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My new electric bike

by bdietrich on September 3, 2017

Attention Baby Boomers: I’ve found a fountain of youth.

Until I run down the battery, that is.

I’ve acquired an electric bike. Its 350-watt motor, mounted where the pedal crank is, seems magical in its ability to flatten hills and speed level cruising. Its like getting a push from trotting Dad, or being on a tandem with a Tour de France rider, or feeling that most everywhere is slightly downhill.

Common in Europe and China, they’re catching on in the United States.

I already had a bicycle, but either direction from my house is an uphill climb on a busy road. Pedaling out the driveway was more enduring than alluring.

One reason is that I’m almost 66. So? I have one friend of similar age bicycling across the United States, another planning to cross Nevada, and a third who keeps climbing back on his mountain bike after spectacular crashes. Banzai!

But me? I work out, hike, kayak, and am in decent shape. But I have mild rheumatoid arthritis and a clutch of other nagging issues that remind me I’m not 30 anymore, or even 50. I had hill anxiety.

My initial quest was for a bike easier to mount and dismount. In my earlier days this […]

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Can Democrats Speak English?

by bdietrich on July 6, 2017

My Democratic leanings go back as far as George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy (I was in line for the Vietnam draft until I got a high lottery number) and I voted for Hillary. But I’m alarmed that the party has not just ceded populism to the GOP (astounding in itself) but that it seems incapable of plain talk and simple ideas.

The latest occasion for exasperation was an NPR interview with Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken, who is a witty comedian and able writer turned politician. When even Franken, on book tour, struggles to explain what his party stands for, and chooses fancy-pants words over fundamental angl0-saxon ones, I despair that progressives can connect with voters on a gut level.

Exhibit 1: A tape was played of Franken questioning Energy Secretary Rick Perry and calling global warming “an existential threat.” I know this phrase is a trendy cliche these days, mysteriously beloved by young journalists, but this college graduate and Harvard attendee had to look up how an existential threat is different from, well, a threat.

Turns out it means a threat to existence, or if you prefer, a threat to humans. So threat itself is inadequate to express this? Why the big […]

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Ink by the Barrel

One of my early jobs as a newspaper reporter brought me to the opening ceremonies of the Washington State Legislature in 1975. The Olympia press corps was seated at a table at the head of the chamber at one side of the podium, fully on display, and when the self-congratulatory clapping of the new lawmakers, families, and officials began, I figured it was polite to clap too.

“Don’t you clap for those S.O.B.s,” growled veteran AP reporter John White. “We’re the press!”

Ah, yes. Unelected and unappointed, journalists nonetheless served (and serve) as a fourth branch of government. We had the role of watchdog, communicator, snoop, and critic. A dozen of us sat on our hands while everyone else applauded.

Yet we were given the best seats in the House. Why? Political news sold newspapers, and favorable newspaper coverage could help a politician’s career or pass a bill. Each side used the other.

Leaks and gossip were not just fodder for scandals. They were a way for government to float trial balloons, get around bureaucratic feuds, air dissenting opinions, and in general lubricate society.

The media was never really liked, but usually respected, and occasionally courted. A platitude of the political class was, “Never […]

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2017: The Preview

After three presidential debates, the polls show Hillary Clinton the likely next president. I’m relieved, but I can’t pretend the arguing has created a national consensus. Both candidates are about as popular as a 45-minute drugstore wait for a flu shot from a crochet needle.

So after a grisly political year (has it only been a year and not, like, eternity?) what next? Having consulted the entrails of chickens and the alignment of stars, let me soothsay:

The distrust of Clinton will perversely help her initially by setting low expectations. We’ve become unhappily accustomed to gridlock, acrimony, and politicians who put party above country. When Clinton accomplishes something – and she will – the surprise and relief may result in her getting more credit than President Obama, a charismatic speaker who was initially expected to walk on water.
The unblemished winner of 2016 is Michelle Obama and her soaring speeches. At the very least she’s improved her chances of a lucrative book deal. More intriguingly, she may be the next first lady to run for something, should she so choose.
If Democrats unexpectedly win the House of Representatives the progressive wing will overreach and lose it again in two years. Yes, progress progresses, […]

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Author Perseverance

The book industry loves stories of writers who persevere until finally getting published. So do I. Writing can be a tough trade, and the authors who pound away until the door finally opens deserve admiration.

So I was intrigued to receive a first novel mailed by a former editor of mine, Rick Horgan, who is now with Simon & Schuster. The book was written by a Colorado newcomer with the (could this be true?) wonderfully authorial name of Erik Storey.

Storey’s revenge and gunfire novel, Nothing Short of Dying, was rejected by twenty-five agents. That had to hurt, since hero Clyde Barr is a Rocky Mountain outdoorsman like Storey. A barmaid is the love interest. Storey reconnected with the schoolmate who became his wife when she was tending bar. (She’s now a schoolteacher.) Clyde and Erik had some of the same jobs, and hiked and rode the same high country, and both are good shots. The milieu is the kind of rural, depressed, meth and pot capital Storey lived and worked in.

No takers.

So he sent it to twenty-five more agents. They didn’t like it either, but a few had suggestions. Less profanity. Get the non-stop violence under control. Get rid of […]

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Trump Vs Napoleon

Given that Donald Trump has been routinely compared to Hitler and Mussolini, contrasting him to Napoleon might seem a compliment.

Unfortunately for The Donald, he tends to match up with Bonaparte in all the wrong ways while falling short in the right ones.

Accordingly, while the superficial similarities between the French dictator and the American developer might encourage Trump’s followers to believe he’s the strongman they’re looking for, they likely will wind up frustrated.

Having studied Napoleon in some depth for my Ethan Gage adventure novels and my collection of his aphorisms, “Napoleon’s Rules,” I think it’s instructive to look at ways the two men are alike and – more importantly – how they differ.

Bonaparte did “make France great again” – for a while. He ruled for roughly fifteen years and was extraordinarily successful the first half of his reign. But then came disastrous embroilment in Spain and Russia. By the time Napoleon was finally exiled in 1815, millions were dead and French boundaries were back to their 1791 pre-revolutionary origins. Europe was so exhausted that it didn’t quarrel as catastrophically again for 99 years, until World War I broke out.

Now Trump wants to “make America great again” without any detailed policy […]

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General Savage, Easy Rider, and Game of Thrones

As a historical novelist and historian, I believe the past is key to understanding the present. As a movie buff, I believe films are a time capsule of the era in which they are made.

The Peter Pan theme of never growing up would be an example from recent cinema, in which man-child 30-somethings with a habit of slobbery and instant gratification resist adult responsibilities. They postpone parenthood and mortgages in favor of party-on in ways both immature and enviable.

I’m thinking of actors like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, and Hugh Grant, and movies such as Wayne’s World, About a Boy, The Hangover trilogy, The 40-year-old Virgin, and Failure to Launch, to mention just a few. Often funny, sometime exasperating, their scripts reflect the difficulty some young people have of getting started in our era of tumultuous economies, uncertain role models, and student debt.

It was a contrast, then, to catch 1949’s World War II bomber classic, “Twelve-O’clock High,” on TCM. Gregory Peck plays Army Air Force General Frank Savage as the Eighth Air Force begins its daylight bombing campaign against Germany in 1942.

This was a bare bones black and white production, with a Florida airfield filling in […]

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Ethan Gage Is Back!

Ethan Gage thanks you for your patience.

My dogged rascal of a hero is back, with his wife Astiza and son Harry, in a daring and terrifying quest for “The Trojan Icon,” an object from the Trojan War that can control the fate of empires.

The book is available as a $15.99 trade paperback edition and $9.99 Kindle edition on Amazon.com as well as a $9.99 eBook on iBooks, Kobo, and (soon) Nook.

This is the eighth in the Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic-era adventures, this one set in 1806-1807 when the French emperor was at the height of his power. Publication was delayed when my original publisher dropped the series, I explored alternatives, and finally decided to publish independently.

“The Trojan Icon” is the best one yet, by the way. The paperback is 424 pages, similar in length to others in the series. Designer Victoria Colotta has given it a splendid, polished look.

Now my problem is getting the word out, a struggle for all independent authors. I hope you will read it, review it on-line, and alert your friends.

The action starts in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, where the Gage family has gone from refugees to the favorites of the Tsarina and […]

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Good News for the Holidays

Happy holidays! 2015 had its share of tragedy, absurdity, cable news pessimism and presidential candidate complaint, but compared to most of human history – or even just American history – it was a year with a lot of good news.

Given what now seems to be our habitual grumpiness and orchestrated outrage, I thought I’d pluck a few examples to buck up our spirits.

Speaking of spirits, when scientists at the University of Alberta announced that the health benefits of a glass of red wine are equal to an hour at the gym, how bad can 2015 be?

Beer, chocolate, and naps get similar health praise in a variety of studies. And a 2013 survey of 188 countries found global life expectancy up by six years just since 1990. What’s not to like?

Polio didn’t show up in Africa this year, meaning the only two countries that still have cases of the disease are Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Gates Foundation estimates global measles cases are down two thirds since 1988.

And the early use of an Ebola vaccine has had promising results.

Money? After the United States lost 8.7 million jobs from 2007 to early 2010, it has added 13.7 million since then, at a […]

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Ethan and ISIS

History’s heavy hand is evident in the parallels between the world of my Napoleonic-era hero Ethan Gage, circa 1807, and the Islamic tumult rattling the world today.

As I read about societies Ethan might explore, from Istanbul to India, similarities are plain. Just as research for “Napoleon’s Pyramids” in 1798 Egypt reminded me of American frustration in Iraq, the fragmenting and reactionary Muslim world of Napoleon’s day reminds me of today’s Islamic fundamentalists.

In both periods, economic hardship and military defeat led to messianic and apocalyptic Islamic cults that rose and fell alongside Muslim warlords and dictators. In Napoleon’s era, the unrest allowed European powers to begin colonizing part of the Islamic world and redraw the rest, with today’s disastrous results.

A brief overview: In the wake of devastating Mongol invasions in the 1200s and 1300s, three great Muslim empires emerged.

The Ottoman Empire occupied the Balkans, the Near East, and North Africa. The Persian (Iranian) Safavid Empire was to its east, and the Mughal Empire occupied much of present-day India and Pakistan.

By 1700, all three were beginning to weaken from problems such as war and plague, plus social strains caused by trade with Europe and an invasion of new ideas. Western powers […]

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