Whitcomb: Bus Bathos; Open and Closed Summers; Microburst Meal in Newport; Hollywood and Us

Sunday, August 30, 2020


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L-R: Whitcomb, Trump, Paolino, and Hollywood

“Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible.

Bow down before it….’’


  -- From “September, the First Day of School,’’ by Howard Nemerov (1920-91)


 “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.’’

-- Willa Cather (1873-1947), American novelist


 “I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.’’

-- Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), Republican congresswoman and then a U.S. senator from Maine.


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Developer Joe Paolino

RIPTA for the Rich

A public-transit system, to serve the public as efficiently as it should, needs to be as streamlined and simple to use as possible. But Rhode Island officials’ tentative plan for a “multi-hub’’ system in downtown Providence to keep more bus riders out of Kennedy Plaza (to free up space for public events and please local real estate owners eager to reduce the numbers of downscale RIPTA users there) would do the opposite.


The plan would spread out the main bus hub at Kennedy Plaza to three locations: the Providence train station; Dyer Street in the Innovation District, and two stops at Washington and Dorrance streets on the edge of the plaza. This would mean that more people would need transfers because not all lines would connect in the plaza, and so even more people would be confused about the service than now. It would tend to discourage RIPTA patronage. I think that as much as possible, RIPTA service should continue to be centralized in Kennedy Plaza


What with Rhode Island’s large elderly population, many people who can’t afford a car and environmental concerns, the state should boost RIPTA ridership. Its plan for Kennedy Plaza doesn’t sound like the way to do it.


An Open Summer

We seem to remember the arc of summers much more than those of winters. I remember many individual summers with vividness; they were all so different. But I recall the summer of 1970 with particular sharpness. I had just graduated from college and, trying to decide whether I really wanted to go to graduate school, decided to take the summer off, helped by a few bucks I had saved up. I had had summer jobs since I was 14.

It was still in many ways the phenomenon called “The Sixties,’’ with sex, drugs and rock and roll, etc. Wide-open. While I was mostly living in Greater Boston that summer, I spent a lot of time driving around the Northeast alone or with my girlfriend of the time seeing friends, hiking, fishing, going to parties, etc.  It was my last extended stretch of free time up until, well, now. I had a VW Bug and felt pretty close to fancy-free, jumping into the car at a moment’s notice for a road trip to the mountains, the Maine Coast or New York City, often driving off in the middle of the night.

I would have felt more guilty about “wasting time” like this except for some advice my father gave me around that time, which was to take some time off before truly adult duties came rushing it. He had done the same thing in the summer of 1939, right after his college graduation and after having had all-day summer jobs since his early teens; in having these jobs, he was lucky – it was, after, the Great Depression. That fall he went off to work for an industrial company, then came “The War’’ (as we always called it), marriage, and five kids. He had few breaks until he died of a heart attack, in 1975.

In any event, I decided not to go to grad school that fall and instead went to work, in a business – a Boston newspaper -- with long and unpredictable hours. Grab the free time if you can.

A cool day in late August, breaking a heatwave is enough to get you thinking of the brevity of summer and indeed of life.


And a Squeezed Summer

Mobility is often associated with America, whether in pursuit of money or pleasure. So perhaps what many of us will most remember from this summer is its COVID-caused lack, what with states imposing draconian quarantine rules, transportation service cutbacks, and many places you’d otherwise visit closed for the duration, or forever. It’s been a tough summer to gain that brief sense of release that summer vacations well away from home bring. Lucky people at least have leafy neighborhoods to stroll in, preferably with water to look at

If a vaccine really does come along, the anti-vaxxers don’t ruin everything and the economy improves, will there be a surge of travel next year, or will a newly aroused fear of disease scare people away from travel, especially long-distance,  for years, however strong their urge to get away?


Probably Not Worth It

Unless you really need an immediate document, I’d suggest avoiding the COVID-19 testing service for travelers at the Rhode Island Convention Center garage. This service is for people needing to leave Rhode Island to quickly go to states that demand either a 14-day quarantine or a document showing they tested negative within the past 72 hours. That includes faraway Massachusetts! How convenient!

I tried the service last Thursday, after having undergone the regular program a week before, after which my results came back in 48 hours. My traveler’s test took almost an hour and was quite painful and a bit confusing. The program is inevitably understaffed and a bit chaotic. I did leave with a document, and a very sore nose.

If you don’t have to travel out of state for a couple of days, there are considerably less unpleasant ways to get your test results within 72 hours than entering the carbon-monoxide rich cavern of the Convention Center


Spiders and squirrels seem to be the dominant animals at this time of year.


Farm and School

Back when many Americans worked on farms (my maternal grandfather grew up on one) school calendars were adjusted to agricultural needs, especially to harvests. Thus in many school districts, young people didn’t go back to school until weeks later than they do now.

In a few places where agriculture is still paramount, special adjustments are still made. Consider Aroostook County, in northern Maine Trump Country, where (in-person!) schools open early to accommodate a break coming in late September so that the kids and teachers can help bring in the potato harvest.

I think that in general kids are now forced back to school too early, in the best part of summer – late August and early September.


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Beach clean ups are not enough

Ocean of Plastic

Scientists estimate that up to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. Addressing this pollution is made more difficult by the fact that we don’t know where most of this stuff is – on the surface, on the bottom or floating in the middle of the water column? Knowing where it is and in what form the saltwater has left it will be crucial in remediation and understanding which ocean species are most threatened by this stuff. Hard work for the likes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.


Another Hit to Mobility

Colleges’ costs associated with COVID-19, including lost tuitions and fees and expensive retrofitting, will lead even very rich private institutions (of which there are about a  dozen in New England)  to favor even more than they already do applicants from rich families that can not only afford to pay full freight but can also give large donations to the schools now. And in the future the rich kids will become rich alumni to be harvested for big donations. Thus high-ability applicants from lower-income families will tend to lose out to lower-ability kids from rich families. American socio-economic mobility will continue to slow.


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Summer storms

Dramatic Dining in Newport

We witnessed a theatrical display of professionalism last Tuesday evening at the Reef Restaurant, on Newport Harbor, when out of not-very dark skies came a very brief but very violent storm of torrential rain and what seemed to be near-hurricane-force winds.


Most of the diners/drinkers, including us, were eating and drinking at the restaurant’s outside tables, with views of Newport Harbor and of giant yachts that evoked hedge funders and private-equity moguls, when the tempest hit. The four people in our party managed to get inside the restaurant ahead of most of the other guests; we were driven more by fear of being fried by lightning than getting wet. A few minutes before, our tall young waiter had promised that the storm, which we could see moving in from the west, wouldn’t bother us. One of our little group, a pilot, later explained that it was a microburst.


It was quite a scene as umbrellas, deck chairs, tables and potted palms went over.


What was most impressive, besides the drama of the storm itself, was how the waiters so calmly managed to get people quickly set up at tables  inside, though they hadn’t time to rescue the food on the tables outside. Of course, social distancing was, er, incomplete in the brief chaos, and many who had fled inside had left their masks in the rain, some of which blew away and all of which were soaked.


Still, most of the guests seemed to enjoy the mayhem. I wonder how many got replacement meals and drinks.




The National Hurricane Center knows how to force fear. In alerting people in the northwest Gulf Coast to the menace of Hurricane Laura, it spoke of an “unsurvivable storm surge.’’


Fresh Air Democracy

I love this:


The tiny town of Adams, Mass., in the Berkshires, plans to have an outdoor (with tent) representative town meeting on Sept. 24 to reduce the chance of COVID-19 infection. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more outdoor meetings in New England in the warm weather?  They could be much more pleasant than being squeezed into a musty hall. Of course, September is the heart of tropical storm season, and so a cancellation of the Adams meeting is possible.

Until the 20th Century, outdoor public meetings were fairly common. Some were held in and around Boston to drum up anti-British emotions before and during the Revolution.


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Trumps acceptance speech RNC

Festival of Falsehoods  at RNC/QAnon Spectacular

“….in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.’’

-- Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf


 “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” 

-- Hannah Arendt (1906-75), German-American political thinker


Many Trump supporters prefer to get all their “news’’ from White House propaganda outlets, mostly Fox and right-wing radio talk-show hosts and, increasingly, QAnon conspiracy theorists. So, they pass happily over the long litany of easily ascertainable (but reading required!) lies, lawbreaking (the Hatch Act!) demagoguery and dog whistles by speakers at the Republican National Convention, including Trump’s grifter children, who remind me of the offspring of Third World dictators. They help their father steer as much taxpayer and other money as possible to the Trump Organization, of which the White House is a now a subsidiary and whose business operations around the world are drowning in conflicts of interest! Yes, that includes China. Ask Ivanka.

The range of corrupt Trumpers speaking to the convention was wide. One interesting example was Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, who alleged Democratic corruption.

In 2013, when she was state attorney general, she considered joining New York State in a lawsuit against the “Trump University’’ fraud. But then the future president gave -- through his bogus “charity’’ -- $25,000 to a political action committee backing her re-election and she decided not to join the suit.

Ms. Bondi is now a registered lobbyist for Qatar, a notably corrupt domain on the Persian Gulf.

In any event, various nonpartisan fact-checking outfits, such as Snopes.com and FactCheck.org, are handy. So are historians’ works against which to compare some of the assertions made in the caudillo’s circus last week.  But then, history and civics (including the U.S. Constitution) are rarely taught these days. Americans of a generation or two ago were generally far better educated on these subjects than Americans are now.

And tolerance of public figures’ lying has increased. We’re paying for that.

Hit these links for fact checks on the convention:





And see below Trump’s orgy of lies in his acceptance speech, the visuals of which cost the taxpayers plenty and where few in the hand-picked, in-person audience wore masks  and social distancing was mostly ignored. We’ll see in a few weeks if this was a super spreader event for that pesky coronavirus.



There were many creepy things said in this week’s “Reality TV” show.

The creepiest -- for our tattered semi-democracy -- included the incessant attacks on the “mainstream news media,’’  meaning outlets that for all their human faults try to ascertain and report what the facts are. Such attacks are typical of would-be dictators seeking to silence news about corrupt and brutal regimes.

Then there was the absurd assertion that “religion’’ is imperiled in America.  (That’s usually code to appeal to right-wing evangelists.)  

What a joke!  Organized religion is cosseted in America, and religious people, and people who call themselves religious for political or economic reasons, can practice and promote their faith, real or bogus, 24/7 in the open, be it QAnon-infected craziness or something more conventional.  

Meanwhile, consider that whatever your own religious and political views, you are compelled to cover the taxes that tax-exempt religious groups don’t have to pay. And some of those churches (including the ones that only exist on TV) are extensions of the right wing of the QAnon/Republican Party and run by the rich con men and women who flourish in Evangelical “Christianity’’ by suckering their followers to send them money.

(During the pandemic, some have yelped that their First Amendment religious rights are violated when public officials, following standard public-health guidance, seek to stop for a while crowded church services attended by throngs not wearing masks and so well positioned to be super spreaders. Does the general public have rights?)



Watch the explosion of corporate debt to get a sharper sense of where the economy might be heading.


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How They Made Hollywood and Us

Neal Gabler’s Empire of Their Own: How the Jews invented Hollywood explores how a group of men, mostly Jewish immigrants, founded and then ruled for decades the American movie business.  The most notable of these characters were Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers.

The book delves deeply into their emotional and psychological motivations, chief among them being the desire to be fully accepted as Americans in the face of anti-Semitism.  They wanted to be considered highly respected members of the American elite as exemplified by old-money Northeast Protestants. These tough, combative but also often hyper-sensitive and insecure men led the creation of films that came to define for Americans of all backgrounds what it meant to be an (mostly nice) American. The book provides a thorough tour of the world in which the movie moguls operated and molded as they set the tone for much of 20th Century American culture.

Robert Whitcomb's weekly examination of everything that is important. Only Whitcomb offers such a collection of insights on the global and local issues that matter.


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