Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ringing in the New Year

DC Sports

What a run in Washington, DC sports.  The Washington Nationals played each deciding, make-or-break, baseball game down to the wire: winning Game 6 to pull ahead of the Houston Astros in what could have been sudden-death; and winning Game 7 on October 30th to cinch the championship.

This follows on the Washington Capitals'  hockey finesse, which in 2018 brought home the Stanley Cup. Washington, DC's insufferable football team, the Redskins, have yet to win a Super Bowl in my lifetime. Outside of the South and Midwest, football seems to have lost its luster, falling from its decades-long pinnacle in the American psyche on account of growing scandals over concussions and other debilitating injuries caused by the sport.

Woke Journalism at the Top 25 Universities

I picked up a copy of the Georgetown Voice, which is Georgetown University's longtime independent student paper. One featured article, "Problems at Home Don't Stay at Home", by Cheyenne Martin, stuck out from editorials on current affairs, and a shame piece on those rent-by-the-minute scooters.
It is a narrative of a student who worries about her loved one in a poorly-managed Tennessee prison.

This voice differs from elite student journalism of just a decade ago; when I first started reading the Georgetown Voice and its establishment cousin, The Hoya. Class, race and gender were not discussed; and if so, at an arm's length detachment. Good journalism back then stuck to the "5 W's", a patient and disinterested observer to world events. A generation of recent college graduates whose early careers have been characterized by socioeconomic struggle, I believe, have forced a reckoning in news rooms.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Flash: N.C. Man Sentenced in Radioactive Hit Man Plot

Bryan Budi, 28, a North Carolina man, was sentenced on December 13th, 2019 to serve 78 months in prison for attempted possession of radioactive material, with the intent of killing a personal enemy.

From April 22, 2018, to June 1, 2018, Budi attempted to possess radioactive material, and did so with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to another person. Court documents show that Budi contacted an FBI online covert employee via the internet to purchase a lethal dose of a radioactive substance.  In his communications with the covert employee, Budi expressed his intent to use the radioactive substance to kill an unnamed individual.  Separately, Budi also hired an undecover agent to murder a specified victim.

Digest of Press Release issued by US DOJ. 


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Greta Thunberg's Expedition

Greta Thunberg, 16, made Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Good for her, and I mean it. While Time Magazine and most people, from Brazil to Israel, are focusing on her climate-change advocacy, I’m honing in on her recent maritime accomplishment.

Scandinavians have a good relationship with the oceans. Since Leif Eriksson and his Vikings made a transatlantic voyage, citizens of the Baltic Sea have dominated and improved the maritime arts. Norwegian-born Andrew Furuseth (1854-1938) spearheaded legislation for the benefit of American merchant mariners. Scandinavian merchant ship officers and crew were a common sight in ports around the world. Britain, France, and America had colonies and overseas territories as natural customers for their merchant fleets; Baltic ships sailed not for empire, but for trade. In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific Ocean onboard Kon-Tiki, a primitive raft.  Scandinavian mariners have disappeared in the past quarter-century, displaced by ship’s crews from the Philippines and India.
This summer, Greta Thunberg and her father sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a solar-equipped sailboat. Modern navigation and life safety equipment made her voyage less perilous than her Swedish ancestors. Nevertheless, it is an uncommon feat, which puts her in the realm of modern explorers.  

In the age of low-cost jet travel, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by sea has become a lost art. During the “Atlantic cruising season”, the summer months of placid waves, Cunard Lines alone sails the once-renowned Southampton, UK to New York City route. As late as the 1960’s, a variety of passenger ships crossed the Atlantic, year-round: Pounding through Winter North Atlantic’s 40-foot waves is the exact definition of “buyer beware”, a trip for brave and hearty souls to endure. By sailing for the Mediterranean instead of the North Sea, I have not done a true Winter North Atlantic run. The experience, however, is what put “hair on the chest” of classmates who made container-ship runs to Belgium in the middle of winter.   

Scandinavians Built the Modern Maritime Industry

The Danish conglomerate AP Moller Maersk dominates sectors of shipping ranging from the offshore oil industry to massive container ships. This portfolio includes some American-crewed vessels under its subsidiary Maersk Lines Limited.  Kongsberg, based in Norway, builds training simulators for aspiring ship’s masters and harbor pilots. Norway’s Bergen Marine has built ship’s diesel engines since World War Two, decades before American shipbuilders transitioned from steam to diesel propulsion. Swedish company GAC, a ship husbandry firm, negotiates with beady-eyed port officials around the world on behalf of ship-owners. Germany’s Fassmer builds modern enclosed lifeboats: SS El Faro, an American steamship lost in 2015, did not have this lifesaving equipment. The International Maritime Organization, which has in essence propagated maritime safety regulations since 1913, is based in London. Not quite Scandinavia, but near the North Sea.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Relax, It’s Only a Christmas Party

A five hour flight on Alaska Airlines, and a four hour train ride, felt like a mere minute for me as I closed the books on 2019. I had spent plenty of Autumn evenings and weekends pursuing a list of home renovation projects, and had paperwork to follow up on.

During the sailing days, I had little time or physical presence to carry out handy tasks at home. So I paid contractors and handy people to take care of things in my stead. This earned me a little ridicule onboard the ship, with comments like: “what would you do if the toilet leaked on the ship?”. The implication being that ‘real men’ are inherently able tradesmen.

Now in a shore-based assignment, I assumed that time would be the most abundant asset. I no longer worked overtime and weekends, so I would “pay myself” on the weekends by doing handy jobs on my own. What I did not appreciate is that community roots form on land, and so do social obligations.The fiercely libertarian and independent deep-sea Mariner or hunter-gatherer survivalist makes up just a small fraction of society. The rest rely on each other.

This year, retailer groups bemoaned the short holiday shopping season, as it was already December when Thanksgiving weekend was over. It was Sunday, December 1 when the college co-eds piled on and off the southbound train from Washington,DC to various Virginia universities. I am a bit out of touch with holiday consumerism. I spent the last few Decembers and Christmases with bags packed, ready to go join a ship overseas. I moved bags of midnight snacks, not big-screen TVs. But I do feel the time crunch in the density of ‘holiday’ parties in early December: Civic League, alumni network, work parties ranging from work center, to department, and command level. On a government supply ship, there might be one Christmas party, especially if the ship has a home port. On a working container ship, with crew amalgamated from across the country and the world, good riddance with sentiment- “you’re there to work”.

To those of us in the leisurely class: throw back, relax, enjoy the season, count the blessings.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Good riddance, Mr. Cuomo?

Television personality Sean Hannity moved out of New York in 2014; President Donald Trump , a lifelong New Yorker who grew up straphanging on the city’s subway, moved out this year. Between these two poles, Governor Andrew Cuomo has presided over an exodus of residents. This is an exodus of talent, treasure and potential.

This struck a chord with me, because I watched my peers, born and raised on New York’s Long Island, Staten Island, and in Westchester County leave the Empire State by the handful. They graduated college and set out for the South, particularly Florida. With home purchases and families started, they aren’t coming back soon.  Weather was not the issue. It was housing costs, traffic delays, career prospects, and taxes; overall cost and quality of living.

Immigration from around the world masks the effect of this exodus; it is the difference between New York’s resilient dynamism and Rust Belt decay. But New York has made large investments in its youth; to include college tuition in recent years. Why is the Governor so willing to see the future disappear? I would point to entrenched constituencies who believe that things are “good enough” under current leadership. The critical mass demanding better, the citizen voters who put Andrew Cuomo’s father out of office in 1994, have decamped for other states, taking their New York educations, pensions and real estate proceeds with them.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween in Mayberry 20037

There are things that your realtor does not tell you about the neighborhood when you buy a home. Trash pickup day and street sweeping are two firm examples. There are soft rules, like how late you may mow the lawn without disturbing the neighbors. In addition, every wood-framed craftsman home on the block flies an American flag.

As a young kid, my brother and I made trick-or-treat runs in Washington DC's Georgetown neighborhood. Walkable townhouses were filled with larger-than-life couples who enjoyed the door-ringing tradition. Yet, I came to realize, there are different ways for Halloween to be celebrated.

 I heard of exurban kids being driven door-to-door; but what about my new neighborhood in Norfolk, one that is coming through a time of transition? What was our protocol?  Do we trick-or-treat or not?

As the sun set, the neighborhood kids came out, some in costumes, others not. Some headed across our commercial drag to the brick houses with lawns. Theirs is the land of plenty. Trick-or-treating was in full swing over there. The others headed to church activities. Some Baptist communities do not practice Halloween, a fact that Jack Chick and his gas station pamphlets made clear.

One may think that a neighborhood on the upswing would rejuvenate the door-ringing practice. But the inertia of memories from a different decade- caution and fear- are hard. There is another reason: Vice Magazine described the decline of trick-or-treating in Washington DC's  gentrifying Logan Circle neighborhood. Empty-nesters stay home to dish out bowls of candy; Dual Income, No Kid couples have other plans for Halloween evening.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Short Trip on American Rail

Train 88, 6:15 am northbound departure from Norfolk

This morning, I scrambled to find winter clothes. I put on a long-forgotten jacket. Having spent the front half of the year straddling the Equator in Guam, I'd forgotten what "chilly" feels like. But here, straddling the North Carolina line, it's "Summer, Winter, Fall and Spring in one day", quipped a local acquaintance. It's marathon weather. Races in Norfolk and Washington, DC this weekend. Why drive? 

Park and ride at the Norfolk station. One track and platform, with a small and new waiting room. 200 feet from car to waiting train. Many empty seats now, but wait for Richmond, advised the conductor. The night is crisp, clear, dark, late like Autumn. I brought breakfast from home; having plenty, I gave away my orange juice.

One week ago, the National Weather Service recorded:
October 2, 2019, Norfolk Virginia: 93 F degrees near the oceanfront
October 3, 2019, Roanoke Virginia: 98 F degrees for a mountain cool

Crates of pumpkins appeared at the grocery and hardware store in balmy weather. It's that month: the prelude of the holidays season. Do 'they' keep pushing the holidays earlier, or had this been an endless summer? 

The train spent over an hour chugging through the rural woods of southern Virginia. In the City of Richmond, a brief change of scenery as the tracks runs in the median of Downtown Freeway. A few trains headed to Williamsburg serve the historic Richmond Main Street downtown station, but the city's main station is simple and suburban, serving all trains travelling north and south. Our train edges north to Randolph Macon college in Ashland. Isn't that swell? A college with an on-campus train station. The seats fill up.

The next four stops serve the southern suburbs of Washington, DC; the last of which is Alexandria, flanked by high-rises and the Metrorail line. Big city life as seen out the train window. Over the Potomac River, eager travelers muster their baggage, for arrival at Washington's Union Station occurs just a few minutes later. Stepping out of the coach, you hear the din of train movements, the hum of waiting commuter trains, station workers, the traffic over 'Hopscotch' bridge. You see gritty stone over a hundred years old, office buildings and luxury condos pressed against the tracks. The South, it seems, is now a distant memory. Now on the Northeast Corridor, Train 88 switches its diesel engine. for a high-speed electric locomotive.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Got My Name Changed Back

One prominent road in Arlington, Virginia just lost its Confederate name; and no one is looking back. Transecting Crystal City, future home of Amazon’s HQ2, Jefferson Davis Highway reverted to its pre-1920’s name, Richmond Highway. Signed as US Route 1, the road still connects Washington DC to Richmond, Virginia; though parallel Interstate 95 is the preferred, and usually quicker, alternative.  Route 1 is the common, layman’s name; except for the hotels and major businesses whose stationery list the once-lengthy street address bearing the Confederate States of America president’s name.

These business owners and representatives were supportive of the change. Damnata Memoria (Banished history) aside, a succinct name like Richmond Highway works in the text-and-Siri age. “Jefferson Davis” is also a mouthful to business partners and visitors for whom English is a second language.

When, in contrast, a residential street changes names, private citizens bear the burden of informing state agencies, banks and acquaintances of their new yet geographically identical address. Such is the talk in Hollywood, Florida, where city leaders are discussing renaming two suburban streets. In recognition of this challenge, local Lee Highway and Beauregard Street; also named after prominent Confederates, will retain their nomenclature for the foreseeable future.   

Another, slightly more southern segment of US Route 1 changed names sometime earlier. It occurred as a recently-country road was being upgraded to a thoroughfare compatible for the burgeoning national security and defense industries surrounding Fort Belvoir and Quantico. Street names are dynamic in the exurbs, where old roads designed to serve agriculture (literally, Farm-to-Market roads in Texas) are repurposed for office parks and residential cul-de-sacs. Motorists most likely noticed shorter backups well before they noticed a sanitized road name.

* This is my second blog post about Crystal City. Several years ago, before Jeff Bezos put the close-in suburb on the map, I pondered new uses for the transit-accessible, yet fading, neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lasting Memory

Milestone of a new epoch

Our youngest soldiers and sailors weren’t even born on 9/11/2001, 18 years ago. But they learned about the unfathomable attacks from friends and family, experienced service members, and in the classroom.

While not well publicized, the threat of radicalism and non-state actors was recognized by the US government prior to 9/11/2001. There were attacks at US Embassies overseas, as well as damage inflicted upon USS Cole in 2000. Those attacks were “over there”.

The 9/11/2001 attacks brought the American public into a new national security mindset. The “Middle East” replaced the Soviet Bloc in the national conscious.

National unity and shared sacrifice
Banker and firefighter, secretary and executive, General and Private all faced mortality during the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in Western Pennsylvania.
When air travel resumed, there were no fast-lanes at airport security, and first-class passengers gave up their metal cutlery for several years. Major, sweeping legislation such as the Patriot Act was passed with wide bipartisan support.

The experience and memories of a fateful day 18 years ago rests on geography and station of life. New Yorkers recall lost neighbors and family members, and the constant smoke cloud. Washingtonians changed their commuting routes in light of the national emergency. In other quarters there was righteous indignation. The US Coast Guard, then predominately a maritime safety organization, would be incorporated into the newly-created Department of Homeland Security with a new counterterrorism mandate.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Breaking Troupes

This is the insanity I saw during my very first visit to California:

Berkeley Radicals

I expected to meet the illiberal Left (Stalinists) at Berkeley’s BART Train platform. Instead, I proceeded without incident to take a selfie at UC Berkeley’s Free Speech gate, wearing F-16 jet shorts draped in the American flag. I realized that Milos Y. might actually be a provocateur.

Gender as fluid as the San Francisco Bay

Even UC Berkeley didn’t have “gender neutral” bathrooms. Around the area, there were Womens’ rooms, Mens’ rooms, and unremarkably unisex water closets. Exception is the deYoung museum, which has a “gender neutral” restroom, which is basically a co-ed facility like one would find in a European youth hostel.

Environmental Fascism

Foie  Gras and fur may be out in San Fran, but plastic bags can still be procured at ten cents’ tax. Highway tolls are few and far between, even the long Oakland Bay Bridge merely levied a $7 toll, single driver, during rush hour. Many streets in central SF are set up as one-way arterials for the purpose of moving vehicular traffic. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Bowser has “de-commuterized”
several streets, with traffic-calming measure, in booming mid-city neighborhoods.

Tech Bro Colonizers

They exist, they ride exclusive commuter buses, but they blend in with the urban fabric as well as other urban professionals. Hard to get a table at a ‘hip’ restaurant, though.

Mass transit is falling apart and everyone must ride Uber

BART’s 50-year old Transbay tubes are undergoing major renovation, practically ending subway service at 8pm. But the system, and the MUNI streetcars, earn their keep during the daytime hours, with frequent and fairly comprehensive service. With just 36 stations, the SF Bay Area’s  BART falls well short of counterpart Washington DC’s 90+ station Metrorail. Put on some walking shoes.

Oakland is a war zone

The city across the bay is working to find its groove. Street life leaves much to be desired, but increase in new residents will create a demand for shops and restaurants.

Palo Alto Snobs
The students at Stanford University’s suburban-style campus were quite friendly. Education still has meaning besides a means to a financially rewarding end.

Crippling taxation
As a visitor, yes San Francisco was expensive, but less so than a Western Europe’s destination city. New Yorkers tell me that their City is a great place to visit, but that living there is expensive. I conjure the same about San Francisco. Several restaurants and shops itemize a 5% levy to cover healthcare costs. I ate in more than I usually would on travel.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Last Flight to Hong Kong

It takes 8 hours to fly from the territory of Guam to the State of Hawaii; and 13 hours to the Mainland United States. If on Guam and interested in travel, xenophobia is a disadvantage; for the experiences of Japan, Taiwan and Korea are but 4 hours away by air.

Hong Kong, which I had not visited yet, caught my fancy, being in similar proximity to Guam. Since 1997, when the British lease on Victoria Island and surrounding areas ended, the former British colony has undergone Sinification. The area would be remolded into Beijing’s image. Hong Kong’s hybrid culture palpably faded as its newfound status as a “Special Administrative Region” wore on. Reunification is scheduled for the year 2047, but many residents feel the end of special status is near. Hong Kong’s fish mongers resented overbearing law enforcement; this was prelude to a summer of discontent, spurred by an extradition agreement with Mainland China. In travelling to Hong Kong, I sought to capture a glimpse of a time past.    

The window of opportunity was quickly closing, and I was in a fortuitous position to make a trip. I had concerns: being unable to procure a transit visa through Mainland China, Hong Kong International Airport was my only way to depart Hong Kong. Through Alfred P. Chester’s A Sailor’s Odyssey and other works, I read about the many American expatriates desperate to leave war-drummed Europe in 1940 and 1941 on the few passenger liners still sailing. Failing that, they abandoned their belongings and assets, riding across the Atlantic as supercargo onboard derelict freighters. I realized it was possible for history to repeat.

Despite the widescale weekend protests, as of August 1st, the US State Department had not issued a travel advisory on Hong Kong. I did make sure to book a hotel away from Victoria Square, epicenter of the protest activity, namely at Harbourview near Hong Kong station. I purchased airline tickets and researched Hong Kong’s MRT subway system.  The flights landed and departed uneventfully.

The weekend after my scheduled trip, 10-11th of August, tensions reached a fever pitch. On Facebook, I came across a photo taken in an MRT station. Laser sights pierced the smoke-filled cavern. “This is not a sci-fi movie. This is Hong Kong”, read the caption. Hong Kong’s international airport was shut down.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Which Superpredator?

Firstly, I’d like to order a pair of Joe Biden flip-flops. From abortion to crime policy to death penalty, it’s impossible to tell where he stands today. But thanks to YouTube, we know where he and his allies stood 25 years ago.

 That was the era of The Superpredator, juvenile delinquents who lacked remorse as they committed strings of heinous crimes, with no fear of authority. The Superpredator died by 2000 in face of falling crime rates. Some say he was terminated by electric chair or lethal injection, others say he was starved by elimination of lead paint and gasoline. Another explanation was that he lived off the anger created by an unjust society.

During his gangbanging heyday, he was one of the “predators on the streets...beyond the pale”, in Joe Biden’s words. Hillary Clinton specifies, “ they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are...super predators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel”. How does one bring them to heel? I’d love to know.

As I read more into the criminal sociology behind the now-proclaimed-dead Superpredator, a news flash came across my phone: “Mass Shooting at WalMart in El Paso, Texas; 20 dead”.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Immigrants Took America to the Moon

Some Americans believe that the 1950s and 1960s represent a great and golden age. They believe that low crime rates and an unprecedented standard of living was achieved through a homogeneous society bonded by decades of assimilation and the shared sacrifice of the Second World War.  
This homogeneous society represented a record-low of foreign born residents; a result of restricted immigration after 1924. This was when an immigration quota based arbitrarily and prejudicially on the 1890 Census was implemented, and the gates were shut to new-coming groups.
Law, order, and prosperity supposedly disappeared when the “floodgates” opened up with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. These reactionaries lament the end of a “liberal consensus”, if there ever was one, and a new realpolitik which prefers a “mosaic” of cultures in lieu of the proverbial “melting pot”. They say: “Go back to where they came from”. We heard this crude phrase last week.

 That is not what America stands for. Not since 1945, when Tokyo and Berlin stood in shouldering ruins. Two decades of American isolationism, following the Great War, ended in an even bloodier global war. In Europe, America embraced the Marshall Plan to rebuild European social and economic institutions. At home, America began to turn a new leaf, allowing much greater immigration; first with piecemeal programs, then through a new immigration act in 1952.  

The White House’s horrible comment against four Congresswomen, and the silent approval of the President’s defenders, was overshadowed by more aspirational news: the 50th Anniversary of the First Lunar Landing in July 1969. It was certainly an American accomplishment, but only possible with the knowledge and great assistance of then-recent immigrants:

·      -   Albert Einstein, renowned physicist who escaped the rabid antisemitism of post-World War One Europe.

·     -    German scientists and Nazi defectors who gave the United States invaluable information on rocket technology.

·    -     An Wang, computer hardware expert and pioneer of the CPU, who came to America from war-torn China in 1945.

·    -     Countless Russians and Eastern Europeans who escaped through the Iron Curtain and flourished in America, freed from the yoke of communism.

As Elon Musk and venture capitalists dream a near-future return to the Moon, America again faces a simple choice: Shoot for the stars, or “Send them back”.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Fragile Paradise

“Remember the ‘90’s?”, a gas station sign on Guam opines. Those were Guam’s glory days, when the Japan economic boom fueled construction projects and tourism; and sailors from Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship US Navy spent their paychecks on trinkets and entertainment.
Light and stylish, suitable for a wide range of activities, tropical shirts are ubiquitous in Guam. Designs range from floral, prints, to abstract designs, and shirts bearing the legendary DC-3 propeller plane of the 1930s and 1940s.  I have not yet seen a vintage propeller plane fly over Guam’s Apra Harbor into Won Pat International airport; just modern jets bearing the names of United Airlines, FedEx, Cathay Pacific and Korean Air.

The end results of consumerism is quickly evident on a small island. Gas stations and a six-lane arterial, Marine Corps Drive, line the waterfront of Hagatna, Guam’s capital city. Even industrialized and militarized Norfolk, Virginia keeps gas stations on the inland side of Ocean View Avenue. British-owned Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, sends its “retrograde” garbage to mainland Asia for disposal. In American Guam, household waste too often ends up dumped in priceless and scenic parks. Brochures advertise weekend trips to "unspoiled" islands like Saipan, Chuuk and Palau.

Telling of the harried times of today’s military, coffee shops line the approach road to Guam Naval Base. Locals treat the speed limit- never exceeding 35 miles per hour- as a speed limit. Sailors often regard those signs as mere road decoration, as they whip and zag to work or home. Though our local contractors live on island time, we’re busy; we’ve made Guam just like home.

Then we sing “Old Maui”, an old sailor song. We’re singing about going to a tropical island, when we’re on a tropical island? Nostalgia for Paradise Lost was true even in 1890’s, when French painter Paul Gauguin encountered the Pacific island of Tahiti. As described in “The Art Wolf”: "Papeete -the Tahitian capital- was not the tropical paradise that it could have been in former times, the exotic and mysterious town found by great travelers like the legendary Captain Cook".

Today, Gauguin’s artwork is described as imaginative, even exploitative. So is Tiki Culture- that mesh of Chinese food, lush ambiance, and tropical drinks that once swept America- and is enjoying a comeback in the States. Nevertheless, Tiki Culture can be found in well-appointed Guam hotels. When the co-workers vent frustrations about the job, I recommend: Get on your motorcycle, ride past the waterfront gas stations, and within 15 minutes, find your paradise.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Branded by Social Media

The month of June means time for Beach Week, an annual, mid-Atlantic tradition. Celebrating the end of an academic year, unchaperoned high school and college students rent houses, inhabit hotels, and populate the beaches. It is a tradition dating to 1982 or earlier, when the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh, now the most junior US Supreme Court Justice, infamously attended.  During his recent Senate Confirmation process, lawmakers perused fading photographs, yearbooks, a Mark Judge novel, and hazy memories; looking for evidence of unsuitability and lapses in personal judgement.
Times are different today for the young. Smartphones and social media eliminate the possibility of plausible deniability; instead indemnifying any young adult who made a juvenile decision. Such is the case of Kyle Kashuv, whose admissions to Harvard University in Boston was rescinded for social media posts made at age 16. 

Laden with casually-strewn racial slurs, the posts reflect on Kashuv’s maturity at the time, and on the society in which he was raised. That was in Parkland, Florida. Rachel Slade, author of Into the Raging Seas, noted the state’s proclivity to racial slurs and use of the n-word. Fittingly to this case, William Faulkner’s  The Sound and the Fury, set in the 1920’s, demonstrated the culture clash between Southern racial hierarchies and Boston’s progressive attitudes on racial equality.   Today’s Harvard talks the talk of promoting racial justice. Does it walk the walk?

  Since World War Two, the US Army has taken a proactive role in fighting this kind of ingrained racism. In an era that still had segregated lunch counters, Blacks were assigned as Sergeants in charge of turning Southern White recruits into soldiers, physically and morally. Fixing prejudice hands-on, as the US Army has done, is something Harvard has shown unwillingness to do, in rescinding a young man’s admission letter. A more important observation, though, is that the digitally-native Generation Z is coming of age in a zero-defect culture; while previous generations got a pass on their youthful indiscretions- even into the Ivy League.   

“We are sorry about the circumstances that have led us to withdraw your admission, and we wish you success in your future academic endeavors and beyond”, wrote Dr. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions in a personal letter to Kashuv. 

(Source: Patricia Mazzei, NY Times, 6/17/19)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tobacco 21 in the Tobacco Colony

It’s late at night in Arlington, Virginia, Fall of 2010. My friend, then a high school senior, walks into the local corner store with five dollars, and buys a pack of cigarettes to kick off his 18th birthday celebration. A high school kid, a social influencer perhaps, with a legal pack of cigarettes in his backpack. He drew a cigarette out of his pocket, after class at the train station, with the suave of a 1950’s movie star. That is the problem, Dr. Northam, then a state senator, would argue. At the time, most Virginia restaurants had just gone smoke-free, at the insistence of Dr. Northam. He had a larger agenda in his sleeve. 

While negative effects of tobacco use have been known for 50 years, youth smoking as a pathology has only garnered attention for the past quarter-century. The smoking age in the greater DC area, and much of the South, was 16 into the 1990’s. For a few years that decade, there was a five-year gap between a smoking age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. Smoking just wasn’t a big deal.
Who would’ve thought that Virginia, with its four centuries of tobacco history, and continued influence of Big Tobacco, would be among the first to raise the smoking age to 21? It’s more surprising in light of a political culture that makes the Commonwealth “behind the times” on legislating social issues, from clean government reforms, to LGBT issues, boater education, semiautomatic rifles and handheld cell phones while driving. This new tobacco law, passed in February, will take effect in July. It is a very comprehensive law- on the proportions of Singapore or Sri Lanka: this change raises the age to both purchase and use of nicotine.

Neighboring Washington, DC raised its tobacco purchase age last year. Presumably, the many DC college kids interested in a tobacco fix would walk half a mile across the Key Bridge to Arlington, Virginia. Some of Georgetown University’s dormitories are actually in Virginia instead of DC. But this arbitrage in smoking age, a possible boon for small retailers, is nothing to be protected in what is an emergent science-driven economy. After all, Arlington, VA just snagged Amazon’s second headquarters. So legislation based on science (“smoking is bad for your health”), not superstition and presumptions (“protect tradition”) gets an upper hand in a New South state.    

Raising the smoking age in Virginia probably wouldn’t have happened if but for a perfect alignment of political power. A governor who is a pediatrician, a house majority leader who is a school teacher, and Big Tobacco (Altria of Richmond, VA) that approves the change. Dr. Northam, the Democratic governor, made changing the state’s tobacco culture a legislative priority. Kirk Cox, the Republican house majority leader, recalls the days when middle school students smoked in the school bathrooms, and is concerned about the current rise of the Juul e-cigarette. Other states are trying to pass similar bills to raise the smoking age, but they most often failed after passing one house of legislature: with apparent exception of Virginia, it is not a pressing priority outside of the Northeast and West Coast, places where “Nanny State” legislation is in vogue.

Virginia will allow active-duty military to continue purchasing tobacco at 18. With a carveout for military members, I predict loose enforcement of a higher smoking age in the military-heavy Tidewater region. It remains to be seen how this law will be enforced in college towns: the specific target of Tobacco 21 is high school smoking and vaping, while younger college students are merely “collateral impact” of the new laws. In the advent of Virginia's unique approach of a dual smoking age*, (18 for some, 21 for others), major retailers such as Walgreens and Wal-Mart have decided to stop selling nicotine products to young adults under 21, nationwide.

* California allows on-base sales at 18, while retaining minimum age of 21 "outside the gate". Maryland and Vermont will soon join Virginia with a dual smoking age

Monday, May 20, 2019

Alabama: Uncharted Territory

With passage of Alabama's new, strict abortion law; many are claiming that the Southern state is "turning back the clock" to the 1960's. Actually, Alabama is travelling into uncharted territory.

From 1919, Alabama, like other Southern states, led the way in racially-biased, pseudo-scientific eugenics programs, which often resulted in sterilizing poor woman of color deemed "mentally deficient". (University of Vermont)

In contrast to Midwestern and New England states, the South was more accepting of abortion, especially in cases of foul play. "Negrophobia", an unfounded fear of sexually-aggressive Black males, ensured that the strictest abortion laws belonged outside the south. 

Lee Atwater's 1988 Willie Horton ad, portraying an African-American rapist, played against Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, "especially in the South". Perhaps the soft-on-crime message would've been as effective without Willie Horton's menacing mugshot. Or would it? 

Alabama formally legalized interracial marriage in 2000, through referendum with 59% approval, according to Ballotpedia.

Racial attitudes have developed much over the past 20 years. Alabama's flag still portrays Saint Andrew's cross. Yet a more visible reminder of the past, the Confederate Flag, was removed from state capitol grounds in June 2015.

In the 1960's, Spiro Agnew, then governor of Maryland, suggested that new-built neighborhoods be subject to equal housing laws. He surmised that prejudice was a learned behavior, and that new neighbors had no inherent bias. Verifying this statement, commentators today look to the racially integrated "New South" sunbelt suburbs of Atlanta, Houston and other Southern cities; in contrast to ethnic-heavy suburbs in the Northeast (Staten Island and Ocean County, NJ as two examples). 

And this past week, racial fears did not prevent Alabama from passing a strict abortion law.
Unless "a serious health risk" (confer the Alabama law) includes giving birth to a mixed-race child.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

May Day for Who?

"Their wages had gone down by a full third in the past two years, and a storm of discontent was brewing that was likely to break any day. Only a month after Marija had become a beef-trimmer the canning factory that she had left posted a cut that would divide the girls’ earnings almost squarely in half; and so great was the indignation at this that they marched out without even a parley, and organized in the street outside. One of the girls had read somewhere that a red flag was the proper symbol for oppressed workers, and so they mounted one, and paraded all about the yards, yelling with rage."

 (Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906)

Today, working-class interests are back in the public sphere. New York State is clearly debating a progressive agenda, which covers the gamut from rent control, the minimum wage, transportation policy, and the gig economy. From what I've seen, the progressive approach is to put the agenda forward, and work the details later. I caution the zealous to tread steadily.

Rent control, for example, has populist appeal. But in New York City after World War Two, this led to disinvestment in older neighborhoods, ultimately ending in urban blight. (See a previous blog post on South Bronx decline and revival). Changes to rent control, beginning in 1974, provided a balanced approach that allowed new market development while preserving some affordable housing. Small, multifamily properties; found in places like Queens and Brooklyn; are the foundation of middle-class investment. Universal rent control, as proposed, would soak these working savers as much as it would "soak the rich". 

As we debate the path forward in the digital age, consider putting away the spite towards either side (owner and worker), and work towards creating upward mobility (which in many aspects has stalled) by "sharing the pie".