Archive for August, 2010

Still Rolling Toward Bike Parity

August 6th, 2010


Predictably, the bickering and self-righteousness from numerous angles follows Bella English’s cycling column in today’s Globe. I say it will be decades, lots more cyclists on the streets, some legislative tweaking and considerable law enforcement until that discussion isn’t contentious.

The fact is that drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and cops each and all need to know more and act right. The bicycle czarinas of Cambridge and Boston (Cara Seiderman and Nicole Freedman) have longer, wider views than we cyclists who ride regularly and volunteer with bike groups. They say with great confidence that more cyclists will:

  • Make drivers aware that bikes are on the road and need accommodation
  • Force police to enforce low-glamor infractions like drivers cutting off cyclists or driving too close, cyclists running red lights, and jaywalking pedestrians
  • Decrease motor traffic, thus encouraging even more cycling
  • Lead to more and safer bike lanes keeping everyone healthier and happier on the street

English has an unfortunate lead graph. She undercuts her dramatic illustration of the risks to cyclists from irresponsible drivers by bringing in some judgment that a pickup driver was fat.

Tempting as it is, we should avoid the cheap-shot stereotypes. Some traits and appearances are still socially safe for ridicule. We can gratuitously insult, for a few examples:

  • Fat people
  • Bald men (but never women with alopecia or even thinning hair)
  • Southerners (lumped as hillbillies and rednecks to a one)
  • Cyclists and runners wearing snug athletic shorts (Spandex® stigma)

If you’re holding forth on something important, orally or in writing, remember how those silly asides can trivialize you.

Yet in the main, this is a welcome column. She has the obligatory share-the-blame citations of reckless drivers, wheelers and walkers. Yet, she points out laws and facts that too many drivers don’t seem to know or ignore.

With the championing by Mayor Tom Menino, Boston is slowly imitating Cambridge’s more share-the-road reality. Yet, there’s tons of education to be done at the same time.

Drivers for the key group need to know that our laws make cycles vehicles, with access to most streets and roads (with exceptions like limited access highways, with those no horse, no pedestrian, no cycles cartoons). They need to drop the pretense that they are too important to pass safely (also legally required) or wait a few seconds or even a minute for a cyclist to turn safely. In that, they have to admit to themselves that they feel and exhibit the same impatience and sense of entitlement if a motor vehicle delays them. The issue there is not specifically a biker, rather than we share the roads with others.

Drivers also need to avoid trying to justify reckless endangerment claiming it’s always a cyclist fault, that they all run every red light and disobey every other traffic law. Legally, they are required to claim a lane if they need it for safety, as any slower motor vehicle driver must.

There’s the enforcement rub. Given our natures with strong self-interest, much of the behavior by all three road using types won’t change until people know the rules and cops enforce them. When we, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers, get tickets and pay fines for our cluelessness or recklessness, we’ll start acting better.

We should all be able to understand why the police don’t want to commit to real street safety. There’s little glory or excitement in writing a $1 jaywalking citation or grabbing a light-running cyclist knowing the maximum penalty is $20 (both of those fines should get big hikes). For drivers in many municipalities, the no-blood/no-ticket rule guides. Anyone opening a door into traffic without looking or j-hooking a pedestrian or cycle should get the fine and insurance bump. Those are meaningful.

Yes, more citations mean more paperwork and court appearances. Itty boo. Safety is police work too.

I’m very sure that if cops crack down on all of us for three our four months, the word of mouth alone will have terrific positive effect. Then police can go back to pretending they are all detectives ready to pursue murderers and other evil doers.

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Robbed of a Rant

August 5th, 2010

Mirabile dictu! GE so mollified me that I have no basis to complain. Not only was the recall repair scheduling seamless, the service guy showed up on time and did the deed quickly and pleasantly.

How can this be?

Having devoted the 8 a.m. to noon block this morning, I half expected a cancellation, a no-show or some other typical big-corporation trick. Honestly, I have been jaded over the decades.


  • The robo-call arrived shortly after 8. I was the next on the schedule and all I was to do was clear the top and front access to the washer and to put any pets in a room away from it.

Beware of Cat Note: We have one cat. The idea that she could or would attack anyone is risible. She has a degenerative nerve condition that requires regular drug just so she can sort of walk. She sleeps, eats and evacuates. Beware, indeed.

  • Matthew rang the doorbell at 8:38 a.m. He arrived in a GE, not contractor, truck.
  • He trotted in with his canvas bag of tools and took off the lowest front cover on the washer, using a power drill.
  • I learned that the fire hazard was a wire harness below the drum. If it was broken and came into repeated contact with the metal, it could short. Ours was not broken, implying to me that this repair was pure prophylactic.
  • The fix was to clip a small open box (maybe 1.5 by 3 inches) over the wires as a cover and buffer.
  • He was done in a few minutes and left 10 minutes after arriving.

I commented on how efficient the scheduling and actual visit had been. He said he’d been with GE service for 23 years and that “We’re really pretty efficient…for the most part.”

There I left left without a complaint. Now the residual effect is that I shall expect the same of other service folk.

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Just a Little Softer with Age

August 3rd, 2010

Two older men, each a master of his particular craft, have faded a bit, but only a bit. In their 60s and 70s, they are active and skilled, while slowing and showing.

Reggae epitome Jimmy Cliff and t’ai chi master William C.C. Chen apparently intend to go until they drop. Good on them. Yet recent glances at them were mildly stunning.

Master Chen re-entered my life, unbeknownst to him, when I decided to return to soft-form martial arts practice. I could loosen up my own stiff bones and muscles that I tighten through cycling and lifting.

Photo notes: Master Chen’s is from his site and has no copyright claim. Cliff’s is creative commons.

Crotch Gouges

Pre-kids, I studied with him when we lived in Manhattan. Subsequently, I tried a different t’ai chi style under another well regarded master in Jamaica Plain, Jwing-Ming Yang. Despite Dr. Yang’s fame and personal skills, muddling forms was counterproductive and I didn’t maintain my practice. I prefer Master Chen’s and return to the art of my youth.MasterChen

He was an elegant teacher, not in the feel-good New Age model, and one of the world’s great fighters. Unlike the hippie t’ai chi instructors, he fixed the proper positions and movements in his form with martial analogies.

For example, an elaborate four-part set of movements has you waving your hands in front of your forehead and chest. This fairy weaving at shuttle or simply four corners seems awkward without explanation. Master Chen’s application note clarified why and how.

This set was to defend from an attach above, like a horseback warrior with a weapon bearing down on you. The aim is to deflect the blow and perhaps pull the rider to the ground. With that information and his modeling the posture, where to put your hands and arms and how to move made perfect sense and stuck in mind.

Likewise, get needle at sea bottom is a graceful swoop. You bend from the waist point a hand to touch the ground, before arising with a cupped palm pointing upward. He fixed that in our memory too. You were stooping quickly to avoid an upper body strike and preparing a counter move. You shifted your hands and arms to come up in to a crotch gouge of the then vulnerable opponent.

Even if you only used t’ai chi for exercise and meditation, knowing the martial applications can turn you from a pigeon learning a rote task to a hawk.

Thus, I want to re-learn his form. Clicking around, sure enough, I found what I needed on DVD. His Tai Chi for Beginners released last year has his entire short form. There’s the movements performed triple like a language lesson, as well as continuous loop for fine-tuning when I have the 60 movements re-set in mind. Honestly, I have no stake in the video, but for $20 it’s excellent, or just shy of that because he doesn’t give his application tips.

Moreover, the triple form includes a mirrored image of each movement, using his daughter, Tiffany, and letting you view your execution either way. (By the bye, she and her brother Max are both martial artists. She’s particularly hot stuff in her father’s mold.)

Pale Imitation?

Taking the X-Acto® knife to the DVD package, I was surprised at how old and chunky Master Chen appeared on the box. Could the 75-year-old have become fat and feeble?

In the late ’70s, he was lithe and jaguar-like. While slight and short, he showed amazing skills in using his body…as well as that of students. Among our classmates were some New York Jets linemen. Apparently they had choice of t’ai chi or ballet to balance their abruptness and violent strength with finesse. Master Chen could toss them about and against walls, almost without touching them. That was no trick; he simply applied the vectors in their attacks on him, directing that energy elsewhere, along with their massive bodies, with his guiding hands.

All is well though. In the DVD, yes, he is now built more like a pepper shaker, but he retains his fluid, powerful movements. He is master still.

Surprising Softness

Likewise, Jimmy Cliff did a couple of songs on the Colbert Report last night. The link goes to The Harder They Come.

CliffWhile he is a decade younger than Master Chen, Cliff suffers a prima facie downgrade as well. In his case, his throaty voice now has a wispy quality that lacks his previous power.

I’ve never met him, but I could climb in the WABAC machine to hear and see him as well. I’ve been a reggae fan for many decades, have been to his shows, and saw the movie with his tune’s name many, many times at St. Mark’s cinema on the Lower East Side for the midnight shows.

In the movie, he sings several, including the title number. The tenor of his tenor was more fluid and aggressive. Now he seems a bit frailer and wispier.

Two on the Spectrum

Also in retrospect, I think occasionally of an ad salesman at a construction magazine. He was invariably cheerful to the point of shock. Typical of his effusiveness was his stentorian response to the rhetorical, “How are you?” He’d fairly shout, “Any day I’m not pushing up daisies is a good day!”

That’s a simple-minded and theatrical way to suggest wellness of mind and body. Yet, it’s catchy and I certainly haven’t forgotten it.

He came to mind again looking at and listening to Master Chen and Jimmy Cliff. Neither of them has such a binary attitude of being alive is eough. Each in his own art practices and pleases and perseveres.

To their credit from someone who admires the skills, they seem to continue to enjoy what they do…beyond the traditional retirement age. That’s all the better for us.

There’s an elegant symmetry in particular to returning to Master Chen’s instruction three decades hence. I have all the Jimmy Cliff albums I’m likely to though and I confess that I prefer his earlier and more powerful voice.

Perhaps each in his own way could serve as an inspiration. I rather doubt though that either thinks of himself that way. He’s just busy with his ongoing life.

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Gee, GE

August 2nd, 2010

geeKnown by all to rant, kvetch, cavil and carp, I confess that I had a pleasant and efficient interaction with a major consumer conglomerate. GE’s appliance recall center seems to get the internet and more important, get customer relations.

After receiving a panic form letter, I went to their net site and did all I needed quickly and with strong evidence they had figured out how to make the necessary happen. Lord love a duck; other companies need to imitate this.

Fire, fire, fire!

The recall on our fairly new, Zippy-style, front-loading washing machine used the required federal horror wording. Fix it or risk a house fire was the implication, as in “This voluntary recall is due to the potential for shock and fire, caused by the possible contact of a broken wire with a metal component of the washtub during operation of the machine.” Two graphs below added the softer, “GE is aware of seven instances in which flames have escaped units and caused minor smoke damage. GE is not aware of any secondard ignition, shock or personal injury.”

While this presents probably a really low risk, GE is being smart in heading off serious trouble in the unlikely event one of these washers causes a real fire. It’s entirely on the company’s nickel as well.

In and Out

Being a grump and cynic about major corporation’s competence, I also am regularly astonished at how lame their website interfaces are. I was prepared to enter and re-enter data, to dig out receipts and to create a customer account, maybe two or three times, to get anything. In fact, had I not had a higher expectation that a phone call would have required fingering through an elaborate, maybe nonsensical automated voice system before a long, long hold for a human rep, I would have gripped the handset instead of the mouse.

All was well though and let us praise GE.

It went like this:

  • I entered a sensible address —
  • The opening page had clear, reverse chronological recall choices by category (very easy to map to mine)
  • The specific recall page showed me exactly what info (serial and model numbers) I’d need and where to find them, in words and pictures
  • The only other necessary data were my zip-code numbers and an email address
  • I clicked Submit and was off to schedule an appointment
  • I entered my name, address and phone. GE had captured the serial and model numbers, checked them to verify that my machine was in the recall, and populated the appointment page so I never typed the information again.
  • The next screen showed a calendar of the coming week with three choices per day by time period. A click on one block and I was scheduled.
  • I got an on-screen confirmation with numbers to call if I needed to reschedule, as well as when it would happen. The same info arrived almost immediately by email.

My tiny complaint is that they want a four-hour commitment. That’s not only a norm, but given GE’s efficiency so far, I bet the service rep shows at the beginning of the cycle.

The person or crew will arrive with the replacement part, do the deed, and vanish like Lone Ranger and Tonto after a rescue.

Somebody or several somebodies at GE has nailed this recall/customer service thing. As a tech writer, I am constantly astonished at the many companies (and even tech writers) who have no idea about usability and sensible interfaces. They don’t or can’t think like a customer.

Far too many websites, help systems and manuals so not prepare the user. We don’t know what the come to the keyboard with to make the task happen. We find that key steps are not included (under the assumption that the computer elves have whispered any essentials to us first?). We have to re-type data they have in our related files or that we have entered moments before.

Gee, GE. Thanks for being smart and considerate.

Followup: Much to my surprise, the actual service call was on time and efficient, stealing my opportunity a self-pitying rant.

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Hidden Twitchers’ Paradise

August 1st, 2010

The Neponset River lures me again. Today, I followed up on the comments of the DCR staffer and BNAN guide, thumping around in another hidden border of Boston. This was the nearly invisible trails into the marshes across from Milton.

There was neither a rabbit in a vest nor a phantasmagorical world, but I pronounce it neat and certainly esoteric. I’m almost certain you can’t find it on your own and I won’t be too specific; ask me.

Following the second canoe trip, with its iteration of the presence of hidden natural treasures BACK THERE, I had to play urban-wild explorer. In candor, as it would in any good movie or TV script, my adventure only worked because of the serendipitous appearance of an expert.

My deus ex machina was Russell. He literally led me to the magic entryway.

Foolish I had taken Rob from the DCR at his word — get to the Butler stop on the Mattapan trolley. There are wonderful marshes around the ball field, with scores of waterfowl and more.

Well, yes, but…but…but…

I walked up to Butler, roughly four miles from home and was ready for some avian rewards. Finding the ball field, replete with two adult teams earnestly sportive, I toured the 10-foot chain link fence and then asked the locals. Well, they agreed there were mashes all about, but everything was fenced and there was no access.

Heading northeast, I came to other grand fences. There were MWRA warnings on tall, locked chain link gates and fences, all with barbed wire tops.

Ready to accept defeat, I was also ready for my personal trip savior. Russ appear like in a script, apparently taking out trash. He called to me asking if he could help. He could and did.

I learned:

  • That gate/fence combo marks the boundary of Boston/DCR land
  • 17 years ago, the guy across Bearse Avenue badgered the city into putting up the barriers to stop people from dumping or burning junk cars there, à la Franklin Park
  • Russ has asked the DCR to put up some boulders and such to make it more inviting for hikers and nature lovers like other parks
  • Birders love these marshes — about 100 acres there and another 100 behind the ball field
  • There are paths, esoteric paths, into the marshes

He then led me to one and described the circuitous route into the marsh there, the side route to the marsh behind the ball field, and where the trail is accessible directly from that field. Hot damn. I don’t even need binoculars or to show up with other twitchers at dawn.

Sure enough, much as the canoe-trip guides described it, there’s lots to enjoy here. I’m hard pressed to believe they don’t know how difficult it would be to  find these tiny, hidden trails. Maybe this is just more of this if-you-don’t-know-you-don’t-belong Bostonian stuff.

Rounding four bends, you see an out-of-place gravel road, with plants and birds left and right. gravelroad
waves Phragmites, which many conflate with cattails, are the amber waves of grain variation in these marshes.
For views of the tidal inlets as well as communion with the birds, getting to these marshes at high tide is worth the extra effort. marsh

Anyway, once you wind through the nearly bushwhack level trail to the marsh, there’s suddenly a gravel road to the river. It runs half a mile through phragmites, sea grass and wildflowers. Tidal inlets meander beside the road. Quail, flickers, and wading birds abound. The road leads to an overlook of the granite dock we explored by canoe.

The other trails to and through the marsh by the ball field are not paved but offer their own treasures. There are many more and more varieties of birds, likely because it has more flora and no roads.

This was my scouting expedition and I’ll return. This is definitely a picnic and camera locale.

On our canoe trips, Rob said that unfortunately wild youth met wildlife. Sure enough, near the entrances of the trails, Bud Lite cans formed blue detritus hither and yon. Yet, a few dozen yards in, it was the birds, bugs, plants and I. shall return.

Followup: I went to the other side a week later. It has different terrain and sights and is not as hard to find. More on that is here.