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Robert Whitcomb’s Digital Diary: Worcester Growth and Mafia Boredom

Monday, January 09, 2017

 

Robert Whitcomb

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

 

New England’s Fatal Shores; Get Out of Kaspersky; Here-Today-Gone-Tomorrow Jobs; Don’t ‘Drizzle’ in Worcester

 

"As I write, snow is falling outside my Maine window, and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom."


--  Katharine S. White

 

Happy New Year. May our mistakes this year at least be new ones.

 

Some readers may have seen the recently released movie Manchester-by-the-Sea, a devastating family tragedy, but with comic moments, too, and all suffused with a haunting New England atmosphere. I have seen few movies that present a sharper view of the often bleak beauty of New England’s coast and towns or of the anxieties and occasional joys of America’s lower-middle class, New England sub-species.

 

The film is mostly set in the eponymous Massachusetts town on Boston’s North Shore. 

 

While the official name is the same as in the movie, when I was growing up in Cohasset, across Massachusetts Bay from the town, we only called it “Manchester.’’ I mostly remember the capacious gray-shingled summer places along the town’s rocky headlands and the big Federal Style and Greek Revival houses inland a bit. 

 

Many of the grandest places in Greater Boston are on the North Shore. That’s where a lot of Boston Brahmins repaired to in the summer; some moved there year-round after they winterized their summer places (when they weren’t in Aiken, S.C., Palm Beach, etc., in the winter). Perhaps because the North Shore ports of Salem and Newburyport had many of the China Trade types who became Boston’s aristocracy, it denizens tended to look down on the South Shore, although Cohasset and Duxbury had/have certain old-money pretentions.  So there were social links between the two shores, such as annual sails  between the Cohasset and Manchester Yacht Clubs. But someone from Cohasset approaching the shore of Manchester quickly knows he/she is entering more-monied waters than those back home .

 

The South Shore’s mostly sandy and shallow harbors, as opposed to the deeper rock-rimmed ones north of Boston, made  them unattractive for ocean-going ships in the China Trade.  Instead, the local big money often came from the shoe business and such things as rope-making. Not as romantic as trading with China!

 

Manchester has economically struggling people too, and the movie is mostly about them. Like many, perhaps most  Americans now, they are downwardly mobile. Too many of them medicate their anxieties, which can move into despair, with booze, opiates and cocaine.

 

Thoreau wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’’. The characters in Manchester-by-the Sea are not always quiet but they are usually stoical in their suffering from their own mistakes and others’ outrages inflicted on them. But they can still summon up some dark  comedy and savor the absurd.

 

As the movie’s characters walk or drive through Manchester and neighboring towns, you get a sense of the  weight of the region’s long history and of the cheeriness of its sunny days alternating with the gloom of its cold, gray and mean winter days darkened by proximity to a hostile ocean. Toward the end of the movie, you even get a sense of the uplift from winter finally succumbing to spring, when the ground has thawed out enough to permit the burial of one of the movie’s characters.

 

The movie obliquely recalls the regional history that pressed in on Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Salem) in The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter and William Faulkner’s line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  New England and the South have a heavy thing on common: the weight of the most complicated histories of any American region except, perhaps, New York City.

 

One thinks of Faulkner’s  novel Absalom, Absalom  in which the Harvard roommate of the Mississippian Quentin Compson says: : “Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?"  You might ask the same question in mid-winter of New Englanders.

 

In Manchester-by-the Sea, the pertinent past is mostly in the lifetime of the main characters but you can feel the pressure of earlier time, too. And the film might remind us that most of those we encounter have potent psychic pain we know nothing about. If we did, we might pay attention to the old line: “To understand all is to forgive all,’’ though empathy can be over-rated.

 

xxx

 

This is likely to be a nasty year politically with a crook/extreme narcissist/ compulsive liar in the White House and dictators on the march abroad. Donald Trump may be  in hock to one of them – Vladimir Putin, which we can only hope doesn’t lead to treason. But you can’t do much about it so work on improving your  personal life.  And maybe he’ll change, although since he’s 70 that seems unlikely. While his life so far doesn’t  inspire confidence, we must wish him success as president. He’s a thug, but he’s our thug.

 

On second thought,  there are probably a few quasi-political things you can do right now. One is to cancel any business links with Russian enterprises.  Given the relentless Russian cyberwar against us and other Western nations, the best example is Kaspersky Lab, the  Moscow-based company whose services are used by many Americans (including up to now, me) to allegedly protect their computers from malicious people.  The company sells antivirus, password management, endpoint security and other cybersecurity products and services.

 

But, it turns out, Kaspersky itself is malicious: Using it on your computer opens yourself up to hacking by the Putin regime. Eugene Kaspersky, the company’s major domo, is very close to the Kremlin and does its bidding. Get anything Russian out of your computer ASAP.

 

Russia's Putin

Whatever his links with Putin, Mr. Trump was absolutely correct when he said last weekend that “no computer is safe.’’

 

"You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier," he said as he entered a New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort. (He seems to assume that average Americans can afford such expenses as courier services. No bread? “Then let them eat cake,’’ as French Queen Marie Antoinette so compassionately advised her subjects.)

 

"I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I'm not sure you have the kind of security that you need." Quite right, Mr. President-elect.

 

Well, I’ve long recommended that Americans cut way back on their use of computers for personal and other sensitive communications. Pen, pencil, typewriters and paper are much safer – and sometimes more aesthetically and psychologically satisfying for the writers and the recipients. I also rather miss faxes – easy to send and comparatively secure. Maybe they, like vinyl records, will make a big comeback.

 

Anyway, we should be leery of such dubious “advances’’ as online banking. It can all be hacked.

 

Further, by refusing to engage in all the digital automation that organizations are trying to force on us, you’re helping to protect jobs. Companies like computerization because it makes it so easy and fast to lay off people and quickly boost senior execs’ wealth.

 

Are the mass of  Americans happier because Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, in 1989? It doesn’t look like it but it’s tough to measure such things. What is clear, however, is that they’re more distracted and --  paradoxically? --  more ill-informed.

xxx

 

 

Donald Trump was elected, albeit with  about 3 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton, to no small degree because of economic anxiety. Unfortunately, while there will always be fluctuations in the jobless rate, the  general direction will probably remain bad and there’s little he can do about it.

 

A good example of why is automation at Amazon’s gigantic distribution centers, one of which is the new one in Fall River, Mass., with  a few hundred new workers, for whom I’m happy. One hope has been that these centers would employ many of those laid off by brick-and-mortar retailers put out of business  by the massive near-monopoly of Amazon. (The government seems to have withdrawn from serious enforcement of the antitrust laws.)

 

But Amazon now has robots called Kivabors that lift shelving units of bar-coded products and then takes them to dispatchers. Machines package and address them and then put them on conveyor belts to loading docks to be trucked away and dumped on our front steps.  Sounds like these robots and/or at least their cousins will eat up most of the distribution centers’ employees soon enough.

 

Meanwhile, there’s been the hope that the likes of Uber and Lyft would provide many people with some income as drivers (of course while throwing many cab drivers out of work). But self-driving cars may soon eliminate most of those jobs, too.

 

This follows the devastation of publishing and serious journalism by another near-monopoly – Google, that gigantic Xerox machine.

 

As far as companies training people to do new things: With the exception of certain high-tech companies, publicly held companies for more than two decades have cut way back on the expense of training employees to do new things, preferring to keep short-term profits as high as possible for shareholders and company executive suites. Quite rational.

 

Still, especially with the aging of the population, there will be more new jobs in a few sectors, such as health care, the so-called hospitality industry, including tourism (though probably not travel agencies, so much of whose services have been computerized). And as  a tiny sliver of the population gets richer and richer, and many (most?) people get poorer, there will be more demand for domestic servants to ease the lives of the plutocracy.  These servants will be low paid and mostly have no benefits but earn enough to eat.

 

As for such skilled tradesmen as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc., their futures still look fairly bright!

 

There can be marginal nice effects of the rise of monopolies. Consider that The Washington Post is now making money and actually adding journalists because of Amazon! That’s mostly because The Post isn’t  a public company driven by the need to goose quarterly earnings but is 100 percent owned by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, who can invest for long-term growth in the very rich Washington, D.C., market and nationally. And, of course, owning The Post also gives him even more influence/political  power than he has already, which must be fun to have.

 

xxx

 

I have a theory that it’s harder to have a thriving and innovative restaurant scene in an inland city.  That seems to apply in New England, where Providence, Boston, Portsmouth, N.H., and Portland are paradises for restaurant goers, while the biggest inland city, Worcester (“New England’s Pittsburgh’’) lags far behind, except when it comes to its classic diners, in which I have eaten many times on drives to Vermont.  Maybe it’s  partly because of the easier availability of fresh fish in coastal cities or that salt air makes people hungrier.

(As I’ve written, while much of downtown Worcester is bleak, as befits its heavy industrial past, some of the hill towns near it are a joy to drive through slowly, except in their frequent ice storms. And, in any event, there’s some attractive new construction going up downtown as new money comes in.)

But as Worcester becomes more prosperous as it moves into more of a post-industrial economy, fueled by its higher-education institutions and its growing role as a biomedical center, the restaurant climate is rapidly improving.  Around 60 new restaurants have opened in the city in the past couple of years, serving a very wide variety  of food, from “eclectic’’ (whatever that really is!) to the cuisine of pretty much any major ethnic group.

The thousands of college students  living in Worcester mean that there are plenty of enthusiastic, if inexperienced, waiters to serve you there.

The city’s economic developers could really put it on  the culinary map by urging its restaurateurs to stop using such meaningless marketing words as “homemade’’ (in whose home?), “drizzled’’ and “infused’’   and the associated relentless upselling to insecure, status-obsessed customers.

The Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence has written on the effect that  the name of a dish has on diners. "Give it an ethnic label," he says, "such as an Italian name, and people will rate the food as more authentic"  {and pay more for it.}

Let the ingredients speak for themselves. Make Worcester renowned as the capital of honest restaurants. Its beloved diners give it a head start.

 

xxx

 

It sounds pretentious to mention it, but I’ve been rereading some of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is called a seven-part novel but to me is really a sort of memoir. I’m doing it in a very unrigorous way, skipping around. That’s in part because reading his infamously long paragraphs and  sentences hurts my cataract-clouded eyes.

 

But it’s also because I have discovered  -- or rediscovered --- that there are jewels (or at least rhinestones) large and small on almost every page,  often involving deep psychology and maneuverings for social status. Much of this battle of manners is hilarious. And (this may be of more interest to older people) few writers have been so gifted at showing the sad and funny effects of aging on individuals and groups, worn down by biology, the battle to attain and/or maintain position and disastrous events in the wider world, such as World War I.

 

xxx

 

Am I alone in being utterly bored by the Rhode Island media’s constant retelling of the time decades ago when the local Mafia, led by the outstandingly creepy Raymond L.S. Patriarca, was a highly successful local industry? I realize that the majority of paid journalists have been laid off in the past 15 years but surely the survivors can eke out some real news rather than in effect republishing stuff from newspapers of 50 years ago to fill pages.

 

Likewise with the stories about former boxer Vinny Pazienza, the lead character in a justifiable flop of a recent movie called Bleed for This --  enough already. Just because something is “local’’ doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

 

As for the old Mafia (the Italo-American one), it has heavy competition from more sanguinary mobs, such as the Mexican, Russian and Chinese ones, and organized crime tends to move to places with a lot of new money, such as the Southwest and South Florida. All in all, American crime favors warm locales. “Sunny places for shady people, ‘’ as Somerset Maugham said about the French Riviera.

 

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