Archive for April, 2010

Surprise Prizes in the Box

April 28th, 2010

Hearing a friend tell a new story or reveal an unknown aspect is always a joy for me. Like a continually opening, expanding flower, the little extras delight me.

Perhaps it was being raised as a Southerner (more on New England in a few lines). Perhaps it’s simply my bent as a delayed gratifier. Either way, I find the relationships best that constantly increment.

I see a link to the candy-box philosophies of my sister and me. We had one distant grandmother, in Denver. She would send us presents, including from time to time a box of candies, usually a Whitman’s sampler — that big yellow box with some of this, some of that and some of the other.

candiesWhile each of us had our own box (although we shared with the maternal unit), Pat and I differed in ingestion selection. She should immediately locate and begin to devour her favorites. It was as though somehow they would disappear or go bad or something. In contrast, I took my time, starting with the least desired lumps. I would work my way over the days to the dark chocolates with the chocolate fillings. We consumed the same, but she dribbled off in pleasure while I climbed.

Unlike Forest Gump’s mother’s platitude, you did know what you were going to get, at least if you looked at the legend on the box top or had memorized the shapes and decorations on the pieces over the years.

Friendships and marriages can seem like that. The small revelations can be as endearing as the inevitable evolution. Fully defined, immutable relationships are surely among the stalest, most boring possible.

So to New England, and particularly the Boston area, it’s everything on the table in the first seven minutes of meeting. This goes beyond candor and into the realm of challenge.

Up here, it’s what Southerners disdain as bragging on yourself. That’s the private schools and university, sports while there, the pedigree including any points of family fame, and career accomplishments. Think my résumé is longer than yours; so there!

The obvious points there are identifying yourself and even claiming superiority. In a deferential society descended from the British one, it is a logical expression. Oh, but how tediously that sets the tone for any on-going relationship. Everything they think worthwhile has already been revealed.

I think of several long-term friends who express surprised delight when I mention a new-to-them aspect. Not long ago, a chum of 30 years expressed pleased astonishment when I mentioned in a group conversation that I was born in Oklahoma. If I had engaged in that résumé display, there’d be no little treasures.

The spin conversation last week with the bartender in Cambridge reminded me of that. When she mentioned that she was taking spin classes to get in shape for a charity ride, I could easily and reasonably played my I-used-to-teach-spin card. At the time though, I figured that she’d be behind that bar where the four of us regularly visited again and again. There’d be an appropriate time to add that little flavor to the conversation. Meanwhile, it was her moment to talk about her ride and her exercise.

As it happened, two of the other guys expanded the topic immediately and mentioned that they were in my spin classes. That was not quite as delayed as I would normally have it, but even with that, the unfolding details are ever so much more pleasant than talking over someone else’s turn.

A few times, I have heard a New England sort defend a demonstration of family and personal credentials as honest and necessary. I see the cultural differences, but I still prefer my way. I like the little treats that come out of nowhere.

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The Spine for Spin

April 27th, 2010

The legendary Martha lived in the air of Cambridge Common last week, in mentions of her previous life as a spin instructor. That amusing fitness subculture is a bit more obscure than yoga, but has it adherents.

Four of us were at the bar. It’s become a regular afternoon joint every week or two both because it always has a fine range of IPAs among its 30 taps and because its prices are good at a buck or sometimes two or even three less a pint.

The bartender said she was about to go on the Cape Cod MS charity bike ride with some girlfriends. She added that the first time has done the ride, she felt she might die, but she’d been taking spin classes, so she figured she was ready.

That was the cue for guys on adjacent bar stools to do what they so best — play the Greek chorus and make a harmonizing response. One noted that spin classes and road biking use muscles a little differently, that there’s no direct correspondence. Another acknowledged our fraternity here. Two of the other three had been in spin classes I led.

Leave a Puddle

They did what I think all spin instructors want to hear. They spoke of how tough I had been.

That was my turn to talk about my first spin instructor, Martha. She told her classes, “If you don’t leave a puddle under the bike, you’re dogging it.” We believed her for two reasons. First, if she figured you were using a lower resistance than she had told you for the given exercise, she’d get off her own bike-like object and crank up your dial. Second, she left a puddle. She worked at least as hard as any of us.

She subsequently went on to become a well known yogini here and then in San Jose. Along the way, she lost her h and became Marta and teaches exclusively yoga. When I knew her, I also took power yoga with her and learned that she taught step as well. She was exhausting classes three ways all day long. She probably was the fittest person in New England in the process.

I see from her new site, her former yoga boss, Rolf Gates, wrote a blurb — Marta brings all of herself to what she does and in so doing, expresses the essence of yoga with each step she takes. That’s what her spin classes were like too, plus she demanded the same of us.

Panting in Burlington

For the three of us on the stools, none was a kid when we started spin. Properly led, it’s damned tough. It did forge some bonds too, much like being on a sports team, I suppose.

We did our spin classes at the FitCorp in Burlington. When Martha dropped her classes there to focus on yoga, I carped mightily. The manager of the gym shut me up by saying there was Keiser Power Pacing training in a couple of weeks in Boston. If I wanted classes so badly, I should become an instructor. In other words, put up or shut up.

I put up and took the certification class from Kris Kory, the aging surfer type who literally wrote the Power Pacing book.  It’s certainly adolescent of me, but I have to say that style is much superior to the original, the trademarked, capital S Spinning®. The latter is by far the most common and it’s, well, kind of sissy. You might need a towel for your brow, but there’ll be no puddles.

I learned from the best. Kris was master of the theory and technique. He taught hard and snazzy stuff like slides that the other guys don’t. Before I even got to him though, I had learned what a real workout is.

We used to do spin three times a week. We got aerobic and anaerobic workouts unlike anything else I know.  I love my road biking, but it’s not as physically challenging. I’ve taken Spinning® classes as Y’s and other gyms too, to find that they are only a workout if I combine them with fast cycling to and from the gym.

A good class combines enough peer pressure to keep you pumping and a skilled enough instructor to make  you pray for the end of the hour. I think of another guy we used to work with who sometimes took Martha’s class. He was a lifter and quite strong, but wasn’t used to the relentlessness of it all. When she said to the class, “Remember to breathe,” Mike panted out, “That’s all I’m thinking about!”

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Unhidden in Hyde Park

April 22nd, 2010

A wee amble through Hyde Park revealed some sights of minor moment.


On River Street, clusters of the old lion’s tooth, dandelions reminded me of how beautiful they are…so long as they are on someone else’s lawn and out of seeding range.

I’ve been taking the English hand weeder tool to them in my new yard. There aren’t as many as in the previous house, where it was steady weeding every spring for five years to whip them.

I do so enjoy the display on the Southwest Corridor and the lawns where they thrive. Somehow though I can’t bring myself to revel in the naturalized wild garden reality of dandelions.

smackHowever, we don’t put poisons on our lawn, so we may well cook up the little batches I get here. I recall an elderly woman in my grandmother’s neighborhood who could never wait until I completed taking them out of that grass. She’d be over right after I got to my knees to beg my leavings. She made dandelion wine as well as ate the greens. I would give her a bushel or more and she never said it was too much.
Stony Brook Reservation has a diverse range of browns and black, awaiting the leaves and flowers. This one tree seemed surprisingly mouth-like in the middle. It would also be a candidate for most in need of ChapStick.

Stony Brook Cattails

Somehow, the typha (cattails) manage to keep their fluffy seedpods throughout the relentless winds and rain. It’s easy to see how these were the bedding, life-vest and papoose sling stuffing of so many people for centuries.

These guys though look like fuzzy, shocked spectators in a row, so many startled hippies just looking.

On Fairmount across from where the Grimké and Weld folk used to live, there’s a cat that surely should belong to the neighborhood watch. She’s on duty all day, every day.


Bikes and Laws and Even Drivers

April 22nd, 2010

Let the tickets rain!

I do regret missing Boston’s first bicycle summit (first things first; it was my anniversary and my wife is not the saddle straddler I am). However, I’m on a bike daily. I live the issues along with the pleasures.

Reading the BU student-paper coverage was almost like being there. That includes inaccuracies. For a few, it’s already illegal to park or block bike lanes and I believe that cyclist Eric Hunt’s death cause is undecided yet between the T’s position that he ran into the bus and some witnesses’ statements that the bus came from behind and ran him down.

Perhaps more to the points of the summit were answers from T GM Richard Davey. He gave the PR line that safety was his drivers’ top concern. That dovetails with recent comments from BPD Commissioner Edward Davis (also at the summit) that his officers drove safely and obeyed traffic laws and regulations.

Wild, Wild East

Neither is credible to anyone who travels in this area. For my most recent experiential example, I think of walking back yesterday from the HP library to see a blue and white blow through a stoplight from Fairmount onto Pierce turning right. The uniformed officer (I could see he was 20s, thin and black but didn’t bother to take the car number or record the precise time) was talking into his cell phone and clearly not paying attention. He was a typical Boston driver.

Pedestrians, drivers and cyclists alike see that daily. It’s not just plain old car drivers, but cops, ambulance drivers and bus operators seem to live in the Wild, Wild East.

Yet if you go to any public discussion, online forum or the like, you’d have to believe it’s those rampaging cyclists and god-awful pedestrians who threaten the law-obeying drivers. Poor drivers.

Physically of course, walkers and spinners don’t throw themselves into motor vehicles, causing death, dismemberment and damage. Invariably, if a car or driver gets an injury, it is a side effect from the driver hitting someone. Of course there are also those tens of thousands of deaths annually from motor vehicle collisions with each other as well as immovable objects.

Write ’em Up

To hear the bike haters tell it:

  • The disparity between cycles and cars means only that bikers need to fear and avoid motor vehicles — the it’s-only-common-sense argument of the dumb and disingenuous.
  • The real problem is not drivers, but scofflaw cyclists. Fine, arrest and jail them and we’ll again have peaceful, quiet, orderly roads occupied by kindly, wise drivers.

Our Mayor Tom Menino allegedly has Davis’ buy-in for stepped up traffic enforcement. I join every cyclist I know who applauds the idea and calls for our cops to finally, finally tame Boston drivers.

That written, I confess that I tend to use red lights as stop signs when I’m biking. I stop but I know I am safest when cars overtake me, not leave a light at the same time. Even drivers who resent any perceived advantage a mere cyclist may gain understand and concur with my reasoning when they hear it. Yet, I know that is not legal…just safer.

None of us should sympathize with drama queen cops who say their time is better spent fighting real crime than ticketing drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. I think better ways of referring to that attitude would be frigging lazy and indifferent to public safety.

We can feign concern by acknowledging a cop’s life does not mirror TV and movies. It’s not all high-speed chases, shootouts with the bad guys or brilliant detective work. Public safety is often a slog, if done right and consistently. In fact, it’s pretty much like the rest of us live and work.

If you’re a cop, show up on the streets to let the drug dealers know you’re on the job. Ticket speeders and red-light runners to get the word out that in a car, on a bike or by foot, you’re likely to get caught. Slow or stop the lawless rush to commute or get to the mall or bar and get the word out that Boston’s not the place to endanger the citizens.

It certainly is not glamorous. There’s no hero power in a $1 jaywalking ticket in Boston or a $20 fine for a cyclist or even a $200 penalty for not yielding at a crosswalk.

Attitude Reset

On the other hand, word would go far and wide quickly. More to the point, this would not be our officers’ new careers. They need only spend a few months resetting the tone for the town. The offenses would surely plunge.

Oh, it’s time police themselves to model proper, legal driving. Davis himself could use a reality and honest check here and not respond as he did to me that as cops are trained to drive safely they do.

Let the tickets rain!

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Repaying Cheap Thrills

April 19th, 2010

Jolly cyclingI found it fitting and fair to play the scaled down version of a semi driver or locomotive engineer today on my bike ride. Several little kids calling to me as I spun through the burbs pushed me back to when I was four.

Today, it was a boy in Milton yelling and waving, then a couple of them in Canton, and then two more in Stoughton. They simply wanted reaction and acknowledgment from that passing adult. I obliged, as so manytruck drivers and engineers had to me. With no horn, I could yell back and wave.

My bike is bright yellow, as was my pullover today, and I’m a big guy, but I was still surprised. A cycle seems like sort of a low-rent version of exchanging greetings. Then again, as a kid, I was close to busy two-lane highways with trucks carrying freight, logs or fruit from farms and rail yards through Virginia and West Virginia. We kids could also walk or bike to train tracks.

The picking for operators with powerful horns within reach must be considerably slimmer in the secondary and tertiary roads below Boston. Those 4-year-olds worked with the resources available.

Of course, the ideal targets of my arm pumps, yells and sincere grins were big-rig drivers or, even better, train engineers. The louder the horn and longer the note, the better. Most of those guys obliged too. They might well have been repaying their counterparts from a previous generation.

So today, a kid here and another there yelled to me and waved, and some ran toward the road. Spicing up playtime with such cheap thrills is an infectious joy. It only makes me wonder whether I should install an air horn on my road bike for such occasions.

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RMV? Renew? Ha ha ha!

April 13th, 2010


Sometimes bureaucratic incompetence is so elegant, so complete that we can only begrudgingly admire it. I doubt that our RMV actively teaches unusability to its programmers. Rather, they must hire for that inability.

Yesterday, I found out that even though I had renewed our van’s registration online a month before, it was unregistered. We had been expecting the new paper and decal, but were not concerned. I had my date and time of renewal, as well as the confirming transaction number issued at the time. The form we got in the mail even said we’d be able to use that until we got the new material.

As it turns out, the RMV can and did void the transaction without letting me know. My blunder, which was immediately obvious to the guy I spoke with after waiting on hold (praise speakerphones) for 41 minutes, was that I had entered the amount the RMV document said I owed.

Foolish I had entered the printed amount when the online renewal page commanded. The two prominent spots on the form that list it read Fee: 55.00.

Honk. Thanks for playing. That’s totally wrong.

My new phone buddy explained that there should have been a separate little piece of paper in the envelope reading that online registration was $50, that is $5 less.

Well, we had the envelope as well as the form. It had no such note.

Even if that had been there, most drivers would not be anal-retentive as I and many likely would not have noticed it. I suspect that was how the guy knew so quickly what the problem was.

He pleasantly explained that if you are off so much as a penny either way when you type in (not click a radio button or other choice) the amount, the transaction appears to go through but does not complete. Yet, the site shows a completed transaction, provides a transaction number for reference and most important does not give any error message.

Gotcha, sucker!

There is no provision to notify anyone that it voided the renewal on the QT. The next time you hear of it is when the garage where you go for an inspection informs you, or in our case if you get a new insurance quote, or probably worst, if a police office pulls you for any purpose.

Honestly, I admit that I would have contacted them in another week regardless. We had not gotten that garish sticker for the license plate. Yet, I never imagined that they screwed me in the dark.

As a long-time tech writer with considerable usability training, I did have to ask a few questions. It turns out:

  • The process will give you an error message early, but only if the vehicle and owner details it demands do not match the database.
  • Online renewal does not give you a valid price or choice of valid prices related to the vehicle they just looked up.
  • The online form will take whatever fee you enter.
  • It will accept a valid credit card number and expiration date.
  • It will reward you with a sense of accomplishment with a message that the renewal was complete, providing you with a transaction number.

The wonderful humor here of course is that they can do to you what they did to us — void the transaction after the fact without informing you in any way at any time.

By the bye, my RMV guy left me hanging until I asked how I could proceed. He told me I could try again online, but was not at all surprised when I said I was not interested in another such gamble. Then he said I could give him a credit card number and he’d do it immediately. I went that way.

At the end, he gave me an authorization number. That apparently is supposed to me more meaningful than a transaction number. I remain to be convinced and won’t really be until I get the paperwork in hand in what he said would be three to seven days.

I’ll do my anal thing here and write to the new DOT chief. I can point out:

  1. The form mailed owners needs a price in the 1) Renew online BEST OPTION at top. Even if you do intend to tuck an addendum with a separate price in, think like a citizen and consider what information you will use at renewal time.
  2. This the 21st Century, computer and internet era and all that. If you use the database to access the owner and vehicle information, also access the line for the fee, which you print on the renewal application.
  3. If you must have the owner choose the fee, make it a choice from valid ones, not a string entry.
  4. If an invalid fee entry will queer the renewal, provide the error during the process and prompt for correction, as with the vehicle information up front or the credit card entry at the end.
  5. Never, ever, ever provide a number and message indicating a complete transaction if you have not done your verification on the backend.
  6. Go to any government or commercial site and see how it’s done.

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Cycle Sensationalism

April 9th, 2010

Finally, thought I, good discussion and perhaps action had to come out of death of one Boston cyclist and near death of a second a few days apart. The 15 minutes of media coverage for the injury dropped into more like 15 seconds.

Instead of fundamental transit improvements as a possible result of these two horrific wrecks, we are left with unanswered questions and crazy bluster. Consider:

  • We don’t know whether dead biker Eric Michael Hunt slipped under a 39 bus’ wheel or the driver followed him around the corner and ran him down.
  • The T wants us to believe it was another clumsy cyclist and witnesses say Hunt was obvious as he pulled his bike from the track and was plowed into.
  • The ever-absurd Boston Herald comment crew left mostly the predictable I-drive-I’m-important-get-those-damned-cyclists-off-my-road slurs on the subject.
  • Coverage of the second wreck quickly disappeared off paper and broadcast stations, pages and sites and surely won’t return unless this one dies as well.

Instead of something meaningful to come from this death and crushing injury pair, we are left with the slow and good-intentioned efforts of the usual suspects. Those would be the city’s cycling effort under the leadership of Nicole Freedman and the support of Mayor Tom Menino, with cheers and some aid from MassBike and so forth.

They are churning right along. Their pace seems to terrify atavistic car and truck drivers and annoys those of us who cycle as well as walk, ride the T and drive with inching progress. Begrudgingly and impatiently, I admit and agree that Freedman’s efforts are obvious and steady, including painted bike lanes, street and bus racks and more.

Yet the huge discordance between cycling supporters and detractors defies the education effort so far. Hate and contempt are not too strong to describe many motorists’ attitudes toward Boston cyclists. Those are so ingrained in many that I have seen and heard them describe all cyclists as crazed scofflaws who deserve, well, injury and death.

We also-cyclists tend to idealize ourselves in contrast. We are one-fewer-car each trip. We are non-polluting and quiet. We take up far less road and make traveling quicker and easier for drivers as a result. The two to five seconds a driver may wait to pass us in town is negligible, required in overtaking any slower vehicle, and possible in contrast to a car that takes a full lane. We much more rarely hit or come close to pedestrians and other vehicles. We don’t take up parking spaces that shoppers and tourists want. Oh, and we’re staying healthier. To us, we’re so wonderful and wise.

That’s quite a disconnect and it needs education. This dreadful pair of wrecks was a clear, but blown, opportunity for the media to talk it up.

Freedman’s folk do what they can on their page, in public meetings and at places like schools…within their resources. That’s clearly not enough.

Part of this has to come through the municipal and state police. Enforcement all around would be great to begin. Drivers who pay a minimum of attention would see, for example, a huge percentage of their fellows running red lights, as well as stop and yield signs, not giving way to pedestrians in crosswalk, speeding and other infractions — often many offenses per trip. Fantasies of the stereotypical terrorizing cyclist aside, imagine the calming effect if Boston drivers were ticketed for even a tenth of their crimes. Cops might be doing little else if they enforced the laws and regulations, but wow, would that make a change for the better.

They should follow Cambridge’s lead and enforce against cyclists who blow lights and such as well, but let’s get real about where the offenses, dangers and damage are. If 100% of cyclists got tickets for 100% of their transgressions, we wouldn’t begin to see the change to a major extent.

I have the advantage of serious size and muscle. I don’t hesitate to tell a reckless driver when he or she has disobeyed laws as well as norms of common sense and civility. Many honestly are amazed to hear that they have violated one or more state laws. Far too many don’t know, for example:

  • Of primary importance, law here gives cyclists the same rights and responsibilities as drivers.
  • Cyclists must ride in the road and for forbidden from sidewalks in business districts.
  • With few exceptions such as limited-access highways, cycles belong on the road, as drivers have such exclusions as ped/cycle paths.
  • Specific law requires drivers to pass a cyclist slowly and at a safe distance, as well as make sure the way is clear before opening a door into traffic when stopped.

Search our general laws for bicycle for even more.  Most drivers would be surprised, as they would be shocked if a cop wrote them a surchargeable ticket, with its fine, points and insurance penalties.

Instead, drivers would be far smarter and better off if they understood these laws before picking up their keys.

I call shame on the Boston Channel, WBZ, the Globe, the Herald and the rest of them. These distressing wrecks give them a great chance to do their jobs and help us all.

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Wheels of Health, Wheels of Death

April 8th, 2010

HuntingtonTurnPremature and ignominious death can visit us suddenly, cruelly and diversely. Surely there are even worse forms than being hit by a city bus. Dying under the wheels of a garbage truck comes to mind.

Yet, a 22-year-old Bostonian dying when being run over by a bus is awful enough.

Update: The Herald reports that the cyclist was Eric Michael Hunt of Mission Hill, which is the area where he died.

Police and the T have not named the cyclist or revealed his other details. We know more about the 29-year-old bus driver (only two years service, but a clean record). The BostonChannel site has the available info.

Commentary, including the requisite all cyclists/drivers are incompetent cowboys, appears at Universal Hub. That URL is likely to carry any updates as well.

I’m intellectually and emotionally invested. I bike almost daily. I’ve been hit twice by inattentive drivers (one car and one truck in a little over 20 years) who were disobeying laws as well as safety and common sense. Plus, I know that dangerous Huntington/South Huntington intersection well.

Click the thumbnail above for a closer view on the Google map. Those arcs are the trolley tracks implicated in the fatal wreck yesterday.

While I have an old mountain bike, I almost always use my thin-wheel (23mm tires) road bike in and around Boston. I find that particular intersection dangerous for cars and extremely so for cycles. The tracks make cars and trucks slide over the lane and would catch all but the fattest bike tires with the slightest inattention. Turning left heading north to west there requires a dance of exquisite timing to cut at sharp angles over the tracks while watching traffic and lights from three directions for the very short opening of green lights — assuming motor vehicles do not run the reds as they often do. It’s a heart-pounding event every time.

While drivers don’t seem to know or may forget, cyclists invariably lose in a collision with a car, truck, trolley or bus. Oddly in the inevitable I-hate-cyclists comments on websites and in public, that injury, dismemberment or death reality can translate into, “Those damned cyclists better stay out of my way!”

Boston Beserker

I see versions of that frequently in Boston. Just yesterday, leaving the West Roxbury Y, heading south on Centre to turn left in one long block onto Lagrange, I was tailgated by a foolish woman blowing her horn all the way. Consider:

  • She had been stopped at the light above where I entered the road, so she had to speed to get up to me anyway.
  • I was in the left lane as required by law, making my left signal as required by law, and entering the left-turn only cut at the Lagrange light.
  • Those pesky laws require anyone approaching any other vehicle to use care and slow as necessary for safety.
  • The Lagrange light was red and she had to stop anyway.
  • There was nowhere for a cyclist to disappear to regardless of the indignation of a driver who resented sharing the road.

She used her car and horn to threaten and scold, not for any safety considerations. She made an awful face and gesture, despite her being totally wrong. She did not hit me, just, it would seem, hated me.

With the obvious exceptions (think bike paths and turnpikes), cycles and motor vehicles have the same responsibilities, rights and road access. The bike haters forget the rights part. They too often remind me of bigoted Southerners I knew in my childhood. Those folk loved to tell stories of lazy or dishonest Black people they claimed to have witnessed or heard about as proof it was OK to defame or distrust the lot of them.

Who Loses?

We cyclists are too aware of who’ll lose in a collision. Moreover, lax law enforcement and laxer obedience of traffic regulations and laws by drivers mist every ride with the scent of danger.

For yesterday’s death, initial reports are that a bike tire jammed in the trolley track and as the cyclist tried to dislodge it, the bus drove around the corner and crushed him. Even in Boston’s notorious no-blood-no-ticket environment, the likely outcome would be no charges against the driver, assuming he could not have stopped in the estimated 150 feet he had.

Of course, we can surmise that an attentive driver operating at reasonable speed would have seen the adult standing in the road and been quick enough to stop. That is merely a surmise though and it seems police and judges are like most citizens, identifying more with drivers than cyclists and erring on the motorist’s side given a choice. That’s not likely to change until we are more like an Amsterdam or other cycling cities where cops and judges bike as well as drive or instead of driving.

I remain a shameless promoter of cycling. It’s healthy. It’s fun. It’s far more scenic. It’s vastly quieter and cleaner than driving. It decreases congestion too.

I am also a claim-a-lane guy. I do stop at red lights and octagonal signs, but if I need the lane to travel safely, I take it and the driver may have to wait two to five seconds for a place to pass. Too bad, but it’s safety, it’s courtesy, it’s common sense, it’s the law.

For that infamous intersection, I’d prefer the tracks disappear and that trolleys stop at Brigham Circle, putting passengers on buses a few block earlier. Watching cars skid at that intersection and knowing the risk to cyclists tells me this needs fixing.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch for details on that dead cyclist and for any outcome other than the predictable Boston Police one of “unavoidable accident.”I expect reports will eventually clarify the initial ones of the cyclist hitting the back driver side of the bus. If the cyclist had been in front of the bus, which came around the corner and overtook him, then the bus hit the cyclist, not the other way around. The first go sure sounds like T parsing to shift responsibility.

I’m heading off today on a pretty long ride through Boston, Brookline and beyond. I expect to make it home, but it’s always an adventure.

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Loopy Loop Mail

April 4th, 2010

Loop mail? Loop mail! Who knew?

An aged, weary clerk at the Hyde Park post office schooled me yesterday. Apparently this is well known to postal workers. Loop mail seems to live in the computer age at the intersection of automation and lazy programming.

loopmailAfter paying for a priority package, I brought out the troublesome #10 envelope that had visited me three times. I figured I was due for insulting the intelligence and perhaps parentage of a JP USPS employee, but not so.

This envelope that to even the lowest level of functional wit had nothing to do with me, kept returning. Yet, to the clerk it made perfect sense…considering the system.

In early January, a woman in Tennessee had sent a letter to someone in JP with the last name Ballard. I kept getting this letter, despite:

  • Someone at 36 Goodrich writing RETURN TO SENDER. MOVED on the envelope, replete with an arrow pointing to the return address.
  • My name being Ball, not Ballard.
  • Our moving from JP to HP in August — I did not ever live on that side of JP, much less on that street.

The clerk took away my indignation by explaining that it was the computer-generated code at the bottom of the envelope routing, re-routing and re-re-routing this to me. The code, it seems, came from an envelope scan of the first four letters of the last name, the five number zip code and the numbers of the street address (but not the street name).

Under those simple-minded and approximate rules, I sort of fit the recipient…once, twice and three times. She said the best bet was to mark through the USPS code at the bottom. That should spit the envelope out of the automatic system to a human.

Armed with the term loop mail, I found several citations on the net, including a how-to-break-the-loop one here.

Clearly, computers are capable of much higher sorting and more granular discrimination. Those only work when their software tells them what to do. Instead, think of the many folk in JP with those street numbers and the same first four letters. It would seem such an algorithm would work fine in a tiny town and worse and worse the greater the population and quantity of streets.

Regardless, this was my first loop mail ever. Now I know what to do. Just in case though, the HP clerk said if it comes to me again, bring it specifically to her and she’ll call the JP clerks to straighten it out — human to human.

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Hidden HP History

April 1st, 2010

212 Fairmount Ave.

Nondescript 212 Fairmount in Hyde Park was the site of a social-activist nexus for Hyde Park, Boston and beyond — a century and one-half ago at least. Think abolitionists, suffragettes, Weld and the Grimkés (including the sisters’ half-black, former slave nephews).

Its nearby neighbors today are largely splendid Victorians. This is one of several clearly razed and replaced. No sign or wall plaque hints at the former buzz within.

In fairness to whomever redeveloped 212, that was what happened and not only in Hyde Park back then. One of Boston’s virtues is how many of its historic buildings it has kept. In contrast, in Manhattan far more important sites get that plaque if anything. However, Hyde Park was carved out of open tracts of Milton and Dedham and Fairmount Hill required either bushwhacking from the Mattapan train terminus or pushing across the bridgeless Neponset in a punt to begin settling the area. Such niceties as devoting resources to troubled houses could come later.

In fact, Hyde Park let herself go. The dangerous and dilapidated Fairmount House was totally gutted and rebuilt on Michael Tallon’s dime to become Townsend’s. The former grand inn lives only in a few pictures on the upstairs walls. Also, many of the grand meeting halls went down.

Moreover, the most known and distinguished building in this newest of Boston neighborhoods (1912) is Christ Church. While architects cite this Ralph Adams Cram building as the prototype for many other 19th Century works, it looks ugly to me and has mediocre stained glass.

Crusaders of Fairmount

Theodore Weld operated out of 212 Fairmount for the bulk of his rabble rousing career. In partnership were his wife, Angelina Grimké, her sisters, Sarah and Eliza, and eventually two of those those nephews, Archibald and Francis Grimké, They were a one-stop stop for freedom fighting for Black Americans and women.

The nephews became accomplished in their own rights, one after getting his Harvard Law degree. The lawyer, Archibald, also had a daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who became a well-known poet and writer. She too had lived at 212.

The details of the sisters’ shock at finding their S.C. brother had continued to own slaves, fathered children with one of them, and then sold his sons is here.  Typical of today’s progressives, they did something, lots, about it. Their tale and Weld’s are in that and related documents on the link above.

So, out of 212 came tracts and activists on missions. Weld and the Grimkés were together and separately active writers, orators and organizers for abolition causes and what was known then as elevation of the Negro to equality. They were as passionate about women’s rights, and the suffrage action that didn’t take place in New York came out of Fairmount Hill.

Imagine the parade of women from 212 on election day, March 7, 1870, who went to the Hyde Park poll to cast the first votes ever by American women. Those did not count toward the total, but that was an inspiration for many.

There is a splendid period mixed theater to that episode as well. Each woman going to vote symbolically had a male escort, who had presented her with a floral posy. Each man held back at the poll to let the woman advance and place her ballot in the envelope for that purpose. So, it seems under the protection of men and with flowers, the women were at once demanding and fem.

Literally to the very end, Angelina showed her toughness and right-mindedness,  the stuff of a reformer. She had been frail and then lived her last years partially paralyzed from a stroke. She continued to write and made a poignant statement in her final note — I have purposely selected my oldest clothes to be buried in, that my good ones may be given to the poor, that they may do good after I am gone.

If there are any spirits around, it would seem that 212 would still have lots of Grimké/Weld mojo.

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