Archive for March, 2010

Go Goofy With Google Bikes

March 11th, 2010

Google cycleOK, boys and girls,I confess that I was blissed to read that Google Maps had added cycling routes. …long, long overdue.

I followed a link from a trusted source, Momentum magazine. I ended up trying a couple of Boston routes I know. The first iteration sucks with a mighty wind.

Disclaimer: I am a Google and Adobe shop around here, my computers are packed with apps from both. I want to like Google’s goings on.

The story is that they don’t know squat about biking on this coast if my very unscientific mini-sampling is any indication. They would route me on dangerous roads and go with absurdly convoluted, multi-turn paths that would require cheat sheets as well as end up adding too much time and distance.

I’m forever adding and refining my routes. If I head somewhere new, I often use Google or Yahoo maps or Map My Ride.  Yahoo and until this week Google ignored cycling realities. The best you could get was to go to Google Maps and specify avoid highways. With all three though, I can zoom in and out, building off routes I know are direct and safe-ish.

My tests should have given Google’s new light good chances to shine. Each was from my house at the top of Fairmount Hill in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. One went to Deep Ellum in Allston (10 miles or so) and the other to Wellesley College’s Davis Museum (about 14 miles).

Those are both routes and I know and have ridden numerous times. Google Maps goofed them both up pretty badly. I sent an email to Momentum, which had solicited feedback. I got the form email back saying they’d pass along my whining.

You can map these yourself or pick some favorite urban/suburban rides you know. Maybe the handful of local Google guys here should set HQ straight.

Both routes used some funky algorithm for mapping. For example, getting to Hyde Park Avenue takes two turns. The Deep Ellum one they provided had nine and the Davis one seven. Likewise, the route to Wellesley avoided safe, broad avenues and made the middle of the route into a maze worthy of one of those airline magazine puzzles.

Worse than wasting the cyclist’s time and taxing memory with the tortured street configurations, the output spit onto several dangerous and totally unnecessary detours.

Google detourConsider ignoring the Southwest Corridor bike path (note bike) and putting the cyclist on the ever-exciting Columbus Avenue. Then there was the wild sudden right turn off Washington Street at Forest Hills after you’ve already passed the tight squeeze by the T station. The detour shown puts the cyclist on 203 twice, with a scary, nearly blind entry back onto 203 the other way to go what should have been a straight shot up Washington or onto the bike path. WTF?The other had the same three major problems. First, they had no problem making a few turns into dozens of unnecessary diversions over narrow streets with traffic signals and lights. Second,  there was no knowledge of bike paths and route, sometimes putting the biker on high car/truck routes instead. Third, they added lots of extra distance…if you could even remember all the turns.

So far, this looks like a rushed, quarter-assed job. I don’t trust it yet and will continue to plot my own routes until Google comes up to speed.

Hope Note: I returned and re-requested routes 24 hours later. They had managed to find the SW bike path, as you can see in the screen cap. I’ll return now and again to see when the untangle the spaghetti of side streets.

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Census? What Can I Win?

March 10th, 2010

Polygamy, armed drug dealers and ignorami ahead and all around marked the follow-up census I took. I went in as a hippie sort earning some eating and drinking money, but quickly found I was straight and boring in contrast to my assignments.

I was a young thing back in 1970, but deluded myself into feeling sophisticated. The job as advertised in the Boston Globe was to walk the streets carrying my clipboard of names and addresses, and wearing my federal ID on my shirt pocket.

Anyone who was in elementary school through college in America heard repeatedly that the Constitution requires a full count of all of us every ten years. What could be simpler or more common knowledge?

Well, boys and girls, not all of us paid attention when we heard it or when the census forms arrived by mail every decade or on TV or the billboards or in the posters in the barber shops. A freight car of people had no idea what it was about.

Not surprisingly, follow-up, manual census is for those who didn’t return the mail forms. It would have been a lot easier and much cheaper for all of us if folk read their mail, did their duty, and returned the post-paid forms. Then again, hungry college students would have to work in cat-food factories (another of my local jobs) or other unpleasant tasks. Follow-up census costs are a tax we all pay for the obliviousness of a quarter of us.

Don’t Knock Again

My supervisor was African-American, as were many of the follow-up workers. He had a mischievous grin as he handed me my assignment list. He must have thought it was a bit of a joke to send the blond, pinkish guy to the very nonwhite parts of Roxbury.

It turns out that at least then and likely now those most likely not to have returned their census forms were not hippie protesters. Instead, they tended to be the poorest and least educated citizens, those who simply didn’t get it and who tossed the mailer. Then in Roxbury well over 90% of my assignments were African-American.

As my mother’s son and a boomer and a Boy Scout, I grew up with duty and thoroughness. I was to do what I agreed to, I had the Romper Room ideals of Mr. Do-Bee, and I forged ahead.

On my first day though, the steel-plated apartment door thwarted my good intentions. Clipboard under arm, I pounded repeatedly on that door in the big building on Seaver Street. Sure that I heard citizens just needing to be counted, I knocked again.  An elderly woman opened a door across the hall and whispered for me to come to her. She explained that a drug dealer lived there and was as likely to shoot me and dispose of my body as not. She also suggested that if I found other metal-reinforced doors in apartment buildings to pass those by as well.

It was my education turn. I thought of dealers in college terms, like friends of friends who had Baggies of pot or some droopy haired type with granny glasses hawking window-pane acid. Armored and lethal were not words I had linked to dealers…until that moment.

My Wives

Several apartments were very familial in ways I didn’t know as well. I remember the first polygamous family I met. The father and husband to many was there and as candid as one can be. There were five wives and I think 13 children.

My pathetic, stereotypical form had boxes for single, married, divorced and widowed. There was nothing for wives 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Part of my job was to return at the end of each day with my completed forms and reports of any problems or questions. While I was the first to find this situation, my supervisor was not at all disturbed. He said the important thing was that everyone was accounted for by name, gender and age. In this case, I was to report the first wife and have the other women as unrelated adults at that address.

So there.

Wee Melodrama

Having gone to high school in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in New York City, including the Bronx, Boston surprised me in the census. We just don’t know how to do slums here. We have Bromley Heath and other projects, but they aren’t falling-down dreadful.

Likewise, many of the areas my supervisor said were slums had single-family houses. Yes, their yards might have a dozen spent beer cans, but there were yards. People had their own land and own house.

At one such home in so-so shape, the elderly Polish immigrant who came to the door seemed genuinely afraid of me. It was midday, but he fixed on my census ID as though I represented some oppressive authoritarian figure. I was probably a quarter of his age.

He answered my few questions, slowly and with repeated sweeps of my face and clipboard. He seemed to be measuring my every move and motive.

As I thanked him and left, I heard the door close and him gasp loudly. The drama unfolded as he began begging for my help. It turned out that his wife of over half a century was upstairs, she was dying of cancer, and he had locked himself out.

He had a ladder.

He said he was too feeble to climb it, but again begged, this time for me to climb to the third-floor bedroom window which he knew to be open. Then he second and third guessed himself. His wife would surely be terrified to see an unknown man entering their bedroom.

Yet, in the end, that was the only plan he could propose. I am not much for heights, but his terror made me brave enough. I lugged he heavy, wooden ladder from under the house and set to the task.

I called out to her repeatedly before I pushed up the window. As it was, that was meaningless. She was nearly deaf, hardly spoke any English, and was apparently so drugged against her pain that I could have been a centaur and she would not have been disturbed.

I simply greeted her, told her that her husband had locked himself out and would be upstairs as soon as I could let him in, and sidled down the stairs.

He was waiting on the front porch and hugged me powerfully. While he ran upstairs to his wife, I took down and put away his ladder.  He came out of the house with two dollars. I told him that not only was that totally unnecessary, but that we weren’t supposed to take anything of value from anyone.

He’d have none of it. He thought I had done him a great service. Finally, I just took the damned $2. It was clearly a lot for him, but he could not seem to bear the burden of obligation to me. We hugged again and he returned to his vigil.

I told the supervisor who said to forget it and that it never happened.


My badge-like ID was rather plain with just the census seal, my title and my name. Nowadays, I bet they will at least have picture IDs.

However, at one visit, the ID offered a brief, negative bonding moment. It came with a large family. The eldest son, 19, was there, as were numerous siblings and their mother. They were African-American and I was still white.

The mother answered the questions and seemed quite happy to complete the forms with me. Her eldest though kept circling. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more.

He poked my ID and fixed my eyes with his. “Your name is Ball,” he said, letting my last name linger between us. “My name is Ball,” he added with another pause. “We both know what that means.”

His mother was deeply embarrassed and her blush was obvious even with under her medium chocolate complexion. She told him to leave.

Yet, he was quite right. He had no way of knowing, but I did come from slave-owning families. He and I could well be related or at the least could mirror that history.

What Can I Win?

A repeated theme truly surprised me. Many of the follow-up families had no idea what the census was. Again and again, someone would ask what they stood to win if they answered my questions.

For those of us who grew up in regular public schools in middle-class towns, the census was just a once-a-decade process. Everybody knew about it.

That was not so in Roxbury. Instead, it had the glamor of a contest or a lottery. Tell the feds how many toilets were in the apartment, plus your ages and so forth, and what could you win?

Many were both disappointed and incredulous to hear it was just a counting event. Why should they bother if there was nothing in it for them.

I quickly learned not to bother talking about federal dollars for programs and number of Congressional representatives. What was in it for them? Nothing really, but if they answered, the census folk would stop showing up or calling. In the end, they were counted.

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Sassafras Safari

March 5th, 2010

Try to find filé powder in Shaw’s or Stop & Shop. I tried, along with many other chain and oner groceries in and around Boston.

As always, my quest was successful…through my demented perseverance. In my decades in Boston, I have gone from harrumphing frustration to amusement and enjoyment of the sport of it all.

As the cook around here, I am relentless in pleasing my family and guests. It isn’t always easy in a less than cosmopolitan town. Locale has come to make the ingredient hunts events for small triumphs.

Some of this is my fault for having a wide and deep repertoire  in the kitchen. I have been known to guffaw and simultaneously wrinkle my many-furrowed brow when I mention that I am the family cook. Almost invariably the non-chefs and mere dabblers and meat burners outside ask, “Oh, what kind of food do you cook?,” as though that would be reasonable chitchat. Horse feathers! It would be far easier to list what I won’t, haven’t or can’t cook.

Moreover, having lived in many parts of the country (and Japan) growing up, I got used to a variety of cuisines, groceries, and regional specialties. Then as an adult, I lived a decade in the Village in New York, two blocks from the fabulous Balducci’s produce, cheese, meat and fish haven. In lower Manhattan, virtually any foodstuff and all ingredients are available…right then…right there.

Boston and Cambridge and the area are not like that. There are many styles of restaurants. For ingredients though, you damned well better know your neighborhoods as well as your towns if you are looking for something. That’s kind of cute and even endearing in a provincial way. It’s less wonderful when you want to make a dish you know or have recently gotten a recipe for making. The hunt is on!

In its extreme, I learned this the first year we moved from the apple to the bean. That was 30 years ago and Boston has become more urbane and cosmopolitan since, but as many foods as I’ve had to track down over the years, I have no doubt we remain way behind more integrated cities with less dependency on sub-neighborhoods and cultural niches.

My first shock was fittingly enough, bean-based in Beantown. I worked down on Commercial wharf at Inc. magazine, which was a nice walk from the half of a townhouse we rented from the food and beverage manager of the Ritz. Johnny Carter of Johnny and Bonnie was a serious foodie by passion as well as profession.

He said he had never eaten feijoada, the Brazilian national dish and I figured I’d serve that as a get-better-acquainted meal. I knew I could get the sausages and pig and cow parts in the North End on the way home. I had not accounted that the key, staple ingredient — black (turtle) beans — would be a huge deal. After all, I had the North End, the Haymarket and Stop & Shop on the way home.

Well, 30 years ago, we here were even more provincial than we are now. Store after store, whether Italian specialty or chain, most did not have black beans or had ever seen them. Nowadays they are common dried and canned, but not in early 1980.

Such safaris have recurred repeatedly since, but with far greater success. That evening of the feijoada meant substituting the much inferior kidney bean, which did not have the fullness and muskiness required. However, I have learned to plan farther out. I also know which neighborhoods and which stores are likely to have this or that ingredient.

Tracking down items that would be very common in Manhattan has become a real sport and pastime in Boston. Such it was with filé.

I had a couple bottles of powdered sassafras leaves, including one a friend who visited New Orleans brought me a few years ago. When I use it that is generally for gumbo and I don’t need a lot, perhaps a teaspoon or two at the most and putting some on the table for the Southerners to sprinkle on as they might with the various levels of hot sauce I provide.

I sussed out the new Hyde Park supermarket, part of the PriceRight chain.  Every week (starting Sunday and not the herd mentality of Friday), that store has specials, including a couple of loss-leader produce items. One week it might be 97¢-a-pound grapes and the next it might be and was 99¢ okra.

Those wicked green fingers were as flawless as any I had seen or my granddad ever grew and at a great price. So, I churned out a gumbo and used my next to last allotment of filé. Hence, I went looking for replenishment.

filé powderAs a side note, I disdain those who say a gumbo needs either okra as a thickener or filé for that job and not both. I don’t know anyone from Louisiana or anywhere in the Deep South who agrees.  The word gumbo itself is from an African term for okra. You can be sure the namesake is essential. Filé though does more than thicken the broth. It has a distinctive flavor and aroma. We can taste and smell it. Gumbo is not real without both okra and filé, regardless of the fat used in the roux, the meat or fish simmered, or the broth base.

So with my absurdly, compulsively through process, I walked, biked or drove to store after store and called a few others. I learned a few things, such as:

  • the wonderful Hi-Lo Latino market in JP’s Hyde Square has myriad herbs and spices in four places, with lots of Caribbean medicinal bags of leaves or roots, but no sassafras.
  • likewise, America’s Food Basket on Hyde Park Avenue not only has a fine  selection of those ugly root vegetables, but it has a huge range of culinary and medicinal herbs and spices in three sections (no filé).
  • also, that new PriceRight has a big selection in two places in bottles and bags, but no filé.

After two dozen stores, I was amused by it all. I returned to the internet and tried multiple versions of search terms. Finally with something like “(filé powder)  gumbo Boston Cajun ingredients”I saw the winner. On the fourth page of hits, a food chat site had a comment that included the highlighted phrase “for those in the Boston area”.

Sure enough, a decent bike ride or drive of 12-plus miles took me to the source — the wonderful Marty’s in Newton. Yeah, it’s a wine/booze/beer store, but they have great mustards, chocolates and other foodstuffs. I’m sorry the Allston one disappeared in a lease fight, but one is really all I need.

Marty’s private brands many herbs and spices in a great rack of clear bags. God bless ’em. I returned with two sacks of filé. Come the next batch of perfect okra, I’m set. I make a totally pleasing gumbo.

Perhaps it’s  true that the worthwhile should be at least a little struggle so you appreciate it. I’m sure I was spoiled by the years in the Village and almost daily trips to Balducci’s. There I’d find exactly what I wanted and needed and then carry my treasures the whole two blocks north. It was satisfying without the thrill of the hunt.

Likewise, I know in Boston I have cataloged hundreds of items with their neighborhoods and stores for sources. I also know that a couple of times a year, I’ll don my virtual pith helmet and pick up my virtual net for the hunt.

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School Whirlpools

March 4th, 2010

CharybdisSelf-defensively, I avoid non-profit boards. Experience informs me they are the Charybdis, the crushing whirlpools of public life. In his goodhearted, youthful enthusiasm, Boston City Councilor John Connolly steers yet again, for the third time, through and past the whirlpool of the school budget.

Last evening, he was at the parent council  meeting at Boston Latin Academy, candidly answering those difficult questions about the bad, worse, worst money realities of our schools. He’s been through this twice in his first term as at-large councilor and chair of the education committee. He told me a couple of months ago that he was pleased to get the chair again. From here, it looks like the toughest, most demanding spot on the council.

After many years of serving on and chairing non-profit boards and committees, I had avoided the BLA council meetings. Such groups suck in and assimilate those who express even the mildest interest. Yet, yesterday I knew that John would discuss the schools’ budget and wanted to hear that.

John Connolly

As he has been every time I have heard him speaking publicly or one-to-one, John was straight ahead. (You can hear him on our schools in our Left Ahead! podcast from October.)

I’ll follow the school budget and post more on it here. A key message from last evening is that things were grim last year, will be worse this time (FY2011) and even worse for the next couple of years at least. He strongly urged parents who think their kids and schools are getting short shrift to speak up now during the budget hearings to have any chance of making the best of the situation.

Regular readers know I’ve been a Gov. Deval Patrick supporter from when he first ran for office. He likes to do the hard, progressive thing of going to the underlying problems and solutions. Yet he seemed disingenuous when he seemed to announce that schools funding was just fine in the new commonwealth budget, as in, “Provides a record high $4.048 billion in Chapter 70 funding, ensuring that no school district receives less funding than it did in FY10 and fully funding foundation.”

Of course, the unamusing joke here is that federal and local money are integral to the local schools’ funds. Moreover, the federal stimulus money was over half gone last fiscal year and will totally disappear in FY2011.

At a train of library tables, Connolly came into a frenzied group of perhaps 20 parents with Interim Headmaster Emilia Pastor. She had been long-term Headmaster Maria Garcia-Aaronson’s lieutenant before the latter retired last year.

Disclaimer: My youngest is a BLA student.

While keeping similar policies and making a few silly changes (like no posting of student notices on the brick interior walls), Pastor is favorably regarded and may take over the permanent position. At the meeting though, she was no dynamo, seeming to enjoy her long hair more than the discussions.

In fairness, those discussions were brutal and bristly though. John walked into a continuation of the big issue for the parents’ council — the inequity of funding. A couple of parents returned to numbers like $4,000-plus funding per BLA student per year, with some other schools getting nearly three times as much. Why and what can we do, they asked any and all.

It turns out that none of this, including funding formulae and numbers, was simple. While not defending city and school committee budget proposals, John  agreed that there were inequities. He noted that some of this results from the higher needs of special-education (SPED) and English language learner (ELL) non-native English speakers. After all, big cities invariably play the role of staging ground for immigrant and special-needs students.

Pastor previously noted that smaller school had larger nuts, such as fixed costs for minimal administration and maintenance. This pushes up the per-student costs.

However, there seemed no doubt to anyone that the effects of inequities fell more heavily on BLA than other schools. Last year, for example, the budget was down over 1%. That translated into, among other mandates, a requirement that each school in the system cut about $400 expenses per student.

Those around the table last night pointed out that for BLA with a $4,000+ share per student this was about 10% gross. That meant practically the loss of 5 teachers and 2 administrators. Pastor had set the stage by saying that two grades already had up to two studies per day out of seven classes as a result. In practical terms, the loss of one teacher means five fewer classes, which the school basically must replace with studies, thus less instruction. Also, the cuts meant that the school known for turning out great writers and concentrating on creative writing had to eliminate that program entirely. It had ranked at the top of the nation in English language skills and surely won’t now.

By the time Connolly arrived, the parents were stoked and related his budget summary to the unfairness of higher per-pupil schools. For example, one that had to cut $400 per student from $11,000 per-student per year would be far less hard hit in real terms.

After walking through the budget process (a future post here), John was blunt about their options. There would be fewer dollars in real and relative terms this year and next and next. He suggested those who wanted greater equity and the best for BLA attend the school-committee hearings on March 11 and 15 at English and Madison Park at 6 p.m. “If 25 BLA parents  (testify about the effects of the cuts), that’s the best chance you’ve got (of influencing the budget).

It is a fascinating zero-sum game today. The school committee huddles to produce its budget request. The mayor’s people produce a massive budget, which the city council gets on 4/14 this year. On paper at least, the city council votes it up or down by the end of 6/30.

The school committee holds several public hearings and appears up to 10 times before the city council to explain their proposals and rationales. Connolly told me that while in theory the mayor’s budget is fixed, there’s lots of concession and dickering in those two-plus months. While the council doesn’t have line-item power to delete or augment, councils banding together can have a big influence on individual lines and departments.

The schools represent the largest area of the budget — over one third. Of course it gets the most attention. Yet, it has been reduced year upon year. John made it plain that we can expect at least several more years of reductions, likely 1% or more this year on top of last budget’s drop.

He spooked the parents a bit by listing some of the proposals that have begun to appear in the local papers and city hall rumors. Each is a shocker to some constituency — think stopping free transportation for private and parochial students, dropping free T passes for high-school students, shrinking school walk zones to minimize bus costs, and shifting school capacities to equalize class sizes and reduce costs. He doesn’t know which of these will appear in the budget, but was sure these and others would be incendiary.

The schools have already give up and cut quite a bit, not without gamesmanship and theatrics.  Administrators and other have foregone raises for example. Yet, we have negotiations in the works for a new teacher’s contract, which won’t be finalized until after the budget passes. It’s a wild ride ahead, sure to leave many dissatisfied.

Oddly enough, John is not jaded nor exhausted. He’s into his third go at this. While he promises not to be as nice a guy as he was in previous budget processes, Connolly is up for another round in this most trying period.

I don’t envy him the job, particularly this year.

More posts on this to follow.

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Dukakis Calls Transit Fixes

March 2nd, 2010

The Duke feels strongly about mass transit and intercity rail. Speaking with us on Left Ahead! today, he was delightfully candid and brimming with specific fixes.

Click the player below to hear the whole show. Head to Left Ahead! or iTunes to download the mp3 file.

Among his analysis was a solution to the crippling debt of our MBTA system. The legislature and previous Republican governors had linked our mass transit’s fiscal health to a supposedly endlessly growing sales tax cut. That failed and was a terrible blunder, according to former Gov. Mike Dukakis.

He said he desperately need a workable mass transit. “If you want a first-class public transportation system, you got to pay for it,” he added. His more rational solution is adding 6¢ to 9¢ to the long stagnant gas tax, devoting it to the T and commuter rail.

In addition to stopping the every-few-year rises in fares and garnering the huge environmental and other obvious benefits of fewer cars, he sees another huge plus. Maintaining and expanding the various rail systems would create thousands of good-paying jobs at at time we need them most. He cited the 10¢ gas tax bump when he was governor. His administration, he said, “turned it into a jobs bill, which it was.”

Listen in to hear what he likes and dislikes about the current efforts. See also his co-authored piece on transportation reform that appeared in the Boston Globe. He has a very different take on the best way to manage it all, which he explains in the podcast as well.
Cross-post note: I’ll duplicate this at Marry in Massachusetts.

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