A Report Card for Social Media

During the 1970s, when I joined Digital Equipment Corp. (AKA DEC), the company had already developed its own email network, and a system called DEC Notes. Though the DEC Notes system was conceived as an electronic bulletin board, the company’s creative employees began using it to form an extensive series of group hangouts, similar to today’s Facebook Groups. With a large diverse population, we could join or view dialogues on specific sports, teams, cooking, homemade beer, books, science fiction, technologies, medical issues, jokes, and a myriad of company issues.

As I became familiar with these technologies, I began to realize that they were more than tools. They created a new kind of organization that was unlike typical companies. In other companies, management level people hand-wrote memos which were then edited, proofed and typed by secretaries, and delivered by interoffice mail. This cumbersome process limited the amount of written discussions.

Email users at DEC, however, could communicate instantaneously, and could self-edit their messages. They could also send copies to large groups of employees. Email produced high volumes of electronic information sent rapidly throughout the company. It created a huge operational advantage, but there were also downsides to the email culture . People would say uncomfortable things in an email, that they would never have said face-to-face. This changed interpersonal relationships. Few people used off-color language, or attacked one another in email. However, political gloves were off, and many people came across as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Despite some of the downsides, I fell in love with email, notes files, and a few other related DEC implementations. Along with many DEC enthusiasts, I dreamed of a future worldwide network on which any user anywhere could join the conversations. But like so many futuristic notions, our early technologies were the forerunners of something entirely different. Along with products from other companies, the capabilities we loved became part of Social Media. .

If we add Smartphones as an adjunct to social media, we can safely say that virtually everyone below age 50 uses some form of social media. Some people love it, while others curse it. But we all depend on it for certain parts of our lives.

Is social media good for the world, or is it hurting us? We hear opinions on both sides of the question.

Idealists point to the power social media gave to insurgent groups during the Arab Spring. Without social media, the Egyptian Army would have controlled small groups of dissidents, and Hosni Mubarak would have remained in power.

Political activists rely on social media to articulate their beliefs, support selected candidates, and attack other people in public life. Advertisers and charitable organizations value social media as a fast and relatively inexpensive method of reaching millions of people. Politicians love it, because it provides a method of promoting candidates and soliciting donations. News media members value social media as a source for quoting politicians, and learning about oddball stories.

The detractors of social media are equally vocal. They decry the culture of children who use the media to hurt others. They argue that social media platforms and devices have become the primary way that kids communicate with each other, and therefore retard development of social skills. The vast array of opposing opinions, often make it impossible to separate truth from fiction. This is especially problematic when trusted journalists from cable news and print media use online sources as verified news. Whether voters like or dislike the president, we know that social media has played a role in perpetuating a two-year investigation of a crime that was never committed. Journalists and politicians relying on social media sources were responsible for this major miscalculation.

Both proponents and opponents of social media need to understand it’s fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that it offers equal power to anyone, in any station of life, at any level of education, or belief set. A person of limited intelligence and suffering from mental disorder has the same potential authority as a scientist, a college professor, or a senior religious leader. This equalized platform is troublesome, because many people accept the last statement that they heard or read as being correct if it agrees with something they like.

Recently, politicians have articulated concerns about curbing the power of “big tech” which means Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. Ironically, these companies have supposedly pledged to somehow police social media posts to ensure that they don’t break certain (undefined) rules. The concept of having these companies as arbiters of social media correctness is unlikely to solve social media reliability.

My personal take on improving social media trustworthiness is to educate the public, beginning with kids in school. We need programs as ubiquitous and repetitious as advertising, teaching our citizens how to evaluate social media information, and how to become trusted sources themselves. Journalists must also play a major role, explaining how information is verified and ensuring readers that news is news, that opinion is opinion, and that the two are separated.


Let’s Elect a Woman President

Despite the covert dissent of many politicians and media people, I believe that that the country would be best served by electing a female president in 2020.

My reasons for advocating this choice are not the usual political arguments. I’m not a philosophical feminist. I pay little attention  the so-called pay gap that claims to demonstrate that men earn more than women. What’s more, I couldn’t care less about the mythical “glass ceiling.” And citing women who are heads of state in other countries adds little to the discussion. All of these talking points are primarily political pandering. We should elect a woman because she is likely to be our most effective president at this point in our history.

I want a president who is an excellent leader, respected by the Congress, by the bureaucracy, and the voting public. I want our president to be highly intelligent; to make solid, common sense policy choices, and to earn the admiration of our allies and our enemies.

To date, we have had forty-four men* as president, and few had all of the qualities needed. It’s hard to believe that those who fell short were America’s best choices. We have seen numerous examples of exceptional women who might have been better leaders.

Though many politicians and media people might be surprised, women and men are different. In every other area of public life, they  provide a healthy balance to each other. Our government needs that balance. It’s not a matter of biology alone. It’s a matter of common sense.

Women today equal or outnumber men in many key areas, such as medicine, law, and finance. In future years, they may dominate legislative bodies, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) positions.

America must evolve to opening the presidency to women now.

*Note: Though Donald Trump is the forty-fifth president, Grover Cleveland is double-counted because he served two nonsequential terms.

Is the State of the Union Speech a Joke?

My Congressman, Eric Swalwell (D-California), sent an email today to constituents today, asking, “What do you want the President to say in this State of the Union address? What are the issues most important to you, and what do you want him to do about them?”

Eric is an excellent young Congressman and does his best to work for his constituents. However, questions like these are obvious prerequisites for anti-Trump political statements. I don’t fault him for that, it’s what politicians do.

Following is my reply to him:

Dear Congressman Swalwell,

Responding to your query about the State of the Union address, I would like to hear the President say NOTHING. In fact, I would prefer cancellation of all future State of the Union speeches.

President Obama had the best oratorical skills of any president since Reagan. Nevertheless, his State of the Union speeches were dreadful. Like all Presidents, he gave us a lot of feel-good nonsense along with positive future promises that he would never fulfill. Added to those distractions, the Republicans acted like complete idiots, never applauding, but sometimes verbalizing their displeasure.

Trump’s speaking skills are not as polished as Obama’s. However, the Trump SOTU performance will be comparable, with two exceptions. 1). This time it will be the Democrats not applauding and acting stupidly. 2). Trump will use a word or phrase that the Democrats will claim to be racist, no matter how innocuous his intent may be.

One other difference will be that Representative Maxine Waters won’t select a floor position permitting her to share air kisses with the President. She only does that with Democrats.

My bottom line is that the SOTU is a political relic that should be retired. It adds nothing of value to the voting public.

BTW, what I would like to see is the President and the two Democrat Congressional leaders answering questions while connected to polygraphs. That would be worth watching.


Steve Vachss


Harvey Weinstein’s Place in History

Final-+hanWhat does Harvey Weinstein have in common with Gavrilo Princip, Christine Jorgensen, and Margaret Sanger?

Each of these people was an obscure individual who committed an act that sparked social or political change.

Gavrilo Princip murdered Arch Duke Ferdinand, thereby providing the spark that started World War One and caused 16-million deaths.

Christine Jorgensen was an American woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen’s decision created new beliefs and attitudes that are still widely debated.

Margaret Sanger changed social attitudes on birth control and convinced women that they have personal rights regarding their own biology, rather than permitting governments to control them with laws.

Harvey Weinstein committed egregious acts against women that resulted in the widespread exposure of abusers and an end to tolerating similar practices by other men.

Unquestionably the uproar created by the Weinstein revelations has ignited anger in millions of women who accuse former bosses or co-workers of sexual misconduct against them. The “me too” campaign on social media has continued to keep outrageous behavior in the public eye.

Nevertheless, sexual harassment remains a complex subject. Anyone who has committed sexual misbehavior deserves to be exposed, and in many cases deserves some form of punishment. However, there are many different kinds of wrongful acts, with some more damaging than others.

It’s easy to compel broad agreement that Weinstein is among the worst. If media reports are accurate, he may deserve legal justice including time behind bars. However, some of the exposed people may be guilty of lesser offenses.

Though I have never respected Al Franken as a Senator, by comparison to Weinstein, his offenses are relatively minor. He “stole a kiss.” Certainly, that was stupid and insulting. He set up a clownish photo miming himself groping a sleeping woman. That too was tasteless and stupid. However, these two foolish acts together fall short of forcible sex.

As described in media reports, misbehavior of resigning congressman John Conyers seems more like dementia in an 88-year old man. Does wearing pajamas at a meeting equate to Weinstein’s misdeeds?

Each accused man deserves to have a hearing, perhaps behind closed doors. Each act must be measured for its content, i.e., what did he do? We need to consider the timeline i.e., did the event occur thirty years ago, or one year ago. If it occurred thirty years ago, can the accuser or the accused perpetrator still remember the facts clearly? Experts in this area should be able to put some kind of measurement on answers to these questions.

My own experience judging settlement of accusations of sexual harassment does not make me an expert. However, I received an assignment to work with Human Relations people to make decisions on two such complaints. Both complaints were immediate with no disagreement of personal memories.

Neither case involved physical touching. Both complaints were based entirely on spoken words. In one case, I felt that the man had not made a sexual reference per se, but was simply using off-color language. Though an apology is rarely enough, the woman agreed to forgive the man but requested assignment to another department.

The other case involved a supervisor who ordered a woman to pay charges incurred in entertaining a customer. This was a common way of handling expenses of this kind.  Both parties understood that the boss would sign the woman’s expense voucher to recover her expenses. When the time came for him to sign the voucher, he refused, unless she would perform a specific sexual act. He agreed that he had said that, but claimed he was only joking. I wasn’t joking when I had him fired.

These two anecdotes demonstrate that each case may include different circumstances, and may require different actions. So far, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. We will likely see many more accusations over the next few years. Some will be handled appropriately and some will not.

Overall, Weinstein may have helped to balance the relationships of men and women in the workplace. That would represent a massive social change.

We might ask why men do these things? The answer is “because they can.” And what will cause it to stop? That answer is “repeated examples of men who are treated harshly for what they have done.”

Congresspeople have suggested that men need training on sexual harassment issues. That seems laughable. Come on, guys! You know what you shouldn’t do. Your dads told you when you were seventh graders. Just stop!

Barefoot Days, Electric Nights



“Barefoot Days, Electric Nights,” by David Butwin, is a memoir of his life during Hawaii’s early days as the 50th State.

Butwin arrived in Honolulu to become a reporter at one of the city’s two daily newspapers. As a very young, inexperienced journalist from frigid Minnesota, he began with a scant understanding of the people, places, and nuances of island culture. He soon discovered a land of spectacular beauty, where everyone lived near an ocean shore, and islanders from many different places went everywhere barefoot.

David writes of his Hawaii days, with the clear prose of a seasoned reporter, yet creates an intimate memory of his work, the women he dated, and the prominent celebrities he encountered.

He often draws from an unusual documentation source: reams of detailed letters that he wrote home to his family, saved over many decades.

And for part of this memoir, he draws from an even more unusual resource: Me, (Steve Vachss) writer of this review article. Though we came from different work-worlds, we knew each other back then in Hawaii, as colleagues of a sort, and eventually as friends.

Assigned in Hawaii as an Army writer-editor, I became Butwin’s source for military news and background information. As an Army Reservist, David tells a compelling story about an enormous military exercise called Coral Sands II that involved thousands of soldiers, 13 US Navy warships, and the entire Island of Molokai. For nearly two weeks, David and I occupied a press tent on Molokai and created news stories, interviews, and press releases flown to Honolulu.

We later learned that perpetrators of the famous “My Lai Massacre” were apparently with us at Coral Sands on Molokai. A consequence of the operation later involved us both, especially David, in a blockbuster story that may have affected the history of the Vietnam War. With details never previously disclosed, David explains this incredible story and our involvement.

My other cameo appearance in Barefoot Days, Electric nights, deals with an incident of street violence that Butwin calls “my night of terror.” It’s a story we both would prefer to forget but which has lived in each of us forever after.

Notwithstanding my personal connection, I enjoyed “Barefoot Days, Electric Nights,” and highly recommend it. It’s beautifully written in a style that brings the reader face-to-face with a place and a lifestyle that no longer exists. A memoir of paradise.


Full Disclosure: David’s account of the stories around Coral Sands, our potential effect on the Vietnam War, and the “My Lai Massacre” are 100 percent accurate. However, I wrote a more personal detailed novel around the story, “The Victory That Wasn’t,” as an alternate history. Many details in my story are accurate, but some key issues are changed to “how we wish it had happened.”   



We Are Being Fooled Again!

Why would we ever believe Republican and Democrat statements about their Healthcare plans? Are we really that gullible?

Both the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and the AHCA (American Health Care Act) are frauds, beginning with their respective names. Neither one is about “Healthcare.” They are both about insurance. The ACA is about spending gigantic sums—billions of dollars—moving it from taxpayers’ pockets to poor people. The AHCA is about keeping a political promise made by every Republican for the past seven years: to “Repeal and replace” the ACA.

Neither of these two cynical goals has anything to do with Healthcare. Actual Healthcare is about highly trained practitioners, most of whom work unworldly hours to care for patients. To put a human face on it: Healthcare is about nurses who check on us every hour to ensure that everything is in order and that we are as comfortable as possible. They probably save millions, just being there for patients who may be experiencing the worst moments of their lives. Nurses are Healthcare. But we have far too few of them because we have far too few doctors to treat all patients that need care.

Doctors, of course, are the heart and soul of Healthcare. They diagnose, order tests, and often predict medical issues for patients who are unaware of dangers ahead. Caring for patients, they often raise morale by eliminating worries about non-existent maladies. Doctors are Healthcare.

There are an estimated 810,000 doctors working in patient care in the US, available to 326,474,013 people. That’s one practicing doctor for every 403 people. To improve Healthcare, we probably need to double that number.

SO LISTEN UP CONGRESS! Stop arguing about health insurance numbers. Put your efforts toward real Healthcare. Start with importing more offshore doctors by increasing the H1B quotas, and removing other impediments. We currently have 85,000 doctors from this source. Can we bring the total to 200,000?

Create more educational opportunities by setting up free tuition scholarships, building more medical schools, and training qualified instructors. Let’s build our doctor population to at least 1,500,000.

KEEP LISTENING CONGRESS! Both parties can share accolades from the American people if you actually improve Healthcare. But if you persist with this politically driven insurance numbers game, one party, possibly both of you, will feel the wrath of angry voters.

The ACA passed by a tiny margin in the Senate when the Democrats held a majority in both the Senate and the House. The Republicans now control both chambers but can’t come up with anything that’s much different from the ACA. The winners last time were the Democrats, and the result has nearly destroyed the party.

Republicans: Though they won’t say this out loud, Democrat leaders are praying for you to pass your own albatross, freeing them from blame. They will then flood the cable news shows with scenes from town hall presentations showing angry people whose lives are as bad as they were under the hated ACA.

Be smart. Don’t lie. Solve the actual Healthcare problem. Forget about your lobbyist buddies. They’ll get over it.

The Dirty Little Secret That Destroyed US Politics

PrintbookFinal8Most Americans are sick of hearing about “Polarization in Washington.” Voters are angry, and they demand change. However, neither party has been able to get much accomplished in the past ten years. Cable news channels have built an industry by exploiting the vast and growing gap between Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats as the defining feature of politics in Washington.

What has created this apparent hatred that causes elected officials to refuse cooperation with one another? Pundits, retired officials, and long-time journalists all decry the situation and opine different potential causes. Most agree that the complete failure to cooperate with each other is a relatively new phenomenon. Some blame it on specific events, like the impeachment of President Clinton, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Affordable Care Act, Racial tensions, lies or misleading statements by years of White House occupants.

Others blame ideologies, including more than the simple liberal versus conservative beliefs. There are also libertarian, progressive, evangelical and mainstream voters. Each of these has advocates in Congress.

Though any of the cited issues may have had some part in the destruction of our political system, few people realize that one single event was the major driver of government incompetence. Technically it wasn’t a single one-day event like an election. It was an ongoing process that went under the radar. Very few Americans knew it was happening or understood how it would affect us.

The event, occurring primarily in 2010, was Redistricting. At first view, it seems to be a boring, technical, and benign process, but it created the havoc we see in Washington.

What is redistricting and how does it work?

Redistricting is a process of changing district borders in each state, to compensate for demographic changes. Theoretically, every state examines the borders of each of its districts and may make some changes, every 10 years. Some districts may become larger, some may become smaller, some may maintain the same amount of geography but may change shape. Any of these changes may affect demographics in any district. New district outlines typically reflect changes in population size, area ethnic population, average income level, average age, and (most important) voting registration history.

The change of a district’s shape, therefore, may determine which parties and candidates are most likely to win. Either party may gain or lose, according to the newly included and excluded areas.

A key tactic in changing a district is called gerrymandering. It is a process of making changes, usually for political reasons, that are not logical extensions or reductions. To visualize the result of gerrymandering,  consider a district map that was previously nearly round in shape, and changing it by adding a larger oblong area to the east and subtracting half of its previous boundaries from the west.

Though the redistricting process is supposed to be nonpartisan, it’s different in each state. It is almost impossible to detect specific reasons for many changes, but each party seems to have an overall strategy for affecting changes in each district.

In 2010 redistricting, the Republicans apparently wanted to become dominant in the state legislatures by bringing new winning candidates into many small districts.

Democrat strategy was apparently a combination of two things. One piece was to strengthen the voting majority for existing elected seats in the House. The other was to take advantage of immigration and re-shape districts in which they could grow their base by appealing to minority voters.

Both parties got their wishes. Democrats got firm control of the states with the largest voting populations, like California and New York. They made inroads in Texas and Florida, largely by creating immigrant blocs, though not enough to win electoral majorities.

The Republicans won the majority of the governorships, state legislatures, and congressional seats. To the dismay of their mainstream leaders, however, most of their additions on the congressional  level were aligned with the so-called “Tea Party.” This group now dominates a separate group known as the House Freedom Caucus. Though this group publically defines itself as conservative Republicans, it operates much like a “fifth column,” covertly operating against programs supported by moderate Republicans.

How did those results affect Washington? 

Democrat leaders in the House found themselves in conflict with the so-called “progressives,” composed of disaffected young voters, millennial female voters who don’t subscribe to the traditional Democrat talking points of women’s issues, and followers of Senator Bernie Sanders.

House Republican leaders found themselves between two groups that are virtually irreconcilable: far-right conservatives and moderate mainstream members. Every proposed bill is either too conservative or too expensive for one group or the other.

The overall result is that few bills can move through the House since a majority vote depends on support from progressives, mainstream Democrats, far right Freedom Caucus members, and mainstream Republicans.

In the Senate, these splits haven’t had as much of an effect as in the House, because senators are elected for six-year terms, while House members serve only two-year terms before a turnover can take place. If advocates of term limits succeed, however, the Senate will soon face conflicts with newly elected members. 

The Ugliest Result of Redistricting

Finding themselves unable to pass meaningful legislation, both parties have fallen back to name-calling, negative hyperbole, anonymous leaks to the media, and other tactics to block success by either party. This is likely to go on, until the rise of a third party, or the virtual death of one of the existing two.

The press and pundit narrative of “parties that just don’t like each other” is false. Most honest lawmakers would like the situation to change. Some thought that election of a well-liked President might lead to compromise. But we haven’t had a universally liked President since the 1960s.