of the mid-Mississippi River Valley
      following an unprecedented period of rain beginning
      in August, 1926. At its peak, months later the flood
      covered 27,000 square miles, and dislocated 700,000
      residents. About 500 persons are known to have died   
      (although the total death toll,was not ever known).
      Total damages in today’s dollars would approach
      $1 trillion. Then-President Calvin Coolidge did not
      visit the area, but sent his Secretary of Commerce
      Herbert Hoover instead, and put Hoover in charge of
      the recovery. When Coolidge decided not to run for
      re-election in 1928, Hoover was nominated in his
      place, and elected president.
   
  THE LANGUAGES OF THE FINNS, ESTONIANS   
      AND HUNGARIANS HAVE THE SAME ROOTS
      AND COME FROM ASIA NOT EUROPE.
      Known as the Uraic family of languages,
      Magyar, Finnish and Estonian have no roots in the
      much larger Indo-European family of languages
      which are spoken in most of the nations near them.
      Although their exact origins are not yet known,
      philologists, in fact, trace these languages partially
      back to Siberian Asian (Chuvash) roots and to those
      who came to the region more than two thousand
      years ago. Magyar, the official language of Hungary,
      is the largest non-Indo-European language spoken
      in Europe.
    
  THE GREATEST LIVING POET COULDN’T
      SPEAK OR WRITE .
      The late Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer suffered a
      stroke in 1990, and after that was unable to speak
      or write. Nevertheless, he received the Nobel Prize
      for literature in 2011, and was considered by many
      to be the greatest living poet in any language.
      His short and austere poems, critics say, create
      stunning images and spaces. Before his stroke,
      he worked professionally as a psychologist in a
      prison while at the same time writing poems and
      publishing several books of Swedish poetry. He has
      since been translated into many languages.
      [Further reading: Twenty Poems by Tomas
      Transtromer, and Windows & Stones by Tomas
      Transtromer; (both translations)]

  ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST
      SCULPTORS HAD NO TRUE HANDS.
      The 18th century Brazilian sculptor Antonio Lisboa
      was the son of a Portuguese carpenter and a slave
      mother. While relatively young, he developed either
      leprosy or sclerodoma, and lost all the fingers of his
      hands as well as the toes on his feet. He became   
      known as “O Aleijadinho” (or “The Little Cripple”).
      He created most of his sculpture in the Brazilian
      province of Minas Gerais where, after he was
      disfigured, and through truly remarkable efforts, he
      sculpted many masterpieces, most of which survive
      today.
      
8.   SAUDI ARABIA DID NOT EXIST UNTIL
      1924, OIL WAS NOT DISCOVERED THERE
      UNTIL 1937, AND THE GOVERNMENT DID
      NOT MAKE A REAL PROFIT FROM OIL
      UNTIL AFTER WORLD WAR II.
      Until 1924,the Arabian peninsula had no fixed
      national boundaries, no formal nation states, and      
      was inhabited primarily by nomadic Bedouin tribes
      that went back thousands of years. It technically was
      part of the Ottoman empire under its sultan who
      ruled the Islamic world. Ibn Saud, a young leader
      of the Wahhabi tribe and 6 foot 4 inch warrior prince
      who grew up living in tents and moving about the
      southern Asir region of Arabia with his family,
      began his unification of the various tribes in 1902
      by seizing the ancient Wahhabi capital of Riyadh,
      and then by systematically eliminating in battle the
      usually more powerful rival sheikhs in the region
      over the next two decades. After the sultan was
      deposed and the Ottoman empire dissolved
      following World War I, Ibn Saud was declared king
      of the new Saudi Arabia. Short of cash, he made
      deals with the British, and then the Americans, to
      allow exploration for oil and gas in the peninsula
      which led to major discoveries in 1937. Because of
      breakout of war in Europe and Africa in 1939-40,
      the huge profits from the oil fields did not appear
      until after World War II, when Saudi Arabia became
      the world’s largest producer and seller of oil.
     [Further reading: Ibn Saud by M. Darlow & B. Bray]

  THE AMERICAN SPY WHO FOUND OUT
      THAT THE GERMANS WERE NOT
      WORKING ON THE ATOMIC BOMB
      WAS PREVIOUSLY A CATCHER IN MAJOR
      LEAGUE BASEBALL FOR 15 YEARS.
      Morris “Moe” Berg played for American League
      teams for most of his 15-year baseball career, and 
      was called “the brainiest man ever to play baseball.”
      Casey Stengel (of all persons) even once called him
      “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” An
      impoverished son of European Jewish immigrants,
      he received degrees from Princeton and Columbia
      law school, and became famous early for his highly
      successful appearances on the national radio quiz
      show “Information Please.” A polymath, he spoke
      seven languages fluently, and when war broke out, he    
      became a U.S. spy and was sent undercover to Italy
      and occupied Central Europe to secretly assess
      the Nazi atomic bomb program. After World War II,
      he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. In
      spite of his extraordinary and colorful career and 
      life, he died in obscurity in 1972.
      [Further reading: Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers]

10.  THE SMALLEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
        IS LOCATED ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF
        A VILLA IN DOWNTOWN ROME, HAS EXISTED
        FOR ALMOST 1000 YEARS, HAS DIPLOMATIC
        RELATIONS WITH MORE THAN 100 NATIONS,
        IS AN OFFICIAL OBSERVER AT THE UNITED
        NATIONS, COINS ITS OWN MONEY AND PRINTS
        ITS OWN STAMPS.
        The (shortened) name of this country is
        officially Sovrane Militare Ordine di Malta or
        S.M.O.M. It is an important worldwide Catholic   
        philanthropic entity known also as the Knights of
        Malta, and which once ruled the island nation of 
        Malta. Today, its size is reduced to two villas in
        Rome and some land on the outskirts of the Italian
        capital; only the upper floors of one of the villas is
        considered the sovereign territory of S.M.O.M. It is
        therefore the only nation on earth which can only
        be entered by elevator.
        
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Copyright (c) 2013 and 2020 by Barry Casselman.
All rights reserved.


Monday, June 22, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: National Conventions In 2020

Between 1988 and 2008, I attended many of the Democratic and
Republican national conventions. Their outcome was not in
doubt, but for a journalist with credentials it was a very good
time indeed, especially if you were a collector of political
buttons, lapel pins, bumper stickers and other campaign
paraphernalia. Most important for a journalist, there was easy
access to political figures for interviews and quotes.

For delegates and other attendees there was an endless array
of policy meetings, social occasions, as well as free food and
drink, There was also a unique opportunity to meet and make
friends with other political activists from across the nation.

Finally, although there was little suspense at these recent
conventions, there were the convention floor programs
designed as spectacles to whip up excitement and enthusiasm
for the party’s ticket in November.

I  have many stories to tell from the conventions I attended.
Here’s just a few.

At my very first convention, the Democratic meeting in Atlanta
in 1988, I did not go to the convention floor the first few days
because I was so diverted by the events outside the convention
proceedings, but finally I made it to the hall just as Michael
Dukakis was being nominated. To my surprise, many of the
delegates were booing the speaker. When I asked someone
what was going on, I was told that the nominator was the
young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who had decided to
speak interminably, and the delegates wanted him to finish.
The incident made him a national laughing stock. Only four
years later, despite many other controversies, he was the
Democratic nominee in New York City. Just before he was
introduced, they showed a video of his life. It wasn’t that
remarkable until a short clip appeared with President John
Kennedy greeting a delegation of teenagers from Boys
Nation a the White House in the early 1960s. Suddenly, from
the crowd, emerged a teen-age Bill Clinton to shake Kennedy’s
hand. Few present had seen his clip before. The crowd gasped,
and then broke into cheers. A few moments later, Clinton
came on stage to a huge ovation.

At that same convention in New York in 1992, I walked into
the very large media center on the last day, expecting to have
a quiet snack. As I walked in, however, hundreds of press
colleagues turned to me and began applauding! I was totally
mystified until someone came over to me and explained that a
video of me describing my interview with Governor Jerry
Brown in Iowa earlier that summer had just been played on
the media lounge screens. What had happened was that a few
days before, I had met two cheeky students from Dartmouth
who had wangled media credentials,and were making an
irreverent video of the convention by interviewing famous
politicians and media stars with off-the-wall questions. I
liked their spunk, and told them a few off-beat stories of my
own, including the one about my odd Jerry Brown interview
in a Mexican restaurant in Iowa. Two nights later, I ran into
them, video cameras in hand, and although I was exhausted,
I let them tape me telling my Jerry Brown story. Trust me,
I’m no comedian, but I was so tired, it somehow came off
as very wry and funny.

That same year, at the Republican convention in Houston,
I happened to use my convention floor privileges during Pat
Buchanan’s notorious speech. While I was on the floor, I ran
into someone I had met several years before when he was
visiting Minneapolis. It was George W. Bush, then a private
citizen and working for his father at the convention. We shook
hands, and from his few words and the look on his face, I knew
he knew the Buchanan speech was bad news for his father’s
re-election. Only eight years later, I attended the convention in
Philadelphia that nominated him.

In 2008, the Republican convention was in St. Paul.  It was a
home town experience.  My visiting friend and editor Tony
Blankley and I went to so many convention parties, we
stopped counting. Main downtown streets were blocked, but
of course I knew alternative routes. Many events, most of
them quite lavish, took place near where I lived and also
near Tony’s hotel. I even threw a party, an ice cream social at
a legendary local ice cream parlor outside downtown, with a
political  celebrity guest list. (Some still talk about it.) I
watched Sara Palin's famous speech from the convention
floor. My political memorabilia collection peaked.....

By 2012, the appeal of a national convention, even as a social
occasion, appeared more diminished, and this continued to
2016. Nevertheless, plans were made for traditional
conventions in 2020 by both major parties. Indeed, for a time
the Democratic nominating contest  seemed like it could be
undecided until its convention at Milwaukee in July.

Then the pandemic occurred, and profound changes in the
2020 political campaign season took place.

As I write this, current convention plans remain provisional.
The Democrats are still meeting in Milwaukee, but it isn’t yet
clear how many will attend  in person. Program plans are
incomplete, although Joe Biden has announced he will accept
his nomination in Milwaukee. The original date was moved
from July to August.

After the North Carolina officials refused to lift certain
restrictions, the Republicans decided to move the main part
of their convention to Jacksonville. Its program and who
will attend in person are also undecided.

What is clear is that the national convention experience will
be very different in 2020. The need to kick off the campaign
and excite the base remains, but how to do it is up in the air.
Even veteran entertainment promoter Donald Trump is
challenged by this environment.

Media coverage of the conventions will also be changed.
I doubt that thousands of print and broadcast journalists
from around the world (as usually happens) will show up,
and that the typical huge lavish media centers will host
and feed them. How much coverage of the daily programs
will be broadcast by the networks is also uncertain. By
August, many now at home could be back to work, and
unlikely to be watching a virtual political convention.
  
But there will be conventions. Two national tickets will be
nominated. A campaign, however unprecedented, will
follow. On November 3, votes will be counted.

The show must go on.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 19, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: No Hand For Writing And Shaking?

I wrote in 2014 in this space about the approaching extinction
of handwriting or cursive script. Now, in response to the
current pandemic, the same fate seems to await the
widespread practice of handshaking.

The ritual of the handshake goes back at least 27 centuries
when it was visually portrayed by the king of Assyria shaking
hands with the king of Babylonia. It was apparently common
practice in much of the ancient world. Homer mentions it
frequently in The Iliad and The Odyssey.  But it only became
common modern practice in the 17h century when  Quakers
popularized it as more egalitarian than bowing or tipping
one’s hat, then the common practices. From ancient to
modern times it has always been a gesture of trust,
friendship, agreement and peaceful greeting.

What handwriting and handshaking have inherently in
common is linking --- the joining of letters of a word
and the touching between two persons.

Perhaps their disuse is emblematic of our age of increasing
social severance and isolation. In any event, there are now
no visible good prospects for either handwriting or
handshaking.

We already know what replaces handwriting, but what will
we substitute for the handshake?

It would seem that Japanese-styled bowing one’s head is
not an option in he U.S., but perhaps a slight nod will do it.
Or  a wave?  A thumbs-up? An outstretched arm, with or
without a “Hail!,” is definitely out. And unless you are in
military, not a salute. Men don’t wear hats much any more,
so tipping one won’t work. A small (non-touching) foot kick?

What to do?

The handshake worked well in its day, but now it seems
it’s time for something new. I don’t think it will be elbow
touching --- or any other kind of touching.

A generation that moves by skateboard will come up with
something.

Developing......

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Election Day Cometh

The days now seem to be passing with extra speed, even as
the national economy reopens. “Normalcy” is not likely to
reappear for some time, but the calendar insists on some
fixed points --- including the change of seasons, holidays ---
and election day.

Believe it or not, Election Day, 2020 is now only four-plus
months away.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that too much is unsettled
in the country to discern any dispositive election trends yet,
but there is also some evidence that, despite recent
extraordinary events, the 2020 cycle will be decided on the
two traditional factors of a second-term presidential election
--- voter judgment on the incumbent’s first term and voter
attitude about the economy.

What complicates this “traditional” circumstance is the very
“un-traditional” current character of both the incumbent and
the economy. The closest recent historical parallel seems to
be 1972 when a much despised (by liberals and the media
establishment) incumbent, Richard Nixon, won an historic
landslide victory (all but two states) against George McGovern
whose policy views had turned off many moderates who had
voted for Hubert Humphrey in1968 when Nixon had barely
won. By 1972, Nixon had not yet ended the unpopular Viet Nam
war, Watergate had just happened, but the economy was in a
boom, so the parallels are limited.

Joe Biden is no George McGovern, but since clinching his
party’s nomination, he has been appealing notably to the
present-day version of the McGovern wing (Bernie Sanders,
Elizabeth Warren. et al) that was rejected by voters in most
of the Democratic primaries this year.

The Biden strategy is to cause a huge turnout of his party’s
base, and to count on anti-Trump sentiment to bring him to
the White House in January, 2021.

The Trump strategy is to cause a huge turnout of his party’s
base still fiercely loyal to him, and to count on a backlash to
current Democratic party policies.

Where the voters will be in only about four months will
determine which  of these strategies will be most successful.

I suspect that the state of employment will be a key. Voters’
personal attitudes about Mr. Trump are not likely to change.
Anti-Trumpers will remain strongly negative to his style and
personality.  Mr. Biden might not be charismatic, but he is
“not-Trump” --- and that might be enough. On the other hand,
some voters could override their personal feelings to vote
for what they might consider to be their own best interests.

It needs to be remembered that U.S. senate and house races
are often determined by local and state issues, and that some
of these contests considered “safe” many months before
election day become very competitive in the final days of the
campaign. As well, the quality of individual candidates, both
incumbents and challengers, often outweighs general voter
trends. Finally, not all the party nominees have been chosen
in some very competitive races. In short, control of both
houses of Congress remains uncertain.

Polling so far doesn’t tell us much, especially if they are only
of registered voters and are national  polls. Some current
polls are contrived or presented for campaign fundraising
purposes by candidates of both parties, and can be regarded
with skepticism.

As we get closer to election day, however, unbiased polls of
likely voters in the competitive states will tell us much more.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 12, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: R U Robot?

---------------------------------------------------------
[THIS WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON
THE PRAIRIE EDITOR WEBSITE IN 2016]

---------------------------------------------------------



With the slow, but increasing, realization that we, the human
race, are on the verge of replacing ourselves with machines,
it is perhaps of special interest to go back to the earliest
moments when this profound insight first appeared in our
consciousnesses.

Perhaps the most notable of these took place just after World
War I when a young Czech playwright/novelist named Karel
Capek wrote a play titled mysteriously “R.U.R.” that
premiered in a Prague theater, and became quickly a
worldwide sensation.

A bit of history: Czechoslovakia had long been part of the
Austro-Hungarian empire in Europe, but had its own historic
culture and language. After World War I, it finally received its
own independence as a combination of Bohemia and
Slovakia, two ancient early European small states that had
emerged from the Dark Ages. The Abraham Lincoln of
Czechoslovakia was Tomas Masaryk, a brilliant democratic
and humanist figure who was the small nation’s first
president. Incredibly rich in folklore and culture,
Czechslovakia was a center of art and innovation on the
liberated European landscape. Composers such as Antonin
Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek; writers such as
Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka remain giants today in
world culture. The word “bohemian” has become a word in
English because it captured so aptly the subculture of Western
artistic life of the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, Czechoslovakia and its writer Karel Capek also
added a new word to English (and virtually all other world
languages) which applies importantly to the 21st century.
The play title “R.U.R.” stands for Rossums Universal Robots.
In Czech, “rossum” means “reason,” and “robot” means
“drudgery.” The word robot has its origins in the Czech word
for “slave.” Capek’s play is the very first appearance anywhere
of the word “robot” (the playwright gave credit to the actual
invention of the word to his writer brother.)

Today, “robotics” has become a central term in the evolution
of human activity. The word robot now stands for virtually all
machines created to do the work of humans. In the 1920’s,
robots were concepts of the future. Today, they are being devised
and put to work everywhere in virtually all human activities as
they replace human workers.

Since the early 1920’s, science fiction writers and films have
portrayed either sympathetic or threatening versions of
robots. The apotheosis of the former were lovable characters in
Star Wars. More ominous robots, however, have appeared in
books and films as a force that brutally takes over the human
race and eliminates or enslaves it.

An even newer and related technology is artificial intelligence or
AI. This has presented itself less physically as robotic machines
and more as hyper-thinking entities. Curiously, Capek’s robots
in 1920 were more a premonition of AI than of robotics. In his
play, the robots are actually artificially created thinking beings,
more like “cyborgs” or “androids.” Capek presciently also
foresees the robotic revolution producing more goods at much
lower prices.

Karel Capek was one of the world’s great futurists. A thinker
and philosopher, as well as a playwright and novelist, he was
during his short life on the cutting edge of what was
anticipated as the future of man. His play “R.U.R.” is rarely
performed today, and science fiction writers such as Isaac
Asimov have criticized it as a bad play because it ends on an
optimistic note (the last surviving human being in the play turns
over the world to two robots, calling them “Adam” and “Eve”).

But we need to remember that tragic time. Czechoslovakia, it
turned out, would only exist for 20 years. Its allies, Britain and
France, turned it over to Adolf Hitler without a fight at Munich
in 1938. Capek himself, only 48, died from pneumonia on
Christmas Day, 1938 --- only weeks after his beloved republic
was betrayed by Neville Chamberlain and his cohorts. Many
believe he actually died from his broken heart, sensing the
holocaust that was to come. (His brother Josef, the man who
actually invented the word “robot,” perished in a concentration
camp shortly afterwards.)

After World War II, Czechoslovakia traded the beast of Hitlerian
fascism for the beast of Soviet communism. Only in 1990, as the
Soviet Union was crumbling, was an independent, democratic
Czechoslovakia revived. It soon was divided into two separate
nations, The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague today is an
exciting cultural and industrial part of the new Europe.

In that extraordinary time and in that extraordinary place,
Karel Capek had a remarkable vision of the future, and he chose
to see it with hope and promise. Only about a decade after
putting robots into human consciousness, he was faced with one
of the most unspeakable depravities human beings ever created,
a depravity contrived solely by human evil with no assistance
from robotics.

Today, with robots and AI about to replace a major part of all
human work, and change forever how we live, the future is
also threatened by new and malign human frailties. Who can
fault the futurist Capek for his stubborn and indomitable
statement of hope and survival?

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Copyright (c) 2016 and 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 8, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Century of Centuries

The age of our species homo sapiens in its so-called “civilized”
form is rather brief --- very approximately 10,000 years or a
century of centuries. We are much older that --- 315,000 years,
give or take a millennium --- and our direct forbears go back
much further --- 6 to 8 million years by the latest estimate.

It took us fifty centuries to invent reading and writing, and then
forty-five more to invent the printing press. Three or four more,
and we we added the telegraph, camera, telephone, and films.
In the last century, otherwise the most deadly and
self-destructive ever recorded, we managed also to create
radio, television, cell phones and the computer. Obviously,
things are speeding up!

There were so many human catastrophes and so much venal
carnage in the 20th century, we might have hoped for some
relief in our new one, but so far, it’s not the case. This century
opened with a bang on September 11, and just as happened at
the outset of the past century, waves of terror have followed.
A century ago. there was a murderous global pandemic. We
are in one now. In 1914, the most civilized nations stumbled
into what became two world wars, a global cold war, and
innumerable local and regional wars. Now we already have
plenty of the latter.

It hasn’t always gone this way.

My late friend and acute observer of history, Tony Blankley,
noted in his book The West’s Last Chance:

“.....Consider briefly the shocking shift of European
life between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
The thirteenth century experienced warm weather,
bountiful crops; a population that expanded to over
seventy-three million people; the high point of
cathedral building; the founding of the universities;
the flowering of science, theology, mathematics and
literature; and the works of Dante, Roger Bacon, St.
Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Marco Polo,
and many others......Then the fourteenth century
brought climate change (in the form of a mini Ice
Age); depressed harvests; the Hundred Years’ War
between England and France; and the Black Death,
which cut Europe’s population by 40 percent, to
about forty-five million....Then within decades,
Europe rejuvenated itself once again and exploded
into its Renaissance, and the age of discovery.....”

The alternating currents of those centuries do not mean
that the same will happen now. Nor is History an academic
mathematician. Our dating system of centuries and
millennia is quite subjective. Nature gives us days,
seasons, and years, but decades and centuries are our
own decimal contrivances.

I suggest that these events which we live through, good or
bad, are only station stops on a very long journey whose
destination is unknown. Unlike on a train, ship or
airplane, our speed of travel in the centuries changes all
the time.

But how much faster can we, or should we, go?

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Do Economists Know?

Economics is considered a science, but it is concerned with
variable human behavior, past and future, and complicated
by a great number of variations of economic systems. Unlike
physics or biology or chemistry, it has no single or dominant
set of rules or laws which all its practitioners follow, but
rather, it includes a number of competing maxims and
theories, many of which contradict each other.

Further complicating the practice and understanding of
economics is its role in partisan politics where the veneer of
expertise is often employed for more ideological than
scientific goals.

We have, for some time, lived in an age in which “experts”
are regarded as dispositive. But experts often disagree among
themselves robustly, particularly about the future.

This has been made clearer than ever by the current pandemic
crisis. Many medical experts were routinely wrong about its
immediate impact when they tried to contrive models .Some
were more useful by setting down varying scenarios. Everyone,
of course, was guessing.

With the current stage of the pandemic beginning to diminish,
the economic experts are stepping up with pronouncements
--- mostly of already irreversible dire consequences of the
business shutdowns. A few contrarian economists, however,
are suggesting that if the nation’s commerce reopens now,
there will be a quick rebound. (The current stock market rally
appears to agree with the latter.) Of course, if the economy is
shut down long enough, it will collapse. (It is worth pointing
out that for many retail businesses a huge percentage of their
annual revenue is received in the holiday shopping season
between Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

In any event, a carefully managed reopening now designed
with consideration for the health and safety of the public is
likely to restore jobs lost in the shutdown --- and restore
much consumer confidence and resources.

The full extent of any economic damage will not be known
until 2021, although some businesses have closed or will
close permanently, precipitated in many cases by the
shutdowns. Small businesses, as I have written previously,
are particularly vulnerable. It must be remembered,
however, that in a free market economy, individual
businesses fail all the time, including during boom periods.

Stimulus payments to individuals and companies can be
necessary and helpful in the short-term, but beyond that
restoring jobs and re-employment is the key to any real
recovery. In the intermediate and perhaps longer term,
the conditions of the workplace might be changed,
especially for white collar office jobs. Returning to “normal”
will not, in many cases, be returning to jobs just as they
were. In some cases, the emergency will provoke innovation
or improvement --- just as often happens during and after
wars.

Economics can be a useful subject and practice. We need
talented and thoughtful economists.

The truest economic experts will now take U.S. ingenuity
and optimistic spirit into their forecasts. That’s not exactly
scientific either, but it is what has happened at critical
moments time and again for 244 years and counting......


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 29, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Biden Surprise Veep Choice?

For the next several weeks, there will be interminable
speculation about whom presumptive Democratic
presidential nominee Joe Biden will choose as his running
mate for vice  president.

Normally, that choice, when made, generates headlines and
news stories, but if the truth be told, the vice presidential
nominee rarely makes much difference. Voters make their
decisions primarily on the presidential nominee.

A notable exception was John Kennedy selecting Lyndon
Johnson in 1960.  Michael Dukakis appeared to pick the
stronger running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, in 1988, but lost
decisively anyway.

Biden’s choice in 2020 might not make a difference, but
interest in his decision (presumably because of Biden’s
age) will be especially keen.

Most speculation so far has suggested that Senators
Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the frontrunners.
Also prominently mentioned are Michigan Governor
Gretchen Whitmer, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and 
Stacey Abrams from Georgia (the only person actively
campaigning for the job). Applying the rule that the running
mate “should do no harm” with base constituencies, it would
seem that Senator Harris is the most advantageous choice.

There are other possibilities --- all women because Mr.
Biden has pledged to pick a female running mate. Of these,
one strategic potential choice seems to me to stand out
--- Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.
She is 61, a lawyer, a former congresswoman and a member
of a prominent New Mexico Hispanic political family. She is
a widow with grown children, and has in her elected offices
a very liberal record on abortion, gun control and the
environment. If it is presumed that Joe Biden already has
the black vote, then the two groups he must solidify by
election day are Hispanic voters and Bernie Sanders
supporters. Governor Lujan Grisham appeals to the former,
and her progressive record “does no harm” with the latter.

Mr. Biden and his staff will likely be very careful in making
the choice. Even more than usual, voters will be evaluating
his running mate as a potential president. Exhaustive
vetting, interviewing and polling is now taking place.

A final and unspoken consideration, but a vital one, is the
personal compatibility of a vice presidential candidate
with the presidential nominee. It was clearly a key factor
in Jimmy Carter’s choice of Walter Mondale in 1976 ---
and in Barack Obama’s pick of his senate mentor, Joe
Biden, in 2008.

I repeat the caution that few voters make their election
day decision based on who is running for vice president.
The 2020 presidential election occurs during an
extraordinary national and international health crisis.
The electorate appears to be sharply ideologically divided.
Joe Biden will be 78 years old on inauguration day, 2021,
and he faces a formidable incumbent.

His choice of running mate, whomever it is, might not be
the biggest issue facing voters on November 3rd next, but
it will nonetheless be interesting to see whom it will be.


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Heart And Soul Of U.S. Commerce

In my previous post I made a case for reopening America’s
restaurants in most locales. Most of those restaurants are
small businesses which do not have the resources to survive
a long shutdown even with temporary takeout and delivery
services. Of course, such reopening needs to be carefully
managed by restaurateurs and their staffs to ensure the
health and safety of their customers and themselves.

But what of the countless other small retail and service
businesses which make up such an important part of
American commerce?

The answer is urgently the same.

But beyond the immediate reasons to make sure small
businesses of all kinds make it through this pandemic
crisis is a consideration that existed before the health
emergency.

There has been an increasing awareness that artificial
intelligence (A.I.) and robotics technology will replace a
huge part of the global workforce, especially in the U.S.,
and that most of the jobs lost will be irreplaceable.
This will not happen overnight, but is likely to happen
gradually over the next 15-25 years. That means tens of
millions of Americans will be permanently unemployed.
What to do with this dire situation is one of the greatest
challenges facing political leaders today (not surprisingly,
however, few of them are even talking about it).

There are solutions to this dilemma, and one promising
path is the fact that the U.S. is the quintessential
entrepreneurial nation and society. With education and
encouragement, most of the younger workers who now
work for someone else, particularly employers who will
adopt AI and robotics, can become self-employed ---
entrepreneurs especially providing services not provided
by the new technologies.

This transformation can happen and work, but it is not
likely to take place if younger workers see a wipe out of
small entrepreneurial businesses from the current
crisis. If massive endemic unemployment is to be
avoided in the future, entrepreneurship needs to be
seen as a viable and attractive work path.

That is the “big picture” long-term reason to preserve
U.S. small businesses. There are also numerous more       
immediate reasons, including the welfare of small
business owners and their families, their employees and
the “supply chains” of vital goods and services they
provide.

Most big corporations and big businesses can and will
survive the current emergency. (It is important to note
that almost all of them started out as small businesses!)

The small business community is the heart and soul of
our free enterprise system. Each part of it, of course,
has its own conditions and circumstances, as does the
restaurant industry --- so while its reopening and
survival is urgent, it must be done in the context of the
health and safety of the community as a whole.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Save The Restaurants!

The modern American restaurant and its variants --- cafes,
bistros, diners, brasseries, coffee shops, cafeterias, and
eateries --- have become central institutions in our national
life and indispensable to our social culture.

Shutting them all down at the outset of the current pandemic
emergency might have been an inevitable step to take for a
sensibly brief period, but any extended period of imposed
closure will profoundly damage the industry and force a
large percentage of individual establishments to close
permanently.

In Minnesota, and particularly the Twin Cities and its suburbs,
some restaurants (which are able to do so) are open for takeout
and delivery. But these services are only temporary --- they do
not generate enough revenue to sustain the enterprise.

Restaurateurs are entrepreneurs, and they can and want to
adapt to safety requirements for their staffs and customers.
Most of them have the facilities to do so.

The restaurant business is a tough business in good times.
Even successful and popular ones often have a run of only a
decade or two. A few, most of them with large seating capacity,
survive a long time. They are more likely to make it through a
longer shutdown, but their number is small.

With proper sanitary, spacing, preparatory and table delivery
measures, it would appear there is no reasonable cause to keep
restaurants in most locales closed for public seating.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Polarysis And Pandolemics

As Prairie Editor readers know, he on occasion invents a word
or phrase when existing language fails to provide. (Two of his
most notable examples were during election years --- in 2004 
it was the megastate
“Minnewisowa” (now in the dictionary),
and in 2016 it was “
media coup d’etat” (made famous through
the efforts of his friend Newt Gingrich). Circumstances are so
extraordinary in 2020, The Prairie Editor had to invent TWO
new words, “
polarysis” (voter opinion stuck in unresolvable
division), and “
pandolemics” (political rhetoric in the health
emergency).

---------------------------------------------------------------------

As the shutdown and lockdown phase of the pandemic
emergency appears to be gradually ending (although in
some U.S states it was not imposed), voter interest in
the 2020 national election campaign seems to be
returning. Certain media and political figures, of
course, tried all along to keep it on the political front
burner. It would also appear that the deep ideological
division that existed before the pandemic is as strong,
or stronger, than ever.

This polarysis is being fanned, as usual, by the media
with ever increasing pandolemics and other devices of
incendiary sensationalism.

Buckle up your political seat belts! An extended blame
game will now likely ensue over the next five months
until election day. It has already begun. It isn’t going to
stop. It’s going to very likely become quite ugly.

To be sure, there is a lot at stake --- the presidency,
control of both bodies of Congress, governorships,
and control of state legislatures. Each of these
elected institutions will have a part in dealing with
the problematic post-pandemic world.

Because there is so much at stake, and the traumatic
effects of the pandemic crisis will still be raw and
fresh, we should not be surprised at the continuing
polarysis and the pandolemics it will spawn. U.S.
elections are traditionally hard-fought, rarely polite,
and usually break established rules.

This cycle should provide more political fireworks
than ever.


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Rogue Waves

A rogue wave is an unexpected maritime danger for ships
and boats at sea. Rogue waves are not fully understood
yet, but they have long damaged or sunk vessels of all sizes.
(The tallest known rogue wave was estimated a 115 feet
high; the tallest precisely measured was 80 feet high.)
Big waves that occur in storms, from earthquakes or
volcanoes (tsunamis), or from other explainable causes,
are not rogue waves.


------------------------------------------------

It is not too soon, I think, to speculate about and discuss 
U.S global strategic and security relationships during and
after the pandemic “rogue wave” which is now occurring
worldwide.

The American debate is as old as “the halls of Montezuma”
and  “the shores of Tripoli’ --- that is, when and where to
extend American power, and should we be the guardian or
a policeman to the globe.  Two world wars, several
regional wars, and numerous humanitarian rescues, have
left contemporary American generations wary and weary
of putting our soldiers in harm’s way without “victory” or
at least visible positive outcomes. Yet a savage 20th century
instructed the Western democracies over and over that
strategic passivity or avoidance courts disaster.

That debate continues.

Many historians have pointed out that what really
enabled  the catastrophe of World War II was the global
economic trauma of the Great Depression --- and not
only very weak or misguided statesmen, dictators, or
feckless international organizations. In fact, the value of
European trade fell two-third between 1929 and 1932, and
unemployment skyrocketed. Unlike the post-World War I
and Depression U.S.,  Central and Eastern European
nations, most of which were only recent democracies,
saw the rise of radical political groups on the left and the
right. Critically, the German democratic Weimar Republic
survived its notorious reparations burden and
hyper-inflation crises of the 1920s (while most of it
Western neighbors were rebuilding from World War I),
but it could not survive the Great Depression. Profound
economic weakness caused by the “rogue wave” of the
financial collapse of the early 1930‘s severely hobbled the
strongest European nations, Great Britain and France, in
protecting other European democracies from fascism and
communism.

That is why an overlong shutdown response to the current
pandemic is so risky because it might profoundly weaken
free market North American, European and Asian
democracies in their long struggle against new malign
and global totalitarian and barbaric forces.

As I write this, those nations  --- and in the U.S., those
states --- which adopted the shutdown strategy to combat
the pandemic are in varying processes of reopening their
commerce and economies. It is now uncertain how  much
damage has been done. Just as some medical experts
overstated the medical impact of the pandemic (so far),
those economic experts who are predicting a global
depression, runaway inflation and fiscal chaos might be
indulging in worst case melodrama. Nevertheless,we are
in uncharted territory --- no one knows what the
aftermath will bring.

This further complicates the decision-making about when
and where to reopen economies that have been shut down.
Not only does risking individual lives and individual (as
well as local business) fiscal well-being have to be weighed
and considered, the economic health of nations needs to be
taken into account.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: One Industry's Contrarian Furure?

The aftermath of the national pandemic shutdowns is likely
problematic for most U.S. industries, but one very large and
important sector might ultimately benefit from the crisis.

American public education, from pre-school to post graduate
levels has been in a qualitative decline for decades, even as its
costs have soared. Whether local or state government-run,
a concurrence of controversies, lack of discipline, political
correctness, degeneration of curricula, swollen class size.
excess of unnecessary management, teacher union demands,
and too much non-educational distractions have brought
secondary school systems to very low levels in many locales,
especially in large inner-city areas.

As a response, educational alternatives have risen, including
private, charter, home-schooling, religious --- and most
recently, online. As these alternatives have grown, financial
pressure on public education has increased.

Current shutdown of  in-person schooling will end probably
with the onset of the next school year, but for now all students
are receiving their education online or by home-schooling,
alternatives most parents and pupils did not consider for
themselves previously. Having experienced them, a
certain number are likely to continue with online and
home-schooling education. That number now is unknown,
but if that number is only 2-4%, it could have major impact on
government-run public education.

Home-schooling is one of those few institutions embraced by
both conservatives and progressives, albeit for different
reasons, including reduced curriculum offerings, overlarge
class size, arbitrary revisionism of U.S. and world history,
banning of school prayer, imposed political correctness, and
increased drug use and violence. When shutdowns end, most
parents will return to their work away from home, but some
employers will reduce their overheads by continuing that some
work at home --- thus reducing the day care function of having
children in schools. For those parents who don’t want to
home-school, there is online schooling as an option.

Perhaps even more devastating could be the consequences for
colleges and universities.  The cost  of a higher education have
soared in recent decades. An Ivy League bill was $2500 a year in
1960; today it is about $70,000 per year (and rising). Other
private colleges and universities are the same or not far behind.
State colleges and universities are lower, but often still very
substantial.

In addition to demands for refunds for the shortened school
year caused by shutdowns, colleges and universities now
face resistance from parents to paying so much to send their
sons and daughters away to school. As with secondary schools,
most colleges were already facing a crisis before the shutdowns,
especially in the undergraduate liberal arts programs where
political correctness, historical revisionism and free speech
issues were increasingly overshadowing quality education.

Intercollegiate sports have spawned huge campus stadiums,
and produce key financial funding from attendance and
alumnae giving.   The immediate future of large stadium and
indoor arena crowds is now uncertain.  The sports themselves
will return, but the industry behind them could be much
changed.

Online higher education had already become a factor before
the shutdowns, but it could now have a major boost as
traditional colleges and universities struggle with new
enrollments, financing and other campus issues.

In the short term, the higher education industry faces major
post-shutdown consequences and challenges. But for those
American parents and students concerned about runaway
higher education costs, the failing quality of
undergraduate liberal arts programs, and the general
decline of campus environments, the current emergency
could prove to be  a catalyst for better higher learning
education  ahead.

Similarly, the public secondary school industry, facing
credible competition from private and technological
alternatives, could begin to halt its recent downward drift
by responding to post-shutdown challenges and the needs
of its true clients --- parents and pupils.


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Political Insomnia

National politics these days apparently does not know how
to sleep. Like insomnia, this is not a healthy condition, and
I suspect the U.S. body politic suffers for it.

Keeping us up, I think, are too many cups of media caffeine.
The current medical crisis leads often too easily to contrived
anxiety, finger-pointing, scare-mongering, fake news, rumors
and premature conclusions. Each of these can be politicized,
especially in an election year, especially in THIS election year.

Former Pennsylvania Governor and first Secretary of
Homeland Security Tom Ridge, a Republican, recently
made an eloquent plea for older veterans. other vulnerable
elderly, and health care providers in an April 29 op ed in
USA Today. He argues for patience and compassion, not
politics, on the issue of when and how to end shutdowns.
Others have persuasively argued that those who politicize
this issue by demanding the shutdowns be extended
indefinitely (to their benefit in the coming elections) are
ignoring the economic and psychological well-being of those
in the small business community and those of all ages who
are made vulnerable by isolation. Former Democratic
Congressman Tim Penny thoughtfully suggested in March
that shutdowns be targeted at infection “hot spots” such as
nursing  and retirement homes, as well as crowded urban
areas,  and not necessarily universally. Like Tom Ridge, Tim
Penny opts for practical and commonsense solutions instead
of political ones.

Some medical experts have apparently seriously
overestimated the impact of the medical crisis on the
general population, but there is no doubt about the heavy
impact on the elderly and medically vulnerable.

The solution is to apply common sense, ingenuity, reliable
data, compassion, and the good will of the community.
Politics, temporary inconvenience, grandstanding, too much
haste or too much delay lead us away from the best courses
of public health security.

The president, federal health agency chiefs, and governors
each have sobering and difficult decisions to make in this
crisis. They each have political roles, but this is not a
political crisis --- it’s a medical crisis.

There is plenty of time for politics later.


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Now For Cruise Ships?

From the 1980s through the1990s, I was a lecturer on the Cunard
Lines, and before that, I sailed on numerous cruise ships that
made the transatlantic crossing from he U.S to Europe and back
--- as well as in the Caribbean. My Cunard gig added South and
Central America, a Panama Canal transit, and the Pacific Ocean
to my cruising map. My most recent sailings were on the then
new Queen Mary 2 going  to he U.K., and on the maiden voyage
of the mega-ship Norwegian Epic from he U.K. to New York, both
in 2010. Altogether, I sailed on 31 international and 3 domestic
passenger ships in more than four decades. (That doesn’t count
numerous local tour boats and private yachts.)

Obviously, I love sailing on cruise ships and the superlative
travel experiences they provide, I am writing this piece now
because it might become an experience of the past --- made so
by the pandemic that stranded several ships en route, resulting
in exasperating quarantines, interrupted cruises, and finally,
the cancellation of the worldwide cruise season just beginning
its peak period.

How big is this industry?

There are more than 325 cruise ships currently operating
worldwide with 550,000 lower berths capacity. In 2018, there
were 27.2 million ocean cruise passengers with a $126 billion
economic impact. New ships providing 32,000 lower berths at
a cost of $7.4 billion were added in one year. (For the years
2018-2025, 220,000 new berths were projected to be added
with new ships at a cost of $51 billion.) The cruise industry
employs about one million total workers with $41 billion in
annual wages. The recent annual growth rate for the industry
has exceeded 5%. About 1000 ports worldwide welcome
cruise ships and their passengers. The two major cruise
destination markets are the Caribbean and Mediterranean,
but there are significant markets to South America, Hawaii,
Alaska, the south Pacific, United Kingdom/Ireland,
Scandinavia, and the east coast of North America.

Only one cruise line, Cunard, now has frequent and regular
transatlantic sailings between the U.S.and Europe. For almost
200 years this was the primary passenger ship route for
millions of tourists and immigrants.

All this has now suddenly and unexpectedly come to a halt.
All cruise sailings worldwide have been suspended, as has so
much public activity. The uncertainty from economic and
social shutdowns on land is equal or greater for the seagoing
cruise ship industry.

Cruise ship travel has many unique attractions (which is why
I love to travel by ship), but it has a few drawbacks, too,
including the new one presented by the pandemic.

The attractions have included the psychological security of
an alternative to air travel (as trains do), the extraordinary
fine dining on cruise ships (almost always included in the
price of the ticket), the numerous amenities and activities
onboard during a cruise (sports and exercise activity, health
spas, lectures, concerts live theater,, films, card games,
casinos, night clubs and late-night dancing, computer
instruction, cocktail parties, duty-free gift purchases, and
above all, perhaps, meeting and getting to know some very
fascinating fellow passengers), and being able often to
visit glamorous ports using the ship as your hotel. Most
ship cruises have celebrities onboard, either as ship
performers or lecturers, or as fellow passengers. One of    
my trips included a legendary Broadway and film star who
I met in the line of the ship’s sumptuous (lobster and filet
mignon) midnight buffet, and who graciously sat with me;
and on the same voyage, a famed Nobel Prize laureate in
physics who attended my lectures.

Finally, a ship cruise is an incredible bargain when
compared to any other form of travel. For about $100-$150
a day per person, everything (room, five  meals, amenities,
transportation and entertainment) is included. The same
any other way would three times as much or more. There is
rarely a need , incidentally, to pay the brochure rate for a
ticket, since big discounts are available from ship lines
eager to fill unsold berths, especially close to the sailing
date. Of course, ship passengers can spend more than $150
a day for a bigger room and luxury extras, but it really isn’t
necessary)

On the downside,if you don’t have “sea legs” and the ship
runs into bad weather, it could be rough going --- although
ships usually provide free shots or pills to avoid seasickness.
Just as some are anxious about flying, others are anxious
about travel on water. If you are in a hurry, ship travel is not
for you. A transatlantic voyage takes five or six days. A plane
will do it in a few hours. But then, an air flight is nowhere as
much fun as a cruise.

Ships today vary greatly in size. I’ve sailed on small, mid-size,
large and mega- ships, and each provides a different kind of
cruise experience. For me, the best is a new, mid-size ship
(1500-2000 passengers) that provides significant amenities
and facilities. Smaller ships, carefully chosen, can provide
special charm. I sailed on a megaship on its maiden voyage,
but  it carried 4200 passengers, and that’s too big for me, On
the other hand, if  I were traveling with children, it might be
ideal with its free daycare,  programs for children, and lots of
other children to meet and  play with.

In the past few years, most of the new ships have been
mega-sized. That is to say, 3500 or more passengers, and up
to 2000 crew. They have as many floors as a skyscraper, and
almost too much going  on. They are small cities at sea.

Are these megaships now nautical dinosaurs --- victims of
a social distancing asteroid that crashed into the sea?

Considering current problems, including the cash flow crisis,
the answer might be yes, but advance cruise bookings for
next year are already reportedly strong. With some ingenuity
and adaptability, the megaships  could also provide special
features in a post-pandemic travel world --- and survive.

Cruise lines already are very sensitive to onboard sanitary
conditions. Some ships each year experience nonovirus
(a mild stomach illness that lasts a few days) outbreaks, but
they are very rare. All ships provide onboard medical staff
and facilities. The large Queen Elizabeth II had not only a
hospital, but an operating room for emergency surgery.
Megaships have the space to now provide enhanced medical
facilities, including isolation beds, intensive care --- and
extra doctors and nurses --- as well as well-stocked ship
pharmacies and extra medical equipment. Knowing a ship
is well-prepared for medical services (and emergencies)
could be quite reassuring to cruise passengers.

Larger ships also have bigger indoor spaces for dining,
recreation and programs to reduce crowding and enhance
post-pandemic social distancing.  New health-conscious
dining menus and expanded spa programs might also
attract passengers, as might less crowded shipboard
programs and carefully designed itineraries.

But this large and recently booming industry has been
dealt a serious and unexpected blow. Unlike other some
industries, it has been completely, albeit temporarily, shut
down.

How it will fare when it relaunches its next season, and
global vacation travel resumes, is for now an open question.


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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 24, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "Uncertain Sequences" (poem)


UNCERTAIN SEQUENCES
by  Barry Casselman

The sudden arrival of solitude was a surprise attack
on our apathies about each other.

We had harbored no doubts about the daily course
of the world we passed through in numb routine
as if we were winter birds flying south
or gestating salmon going upstream.

Now we wonder what course is next
after intrusion is somehow subdued.    

We call the future with  numbers discerned by our own decoders,
but the future only answers by asking us to record a message.            

In almost every score of years, an abrupt flash point occurs,  
reminding us how fragile we are, how little we know
what we think we know about.

Solitude uncloaks a condition we are compelled
then to clothe with other solitaries to warm our passage
through the unheated space of our planet’s wordless orbit.
We invented dress codes we call languages
to connect to the other ones, those we can reach.

Days of unexpected solitude are in andante tempo,
and unless we improvise, they play the same songs,
the same songs from old dreams we did not understand.

We compose new melodies in vivace as a way out of this.

The next season wakes us again.



Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


Saturday, April 18, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Whither Print Now?

Like the restaurant industry recently discussed in this space
(see “Revision Of Dining Out”), the vast U.S. print industry
(books, newspapers, magazines, paper documents) was already
undergoing profound changes before the current global medical
emergency suddenly appeared.

In the case of the print industry, the cause was an epic and
sudden innovation of technology --- the internet. Enabled by
the microchip, the nation (and most of the world) has gone
online for much of its reading.

This transformation of reading venues is particularly true for
the younger American generations, many of whose members
were born after the internet age had begun.

Among the first industries to feel its impact was the newspaper.
Virtually all daily and weekly newspapers developed online
proprietary editions to go with print editions, but the latter
have been in steady decline. Some newspapers no longer have
print editions. Newspapers also have faced serious competition
for their principal source of revenue, advertising, from a myriad
of online services. With automation, newspaper employment,
both technical and journalistic, has been in steady decline, and
controversial recent political bias by many major urban daily
newspapers has, according to most polls, has shaken public
confidence in the industry, both print and online.

The magazine industry is more diverse with numerous special
interest publications doing better than some long-time larger
circulation periodicals which, like print newspapers, are seeing
fewer subscribers and less advertising. Most formerly successful
newsmagazines and political journals are being subsidized by
affluent owners. Otherwise, most could not survive. Exclusively
online magazines are reportedly experiencing less advertising, a
critical element in their long-term survival.

The book publishing industry has been struggling to adapt and
revive for years as print publishing costs have risen sharply.
The introduction of online e-books and print copy-on-demand
services has further undercut the ability of many established
book publishers to make a profit. But like the daily newspaper,
the obit for the printed book was premature. Whether the new
technologies, current emergency, and aging of readers who buy
printed books will combine to drastically change the industry is
yet unclear, but time and book reader habits do not appear to be
on the mass market printed book’s side.

Similarly, the use of printed documents of all kinds, from tax
returns, payments by check or cash, paper correspondence of
most types, and other general printing seems on the way  to
obsolescence --- replaced by electronic technology. This
long-term development seems intensified in the current
emergency during which so much is taking place and being
communicated online.

Other industries such as the cruise ship industry were growing
and booming before the emergency shutdown. Several new and
large cruise ships had recently been built. But the international
passenger sailing season has now been suspended, and its effect
is likely to be more severe than the impact of shutdowns in the
printing industry.

Ironically, the emergency shutdowns have given many Americans
of all ages who are “sheltered-in-place” suddenly a lot more time
to occupy themselves by reading. This includes reading not only
the news and sharing correspondence online, but also reading
and re-reading printed books already in existing personal
libraries.  

Like so much about this unprecedented crisis, predictions about
its lasting impact are now only guesswork.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Down Ballot

The presidential race, every four years, understandably is the
focus of popular and media attention, but as we have been
reminded once more in the past two years, control of the U.S.
house and senate can be critical to the nation’s public business.

Republicans now control the U.S. senate, and have been able,
aided by procedural reforms, to confirm a record number of
young and conservative federal district and appellate judges 
nominated by President Trump. At the same time, the GOP
majority was able to block what it felt was a very partisan
impeachment of the president when it reached a senate trial.

Democrats now control the U.S. house, and have been able to
block Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda, hold up presidential
executive branch nominations, and conduct investigations
into the president’s activities. The latter led to a very rare
presidential impeachment by a partisan vote late last year.

Prior to the current and sudden health emergency, there
were many pundits, pollsters, party activists and consultants
predicting November outcomes. Conventional “wisdom”
among these was that President Trump would be re-elected,
the Democrats easily keep control of the U.S. house, and that
GOP control of the U.S. senate would narrowed close to a tie.

After the emergency, now presumably still in its early days,
any previous conventional wisdom about 2020 election
results would seem to be premature if not invalid.

Depending on the management of the crisis, its duration, its
severity and economic impact, significantly different
outcomes are reasonably possible, including the election of
Joe Biden as president and a Democratic sweep of Congress,
or a landslide win for Donald Trump accompanied by
Republican control of both the U.S. house and senate. A more
mixed result in a close election could also occur.

The original issues will likely remain, including who will get
to nominate and confirm any U.S. supreme court justices in
the next four years, immigration policy, foreign trade policy,
tax policy, domestic infrastructure renewal, and entitlement
reform. But how the current emergency will affect voters,
especially non-base voters, on these issues could be crucial.

It is important always to emphasize the importance of the
quality of the individual candidates in the competitive house
and senate races. Strong and appealing candidates,
incumbents or challengers, can and often do resist national
election trends or waves.

When all the 2020 nominees are chosen, especially challengers
to incumbents, a much better picture of the prospects of the
down ballot contests will come into view. Until then, there is
likely only debatable speculation.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Revision Of Dining Out

I was beginning to prepare an updated article on interesting
new local restaurants and new dining trends for this column
when the world, including the food world, suddenly changed.

Most of the new places on this list, and on my previous lists,
are now completely or partially closed. Alas, some of them
will likely not re-open. Dining out in the U.S. is  going to be
revised.

Exactly what this revision will be, of course, is not entirely
clear, and probably won’t be until after the national and global
health emergency is over --- and that is as yet undetermined.

Recent decades, beginning after World War II, had brought
about a food and dining renaissance to the U.S.  Previously,
fine dining was mostly available to the very affluent, and
ethnic dining was limited usually to small neighborhoods in
large urban areas where they had small numbers of
customers. Most Americans ate meals prepared at home.

During World War II, millions of American soldiers were
stationed throughout Europe, North Africa and the Pacific
where they encountered strange and delicious new cuisines.
Kitchen and food storage innovations at the same time
became available to millions of American households in the
post-war boom. A national food culture highlighted by
a few but simple dishes now exploded into a dynamic and
growing food hospitality industry . With more and more
women taking jobs, and growing families, inexpensive fast
food restaurant chains appeared and multiplied rapidly

With the appearance of television, and the boost from the
book and magazine publishing industries, a bounty of
cooking classes and recipes became available to whole
generations of U.S. women (and men) --- much of it
intensified and popularized by celebrity chefs and food
writers.

As U.S. middle class and working class families and
individuals became more affluent, American farmers
and other food providers responded with an increasing
quality and supply of meat, dairy, vegetable and fruit
products. Transportation innovation made importing
much more fresh food from abroad possible.

At the same time, labor and food costs were rising, and the
government sector increased restaurant regulations and
taxes, especially in urban areas, narrowing profit margins.
Even before the current emergency, restaurateurs across the
nation were changing their menus, formats and procedures
to meet  he new labor and customer demands. In some
urban locales, higher minimum wage requirements and
sales taxes were causing a number of restaurants to close
their doors

With state lockdown orders, most restaurants are now
closed and their employees laid off. Some restaurants and
coffeehouses (and liquor stores) remain open for delivery
or take-out only. Grocery stores and chains are open,
and also offer prepared, deli and other take-out foods and
meals on a daily basis. But most restaurants particularly
cannot operate like this this indefinitely. They have
employees, food suppliers and mortgage or other debts to
pay.

Many restaurateurs, especially those who are determined
to survive the current emergency, are already thinking past
the lockdowns. Some trends, such as reduced table service,
will likely accelerate. Other trends, such as increased space
between tables, heightened sanitary procedures, and reduced
hours and menus are also likely.

The restaurant industry is only one of many U.S. industries
which contribute so much to contemporary life, but it is also
one of the most vulnerable. Its development over the past
75 years has been astonishing, and now it will change again.
This time, I think, it will require a certain spirit of
partnership between management, employees and
customers if it is going to rebound in the post-emergency
food culture.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Let's Get Back To Work, But Carefully

The dilemma is when to get back to work while the pandemic is
sill spreading.

There are those who say right now to avert an economic collapse,
and those who say not for months even if it wrecks the economy.
However sincerely these positions are held, neither is workable.
The most effective solution would seem to be to wait until new
infections “flatten out” and are actually in decline --- although
exactly when is a risky judgment call. Every human life, young
and old, is priceless.

But whenever the decision is made to go back to work, and to
re-open the stores and restaurants, it will not be the same as
before. Social distancing will remain for a while, perhaps until
a vaccine is available. Sooner than scare headlines have
suggested, there will be a vaccine and effective medications and
treatments, but they will  still take some time. In short, for the
near future, even after self- or imposed quarantines are ended,
we will all still need to be very careful.

The decision of timing the resumption of “normal” work and
commerce is a critical one, and will precede any return to any
widespread social activity. Both will depend on location and
local conditions --- and could vary significantly from place to
place. Large meeting models and sport events attendance likely
will have to be rethought in the short term, as will foreign travel.

Most retail business models will likely undergo change. Among
those would be the restaurant and tourist industries, each of
which directly and indirectly employ significant numbers.
Their prompt recovery is vital, as are all the many other
industries which contribute so much to our way of life.

As Americans and members of the human family, much
challenge, ingenuity and very hard work are ahead of us, in
addition to our enduring the current emergency. We have come
back before --- after a punishing civil war, a Spanish flu pandemic,
two world wars, an economic depression, as well as many other
shared catastrophes.

It might not be what we expected to be doing in the years just
ahead, but it must be done, and we can do it.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Home Alone?

The phrase “voluntary quarantine” is technically a contradiction,
but we are now living through a period when the current health
emergency has already begun to change our language.

The 17th century origin of the word “quarantine” is the Italian
word for “forty days” --- a once traditional period of imposed
medical isolation. (Forty days and nights --- and years --- also
frequently appear as periods of human stress and trial in both
the Old and New Testaments.)

Today we have a modified version named “social distancing”
which isn’t really quarantine --- but is a radical change of
physical manners, that is, consciously expanding the space
between persons in public ,and abolishing all public physical
contact, including handshaking, hugging, embracing and kissing
on cheeks.

We now have a new labyrinth of solitude, to adapt the famous
phrase and book title of  philosopher/poet Octavio Paz. Imposed
solitude and its isolation represents a new and unfamiliar
experience for many young persons who have experienced a
continuum of family members, schoolmates and social friends
in most of their waking hours since they were born. On the other
hand, those same generations grew up and/or became adults in
the internet age and are accustomed to communicating online
and by cell phone. So these younger generations are already expert
in being “social” from a distance. Older generations are
increasingly challenged by imposed isolation because their social
experiences were mostly in-person with physical contact.

All generations face an unexpected dilemma --- what to do with
all the new waking time by themselves.

As I see it, this dilemma is also an opportunity ---an opportunity to
turn one’s attention to any number of matters  procrastinated or
ignored --- and an opportunity to expand personal interests both
physical and intellectual. Each of these opportunities has a payoff
not only in the present isolation, but after it’s over.

Of course, many now at home are sharing the time with others,
including parents, spouses, children, romantic partners, or friends.
This gives them daily social contact, but also risks the tensions of
overexposure. Ironically, those living alone have a potential
advantage --- the new imposed isolation is partly a variant by
degree of their traditional daily lives.

I realize the above is fairly obvious, and the personal need to
adapt and expand daily lives remains an individual’s choice.  The
duration of the imposed isolation defines the challenge. The longer
the duration the greater the challenge for societies and its members.

Like so many aspects of survival and endurance through a major
and shared crisis, attitude and character --- and not abstract
ideology --- are key to getting through it all. Widespread reports of
many helping and supplying the more vulnerable among us are an
early positive sign so far. Not all societies allow or encourage
self-motivated, personal and creative compassion, but where it
flourishes, the odds of getting through any long emergency are at
least improved.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reerved.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "A Bitter Gift" (poem)

A BITTER GIFT
by Barry Casselman


This interruption is a bitter gift
foreshadowing another and disparate event
which will test us even more when we arrive there.

Its donor is using an alias
we cannot trace or decipher,
but we know we must be able to decode its message.

Our formalities betrayed us,
thinking a handshake was a sign of good will,
or more peace in our time, or sanctuary.

Our confinement ends the reverie
we have been sleepwalking through the cascading moments
of still another innocence to be discarded
like all those others we have left behind, and now call history.

Then we realize a delayed sense
of how much has irrevocably changed
as if we had lost our childhoods one more time.

Without the usual ceremonies, we have graduated
to another degree with highest honors in surprise,
but no diploma, no applause,
no trace of our new destination,
except for the bitter gift.

Each generation, and each person in it,
has different tools to work through this hiatus
however long it carries us to where this bitter gift
becomes transformed like a ripening.


Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 27, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: 2020 Bets Are Off

The extraordinary global and domestic health emergency has
brought with it so much uncertainty, especially about its duration
so far, that it is not yet possible to make credible election
predictions for November, 2020.

The Democratic presidential primary season has been delayed and
interrupted --- although its eventual outcome has seemingly already
been determined. Many key Democratic and Republican U.S. house
and senate races are in a kind of limbo as candidates attempt to
raise money and their campaign profiles in .a politically numbed
environment.

Polling, always inexact and time-limited, is probably of little use in
present circumstances. Public opinion now, needless to say, is
acutely emotional and short-term. The all-important economy is in
a suspended near-term state. The routines of daily lives have been
drastically changed.

Virtually all public events and meetings have been postponed or
cancelled. In addition to sporting and cultural events, the shutting
down includes political meetings of all kinds, from fundraisers
and meet-and-greets to rallies and conventions.

Because of perceived danger and risk, the U.S. public is responding
cooperatively to temporary mandated “lockdowns” and other
restrictions on their daily lives. But the U.S.is a market economy,
and Americans cannot be expected to simply stay a home for an
extended period of time, many without job income and enduring
severe shortages of goods and services.

This is a unique moment when the political and business leaders,
including their teams of bureaucrats, managers and the creative
innovators among them need to think of new ways to pull us out
of the current crisis.

The preoccupation now must be dealing with and somehow
bringing to an end the emergency and its impact on the nation
and its people. Those who think solely or primarily in partisan
political considerations betray the larger public interests which
now must be served.                                                                                                                                                                                                           

For those who successfully lead us, regardless of their partisan
political  affiliations, with effective new thinking, there will be
rewards from a grateful nation later, but now the necessity is
coming up with those solutions, policies, strategies, treatments,
medicines and vaccines that will benefit everyone.

Not just the president and his administration, but the leaders of
the opposition party and the 50 state governors are being tested
in ways none of them imagined they would face on the scale now
before us.

Much is ahead now, and we must wish all decision-makers well
in what they will do --- not because we necessarily like all of
them or agree with all of them, but because so much now is at
stake for all of us --- and we’re in this together.

Politics and election campaigning will not, of course, cease.
Nor can we cease the nation’s commerce. Soon enough, we will
be debating the 2020 political issues, including some new ones.
We will also be shopping, meeting and dining out again.
Politics and commerce are vital to our economic, civic and
community health.

We might have to stand at arm’s length briefly, but we can only
survive and flourish again living and working side by side.

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Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.