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GP21May03:  Good News for a Change

Dire Straits.  Dire Straits has long been one of our favorite pop musical groups.  Its name captures perfectly the present mood in our land.  Bad news about war, pestilence, floods, and economic hardship have shell-shocked Americans and brought insecurity into every home.  The New York Times Book Review of May 18 flags for us Our Final Hour, a book by British scientist Martin Rees that says, according to the Times, that “the world has a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century.”  Denise Rich, who had an inglorious moment in the sun during the Clinton administration, reportedly feels compelled these days to take her yoga guru along on vacation in order to ward off the ills of the world.  And Andrew Weill, the healing doctor, prescribes newsless days to help you screen out negative thoughts.  During a vacation at one of the old Adirondack camps of yesteryear, we ourselves noticed that everyone in our party put aside TV and newspapers to shut out the pain of the world.

But this is only to say that good news has been elbowed aside by media that tends to thrive on negatives.  There are plenty of changes afoot that are quite promising.

Let The Good Times Roll.  The New York Times has been taking a lot of hits lately.  First off, a troubled junior reporter has proven to be excessively creative, dreaming up bits and pieces for his national news stories that were purely figments of his imagination or were purloined from other newspapers.  Second, the Times appears to have tilted its front page coverage of the Iraq war to jibe with the prejudices of some of its editors against our intervention.  When U.S. troops were bogged down in a short battle, the stories hinted we might be losing the war.  And finally, circulation has been eroding lately, a hint that not all was well on the business side.  This and other problems have led, according to the rumor mill, to an across-the-board pay cut plus a freeze on bonuses. 

The irony here is that under Howell Raines, passionate fisherman and the current executive editor, the paper has perked up considerably.  The old gray Times had become dull and listless.  He has been forcibly reworking it, and it is now less of a newspaper of record and more of a daily news magazine, often filled with features you will find nowhere else.  Probably it is getting better, even though it has always been an uneven operation, both editorially and particularly business-wise, where it needs both strategic and operational help.  Raines is much under attack inside and outside the paper, but we suspect he should be congratulated with a caveat or two.  His top-down style has been much criticized; yet the paper would have just plodded along in the same old way without a strong hand at the wheel.

The best day of the week for this wordy paper is Saturday, when the writing can be accused of being almost succinct.  (For more on this, see our Global Province newsletter for 16 October 2002).  All the good things slip into the paper Friday night, when nobody is looking.  One feature that has become a regular, The Saturday Profile, is a smashing success.  It recently featured a Russian intellectual who has taken to writing interesting crime novels.  The column dwells on truly multifaceted people in several societies around the world, people creating a lot of buzz in their communities.  We would never hear about them if the Times weren't looking for them.

Wind at our Backs.  Despite America’s passionate love affair with oil, we are beginning to do something about our national energy situation.  To wit, we are starting to breed hybrid cars, such as Toyota’s Prius, that use both rechargeable electricity cells and gas, resulting in much less oil consumption.  Iceland, of all places, is just beginning to put hydrogen pumps in place at service stations, and fairly soon buses will give up gas guzzling and become hydrogen-powered.  This is just another wonder from a country that generates so much geothermal power.

Even more dramatic is the great progress the world is making in using other alternate sources of energy.  We would particularly cite wind power.  For the longest while the equipment has been too expensive and too unreliable.  But the Europeans, as we have said in Big Ideas 58, have built more durable and economic equipment.  The Danes, in particular, reap meaningful amounts of energy from their windpower farms.  Now, as we will report further on the Global Province, America is making progress in wind generation and in the development of better equipment. 

An Unlikely Education.  Educational television is something that never really quite happened, even with early experiments such as Omnibus and the plethora of content generated by the Public Broadcasting Network. We do acknowledge that there is a host of TV and videoconferencing instruction around the nation, but this is not the kind of stuff that takes our citizenry to a new level of enlightenment or that can reckon with the puzzles presented by the 21st century.  The need for new forms of education has never been so great, as our formal educational institutions get more deeply mired in bureaucracy, runaway costs, and political correctness.  We need educational alternatives that work.  Surely it was the search for something different that led scholar Harold Bloom to leave his 25,000-volume book collection to an unknown college in Vermont, where classical teaching still is the ideal, rather than to vaunted large institutions that seem to have lost their way.  (See Wit and Wisdom 249). 

And education is springing up in unlikely places.  C-Span, funded by the cable industry, features Booknotes on its C-Span 2 channel on weekends.  In fact, this is by far the most interesting thing that occurs on C-Span.  Brian Lamb and his colleagues interview significant authors in an objective manner and also go to literary presentations at bookshops, book fairs, etc.  In toto, a listener can learn all sorts of things about this world by tuning in.  The only flaw is that it handles only non-fiction, somewhat limiting its scope. (See Best of Class 21 for more on Booknotes.)  Other kinds of book programs are creeping onto the airwaves inside and outside the United States.  We hope Booknotes gets piped into more and more of our schools so that students see what is revealed from a close reading of books that count.

Away from the Madding Crowd.  If you can get away from the crowd, no matter what you do, you may discover some nice things are happening that are obscured by the calamities in the mainstream media:  a new national energy mix is on the way and real education is taking place in strange places.

Above the Fray.  It's always been a truism that the best investors never get too close to Wall Street, where their thinking would get polluted by the day traders' fumes.  They're out in Omaha or a thousand other places where the hot news of the moment does not obscure longer term trends.  Sir Isaac Newton did all his best work before he ever came to London;  there he became more of a fop and less of a genius, contaminated by the luxuriant currents swirling in the capital.  It's no wonder that Andrew Weill would have us get away from the newscasters to guard our health:  that also may be good medicine for our pocketbooks.  It may be hard to be a practical streetfighter if you are not caught up in the thick of things.  But it's just as hard to get to the essence and fathom the important when you are too close to the bright lights or too hemmed in by the Beltway.   To be on top of the world, you simply have to get above it.

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