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A man who called the News-Topic on Friday didn’t dilly dally.

“You ought to send a reporter over,” he said without any preamble. “Ricky Skaggs stayed at the Comfort Inn last night and he’s still there. I just saw him.” Then he hung up.

Skaggs, the famous country and bluegrass musician, performed Thursday night at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and after the show his tour bus headed up the highway to the hotel. Clearly, he preferred to spend the night in a stationary bed rather than on a bus.

No reporters were available, so I grabbed a camera and headed to the hotel. I thought I might get a photo of Skaggs and his band boarding their bus to leave.

When I got there, the bus was parked at one edge of the parking lot, clearly still in “night” mode – the bus’s sleeper compartment was still extended, and a roll-down shade covered all the windows at the front of the bus. There was no activity. It seemed unlikely anyone would be leaving soon. The deadline for checkout at the hotel was still two hours away.

I briefly contemplated hanging around to wait. It would be a nice shot to have.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea made me feel like Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who would lose his mind and all sense of proportion at the mere suggestion of a celebrity showing up in Mayberry.

Did I really want to stake out the Comfort Inn? After all, he probably would be dressed like anyone else in that situation: in casual, comfortable clothes, all set to spend the coming day on a bus.

And that’s what it comes down to. Skaggs is a famous person, but in all the ways that matter he’s a person like anyone else. Yes, it’s notable that he was staying here, and people would like to know – and now you do – but lurking outside hotels is what paparazzi do. Does anyone want a stranger shooting their photo first thing in the morning?

And I had another consideration. There’s a saying in football and other sports that is intended to discourage excessive celebrations over small accomplishments: Act like you’ve been there before. There must be a corollary for situations like this.

If there’s a celebrity in our midst, maybe we should act like we’ve seen a celebrity before. “Oh, hi, Ricky. How’d you sleep? How about some coffee?”

After all, why shouldn’t Ricky Skaggs stay the night in Lenoir after a concert? What’s the alternative? The hotels here are no different than their counterparts in the same chains in Hickory, and after a long, tiring performance would anyone really want to drive an extra 20 to 30 minutes when there’s a perfectly good hotel just 4 miles up the road?

And I’d rather that a famous person decided to stay here rather than felt an urgent desire to get as far away from Lenoir as possible just as soon as he could.

I can think of several reasons a person not only wouldn’t want to avoid Lenoir but might prefer staying the night here. For one, people here are friendlier than they are even just one county over. That’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from many others. Also, nights here almost always are truly quiet. If what you want is sleep, you are better off trying it in a small town. Maybe one reason he stayed is we don’t have paparazzi here.

I had mostly made up my mind during my one drive around the parking lot. Driving back out onto Blowing Rock Boulevard, I only became more sure.

By the time I got back to my office, I had an answer ready if anyone else called about Ricky Skaggs staying the night.

Well of course he spent the night in Lenoir. Why wouldn’t he?

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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.”

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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.

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All of us make questionable decisions.

I remember, for instance, the day in 1982 when I was driving my 1968 Mustang in Phoenix, Arizona, much faster than was prudent on a road that gradually curved to the left. It is vital to this story that you understand that the car had leather, bench-style seats, and while the car had seat belts, those seat belts were detached and sitting loose in the trunk. Therefore, by the time I completed the curve, I was steering from the passenger side of the front seat, where I had slid.

That’s just one of many poor choices I have made in my life, and one of the few I am willing to share.

Happily, though, none of my poor decisions has involved putting shoe polish on my face or attempting to blackmail the richest man in the world, which are two of the biggest poor decisions in the news the past week.

Perhaps I would have made at least the first of those decisions if I had hit my teens or 20s while living in Virginia, where during the 1970s and ‘80s apparently every young white man out for fun on the town donned blackface and posed in front of a camera to immortalize his stupidity.

Luckily, though, my family lived in Virginia for only a couple of years and moved to North Carolina when I was 6. I did not live in Virginia again until I was nearly 36. The only things I ever slathered on my face were red and gray paint (my high school colors), Oxy10 (acne ointment), sunscreen, and aloe vera when I forgot the sunscreen.

It also has never occurred to me to try to blackmail or extort someone with unlimited means to fight back, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, says the owner of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc., attempted to do to him. The Enquirer threatened to publish suggestive or lewd photos it had acquired that Bezos and his mistress had exchanged.

I can only imagine the conversation behind such a decision.

Enquirer stooge: “Hey, boss, I thought of a sure-fire way to get the richest man in the world to do what we want!”

Boss: “That would be a great thing, to have control of such a man. What is your plan?”

Stooge: “A secret source of mine gave me these sexy photos from his phone that he and his girlfriend sent back and forth.”

Boss: “Oh, yes?”

Stooge: “Yes.”

Boss: “Interesting.”

Stooge: “I’ll say. So what if we tell him that unless he does what we want, we’ll publish these photos and embarrass him? He’s sure to beg us and offer to do anything just so he won’t be embarrassed. It has never failed.”

Boss: “Now, this is the same man who made his billions founding a high-tech company, right? A company that relies on top security technology.”

Stooge: “Yeah, that’s him.”

Boss: “So he knows basically all of the top computer security experts in the world on a first-name basis, right?”

Stooge: “Well, he probably does.”

Boss: “And in theory he could spend many millions of dollars, far more than we have, to find out how we acquired those photos, take us to court and ruin us, leaving us to beg for pennies in the streets …”

Stooge: “Well, I mean, if you want to be pessimistic about it, maybe …”

Boss: “Hmmm.”

Stooge: “So what do you say, boss?”

Boss: “It’s a bold move. I say do it.”

Maybe the conversation didn’t go that way. But it’s hard to think of a reason no one involved didn’t consider what might go wrong with the plan. They even got lawyers involved. Perhaps they hired really bad lawyers – another poor decision.

I don’t say that I will never make a bad decision that tops these. After all, I’m on social media. That alone raises the odds. I drink beer – higher odds yet. Like many people, I have a smartphone and have Wi-Fi at home. In some ways, you could say that I and many others of us are practically begging for our darker angels to prod us into doing something impulsively stupid that will haunt us forever.

I hope by now I’m old enough to have enough healthy awareness of my own fragility to make me back away.

But I admit, anything’s possible.

I just find it hard to imagine.

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Reading is vital to the development of the human brain, but how we read – whether we read words printed on paper or words lit electronically on a digital device – may be more important still. The question is whether you should find that chilling.

Maryanne Wolfe, a professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recently wrote in an article for The Guardian – “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” – about research by her and others that has disturbing implications for the ability of people to comprehend what they are reading, to think critically and to act rationally.

“My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight,” Wolf wrote. “Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential ‘deep reading’ processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

Why should it make such a difference whether you are holding a paper book and turning physical pages rather than holding a Kindle and swiping left?

In part, Wolfe wrote, some research suggests that the physical sense of holding a book or newspaper and turning a physical page adds a spatial sense that helps the brain file the information away.

Other research suggests that it may be related to what paper does NOT do: enable you to stop reading and check Facebook, or text messages, or Twitter, or anything else you can do on an internet-connected device. Such multi-tasking trains the brain’s “reading circuit” how to behave, Wolf wrote.

“If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age,” she wrote.

This has enormous implications for what people will and won’t be able to do in all spheres of life – at school, at work, in personal interactions, in daily life. As Wolf wrote, people become impatient for quick bites of information and can’t devote the time it takes to understand something complex – including not just literature but such things as wills and contracts.

More disturbing, think of what this means for our ability to maintain a unified and relatively civil society. Consider all we know now about disinformation campaigns on social media. How much worse could things be as the ability to critically analyze information becomes increasingly rare?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery,” Wolfe wrote.

Despite all that, Wolfe sounded a hopeful note: “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice.”

Cynical journalist that I am, though, I can’t help but see Wolf’s article through the lens of how the innovations of the digital revolution have disrupted my own industry and left it perhaps permanently diminished. My reading brain lingers on this passage:

“As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

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We have begun election season, and candidates should heed the advice of experienced political consultants that putting out a ton of yard signs doesn’t work.

The only thing it accomplishes is creating lots of visual clutter and post-election litter.

If you want voters to remember your name, there is solid evidence of where candidates get the most bang for their buck: in elevators.

The evidence comes in the form of a recent poll by Elon University testing how well registered voters know who their elected officials are.

Overall, voters’ knowledge is pretty bad.

People generally know the name of the president, vice president, and probably the governor and at least one U.S. senator, but after that, the poll shows, their knowledge goes off a cliff.

Only 22 percent can identify who represents them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Around here, that could be understandable. Destin Hall was first elected only a year and a half ago, and he’s young enough (31) that he hadn’t had much time to make a public impression before he ran for office.

Only 17 percent can identify who represents them in the state Senate. Again, around here that could be understandable, but for different reasons. Caldwell County keeps getting shifted to different Senate districts as the legislature and the courts tussle over redistricting maps. Until a few weeks ago, our senator was Deanna Ballard, who is from Watauga County and like Hall was first elected in 2016. Ballard replaced another Watauga County resident who resigned. (Nothing against Watauga County residents, but people are less likely to recognize the name of out-of-towners who show up mainly for ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies.) For the past few weeks our senator has been Warren Daniel of Burke County – who had been our senator before a previous round of redistricting.

Only 11 percent know the name of the president of the state Senate, who many observers convincingly argue is the most powerful politician in North Carolina at the moment. His name is Phil Berger, he is from Rockingham County, and if you were on the email list to receive his press releases you surely wouldn’t forget him because almost everything issued by his office is like digital napalm employed in a constant political war.

A big exception to this lack of knowledge about the state’s elected leaders, Elon’s poll said, is that 49 percent can identify the state’s commissioner of labor. That’s a slightly higher percentage than can identify their local sheriff.

But the reason people stand about a 50-50 chance of identifying her is the unofficial title people give her: “Elevator Lady.”

Cherie Berry’s name and photograph appear in the little window every elevator in the state has for displaying its inspection certificate.

Berry was the first N.C. labor commissioner to put her photo with her signature on the certificates. Critics complained, but clearly the tactic worked. She has now been in office for 25 years.

The conclusion we can draw, then, is that constant exposure to a candidate’s name on signs displayed in residential yards and in the medians of heavily traveled roads does little to sway voters. But putting a person’s name and face in the line of sight where people will spend a few quiet moments riding in awkward silence, scanning the walls for anything to divert their attention from the strangers around them, creates a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, Caldwell County does not have many elevators. This leaves local candidates with just one real option: Spend most of the campaign riding up and down inside Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

I promise you, candidates, it will have an effect: The hospital has the county’s highest elevator, therefore the longest rides, and the added awkwardness of the hospital setting will make you and your steady smile truly unforgettable to each voter you encounter.

And those of us who don’t visit the hospital will appreciate the respite from campaigning.

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If only Martin Luther King Jr. had started knocking heads, imagine how much he would have accomplished.

Or so seems to be much of the most joyous thinking on the left in the wake of a viral video that grew out of the anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20.

If you haven’t seen it, a television reporter was interviewing Richard Spencer — who leads a white supremacist movement and not long ago headlined a conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with those assembled giving a classic Nazi “heil” salute — when suddenly someone lunged at Spencer from his right and sucker-punched him. Spencer staggered away, the attacker leaped back, and that was the end of it.

That brief video has been circulated widely and applauded. That celebration drew quick, but not wide, condemnation by others on both the left and right, which led to a question that also spread in a viral manner on social media:

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Those asking the question often answered it themselves in the affirmative, and most others chiming in said essentially that the answer was not only yes but hell yes. Those answers sometimes came attached to images of comic book hero Captain America punching Hitler and movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi.

Those giving a contrary answer included Newsweek, which called ethicists and posed the question to them, prompting one, Randy Cohen, to say, “Do you really not know if it’s ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother?”

Apparently we should call a lot of people’s mothers. One response on Twitter that captured the overall sentiment was this:

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One hopes that if the person who wrote that thought about it a while she would change her position because she could easily find herself targeted by it.

The problem with saying you support punching Nazis is you take a step onto a slippery slope. For one thing, Spencer does not belong to the Nazi party; the label of “Nazi” has been applied to him because of his racist views. If it’s OK to punch someone who isn’t a Nazi but is labeled one, who then who determines what other people get that label applied to them?

Regardless of whether he is a Nazi, Spencer has not engaged in violence or called for it. Who gets to decide that a person’s views go far beyond what the person states and actually encompass “eradication” of other people? Spencer’s views are extreme, but who gets to decide that someone’s views are extreme enough to warrant violence? President Obama was labeled a socialist and extremist with long-term goals described at times in nearly apocolyptic terms. Would it be OK to punch Obama?

If it’s OK to punch someone, what is the goal of the punch? To change his mind? To punish him? If punching him won’t change his mind or change his ways, then what? Should he be killed?

The American Civil Liberties Union is perceived by many on the right as the ultimate liberal special interest group, but many liberals can’t stand that the ACLU will stand up for the free-speech rights of right-wing extremists. On both the left and the right, people want free speech for their own views, but any views that stray too far from theirs make them uneasy. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t come with an asterisk and a footnote saying that it doesn’t apply to racists, thugs and religious extremists.

The First Amendment right of free speech has repeatedly and frequently been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing anyone the right to espouse even horrific views — not the right to do horrific things, but to talk about them. In other words, the First Amendment provides everyone a forum to talk about anything they wish.

Of course, the First Amendment says only that the government may not censor your views. It does not say that there will not be non-government repercussions for your views. What you say may, for instance, anger others enough that they want to punch you. That’s where we are now.

The irony is that this all happened less than a week after the day America remembers King, who met hate with love and met violence with peace and in 1964 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Spencer is a milk-fed, baby-faced poser compared to the people King had to deal with, vicious thugs with a badge such as Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose Birmingham police turned high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans. We don’t have to imagine how King would have answered the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” because he answered it over and over. Just a few of those answers:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”

“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Is it OK to punch someone hateful? I understand the impulse, but the answer is not just no, but hell no.

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