- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

New Britain Herald (Conn.), Aug. 8, 2016

We applaud new federal regulations for electronic cigarettes. The rules, which went into effect Monday, now require the Food and Drug Administration to approve all e-cigarette products, though manufacturers will be able to keep selling their wares for up to two years while they submit a new production application, plus an additional year while the FDA reviews it.

The ruling reflects concerns by anti-tobacco groups; they were increasingly worried about these products becoming a “gateway” to tobacco use - and they were afraid that their popularity was growing among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015. Federal health officials estimate about 3 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes.

“E-cigarette use is a major public health issue, and understanding use among youth is critical to inform youth-directed prevention efforts,” said psychiatry professor Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, who, with Yale postdoctoral fellow Krysten Bold, analyzed data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Their report was summarized in Monday’s New Haven Register.

They found that more than one in six high school students used e-cigarettes in 2015. Youths say the reasons are low cost and an attempt to quit smoking cigarettes. The causes compare with those reported in 2013, when curiosity, attractive flavors of vaping liquid and use by friends were cited as motivation for using the nicotine-laced e-cigs.

The long-term consequences of vaping vs. smoking are unclear in this young cohort; however, the survey found that 80 percent of those who tried e-cigarettes were still smoking them six months later.

As of this week, “long-term” may have to wait until the young people turn 18. Under the new regulations, vape shops cannot give free samples to customers or sell to people younger than 18. Merchants will be required to ask for identification from customers who appear to be under the age of 27. And vending machine sales of e-cigarettes are prohibited unless the machines are in adult-only facilities.

Perhaps, by the time these kids become adults, these devices won’t seem as attractive.




The Times Record (Maine), Aug. 10, 2016

We are glad, and also a little relieved, to read Susan Collins’s denouncement of Donald Trump in the Washington Post this week.

“This is not a decision I make lightly, for I am a lifelong Republican,” the Republican senator wrote in the Post on Monday. “But Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country.”

Last month, in our call for Collins to not endorse Trump, we were puzzled as to what was left for Collins to evaluate about the New York billionaire. After all, Trump had by then spent about a year heaping abuse on his opponents, protesters, journalists and veterans, including Collins’s own Republican colleague, Sen. John McCain.

So what did it take? Apparently, there was not one but three final straws:

“The first was his mocking of a reporter with disabilities,” Collins wrote, in part. “The second was Mr. Trump’s repeated insistence that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge born and raised in Indiana, could not rule fairly in a case involving Trump University because of his Mexican heritage . .”

Third was Trump’s criticism of two grieving Gold Star parents, something that has been condemned by nearly everyone, including Trump supporters like House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Despite recent polling that shows him lagging significantly behind Hillary Clinton, the danger of a Trump presidency is still very real. There are, astonishingly, more than 14 million Americans who have already cast their lot in with Trump. That’s the number of popular votes Trump scored during the primaries - more than any other Republican primary candidate in history, according to the Post (which also notes that Trump holds a record for having the most votes against him).

“I realize that Mr. Trump’s success reflects profound discontent in this country, particularly among those who feel left behind by an unbalanced economy and who wonder whether their children will have a better life than their parents,” Collins wrote. “As we have seen with the dissatisfaction with both major-party nominees - neither of whom I support - these passions are real and the public will demand action.”

Well and good, but the fact remains that the best preventative measure against a Trump presidency is a vote for Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, that is a pill too bitter for many, including Collins, to swallow.




Daily Item (Mass.), Aug. 8, 2016

August has barely begun.

But if retailers are already stressing the importance of back-to-school shopping, who can blame them?

On Monday, 5W, a New York public relations firm, said back-to-school ranks number two among major annual shopping seasons behind Christmas and other winter holidays.

But the late summer shopping bonanza could end up going the way of the pink eraser and other staples of bygone back-to-school shopping eras if social media and technology advancements have their way.

The students who will pour into schools across Lynn and the nation in the next few weeks are accustomed to the idea that their “phone” is anything but. It is a connection point to the world around them. It is a tool capable of performing all the tasks protractors, three-section spiral notebooks and No. 2 pencils once performed.

Today’s students expect to walk into classrooms equipped with Smart Boards and they think laptops are for elders. They are growing up in an age when more adults are working from home linked to work online.

Young workers are redefining work rules like scheduled shifts and the notion of spending the day behind a desk or in one location. Colleges are touting their online courses and giving students options to telecommute to a virtual classroom.

With these trends underway, how long will it take for cash-strapped schools to face a shake-up at the hands of the same techno-revolutionaries who are redefining the workplace and the college experience?

It’s a safe bet to say a number of bright young minds will file into public schools built when their grandparents were children and say to themselves, “Geez, I can learn half the stuff they plan to teach me online and spend the time I save working or participating in extracurricular activities.”

The 21st century is barely 17 years old and it already seems to be the century of immense possibilities and accelerating changes. If technology finally sweeps over the school house once and for all, then the days of parents buying school clothes for kids and packs stuffed with notebooks, pencils, glue and those fun little pocket-size pencil sharpeners are going to go the way of the steam engine.

The only purchase the mid-century student will have to make is an iPhone upgrade and maybe some new clothes, providing he or she actually spends any study time in a school.




Concord Monitor (N.H.), Aug. 9, 2016

In 2005, Muslim leader Ahmed Akkari helped lead violent international protests against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had published a dozen editorial cartoons blasphemously depicting Muhammad.

By 2008, Akkari had begun to separate himself from the fundamentalism underlying his anger, and by 2013 the break was complete. “At that time (2005),” Akkari told the Guardian in August 2013, “I was so fascinated with this logical force in the Islamic mindset that I could not see the greater picture. I was convinced it was a fight for my faith, Islam.”

A couple of things contributed to Akkari’s change of heart. One, he moved from Denmark to Greenland, which allowed him time and space to think. And two, he found the intellectual courage to begin dismantling his core beliefs.

Picture a far-left progressive in America saying, “I’m going to spend the next two or three years attacking with honesty and precision everything I believe to be true and then see what is still standing in the end.” Picture a far-right conservative doing the same thing. It’s hard to imagine, but that’s just what Akkari did - and it changed everything for him.

Among those who most influenced Akkari during his time of transformation was Wes Cecil, a professor at Peninsula College in Washington who posts some of his lectures on YouTube. If you want insight into the lives and works of major philosophers such as Sartre, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, or “forgotten thinkers” such as Simone Weil, Max Stirner and Jacques Barzun, you would be hard-pressed to find a better, funnier, more accessible guide than Cecil. But it is a lecture from last summer titled “An Introduction to Thinking” that helped us understand how a little-known professor at a little-known community college could help deradicalize somebody.

Cecil begins the hour-long talk with a very brief evolutionary history of the human mind and how it became “the most complicated thing in the universe.” More complicated, he stresses to his listeners, than the universe itself. By far.

What Cecil wants people to understand is that the mind’s complexity makes the act of thinking incredibly resource intensive, biologically speaking. And so evolutionary programming has led humans to prefer automatic reactions over deep thought. In a certain sense, the political polarization of today is a product of evolution.

When political views are challenged, Cecil says, your visceral response “is your evolutionary training. It is your body saying: If you have to start thinking about this, you’re going to have to burn a whole lot of calories. And it will be painful and unpleasant. Don’t do that. Push off the dissonance. Reinforce the harmony. My logic of the world makes sense.”

Cecil uses the problem of highway congestion as an example of how this aversion to challenging long-held assumptions can manifest itself in significant ways. Until quite recently, traffic engineers firmly believed the best way to alleviate traffic jams was to add more lanes. It made perfect sense - that is until they figured out that people don’t care how far they drive but rather how long it takes to get there. The additional lanes allowed commuters to move farther away, and new commuters moved into those old houses and apartments, and so the congestion remained constant. Put simply, more road means more drivers.

So why didn’t the engineers get wise sooner? Because the mind filters out information that it thinks it doesn’t need, including contrary data, and it was perfectly clear to the engineers that adding lanes would ease congestion. It was common sense.

That’s why it’s important to ask yourself, with conviction and at the most fundamental level, why you believe what you believe. How was your worldview shaped? How have those beliefs been reinforced and by whom?

Here is Cecil’s challenge: “Write down three or four of your most fundamental beliefs … and then go at ‘em with an ax.”

It’s not easy, but it’s what Ahmed Akkari did.

It’s what everyone should do, evolutionary programming be damned.




The Providence Journal (R.I.), Aug. 11, 2016

On the very same day that the Islamic Republic of Iran released several American hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, the Iranian regime received a secret shipment of Swiss francs, euros and other currencies, equivalent to $400 million.

Whence did the payments arrive? The United States government.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story last week. It turns out that unbeknownst to Congress (let alone the American people), the Obama administration secretly sent an unmarked cargo plane to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the same day as the prisoner release last January.

At a news conference last week, President Obama insisted there is nothing untoward about this, noting that he announced the $400 million payment back in January. “We do not pay ransom,” he said. The timing of the release of the prisoners was “coincidental,” a State Department official said. Moreover, the administration had no choice but to use foreign currency piled high in paying off Iran. That is because dollar transactions with the Iranian regime remain illegal under U.S. law, and Iran had been cut off from global banks.

The money was, in fact, owed to Iran, under a ruling by a world court. It had been sent to America as part of an arms deal during the Shah’s rule in the 1970s. When the Shah fell in 1979, the U.S. froze the payment.

Still, it is hard to deny that the January operation has the disturbing appearance of a ransom payment. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “U.S. officials … acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible.”

More broadly, this latest story seems to be another sign that the Obama administration is intensely eager to reach peaceful accommodation with Iran, a leading sponsor of terrorism, in the hopes that the regime can be brought into the family of nations and stop treating America as its greatest enemy.

While that would be wonderful, the Iranians unfortunately persist in their threats against America and its allies. And even after it inked the nuclear deal that led to the relaxation of sanctions, Tehran has gleefully continued to thumb its nose at international law. In contravention of United Nations resolutions, for example, it has more than once test-fired ballistic missiles. Yet the regime has seemingly suffered no consequences.

We certainly hope that foreign entities, including Iran, have not come to view the payment as ransom. That would only encourage the further taking of Americans as hostages. Let us hope, too, that this diplomatic dance has nothing to do with the fact that the Iranian regime is holding more Americans hostage than it was prior to the January release.




Barre Montpelier Times Argus (Vt.), Aug. 13, 2016

When the athletes take the spotlight at the Olympics, it is an inspiring liberation from all of the chatter, worry, politicking and corruption that surround the events during the planning stages.

What could be more inspiring than the soaring figure of Simone Biles who seems to defy gravity during her celebrated leaps, twists and turns? Meanwhile, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have scored triumphs in swimming that have shattered records. As The New York Times reported, Phelps’s 13th individual gold medal vaulted him ahead of Leonidas of Rhodes, whose record of 12 individual gold medals had stood since 152 B.C.

Biles’ stunning performances in gymnastics were reason for Americans to take pride, but she also thrilled the people of Belize. Biles has dual citizenship because her adoptive mother is Belizean, and she has many Belizean relatives who have been watching her performances. Belize, a Central American nation with a population smaller than Vermont’s, has only three athletes competing in Rio this year, but Belizeans are rooting for Biles.

There are other small nations claiming glory at Rio, including the Fijian rugby team, which won a gold medal. A team of refugees from Syria, South Sudan and other war-wracked nations underscores the fact that the world’s refugee population exceeds that of many large nations.

For the viewer at home, the competition stands apart from its context - moments of pure grace, power and speed that have little to do with the controversies that swirl about the games. It is easy to be cynical about the “Olympic ideal” because it is so frequently abandoned, but then again, when it is abandoned, it ceases to be an ideal. The ideal exists in that moment when Phelps stands on the starting block or Biles readies herself for her floor exercise and for those transcendent minutes while they are in the midst of their events.

The doping scandals that bedevil the Olympics tarnish the ideal because drugs introduce an element of artificiality that transforms the athlete from a paragon of physical perfection to a product of chemistry. All athletes monitor their consumption of food for the sake of their physical fitness, but for their diet to include the intake of chemical hormones or other enhancements compels them into a regime of self-destructive aberrancy.

The larger scandal involves Russia’s extensive program of state-sponsored doping. Russia’s track and field team has been barred from the games, and a Russian swimmer who had previously suffered a suspension because of doping heard boos in Rio. The public knows that if the nations participating in the games are not willing to stand up for the Olympic ideal, then the games will not survive.

Athletics at the level of the Olympics, or even professional sports such as baseball or tennis, serve the purpose of inspiring belief in the value of aspiration, perseverance and drive. Before they are even aware of topics like doping or the role of money, children see only the sport itself.

Children naturally live a life of running and jumping and throwing and swimming. They are physical beings who are likely to react with awe at the accomplishments of great athletes. That’s why athletes are held up as role models. Kids have plenty of time later to learn that their heroes are only human.

Older fans are likely to see the wondrous achievements of Biles, Phelps, Ledecky and so many others with a different kind of awe. Most of us were not great athletes, but many of us participated sufficiently to appreciate the accomplishments of those at the highest levels. Older viewers watch young athletes knowing, not just that what they are seeing far surpasses anything they might have attempted in years past. They are also witnessing youth in its flower, which is part of their past. It is glorious and joyful, with a dash of melancholy mixed in for those who know that youth is fleeting. That’s why we, and all of Belize, love to see Biles soar.




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