A tribute to Suffolk Downs

Sunday, June 30th, 2019 was the last day of horse racing at Suffolk Downs. The track was built in 1935 in a span of just 62 days by 3,000 workers. Located on the border of East Boston and Revere, it consists of a one mile long dirt course with an inner turf course. 35,000 fans watched the first day of races on July 10, 1935. Over the years, some of the world’s best thoroughbreds raced there, including Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Whirlaway, John Henry, Funny Cide, Skip Away, and Cigar. The most famous annual race was the Massachusetts Handicap, or MassCap. Cigar won this race in 1995 and 1996 as part of his legendary 16-race win streak. Other stakes races over the years had names such as the Commonwealth Stakes, Constitution Handicap, Faneuil Hall Handicap, Paul Revere Stakes, and Yankee Gold Cup. In 1966, the Beatles played before 24,000 fans on the track’s infield.

If you have not been to Suffolk Downs, you have missed out on a truly unique and unforgettable experience. No, it is not glamorous. It does not have the pageantry or elegance of Churchill Downs or Belmont. But the dirty and dingy aesthetic is part of the charm. Suffolk Downs would not be Suffolk Downs without the uneven concrete floors, wafting cigarette smoke, grumbling and swearing old men, and ripped up tickets scattered across the ground. I will never forget the feeling of awe that I experienced each time I walked across the parking lot toward the track’s entrance. The sight of horses through the chain link fence and the sound of their galloping hooves so close to downtown Boston somehow never ceased to be miraculous. Once inside the grounds, one could get a close-up view of the horses warming up and being saddled in the paddock, line up to place a bet, try to snag a spot by the finish line, head upstairs to the grandstand, or stop for a snack at the hot dog counter or the Deli Grill. TVs scattered throughout the building showed races at tracks all over the country, as well as the occasional Red Sox game. Silks of past MassCap winners hung from the ceiling of the cavernous area under the grandstand, and dozens and dozens of betting windows receded into the distance.

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Dear lady on the Orange Line…

Dear lady on the Orange Line on Wednesday morning who called me a “terrible person,” “self-centered,” and “oblivious” for sitting instead of offering my seat to someone else:

Your behavior was so rude that I am still upset, appalled, and shaken two days later.

Many, perhaps most, people will think that you are in the right, and our unpleasant interaction my fault. To recap the facts of the situation, I boarded the train when there were many vacant seats. At a subsequent stop, when there were no more vacant seats, what appeared to be a family with two adults and two children between the ages of three and ten boarded the train. I did not offer them a seat, and neither did anyone else. A few stops later, you boarded the train and began to loudly castigate me to everyone within earshot.

You were so busy insulting me that you probably did not stop to wonder about what my thought process might have been. I will try to explain:

  1. First of all, I dislike standing. It is difficult to get reading done and it is physically draining.
  2. Second, I also strongly dislike when people offer me their seat. It makes me feel embarrassed, self-conscious, and uncomfortable. I believe in the golden rule and therefore am reluctant to do things to other people that I would dislike if done to me.
  3. Third, I am very shy. It is difficult for me to initiate interactions with strangers, even for something as simple as offering my seat.
  4. Fourth, no one else in my row of seats was making any move to offer up their seats, and I did not think one seat would be particularly useful to a group of four. Three of the people would still have to stand, and most likely none of the four would feel comfortable being the one to take the seat.
  5. Fifth, I believe that as a general rule, whoever gets to a seat first is entitled to the seat. This rule is fair, simple, easy, and does not cause anyone to feel patronized, insulted, guilty, resentful, or embarrassed. Because I got on the train when there were many vacant seats, I think it was reasonable for me to believe that I had a right to sit.
  6. Sixth, no one asked to sit, so I assumed that no one wanted to. If someone had politely asked for my seat, I would happily have obliged.
  7. And seventh, on another occasion a while back, there was a dad holding his daughter on a crowded train, struggling to keep his balance, and no one offered their seat (I was standing so did not have the option of offering a seat). This gave me the impression that little kids are not considered a situation that requires offering one’s seat.

I am on the autism spectrum and struggle with social situations. What comes naturally to most people, I need to use reasoning and logic to figure out. Because no one is perfect, I occasionally judge social situations incorrectly. I found this particular situation very awkward and was not sure of the best thing to do, but I decided to err on the side of doing nothing as opposed to taking an action that had the potential to make the situation even more uncomfortable. Each and every day, I try my very best to navigate interpersonal interactions in a polite and socially acceptable way. To be so harshly attacked for what was at worst a minor social mistake is disturbing and demoralizing.

You are a bully. Anyone on the train could have offered their seat to a member of the family but you inexplicably singled me out for verbal abuse.

You accused me of sitting in a “handicapped seat,” but I was not. As I pointed out to you, there was no blue sign on my seat indicating “priority seating” for people with disabilities.

You yelled that I “need to reflect.” I have been reflecting on this upsetting experience, as you so nastily ordered, and the more that I do so, the more convinced I am that you were in the wrong. Perhaps, ideally, I should have offered my seat. But you are the one who went out of your way to viciously insult a stranger. Your reaction would have been appropriate if you had seen someone being raped or assaulted, or someone attempting to carry out a terrorist attack. To react in such a way to a person sitting and quietly reading the newspaper is preposterous.

I cannot comprehend the self-righteous attitude that would cause someone to interfere so aggressively in a situation that is none of his or her business. It is impossible to tell by looking at someone what is going on in his or her life, how badly he or she needs a seat, or whether he or she has a disability. It probably didn’t occur to you that I might be on the autism spectrum when you called me “self-centered” and a “terrible person.” For all you could tell, I might have had a physical disability that requires sitting, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. My mom has severe back problems that cause almost constant pain and make it impossible for her to sit or stand for any significant amount of time, but she appears perfectly healthy.

When I got off of the train (before the stop I was attempting to get to) I was so upset that I felt on the verge of either fainting or throwing up. I was so mortified and humiliated that I had trouble concentrating on my work. You went out of your way to cause this. If that doesn’t constitute being a terrible person, I’m not sure what does.

It is you who needs to reflect on what would cause someone to berate and insult an innocent person who is minding her own business.

Thoughts on the non-aggression principle and arrest for keeping TV

Nick Memmo of East Freetown, MA was recently arrested for keeping a TV that was delivered to his house. He had ordered a 75-inch TV valued at $1200 from Amazon and received that as well as a second, 86-inch TV valued at $2700 which he did not order. Because he did not attempt to return the extra TV, the police raided his house, arrested him, and charged him with felony larceny.

Opinions are divided on whether it was appropriate or excessive to arrest someone in these circumstances. In my opinion, the decision to arrest Memmo was outrageous.

According to the non-aggression principle, it is morally wrong to violate the rights of another person, whether by physically harming that person, interfering in their freedom, or taking away their property. In other words, the only thing that is morally wrong is to actively commit a wrong, not merely to fail to prevent or correct a wrong. Actively taking a TV that belongs to someone else is morally wrong, and constitutes larceny. But merely keeping a TV that someone else mistakenly gave you is not morally wrong, and should not be considered larceny according to any sane definition.

The delivery company (a third-party company that contracts with Amazon) messed up by bringing the extra TV to Memmo’s home. According to news reports, they attempted to contact him to get it back, and his failure to respond was a reason that factored into the decision to arrest him. But no one is obligated to correct someone else’s mistakes. It stinks for the delivery company that their driver made a mistake that cost them $2700, but that is what happens when one makes a mistake. The delivery company needs to live with the results of their mistake instead of having an innocent person arrested because he failed to help them fix their mess-up.

A letter was published in the Boston Globe about this issue which really irked me. In the letter, Beth Logan of Chelmsford wrote, “Packages delivered to my door are not necessarily mine. Last year, a package had my neighbor’s address on it. I walked four houses down, and delivered it there. I sometimes get other neighbors’ mail in my box, and I bring it to them… This is how people should behave. Any other behavior is inappropriate, unethical, and, hopefully, illegal.”

I strongly disagree with this statement and find the contemptuous, smug, and authoritarian tone of this letter to be very objectionable. To bring mis-delivered mail and packages to the correct address is nice, but not obligatory. If mail or a package is delivered to someone’s door, that person is within his or her rights to keep it. It is the responsibility of delivery companies to do their jobs accurately or absorb the results of their mistakes (e.g. paying for a second 86-inch TV); it is not the responsibility of the unintended recipient to fix the situation. If Logan wants to correct the mistakes of mail carriers and delivery people, that’s great, but she has no right to demand that other people act the same way as she does. Who on earth is she to dictate how other people ought to behave? To so harshly and contemptuously condemn people who are doing nothing wrong is what is truly inappropriate and unethical.

Stop & Shop strike: free speech or bullying?

Workers at Stop & Shop have been on strike for the past week as their union battles with the company over pay, health insurance, and pension benefits. Picketing outside the stores, workers have been trying to get customers to shop elsewhere until the dispute is resolved.

One such customer was NHL legend Ray Bourque, who had the misfortune of having to pick up a prescription at the grocery store’s pharmacy. “Shame on you,” a striking worker yelled. (The stores are being staffed by skeleton crews of temporary workers and employees from corporate headquarters.) Afterward, Bourque tweeted that he had crossed the picket line “mistakenly” and “apologized immediately” on his way out.

In my opinion, Bourque has nothing to apologize for. People have a right to shop where they want to. I’m not necessarily opposed to what the union is asking for, and in general I’m strongly in favor of higher pay for blue-collar workers such as the cashiers, baggers, deli associates, butchers, bakers, and all the employees who make grocery stores run. Supporting the union by boycotting Stop & Shop for the duration of the strike is a great thing to do. But it’s not mandatory. There is a wide array of reasons why someone would choose Stop & Shop over another grocery store – perhaps there is no other store with comparable prices or with the exact product someone needs, or perhaps there are no other grocery stores within a reasonable distance. Heck, maybe there are some people who believe the union’s demands are unreasonable and want to show their support for the company. Although showing support for the strike is great if one is so inclined, no one is obligated to pay more or sacrifice hours out of one’s day in order to do so.

The union has every right to make public statements discouraging people from patronizing Shop & Stop stores. And it’s okay for picketing workers to hold signs saying “don’t cross the line” or similar slogans. But to yell at, shame, or insult individual people for crossing the picket line crosses the line from free speech to bullying. Customers should be free to decide for themselves whether to support the union, or not. No one deserves to be yelled at, shamed, or insulted because of where they buy groceries.

Getting rid of guns at the Olympics is a terrible idea

After the New Zealand shooting, I saw an article by sports journalist Alan Abrahamson titled, “At the Olympics: no more guns,” in which he argues exactly what the title would suggest. Abrahamson says that the International Olympic Committee should get rid of shooting, which has been part of the Summer Olympics since 1896, as well as possibly modern pentathlon and biathlon as well.

“The Olympics is about something bigger than each of us and all of us,” he writes. “A higher cause, if you will. Shooting is not that.” Shooting should be eliminated, he says, “as a matter of promoting the best of humankind.”

I could not disagree more.

Getting rid of shooting at the Olympics is just another example of prioritizing safety over freedom, another example of punishing all gun owners for the actions of an individual murderer. Punishing innocent people does not represent the best of humankind and is not a higher cause that anyone should aspire to.

As for Abrahamson’s claim that the inclusion of shooting and biathlon “normalizes and glamorizes the use of firearms,” well… there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason why the use of firearms should be viewed as abnormal in any way, and there’s nothing wrong with positively portraying skilled marksmanship and responsible firearms use.

“A gun inherently is a violent instrument,” Abrahamson writes. Although acknowledging that swords and bows and arrows (which are also used in Olympic sports) can be violent instruments, he claims “a firearm is different.”

But it really isn’t. Guns, swords, and bows and arrows can all be used for evil purposes. In and of themselves, however, they do not hurt anyone. All types of weapons are simply tools that can be used for evil or good. Guns are more powerful and efficient tools than lower-tech weapons, but that does not make them morally bad or worthy of being singled out.

Abrahamson compares the potential elimination of guns to the change from shooting real pigeons at the 1900 Olympics in Paris to clay pigeons. “In the 21st century,” he writes, “we have to ask – why?” But the question that should be asked with respect to having guns in the Olympics is not “why” but “why not?” Guns do not hurt anyone by existing. Unlike in years past when real birds were killed, today’s competitive shooters do not hurt anyone by practicing their sport. The burden of proof should be on those seeking to get rid of guns, not those seeking to keep them.

Anyone who truly believes in the Olympic values of “excellence, friendship, respect and, by extension, tolerance,” would welcome the inclusion of a wide variety of sports, including shooting. Every sport is going to have detractors for one reason or another, and the beautiful thing is that no one is forced to watch or participate in a sport that he or she does not like. It is wrong for competitive shooters to be deprived of a chance to compete on a world stage, and Olympic fans such as myself to be deprived of the chance to watch amazing contests of marksmanship and skill, because of some people’s personal dislike of guns.

The right thing to do in response to a mass shooting or other tragedy is to punish and blame the person who did it, not to blame the weapon or punish innocent fans and athletes.

H/T: Firearms Policy Coalition Facebook page

College admissions scandal does not justify affirmative action

I don’t think anyone would dispute that committing fraud in order to help your child get into college is wrong. Cheating on the SATs is obviously unfair, as is and bribing coaches to designate a student as a star athlete when he or she is not. Parents and college consultants who commit fraud should be punished, as the U.S. Attorney’s office is doing by bringing charges in this case. But it is wrong to draw the conclusion, from the actions of a few dishonest people, that all rich people are privileged and undeserving of the success that they have achieved.

For example, Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham writes, “There’s no greater system of affirmative action in America than the one designed to benefit the wealthy and well-connected, especially if they’re white.” She preposterously states that “unless it all comes undone – which is maddeningly rare – a rich kid’s success is always chalked up to his or her hard work and personal sacrifice.” In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The media is filled with stories lauding people from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieved success, while people from wealthy backgrounds are stigmatized as lazy, entitled, and lacking in grit. It is assumed that their lives are nothing but ease and luxury and that their success is a result of their family connections and access to expensive lessons, summer camps, and college admissions counselors.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham argues that the college admissions scandal shows why affirmative action is needed. But this would just be replacing one form of unfairness with another. Yes, the actions of those arrested in the fraud case are wrong. And other, perfectly legal advantages that benefit rich students, such as giving preference to children of donors, are also unfair to other applicants. But why is the answer to this yet another form of discrimination? Giving preference to people simply for being non-white is equally unfair. In today’s college admissions system, those at the top and those at the bottom of the income ladder receive unfair advantages, the former group through money and social networks and the latter group through programs, admissions policies, and financial aid policies designed specifically to benefit them. It is those in the middle who are disadvantaged, with access to neither the social networks that many wealthy people have, nor the charitable and government programs for which the poor are eligible. Both of these forms of unfairness should be abolished.

A Boston Globe editorial went so far as to criticize the fact that colleges take athletic achievement into account in the admissions process. “Reserving spots for athletes is often a way of rewarding the rich,” the editorial states. “While there may be some inner-city squash or fencing or water polo teams, we’re going to go out on a limb and say there are probably not many…  Reserving spots for sailors may not officially be the same thing as reserving spots for rich people – but c’mon.” This is just insulting to students who excel at these sports. Admitting athletes in sports played by a high percentage of rich people is not the same as reserving spots for rich people – these students are being rewarded for their athletic ability, not for their family income. To dismiss fencers, squash players, polo players, and sailors as being granted admission merely because they tend to be rich minimizes these athletes’ talent and achievements.

No one chooses the economic circumstances into which they are born. It’s not as if a person is doing something wrong by being born into a rich family. Why should people who have the fortune (misfortune?) of being born to wealthy parents be punished for something over which they have no control? Yet that is exactly what happens when people treat wealthy students as inherently undeserving of success.

Why not have a system where colleges simply admit students based on merit, without regard to their race, ethnicity, or economic circumstances? Of course, merit is difficult to define, and it would be impossible to reach a unanimous decision about how the various factors – grades, test scores, musical, artistic, or athletic talent, extracurricular achievements, essay, and interview, just to give a few examples – should be weighed. But everyone should be able to agree that race has nothing to do with merit, not do social networks or parents’ decisions to donate money to a college. We should be striving to have a college admissions system that judges students on their individual merit, not one that adds one form of unfairness on top of another.

New National Civil War Memorial is exactly what America needs

In Taneytown, Maryland, plans are afoot to possibly build a brand new Civil War memorial. Sculptor and historian Gary Casteel is lobbying to build a timeline of the war  – which he hopes will become America’s first official national Civil War memorial – including 20 sculpted panels, 17 bronze statues, and 32 portraits of various significant people from the war, including Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, George Meade, and John Wilkes Booth.

It is the inclusion of Booth that has caused some controversy.

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Memorable moments from the World Alpine Skiing Championships

The 2019 World Alpine Skiing Championships wrapped up Sunday in Are, Sweden. In addition to outstanding skiing, the competition featured emotional and moving moments from skiers of a wide variety of backgrounds and at different stages in their careers. My favorites are below:

“Attacking Vikings” share the podium in downhill – These World Championships were the final competition for Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway. At 35, he has been one of the most successful and entertaining personalities in alpine skiing over the course of his 17-year career, with two Olympic gold medals and five world titles to his name. He announced his upcoming retirement on Instagram: “I’m writing this with some butterflies in my stomach, but also a smile on my face. I think that’s a good sign that this is the right decision.” In the World Championship downhill, fighting through chronic knee injuries and a hand injury, he managed to finish just 0.02 seconds behind his teammate and friend, Kjetil Jansrud. Watching the two aging “attacking Vikings” smiling and laughing atop the podium together was heartwarming. (Vincent Kriechmayr of Austria finished third.) “It was a little poetic in that we’ve shared so many hours of training together,” Jansrud said. “With all the previous wins we’ve had and to be able to be on the podium together one last time, it’s like a fairytale.” I will miss Svindal’s amazing skiing and calm, laid-back personality.

Lindsey Vonn’s triumphant retirement – After she crashed in the super G, many people doubted Lindsey Vonn would be able to compete in the downhill. Due to numerous knee injuries over the years, Vonn had announced that these World Championships would be her final competition. “I’ve got a bit of a shiner,” she told the media after the crash. “I feel like I’ve been hit by an 18-wheeler, but other than that I’m great.” Not only was Vonn able to ski the downhill, but she pulled out all the stops, took the lead, and her time held up for a bronze medal. Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia won gold and Corinne Suter of Switzerland won silver. Vonn celebrated her retirement with family, friends, boyfriend P.K. Subban, her dog Lucy and most importantly to Vonn, retired Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark, who holds the record for most career world cup wins. Vonn wore blue and yellow in honor of Stenmark, whose total of 86 wins she was trying to surpass before being derailed by injuries. He gave her a bouquet of flowers at the finish line in a rare public appearance for the reclusive athlete. Vonn called her final race “probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.” To head into retirement with a crash and a medal in her final two races perfectly sums up Vonn’s gutsy, all-or-nothing style of skiing.

Mikaela Shiffrin’s historic and gritty victory in the slalom – Mikaela Shiffrin is widely regarded as the best skier in the world, having dominated the slalom and giant slalom races for several years and beginning to notch victories in super G and downhill as well. At 23, she has amassed 55 world cup wins and is on pace to easily surpass Stenmark’s record of 86 She has demonstrated tremendous talent, hard work, and a methodical approach to training and competition that has paid dividends. One thing Shiffrin has not particularly been known for is having to overcome adversity. Until Saturday, that is. Fighting an illness that made it difficult to breathe without coughing, Shiffrin finished third in the first slalom run. But her outstanding second run propelled her to victory. In an emotional interview with NBC’s Andrea Joyce, Shiffrin explained that she and her mom were considering withdrawing from the competition, but she decided against it: “I’m out here. I want to do it and whether I win or not, I just wanted to try. And when she said ‘you don’t have to,’ then I was sure that I wanted to.” With this win, Shiffrin became the first skier in history to win the same event at the World Championships 4 years in a row. And she showed courage and determination that not everyone knew she possessed.

Back pay for federal workers is an issue of fairness

Since the government shutdown (temporarily, at least) came to an end, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced a bill – known as the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act – which would provide back pay to  contract employees just like those who work directly for the federal government.

“This is about dignity, this is about fairness, this is about justice,” Pressley said.

I agree with this statement, but not in the way Pressley meant it. True fairness would be for none of the employees furloughed during the shutdown to receive back pay.

After all, during the five weeks the federal government was shut down, neither contract employees nor federal employees were working. For them to get paid as if they were working this entire time is not fair to all of the other workers across the country – in the private sector and for state and local governments – who were not affected by the shutdown. It is even less fair to the government employees, such as TSA agents and air traffic controllers, who were forced to work without pay during the shutdown. Nor is it fair to taxpayers for the government to take their hard-earned money and use it to pay people for work they did not perform.

Yes, it is inconvenient to suddenly be furloughed from work. For people who do not have savings in the bank, it can be difficult or impossible to pay bills. But there is no right to receive continuous employment and pay from the federal government. The government has every right to discontinue, either temporarily or permanently, any federal job(s). This is disappointing for the affected employees, but it is a risk that people assume when they work for the federal government. There is nothing unfair about  it.

Additionally, for people to temporarily or permanently lose their jobs is something that happens in the private sector all the time and is not treated as a tragedy but simply part of the economy. Every day, companies go out of business, lay off workers, cut their hours, or furlough them based on changing market conditions. The vast majority of time, newspapers do not run front page articles about the suffering faced by these workers and their families. Restaurants did not offer free meals to racetrack employees when it was announced that Suffolk Downs lost out on the casino license and was going to be closing. No one has suggested paying workers at the now-closed Necco plant for all the weeks they would be working had the factory remained open. But that’s exactly what is happening for federal employees. Being out of work is a hardship for anyone. Why should government workers be exempt?

Supporters of back pay say that government employees should be compensated for the wages that they missed out on. But giving people full pay for not working goes way beyond compensating them. It is the equivalent of giving them five extra weeks of paid vacation. It is a windfall, a boon, a reward, a huge extra benefit, delivered at taxpayers’ expense and denied to the federal employees forced to work without pay as well as to all other workers across the country. Furloughed government employees got to have five weeks of free time, which they could spend pursuing their hobbies, resting, exercising, or doing anything they wanted. True, they did not choose this free time and most would likely have preferred to continue working than to miss out on their paychecks. But this does not change the fact that to pay them for this time is completely unfair to everyone else who spent the time working.