Whitcomb: Police State Frenzy; Housing Search; Facebook Far…


Sunday, January 12, 2020

 

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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“The intact facade’s now almost black
in the rain; all day they’ve torn at the back
of the building, ‘the oldest concrete structure
in New England,’ the newspaper said. By afternoon,
when the backhoe claw appears above
three stories of columns and cornices,
the crowd beneath their massed umbrellas cheer.’’

 
—  From “Demolition,’’ by Mark Doty
 
 

“There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you ….. In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”

—  Ruth Stout (1884-1980, Connecticut-based writer,  best known for gardening books)

 

 

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

— Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism

(See Facebook item below)

 

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RI State House protest, January, 2020 PHOTO: GoLocal’s Richard McCaffrey

Middle Eastern Paradox

Images of the vast demonstrations (including a stampede that killed dozens of people) in Iran to protest the U.S. assassination of General and terrorist-in-chief Qasim Soleimani give a somewhat exaggerated picture of outrage. Yes, indeed, the odious general had long since been presented as a hero by the theocratic dictatorship for his attacks on American interests in the Middle East. And parts of Shia Islam have a propensity for declaring such people as martyrs to be avenged. But not all of Shia Islam takes such a fierce stance.  Consider the Ismailis, numbering tens of millions of Shia. They’re remarkable for their worldliness, tolerance, high levels of education and professional accomplishments and extraordinary philanthropy. Disclosure: I worked in a nonprofit education project in East Africa run by an Ismaili group.)

 

Many in Iran detest the regime.  Indeed, it has killed thousands of anti-government protesters in the past few years. And as for the millions in the streets, let’s remember that Iran is a police state!  More than a few in those throngs in Tehran and other Iranian cities were ordered by the regime, through their workplaces, schools and other institutions, to go on the streets to mourn Soleimani and demand revenge. Giant photo ops for international consumption.

 

As for revenge, as of this writing, Iran has lobbed ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. I doubt that will be the end of it. I think it was just a show (not a real attack) to the world that Iran is capable of conventional-warfare attacks; it seems that some of the missiles were actually guided to land in the sand to avoid killing Americans.

 

 I doubt that the desire for revenge of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been slaked.

 

Among other things, Iran could make the Straits of Hormuz a little too exciting for supertanker captains to want to transit, driving up the global price of oil, and Israel is always in the crosshairs.

 

But the Islamic Republic is more likely to seriously attack America through asymmetrical methods. Consider that Iran, which has plenty of very competent scientists and engineers, has major cyber warfare resources and other weaponry that it can use to make life unpleasant for Americans at home and abroad, and yet allow for plausible deniability.

 

So, don’t be entirely surprised if your lights go out at a time of the Iranian regime’s choosing, perhaps in a few months; they can bide their time. The Russians and the North Koreans may help them with some of the technical issues.

 

But wait! Trump’s weirdly spoken (we know he doesn’t drink, but…) address on the Iranian attacks held out some realism. For one thing, he implied that maybe we could negotiate a revised, easier-to-monitor-and-enforce version of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iranian nuclear plans that Trump had America quit. Further (and I wondered who told him) Trump pointed to the Mideast’s common enemy of ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups.    He said, accurately:

 

“ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran. And we should work together on this and other shared priorities.’’ Refreshing to hear this.

 

Still, Trump has just imposed yet more economic sanctions on Iran, a proud and ancient country, and he’s so erratic it’s hard to know what his thinking is. But we do know he’ll do virtually anything to get re-elected, be it cutting payroll taxes as the federal budget deficit explodes or even maybe – gasp! – détente with Iran, which would a better long-term U.S. ally than Saudi Arabia, whatever the Trump Organization’s business interests.
 

As for the Iranians’ downing – with a Russian missile — of a Ukrainian jet, killing the 176 people on it: This is the sort of accidental disaster that happens in the fog of near-war.

 

 

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General Assembly is back in session

And in the Legislature

As the Rhode Island General Assembly settles in for its new session, it faces a difficult challenge – to try to ensure that the Ocean State’s tax and regulatory systems and education quality become as much like Massachusetts’s as possible over the next few years. Increasingly, the Ocean State, to be competitive, must follow the lead of its much bigger and richer neighbor, while pitching its unique quality-of-life strengths and lower costs.

 

 

Car Tax Appeal

I know that many, perhaps most Rhode Islanders, hate car taxes. (I myself have a certain liking for use taxes – they seem the fairest way to pay for government services.) But the state might be better off – economically and environmentally – if it stopped cutting the car tax and used the revenues to fund more and better public transportation to reduce the need to drive everywhere. Even famously car-dependent places in the Sunbelt, such as South Florida, have been building commuter rail lines, even in a time of cheap gasoline – or maybe because of it because cheap gasoline spawns more driving and more congestion.

 

 

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Regional effort to address affordable housing

A Place to Call Your Own

Officials in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and elsewhere are calling for a big push to expand that rather nebulous thing called “affordable housing.’’ Probably the most dramatic set of proposals in New England comes from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who presides over a city in the middle of a metro area whose tech, health-care and financial-services companies have brought great wealth but have also driven up further what have long been among America’s highest living costs.

 

Mr. Walsh has vowed to commit $500 million over five years to address the city’s affordable-housing crisis. That would necessitate, among other things, the sale of a parking garage and implementing a real-estate transfer tax.

 

The mayor is also pressing major companies and foundations to consider pooling some money — perhaps as much as $100 million — to help finance affordable housing in Boston. If this actually happens, Boston would apparently become the first East Coast city to do something like what’s happening on the West Coast, where tech companies are funding some big housing programs to address some of the cost challenges they created.

 

 Still, isn’t having rich companies, with highly paid workers, better than having poor ones? As always, each success presents new problems.

 

Over the long run, the affordable-housing issue will be most effectively addressed through changes in zoning laws, especially in the suburbs, that have long discouraged mixed-used neighborhoods (commercial/residential) and multi-family housing. “Snob zoning,’’ which sets high per-residence minimum acreage, has, in particular, removed a lot of land from possible new-housing construction. But those who live on snob zoning lots have much more political clout than people searching for a place to live that they can afford. And zoning is mostly a local power.

 

Anyway, certain changes could dramatically increase the supply of less expensive housing, reducing the price pressure. That would include a slowing population growth, making housing more of a buyers’ market.

 

 

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Down and Up

After many cheers when giant General Electric company decided to move its headquarters to Boston from Fairfield, Conn., the noise turned to boos as its stock price tanked. But last year, the stock of the venerable company surged 53 percent from 2018, its biggest jump since the 1980s, and much better than the nearly 30 percent increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, notes The Boston Globe’s estimable Jon Chesto.

 

Much of the turnaround has been attributed to new CEO Larry Culp’s rigorous and decisive management.

 

Still, there might be a big problem this year as GE waits to see if engine orders pick up for Boing’s 737 Max jetliners, grounded last year after two crashes that killed hundreds of people. The engines were not a factor in the crashes.

In any event, the Boston area should still be happy that a company with such engineering expertise as General Electric is based in Boston – a world-renowned center for science and engineering.  Synergy! And investors should always keep in mind how fast things can change even for the biggest companies.

 

A week is an eternity in business….

 

Meanwhile, haggling continues on what sort of building should go on the site of what was to have been GE’s headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District.  The company had planned to put up a  sort of sci-fi 12-story headquarters building but decided to settle for two rehabbed older buildings next door – a touch of New England conservatism.

 

To read Mr. Chesto’s piece, please hit this link:

 

 

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Wexford Innovation Center

Wexford’s Future

I’m sure that the beautiful Wexford Innovation Center, in downtown Providence’s I-195 redevelopment district, will become a dynamic success as it provides a lower-cost and convenient alternative to such pricey tech centers as Cambridge’s Kendall Square.  Like Kendall Square (which I remember was downtrodden when I lived in Cambridge in 1970-71), Wexford is closely associated with neighboring university activities. And the fewer vacant lots the better.

 

 

Australian Nightmare Presages More Disasters

Pictures of the horrific fires in densely populated southeastern Australia brought back memories of the fires in northern California, fires that killed many people and destroyed many dwellings. Like many Americans, many Australians favor living amongst trees in suburbia and exurbia, and that being Australia, many of the trees are eucalyptus, which are highly flammable, almost explosive, because of their aromatic oil. Will global warming and its associated droughts, higher temperatures and brush and forest fires lead many people to leave such vulnerable areas? I hope so.

 

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There is, of course, natural variability in weather, but it seems clear that weather-related disasters are increasing with our burning of fossil fuel.

 

Meanwhile, besides the human toll in Australia, there’s the heartbreaking story of perhaps more than a billion animals, some in already imperiled species, killed by the fires.

 

New England is projected to become even wetter than it is in coming decades, and so we face far less of a fire threat than do California and Australia.

 

 

Long as the Money Rolls In

Facebook’s ad policies “very well may lead’’ to Trump’s re-election.

 

He “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”

 

— Andrew Bosworth, Facebook vice president for virtual and augmented reality. He was head of advertising on Facebook during the 2016 election campaign. He said don’t blame Putin or the late sleazoid Internet manipulation company Cambridge Analytica for Trump’s victory.

 

Of course, as long as the ad revenue comes pouring in, Facebook doesn’t care about the accuracy of what it publishes. For that matter, it has long refused to admit that it’s a publisher, calling itself merely a sort of conduit/middleman.

 

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Facebook will not restrict political ads

It does say it will ban “deep fake’’ videos – those false but realistic-looking productions created with artificial intelligence and other sophisticated weaponery. But the huge company says it won’t include videos with misleading parody or satire or in which the words have been changed.  How would most people know they’ve been changed?

 

So the flood of profitable lies and clicks on Facebook – the world’s largest media company – will continue.

 

Of course, it’s impossible to stop all lies, or maybe even many of them. But why can’t Facebook at least try to avoid publishing lies.  Speaking of lies, consider that Arizona Republican Congressman and conspiracy pusher Paul Gosar Tweeted an image of former President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In fact, Obama and Rouhani have never met. The image was photo-shopped from a picture taken of Obama’s  2011 meeting with then Indian President Manmohan Singh.

 

God help our political system when this is so easy to do.

 

 

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National Archives

Flawed Impeachment-Trial System

The original idea of the Founding Fathers in having the Senate act as a jury in the trial of a president impeached, by the House,  was based on the belief that the upper body, whose members have six-year terms, would be much less politicized than the House, whose members are elected every two years – that most senators would be capable of thoughtful, disinterested consideration of the charges against the president. But that has always been an excessive hope and never more than now, when the profoundly corrupt but very smart and disciplined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced that he’ll work hand in glove with the White House to acquit Trump. In order words, the Senate won’t act as the jury envisioned in the Constitution.

 

I wonder if the Constitution could be amended so that a corrupt president could be tried by, say, a panel of federal appeals judges or the Supreme Court itself. Yes, most of these judges are identified in varying degrees with Democratic or Republican positions and/or certain ideological leanings. But their life tenancy should encourage them to exercise more independent judgment than politicians have.

 

As things stand now, having the Senate sit as jurors of an impeached president borders on farce.

 

 

Dodging Those SUVs

Although traffic deaths, in general, have fallen over the past few years, pedestrian fatalities have been rising in the United States. The Governors Highway Safety reports that the number of pedestrians killed by drivers rose 35 percent in 2008-2017, from 4,414 deaths in 2008 to 5,977 deaths in 2017.

 

In 2018, 6,227 pedestrians died after being hit on our roads, the most since 1990. You’d think that unlike car-on-car fatalities that almost all pedestrian deaths would be avoidable.

 

And, the report’s authors conclude, some of this can be attributed to the rise of popularity of SUVs, those heavy, gas-guzzling behemoths. Their weight makes them more likely than smaller cars to kill people they hit.  And too many drivers of SUVs speed on narrow streets, perhaps feeling that the height and size of these vehicles makes them invulnerable and  king/queen of the roads. Higher gasoline prices, and hence fewer SUV drivers, would cut the number of pedestrian deaths, and slow by a tad global warming.
 

To read more, please hit this link:

and City Lab HERE

 

 

Part of Elite College Business Model

Here’s another reason that colleges and universities strive to be seen as elite as possible by, among things, trying to keep as high as they can in those misleading U.S. News & World Report rankings. High rankings juice the number of applications. Consider that Brown University got $2.5 million in revenue off declined applications (which means most of its applications), for the academic year starting in the fall of 2018, reports Lendedu.com, which explained:

 

“The revenue off declined applications was calculated by subtracting a school’s total number of admitted students from the total number of applicants and then multiplying the resulting number by the respective school’s application fee.’’

 

To read more, please hit this link:

 

 

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Chapin House at RIC

The Beauty of Stone

The stone cottage on the grounds of the former Rhode Island State Home and School for Dependent and Neglected Children, now part of the Rhode Island College campus, caught my eye. As GoLocal has reported, the school and its grounds have been added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

 

The school cared for about 10,000 children between 1885 and 1979. What had been a stone farmhouse was turned into a superintendent’s house and administrative building.

 

I love stone houses, partly from seeing so many of them when I lived for a few months in Pennsylvania. Their texture, subtle colors and evocation of permanence are most attractive. Not just the walls and foundations: Slate roofs (though very expensive) are beautiful, too.

 

God knows, rocky New England has lots of lovely stone – mostly granite but also some sandstone, slate and marble — but stone, and particularly granite, is hard and expensive to work with. Luckily, New England has been blessed with having lots of white pine, which is very adaptable for building. And because of New England’s windy winters, this wood can last a lot longer than can wood in warmer places.

 

To read the GoLocal story on the former school, please hit this link:

 

 

Despite Amazon

While online retail, especially the oligopoly called Amazon, has squashed many of the big stores that used to lure millions to cities, and especially their downtowns, many big-city downtowns are prospering in part because so many people, especially young adults, want the dense dynamism of cities. And there’s a limit to how much Amazon can undermine the lure of innumerable idiosyncratic small stores, not to mention restaurants.

 

 

Small Town Third Places

I got a pang when reading in The Valley News that another small-town local store that has acted as an informal community center is being absorbed by a chain. This is Sharon (Vt.) Trading Post, a general store and gas station. It’s been owned for 32 years by a local couple  – Rob and Cathy Romeo — but they’re selling it to a chain of 50 convenience stores/gas stations, albeit a Vermont one, called Maplefields. Maybe that means prices will fall a bit – economies of scale – but so probably will service and commitment to the community, in the White River Valley, for which the store has been a central meeting place.

 

There are fewer independent establishments in small towns like the Romeos’ these days, and that’s too bad. All towns need “third places’’ – not work, not homes – to get together.

 

To read more, please hit this link:

 

 

xxx

 

To get through January, plan your garden, go to the movies, read some good long books and head south. Or go north to Vermont and New Hampshire, where snow is more of an aesthetic and recreational pleasure than here and they keep it off the roads better than we do. Or to Quebec City, where winter is spectacular.

 

 

Behind Enemy Lines

Sonia Purnell’s new book, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World II, is a thriller. It’s about Virginia Hall, the American spy who worked with the British Special Operations Executive and the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA) behind enemy lines in France during World War II and later for the CIA. It’s a tale of amazing courage, ingenuity and cross-cultural cooperation. I’m pretty sure that it will be made into a movie.

 

 

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