On Comparing an Ocean to a Teardrop

Front Page, Human Interest, Outdoors, Travel
Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

 

     For those interested in folklore and mythology, there are volumes of material surrounding the occurrence of solar eclipses. When viewed through the spectacles of modern science, the mythology and folklore appear quaint or even laughable.  For example, who would believe that a giant wolf took a bite out of the sun?  In Norse culture, an evil enchanter, Loki, was put into chains by the gods. Loki got revenge by creating wolf-like giants, one of which swallowed the Sun and caused a solar eclipse.

     In India and Armenia, a dragon swallowed the sun, while Chippewa people shot flaming arrows into the air trying to reignite the sun. In Siberia, China, and Mongolia, it was believed that beheaded mythical characters chased and swallowed the sun.  In Columbia, natives shouted to the heavens and promised to mend their ways, apparently believing their bad behavior caused the solar eclipse. In Transylvania, an angry sun turned away and covered herself with darkness because of the bad behavior of men.  However, other cultures took a different view of solar eclipses and found them to be romantic.

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

     In a Tahitian myth, the moon and sun are lovers who joined up and caused an eclipse. The West Africans believed when the sun and moon got together, they turned off the light for privacy.  In German mythology, the sun and moon were married.  Seeking companionship, the moon was drawn to his bride, and they came together creating a solar eclipse.  To the Australian Aborigines, the sun was seen as a woman who carries a torch. The moon, was regarded as a man.  A solar eclipse was interpreted as the moon uniting with the sun.  Certainly, the romantic view comes closer to the truth in describing a solar eclipse.  It definitely is the relationship between the sun and the moon, and ancient astronomers and astrologers have been studying and predicting the event for eons.

     Ancient observations of solar eclipses can be traced back to at least 2500 BC in China and Babylon.  By 2300 BC, ancient Chinese astrologers believed a total solar eclipse was a major element of forecasting the future health and successes of the emperor.  Similar records can be found for the early Greeks.  Unfortunately, ancient Egyptian records have been destroyed as well as ancient Mayan records, but other evidence such as the Mayan calendar suggests they had an informed knowledge of solar eclipses.  Given the frequency of solar eclipses, which occur 75 out of 100 years, it understandable that they have been the subject of interest and study for ages, and the interest continues to this day.

Photo by Dan Thornton, 2012

     Our most recent solar eclipse occurred on August 21, 2017, and could be seen across the entire United States. It was widely reported in the news, and eclipse viewing glasses were being sold at Lowe’s, Walmart, and other retailers including Amazon.  On Wednesday before the big event, I began looking for eclipse viewing glasses.  I went to Lowe’s, but they were sold out.  However, I found solar viewing glasses in Walmart’s optical department.  I bought several pair and returned home.  I tested my glasses by looking into the sun; they worked well.  Pleased at my purchase, I sat outside on the patio to contemplate the event.  I had seen a partial eclipse five years earlier, and I had taken several photos that were good enough but not great.  As I anticipated photographing the current eclipse, the lyrics to You’re So Vain” kept running through my head, particularly the line, “Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.” Carly Simon’s line would not go away, and I began to think about the possibility of seeing the total eclipse, not the partial eclipse I had seen before.

     I went to bed thinking I would not have to fly to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse. I could drive to Kansas or Kentucky and witness it firsthand. “It is not that far,” I thought. “I can drive it easily.”  After a restless night, the thought of a total solar eclipse grew larger in my mind and plagued my thoughts at every turn. I did not like the idea of photographing a partial eclipse, but I decided to buy a solar filter for my camera lens, so that I could. To my surprise, no online vendor had the filter I needed. Frustrated, I settled for a neutral density filter that I knew was not dark enough, but it might get me by in a pinch. Also, I thought if I could only see the total eclipse, I would not need a filter. The darkened sun does not require a filter to photograph it, and the darkened sun can be safely viewed with the naked eye. As Carly Simon sang softly in my ear, I imagined what it would be like. Twilight, then darkness, then twilight again, and it would happen in a matter of minutes. It would be fascinating – a thing to remember for a lifetime, and it was all going to happen within driving distance.

     It is a fine thing to allow your imagination to run wild, but at some point you have to face practical matters, and from a practical viewpoint driving 1,000 miles, more or less, to watch the sun for two minutes and thirty seconds seemed a bit impractical even to me. Also, there would be a long 1,000 mile, more or less, drive home. For the rest of the day, I toyed with the idea off and on – imagining the exhilaration and dreading the drive. Honestly, I thought my idea was a bit over the top, and I had not mentioned it to anyone. In a way, I feared the response I was sure to get, but it really is a fine thing to allow your imagination to run wild.

     I was sitting on the patio with my wife as the sun set, and without hesitation, I suggested we should go see the total eclipse ourselves. After all, it is a chance of a lifetime I argued, and it is not that far. We could drive it easily in a day I said to her. And I went on with whatever I thought might be a selling point. When I finally quit talking, she asked, “How far is it? How long will it take? Where will we stay?” I did not have all the answers, but she had not said no, so I continued with the chance-of-a-lifetime argument. “Kind of like seeing Haley’s comet,” I said, which we had seen several years before and found it to be a disappointment. “Can you imagine it turning dark in the middle of the day? Will roosters really crow? Will it be noticeably cooler?” I questioned? Finally she said we could go, but we needed a plan. After studying the map I suggested Kentucky because it had the longest viewing time and was about the same distance as Kansas. She immediately began to look for rooms for Sunday night, but none was available near Hopkinsville, our intended destination. Finally, she found a room in Dyersburg, Kentucky; we booked it. I was elated, but the planning had just begun.

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

     I intended to leave Sunday morning and drive straight to Kentucky, but that plan needed approval which was not forthcoming. Instead, I compromised and left Saturday afternoon. This was not my idea of a good plan, but we were going, and that is all that mattered. We spent the night in Texarkana and arrived in Dyersburg early Sunday. Dyersburg is a small agricultural community where cotton is still king, and it is about a two hour drive to Hopkinsville. By the time we reached Dyersburg, we had decided that Hopkinsville was not our destination. The enterprising residents of Hopkinsville were renting 64 square feet of their lawns to eclipse viewers, and people from all over the world were descending on Hopkinsville. There were estimates of 75,000 visitors and upwards in a town of around 31,000 inhabitants. It was not that appealing, so we decided to view the eclipse from the Walmart parking lot in Benton, Kentucky. It was a pretty good plan.  When we got on the road to Benton Monday morning, there was very little traffic, so we decided to go even closer to Hopkinsville. We would go to Eddyville and view the eclipse from the Walmart parking lot in Eddyville. While in route, my wife noticed a state park on the map just outside of Eddyville, so we decided to investigate the park. When we arrived at the park, we found a large parking lot at the visitor center, but it was filling up fast. We found a vacant spot and parked. This was our destination!  It was about 10:00 a.m., and we had arrived.

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

     I unpacked the lawn chairs and the ice chest and set up the umbrella. It was about 98 degrees with clear skies. It was a perfect day for an eclipse, and eager eclipse viewers in the park were trying out their glasses and staring at the sun. Some were holding glasses in front of their cell phones and taking pictures. A quick glance around the parking lot revealed the license plates, and they were from all over the country. The atmosphere was festive and friendly with people sharing stories of their travels. One person I met from Annapolis, Maryland, had first gone to St. Louis to view the eclipse but decided there were too many clouds in St. Louis and had just driven to Kentucky this morning. Others had planned their travel months in advance and purposely selected the state park we were in. I did not bother to tell them that we had stopped on our way to Walmart. We were in Land Between the Lakes Park on the Kentucky side. The park is shared by Kentucky and Tennessee and can be entered from either state.

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

     The eclipse had started, but the total eclipse would not occur until 1:30 pm. Periodically I put on my glasses to monitor the progress. I am happy to report that a giant wolf was indeed biting off huge chunks of the sun. It was disappearing in steady increments, and I took a few photos of the progress. It was blinding looking through a telephoto camera lens at the sun – even with my darkest neutral density filter. I would only glimpse at the sun and release the shutter blindly. The twilight had begun, and it produced an eerie, greenish light. I tried to photograph the twilight, but the photos are a poor representation of reality, as is often the case with photography. The camera lacks the nuanced sophistication of the human eye.

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017
Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

Photo by Dan Thornton, August 21, 2017

     The park was now almost silent as onlookers anticipated the coming event. As a small cloud approached the sun and threatened to block our view, the silence was broken by sighs of disappointment. The silence returned as the cloud passed from view. Only moments before the total eclipse, yet another cloud passed in front of the sun and the sighs were louder, but it too quickly passed away, and applause replaced the sighs. It was now dark, and stars twinkled in the sky. The total eclipse had arrived, and the corona was readily visible at the edge of the darkened sun. Cameras were snapping away rapidly, and dogs began to bark and howl. The cameras were being triggered by humans, but only Heaven knows what triggered the dogs. In two minutes and thirty seconds the sun was returning, and twilight was reversing. The temperature now hovered at 83 degrees, and it was over. In my life’s history, I have no other frame of reference for comparison. It is perhaps as Wendy Mass has said, “Comparing what you see during an eclipse to the darkness at night is like comparing an ocean to a teardrop.” To me, it was simply euphoric.

 

Until next time…

A citizen of the United States of America, a Texan and a resident of Flour Bluff, Dan Thornton, values enlightened reason and freedom. Dan is a lifelong student of history and philosophy, and a writer of poetry and song. The hallmark of his pursuit is a quest for universal truth. By admission, the answer is illusive, but he is undaunted, and the quest continues.
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Nightmares on our Streets, or How to Bring Traffic to a Standstill

Corpus Christi, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Travel

     

     Traffic engineering in simple terms provides for the safe and efficient flow of traffic on roadways.  At best, it is an imperfect system, and at worst, it can be a nightmare.  Most drivers experience traffic delays due to road maintenance, accidents, or severe delays or stoppage due to poor design coupled with congestion.  This can often be experienced on the IH-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin.  Poorly designed interchanges and freeway entrances and exits are the major cause for delay along our Interstate Highway System.  Poorly placed traffic lights, intersection design and location, poorly maintained roads, as well as speed bumps cause problems on local roadways.

     Despite congestion around major cities and a few design flaws, our Interstate Highway System is a marvel. This 47,856-mile network of roads was established in 1956 by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower who had experienced travel on the Reichsautobahn in Germany is credited with the championing and the creation of the Interstate.  It was – and is – quite an accomplishment when compared to such modern legislative marvels as Obamacare.  The Interstate took 35 years to complete at a cost of $114 billion with more than 1,300 miles per year being completed.  It kind of makes you wonder why contemporary road construction is so slow.  About 70 percent of the funding for the Interstate is paid for through federal and state fuel taxes and is supplemented to a lesser extent by toll roads. Toll roads are advantageous because the people using the road pay for it.  One example is the Kansas Turnpike which is integrated with IH- 35.  The Kansas Turnpike is a 236-mile toll road that was completed in 1956 after two years of construction.  Nearly 120,000 drivers use the road daily, and it derives its entire funding from collected tolls.  No tax money is used for administration or maintenance.  Truly a modern marvel.

Crossing the causeway in 1950
Crossing the causeway in 2017

     Our Interstate Highway System was declared complete in October of 1992, but plans for expansion continue.  One expansion was initiated to facilitate trade with Canada and Mexico.  This expansion was spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which became effective in January 1994.  The proposed highway, IH-69, is supposed to connect Tamaulipas, Mexico, to Ontario, Canada.  It has been 23 years since this began, and little construction has been completed.  A lack of funding is the largest contributory factor, so I would suggest that Canada and Mexico should pay for it since they are the biggest beneficiaries.  However, Mexico should only pay its portion after it pays for The Wall.

     While our Interstate Highway System is a marvel, local roads are often poorly maintained, and at times you have to wonder about the quality of traffic engineering.  I suspect that on a local level political pressure has too great of an influence on traffic engineering.  For example, speed bumps have become the norm on many residential streets.  Presumably they are built to slow down traffic, but the poor condition of many residential streets forces the traffic to slow down without speed bumps, and speed bumps merely aggravate the problem.  The speed limit on residential streets is 30 miles per hour, but speed bumps force you to drive at around 10 miles per hour, so is this good traffic engineering?  If the desired residential speed limit is ten miles per hour, then post a sign that says ten miles per hour and eliminate the speed bumps.  In some cases, the speed bumps are too high, so they should be called speed mountains.  This is evidenced by the scarring on the speed mountains caused by cars dragging their undercarriage over the mountain.   It would seem that local traffic engineering prefers to sacrifice the efficient travel of the many  for the benefit of the few.

     Traffic light placement and timing are critical to efficient travel, and many of the newer light systems are using advanced technology to help the flow of traffic.  The new light systems using artificial intelligence are sometimes referred to as smart lights.  The new traffic light located on Park Road 22 at Aquarius Street is one type of smart light called Advance Warning for End of Green System (AWEGS). This lighting system provides advanced notice to motorist approaching the traffic signal to stop, kind of like the old sign that said “traffic signal ahead.” Advance warning signs are generally believed to be most effective at intersections hidden from the view of approaching traffic and on highways where traffic signals are least expected. In other words, they are believed to be effective in locations where a traffic light should not be located. The AWEG System is effective at reducing the number of motorists running the red light, which has been demonstrated at installations in College Station, Brenham, and other locations around the state. The system works best when traffic volumes are under 15,000 motorists daily. When traffic volumes are greater than 15,000, traffic backs up, and the advanced warning system is less effective. Many motorist have already experienced the delays on Park Road 22 during spring break and Memorial Day weekend. Motorists should expect more delays with the upcoming Independence Day holiday. It seems a smart light cannot overcome a dumb location.

     Other than the frustration of traffic delays, there are real costs. Texas A&M Transportation Institute reported that traffic delays due to congestion caused drivers to waste more than three billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their car for nearly seven billion extra hours in 2015. The total cost nationwide was $160 billion. I suppose that if you are in the energy business, traffic congestion might be a good thing, but if you are a frustrated motorist trying to get home, there is no good side to traffic congestion. Either way it is comforting to know our traffic engineers are doing their part to increase congestion and bring travel to a standstill. After all, as American humorist, Evan Esar put it:  “The car was invented as a convenient place to sit out traffic jams.”

 

Until next time…

A citizen of the United States of America, a Texan and a resident of Flour Bluff, Dan Thornton, values enlightened reason and freedom. Dan is a lifelong student of history and philosophy, and a writer of poetry and song. The hallmark of his pursuit is a quest for universal truth. By admission, the answer is illusive, but he is undaunted, and the quest continues.
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Big Blue Ice: The Perito Moreno Glacier

Front Page, Outdoors, Travel

     I took one last gulp of the cold, ambrosial water, then raised my gaze and surveyed the glacier. I was on my knees because I had been filling my water bottle with the cobalt blue water seeping from a little chasm in the ice, but it was a doubly appropriate posture. I was in a state of awe.

 

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     Standing on the vast undulating surface of the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate, Argentina, it is not hyperbolic to say I felt I was on another planet. Just yesterday I took a bus from Puerto Natales, Chile, which careened past a sign that read, both accurately and worryingly: EL FIN DEL MUNDO – “the end of the world” – and now I was trekking across endless hills and ridges of swirling ice that looked like waves frozen in time. My sweltering South Texas hometown could never have prepared me for the raw, rugged beauty of Patagonia.

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     The region encompasses much of the southern parts of Chile and Argentina, and is home to vaulting, jagged mountains; endless plains of grazing guanacos; and the third largest ice field on the planet—one that plays third fiddle only to Antarctica and the North Pole. There are 48 glaciers in Patagonia’s southern ice field, of which Perito Moreno is one of the most accessible. This particular glacier spans 97 square miles, the visible boundary as wide as three miles and with an average height of 240 feet above Argentino Lake. Numbers cannot hope to make sense of this immensity.

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     I had signed up for a tour on El Calafate’s main street the previous day, and with spiky metal crampons lashed to our hiking boots, a guide led my group carefully through the gullies and slopes of the glacier’s surface. After a couple hours of climbing up icy knolls and leaping over glowing blue crevasses beneath the day’s heavy thunderheads, we met at the base of the glacier and were rewarded with alfajores (a ubiquitous Argentinean treat of two cookies filled with dulce de leche then smothered with chocolate) and the best kind of ice bar: whiskey on glacier rocks.

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     “Small sips,” our guide instructed the group, holding her glass up with a grin. “Glacier ice has larger crystals and smaller air bubbles than regular ice cubes. It melts more slowly. ¡Disfrutalo!”

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     As much as I did enjoy our impromptu bar, the real treat occurred as we were ferrying back across the channel to the observation decks, passing directly in front of the massive wall of ice. Since it is one of only three advancing glaciers on the planet, it calves often, meaning it is common to see enormous chunks of ice break off and crash into the water in an explosion of white spray. But it is the sound of a calving I will remember most. As our boat shuttled us toward land, some of us had cameras glued to our faces, trying to snap a few last photos of what is a hopelessly ineffable sight, while others just leaned on the railings and soaked it all in. At that moment, a huge piece of ice cleaved from the glacier, and a deafening roar detonated through the air; first, it was like the sizzling catch of a flare, then like great branches cracking and breaking, and finally like a thundering solo of a thousand bass and snare drums. Eventually, the air and water quieted, and the glacier spoke no more. Mere minutes later, the grey clouds dissolved and the unbroken arc of a rainbow shot over the ice, resting there like a crown.

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Originally from Texas, Ben spent a year traveling around South America and road-tripping across the USA, looking for writing inspiration wherever he went. He is now living in Nashville, and few things make him happier than playing the piano on a stormy afternoon or stumbling across a nearly perfect poem.
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Lessons from the River Lark

Front Page, Travel
river-lark-web
The path along the river Lark between Barton Mills and Mildenhall in England

     On our recent trip to the British Isles, my sweet daughter-in-law spent her days training math teachers at the the Lakenheath and Feltwell DOD schools, and I – removed from my homeland without a phone or a car – discovered what really matters in life along the Lark River,  a tributary of the River Great Ouse.  Join me as I meander through the recesses of my mind, recalling the trip in pictures and thoughts.

tallest-building
St. Mary’s Church Bell Tower in Mildenhall, UK

     Put first things first and keep your eye on the goal.  Priorities were different when churches were the tallest buildings in town. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”Hebrews 12:1-2

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     Treasure families.  I saw this family of swans every time I walked along the Lark.  There was always one parent in the front and one in the back of the peeping young.  Both swan parents play crucial roles in keeping their babies safe until they are ready to venture out on their own.  Did you know that swans mate for life and that  once the cygnets are old enough to look after themselves the parents cut the parental ties with them and chase them away, sometimes quite aggressively?  (No failure to launch in this species!)

jack-with-a-pike
Jack with a pike he caught on the river Lark

 

     Take joy in other people’s accomplishments.  This was Jack’s first time catching a pike.  He has been fishing the river Lark for many years, and he finally snagged one!  I was the only one who saw it before he returned it to its home.  “Let me calm it a bit,” he said as he gently rubbed it with his hands – while avoiding its very pointy teeth!  He did indeed calm it; then, he removed the hook just before he held him up in all his glory for me to get a picture.  I was so proud of him though I had only known him for about three minutes.

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Jim, an angler on the River Lark

     Listen to people’s stories.  I met Jim on the first day I traveled the river path.  He quietly watching his friend fish.  I stopped and asked, “Are they biting?”  Well, that’s all it took.  Jim launched into the story of how there were over 20 kinds of fish in the Lark and that only the anglers who belonged to the Lark Angling Club (and all Mildenhall residents) have permission to fish the river.  He spoke of how he had once hunted the area, seeking the muntjac, the fallow, the red, and the roe deer.

mike
Mike, another angler and historian on the River Lark

     Learn the history of your home and share it with others.  Mike, Jim’s friend who first told a story of how he won the local fishing contest when he accidentally kicked his box of corn, hemp seed, pink maggots, and earthworms into the river, laughed as he told the story. “The fish bubbled up like piranhas!  I just kept dropping my line in the water and hauling them out!”  He went on to tell me how he now resided in Suffolk but had lived in and around the Lark his whole life.  He told me about the fenlands (a marsh or area of land covered by shallow water) and the people who worked them. He spoke of the flintknappers who chipped the larger pieces of flint to create the flints used in the Civil War flintlock rifles in our country.  He even gave me a little history on the Normans and Romans who introduced rabbits of the soft and furry type (unlike the larger hare) into the areas around the Lark nearly 2000 years ago.  The industry really caught on in the 1920s when rabbit fur hats were all the rage throughout Northern Europe and Russia.  “They were shipping over 2000 skins by rail in a week in the twenties.  It was big business and many of the people in the area worked butchering, skinning, and shipping the skins off to London to be made into hats for rich people.”  I checked his story when I got home and had time to read about all that he shared.  It turns out that he’s a walking, talking history book!

the-bull-inn-web

     Preserve the history of your people by preserving the work of their hands.  The Bull Inn sits on what was and still is a main thoroughfare in Barton Mills.  As I ate my breakfast of fresh eggs, homemade bread, and fresh butter, I did what I do at home.  I looked for something to read while I ate.  The girl behind the desk at the inn (and sister of the owner) handed me a three-ring binder that offered excellent reading about the history of the inn that was built in 1599.  The documentation hints that Queen Elizabeth I shared a room with a certain Earl of Leicester when she was just a princess.  It also seems that in the days when Queen Victoria was Princess Victoria, she also stayed at the Bull Inn.  This “fact” is documented a bit better by the Peelings, who wrote the history.  “More definite and beyond dispute is the memory which links Queen Victoria with the history of this ancient hostelry.  It was in the days when she was Princess Victoria that her carriage halted in the Bull courtyard and village recollection tells how the careful and not-too-rich Princess was observed to be reading a novel with its covers wrapped in brown paper.  There is also another tradition which insists that she halted here a second time after she ascended the throne, and had with her on that occasion the young Prince who lives in affectionate memory as Edward VII.”

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     The binder held almost the entire history of the inn.  It told of how someone of late bought it and wanted to turn it into a personal residence.  The townspeople would not allow it.  The tiny community joined forces and demanded the inn continue to house the weary traveler who happened down the road.  As a result, the modernized Bull Inn stands today welcoming visitors from far and wide.  I have slept where royalty rested their heads!

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     Take pride in your hometown.  The tiny village of Barton Mills has never had over 700 people living there.  Today the population is almost 500, yet as I walked the town, I learned about the people, their history, and what they value.  How?  True, I spoke to many a resident, but it was the historical markers, like the one pictured above, at every bend in The Street (real name of the road) that helped me become part of the town.  Now that I am back on this side of the big water, I find myself looking at my hometown with a kinder, more loving eye.  After all, we have our own stories, a rich history, and a community filled with people who love where they live, too.  The tales of the Laguna Madre are as wonderful as the ones from the River Lark and the lessons just as valuable.  Lord, let us all see the commonplace in an uncommon way.

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St. Mary’s Church gate in Barton Mills (Can you see the headstones in the front yard of the church?)
Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day.
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A Break In the Clouds

Front Page, Outdoors, Travel

     

     Last summer, I found myself in Chile’s remote Atacama Desert, cloaked by the chilly night, gazing up at our gauzy, swirling Milky Way emblazoned more brightly than I had ever seen it across the inky sky. Many factors have fortuitously coalesced to make this one of the planet’s most optimal places to observe the night skies: high altitude (~8000 ft. above sea level), high level of aridity, a near total lack of radio and light pollution, and an average of 330 cloudless days a year.

Chile 1
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)

     With approximately .6 inches of annual rainfall, this 40,000-square-mile stretch of land is the world’s driest non-polar desert—some parts haven’t seen water in over 400 years. During the day, the mellow village of San Pedro de Atacama serves as a jumping off point for tours of steaming geysers; freezing lagoons; sparkling salt flats; and the jagged, alien vistas of Valle de la Luna. But the only appropriate response upon nightfall is to get out of town and look up.

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     I was fortunate enough to discover Jorge Corante, a tour guide infectiously passionate about astronomy. He gave my small group an animated lesson about the night sky, discussing zodiac constellations and Andean astrology. Then, after handing us cups of creamy hot chocolate, he scurried from telescope to telescope, tinkering away to ensure we had the best views possible. Through them, I peered breathlessly at colorful nebulae, the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, distant galaxies, the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. The moon was so close I felt I could discern every crevice and crater. Saturn burned yellow like a faraway sun, its rings so clear I could distinguish layer upon layer of those diaphanous discs.

     Toward the end of the stargazing tour, Jorge aimed his largest telescope at a darker patch of sky, a blackness seemingly void of all but a hazy smidgen of light. He adjusted the dials, then beckoned me to look, and what I witnessed was unbelievable. That “dark patch” was actually in the direction of Omega Centauri, our galaxy’s largest globular star cluster, and my vision was filled with millions of specks of light.

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Omega Centauri (© 2013 by Joaquin Polleri & Ezequiel Etcheverry (Observatorio Panameño en San Pedro de Atacama)

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     Throughout the next week, Jorge and I continued to become friends, texting back and forth about the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter that was set to peak on June 31st. The two planets would be a mere .3 degrees apart—the closest they had come since 6/17/2 BC, when they were so close they would have looked like one dazzling object. Some hypothesize that ancient conjunction was the elusive Star of Bethlehem. Heralding star or not, it is an exceedingly rare event (2017 years in the making), and I was in an ideal place to observe it. However, as fate would have it, on the evening of the conjunction, the typically clear sky filled with a thick blanket of clouds, and it seemed I would miss it. I consoled myself by going to Ckunna, a gem of a restaurant, and ate my disappointment away with their signature dish, “quinoto,” a mixture of locally grown quinoa, pesto, goat cheese, seasonal vegetables, and desert spices.

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Yummy Quinoto

     Just as I got back to my hostel, I received this text from Jorge:

     “I hear there’s a break in the clouds near Calama. Do you want me to pick you up? I can be at your hostel in ten minutes.”

     I answered in the affirmative, and within minutes, Jorge and I were racing down the road that winds around desert ridges and rock formations, through plains of surreal and barren beauty. As the lights of Calama appeared at the foothills of the Chilean Coast Range, the clouds dissipated and we saw it: the planets nearly touching, fiery against the navy night. Jorge veered off to the side of the road, parked, and hauled one of his telescopes out of the truck bed. I stood gazing up in the middle of that empty, cold road, filled with speechless awe and the buoying warmth of friendship.

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Related links:

http://adstargazing.com/stargazing/Page1358.htm

http://www.bethlehemstar.com

 

Originally from Texas, Ben spent a year traveling around South America and road-tripping across the USA, looking for writing inspiration wherever he went. He is now living in Nashville, and few things make him happier than playing the piano on a stormy afternoon or stumbling across a nearly perfect poem.
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Flour Bluff Business Association: Monthly Highlights

Business, Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Front Page, Travel

FBBA

   The Flour Bluff Business Association regular monthly meeting  held July 13, 2016, at noon at Funtrackers in Flour Bluff was well-attended.  Several local business owners enjoyed pizza while announcements were made.  Charles Zahn was the keynote speaker (click here to read what he had to say). Greg Smith, candidate for the Corpus Christi District 4 City Council spot, and Sheriff Jim Kaelin, incumbent for Nueces County Sheriff, attended the meeting.  Both will be on the ballot in November.  FBBA President Melanie Hambrick encouraged everyone to learn about the candidates and vote.  She also provided current statistics on registered voters in Flour Bluff (12,072) and Padre Island (10,263).

     Various audience members also made announcements.  Guy Watts spoke in favor of the proposed Del Mar Campus to be built on the South Side of Corpus Christi on 96-acres at the corner of Yorktown Boulevard and Rodd Field Road.  The project would require a bond election in November.  Flo East gave an update on Parker Pool.  It has been open two weeks and is already holding swimming lessons in the mornings and evenings with community swimming going from noon to five each day.  Concerns have been raised about homeless feeding occurring at Parker Park where the pool is located.  Melanie Hambrick, who serves on the city homeless commission, agreed that this practice needs to be stopped.

     Kae Berry of Timon’s Ministries announced the Steppin’ Out Las Vegas Style fund raiser to be held on Saturday, September 10, 2016, at the Pour House on the second floor of Schlitterbahn.  Various levels of sponsorship are available and come with the following:

  • Company name and ad on each gaming table the business sponsors
  • Scrolling ads all evening on a dozen screens in gaming room
  • Signs placed on the walls in the gaming room
  • The DJ mention of name/company during the evening
  • Dealers trained to let players know who sponsored the table

For more information, contact Linda Walsh, Event Coordinator for Timon’s Ministries at lawalshva@yahoo.com or call 361-445-7999.

Spotlight Business of the Month

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     Ernest (Ernie) Sims, owner of Corpus Christi RV Resorts, received the Flour Bluff Business Association “Spotlight Business of the Month” at the general meeting held at Funtrackers on July 13, 2016.  Sims operates four Good Sam RV parks, three in Flour Bluff (Colonia del Rey, Padre Palms, and Shady Grove) and one on Leopard (Greyhound).  Colonia del Rey has been the highest rated RV park in Corpus Christi for over 20 years, receiving a score of 10/10/9 on the Woodall’s RV Park Rating System. CCRV offers first-class service and affordable prices.

     “We get a lot of winter Texans who use Flour Bluff businesses.  They typically stay from November through March.  They like this area.” said Sims.

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     In 1988, Sims and his wife took the business over from his parents who opened the business in 1973.  Sims grew up in Corpus Christi, attended Del Mar College and Texas A&I, and decided to stay in the area to raise his family and grow the family business.  Sims’s son, Brian, owns and operates Brite-N-Clean Washateria on Waldron Road in Flour Bluff near Shady Grove RV Park.

Flour Fest in the Planning Stages

     The FBBA board members are asking for vendors and volunteers for the first annual Flour Fest, an event to be held on Saturday, September 17, 2016, from noon to six at a locale in Flour Bluff yet to be determined.  It is a family-friendly event intended to showcase businesses, churches, school groups and clubs, and organizations in the Flour Bluff community.  Live bands, storytelling, food trucks, games for the kids, arts, crafts, and business booths are part of the program.  As a benefit to members of the FBBA, free spaces will be provided at the event.  Any business purchasing a spot will gain membership in the FBBA.  Other civic groups and candidates running for office may also purchase space on a first-come-first-serve-basis.  It promises to be a fun time for all if enough participants take part.  To sign up for a spot, please visit Flour Fest at the FBBA website.  For more information on being a vendor or joining FBBA, please contact Jennifer Welp at 361-877-2906.  To volunteer, contact Shirley Thornton at 361-537-3460.  Note:  Once the locale has been established, a meeting will be held for volunteers.

Upcoming meetings:

Board meeting:  Tuesday, August 2, 2016 at 5:30 at Candlewood Suites

General meeting:  Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at noon at Funtrackers (Keynote speaker: Superintendent of Flour Bluff ISD)

Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day.
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Living la Vida Bluff Style!

Arts, Business, Education, Flour Bluff, Food and Drink, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Outdoors, Religion, Sports, Travel
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Sunset on Cayo del Oso in Flour Bluff

     I guess taking part in my 40th class reunion made me a bit nostalgic concerning my hometown, Flour Bluff.  It is a little community of about 20,000 fiercely independent people that sits on the Encinal Peninsula between Cayo del Oso and Laguna Madre.  On Aug. 5, 1961, the City of Corpus Christi, Texas, voted to annex Flour Bluff while Flour Bluff voted to incorporate as a separate city.  The Corpus Christi City Council passed an annexation ordinance, and city police began patrolling in Flour Bluff.  Suits filed by Flour Bluff residents to block annexation were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in the matter.  Even though Flour Bluff officially became part of Corpus Christi, the people don’t really seem to know it.  That’s why most Flour Bluffians say they are “going to town,” when in actuality they are simply crossing one of the two Oso bridges into Corpus Christi proper.

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     Once known as the “Gateway to Padre Island,” Flour Bluff is home to the award-winning Flour Bluff Independent School District and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, the two largest employers in the community.  These two entities have supported each other since World War II when the Navy commissioned the base in 1941.  Flour Bluff, like many Texas towns, was influenced by ranching and oil and gas.  Add to that tourism, highlighted by fishing, boating, birding, and water sports, the diverse nature of the community starts to take shape.

An aerial view of Naval Air Station (NAS) Corpus Christi, Texas, as it appeared on January 27, 1941, seventy-two years ago today. The air station was commissioned in March 1941.
An aerial view of Naval Air Station (NAS) Corpus Christi, Texas, as it appeared on January 27, 1941. The air station was commissioned in March 1941.
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The first school was opened in 1892 in the community of Brighton, later to become Flour Bluff.
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Kite surfing, boating, fishing, and great meals at Laguna Reef in Flour Bluff
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Flour Bluff is home to countless species of birds.

    It is possible to live and work in Flour Bluff and never leave except to visit a major hospital, which is just five minutes away.  Flour Bluff has its very own HEB Plus and Super Walmart along with a host of unique shops and businesses that meet the everyday needs of the people.  It has an active business association, three fire stations (federal, county, and city), a police substation, various banking institutions, eateries of all types, and even a brewery!  Add to this three quick-care clinics, local dentists, a vet clinic serving large animals and small pets, accommodations for out-of-town guests, a twenty-four hour gym, multiple auto mechanic shops, storage facilities, car washes, insurance companies, attorneys-at-law, and a host of other businesses that offer the citizens of Flour Bluff basic amenities of life. Of course, churches of all denominations and community organizations enrich the lives of the people, too. If a person wants something more, indoor and outdoor malls are within a ten-minute drive east while the Gulf of Mexico is ten minutes the other direction. Padre Island sports the longest stretch of undeveloped, drivable beach in America (60 miles).  Del Mar College, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and the Craft Training Center provide educational opportunities beyond high school and are all under a 20-minute drive from Flour Bluff.

    

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     Living in Flour Bluff comes in all shapes and sizes.  The community offers many housing choices – including affordable housing, and multiple realtors in the area are available to assist newcomers in finding the perfect home.  Some residents in Flour Bluff enjoy the rancher’s life and own large pieces of property with room for horses and cows.  Others love living on the water.  Waterfront properties are available along Oso Bay, Laguna Madre, and parts in between where ponds and canals exist.  Many people prefer little or no yard maintenance and live in single or multi-level apartments or condominiums.  Flour Bluff welcomes its friends from the colder parts of the country in the many RV parks in the community.  Most residents, however, live in quiet neighborhoods filled with the whir of lawnmowers and the laughter of children.  Yes, there is indeed something for everyone!

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     Flour Bluff offers many outlets for family fun.  The community has a public and school pool, little league softball, baseball, and kickball fields, youth football organizations, activities at Flour Bluff Schools (i.e. basketball, football, volleyball, softball, academics, arts, music, NJROTC), a skateboard park, a disc golf park, multiple playgrounds, and other facilities for activities such as martial arts, soccer, tennis, rugby, and horseback riding.

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          Seasonal events give everyone something to anticipate.  Whether it’s the Navy hosting the Blue Angels, the Flour Bluff Homecoming Parade, the Flour Bluff Business Association Community Christmas, the Flour Bluff Fire Department Santa float, or the Flour Bluff 8th-Grade trip to HEB Camp in the Hill Country, those who know Flour Bluff, know it has a host of unique offerings for the community.  Maybe it’s a school that’s excels in everything.  Maybe it’s the year-round great weather conducive to outdoor activities like fishing, boating, swimming, and surfing.  Maybe it’s the tight-knit community that welcomes people from all over the world to be a part of what is happening here.  Maybe it’s the rich history or unique geographical location. Maybe it’s the class reunions, Friday-night football, or visiting with old friends in the grocery line. Whatever it is, Flour Bluff is a great place to live, visit, play, raise a family, and take part in a community that is like no other.

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Santa float

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     Spending the weekend with childhood friends (Flour Bluff Class of ’76), driving the Bluff in search of what is new or changed, writing this article, and gathering pictures for it takes me to the heart of a place I have called home for nearly 50 years.  Even those who have moved away still feel her tugging at their heartstrings. She definitely leaves an impression.  Flour Bluff, like every little “town”, has its problems, but that which is good outweighs them all.  I just wish more people could experience living la vida Bluff style!

 

Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day.
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Mosey On Over to Rosine

Front Page, Travel

An hour and a half north of Nashville, the highway gives way to winding country roads and gorgeous rolling farmland. Traffic becomes a distant memory, and cows seem to outnumber houses. Just twenty more minutes of driving past grain silos, whitewashed chapels, and fields carpeted in butter-yellow daffodils, one arrives in Rosine, KY, home to 113 people, not counting Bill Monroe (1911-96), who lives here as the Father of Bluegrass.

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My friend Sage and I had come here to explore the origins of bluegrass and were delightfully greeted by the only open store:  Blue Moon Variety Shoppe–presumably an homage to Monroe’s most famous song, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” Inside, we discovered an eclectic inventory that included Halloween masks, enormous boxes of granola, and used makeup, as well as a man with salt-and-pepper scruff and kind eyes who told us, “I used to be a carpenter, but one day my hands told the hammer they couldn’t drive any more nails. Now I’m quite happy to watch over this store here.”

A few miles up the road and across the train tracks, we pulled up to Bill Monroe’s childhood home, fondly mythologized in many of his iconic songs.

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My friend Sage playing Monroe’s fiddle tune “Jerusalem Ridge” on the porch

The youngest of eight siblings, he learned how to play mandolin from his mother, who often played and sang during breaks between cooking and washing. He also savored the sounds of his uncle, Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, fiddling on a distant hill as evenings darkened and he was cloaked in the rasping of crickets the sifting of wind through the pines.

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Our tour guide—who was married to Scottie Monroe, the son of one of Bill’s brothers—showing us the Italian-designed but American-made mandolin Bill Monroe first learned to play on

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One of only  a few photographs of Uncle Pen

Sadly, both of Bill’s parents died by the time he was sixteen, and he went to live with his beloved Uncle Pen in this hilltop cabin.

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After playing local dances with his brothers Birch and Charlie in the 1930s, and achieving some radio and recording success as the leader of the Monroe Brothers, Bill assembled his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, which included the high lead vocals of guitarist Lester Flatt, the frenetic banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs, and, of course, his own innovative mandolin style. This is the moment many scholars say “bluegrass” was born, though the term would not be coined for decades. Now, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys enjoy an almost mythic status and are considered among enthusiasts to have single-handedly established the mandolin as a lead instrument, as well as ushered into existence a new musical genre and community, one that extends around the world, and points those international bluegrass pilgrims back to this speck in rural Kentucky.

The charm of this town is rooted in its communal love of bluegrass that still permeates the place today. Every Friday, the Rosine Barn Jamboree continues to celebrate Monroe’s legacy with a night of music, dancing, and storytelling on the very stage where Bill Monroe  played one of his last shows in 1995 (His last show was played on March 15, 1996, at the Friday Night Opry in Nashville.) This gathering even prompted the New York Times to list Rosine, KY as one of the top 52 places in the world to go in 2016!

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Sage and I settled into the cozy wood-paneled walls and multicolored lights as a local band took the stage. The average age of all present was well past middle age, and the musicians and audience members hollered greetings and murmured amongst each other in a way that spoke of many years of friendship. The lead singer opened the night with a circuitous joke about “Benjamins” and “Warshingtons” that went something like this:

“Ben Franklin said to George Washington, ‘You’re worthless; you can’t even buy a bottle of pop these days!’ to which George Washington replied: ‘I’m not worthless! Every Sunday morning, you’ll find dozens of me in the offering plate. I’ve yet to see you there!’”

After several classic bluegrass and gospel tunes, someone came to where we sat and welcomed my friend to join them onstage. After all, none of the musicians were paid–they all felt amply compensated by a shared love of the music. Elated, Sage accepted, adding her fiddle and voice to the mix.

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Later on, Restless River Band—a group of college students from southwestern Kentucky—took the stage, inviting her to join their jam on fiddle too. The tight harmonies, jangling banjo, and piercing fiddle closed out the night with a sweet breath of energy.

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I only recently discovered bluegrass, yet by the end of the night I felt equally as included in its lineage as the locals who had perhaps witnessed Bill’s first performance with his Blue Grass Boys. After only half a day in Rosine, we both felt joyfully full of the living history and lore of one of our country’s most distinct musical forms and cultures. One of the most endearing aspects of the town was its decided lack of kitsch and unctuousness. The Variety Shoppe didn’t claim to be anything more than its name implied. Bill Monroe’s early home wasn’t a flashy museum, simply a memorial to a beloved musician. The jamboree wasn’t a production for tourists; it was the gathering place of a community, one woven together with music and time, as passionate and tight-knit as any person could hope for.

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“High in the hills of old Kentucky / Stands the fondest spot in my memory / I’m on my way back to the old home / The light in the window I long to see.” – Bill Monroe

Related video:  Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

Originally from Texas, Ben spent a year traveling around South America and road-tripping across the USA, looking for writing inspiration wherever he went. He is now living in Nashville, and few things make him happier than playing the piano on a stormy afternoon or stumbling across a nearly perfect poem.
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Small Indiana Town Welcomes Honest Abe

Front Page, Travel

Crown Point American Gothic

     For the second summer in a row Crown Point, Indiana, has brought in  Seward Johnson statues that are on display in various parts of the city.

Crown Point Bricklayer

     Crown Point, Indiana, population 27,317, is situated 40 miles SE of the Chicago loop and about 20 miles South of Lake Michigan. Crown Point is the Lake County seat known as the Hub City.  It is known for its beautiful court house square, quaint antique shops, and covered bridge located in the county fairgrounds.  It was from this county’s jail that famed gangster John Dillinger made his daring escape with a so called pistol made out of a bar of  soap, although many claim that his gun was real. The feature film, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp was filmed there in 2008, which caused quite a stir in this quiet community.

Crown Point Court House

Crown Point Covered Bridge

     Crown Point is also the  home of what was known as the “marriage mill” where famous people such as  Rudolph Valentino and Cassius Clay, among others, came to get married  because there was no waiting period for those who just couldn’t wait one minute longer.

Crown Point Marilyn

     Last summer the city contacted The Seward Johnson Company to have eleven statues brought in to be displayed in various parts of the  city. Each brightly-colored, bronze statue is sponsored for three months by a businesses or organization at a cost of $2,250.

Crown Point Vendor

Crown Point Friends Talking

     This art project went over so well, that the city did it again.  Twelve new statues were installed early in April of 2016, with the main attraction being a 40-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Crown Point Abe

     I was fortunate to see these in person last year and plan on returning this year to see the new ones. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Crown Point Jim

I was born in Crown Point, Indiana, and I am 72 years old. I retired from the Northern Indiana Public Service Company in 1999 as an Operating Dispatcher. I enjoy playing golf and spending time with family and friends. My motto is "Have as much fun as you can and never act your age because your age can be boring."
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Could Fewer Regulations for All Solve Uber Problem in Corpus Christi?

Corpus Christi, Front Page, Government and Politics, Opinion/Editorial, Travel

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     Kirsten Crow’s Caller-Times article, “City Council May Reconsider Ordinance That Drew Ire of Uber,” tells us that there may be hope for the much-desired Uber and Lyft companies to remain in Corpus Christi.  Councilman Chad Magill has shown an interest in allowing the local taxi companies and ride-hailing companies to reach an agreement through negotiations.  This seems like the right thing to do.  Too much regulation certainly can hinder the creative spirit, which can kill new businesses and make people look elsewhere to work, live, and vacation.  Magill’s idea to suspend the effective date of the ordinance for 60 or 90 days so that the primary stakeholders can come up with a workable plan is a good idea, one that will hopefully lead to less regulation for all.

     Regarding the safety concerns surrounding the ride-sharing companies, economists have long argued that stiff competition is often far better than detailed regulations when it comes to fostering safety and quality.  In many municipalities, the taxi lobby has convinced policymakers that there are only two solutions: Either level the playing field by forcing ride-sharing firms to obey excessive taxi regulations or ban ride-sharing completely. Maybe these groups need to stop fighting one another and join forces to get rid of some of the fees and regulations that are not directly related to safety, such as the fees

FTC Edith Ramirez
Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman of FTC

     The sharing economy, is not just about sharing. It’s about selling, swapping, trading, and bartering and is referred to as the peer-to-peer economy, the collaborative economy, or collaborative consumption.  Companies, such as Airbnb, Snapgoods, TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, DogVacay, Poshmark, provide services that people want and are most likely here to stay.  In a speech at Fordham University Law School, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez warned that imposing “legacy regulations on new business models” can stifle competition and ultimately leaves consumers worse off. But, she said that regulators shouldn’t shy away from enforcing important consumer protections on issues like health, safety, or privacy.  Ramirez ends her speech with questions that each governmental entity dealing with businesses that are part of the sharing economy must answer: 

“Assuming these new business models may benefit consumers, how can regulators provide a regulatory framework flexible enough to allow them to realize their full potential? Do existing regulatory frameworks have to be reworked or even abandoned due to these developments?  How do we also ensure that these same new business models do not inadvertently erode beneficial, existing consumer protections in such diverse areas as health and safety, privacy, and data security? Can the trust mechanisms built into some of these new business models replace regulation?  How do we best avoid creating two distinct regulatory tracks – with one set of rules for the older, incumbents businesses and a different set of rules for the new entrants they now increasingly compete against? I would suggest that picking winners by creating a regulatory differential in favor of new entrants should be just as undesirable as retaining regulations that deter meaningful entry. And how should regulators appropriately respond to a highly dynamic marketing which the business models of today may be completely transformed tomorrow?”

    

     Josh Brustein of Bloomberg Businessweek said, “The so-called sharing economy, which, depending on whom you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.”  Whatever the case may be, these kinds of businesses pose special problems for municipalities, including Corpus Christi, in terms of what to regulate, whom to regulate, and to what degree to regulate.

Related articles:  “Does Anyone Really Know What ‘Uber’ Means?”

“Uber: Will It Stay or Will It Go?”

Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day.
Please follow and like us: