Archive for the ‘Bureaucracy’ Category

Would-Be POTUS, Even in MA

January 10th, 2012

Faint rustling of papers, coupled with an occasional phone call means (ta da), yes, we’ll have a Presidential primary in the Bay State. In 42 days, we get to play too. Tuesday, March 6th is the commonwealth’s go.

I got a call today to confirm my availability. I’ll be warden at precinct 19 ward 12 again, the Woodbourne Apartments at the bottom of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

Because the field should be pretty well decided by then, we don’t have the drama of the early states, not even the quasi-plebiscite of Iowa’s GOP caucus. Yet, knowing we’re finally closing in on action is like being in a long stalled car that is at least trying to turn over.

I’ve been lucky to fill in my political dance card a bit. We have two announced candidates for Mayor in 2013. I’ve been having a good time with one of them, who actually has started his campaign. He may not be at all premature on this, if our longest-serving ever Mayor, Tom Menino, decides to give it a go for a sixth four-year term.

Otherwise, we have some time before the biggies  here. Among those will be the seminal battle for a U.S. Senate seat. Party candidates have until June 5th to make their final filings for that, and non-party ones until August 28th. Both have to turn in the initial papers four weeks earlier.  The state primary is September 6th. Of course, the MA and U.S. election is November 6th.

In other words, if we didn’t have a March Presidential-primary vote, it would seem a devil of a long time to have been sitting still.

We poll lackeys can be pretty sure of very different elections, March, September and November. They should run the spectrum from boredom to death march.

From previous elections when few showed, we would fret and exercise our well-honed blades of self-righteousness. Voting is a fundamental duty, privilege and function of democracy. How could only 11% or 14% or whatever vote? Harrumph, as the expression goes.

We make sure to have reading material. We tell voters to send their neighbors. We constantly keep running tallies per page to make end-of-night verification easier. We make sure the inspectors and clerk get plenty of breaks. We look for the possible coffee or sandwich delivery from some campaign. We pick at voters who break the rules by displaying campaign literature inside.

On the other hand, a huge turnout, as we had with the 2008 Obama/McCain election, we’re flat out. The first-time, recently moved, and befuddled voters come like phalanxes of attacking soldiers.

  • Some are absolutely positive they have always voted there, until the warden or clerk checks their address and personal information with Elections to find that they’ve always voted two miles away.
  • Some did not send in the annual voter form mailed and then checked by phone or personal visit. So they are marked *I* for inactive and require showing ID and filling out several forms.
  • Occasionally, someone has mistakenly been marked as deceased. That also requires ID, a call to Elections and more forms.
  • Commonly someone moved one, two or even five years before, had not voted since, and never notified Elections of the new address. That’s another big deal of calls, ID, forms, and the dreaded Provisional Ballot. That goes into the Clerk’s Book, all the paperwork gets its own envelope, and Elections hand-checks the documents that night to see whether the vote will count.

To their credit, most voters really want their ballot to count once they’ve made it to the poll. They’ll fill out the form, produce identification, and sit the extra two minutes on top to fill out a new voter-registration card to make sure they’ll be right in the computer the next time. First-timers, typically students, seem grateful that someone explains the process and helps them fill out the right forms to get in the system.

Sometimes though, middle-aged sorts are indignant that all-powerful, all-knowing city hall did not magically move their address or understand that even if they didn’t return the annual questionnaire that they would certainly vote in the next election. That too can have bits of humor, as when a woman began to scream that she knew for certain that she had filled in the annual form and returned it. Her honorable and brave son was with her and to his credit he admitted that she had indeed filled it out, but he decided it was too much trouble to mail it. She never apologized to me, but her look to him could have stripped paint from the door. That was not the first time he’d seen that gaze and he winked at me and smiled as they left.

We arrive on election days at 6 AM and take a full hour to set up the tables, signs, voting machine and on and on for the 7 AM. Polls close at 8 PM, but we’re not done. We have to reconcile the voter lists at the check-in and check-out tables, as well as match the machine counts exactly. That involves:

  • Pre-counts (done by hand) of all ballots that arrive
  • Counting all absentee ballots that arrive with the police officer as well as throughout the day, feeding those into the scanner after checking them in and out
  • Accounting for all spoiled ballots and provisional ones
  • Recounting all unused ballots
  • Clearing the voting machine (throughout the day if it clogs) of ballots
  • Checking ballots for write-in votes and recording each (even for Mickey Mouse) in the clerk’s book
  • Entering columns of votes (by party for primaries) for each office, candidate, ballot question, and tallying each until they come out perfectly

We are not allowed a single mistake or seemingly missing ballot. What we got over the day had to be exactly what goes back to Elections. There’s the extra fun of Elections giving us packets of ballots in 50 or 200, depending on the election, and a single one for the general or two to four sets for primaries. Down at city hall, they weigh them, which means packets can vary by four ballots and that inspector’s hand counts morning and night have to be perfect and recorded accurately. A single error can mean that 8 PM becomes 8:30 or 9 or later until counts are perfect.

There’s the removal of all signs and other materials, returning all materials into the proper one of two big boxes, plus the magic blue bag that the police officer carries separately when he or she checks in at city hall.

Maybe it’s like a circus. Someone has to set up the big tent, there are the various workers and performers, and someone has to clean up after the elephants as well as strike the tent.

Come 6 PM to 9 PM on September 6th, I’ll likely be cranky and wonder why I keep doing this. Till then though, I can’t wait.

Vroom. What Boys Like.

December 6th, 2011

A funny confluence today was a YouTube share on FB of the Waitresses’ I Know What Boys Like. That, of course, was sexual innuendo, but there’s something else boys and men like. That came in news short about Dig This in Las Vegas.

Boys and men, and some women, like or love construction equipment.

The new big-boy playground in Nevada likely appeals even more to guys than driving fast cars does. Pretty much anyone with a credit card can do that. However, watch boys and men as they stare and gape at track mounted motorized tractors (bulldozers to you) and hydraulic excavators. They’re likely to make engine noises while looking too.

At a couple points in the early 1970s when I moved to NYC, I verified that love of huge machines two ways. First, I was along-term temp at MOMA, including working with then Curator of Design Emilio Ambasz. I also got a full-time job later writing for Construction Equipment magazine.

While at MOMA, my main job was as a lackey while he brought the Italian design show (Italy: The New Domestic Landscape) to life. That was great fun getting to work with the brilliant designer and the steady flow of Italian creatives. Beyond that though, I got excited enough to pitch him an idea for making an extensions-of-man exhibit, perhaps in Central Park. I saw everything from prostheses to earth movers. People would be able to be fitted with or use these, anything that amplified or corrected human bodies.

Ambasz professed to like the concept and we spoke of it repeatedly. In the end though, he didn’t want to own it, suggested I strike out on my own and make it happen, and negotiate with manufacturers and bureaucrats to handle the logistics, particularly the huge insurance issues inherent in letting plain folk handle gigantic machinery.

While my only experience in construction had been two summers on a house-building carpentry crew during college, great writer and swell guy John Rehfield hired me for the magazine. When I asked him bluntly why he’d take someone without a civil engineering degree or heavy equipment expertise, he laughed and waved his arm toward the writers and editors. He said sagely, “I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. You’re a good writer. I can’t teach an engineer how to write.”

As the new kid, I had to handle the complex nationwide directory of equipment, bringing it from index cards to computer. I got to apply my journalism studies and newspaper experience to investigative pieces that that the engineers were not comfortable doing. Yet, John was also true to his word and taught me construction as well as sending me on job sites.

In was on the stories of dam projects and the like that I learned that heavy equipment brought out the boys in even the most experienced men. The guys who run those tower cranes, excavators, earth movers far too big to fit in the bulldozer category and more make the noises. Put them in the cabs of the most powerful machines and they are boys again, playing with construction toys, except those aren’t toys anymore.

Actually it was endearing to see and hear the tough and tanned heavy equipment operators having so much fun even after years doing it. They talked about their rigs the way kids do their toys.

As for the extensions-of-man show, John too was intrigued. He also ran through all the complexities to get it done, but thought it possible. Unfortunately, I was in my early 20s and did not have the experience or entrepreneurial bent to go after it. Then Construction Equipment moved to Chicago from across from the Daily News and I had little interest in going with it, leaving Manhattan. Shortly after, John, only in his 40s, got virulent cancer and died.

It was a good idea. Even in its very lesser form in Las Vegas, that subset is also a good idea. Next time I’m out that way, I’ll Dig This.

Fat Eddie Koch

October 15th, 2011

kochI have known Ed Koch casually and intermittently for a shockingly long time. He remains, at 87, a grand icon for us former New Yorkers. He’s still at it and got my attention recently because he and his sister wrote a diet book for little kids.

Eh? Diet book for 4 to 8 year olds?

You betcha and he both remembers what it was like to be in kindergarten and elementary school, as well as be a fat kid.

I attach a bit grainy pic I took of him in (ta da) 1979. He’s been bald for a long time and trim enough for many decades. He’s even thinner now, as commonly happens by the time people close in on 90.

The pic is a scan of a print article I did on then Mayor Koch’s program to professionalize the management of the City. He brought in private execs (forced volunteerism) to analyze and optimize programs. It worked well, saving lots of money and delivering services better as a result.

He came to mind today when I noticed that he was a guest on a BlogTalkRadio show on Fitsmi for Moms. I’ll embed the player for the show below. It’s only a half hour and is great stuff, but his phone connection is not the best and you may have to crank your speakers a bit. Highlights from the show are in text here. Click the player below to hear the show.

BTR disclaimer: The podcast I co-host is on BTR. I’m prejudiced for the service.

The book, Eddie Shapes Up, is with Pat Koch Thaler and has a forward from a certain Bill Clinton. In it, he’s non-guilt-spewing and delightfully frank as always. He talks about how his family, friends and others worked with him to change his eating and exercise habits to make him a new boy. No more chubby or stout clothes. No more girls refusing to dance with him. No more being the kid no one picked for a team.

In the interview, you can hear why I’m so fond of him. He starts by correcting the host, Linda Frankenbach. “I was fat,” he said plainly as she struggled for euphemisms. People called him “Fat Eddie.”

He speaks and writes with compassion and experience, shared with his sister then and now. He is about how tough and how possible it is for kids and their families to do the right things.

For another anecdote from way back, the first time I met the, fairly slim, Ed Koch was in the rain early one morning. I think it was 1972 or 1973. I lived in the West Village, as did he. About to get out of the rain and into the IRT at 14th Street, I got accosted by this guy standing under an apartment marquee. He said, “Good morning. I’m your congressman, Ed Koch.” Headed to work, I was still amused and stopped. No state rep had ever sought me out for anything.

He asked if there was anything about state government that bothered me and I wanted changed. Oddly enough, I don’t remember what they were, but of course, I had several answers. Then the miracle happened. As I spoke, he pulled out a little pad and a pen. He wrote down what I said and repeated it for clarification. My congressman not only asked what I thought, but he gave a damn. He cared enough to record it. You can be sure he subsequently had my vote for the House and each time he ran for mayor.

Ed Koch has long been one of the good guys.

Make Data Losers Pay

September 4th, 2011

It’s anxiety-making easy to find stories of lost and stolen personal data and intellectual property.

OK, boys and girls, one of the latest high-tech clumsiness was a repeat of an Apple employee losing the proprietary prototype of the next generation iPhone, maybe in a bar. This happened to Apple before.

Then there was the BP employee on a business trip who lost a laptop holding a spreadsheet with personal data from 13,000 oil-spill claimants. A wrap-up article includes citations of NJ BC/BS stolen laptop with data from 300,000 customers, another was the GAP losing 800,000 job applicants’ data, a hacker grabbing key SS and financial data from 226,000 customers of the Davidson Companies, and the Veterans Administration’s stolen laptop with data from 26.5 million current and past U.S. military members.

We all know how government agencies, retailers, financial institutions and even utilities demand personal data to get services and goods.They assure us both that they won’t sell our stuff — emails, phones, addresses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts ID and on and one — but we have to reveal all and (ta da) trust them.

It’s increasingly plain that we should not trust them. They have neither the technology systems nor the training in place to keep our data safe. They first rely on nothing or password systems that millions of kids among others could hack. They allow absurd amounts of complete data sets out at a time on single hard drives. Far too many move thousands or millions of sets of actionable data onto laptop hard drives, which every bozo and bozoette in the company can leave with for whatever honorable or nefarious purpose, or lose on an airplane, in a cab or at a bar. And they do.

lockedlapNearly all of the many, many cases of data exposure are human errors, both of the employees who lose the computers and other objects, and the systems people and managers who set up the safeguards. Their heads should roll. The companies and agencies should pay heavy enough fines and open disgrace that they change their ways. Applying magical thinking to data security is totally inadequate.

Think this is like using the term accident to account for inattentive or reckless driving that brings maiming or death. Sure the cops, prosecutors and judges can identify (there but for fortune…), but that is wrong, often fatally wrong, thinking. Some missteps definitely deserve punishment and prevention.

The humanity defense is not a solid one here. Nor is it in most places used. Consider how to apply, “It’s only human to…” Yeah, it’s human to take your eyes off the road, to lose things in a restaurant or bar when you’ve been drinking, to walk off an airplane totally forgetting expensive and essential goods, and for that matter, to lie, cheat, steal, rape or any of a large number of crimes and offenses you think you might get away with when no one’s paying close attention.

Actually many of our laws specifically call out human frailties. Because something valuable is not being guarded at a moment doesn’t make it up for grabs, for example.

For the deterrent factor, clamping down criminally and civilly on the schmo who puts large numbers of us at risk for direct stealing or ID theft should start immediately. One strike and you’re out. It should also cost the company a lot more than one-year subscriptions to credit-card watching services.

Yet because they’re good at protecting themselves, if not you, the managers will be harder. The facts are that lazy or dull-witted IT types and corporate managers who make security policy are culpable. Allowing huge chunks of key data affecting thousands or millions of human beings to flow out of control is asinine.

I suspect that much of the laptop-based losses fall back on that old employees-are-lazy syndrome that affects so many so-so managers. The conceit starts with a belief that if only those shiftless employees would put in anywhere near the effort and production that the sainted managers did, the company would be at least twice as wealthy. Even when measurable productivity soars beyond other countries’ and financial troubles can easily be traced to short-term management thinking, that’s the pretense. It’s delusional and destructive.

A common corollary is that employees will only do a decent amount of work if they always have to be on. Going to a distant customer or for a conference? Well then, be sure the carry a laptop with all possible applications and data you might conceivably need. Work in the airport. Work on the airplane. Work in the hotel. Work over dinner. Work. Work. Work.

The filthy secret is that what is human is overload. That leads to inefficiency of thought and output. That leads to fatigue and concomitant errors. That leads to oversights and mistakes as we try to pretend that there is no end to our multi-tasking abilities. Top being tired with a couple of drinks and, now did you leave that damned laptop in the booth?!

For managers:

  • Security policies don’t work well enough and need to be more thoroughly thought out and tested.
  • No sensitive data should leave the building without a lot better reason than it just might come in handy while you’re traveling.
  • Encryption, password and other software-based security has to be harder, even it’s inconvenient for employees short term.
  • Any data breach has to be analyzed to death, from management and IT aspects as well as the obvious employee possession ones.
  • Databases that travel should be neutered, that is separated from Social Security number and the like so that a lost or stolen hard drive is useless to others; they can be merged when the employee returns, to reflect any changes.
  • Those responsible for putting customers at risk need punishment fitting their involved incompetence.

Sorry, kiddies, it’s only human doesn’t cut…whether you’re drunk driving, drunk laptop toting, or half thinking security policies and procedures.

Greenway within Grasp

August 31st, 2011

Hail to the many who have worked for the better part of two decades for a Neponset River Greenway! Within two years, the biggest missing piece will be complete. Citizens, engineering sorts and bureaucrats alike have ‘er done.

I joined what looked like a little over a hundred in the Foley Senior Center on River St. in Mattapan last evening for another quenching trip to the well. You can grab the straight coverage and a link to the presentation at the Dorchester Reporter. You can also search at that site for excellent past coverage on this trail.

The short of it is that after many meetings and laborious compiling of complaints, suggestions and comments of Milton, Mattapan and Dorchester abutters (and numerous whiners, loudmouths and cheerleaders), the final plan looks like a winner. A large majority apparently love it. It moves from conceptual drawings to engineer docs that can aid in getting the federal money for the project as well as giving the nitpickers and Myers-Briggs S types something to hold and come to terms with happening. They are now figuring that completion of a link from Central Avenue into Mattapan Square for a ped/bike path will happen by the fall of 2013.greenplan

Click the pic for a closer view or go to the presentation for it and the earlier schemes. Key aspects are that it starts at the existing path at Central Avenue, runs between the trolley path and river, crossing from Milton to Mattapan on a new bridge by the Ryan Playground, then curves on the north of the river to a new ped/bike bridge over and around the trolley terminus and into Mattapan Square.

This came after five previous plans. After the public meetings and private comments, which the presentation recaps in concepts and numbers, the latest plan seemed to placate nearly everyone.

I came for the details, but left with a felt sense of the democratic skills involved, particularly the the DCR folk in managing a prickly, often nasty process. While he was quick and frequent to spread credit and praise, the diplomat in chief seems to be Jack Murray.

The DCR Deputy Commissioner for Park Operations is unfazed by the hostile, NIMBY and unfair-to-me types. Even at this largely jovial celebration, several dissatisfied folk spoke out and up, without rattling Murray. He’s been though a couple years of rough democracy on this and kept his cool and his smile.

In fact, several of the pols who attended and chimed in their praises (Sen. Brian Joyce and Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Russell Holmes) called the process out for its amazing transparency, flexibility, and outreach. There was passing mention of the contention involved from the beginning, and nothing but kudos for a thoroughly open process — perhaps an inspiration for the larger government, ask I?

Murray was also charmingly coy about the MBTA. It refused to allow an at-grade crossing for the trail, leading to among other expensive problems, a ped/bike bridge at Mattpan station. Murray just smiled and said “We love our sister agencies.”

So it’s worth nothing the residual complaints that bring up what the DCR and the many others involved overcame. Last evening lacked the whiffs of racism and classism noted in articles about earlier public meetings. A few of those seemed to mirror the fears that kept Weston from allowing an extension of the Minuteman path. There was only one of those last night, and of course Murray handled that well.

Despite the round praise for the proposal, one resident still wanted her say, there and in some private meeting. It was a wonder to hear. She said the trolley runs behind her house and the bike path will. Her concern was that cyclists would jump the fence and do something nefarious on her property – to her possessions or daughter. Hearing that it doesn’t happen, not in Boston or Lexington, and that bike paths add light and witnesses, making areas safer was not enough. She didn’t seem to notice that she undercut her argument by saying she feared the same of the nearby trolley. The fact that this has never been a problem did not deter her. She wanted some kind of meeting with state officials and not a public one. Meh.

Toward the end of the question-and-comment period another resident tried the it’s-only-a-start ploy. He’s surely sadly mistaken if he supposes something with this much pubic input and accommodation awaits his brilliant revisions and a restart.

Otherwise, the niggles were indeed niggling. People were pleased at the result and particularly at having been listened to. They could see their suggestions, complaints and fine-tuning before them. The Neponset River Tail Phase II is rolling right along.

Deacons Who Deviled

August 28th, 2011

Churches are scary places with scary people. Having observed or been involved in the polity and politics of them from childhood into membership and onto chairing committees and boards, I have long outgrown the idealized world of Godly sorts doing good.


None of my direct experiences equals the wanton assault on Canton, Massachusetts’ first minister, Joseph Mors (a.k.a Morse).

Biking South of Boston, I passed the main Canton cemetery many times. I toured once, finding the really old stuff on the far Southwestern corner next to the UU church. The more recent focused trip included enjoying the 18th and 19th Century New England iconography. One that caught me was Mors’ three-skulled stone.

It turns out that with good reason there’s considerable history available on the late minister. His is a tale of caution for even modern clerics.

Consider his epitaph, including:

Within this silent grave here now doth ly,
Him that is gone unto Eternity.
Who when he liv’d was by good men respected,
Although by others was perhaps rejected;
Yet that done hinder his Triumphing Joy,
With saints above where nought can him away.

I couldn’t leave that. Thanks to long-dead local historians and Google’s digital books project, I didn’t have to.

As background, what is now Canton was in terms of religious governance part of the colonial town of Dorchester, a.k.a. New Grant or Dorchester Village. Mors was the first minister there, for a decade from 1707. Subsequently, this became part of Stoughton, which seemed promiscuously to hand it pieces of itself to neighboring towns. The area where the town of Canton, including its main cemetery are, broke off in 1797, with what seems like whimsical name, suggested by macher Elijah Dunbar, on the approximate belief that it was exactly half way around the globe from the Chinese province of that name.

What Could Go Wrong?

Ministerial careers were much less linear in the colony than today or for that matter in England at the time. While Mors, born 1671 graduated from Unitarian founded Harvard, he started as his education suited, as a teacher. In Providence, he and another teacher, Amity Harris, wed. They moved to Watertown, MA, where he gathered a congregation as well as taught. The locals built a meeting house, but never got the church organized. Then in 1707, he got an offer from the future Canton, then New Village, to settle and preach.

All started out swell, and in fact, from other sources, it turns out that The Morses were both die-hard teachers and pretty open minded. The local Natives, the Ponkapoags, welcomed both of them.  They “were well loved by the Ponkapoag Indians, who appreciated the couple’s efforts to educate them and bring them spiritual comfort.”

Life was rough for all and this was a period of various epidemics as well. The Morses gave religious and school instruction, and Joseph ministered to the Ponkapoag families.

Yet, it was the demon deacons, and not the Wake Forest ones, that undid Mors.

As the astonishingly and fastidiously detailed Huntoon history of the town put it, “In those days the office of deacon was regarded with very great respect…” The ones at First Parish were maybe worse than others, it turns out, bringing charges of “false doctrine” against the new minister. “The deacons considered themselves as umpires on matters of doctrine, and, letting the greater part of the sermon slip by without interest, were on the alert to detect and remember the slightest dogmatical inaccuracy or unguarded expression which in the hurry of composition might have escaped from the pen of the minister.”

Whole Town Watching

Snidely I must note that had the locals and deacons lived in our days of sports teams and cable TV, they might have had more if not better concerns and distractions. As it happened, when the deacons were charging Mors, it was a big deal.

“This charge, preferred by one of such high standing and authority in the church, was a cause of much alarm and difficulty. Meetings and fasts were held concerning it, and the communion was suspected for more than six months. Finally, the church voted that they were not dissatisfied with the pastor on account of the allegations brought against him.”

The deacon then backed down. The minister was cleared. From our distance of three centuries, we’d suppose Mors won and was untouchable. Ha!

“The disaffected only awaited an opportunity for a fresh attack; nor was it long before an occasion offered itself.” Upon the request of local Elhanan Lyon “who seems to have been a thorn in the flesh both th Mr. Morse and his successor” was on a committee of the General Court (legislature) and called Mors before that committee with accusations.

This in turn was like a Bill Clinton thing. If you have the interest, read all of the pages of this section of Huntoon for the nasty details. The short of it is that Mors was tripped up on alleged lies. Lying being flat out for ministers, at least at the time.

The underlying issue is that some unnamed person claimed that Mors got tipsy at a dinner party in Canton. Then, when grilled about it, he said he did not overindulge. Hence, those after his scalp, and likely still angry about being rebuffed in the earlier vote of confidence, said he was lying about it.

So the minister was twice tainted, alleged to be a sot and liar. The Dorchester Village council met on the issue a few times. When it came to a vote, by a single one, he was judged unworthy of continuing his ministry.

To little effect, another council meeting of nine churches censured everyone, “requiring them to acknowledge their faults to each other.” By this time, Mors was dead in the pulpit, figuratively. The lasting stain on his was that, like Clinton, he was permanently known as a liar, or as one in the council wrote later “guilty of designed false speaking.”

Again from 304 years distance, it’s impossible to know whether in the mind of the locals it was worse that Mors might have had a glass too many or that he refused to admit it.

He lived out his remain few years in the town, but not as a minister. He had an offer to preach elsewhere, but did not accept it.

Church Traps

I know a lot of  clerics, all of whom have political tales. They tend to note there’re folk in every congregation looking for trouble. They also say congregants and sometimes staff members can be willing to seduce them. Both perils could get a cleric shipped away.

I can recall the first church feud I was aware of when I was 8 or 9. In a large Methodist church in the South, the minister’s wife ran the church in many ways. She disliked the excellent organist/choir director, perhaps because he was very popular among adults and kids alike. She was determined to oust him, which came with time constraints in those days. Methodists were in a given church for only three years before reassignment, in the tradition of the circuit riding John Wesley.

She tried to stir up animosity and got only a little traction in accusing him of this or that. Eventually though, he got real tired of her sniping and attitude. He got an offer to tour Europe as an organist and snapped it up, going on to relative fame.

In other churches, I’ve seen worse. Consider the downtown Boston UU one where I revivified the personnel committee and then ran the board for a couple of years. Two key staff members, each with her own constituency went head to head and rumor to rumor in competition for resources and congregant affection. Staff meetings got so contentious, replete with shouting and tears, that the senior minister stopped holding them and met with one member at a time.

Neither would give a millimeter and each said she was the primary reason congregants came…and pledged. The implication was if they left, the church would collapse. It was ugly, but at least no one was trying to ruin the career of the senior minister.

The devilish duo were so intractable that I finally accepted that they had to go. I convinced one that she wasn’t ever going to find what she wanted there and to look for a larger, better paying church. The other had included me on her hit list and tried to get me removed from both committees.Instead. my personnel report on the problems convinced her that she too was not going to have her way. She and her rich hubby left in a huff, moving from Boston, and prophecizing doom for the church without her talents and his money. Nothing like that occurred and she was easily replaced with a rational and pleasant person.

My minister chums note that many who work at or attend churches are both emotionally needy and feel that being there gives them righteousness points. Regardless of the motives, the Godly places can be ungodly nasty.

Safety? That’s the ticket!

August 8th, 2011

BPjollyParalyzed police are so oppressed by thoughtless lawmakers. Otherwise, for sure dudes and dudettes, they’d do the right thing.

Over at the Globe today, Peter DeMarco does his usual clear writing on bike issues. The gist is that cops in Boston and other cities around aren’t writing tickets for cycling infractions, particularly running red lights. It seems there are flaws in the laws.

Rather, there are numerous laws that make it clear that under MA law, a bicycle is a vehicle with similar rights and responsibilities for the operator as motor vehicles. (A later post or two will rip into the inane same-road-same-rules chant.) Yet the three-paragraph law (Ch. 85-Sect. 11E) that passed this January gives the cops a weak excuse not to write tickets for bikers.

The ruse is that as there is no driver’s license to suspend or revoke, the constabulary is powerless, powerless I say son, to do anything other than write warning tickets to cyclists. While listening to locals and reading comments on newspaper and websites, you’d believe all drivers are law abiding and all cyclists hellions.The BDP and other cops around feign impotence.

Unfortunately, DeMarco stops with taking them at their word and does not point out the obvious. Nor does the Globe or police or anyone seem interested in a bit of science. Counting and classifying infractions by drivers, bikers and walkers would likely make them all squirm and shuffle their feet.

We really do need to disregard these give perceptions that drive (if you pardon) the related discussions. I’ve done a few short term counts. I think I’ll do some more and publish them. This is a discussion awaiting and some official counter sorts should get involved.

First let’s note some Boston road traits:

  • Unlike many cities with long, straight runs of well-timed lights, ours are generally low speed.
  • This keeps most collisions to non-lethal levels. While it’s rare to find a local car without dings, we don’t get going fast enough to murder in most cases.
  • The sheer number of cars here so vastly exceeds bikes that the numbers of wrecks, hit-and-runs and more commonly moving violations is several orders of magnitude higher for motor vehicles.
  • There are virtually no fatalities caused by a bicycle hitting anyone or anything, and numerous ones of car, bus and truck drivers hitting cyclists.

Yet the need of urbanites to identify with fellow drivers and to believe that cyclists are far more likely to disregard traffic laws is terrifically strong. Hence, there is a cry for our cops to crack down on these scofflaws.


Back to my quasi-scientific findings, which I promise to replicate and expand a bit, I went to a few intersections, some with little bike traffic and others with a mix of motor and non-motor. What I found included with the preponderance of cars, trucks and buses, it was extremely rare (under 1%) of traffic lights and stop lights that did not have multiple driver offenses at every light change and every sign stop. These were running the light or sign, not coming to a complete stop, blocking the crosswalk or box, not stopping before the stop line, turning on red where not allowed, speeding, turning or changing lanes without a signal, turning without yielding to pedestrians, and turning from the wrong, marked lane. In general, the law-abiding drivers were the one who were not close enough to commit the moving violations. At nearly all lights, from one to five drivers ran red lights, often tailgating each other through after the change.

Cyclists tended to be guilty most frequently of slowing or stopping for the red light, then proceeding, running the light in vehicular terms. Yet, more and more cyclists are stopping and waiting, including this one. The message seems to be getting through to us. It appears a slight majority do proceed after stopping and before the light changes though.

Of course, cyclists are wont to point out that the risk to anyone from a cyclist stopping and going is tiny contrasted to a motor vehicle driver doing that. It’s still illegal tough. Moreover, it is well to a cyclist’s safety to get ahead of drivers at a light change. Drivers are much more sensible and safe overtaking cyclists where they can see and feel in charge than leaving a light at the same moment. Yet, even starting a second or two before the change to green is still illegal.

The fact seems to be that most drivers who do not also cycle seem to resent cyclists or anyone who might get to do something they cannot. Despite the vast physical differences, drivers seem from their comments to have a puerile reaction — If I can’t, they can’t! It’s not fair!

Then to the cops, let’s be plain about return on their time and effort investment. They roundly hate the $1 MA jaywalking law and the $20 bike tickets. Fair enough for pedestrians, but they know that the bike tickets can be $20 to $50, enough to make it worth the time.

In fairness, we need to be aware that tickets are time consuming, particularly if the receiver fights it and the cop is supposed to appear in court to testify. Understandably, they’d rather not mess with bike and ped tickets. They could enforce these laws, as they have in places like D.C. and occasionally, periodically, in Cambridge.

However, cops may have seen too many police dramas. Talk to a cop and they would have it they are overwhelmed with major stuff. Yet the danger of some loony or criminal shooting at or trying to stab or club a cop are very low in a given year or decade. Some officers go careers without any of that. More importantly, the vast majority of cops are not detectives bringing to the bar murderers, burglars and such. Most cops do pretty mundane looking and other work all day every day.

They largely have time to do for pay what I have done out of curiosity — go to intersections and observe moving violations. The difference, of course, is that they should then write tickets.

Virtually any intersection any day would provide one violation after another. They would quickly:

  • Fill up ticket book
  • Shock the drivers used to the no-blood-no-ticket attitude
  • Spread the word that urban cops were enforcing laws for a change
  • Make our streets safer

The pretense that tweaking the new 85-11E would make a difference is absurd. Facts include that cyclists have advantages here. While they are much more likely to be maimed or killed when hit, they don’t have licenses to lose or surchargeable insurance. They don’t have to produce their papers (license) and could give false names and addresses.

In comments on sites, a common call is for cyclists to have operator insurance and some form of license. These too are those shallow, emotional responses to someone having something those commenting do not. Plus, I try to imaging the cry over the expense and new bureaucracy in implementing such changes.

Instead, cops should enforce existing laws for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Police departments can make that happen by mandating enforcement and creating policies for their officers in presently iffy situations.

Sure, cops would whine that they’ll spend a lot more time writing tickets and appearing court. I can almost guarantee that this would be only for a few months. When the word got out that the BPD suddenly means to enforce traffic laws, violations will plunge as driver/cyclist/walker behavior changes.

I propose that we measure violations, both by study and by tickets issued. That would certainly take the bluster out of driver’s claims that they are the only ones who obey the laws. We could get a much safer city.

Cross-post: This is both legal and personal. I’ll post in Harrumph and Marry in Massachusetts.

A Home Where the Hens Roam

July 12th, 2011

I am sure there must be a heavily labored pun involved in a young Turk becoming a champion of chickens. I won’t try, but I do predict that Boston City Councilor Rob Consalvo will handle this in a moderately anal retentive, bureaucratically acceptable way. Given that live chickens are for some unfathomable reason a zoning issue controlled by the Board of Appeals, that’s the best possible outcome.


Sorry for the 2 to 3 hour delay from this morning/afternoon’s hearing. Fortunately Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin was there, along with at least one newspaper reporter. The former’s filing is here.

While the news would appear to be that Roslindale’s chicken ladies lost. They didn’t really, but they did have to continue to play the Boston Political Game. They are likely to prevail…with assistance from Consalvo.

The tale is worthy of a The Daily Show skit, including:

  • Boston regs read you can raise chickens if you get a health department permit
  • Pay your $50 for the permit application, wait, wait, get denied
  • Find that your neighborhood zoning (arbitrary with the effect of law) forbids Accessory keeping of animals other than laboratory animals (page 39)
  • Loud, smelly, feces heaping dogs and other pets are OK, but all farm animals are secretly excluded from the alleged permit system
  • Endorsements by all abutters are meaningless
  • You need to play the game of a Board of Appeals hearing to get a denial to advance

Consalvo is Councilor for the district that includes Hyde Park and a bit of Roslindale, the bit including Audra Karp and her wife, and formerly three hens. The chicken trio are in the Ashland yard of her father, who she says gets to keep the eggs although her family drops by for omelets.

You can read the detailed experience at Legalize Chickens in Boston.

At this point, I see that Consalvo (disclaimer: my district Councilor, whom I know) is going to fix it. He said he was working on doing that after the hearing today denying the couple’s zoning variance to bring the exiled hens back to Firth Road. Glum as I can be, I asked whether we were two or three years out for a solution. He figures one or less.

Of course, with machinations that would outrage a libertarian or small-government type, the underlying issues may not go away even then. First, consider what Consalvo IDs as the underlying problem — a health/animal control issue has been put under the control of the rules-are-rules types at zoning. While the board told the Globe that of course they were reasonable and that the decision on this case would occur at the hearing, the fix was in and that was so much Karp crap.

Even sympathetic Consalvo opposed the women’s appeal, as did the Mayor’s office. Both used the bureaucratic, impotent excuse that the city zoning policy put chickens in a forbidden class for that neighborhood. That’s the big duh in government.

The real solution is what Consalvo hinted at in his opposition comments. He followed Karp, who noted that she had contacted all of her neighbors within 300 feet, had letters of support from 42 of them, hundreds of petition signatures, and zero objections of anyone. Consalvo said that he had a folder with over 200 letters of support as well.

This is not some form of simple democracy.

To help understand the issue more clearly from the peculiar Boston perspective a member of Consalvo’s staff presented a sliver of Roslindale history. I searched the Globe archives (a half dozen for-fee articles; search rats, Roslindale and Samuel Wood) when I returned today to get the time frame as well. It was the early to mid-1980s. Back then, Roslindale was one of many Boston areas overrun with rats, rats and more rats.

Even though it turned out according to rat czar of the time, Sam Wood, that the pests came, played and stayed because a huge percentage of the public as well as restaurants left trash out, not in bags and in uncovered containers, the public was understandably freaked. In what might be a good ad for Scientology, many older residents are still engrammed, figuring it must have been farm animals, not themselves causing the problem. Hence, let’s oppose chickens, even if, as Karp says, she keeps the food in pest-proof containers and only sows small amounts of seed at a time.

robbwakHonestly, the folk objections to chickens — noise, food poisoning, smell and such are hooey. Reason is not the dominating factor here however. There’s the possibility of doing what Karp and her wife suggest, considering small numbers of chickens (no roosters, thank you very much) as pets.

For his part, Consalvo has applied his usual intense energy to this. He’s met with the chicken women, and with GreenRozzie and other advocates for them, as well as fielding anti-chicken types’ calls.

Had I been the chicken ladies, I would have been angry. Instead, they said they’d work the system to do what was necessary to get their hens back in town. Even after several of their neighbors praised the pair, said everyone loved seeing hens, applauded the self-sufficiency, and noting there was neither noise nor stink, Board member Michael Monahan expressed the preset tone of the body with a comment about theirs being “not the right house…not the right area.” That sounds like chicken shit to me.

Then again, Consalvo is a very reasonable guy, still energetic enough to pull on the levers of power as many times as it takes to get a prize. I’m not sure he’s going to be able to get chickens taken away from zoning, where they have absolutely no business, but I bet he’ll broker a good deal.

Already, they have been examining the rules at places like New York City that allow and regulate fowl. Apparently, Vancouver’s system is a good model for us. You’d suppose it would be simpler, but let’s recall that somehow we let regulation of agrarian remnants of New England culture come under the BRA satraps. Rules are rules. They don’t really have to think. This is only one more piece of civic silliness.

In the end, the City Council is likely to chat up other, more rational cities’ chicken procedures, pick one or parts of several we can call our own, and pass an ordinance. I’ll bet on Consalvo to get it done.

Postprandial Update: The Globe has similar coverage to UH.

Looking Beyond Blight To Find Blight

November 30th, 2010

Quite so…you see, but do not observe.

—Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia

The horror…the horror…here, that is satellite TV dishes on triple deckers. Four years ago, Boston Councilor Michael Flaherty led a failed attempt to regulate them out of sight. This year, Councilor Sal LaMattina is picking it up.


The former was an at-large Councilor, who lived in South Boston, and the latter is District 1 Councilor, from East Boston. Why the neighborhood citation one might ask? It because the tony areas, like Back Bay and Beacon Hill, have historic and architectural public committees with the power of law in practical effect to regulate the appearance of buildings.

In blue-collar areas such as Eastie and Southie, people can pretty much act like they own their homes or rent them. They can paint the shutters, if they have them, any color, not a provable previous shade. They can, ahem, let those dish companies, such as DirectTV and DishNetwork, hang the gray parabolas on the sides of the buildings. That just wouldn’t do in Louisburg Square.

(The image here I took in Hyde Park is fairly typical of low-density dish placement. Look through the wires to find the dish. More on the wires follows. )

There are several bits of unintentional humor here. These include:

  • Classism: Poorer folk tend to go more commonly for dishes, as they are cheaper to have installed and to rent than cable or DSL.
  • Irresponsibility: Painted by some as bad renters who leave an apartment without paying for the company to remove the dish, thus accruing a veritable totem of dishes on the side of a triple decker. Another way to look at this is that the installing company owns the dish and should have to remove any orphans.
  • Aesthetics: The little gray cones are much less ugly than the myriad of phone, cable and electrical lines on poles nearly everywhere in Boston. They are also very much less jarring and anti-good-architecture than the rooftop TV antennae that dominated American from the 1950s until a few years ago.

The arguments in Council run along the lines of these dishes are a blight, an eyesore. LaMattina chairs the Council’s task force on these. He told the Herald, “We’ve been waiting for this plan for too long. We want answers. We want solutions. The people of Boston deserve better. All the people of Boston.”


In a town where neighborhood pride and competitiveness abound, we see where this came from and where it can go.

These dishes are not a problem for rich folk. In a poor, high-rental area though, a duplex triple decker might be, well, decked out. Six units may each have a dish, likely on the same side of the building for best line-of-sight to the satellites. If more than one vendor is there and people leave without arranging for dish removal (and the vendors are not required to clear them), a building might have 8, 10 or more dishes eventually.

As the Council found four years ago, there is that little problem of the federal government. Municipalities can’t simply prohibit one type of telecommunications supplier without a compelling justification, particularly if an restriction interferes with reception. “Ewww. I don’t like how it looks!” doesn’t seem to fit that requirement.

Short-term, we can see if LaMatinna’s version of the task force is cleverer than the previous one. To me, it makes sense to mandate that the installer have an obligation to record its dishes and remove those no longer under contract. That would at least keep the number down.

However, there is what he calls the Satellite Trade Association. Precisely, that is the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, with headquarters in D.C. Our local guy says he is demanding an action plan from them for dealing with the clutter. How exercised they get from 400 miles away remains to be seen. I have to wonder whether the traditional Boston persuasion of speaking directly to the few vendors here and convincing them they’re better off accommodating City Hall might be the quick and lasting fix.

Meanwhile though, when you are about next look up. It works best if you’re not driving. Look at the poles and the huge, very ugly knots of cables and wires. Now look around to find the satellite dishes. Head to head, which sucks more?

Of course, we splendid great apes of the huge brains can do wonderful things with our perception. As Holmes said in fiction, seeing but not observing. Or as Harry Nilsson wrote in his The Point album, “Well, that’s it. You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”

Much as we used to elide visually over rooftop antennae, we ignore the dreadful visual pollution of poles and cables. We just don’t see them right in front of, above and around us. Strategies to get them underground and the hard sell by power, cable and phone companies to convince us that is prohibitively expensive and impractical are another post entirely.

I intend to do that post soon.

If the Council wants to tart up Boston, it should start working on how to clear out the overhead lines. That will mean working with the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches. Long-term though, going for that will do a hell of a lot more for everyone in Boston than reducing the number of dishes on triple-deckers, dishes that in all honestly are hard to see for all the wire and cable clutter from the ubiquitous poles.


Cambridge Pols in Puerile Fit

November 23rd, 2010

Yeah, we know a lot of Harvard and MIT types are too, too special for mingling with ordinary humans, on higher planes as they are. A splendidly comical report today from the Cambridge Chronicle shows that pretension disease has infected the city government.

It quotes several councilors as saying their city has stuff that others, like common Bostonians, would willingly steal. The illogic is worthy of BBC skits.

According to the paper, at last evening’s council meeting, several officials warned another, Leland Cheung, not to work too closely with Boston officials, including Mayor Tom Menino. Over objections from Councilors Ken Reeves and Tim Toomey, the body voted to let Cheung arrange a joint economic-development meeting with their equivalents in Boston.

Consider the silly positions of:

Reeves: You need a mayor in Boston who is a regional mayor, who cares about Cambridge and Newton and all the way out to Worcester. That’s not what the current stance in Boston is at all. It’s as narrow and myopic as you can get. I love Mayor Menino; if I was the mayor over there I might have turned into that, too. He is not a big-tent persona who is looking to hold hands.

Toomey: Mayor Menino is a very dear friend and colleague of mine, but I don’t see an economic benefit to the city of Cambridge by us sharing with the city of Boston what we’re doing. Mayor Menino has made it very clear that he’s enticing existing Cambridge companies to go to Boston now as it is. I’m not sure why we’re going to share what we’re doing with the city of Boston.

Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis: Cheung needs to be careful not to share trade secrets.

They seem totally unaware of several key ideas. First is that Cambridge is not a private corporation with a proprietary product — secret ingredients and recipe steps that only a few know. In fact, the nature of public government is just that, with open meetings and the right for the public to know who does what and how. They are far more like other cities around than they are different.

The pretext that the city is somehow magical and singular seems widespread, even among those willing to speak with those others consider arch-rivals on the other side of the Charles. As Cheung said at the meeting, “I’m not even sure how you would share the secret sauce of what Cambridge has. It’s just so unique to Cambridge. I don’t think it’s copy-able.”


Another thing the hush-hush triplets seem confused about is that there already is sensible cooperation. Consider an area where Cambridge has long held a lead, bicycling. In laws, facilities, public perception and on and on, Cambridge put Boston to shame for many years. Then when Menino got cycling religion and brought in a real professional bike czarina to match theirs, the two and their related biking communities work together.

You can hear Cambridge’s Cara Seiderman here and Boston’s Nicole Freedman here in Left Ahead! podcasts. They spoke of Cambridge’s lead in their own podcast and Freeman spoke gratefully of how Seiderman and others in her city helped her see and apply lessons they already learned. The idea was for better cycling regionally, safer and more pleasant for all, including drivers and pedestrians…working together on common goals as it were and as it is.

Amusingly, the tone of the meeting was one of schoolyard competitiveness. Bad old Boston surely must want what they have. If you give it to them something terrible must surely befall.

One would think the generally well-read Cantabrigians would be a tad more (a lot more) cosmopolitan. It’s great that Cheung has some wit about him and that he was able to rise above the provincialism. In the end, I suspect it will take only one or two benefits accruing to them to get them to claim this was really their idea all along.