Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two New Mishears, a Borrow from the Brits, and a Bass Ackwards Usage

This post comes in the spirit of some recent word-related entries -- some of the great expressions, some of the neat ways expressions get misheard and then gain life of their own (i.e. 'all intensive purposes'), and of course my all-time favorite, Cockney rhyming slang. Here are a couple recent ones that have come my way:


(1) World wind. "I've been driving around all day between here and Rhode Island getting all my stuff together before the PCS move. I'm at this office, I'm at that office, I'm with the Personnel's been a real world wind."

(2) Taken for granite. This was sent in by a reader who teaches elementary school in, of all places, the Granite State just to our north. It came from a student essay about parents and kids, and it reminds me of the 'self of steam' essay from before. If you think about it, just like 'world wind,' it totally makes sense -- I wouldn't want to be taken for granite, either. I googled the term and apparently this is a pretty popular play on words used in sitcoms and any chance that a quarry or other rock-related organization gets to make puns.

From our cross-Atlantic mates:

Switched on. A Master Chief who has spent plenty of time doing various things with the British and Australian navies was telling me about 'switched on' today. Apparently, in the British and Australian militaries, 'switched on' is just about the highest compliment you can give someone, and it's most often used in third-person descriptions. This seems like a great expression because it summarizes the qualities you'd want in a colleague -- attention to detail, focus on the mission, dedication, etc. To the degree that I can, I'll try to use it here.

And a Bass Ackwards Usage:

My friend Nick, a reader and occasional commenter on this blog, was telling me last night about how the expression "know-it-all" is often ironically misapplied. What happens is that someone who likes to debate and discuss things gets glibly slapped with the "know-it-all" label, typically by people who don't enjoy partaking in -- or especially listening to -- said activity. The irony, of course, is that if someone were an actual "know-it-all" they probably wouldn't be so willing to explore new ideas. Think about it -- if someone just started and ended all political discussions with "The Republicans suck" or "The Democrats suck" and would brook no more debate about the parties, they would qualify much more as a "know-it-all" than someone willing to engage and banter about policy nuances, but would probably be much less likely to be labeled that way.

Nick and I weren't exactly sure where a better term could come in. A "Know-Nothing" would be a fairer characterization, but the term hearkens back to a not-so-nice nativist period in American politics. Maybe a "discuss-it-all" would be better.

But if -- like me -- you enjoy discussing new ideas, and -- like me -- sometimes get hit with the "know-it-all" label, I definitely wouldn't recommend countering with the "No, really, I'm just a discuss-it-all."

Why not?

Because it just might make you sound more like a know-it-all.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Social Capital in the Lower Highlands

Before you read this post -- especially if you're associated with a neighborhood group -- I want to steer you towards two websites:, and They both deal with the decline of social capital in America over the past several decades and ways that neighborhood and other groups are working to reverse that trend.

Last night at the UML discussion series, Taya Dixon Mullane of the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group spoke about the challenges associated with establishing and building an neighborhood group that can break down cultural barriers, raise overall levels of neighborhood trust, and generally improve quality-of-life for residents -- in short, how something like LHNG can help improve the overall level of social capital in its backyard.

Of course, there are many challenges associated with the collective-action problem of getting people to volunteer precious commodities like time and money to an organization that they don't understand, or may even feel wary towards (based on some rocky history between certain residents and an older version of LHNG that was disbanded earlier this decade).

Some of the ideas presented were as simple as raising awareness of the group among residents by flyering and word-of-mouth. The critical mass problem that groups like LHNG face is that they need higher levels of membership and activity to gain more clout in the city, which would in turn lead to more members and activity, which would in turn lead to more clout, and so on.

The best ideas presented all had this in common -- they appealed to people's self-interest.

The first such idea was one thrown out by a student (sorry, don't have names) regarding the fact that many teenagers already have community service requirements associated with group memberships (like JROTC) or for college applications. For community events like neighborhood clean-up days, the group can quickly mobilize a lot of young people by dangling out the "this will count towards your requirement" carrot. This might bring out their siblings, their parents, and their peers. Teenagers, probably more than any other group, are highly susceptible to peer influence (I hesitate to say 'pressure' here, because 'please help rake this yard' doesn't sound as ominous as 'try inhaling this, it won't hurt'). For ANY group of people, though, social proof is simply one of the most powerful forces on the human psyche. If 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong, then 50 teenagers in bright t-shirts cleaning up trash must be onto something, too. Impressionable younger siblings see it, want to participate, and potential lifelong LHNGers are made.

The second idea was thrown out by the student from Chicago with the yellow shirt who works at Starbucks (I'll try to get names next time!) It also involves the use of a group with a strong self-interest in the neighborhood, not to mention TONS of pre-existing, built-in social capital -- religious organizations. Within that neighborhood alone, you've got Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist religious sites with influential leaders. These leaders stand to benefit from heightened neighborhood organization involvement, and they can quickly mobilize people by encouraging them to get involved. No one is likely to mistake reaching out to these leaders as endorsing any one particular religion, but the obvious symbiotic relationship here is that a religious center (or at least any good one, that is) is always looking to reach out to more souls. It's a great place for the group to reach out to, in turn, because a religious service is one of the biggest concentrations of neighborhood people that already takes place on a regular basis. Letting a group like LHNG make a five-minute announcement during a service helps all the parties involved.

The third idea, introduced by Steve Hattan of the Belvidere Neighborhood Group, involves targeting the local businesses. Again, here you've got a clear case of great mutual benefit -- a local pizzeria that agrees to show up at a meeting, listen to the neighborhood's issues, and offer up some free grub for the locals gets the benefit of some great PR and advertising for a low price. Think about it -- bringing their product for folks to enjoy is not only (probably) cheaper than making a financial donation, but it's WAY more impactful for the target customers. If someone showed up at LDNA meeting, for instance, with some good-tasting food, I'm going to remember it every time I walk past the store. What might've cost them a few bucks initially could literally mean hundreds, or, for the more ravenous among us, thousands of dollars down the line. Also, just like property owners, business owners are natural stakeholders, maybe even more so. Find ways to get them involved, because as the neighborhood goes, so will they. The Lower Highlands seems like an ideal test-bed for something like this, too, because of the existing cultural barriers between many of the businesses (and their owners) and some of the residents -- for them to meet on common ground like an LHNG meeting could mean a lot more revenue for some, and a lot more exposure to foods they never knew existed for others.

A fourth idea was thrown out by too many people to point the credit in any one direction -- let people have fun. Asking people to give up their evening time with families just to attend a meeting may be too tall an order for some, but events like block parties, outdoor concerts, and public fair sorts of things bring out a much wider range of people. Stephen Greene from LDNA wrapped this strategy up succinctly: "Break bread, not heads." You can let things take off from there -- plenty of anecdotal evidence was brought up to support the idea that good old-fashioned fun is probably the best way to get people to learn their neighbors' names and build bridges from there.

To summarize, all the best ideas offered for groups to promote themselves went way beyond exhortations to neighbors to *just get involved* and tapped into the idea that great things can happen when parties who can both benefit work together towards a common aim. And again, for a lot of great examples of neighborhood social capital building, check out the Bowling Alone and Better Together sites -- those guys are the real pros.

The final chapter in this series is going to be next Tuesday (7 p.m., Room 205 at Coburn Hall), and the topic is homelessness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Proportional Representation: The Real BLUF

In military briefing, there's often a stated desire by the Commander to see the BLUF before all else. So what's the BLUF?

It's the Bottom Line Up Front.

Both at the Gallagher & Cavanaugh presentation some weeks ago, and last night at the LDNA meeting, Dr. Falhberg's explanation of the merits of a weighted, at-large Proportional Representation (PR) system was met with a few cries of "This is too complicated."

Although the way the votes are actually tallied is somewhat complicated (it involves minimum vote thresholds and mathematical voter preference-transferral formulas, which you can read about in Cambridge's city election coverage, if you so desire), the individual voter needs to only understand two things:

(1) Rather than just select up to nine candidates (as under the current system), voters would rank their choices 1-9.

There. That's it. There's nothing complicated about that. We've all been ranking things our entire lives, since we were kids first starting to understand sports, or watching the Miss America pageant on TV, or even trying to figure out what to order from Friendly's. I even cringed a little bit when I heard someone at G & C say "People in Lowell won't understand this." PR systems are used all throughout the world...and even though Cantabrigians may be far more self-important, they're not, by and large, any brighter than Lowellians. I think people here, or anywhere, are quite capable of ordering things from one to nine.

(2) A PR system would mean that a candidate could receive a smaller TOTAL number of votes but still be elected.

This is because of the effect of weighting. The current system means the first nine past the post are the winners, period. The number of votes needed to win is going to change from election to election, but let's assume in 2009 the number will be somewhere in the low four-digit range. In a PR system, that wouldn't necessarily be the case. If a candidate could just pull together a few hundred #1 votes (as is the case in Cambridge, a city with a very similar population size), he or she could win. It would then be easier for a candidate to *just* appeal to a certain group -- be it Back Centralers, UMLers, artists and poets, Cambodian-Americans, or whatever the case may be.

Now, those aren't arguments as to whether PR is *better* than first-nine-past-the-post, either in the way the election is conducted, or, more importantly, on the way it would impact the quality of our local government. They are, however, refutations to the idea that PR is too complicated, or too wacky, to implement.

I was glad to hear Dr. Fahlberg mention this argument against moving to a ward system -- it would create fiefdoms. If you don't believe this, just study the effect of incumbency on American elections at any level. All wards would accomplish, by default, is better neighborhood representation, but it would likely come at the expense of the openness of the body and the competitiveness of the elections.

I also thought it was interesting that Dr. Fahlberg mentioned the candidacy of two mid-twenty-somethings this year. Those candidates, plus Ryan Berard and another whispered candidacy from The Column, would mean an unusually high number of young people this year. Seeing today's NY Times headline today (front left, above the fold) about the way the Obama Presidency is changing African-Americans' views about race relations, among other things, I started wondering this morning if the 2008 Presidential election could lead to an Obama Effect on smaller levels across the nation.

That is, the fact that we have a person of color holding our highest elected office may change the feelings of efficacy towards -- and ownership of -- the political process among historically underrepresented groups (say, young people and people of color). With Obama winning, despite the guffaws of many who said the mythical 'they' wouldn't 'let' it happen (suggesting something both sinister and conspiratorial), the loud, resultant ripple across the political spectrum is that all are welcome to play. That can only be a good thing. Changing the way we elect candidates here is uphill fight, to say the least. A quicker, easier, shorter-term way to ensure more diversity among our elected officials would be to have more candidates of color run.

Heck, we've already seen here on the state level that it can happen. And with a nod to one late, great former Cambridge City Councilor who liked to intone that "All politics is local," we might not even have to look that far for an example of a candidate of color succeeding by running a great race, even in a majority-white constituency.

Yes, Scott Wilson did.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Petraeus-Odierno Meets Marion-Noon

This morning I walked down Bowers to Fletcher and charted a straight-away course towards the new Dunkin Donuts for some early morning caffeination. On the way, I noticed the WWI monument to the "Sons of the Acre" who paid the ultimate price between 1917-1919. The three services involved were separated by different sides of an obelisk, and I noted that the Navy figured just as heavily as the ground services back then in the casualty count. But the bigger picture realization was this -- I had probably driven past that monument over a hundred times in the past year, but had never stopped to take note.

As I'm still working my way through Tom Ricks' The Gamble, I saw an instant parallel to the newer, post-Rumsfeld, post-Casey strategy that Gen. Petraeus implemented in Iraq in 2007: If you want to get to know an area and its 'human geography' you have to get of your vehicle and you have to walk the streets. From 2003 to 2006, we failed to heed this basic Counterinsurgency (COIN) tenet and we paid the price for it -- counterintuitively, perhaps, when you expose yourself to the population more, you make yourself safer...when you hide behind blast walls, you not only fail to protect that very same population, but you also put your forces at greater risk.

So when I made my way over to the National Park Visitor Center for the Lowell public art tour led by Paul Marion and Rosemary Noon, this was definitely the first thing on my mind -- in military-ese, we were getting ready for a dismounted patrol on our all-weather personnel carriers (i.e. we were going to walk on foot). For a fuller description of the sites visited, I would have to steer you to the summary that I'm guessing will soon makes its way to, but the big-picture lesson is about the value of getting around on foot. If you're trying to understand an area, be it Baghdad, Herat, or your own city or town, this is the way to go.

It might be the only way you learn, for instance, that there's an official Ed McMahon bench near MCC -- you would never see that from your car.

The 'intel' worth putting out here is that there will be more of these walks coming up now that the warm-weather season is here. There'll be formal 'tour' sort of things led by experts -- like today (outdoor art) or last week (Civil War), as well as informal stuff just designed to get out, move around, and explore the sights, smells, and sounds.

It was also great to see a Lowell Police Officer on a bicycle patrol on Market Street Friday night. Besides the greener, more cost-efficient side to those types of patrols, they're in many ways far more effective than vehicle patrols. I guess it all depends on your objective (takes away the high-speed chase possibilities), but a bicycle puts the police officer in a more up-close, personal light vis-a-vis the population he or she is protecting. It's also far more effective in quickly responding to quality-of-life type crimes and infractions -- it can go into a lot of nooks and crannies that a car can't, and it's a heckuva lot easier to get out of.

I'm sure the business owners with the sidewalk seats, who are constantly trying to get skateboarders and cyclists to stop flying into their patrons (as has actually happened at Centro, more than once) are taking note.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Investing in Your Own Backyard

"Where have all the flowers gone?" -- Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson (or Joan Baez, take your pick)

The following passage was taken from the LDNA blog by way of the CCC blog:

For several years now, the City has paid for installation of hanging flower baskets and their care in the Downtown. The flowers benefit the downtown by adding to the street ambience and help in promoting local business and retail efforts. However, due to budget constraints, the City will no be able to continue this annual $13,600. cost without help. The City will continue its commitment to the installation and removal of the baskets, but the cost of the plants for the 140 baskets, which are installed in early spring, will be difficult to cover. The Center City Committee has agreed to be a $250.00 sponsor, but a lot of other donations are needed as well. Anyone interested in helping is asked to contact Anne Barton or Diane Tradd at the Department of Planning & Development. 978-446-7200.

Businesses can stand to benefit from this because of the publicity and goodwill, but I think private citizens can benefit by donating as well. Think of it this way -- the hanging flowers downtown are a beautiful public good that whoever lives, works in, or even just visits Lowell in the warm-weather months can enjoy. The pocket change you can part with to help support this initiative is an investment in your own community, the same way that your own lawn care purchases would create a positive externality for all your neighbors.

To cite Anne-Marie Page's activism dogma, you need to appeal to hearts, brains, and wallets -- in that order. With that in mind, if it's not in your heart to donate to a cause like this, scratch your brain to think about how something like hanging flowers might benefit stakeholders like yourself, assuming you own or rent a home or business in or near downtown.

Speaking of people helping downtown, I noticed a very healthy complement of volunteers working in and around Mack Plaza this morning as part of the city-wide cleanup. Some areas -- notably the Victorian Gardens and brick archway thing that runs up to Merrimack along Dutton -- were particularly nasty at the beginning, and particularly nicer by noon.

I know "broken windows" has its detractors, but in this case I'll put my own instinct and common sense ahead of their stats -- when litter is left to just pile and pile up, the quick takeaway for any casual observer is that no one cares about the area. Not only is he or she then more likely to add to the problem, but the overall attractiveness of the area takes a wallop.

Kudos to everyone who was out there today -- besides the social capital and trust that activities like that engender among participants, they give the place a great facelift, which comes at a great point in time -- seeing New England "come alive" every time the hibernation season ends is one of the things I missed most when I left here in 2003, and is one of the many reasons I don't ever plan to leave the area. The easily observable, palpable *buzz* seen downtown yesterday and today -- the two first truly nice days of the season -- definitely bodes well for days ahead.

Friday, April 24, 2009

World History, Locally

Did you know that a major international conflict ended within an hour's drive of your home?

Work today brought me up to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, sandwiched on an island between Kittery, ME and Portsmouth, NH. (Photos forthcoming, though I don't have them as of now).

Two of the best highlights included:

(1) an unguided tour of what was the area's largest military brig from the early 20th century until 1974, the Portsmouth Naval Detention Center, featured most famously in the Jack Nicholson movie "The Last Detail."

(2) A visit to the "Portsmouth Treaty Room" in Bldg. 86 at the Shipyard, where the Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905. By luck, we stumbled on a retired Master Chief COB (that's Chief of the Boat, the senior-most enlisted member of a submarine's crew) who gave us a lengthy tour of the treaty room and filled it with historical anecdotes. As it turns out, Teddy Roosevelt chose Portsmouth because the quaint New England backdrop would put Russian and Japanese diplomats away from the spotlight of more high-profile places like Washington, D.C. or New York. In addition, air conditioning had not been invented, so Portsmouth's late-summer climate was deemed much more favorable for the visitors than the muggier alternatives. '

The Russo-Japanese War was hugely important in the way the rest of the 20th century unfolded, as a non-European country effectively *checked* a European colonial power, and the spirit of Japanese militarism that gained steam throughout the years leading to WWII took hold.

And if you're ever out on bar trivia night and there's a question about the only sitting U.S. President to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the answer is "Theodore Roosevelt" and he earned it for events that took place in your backyard, figuratively speaking.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Would You Like a G & T to go with that Twist of Logic?

Here's a five-fer of real-live gems, all heard this week:

(1) I can't believe the MPs on base pulled me over for speeding AGAIN. I mean, those guys are just on such a power trip!

Why is it that any time anyone in any position of authority enforces any rule of any kind, the person against whom it's being enforced resorts back to this most entry-level version of Psychoanalysis. Even kids do it from a young age: "I can't believe our substitute teacher just told us to sit down and be quiet. I mean, this guy is like so totally on a power trip!"

The irony, of course, is that most rules exist to protect us from ourselves -- if these crazy MPs didn't enforce the speed limit, we'd continue to lose servicemembers at a rate higher than that from the Global War on Terror...oops, Cliff, I meant to say "Overseas Contingency Operation." Still, the "power trip" line falls on the original-trenchant matrix somewhere just to the southwest of "The best thing about the Super Bowl is the commercials." I don't think people will ever stop saying it, but I'll challenge it where I can.

(2) I totally saw you the other day and you didn't say hi.

This sentence could be the basis for a 100-level Logic course -- with some brand new syntax, some subject-object transposition, or just a quick nod towards common sense, people might someday just stop saying this. But I won't hold my breath. I've heard this many times before and will no doubt hear it again. The bottom line, of course, is that you seeing me doesn't mean I saw you, and since you've already confirmed that you were the seer, your lack of a "hi" or other greeting makes you the ignorer, so therein lies the irony.

(3) Whoa! You're actually still around...I thought you'd fallen off the face of the Earth. (to someone you haven't seen in a while).

Someone I used to see all the time at the SUBASE gym said this to me on Tuesday morning as we passed each other at the door -- me on the way in, him on the way out.

Here's why it doesn't make any sense: If you haven't seen someone in a while, that means they haven't seen you, either. That could be based on something very simple, like your command changing its mandatory PT time. Everything comes back to perspective -- calling someone out on falling away or being distant is totally legit if the person has become hard to reach via phone calls or e-mails. Now, even though this particular comment came from an innocuous, neutral place, this kind of stuff is often used to put people on the defensive and it's not really logical.

If you haven't seen someone in a while, the absolute best five words you could ever say are these: "It's great to see you." In fact, I serendipitously ran into Kad Barma (author of Choosing a Soundtrack, conveniently linked to your right) last night at the Village Smokehouse during the Bruins game and these were his words -- short, sweet, to the point, and without any judgment -- explicit or implied -- about anyone's fault for any lapsed time.

Another way to do it might be "it's been a while," which lacks the positive connotation of the previous one but still uses a neutral, no-fault passive voice, which is way better than the "What's wrong with you?" tone that people often use when they perceive some sort of absence.

(4) Any covering of being called out for sarcasm or negativity with the old standby "I was just kidding!"

If someone starts a sentence with "So, an [insert name of animal] walks into a bar" chances are they are telling a joke. Hopefully it's funny, but at the very least they're surely kidding. However, walking into someone's office and making a bunch of unsolicited insults isn't when that person or a third party calls you out on it, using the old "I was kidding" crutch doesn't work. Think about it: if someone punches you in the face but then tells you not to lose sight that it was really all just in jest, that might not be so easy to do from your convalescent bed.

(5) Any governmental attempt to rename 'terrorism' with a more neutral sort of euphemism like 'man-made disaster.'

The reason this makes so little sense is that it becomes hard to distinguish what's REALLY going on when you have to distort the language like this. It's like what Fox News has done with suicide bomber -- by banning the expression, you've just made it harder to determine what's happened when you report the news. A 'man-made disaster' could happen if a wrecking ball operator directs his equipment in the wrong direction and accidentally destroys a part of a building. I would also consider a juvenile prank like No. 2 in a urinal as a "man-made disaster." Neither qualify as terrorism, however, which is pretty handily definable as violence or the threat of violence against civilian targets for the purpose of promoting a political aim.

Even if you disagree with that specific definition of terrorism, you could still fall back on the old Potter Stewart-ism about knowing it when you see it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trashing the Neighborhood

At last night's UML discussion series, Elaine Pantano (Riverside Community Council) and Anne-Marie Page (Centralville Neighborhood Action Group) spoke about the problem of public dumping in Lowell. Mrs. Pantano focused mainly on the Felton St. area in her neighborhood, while Mrs. Page focused on the 1st Street area near her home in Centralville.

Many suggestions were thrown out as to how to solve the problem. Among them were signs reminding or imploring people not to dump bulky waste in these areas (in the absence of an available junkyard, these outdoor spots have taken on the de facto role), announced video surveillance (real or not), and transforming the spots themselves to make them less dumper-friendly.

One point held in agreement among all was a sort of "broken windows" variant, whereby if people see that an area is being used as a public dumping ground, they might be encouraged to partake in the dumping themselves; however, people are way less likely to dump in a pristine area. Therefore, neighborhood clean-ups, temporary band-aid they might be, are somewhat helpful in stemming the problem.

I definitely drank the Kool-Aid on that one -- personal observation tells me that as the overall messiness level of my car interior rises, the chance that I'll find stray soda cans and candy wrappers left behind by passengers increases proportionally.

Prof. Berkowitz spoke about transforming the areas themselves, stating that the presence of a well-maintained public garden could make dumping an 'incompatible response.' Even though that may sound hokey to some (after all, why is a law-breaker going to care about petunias and tulips?) he offered anecdotal evidence to support the idea -- at Gillette Stadium, a ring of flowers is used as an effective "moat" of sorts to keep folks who don't belong on the field off of it. A Psychology Professor, Prof. Berkowitz gave compelling support to the idea by talking about a natural human reluctance to destroy something like a flowerbed.

My one contribution to the debate came from something a resident said to Chief Lavallee at the last LDNA meeting -- research supports the idea that a sign with a depiction of a human eye and the words 'You are Being Watched' (regardless of those words' veracity) is the single best dollar-for-dollar crime deterrent. Especially for the 'reconciliables' -- those who dump bulky goods illegally for convenience but still have a conscience (and a fear of John Law!) I think this idea might make a ton of sense.

The next UML discussion series will be next Tuesday in Room 205 at Coburn Hall, 7:00-8:30. The leader of the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group, Taya Dixon Mullane, will talk about social capital and trust. Also, rumor has it that Kathleen Marcin, President of LDNA, may be speaking about the Good Neighbor Initiative, which bears relation to FDR's Latin American policy in name only.

If for no other reason, I recommend checking one of these out because these discussion are very practical and solution-focused. Even as the conversation drifts in and out of a few separate threads, Prof. Berkowitz moderates them to come back to the key question: "Okay, what's our proposal to solve this? What concrete solutions are we proposing?"

As any reader of this blog knows, I like to contrast policymaking (very hard) to spitball throwing (very easy). But as Sam Rayburn, legendary former Democratic U.S. House Speaker from Texas put it in much more colorful terms, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."

I don't know where I'm *eventually* headed, but I'm quite sure I'd rather be a carpenter than a jackass.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Everything I Need to Know, I Got from the Blogs

Here is a very quick look at some events coming up over the next few days. As the blog v. "traditional" media debate continues to rage (okay, simmer), I can't help but notice that I first heard about all of these events via local blogs. The Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association has nearly all of these events laid out, Left in Lowell and LDNA both announced the Vision Meeting, and of course the last event comes from

All of those blogs are linked just to your right among the others that I read, or at least try to read, every day.

Tuesday: The UML discussion series led by Prof. Bill Berkowitz's Community & Social Pscyhology class picks back up with Elaine Pantano leading a discussion about neighborhood trash reduction. If you can make it, it's 7 p.m. on the second floor of Coburn Hall (Broadway and Wilder). The format for these is that someone from the community lays out a policy or business challenge, and then students (who have already submitted papers on the subject) and community members talk about practical solutions. I bolded those last two words because I want to emphasize this isn't ivory tower type of stuff -- it's very rooted in solutions. I've been attending and blogging about these, so if you can't make it, I'll summarize it Wednesday (barring anything crazy chaining me to my desk tomorrow).

Wednesday: LPD / Downtown Residents / Bar & Restaurant Owners' Powwow at 7 p.m. in the Mayor's Reception Room. I haven't been to one of these but I've only heard good things. Hoping to make it.

Thursday: Downtown/Neighborhood Vision Meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Lowell High.

Saturday: Earth Day Cleanup event. Middlesex Community College Cafeteria, with pre-registration at Lowell_NHP_Volunteers@nps.gove

Sunday: Dick Howe and Rosemary Noon leading a tour of outdoor art in the downtown from 246 Market at 8:30 a.m. Missed the Civil War one because of duty last weekend, but no excuse here -- this starts right in front of my house.

I know it may seem like there are too many blogs to keep up with, but I think by scanning for the type of content you want, and glossing over the rest, you can still keep up with a healthy number of blogs in just a few minutes a day. Lowell Handmade may be the best thing going -- it gives you a chance to see the *headlines* with a quick snippet from the top of every blog, so you can sort of scan everything in one shot.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Harmful Shibboleths

Inspired by some back-and-forth I've just had with reader Matt, who rightly called me out on some cheap Hollywood-bashing, I am going to write this entry about how extremist Groupthink is dangerous when it permeates any one field of study or industry.

Specifically, I'm going to write about Education (yes, that's Education with a capital 'E' and I refer here to all the people other than actual, classroom teachers who make their money in the field).

'Education' and particularly 'Schools of Education' are, as you might guessed, overwhelmingly dominated by the Left. This, of course, ought to make any free-thinking Indy quite uncomfortable...but lest you think I'm a closet righty masking as an Independent (i.e. Glenn Beck), trust me, I'd be just as creeped out (maybe more so, even) at a Rush Limbaugh Fan Club Convention as I would at a Graduate School of Education.

The Far Right is scary, of course, because it's often fallen on the 'wrong' side of history (civil rights movement, labor movement, trade reforms, civil liberties, etc.) In fact, it often seems like there are elements on the Far Right who would like to revert back to some of the darker chapters of our history, even if they have to hide it using code words (witness Trent Lott's infamous comments about Strom Thurmond, or Saxby Chambliss' shameless manipulation of the Stars and Bars symbol to bring down Sonny Perdue and Max Cleland).

What I find very obnoxious about the Far Left, however, is the fact that -- despite best intentions -- many of their attitudes and pet policies serve to hurt the people they purport to 'speak for.' Here are just two examples of commonly-held views that get thrown around in Ed School just as conventional wisdom:

(1) All tests are bad, because a) outcomes are unequal; and b) they encourage 'teaching to the test'

Hmm...this 'teaching to the test' gets talked about with the disdain of, say, a fart in church, but I would posit that teaching to the test is only bad if the test itself is bad.

In fact, let's say your state has an MCAS equivalent that tests students' ability to perform basic math problems at various levels of their education. If your child's math teacher is using classroom time and homework assignments to ensure that his or her students can competently perform, that might not be such a bad thing at all. If the test is asking sixth-graders to solve for 'x' in basic equations, and the teacher helps the kids get there with lots of drills, blackboard problems, and sample homework problems, that sounds like, well, learning!

To use a non-classroom example, the Navy conducts a twice-a-year Physical Readiness Test (PRT). One major component of the PRT is a 1.5-mile run. So what happens in the weeks leading up to the PRT? Many Sailors who have been hibernating all winter get out and start running in 1.5-mile increments. Their command PRT coordinator might be encouraging them to do so or writing out their other words, he's teaching to the test! And unless you think that someone's ability to run 1.5 miles in a decent time is a somehow bad, I would call this 'teaching to the test' at its best, and I applaud it at every turn!

To use a famous example from Education, think about Jaime Escalanate, the teacher featured in the 1980s hit Stand and Deliver. He pulled off something truly amazing at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, churning out class after class of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic background who earned 4s and 5s on the AP Calculus test. It's the benchmark of the test itself that makes the feat stand out. In other words, if a teacher in East L.A. just "helped some people learn calc" that doesn't give a frame of reference to people across the country. However, when his students can outscore all the Madisons and Aidans in the leafy suburbs (err, Tims and Heathers, it was the 80s) Escalante and his students gain national attention.

Now, if the test itself is somehow bad (a possibility to which I'm certainly open), I'll agree that 'teaching to the test' is bad. But if the alternative is a teacher showing endless movies or just handing out dittos while doing crossword puzzles, I'll take 'teaching to the test' seven days a week -- and twice on Sunday.

So, anyway, back to my point about who is helped and who is hurt -- a mountain of statistical research, notably by field pioneer Claude Steele, has demonstrated something called 'stereotype threat.' In other words, when you tell someone that a test is biased against someone of a particular gender or race, that 'knowledge' dramatically hurts the score of the test-taker. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if the Educrats tell 'at-risk' students just to ignore the biased tests anyway, while ensuring their own kids properly prepare for all the right AP classes offered in Brookline and Newton, it doesn't seem like they're really doing anything to fight the inequality they bemoan.

(2) What relevance does Shakespeare have to a kid from Mattapan? (asked rhetorically, of course)

The above question is taken LITERALLY from someone speaking to an audience of Ed. students. It's a rhetorical question, of course, and it's meant to say something about a dominant culture being pushed on people unfairly. And it causes a visceral, unhappy reaction in this author. Besides the obvious racial and socioeconomic ugliness behind this comment, it begs the question from me -- by implication, what about the kids from Needham? What's this person really trying to get at?

And for that matter, what the heck relevance does Shakespeare have to any kid, anywhere? Maybe none directly, but Shakespeare has been a huge cultural influence for centuries. Exposure to that is an important part of someone's development as a culturally aware adult -- just like a person's exposure to Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, or Sandra Cisneros -- all important contributors to the overall American cultural fabric.

So yes, I would argue, it's just as important to bring 'Hamlet' to Mattapan as it is 'The House on Mango Street' to Gardner.

See my point? Rather than push any one form of culture on all people, let's weave in ALL the best elements of this country -- all colors, all religions, backgrounds, genders, etc. and make sure students get broad exposure. That ultimately serves to give a person the basic 'cultural literacy' they'll need to navigate their way through job interviews, cocktail parties, graduate schools, and other channels people can use to get ahead.

But if we say we can't teach Walt Whitman to students of color because it might smack of cultural imperialism, all we're going to do is hurt those people, and ensure that the sons of daughters of our elite gain the cultural knowledge they'll need to navigate through this country's channels of power.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I doubt the Far Left Educrats (overwhelmingly well-educated white people) are keeping their own kids away from Homer, Thoreau and Frost any more than they're limiting the XBOX and PS2 time.

After all, why would they?

Duuuuhh! That stuff's important to know.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Update from ONE Lowell

Last night at Gallagher & Cavanaugh (somewhere back in the South Building at Boott) Dr. Victoria Fahlberg spoke to various neighborhood groups' leaders regarding potential changes to Lowell's current at-large, winner take all (or first nine past the post) electoral system.

Nearly every neighborhood group was represented (Dayne, Gardner and I filled in for LDNA...Kathleen wanted to come but was ill -- not like the Beastie Boys, but as in actual, physical sickness).

There was a lot of discussion early on about whether financial barriers to entry were responsible, or at least contributory factors, to the steady decrease in both the numbers of candidates and the numbers of voters over time. I'm not sure -- I know conventional wisdom says that money = electoral success, but there's definitely research out there that challenges that, most notably in Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics.

I had to leave early so I don't know where all the discussion ultimately went, but the basic thrust was that Dr. Fahlberg laid out some of the potential alternatives (for more on Proportional Representation systems, see my entry following the second UML discussion series on 31 MAR).

As I said at the end of that entry, expect the electoral reform issue to gain steam in the next few months as the election season starts to heat up and as ONE Lowell makes its way out to the neighborhood groups to discuss reform ideas.

Speaking of which, I did learn last night that Paul Belley (Pawtucketville Citizens' Council) is running for a Council seat this November. Admittedly, that's coming from single-source intelligence, but considering that he was the source, I figured I could report it under any journalistic integrity standard.

Also last night -- Walker-Rogers VFW Post 622 voted NOT to join the Lowell Veterans' Council.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Value of a Tweet

This New York Times piece has some great real-life examples of the utility of Twitter -- for businesses, for surgeons, for people finding gas during a shortage, etc.

As the writer says twice, it's not just about what someone had for breakfast.

Shiver Me Timbers: Pirates' Righteous Indignation

[N.B. This entry started off as a comment on Right-Side-of-Lowell but I decided to spell it out a little further here].

I have no idea as to the exact, 100% morally and practically *right* way to deal with piracy, and you don't either. No one does. Policymakers have to deal in the real world, however, and that's a lot harder than blogging or opining in a bar.

What I do know, however, is that if I were a Somali pirate, the cost-benefit analysis of my activity still weighs pretty heavily in my favor, but if I see an American or French flag, all bets are off -- this is my livelihood, and the key root word there is "live," so I'll just take someone else's cargo and crew hostage next time.

I have no idea what exactly happened in the waters off of Somalia, but it's clear that three of the armed hostage-takers are now dead. What I find mildly amusing today is some of the quotes from their pirate comrades that are making their way into the Western media.

They killed our friends on the lifeboat and we thought helicopters would bomb us in Eyl last night," a pirate in Eyl, who called himself Farah, told Reuters. "We were mourning for dead friends and then roaring planes came -- grief upon grief. America has become our new enemy."

Reading this guy's quote, you can't help but notice that "thinking you're going to be bombed" is cause for if we're continuing with line of logic, then every paranoid schizophrenic in America walking down any street in America has a legitimate grievance with just about everyone they see -- after all, they may really believe that everyone they see "might be ready to attack" at any moment. Stop signs and parked cars might also be guilty, too.

The second thing that amazes me about the quote is that it makes no reference to the events leading up to the shooting. I mean, you would think the Navy woke up one day, decided it needed to drum up some business (because you know the Army and Marines take all the headlines these days) and decided to shoot at some Somalis for target practice.

To me, it's analagous to someone walking into a bank with a gun, threatening everyone's life and demanding money, but then somehow feeling aggrieved for getting shot.

Again -- I'm not writing this to argue the moral right and wrong here -- and even in the bank analogy it could be an unnecessary escalation if a police officer were to suddenly shoot the robber...but c'mon -- if you don't want to be put in that situation, don't walk into a bank with a loaded gun and threaten to kill people.

As to the "America is the new enemy" stuff, I think that's something the Susan Sarandon/Sean Penn crowd can easily grasp onto as "proof" that the Navy, the military, or the National Command Authorities acted foolishly in regards to our long-term interests. The family of Captain Phillips -- people who actually have to go out into the real-world and earn their living in ways the Hollywood crowd can only sneer at -- might beg to differ. Their husband and father will be home with them, thanks to rough men who stand ready to commit violence on our behalf. The Sean Penn idiot parade will never understand that. The 'our' in that sentence is intentional, because it includes you, me, and yes, even Sean Penn.

Call me a crazy, trigger-happy American here, but if someone who points a gun to my head and threatens to kill me can't be considered an enemy already, I don't know who can.

As someone who will spend much of the next couple decades away from loved ones, earning a living trying to capture the "hearts and minds" of people in war zones and quasi-war zones, I understand and appreciate the importance of non-kinetic operations as much as anyone. As I've written before on this blog, it means a lot more than just handing out soccer balls and beanie babies. I think it's absolutely the way forward for this country to win the Global War on Terror, or the Overseas Contingency, or whatever the heck the rose is by any other name.

But sometimes -- just sometimes -- the cause of freedom and justice will be advanced with a slight adaptation to the motto -- with two to the heart and with one to the mind.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Market Street Market -- Filling a Niche

Coming back from CCF this afternoon, I thought I'd pop in and check to see if Market Street Market was open for business -- I had swung and missed yesterday around noon, but then heard they were open later on, so I wanted to check it out.

Thankfully, it was open, and I must say I'm impressed. For reasons I already wrote about a couple months ago after the Nasons spoke at a Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Assocation Meeting (the one at Athenian), this idea is welcome, and long overdue. Downtown has needed a grocery store for a lot longer than I've been here to notice and write about it, and there was a palpable sense of gratitude among the other shoppers I just talked to at MSM.

As I said before, I would definitely *root* for ANY downtown business, or really any local business at all, but in this case there's a lot of value coming back to me in a way that another Irish-themed pub or beauty salon wouldn't provide. As someone with a) a less-than-stellar track record of buying groceries and cooking at home, and b) a less-than-less-than stellar track record of ensuring said groceries do not go bad before recommended consumption date, it's quite nice to have a place I can buy real fresh groceries right across the street from my house.

Plus, I'm a fan of the hours. Weekdays for the time being are 7 a.m. - 8 p.m., with the possibility of later hours if the demand signal is there.

I noticed prices for a lot of items were a shade (or two) higher than what you might see at a supermarket or big box store, but a) as Robert Nason explained to me today, some may change as new suppliers are brought into the fold, and b) it saves downtowners from the hassle/cost of driving, and c) even with a slight markup, buying and preparing real food is probably a lot better on the wallet and the arteries than constantly falling back to Wendy's and Mickey D's as a matter of habit.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Free Classes Taught at CCF

Starting this Wednesday, April 15, there is going to be another session of free classes offered to any and all interested community members at Community Christian Fellowship (105 Princeton Blvd, between Stevens and Harvard).

Some of the courses are religious themed but most are not -- topics range from Sewing to Computers to Music Theory to English as a Second Language.

If you're interested in signing up for any of the courses, go to, and follow the link to the Community Center course flyer -- all the information is there.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Is Flutter the New Twitter?

Probably not. And though I actually like Twitter for its power to quickly blare out information -- though not for its power to tell me that someone just had an ouchy feeling in his big toe -- this mockumentary is pretty funny, and definitely hits home for anyone who has ever felt Internet social networking site fatigue.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

That Dam Wang Agreement

Last night, Lynnda Ignacio and Paul Belley of the Pawtucketville Citizens' Council presented at the UML discussion series hosted by Prof. Bill Berkowitz.

Speaking with great technical detail, stark photo evidence and some compelling personal anecdotes (including stories of residents who exhibit PTSD-like symptoms when it rains, and a family who moved to the top of a hill in New Hampshire to avoid future inundations), they explained how a natural problem is being exacerbated by mismanagement of the flashboards in the river.

According to the Wang Agreement, penned in 1980 (of which I've now got a hard copy, thanks to PCC), during the months of March, April, May, and June, 4-foot flashboards "which will fail to hold back water if the river rises one (1) foot above the level of the Structure" are authorized for placement at the Pawtucket Dam. (From July to February, 5-foot flashboards are called for).

The major grievance that PCC has with Enel North America is that they feel the Wang Agreement is being more honored in the breach than in the observance. This grievance is supported by their evidence from 2006 and 2007, in which the flashboards didn't fail and their neighborhoods were subsequently flooded. In their view, the desires of the hydropower company to maintain a higher water table for economic reasons are putting their neighborhoods at risk.

The palpable fear among the PCC residents who spoke was that one more terrible flood would ruin the character of their neighborhoods...all spoke about the high levels of social capital and community trust that could vaporize if families -- including some who had been living in the same homes for decades -- were to leave in frustration. As to the charge that they "should have known better" than to move to a flood plain, their responses are that: a) that information wasn't necessarily available to homebuyers at the time of purchase; and that b) the trend of major flooding had been truly rare, not something to be expected year after year.

At the next City Council meeting -- Tuesday, 14 April, a motion will be presented before the Council that would require Enel to abide by the Wang Agreement.

But here's the problem: Even if the Council supports the motion, how will it be enforced? Since, by agreement with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Enel builds and maintains the flashboards, what independent monitoring mechanism will be used to ensure the spirit and letter of Wang are being upheld?

This will be an interesting one to watch.

Monday, April 6, 2009

On the Virtues of Shuttin' Yer Trap, Take Two

"We have no eternal allies or enemies, only perpetual interests." -- Lord Palmerston

"When the facts change, I change my mind." -- John Maynard Keynes

Some time back, I blogged about the virtues of resisting the urge to engage in any kind of negatively-themed venting in re co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, in-laws, roommates, or anyone else in your sphere of influence.

I use words like 'resist' and 'urge' because I really do believe there's something human in us that drives us to want to take note of, appreciate, celebrate, and sometimes be frustrated with what we see. It's natural, then, that at times we're going to get pissed off, and we're going to vent. When it has to happen, all I can say is that it shouldn't be done within the same sphere -- in other words, spare any antipathy towards Roommate B from Roommate C, but if, say, your Mom has the time, and actually cares...

For this entry I'll just recap the two reasons already mentioned and will conclude by adding a third.

(1) Your own reputation. Because sh*t-talking is unprofessional in nearly any context or form, it hurts the perpetrator as much, if not more, than the victim. The old truisms really do apply -- if someone around you is constantly running off (negatively) at the mouth, they're likely dealing with their own issues, and you're probably his or her next subject when you're not in the room. I'm going to spend much of the next six months job-hunting, and one constant piece of advice I've gotten for phone calls, interviews, etc. is not to be negative. If you ever tell an interviewer, "I left my old job because it sucked and they all eat worms all day" you just look like a childish jerk.

(2) Your own conscience. Never engaging in bad-mouthing to begin with means never having to worry about what you said in the first place. Experience teaches me that no matter how many things are said "in confidence" and how many agreements are made about what does -- or doesn't "leave the room," you should reasonably expect anything negative you ever say about anyone, ever to make its way back -- and often in a worse form than it originally came in. Somehow, all the caveats, qualifiers, and other mitigating factors get lost in translation during the game of *telephone* and no one wins. So the beauty of just saying nothing and biting your tongue is that there's nothing to be twisted or misinterpreted in the first place. You can relax and never have to look over your shoulder or worry about compromise when you haven't done anything wrong in the first place.

So those were the two reasons I listed before, along with noting a positive development -- I can honestly say I've changed in my decade or so of adulthood experience in that I've learned and incorporated these lessons enough to stay out of the fray when it comes to colleague-bashing.

Here is a third reason worth adding:

(3) You might change your mind about someone. Well, here's the beauty of the whole mind-changing thing --we're free to do it. As one of the last century's great economists/statesmen/thinkers/traders quoted above notes, sometimes circumstances change, and sometimes minds follow. This is exactly why you should think twice -- and maybe more -- before letting a negative utterance about someone else leave your mouth. Once it leaves, you can't get it back.

Personally, I can think about a situation from several moons ago where someone was behaving in a way that I thought was pretty unacceptable. I went against the old instinct, bit my tongue, and somehow worked through it. It dawned on me recently that things really had changed -- I now felt decidedly neutral about something that once seemed highly-frustrating, and here was the best part of all -- there were no tracks to cover. Because I hadn't said a word to any of my co-workers in the first place, I didn't have any residual worries about something that came out six months ago gumming up the works today, when it wouldn't have even applied anymore at all, really...nor did I have that slimy feeling one might feel about being seen as a hypocrite for saying one thing and then doing something else...all because nothing was ever said in the first place.

If the world were really fair, this entry would never have to be written -- we'd have much more room for nuance, people would be as quick to repeat the positive as well as the negative, and no one would foment discord.

Well, here's the rub: It's not.

So to the degree you can help it, bite your tongue for your own professional and personal sake.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The 'V' Stands for Valor

Note to the Reader: The italicized portion of this entry comes directly from Capt. Wise, who has sent another update from Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province and formerly Ground Zero of the Sunni Arab insurgency (following the al-Fajr campaign in Fallujah in November 2004, that is). With his permission, the entire e-mail is reprinted here.

The portion that is both italicized and bolded comes directly from a citation for a medal that Captain Wise just earned.

There's nothing like bureaucracy. The citation and certificate for an award I earned during my first deployment (Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device, AKA "Combat V") finally came in and was presented tonight. I found out about the award during my last deployment, and about the combat V on there because of my friend Ryan, but never had it read in front of my peers and my Marines. I was kind of non-chalant about the whole thing at first, but it felt good having it presented to me - mainly because the command cared enough to track it down and ensure I was recognized. Though I sent it out before, here it is again:

Heroic achievement while serving as Intelligence Advisor, 3d Battalion, 2d Brigade, 1st Division Iraqi Intervention Force, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) from January to May 2006 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On 19 March 2006, while occupying an overwatch position in support of a combined Iraqi Army and Marine Patrol, First Lieutenant Wise observed suspicious activity by military-aged-males and immediately contacted the patrol warning them of impending attack. As a result, before the anti-coalition force attacked with a combination of small arms, medium machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and hand grenades, coalition forces were forewarned and better able to repel the assault. Remaining in position throughout the firefight and despite receiving heavy cross fire, First Lieutenant Wise advised his Iraqi counterparts on the best cover and fields of fire to suppress the anti-coalition forces and continued to provide liaison with adjacent Marine units in contact with the enemy. First Lieutenant Wise's noteworthy accomplishments, perseverance, and devotion to duty reflected credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

After the presentation, I had to trade war stories with the few Marines that were in actual combat. There was the good natured ribbing, and since I had told my war stories before, a lot of questions if this was the time I fell in raw sewage. I did have a laugh that a lack of situational awareness was mistaken for bravery, but my lack of situational awareness didn't compare to three of my teammates that took cover behind a tanker truck with 3' high letters that said "FLAMMABLE."

I'm counting down the days I have left here, and will be back at the end of April unless I get lost in the bureaucracy and slip through without the required delays - then I'll be home by mid-month. Take care everyone, and keep in touch.

I hope you guys enjoy Captain Wise's updates as much as I do. Just as a "teaser" for some coming military-related entries on my backburner, I'm going to use one to explain what exactly a Bronze Star is, and how to differentiate a BSM (Bronze Star, Meritorious) from a BSV (Bronze Star, Valorous). Even among many military people, there's a ton of confusion surrounding the criteria for these medals and who can/does earn them. I also want to include a piece about the number of sailors serving in 'boots on the ground' roles in Iraq -- they currently number somewhere around 10,000, which is probably also surprising to some military and many civilians who read the news and would be considered 'in the know' about major operations.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hey, What Was That Again?

For weeks after it came out, I had been sort of driving along when I heard the new Ne-Yo song "Mad" come on the radio and mumble along with the chorus about his not wanting to go to Maine.

I know sometimes it's gonna rain/
And baby can we make up now 'cause I can't sleep through the pain/
Girl I don't want to go to Maine/ (Not at you)
And I don't want you to to Maine/ (Not at me)

Finally, it dawned on me that unless he had some terrible grudge against our friendly neighbor to the northeast, this couldn't possibly be the right lyric...and as someone whose work occasionally takes him to Portsmouth, even I know about the great shopping in Kittery and the beautiful seacoast up 1A. Either way, fast forward the video to 1:24 to hear the song chorus that could reverse all the good work the vacation sloganeers in Augusta have been doing for years.

I looked up the lyrics and suddenly everything shined in a new light -- he was saying he didn't want to bed mad at you and vice versa. So I had that sinking feeling I got when I realized David Archuleta wasn't saying "All that we could be/with a stick of gum" in "Crush" or when my eight year-old self faced the reality that rocking out to Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Band-Aid" was, well, just wrong. And silly.

Still, I was amazed yesterday morning when someone in the gym asked me if a particular piece of exercise equipment was worth wild. That's pretty bad. At least in that case, you could see that one spelled out somewhere and register the right way to use it.

Here are a few other real-life examples of "mishears" from the recent past:

Rushing Roulette. "I can't believe any of you would even THINK about driving drunk. It's like, everytime you do that, you might as well be out playing rushing roulette with everyone else's life." (Yes, the 'g' was clearly emphasized).

Starch Rivals. "He went to Nobles? My son went to Milton, and they're our starch rivals!"

Self of Steam. Back when I taught 9th grade World History at the other end of Middlesex County, I had a student write in her Do Now Journal about why it's important to have a high "self of steam." Not too bad, really -- kind of makes sense if you think about it.

All Intensive Purposes. This is quite a common one, and I have to enter a guilty plea here to not *getting* this until I saw it in print.

Mute Point. "Well, there's no sense in even arguing this one, since it's a mute point." Like all the others above, you can see how this one kind of seems like it could kinda sorta make sense.

This last one is of a different nature, because it's not a mishear but a misuse. Still, if you knew how often I've heard it (including two hours ago)...

"I just went onto a submarine for the first time ever, and wow...those things are pretty claustrophobic."

Unless the submarine suddenly finds the ability to miss its mother, worry about its waistline, and wonder why kids today can't be polite the way it once was, it's never going to be claustrophobic, either. A steel tube has no feelings.

Thanks for reading! If you have any other good examples of common misheard expressions or song lyrics I would love to see them...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Fair Vote Lowell" and Diversity

Last night at the UML discussion series hosted/organized by Professor Bill Berkowitz, Victoria Fahlberg of One Lowell spoke about the ways that systemic reform (namely, by switching to a proportional representation system from the current one) would lead to more diversity among our city's elected leaders on the School Board and City Council.

The way the current system works, voters are allocated up to nine votes for the Council and six for the School Board. Every vote used counts as "one" in the column of the candidate selected, so other than withholding other votes (i.e. voting for Rita and then not using the other eight), there's no way for any individual voter to distinguish who he or she would most like to see elected.

A Proportional Representation (PR) system would change that if it allowed voters to "weigh" their options by ranking the candidates 1 through 9 (this is how it works in Cambridge). This would allow smaller interest groups to coalesce behind individual candidates and have a realistic shot at seeing them elected. For instance, if a single most-desirable candidate emerged from, say, the Acre, and could get enough people there to list him as a "1," he might stand a better chance at winning than he would under the current system, where total votes make all the difference.

To help illustrate the point, Dr. Fahlberg used the analogy of six friends ordering a pizza. Among the friends, who each get one vote, assume that three want cheese, two want pepperoni, and one wants onion. Under a first-past-the-post system where total vote number is king, everyone is going to get a cheese pizza. With a PR system, everyone can get "a slice of what they want" -- the pie will come back cut six ways, with three cheese slices, two pepperoni, and an onion.

Looking at examples where PR voting systems are in place, it's a proven axiom of Political Science that smaller interest groups benefit electorally. In fact, in 1991, Poland elected members of the Polish Beer-Lovers' Party to parliament after the party picked up nearly 3% support nationwide (this party no longer exists but you can look that one up if you want to). In the States, of course, any viable third party seeking to actually gain electoral office would need greater support by an order of magnitude, because only the first-past-the-post is elected, and you'd have to knock off both the Dems and Republicans to do it (as much as Kad Barma and I would love to see this, we shouldn't hold our breath).

So the issue isn't whether PR changes the composition of the elected body (it would), but whether the result would be better city government. In fact, that's the million-dollar question that's going to be making its way around the city as One Lowell looks to make a move towards real electoral reform with the "Fair Vote Lowell" movement.

In the meantime, what I was most impressed with by the presentation last night was the emphasis on the many types of 'diversity' in our city, and our society. Coming in, I had no idea what to expect -- I had never met Dr. Fahlberg, and I had only seen her speak once in person (at Boott before the Farmingville movie at last year's LFF) and once on-line with Mr. Campanini. Having survived Ed School at a cost of twelve months' time and more money than I'd care to say, I've seen the way the extreme left can hijack the word 'diversity' to just mean finding ways to vilify white people, so somewhere in the back of my mind there was a little wariness when I walked into Coburn last night.

But that's not what Fair Vote Lowell is about at all.

At least half a dozen times last night, Dr. Fahlberg went out of her way to stress that 'diversity' can mean a lot more than a person's skin color, as can the word 'minority.'

For instance, on an elected board made up entirely of people from the Highlands, Pawtucketville, and Belvidere, someone from another neighborhood would offer 'diversity.' In fact, the lack of geographical diversity among our elected leaders was one of the most-emphasized points last night (though it should also be pointed out that when you say 'The Highlands' you're talking about an enormous swathe of land and people, which is not true in all cases (i.e. Downtown)).

Gender is another type of diversity, which is reflected by the School Board if not the City Council, on which our one woman is by definition a 'minority.' Age, background, interests, native language, and life experience are all also legitimate forms of diversity.

Obviously, ethnicity is an equally legitimate form of diversity, and yes, it does matter, even if we sometimes would like to pretend it doesn't. And it is fair to point out the sheer fact that a city with 40% residents of color and 60% public schoolkids of color has an all-white local elected body. And yes, it can be pointed out without casting blame or aspersions on anyone.

And speaking of not casting blame, it was also pointed out that Fair Vote Lowell is not in any way looking to 'blame' any currently-elected officials, some of whom were not even born yet when PR was shunned during the Red Scare after some real-live Communists were elected to the New York City Council.

Anyway, no matter who you are or where you stand, expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming months -- on the blogs, in the paper, at the neighborhood meetings, and in the cafes.