Downtown View: Flotsam from the News

It has overwhelmed the airwaves and the New York Times: the Malaysian airplane went down without a trace. Fears have been stirred up all over the world about how outlandish it is anyway to be seated in a metal tube hurling itself forward at 400 miles per hour six miles up in the sky—anything can happen. But after you’ve considered the terrifying spectacle of it all, something else becomes apparent. The planes and ships looking for the downed airliner are distracted by debris—logs, a box lid, pieces of metal—that they first thought could be pieces of the plane. Who knew there was so much junk floating about in the ocean?

Crimea has been a revelation too. It still exists.

I still call it “The Crimea.” I’m reasonably well educated, but, frankly, I thought this place was the setting of an 1850s war that helped raise prices for the incipient farming industry in America’s middle west, since those farmers found an expanded market in Britain, which needed American grain to support its armies. (Maybe I was too specifically educated.) It also inspired Rudyard Kipling to write more poems. It turns out the place is a bit more complicated than my long-held views about it.

The news is like that. Suddenly weird things and whole new places come into view—Abkhazia is apparently a real country formed when Russia made its 2008 incursion into its western flank and slurped up this piece of Georgia into its maw. We learned about all those stans—Kyrgystan, Tajikistan—when the Soviet Union broke up.

If you miss a news cycle, you can miss a whole city. For many years, I idly wondered why no one ever talked or wrote about Danzig. I had to go to Gdansk to realize that, one day when I wasn’t looking, this Polish port city changed its name.

The main topic is only part of the news. The tidbits are also important. For example, did you already know that the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the world’s busiest bridge? Now there’s a benefit from the Christie Administration’s “traffic study.” Thanks, Guv.

And, yes, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on government snooping. But why did such a low level employee of a private company have electronic access to such sensitive government documents, i.e. MY documents? I don’t want Snowden snooping any more than I want my cell phone conversations listened into. Example: “Can you pick up some milk on your way home?” Our intelligence gathering folk have got to work on keeping things closer to the chest, as well as distinguishing what information is lawful to collect. (I’d also like the hear the long-suffering parents of this dicey young man. Don’t you think they’re probably tearing out their hair, saying, “Oh, Ned, you’ve done it again.”)

Reading books is like listening to the news. According to Charles Glass, author of “Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation,” all male heirs of the Marquis de Lafayette automatically become American citizens, awarded that honor by a grateful Maryland legislature in 1788. That’s more interesting than the story of how Americans stuck in Paris either collaborated with or conspired against the German army.

Distractions aren’t the only result of paying attention to the news. The news itself can be surprising when it involves an industry you know little about.

I’m not particularly against gambling or casinos—fine with me if people want to spend their time that way. But I had never realized that a gambler could borrow money FROM the casino to continue gambling (and losing). It happened to a man in Revere. When he couldn’t pay the money back, the Mohegan Sun casino put a lien on his house. The guy was 80 years old. He should have known better.

But the casino should have known better. The elderly man had no other assets but his house. Other Boston-area homeowners apparently are in the same pickle.

Perhaps protecting homeowners from predatory lending like this is part of the solution to the casino debate that still goes on. Martha Coakley proposed that the state bar casinos from placing liens on homes of patrons who’ve gone into debt over gambling. Why not go further and prohibit casinos from lending any money at all to patrons?

Then, instead of concerning ourselves with the news itself, we can get back to the joys of being distracted by the meaty little side-line tidbits that make news reading so much fun.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at