At My Feed: Coffee Jolt, Gen-Z Blues, Ozark Immigration, Newsletters

This week’s quartet of mini-commentaries at Newsfeed – Tim W. Ferguson (timwferguson.com) addresses the latest coverage of increases in coffee-bean prices; the costly lives of Millennials and Gen-Z (not just their joes!) and whether parents aren’t helping; the missing politics of an economic look at immigration in the Ozarks, and the popularity of digital “newsletters” (spoiler: they’re edited). Please take a look and leave any comments right here.

This Week at Feed: Student Debt, Homeless, Convention Centers

At Newsfeed – Tim W. Ferguson (timwferguson.com) are three new items this week, all on matters of big looming taxpayer obligations: The $1.7 trillion in U.S. post-secondary student debt, the seemingly intractable problem of people from living on America’s urban streets, and the vast convention centers that municipalities erected to try to attract a very different sort of person: the visitor with dollars to spend. The trio of mini-commentaries may shed a little light if not offer even that much hope! Return to this post with any comments you have.

Newsfeed: Gas Hookups, Influencers, Seat Belts, Jakarta

At (Newsfeed – Tim W. Ferguson (timwferguson.com) you’ll find new mini-commentaries on these items from current media: An effort to prevent gas hookups for new construction in Massachusetts, in order to curb fossil-fuel use; a push (again in the Northeast) to further criminalize failure to wear seat belts as road deaths are rising; the rising receipts of social-media influencers, which soon may exceed newspaper ad revenues; and the enormous population challenge of developing-world metros such as Jakarta and Manila. Please take a look and, as always, comment as you wish below this post.

4 New Feeds: GMO, China, Unilever, 187

I’m alerting subscribers here to four new items in recent days at my newsfeed. Please go to www. timwferguson.com/news for the bits and pieces. The four items concern a renewed plea for GMO foods, the risks that mainstream global investors face from Xi Jinping’s crackdown on certain Chinese companies, the conundrum that show-off progressive company Unilever faces when it ventures into (or out of) Palestine, and a chance to hear former California Gov. Pete Wilson address the rap he got 30 years ago on immigration and Prop. 187. Please take a look and respond here with any comments.

Kindly check out my newsfeed

I’ve got a new stream of mini-commentaries keyed to items of note from the current press. They aren’t fully developed blog posts so they don’t appear in this feed, but rather at timwferguson.com/news. This added feature is an opportunity to flag articles that I find noteworthy, as well as to communicate more frequently with readers who might find my annotations of interest. (Advisory: some of the linked material may be behind paywalls.)

Among the first handful of such musings:  Will Joe Biden lose his edge in the suburbs with a new push against zoning patterns? Is Covid behind the wreckage of South Africa and a half-dozen other previously viable states? Have we forgotten about some of the biggest losers in a cashless society? What happens when you try to switch from a big phone carrier that thinks you’ll pay for its 5G promotions?

Because the mechanics of this “newsfeed” do not allow you to subscribe for notifications, I will use this blog to alert you to every few entries.  Also, because there’s no comment function under these mini-me’s, please feel free to reply in this space.

That Dreaded Day of Strait Crossing

6/30/2021

The latent threat of hostilities with China over Taiwan has gained currency lately, as continued aggressiveness by the Xi Jinping regime meets up with more uniform (if more measured) rhetorical resistance by the U.S. under the Biden administration.

The pinch of a worldwide scarcity of vital semiconductors, and Taiwan’s outsized role in supplying those chips, has added to the economic dimension of any prospective conflict. Meantime the evolving Chinese military advantage in the Taiwan Strait region is a ticking clock.

That is the message of an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs by Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. With an Air Force-analysis background, Mastro brings to the Chinese relations field an acute appreciation for the war-waging capabilities of Beijing. These have more than kept pace with the hard-line nationalism of Xi’s PRC.

As have planners in the Pentagon, Mastro plots various attack scenarios for subduing Taiwan and finds all of them–even the ultimate step, an amphibious landing followed by street-level occupation—to be reasonable prospects for China.  Most could be executed successfully now, and as Mastro emphasized in a video interview for the Foreign Press Association, improved coordination among all elements of the People’s Liberation Army makes a combined assault more likely.

Mastro says the greatest danger to Taiwan and by implication the U.S. is still a couple of years out, but any effective deterrent would have to be set in motion shortly. Despite its own vaunted military power, the U.S. in China’s backyard needs allied counterweights, and these are mostly suspect.  Few other nations would face down China in a clinch—almost surely not South Korea, and likely not Japan, despite its historical animus toward China and affinity for Taiwan. (Although, both countries might be useful as electronics alternatives.)

Even Taipei itself is a question mark. The current DPP government of Tsai Ing-wen sounds the right notes, though if its popularity continues to dip, the more Beijing-friendly opposition could regain power and curtail tangible preparations for resistance. Beyond that, however, is a basic worry that the people of Taiwan are not geared to fight.  The lack of martial flavor to everyday life in this robust democracy is a welcome relief from other places in Chinese Asia, but it doesn’t bode well for sustained conflict. Olivia Mastro herself dismisses the likelihood of insurgency being a big problem for a conquering China once onshore.

If Taiwan is not going to fight hard in the dreaded event, what really can be expected of the U.S., its politics determined thousands of miles away? Economic sanctions against an aggressor China are a handy fallback, but again, unilateral pressure —beyond those steps American presidents and Congress have already taken—is limited. The European Union is talking a tougher game, but full-on confrontation with the world’s emerging commercial giant is another matter.

It’s a discouraging predicament, but not hopeless.  The U.S. urgently could muster wherewithal to counter Beijing—military, diplomatic and economic—to improve its standing as a protector of Taiwan. As the recent vaccine development and procurement shows, the nation retains an ability to scramble its various resources.  But this will come at the expense not just of more harsh words from Beijing—we are growing inured to that—but of more international entanglement and yes, more government at home. The deadline for choice is being forced on us.

POSTSCRIPT 7/9/21: David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations specializing in China-Taiwan matters, parsed the recent speech by Xi Jinping on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. He found reassuring notes indicating no rash cross-strait plans by China: https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-xi-jinpings-major-speech-means-taiwan

Google It: Knowledge Is Powerful

It began with the news that Google is beta-testing a carousel display for writers at the world’s biggest search site. This is obvious catnip to content-creating freelancers in particular, as we have no default platform for highlighting our recent work, other than our own precious websites.

However, my excitement dulled a bit as I discovered that this display would appear in “knowledge panels” at the site and I didn’t have one.  Knowledge panels are what show on the right side of your laptop search screen when you type in the name of someone who is at all famous. Some of my former colleagues in the journalism trade are renowned enough to rate a panel including photos but I must have toiled too, too quietly. It’s true that I was a faceless editor for many years but before that I had a weekly column in the nation’s largest circulation daily. Maybe it was forgettable and anyway, that was in the pre-Google age. Today if you Google “Tim Ferguson” you get the goods on an Australian comedian.

A bit of search wizardry turned up the further news that knowledge panels are derived rather automatically (surprise!) from a universe known as the Knowledge Graph. A personality can endeavor to “self-correct” material in the knowledge panel, but induction into the Knowledge Graph in the first place is apparently by invitation only.

Oh well, I have never been selected for a MacArthur grant, either, but this rejection seemed more on a par with not getting a secret valentine in the 8th grade classroom handouts. As in, that hurt. But this time I wasn’t going just to mope off.

On June 18, I (as, ahem, editor@timwferguson.com) inquired with the Google press unit about the qualifications for the Knowledge Graph—was this algorithmic or somehow a human selection.  Ned from Press replied that he’d taken up the case. This explanation evidently could not be ascertained as quickly as who won the 1929 Rose Bowl. On the 22nd, I followed up, and on Friday the 25th, Ned apologized for a busy week and asked if he could phone me.

Not trusting my note-taking skills, as I am a less-than-famous journo, I responded that email precision was preferred and could he respond by the conclusion of his busy Monday. (Actually, I skipped the sarcasm—I remember a few things about reporting! And he had asked about my deadline, which I admit is existential.) Ned conscientiously checked in on Monday afternoon, hopeful to satisfy by end of the day but asking for more context “to help us get you the right info.” I referenced the carousel item but reiterated it was the Knowledge designation that really preoccupied me.

I must tell you this morning the 29th that the answer has not presented itself. (I will update below if Ned finds it.) Nor, despite making a pest of myself, have I been lifted into the Knowledge Graph. If the all-seeing Google algo is the touchy sort, I can be pretty sure this valentine also won’t be coming my way.

*UPDATE later on 6/29: The Google spokespeople have responded: “The Knowledge Graph is generated automatically, and gathers information from a variety of sources. It has amassed over 500 billion facts about five billion entities. While we’re always endeavoring to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible, our systems certainly don’t have information on every person or every entity. Our goal with the Knowledge Graph is for our systems to discover and surface publicly known, factual information when it’s determined to be useful.”

Some supplementary information they shared with me gently suggests that among those “500 billion facts,” my dossier comes up a little short. So, back to work!

‘Brewing a Boycott’: Another Era

6/26/2021

This week saw publication of my review of a new book on the long boycott of Coors Brewing by various activist groups, initiated by organized labor. It’s written by a young leftist academic who acknowledges she grew aware of this history only after a graduate-school instructor flagged a struggle that baby boomers of his ilk knew well. Today’s unawareness reflects how well the beer maker (now Molson Coors) was able to get past the barricades, which formally came down in 1987.

Allyson P. Brantley does a scholarly job of documenting the resistance (in current parlance) to Coors, which spread from union halls to Chicano outfits to gay-rights partisans, and from there to much of the Left. But her overall narrative, of how the front-line fighters were overwhelmed by the deals that still-mighty Coors cut with established interests attached to the cause, is also instructive. The question that lingers is whether those social-justice warriors of the analog era, who never lost their animus for Coors, would have been able to sustain their campaign in these digital days of social media.

Here’s a link to the review: https://www.discoursemagazine.com/economics/2021/06/22/the-lefts-long-march-against-coors/

A Progressive Press Weighs Who Not to Name

In the throes of its own existential revenue crisis, the nation’s press is wrestling with the social justice of a local newspaper mainstay: crime coverage.  On top of heightened sensitivity over appearances in many parts of America—too many of those suspected or arrested after street offenses are of color—there is guilt that names of the “perps,” once reported, are lodged forever in digital archives, whatever their ultimate adjudication. For the young, that notoriety can amount to a type of life sentence of lost job and other opportunities.

So in various locales, today’s journalists are resolving to self-correct for the unfairness of criminal justice by avoiding or expunging elements of what used to be stock in trade.  Mug shots are now rarer except in cases as heinous as multiple shootings. (Some police departments no longer release them.) Crime scenes themselves—once the feeding ground for photographers such as the New York favorite known as Weegee—have been greatly sanitized. You are more likely to see grieving or angry relatives than a gruesome victim or subdued assailant.

The new sensibilities reflect a wish to wash progressive hands of a “carceral system” that is discriminatory and unjust. If arrests skew toward people of color (and the published images have not been a distortion of reality) then there is a damning social history that led to that outcome, not to mention dubious police practices in catching and questioning the suspects. Minor offenses are given too heavy a weight. The bail and probation systems add to the outrage.

New urban digital media, particularly those catering to Millennials and Gen Z, have led the charge in eschewing what they view as tabloid pandering.  There, you won’t find much focus on crime, except where it involves abusive policing or, interestingly, motorists colliding with bicyclists.

Problem is, the most avid readers of local news—homeowners, parents of school children, the elderly—really want to know about street and other crime. There’s a reason it has long been grist for the printing press.  Out of fear or bias, mixed with some desire for shaming, the appetite for crime news hasn’t shown any abeyance, best I can tell. (Academics may demure but surveys still show interest, even abroad.)   Papers in days of old even included home addresses of alleged culprits, ostensibly to avoid mistaken identities (ages are still usually mentioned) but perhaps to alert neighbors as well. Such information obviously invites targeted opprobrium.

Whatever motivates consumers of this information, the hunger will find alternative channels in the online age. One need only look at the comments sections of hyperlocal sites such as Patch and Nextdoor to see that neighborliness includes, as it always has, a degree of suspicious chatter.

For nearly a decade, Europeans have had a legal right to “be forgotten” online, by requesting digital pages containing sensitive information about them to be removed. For now, in the U.S., such accommodation is voluntary on the part of platforms and publishers.

What should conscientious journalists, who also want to avoid any notion of censorship and to keep their paying audience, do to remedy unintended harm?  Extend to a new class of protected parties the shield that they have accorded many victims (sex crimes) and most minors?

One frequent beef is that a spot news item about an arrest is then left, orphaned of any follow-up, in the online archive. The accused might later have been cleared or otherwise had charges dropped or reduced. It is true that local media, having picked up a police blotter item (which itself may be a mischaracterization), often do not publish updates on the case unless it is a murder or celebrity scandal. It’s simply beyond their staffing resources to do so. Cases might remain under investigative wraps for weeks, and then the court process could drag on for months. (Many years ago, as a cop-shop reporter, I wrote what is now called a “long-form narrative” that tracked a typical mid-level felony through a good year leading to a conviction. I needed special dispensation to manage that.)

To avoid the prospect of latent harm, to the innocent or guilty alike, local publications increasingly are limiting their crime briefs to details of an incident without personal identities. That at least alerts readers to the commission of a nearby crime, and whether a suspect was apprehended.   Selective follow-ups can look for patterns of malevolence or false arrest, if indeed the thinly-staffed press is up for that. (The publication of arrestees’ names—which is generally not done in systems like the UK’s—was at least partly seen under U.S. law as a protection of the accused from secret jailings.)

Sometimes the efforts to wean journalism from racist tropes can appear silly. The blotter items on at-large suspects that (days later) describe their clothing but not their skin shade do not serve much “APB” purpose. By contrast, now-common surveillance cameras provide video images that can be allowed to speak for themselves on a news platform. These are, of course, usually coming through police departments, so there is still going to be debate about who is getting fingered.

For keepers of the public record who have long resisted attempts to expunge embarrassing material, especially when they come from political or commercial interests, the decisions to withhold will be difficult—all the more so when they come after the fact. Even in real time, such as with a serial or mass killing spree when police and others clamor not to dignify the evildoer with publicity by name, the journalistic instinct is to “run it.”  If we are at a pivot point for media practices, for reasons of changed technology or ideology, the business had best recognize and reflect on it.

UPDATE 7/14/21: In Europe, the “forgotten” prerogative has just been widened by the Court of Human Rights: https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/european-courts-right-to-be-forgotten-ruling-uk-news-publishers/

Getting Water on a Parched Planet

June 16, 2021

Today’s temperature map alerts us to another heat wave amid another drought across much of the U.S. These conditions guarantee continued battles over water availability and rights to use it. That, in turn, promises restrictions on usage in dry jurisdictions. These can affect as big a user as hydroelectric power generation. For many, of course, it’s as down-home as those flow-control showers and toilets.

Water is a precious commodity that cannot be easily transported or created. Even the seemingly successful desalinization projects offer cautionary tales, and not just about their expense.

Where natural supply (precipitation) is not necessarily a problem, pollution can be. In some spots, such as eastern Long Island, NY, where I write from, that’s an issue not just for surface waters, but underground, for the aquifer that is our “sole source” for tap use. Fertilizers, phosphates, biological waste (crap) and even mulching of some plants and trees can cause trouble below and above the surface. (This isn’t new to Suffolk County, which actually outlawed most detergents during the 1970s.)

Commercial forces work to allocate consumer (usually bottled or filtered) drinking water. That’s a $35 billion global market, per Culligan International.  Local water agencies also can use price mechanisms to adjust usage to meet scarcity, although regulation is often around the corner. In one of the latest edicts,  lawns that serve as corporate or public cosmetic landscaping will be outlawed in the Las Vegas area. In most U.S. suburban areas, the scale of projected water and sewer needs of new residents figure in the planning-approval process for custom homes as well as tracts.

Big Agriculture—which is indirectly a reflection of human appetites—is a rougher candidate for what economists call equilibrium. So much of its irrigation supply is a function of politics and subsidies that it’s hard to sort out the priorities through a marketplace. Technology can help, such as satellite-targeted watering. Yet, other agenda enter the discussion, such as whether to indulge the cattlemen when vegetable proteins would be so much better for us. But even trees are a value judgment:  Should California almond growers get emergency relief? The water footprint for nuts is nuts.

In fact, water is a proxy for sweeping human debates: The role of, and responsibility for, climate. The proper pecking order of species, down to the smallest migrating fish. The sanctity (or not) of development rights. The justifiability of continued population growth on the planet (even if the reproduction rate is already going negative).

As the hot summer looms in much of the northern hemisphere, water is going to be all the more on our minds. Arriving at its “best and highest” use is an economic problem, and probably a moral one. Mankind will have to sweat it.