Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Young life unfolds in essays

While clearing out emails about a week ago, most of them spam, an unexpected name popped up.

It was a young cousin – very young, a high school senior, making her about 37 years my junior. I had seen her in person perhaps 10 times since she was born, and other than exchanging “hi,” I’m not sure we ever spoke. She and the other cousins about her age popped into the room, awkwardly said their hellos and ran outside to play. I knew her primarily as a young girl, and now a young woman, with movie-star good looks in her mother’s photos on Facebook.

She emailed to ask me to review the drafts of her college application essays and make suggestions. I had done the same for her older brother a couple of years ago.

The experience was not quite like reading a young woman’s personal journal, but her conversational writing style felt almost like hearing her speak, and the essays in many ways fleshed out a picture of someone I would not have recognized as matching the Facebook photos.

This beautiful, dainty-looking girl turns out to love power tools and construction, things she was introduced to on church youth group mission trips.

“I happened to have a knack for the power tools!” she wrote. “I became proficient in using the table saw, circular saw, nail gun, and my personal favorite, the chop saw.”

I pictured her in goggles, heavy gloves and a hard hat, her blonde hair tied up tight in the back while she – petite and thin, perhaps weighing 100 pounds, perhaps not – wields a nail gun.

On one mission trip to Laredo, Texas, she chose to work outside on construction with the boys, the only girl not to choose indoor work teaching Vacation Bible School. Outdoors, in summer heat reaching over 100 degrees, her group nailed siding to a building and drilled a new well.

Now I added to my mental picture dirt streaks on her cheeks and sweat soaking her shirt and hair. Such a different look than I saw on Facebook last spring, when her mother showed off her prom dress.

Her construction work on mission trips got her interested in taking drafting classes in high school. She took all three that her school offered – the only girl in all three classes. Before long she realized she knew about as much about construction and drafting as the boys. She also experienced the sexism that women in a man’s world so easily still find.

Further running counter to all the girly images from Facebook, I learned she has been working as an intern at a veterinary hospital. But this is no pet-the-kitties gig.

“I have learned how to squeeze anal glands, conduct heartworm tests, analyze fecal samples, etc.,” she wrote, and now I may never be able to unsee the mental pictures that sentence brought to mind. “In addition to this, I have gotten to watch surgeries, including spays and neuters.”

Of course, what these essays really showed me was a series of snapshots of the blossoming of a soon-to-be-adult, full of complexities and experiences that defy your expectations. She’s not fully there yet, but she’s well on the way.

I recently read the most thoroughly detailed proposal I had ever seen for ensuring that local journalism survives the audience disruption and advertising decline created by the rapid growth of the internet.

It came under the sure-to-be-recipient of the Worst Headline of the Year Award on an article on the website of the journalism-research-oriented Poynter Institute: “Academics craft a plan to infuse billions into journalism: Give every American $50 to donate to news orgs.”

Least among my complaints is the use of the term “orgs” instead of organizations. The headline is already longer than the Amazon River, and the place the writer decides to economize is the last word?

Anyway, quickly: Horrible idea.

If you want the details, this is the idea, developed by a panel led by Guy Rolnik of the Stigler Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: There would be a checkoff on your income tax form, much like the current federal checkoff for election funds and the state checkoff for wildlife conservation projects, and $50 is either added to your tax bill or deducted from your refund to go to news organizations that you choose.

The report estimates that this structure could raise $13 billion to help ensure the continuation of “accountability and investigative journalism,” which it justifiably calls vital to an informed electorate and a functioning democracy.

I think that number is way high. The report posits that there are 260 million adults who would pay the $50 each, but the Tax Foundation says that in 2018 there were fewer than 141 million taxpayers, which would yield about $7 billion.

Regardless of the figure, the proposal has significant problems.

First problem: Even if the tax form is electronic, there is no practical way to list every news outlet in the entire country, and if there were, no one would read the full list. The choice or choices would be whatever news outlets come to mind quickly.

The panel’s report does not address the issue of whether a selection of news outlets would be presented to the taxpayer or it would simply be a fill-in-the-blank process. If it’s the latter, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR would do well. The News-Topic? Probably not.

That almost certainly means the money that any newspaper would get would come from people who already buy the paper. If you buy only the Sunday paper but get it every week, you already are paying the News-Topic $104 a year. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that those who don’t buy the paper at all would like to send us $50.

The report addresses the issue of a few large, popular organizations getting the lion’s share of designations: No organization would be able to receive more than 1 percent of the total amount to be allocated. All money that taxpayers designate for those outlets already getting 1 percent would go to other outlets, more or less proportionally according to everyone else’s selections – although if 75 percent of all choices made were organizations that have already maxed out, putting the majority of the money to 25 percent of the choices doesn’t sound like it can be proportional.

That also sounds pretty complicated.

You might ask, what if most people don’t make any selection at all?

The report says the money would get allocated anyway, divided according to the choices of those who filled in the blank, subject again to that 1 percent limit.

So, you hate the media and don’t want to fund it at all? Tough, you have to.

Which brings me to another problem: Who would be eligible to receive the money? Does Infowars.com count as a news site? Most people don’t think so, but some people do. The president and at least some of his supporters, on the other hand, would say CNN shouldn’t be eligible.

The report says an independent panel would decide who qualifies to receive money:

“Key is the independence of this body; we believe that it should include representatives of journalists and of media owners, as well as scholars.”

Who appoints the panel members? It doesn’t say. One assumes it has to be the government. This is taxpayer money.

Anyone paying attention over the years knows that the “independence” of any body whose members are appointed by politicians is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of the criteria that are on paper for that body to use, all it would take is one radical change in direction of the administration in control, and many once-qualified news organizations could find themselves on the outs.

This possibility seems to have eluded the report’s writers.

“Any policy to preserve the free press should try to reduce or eliminate the news media’s reliance on politicians, governments, advertisers, large business groups or billionaires,” it says.

The motives behind the report are good – maintaining a functioning democracy, independent watchdogs on local government and independent voices.

“Recent events across the Western world have demonstrated the fragility of the liberal democratic order,” the report says in its conclusion, “and we believe that waiting longer to see if market forces alone can maintain the free press in the 21st century may be a risky choice.”

In other words, “Eat your spinach, taxpayer!” You’ll support the local news and like it.

The report notes that, despite research demonstrating the good that local journalism does and the negative effects that follow when local news dries up, “for the most part citizens are not willing to pay for this public good,” which is why it recommends a mandatory funding source.

I’m all for maintaining local news sources. I just have trouble endorsing something that’s mandatory and ultimately controlled by the government in the name of saving democracy.

“When John Smith stopped at the convenience store with two friends, he never thought he’d be hit with a rock.”

That’s a type of lead I try to beat out of reporters (figuratively) early on. It reminds me of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. It is never news that someone never expected the unexpected. That’s why it’s unexpected. “NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!” If that’s the best you’ve got, you don’t have a story. And it’s never the best you’ve got.

The true news would be if he had a suspicion he was going to be hit with a rock but went to the store anyway. That would be a story.

Same story, another bad practice: The first quote in the story is not from John Smith. John Smith is the only person named so far. Who is it then? What voice should the reader hear? The reader doesn’t know until two sentences into the quote. Oh, it’s John Smith’s wife. Now the reader goes back (if the writer is lucky) and re-reads the quote now that there is context and at least the mental version of a voice to go with the words; it’s a woman’s voice, someone close to John Smith. (If the writer is not lucky, the reader gives up on the story and moves on. Every time you present a bump in the road to reading comprehension, you set up an off-ramp where the reader can veer away from your story.)

The little town of Rhodhiss lost the businesses and industry that gave the town its name (from cotton mill owners John Rhodes and George Hiss). But it still has a legend that came out of them, the fate of some unusual fabric spun in a now-closed mill.

Four years ago, in July 2015, one of my reporters was doing a more or less routine story related to the legend, and I Googled part of her story and found something that indicated the legend was wrong. I had her look into it.

What she wound up writing made her feel bad because it made the News-Topic a villain in that town, but it didn’t put much of a dent in the legend, which the town is celebrating on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

One of the famous movie lines related to journalism, from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a good line, but it’s not journalism. I don’t know whether many journalists would do what the newspaper editor in the movie did, reject running the real story told by U.S. Sen. Ransom Stoddard, and I don’t think it makes sense to ignore the facts that fly against Rhodhiss’ legend, as satisfying as the legend may feel.


And as the main source in the story said, this doesn’t mean there is nothing at all to the legend, only that some research is needed to find out exactly what was done with that fabric. Maybe, for instance, the bag under the lunar lander …

 

 

 

 

 

Read the story and decide yourself.

Rhodhiss’ point of pride called into question

By Lex Menz

RHODHISS – As you drive into Rhodhiss, the road signs show an astronaut in a space suit over the words “U.S. Moon Flags Woven Here.”

An astronaut also appears on the town seal.

It’s common knowledge throughout town that fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon, if not more, came from Burlington Industrial Fabrics, which once had two factories in town but left in 1983.

A scrap of material sits folded up in a drawer at Town Hall that came, it is said, from the same batch as the moon flag material.

Town Manager Art Delaney never even considered that the story could be wrong until he recently called the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh about getting a historical marker for the town about the flag fabric having been made in Rhodhiss. The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.

“She said they were pulled off a shelf at a post exchange in Washington, D.C., and just handed off,” Delaney said. “I nearly fell off my chair.”

Delaney wouldn’t be the only one falling off of a chair. Many people around town have personal stories about their connection to the flag fabric.

Carl Compton, who lives on the Caldwell County side of Rhodhiss, worked at Burlington Industrial Fabrics as a weaver right out of high school in 1961 and eventually was promoted to loom fixer. The company made special materials, including material for the Goodyear blimp and fabrics for NASA. Among the fabric made on the 64-inch looms was one that Compton said was extremely heat-resistant and involved Kevlar, a fabric best known for its use in bulletproof vests.

Shortly after the flag was unfurled on the moon in July 1969 by Apollo 11, the mission carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Compton said, Burlington Industrial’s employees were informed of their accomplishment.

“We didn’t know what we had done,” he said. “It really surprised us.”

Compton said the company’s announcement was a proud moment.

“We were just working. That was our job. We weren’t trying to crow about it. But, if I had known, I would have gotten some pictures,” Compton said.

But Rhodhiss’ flag story doesn’t fly, according to Anne Platoff, who wrote a research paper in the early 1990s, when she worked at the Johnson Space Center, about all six of the flags that were taken to the moon.

“It’s an interesting story, but it’s unverified,” Platoff said of Rhodhiss’ story.

Her research paper, “Where No Flag has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” details considerations that went into the flags and flag poles and where they came from, and no part of that story includes Rhodhiss. Her sources included a press release from NASA in July 1969 stating that the flags were ordinary nylon flags ordered from a catalog.

“I went through the evidence there was at NASA, and the only documentation I found at NASA was that it was purchased from a government stock catalog,” Platoff said. “As a historian, I will only go with what facts I have. I have found absolutely no evidence that points to who made the flag on the moon. I found no indication that it was a specifically made flag.”

However, she said Rhodhiss may have been involved in the Apollo 11 mission, just not in the way residents think. Possibly the material woven there was used for the flag patches on the spacesuits or some part of the ship. But that would take some research to find out.

“Maybe this is one of those cross stories with some truth,” Platoff said.

Delaney said the state will send him an application for a historical marker, which requires a packet of information to back the town’s claim.

“We’re going to send it back and see if we could get something,” Delaney said.

Ansley Wegner, a research historian and the administrator of the Department of Cultural Responses’ historical marker program, said the decisions on applications for historical markers are made by a committee of 10 history professors. Stipulations include that the information supporting the marker request must have a secondary source, such as a historical non-fiction book.

“It’s hard to say what the committee is going to approve,” Wegner said. “It’s up to them to decide whether it’s state historical importance and not local historical importance.”

Hudson, North Carolina, is a thriving vacation hotspot where several hundred property owners are making an outrageous amount of money from renting rooms or entire houses to well-heeled tourists.

Or so says an email I received this past week touting a “study” of data from websites “like Airbnb and VRBO,” two sites where people can post property for short-term rentals. These have become increasingly popular ways for people to find places to stay while on vacation or traveling for business.

The email came from the “head of media and PR” for a website called AllTheRooms, which calls itself “the world’s first vacation rental search engine” and “a trusted source of vacation rental market data for a number of organizations.”

If the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau trusts AllTheRooms, maybe I should too.

According to AllTheRooms, Caldwell County’s own Hudson is the 472nd fastest-growing vacation rental market in the United States. There were 435 rental properties in Hudson listed online as of May, an increase of over 14 percent from a year earlier.

What’s more, they rent at an average of over $1,100 a night and are booked an average of 58 nights a year.

Hudson rental hosts took in nearly $9 million from May 2018 to May 2019.

Consider that Hudson’s entire population was 3,698 in the Census Bureau’s 2017 estimate. If there are 435 rental properties in town, that’s a huge percentage of the overall number of parcels in town.

Clearly, Hudson’s wealthy tourist trade is the best kept secret in Caldwell County. Money is just sloshing around the town, yet no one in the rest of the county knew it.

Funny thing, though. If you search Airbnb or VRBO, you get results that are not just wildly different from what AllTheRooms touted, the results are from an entirely different universe.

Airbnb shows zero rentals available within the Hudson town limits. There are about a dozen in all of Caldwell County, ranging from $40 to $140 (the most expensive is for a full house atop a mountain near Zacks Fork Road).

VRBO shows two rentals in the Hudson town limits, one for $79 a night but one in the neighborhood of AllTheRooms’ numbers: $669 a night for a two-bedroom, one-bath loft with room for two people.

I thought maybe AllTheRooms simply had a typo and sent me data for Hudson, NY, instead of Hudson, NC, but on Airbnb and VRBO the rentals available in that other Hudson fall well short of the nightly rental cited in the email, though at least the number of rentals available is closer.

So I decided to check a different market entirely: Atlanta, listed by AllTheRooms as the 14th fastest-growing vacation rental market, with 6,923 rental properties going for an eye-popping average of $1,858 a night.

That’s what the list said.

That’s not what Airbnb says.

Airbnb says there are 306 rentals in Atlanta, and a huge percentage appear to be less than $100 a night.

VRBO also shows more than 300 places, though many are pricier than on Airbnb — but nowhere close to $1,800 a night.

It’s a terrible thing when you can’t trust a stranger’s email from a website you never heard of to give you accurate numbers on secret tourist millions in a nearby town. It makes me wonder whether the Los Angeles CVB and the other organizations listed as trusting AllTheRooms really do trust it.

What is the world coming to?

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to do a news story about all the new wealth flooding Hudson. That would have been exciting.


I learned a lot about bats and rabies the past few days.

The main thing I learned is that many people are not rational about bats.

A bat got in my house. We don’t know quite how. When we eventually found where it hid, I was able to cover it with an old T-shirt and get it out of the house.

That, to me, was that.

Some well meaning friends and coworkers disagreed. They urged us to get rabies shots.

“If bats are rabid, they shed the disease as they fly,” one said, so we probably had been exposed.

This seemed unlikely to me.

And yet, the urgency of those warnings lingered in my mind and made me finally call a doctor – who agreed with me and, it turns out, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says, “People can’t get rabies just from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave, at summer camp, or from a distance while it is flying. In addition, people can’t get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine, or from touching a bat on its fur.”

Further, bats rarely contract rabies, the CDC says: Even among bats submitted for rabies testing because they could be captured, were obviously weak or sick, or had been captured by a cat, only about 6 percent had rabies.

Merlin Tuttle, one of the world’s leading bat conservationists, wrote in an article on his website, “Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation,” that the risk of humans getting rabies from a bat – even a rabid bat – is highly exaggerated:

“Given the consequences of a wrong decision, it is appropriate to take each possible exposure to rabies extremely seriously, … . However, simply being near or even touching a rabid animal is not considered to be an exposure, … . An exposure requires a bite or contact between an open wound or mucous membrane with saliva or nervous tissue from an infected animal.”

Regardless of these assurances, some people argued that it would be better to be safe.

“Here’s the scary thing: by the time you have symptoms of rabies, it’s too late and almost always fatal,” one wrote to me on Facebook.

Maybe. But 100 percent assurance carries its own cost.

Last year, a woman who encountered a bat in Georgia and wasn’t certain whether it bit her got treatment, which cost $17,000. A woman in Maryland paid $11,000, and one in North Carolina paid $22,000.

In all of those cases, though, there was either a bite or a suspected bite, and doctors recommended getting treatment.

In our case, the only thing that bit me may have been karma. My mother was quick to assert that the bat in our house was divine justice because once, many years ago, while my parents were away from home I took a furry, toy bat and thumbtacked it to the ceiling in their bedroom.

If having a bat in my own house was punishment for frightening my parents, and I had it to do over, I’d tack that sucker to the ceiling again.

It was hilarious.

What are you afraid of?

Most of us are afraid of things that very rarely happen, according to a recent poll of nearly 1,500 North Carolina residents by Elon University.

Well, except for being shot in a public place. That USED to be pretty rare, but a majority — 51 percent — perceives that it’s at least somewhat of a possibility now, and more than a third, 37 percent, feel they are very much at risk.

The poll asked people how safe they personally feel about 37 hypothetical risks. “Shootings in public” topped the list of what people felt least safe about. Only 7 percent said they felt very safe.

But close behind that was terrorism, with 33 percent feeling very unsafe and only 7 feeling very safe.

What’s most odd about that is that there is very little difference how people in our state’s big cities feel about the risk of terrorism and how those in sparsely populated counties feel. In fact, more rural residents — 34 percent — than urban residents — 30 percent — feel very unsafe, even though there has never been a terror attack in a rural part of the United States for the very obvious reason that in order to inspire terror, there have to be a lot of people hurt and a lot of TV cameras nearby to broadcast the news. It would take over an hour for some TV crews to get to Pineola in Avery County from Charlotte.

Things make a little more sense if you combine the “very unsafe” and “somewhat unsafe” answers.

Then the thing that the most people feel at least somewhat unsafe about is walking along roads that don’t have sidewalks, 66 percent. Only 5 percent feel very safe about it.

People are very slightly more afraid of snakes (a total of 56 percent feel either very or somewhat unsafe) and ticks (57 percent) than tornadoes (51 percent).

The same amount of people, 16 percent, feel equally unsafe about dogs and deer, but more (31 percent) feel very safe about deer (only 27 percent feel very safe about dogs).

And again, urban and rural residents feel exactly the same level of risk about deer — 4 percent very unsafe in both, even though there are a lot more deer in Kings Creek than Raleigh.

People are least afraid of trains: Only 4 percent feel very unsafe about trains, and just 8 percent feel even somewhat unsafe.

On the other hand, people feel pretty darned safe about driving — only 5 percent very unsafe and 20 percent somewhat unsafe — even though there are literally hundreds of traffic accidents each day across the state and being a good driver has little to do with it — at least half of the drivers involved do nothing wrong. Some multi-car wrecks have only one driver at fault, and if something falls onto the road — a tree, a jumping deer, a big rock thrown by an angry teenager, a fish dropped by an eagle — then no driver is at fault.

But the poll left a lot of areas of risk uncovered.

For instance, what about your coffee shop exploding, not because of terrorism but plain old natural gas? It happened in Durham on Wednesday and killed the shop’s owner, injured nearly 20 people, destroyed one big building and damaged several others.

What about losing your job by accident? Just happened to a judge in Texas because he told someone he planned to run for higher office, and the Texas state constitution says a candidacy announcement by anyone holding a judicial office amounts to an official resignation. (Seems like a judge ought to be familiar with that, though.)

Perhaps most importantly, what about the risk of bees living inside your eyes? Just this past week a woman in Taiwan went to her doctor about pain in her eye, and the doctor found four sweat bees had somehow gotten into her eye socket, surviving there by drinking her tears. We have sweat bees in every county in North Carolina — you stand far more chance in Sawmills of encountering sweat bees than terrorists, and now they know humans are edible.

Good luck if your eyes don’t itch for the rest of the day.