Monday, August 31, 2009

One Feather in the Active Investor's Cap..

During the plane ride back from SFO to Manchester, I read Allan Roth's book "How a Second Grader Beats Wall Street," which uses a gimmicky sort of backdrop (Roth's lessons in finance to his second-grader, who possesses a mind uncluttered by most modern marketing pitches to adults) to explain why passive investing is far superior to active investing -- seven days a week, and twice on Sunday.

Roth's basic premise is hard to beat -- by saving the money you'd spend on the management fees, the taxes generated by frequent transactions, and the initial loads charged by mutual funds, and by investing instead with broad-based index funds, you'd earn far superior returns in the long-term. And that's without even factoring in the sub-par performance of many actively-managed funds.

Roth uses tons of charts and mini-spreadsheets to prove his points, and I'd say he does so pretty conclusively. He frequently references an Einstein quote -- "If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough," and earns the right to use it with his down-to-earth explanations.

Throwing a bit of psychology into the text, and several well-deserved nods to Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle, Roth cites the Lake Woebegone bias of almost everyone who has ever held an equity -- the fallacy that the pitfalls faced by the *average* investor obviously don't apply to him or her, who is clearly above average. Of course, mountains of data show that trading frequency is negatively correlated to yields, in part due to transaction costs and taxes, but perhaps more due to individual investors' equal-parts-steadfast-and-irrational belief in their uncanny ability to time the market.

Roth also made me laugh out loud on the plane when he talked about how everyone he knows comes back from Vegas claiming to have won money. For me, substitute 'Foxwoods' or 'Mohegan' in there and you have a blog entry I've been meaning to write for some time -- the incredible effect of mental accounting that really means people aren't actually *lying* when they talk about how they're "up" in their lifetime of casino gambling...they really mean it!

Anyway, I don't doubt for a minute the accuracy or the soundness behind an Allan Roth or a Burton Malkiel. I do, however, want to chime in with one argument in favor of active investing that I haven't come across from either of them (or from Jim Cramer, for that matter) -- the personal education that comes from active investing in publicly-traded companies.

Let me explain.

Think back to when you were a kid. You learned about fairly complex and arcane rules in sports, like what can happen on dropped third strikes, or what happened when a shooter was fouled from beyond the three-point arc, or when the whistle blows for icing, not by burying your nose in a text, but by actively following something with a rooting interest. Some of the information just sort of rubbed off on you, but other parts of it worked into what made sense because they happened in a context you understood and cared about.

Something similar and even greater might apply with investing.

To take a balanced approach, let's say you're indexing with half your portfolio, but you're taking the other half of your portfolio and you're actively playing the market with individual equities.

While your index fund boringly works away for you (over the LONG-term that is, you'd have to have the intestinal fortitude to make it through years like 2008 and not panic), let's say you've got 10 other plays, spread out across sectors like energy, consumer staples, big pharma, entertainment, defense, automobiles, and the financial sector.

All of a sudden, you've got a personal stake in all these things. You've got a rooting interest that's much more vested than the one you'd have in something extremely broad-based like the Russell 5000 or even just the S & P 500. By following these companies' ups and downs, the shake-ups to their managerial staffs, and the ways things like developmental drug patents or looming defense contracts might affect share values, you're learning about business, which is what really makes this country run.

I would even say that if you took a legendary investor like a Warren Buffett or a Charlie Munger, they'd probably be one of the most interesting dinner party guests out there -- not because they could regale you with stories about yachts or wintering in St. Tropez (they wouldn't, anyway) but because these are truly our modern Renaissance Men -- their career-long scrutiny of countless annual reports, prospectuses, and business summaries has brought them so much intimate familiarity with so many sectors of the economy, not to mention the way the captains of industry intersect with political leadership, that they could probably speak intelligently on just about any topic that could reasonably come up. Even amazingly impressive experts within single fields of study probably couldn't do it as well.

Remember that old joke about how the New York Times is read by people who think they run the world, but the Wall Street Journal is read by those who actually do? There's probably a little bit of truth to it (though not to any follow-up jokes about USA Today readers being illiterate -- those are all unfair and untrue).

I don't for a minute doubt all the wisdom and hard math that go into what people like Malkiel, Roth, and Bogle have developed in their studies. Nor do I think I'm about to fall into the trap of the self-styled 'exceptional investor,' which is almost as dangerous as the 'exceptional roulette player.'

But I think that allocating a portion of your portfolio to stocks that you actively choose and then track is a lot more fun than indexing alone. And as that personal stake draws you away from your usual TV fare to a little more CNBC, and from your usual political blabber news sources to more exposure to things like Forbes, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal, you're coming away from the experience a bit better-rounded.

And that alone is a good thing, and that alone has value.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

*Value* I Wouldn't Pay For..

As an up-front disclaimer here, I'll say I have absolutely no stock or other investment of any kind in

That said, I'm out of town for a friend's wedding right now and staying at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, completely thanks to a promotion run by, whereby any 10 nights that you stay ANYWHERE earn you 1 free night ANYWHERE else. So, let's say you travel for work a bit and you happen to stay at sub-one star hotels for $40 a pop. 10 of those gets you into the Ritz. Do it enought times and you can make it your home for your super-long weekend mini-vacation.

I've been looking forward to the trip for quite some time, and so far it's been great. One quick observation I'd share for anyone who cares to know, or is planning a trip just about anywhere, however, is that I would never in my right mind pay the market price for this hotel room.

If you're visiting San Francisco, there are tons of options right in the heart of things that have perfectly adequate beds, TVs, and bathrooms, but would cost you less than a hundred bucks. Add that up over the course of a multi-night stay, factor in the absurdly high hotel taxes you're going to incur as a percentage of your bill, and then consider that the sign of a great trip is probably how little time you spend cooped up inside your room, and it just seems crazy to drop the extra several hundy on a five star hotel.

I know there's no shortage of financial planning books out there that can give you sage advice about how your daily $5 latte habit is really costing you $482,281, when calculated as money that didn't make it into your Roth IRA, and therefore didn't earn magnificent returns with dividends over four decades of tax-free growth.

I also know you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and you might really enjoy that latte today. It also might improve your productivity, or bring you utility for the here and now in some other way. If I were ever writing a personal finance book, I wouldn't be filling it with a lot of thou-shalt-nots about lattes and Chinese take-out.

But having seen the inside of some perfectly adequate $40 rooms, and now having seen the inside of a marginally more adequate $400 room, I'm not seeing a whole lot of difference.

I won't look a gift horse in the mouth and wouldn't pass up a free five-star opportunity in the future...but now I also know there's nothing about such a place that would justify dropping half a paycheck for a few nights' stay.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who is Ray Weicker?

Ray Weicker is a 39 year-old lawyer, License Commission member, Iraq Vet, and Army Reserve Major. At his campaign kickoff event tonight at the Old Court, he spoke about city issues including crime reduction, property tax relief, and citizen involvement.

Weicker deployed to Baghdad for twelve months in 2005-06 in a Psychological Operations (PsyOps) capacity, having been dual-hatted as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) and PsyOps Captain at the time. He was promoted to Major during the deployment. He is now affiliated with a Reserve Unit based out of Boston that handles criminal defense for Reserve and National Guard members.

Merrimack River Watershed Council Social

Who: MRWC members, volunteers, friends and staff for an informal get-together
What: Light appetizers, thoughts, ideas, conversation, laughs, and the latest news
When: 5-7 p.m., Wednesday 26 AUG
Where: At the Lowell Beerworks 201 Cabot St, Lowell, MA - 978-937-2337
Why: Stop by and say "hi", meet new people, share or listen to a story, learn about a new discovery on the Merrimack River or new MRWC projects.

Who is Leland Cheung?

[Full Disclosure: Leland Cheung is a friend, a former roommate, and someone to whom I will make a nominal donation this year. Okay, I said it].

Leland Cheung is pursuing joint Master's Degrees in Business Administration (Sloan School of Management, MIT), and Public Policy (Harvard Kennedy School). He lived in Cambridge before returning for these graduate degrees and noted the wide town-gown disconnect in the city, something that almost anyone who has lived or worked in Cambridge can identify, but something too few in Cambridge politics have seriously tried to address.

He is currently running for the Cambridge City Council with the slogan "Uniting Students and Residents to make Cambridge #1."

There is plenty of substance to his policy proposals. If you've got a few minutes to check it out, I recommend you give his website a look:

Monday, August 24, 2009

6 Candidates at LDNA Tonight

Besides the mention of a Downtown Newsletter that may be hitting the presses (literally, as it'll be primarily a hard-copy thing) within the next month or so, the highlight of tonight's LDNA meeting at the Revolving Museum was the set of speeches by Lowell City Council candidates.

The order of the speeches was sort of haphazard; it had more to do with where candidates were sitting or standing than anything else. The following summaries are presented in the order that the candidates spoke:

First, Franky Descoteaux addressed the fact that she was speaking to the home crowd, noting that she is, of course, "very invested in the downtown," literally and figuratively. She stated her strong feeling in favor of professional government, noted the need to "treat the taxpayer with respect," and added that the more local businesses can help swell the city's coffers, the more tax relief the average household will feel.

The next candidate to present was Ben Opara, another local entrepreneur who described himself as "an ambassador of the city." He emphasized that all his personal care products are marked "Made in USA" for his export audience, but also that each carries the label "Lowell, Massachusetts" as a marker for both domestic customers and the world writ large that they're made right here in Lowell. Opara talked about the great untapped potential that exists here in the relationship between the local community and the world-class research university sitting within the city limits. He also spoke about a lack of congeniality at City Council meetings, and how he could help to counter that.

The reference to the lack of congeniality made a perfect, if unintended, segue into the speech made by current CC Jim Milinazzo, who in recent memory was told in a most un-congenial manner by CC Alan Kazanjian that Kazanjian was "ashamed" to call him a colleague (this was in the wake of the Assistant City Manager's firing). Milinazzo made references to the strong support he received from several downtowners in the wake of his dissenting votes in re Andy Sheehangate and the lack of a primary. Milinazzo, the only sitting Councilor to make it to tonight's meeting, also talked about some of his past and present involvement with several private businesses, city offices, and subcommittees.

Next to speak was Joe Mendonca, a former City Councilor and multi-term School Committee member. He joked about having blown-in to Lowell as a six year-old 43 years ago and described some of his past involvement with the Citywide Parent Council, the School Committee, and the Pawtucketville Citizens' Council. Mendonca then explained his vision for Lowell -- that of a regional economic hub (as opposed to just a residential/bedroom community for those who work outside the city). The idea is that if Lowell had more commercial and office space, especially for high-tech sectors, it could better serve as the area hub that it can be. He talked about how, as a high-tech worker, he was previously able to work right here in town (Wang Towers), but was now located out in Manchester, NH for work.

Ryan Berard, a previous attendee at several LDNA meetings, talked about the importance of individual neighborhoods to the overall composition of the city. He spoke about the need for Councilors to be responsive to all of the city, working hand-in-hand with the City Manager. Berard talked about how the basic premise of the broken windows theory could be applied to the current improvement initiative going on in his native Centralville -- once the area is physically beautified, the area will look less inviting to criminals and more friendly to prospective new residents and business patrons.

The last candidate to speak was Paul Belley of the Rosemont section of Pawtucketville. He stated his support for the City Manager and also emphasized the importance of neighborhoods, which he called "the heart and soul of the city." He talked about the system of "Street Captains," which his neighborhood implemented in the wake of the Mother's Day Flood of 2006. The basic thrust of this idea is that you're creating a de facto hyper-local government, with one preson on each street accountable for knowing who the residents are and what they would need in the time of an emergency (i.e. critical prescription drugs for seniors). Belley talked about some of the positive spillover effects the Street Captain system has created, such as preparation for the subsequent 2007 flood (so much for that 70 year thing, right?) and nipping some minor criminal activity in the bud. One of the main ideas of his campaign is taking this initiative city-wide.

The next LDNA meeting will definitely be on September 27 at 7:00 p.m. The location is still TBD, but I'm told there's heavy action at 3-2 odds being put on the Athenian Corner (207 Market).

Also, the Ray Weicker for Lowell event at the Old Court is going to be tomorrow night from 5:30-8:30. I'll try to remember my camera for that one. I know photos would've helped people with the candidate summaries from tonight (of the six who spoke, only Joe Mendonca and Paul Belley had handouts with their pics).

And one more sidenote -- I usually veer away from the strictly personal stuff here on the site, but wanted to mention that Ratriey and I really made the engagement official today at the Public Garden, third bench down from the Beacon and Charles entrance.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Feet on the Furniture...Already?

A summary of last night's Move Lowell Forward kickoff can already be found here, but I want to use this entry to say how impressed I was with the restaurant itself (Garcia-Brogan's).

The prospective missus and I left after having two cocktails so we could grab dinner over at New Great Taste. Unfortunately, however, there's some type of plumbing problem there, so our go-to eat-in/take-out/delivery locale is temporarily down for the count. Unsure of where to grab chow, we just circled back around and headed back to Garcia-Brogan's to eat.

The place had already started filling up, but by the time we headed back, it was packed (and this was even after most of the MLF folks had taken off). The Irish bar side was nearly full of patrons, the Mexican restaurant side was about 2/3 full, and the high energy level made it hard to believe that it was only the first Friday in the restaurant's history. To anyone visiting for the first time (such as us) there was no sign or other indicator that there was any kind of forced buzz related to the place's newness. On the contrary, it just seemed like a lot of natural laughing, drinking, and general carrying-on that you'd think would come from people used to a place -- one sign of which was a twenty-something female patron in one of the booths with her feet up on the booth bench.

This made me think of the unwritten rule among friends about refrigerators. There are many variants to it, and probably a few sitcom episodes dedicated to it, but the general idea is that a sign that someone is a truly close friend is when he or she can walk into your house and immediately open the fridge to scour for food or drink...without having to ask your permission in the first place.

There's got to be some pub or restaurant variant to it, and what I'm reaching for here is the idea that only when you reach a certain comfort level with a place are you going to just make yourself so at home as to throw the hush puppies up on the furniture just like the place is yours.

Besides being strategically located in a part of Lowell's downtown that can really use an economic/entertainment anchor such as this, Garcia-Brogan's impressed me by being able to pull together a crowd like it did on just the fourth day in its existence.

Friday, August 21, 2009

MLF Open Letter in Today's Sun

Cliff Krieger and Lynne Lupien, co-chairs of Move Lowell Forward, had an open letter to the State Legislature and Gov. Patrick regarding the issue of the (lack of a) primary election in Lowell this year.

The following City Council challengers co-signed the letter: Paul Belley, Ryan Berard, Franchesska Descoteaux, Jose Gabriel, Michael Holland Sr., Syed Hussain, David Koch, Joseph Mendonca, Benjamin Opara, Raymond Weicker, and James Wojas.

This might be an opportune time to remind readers that the Move Lowell Forward kickoff event is tonight at Garcia Brogan's at 6:30.

A Jaw-Dropper of a Quote

I was reading the Sun today (hey...Mini-Monster at LeLacheur? I already love it) while obeying my strict diet of Espresso pizza and Coke, when I saw a quote that nearly made me drop my food back onto my plate:

"We just changed the law in 2004 and here we are changing it five years later. I'd have to take a look at it more closely," Nangle said. "I probably would be inclined to support it if that's the the wish of the esteemed senator. Maybe we owe it to the guy." (Bold and italics are mine, and the speaker of course is Rep. David Nangle of Lowell).

For anyone not following the issue, the question is whether Beacon Hill should reverse its action from 2004 (when a certain, uh...Republican was in power) which took away the Governor's power to fill a Senate vacancy. The new law required a special election within 145-160 days of the vacancy creation.

Now that Ted Kennedy may leave the Senate, there are some potential succession issues, and Kennedy is requesting a change to the rules that would allow Gov. Patrick to appoint a Democratic successor without one of those pesky democratic things like an election.

I'll admit that in Nangle's quote, he hedges around the issue pretty deftly, but the last two sentences REALLY don't sit well with me.

Here's why: The democratic political system shouldn't be about a personality cult. I don't care what anyone's last name is, this country doesn't have a monarchy and we don't have royals who can trump laws. We certainly don't owe someone who purports be a public *servant* immediate obeisance and kowtowing to desires that get in the way of written laws.

It doesn't -- and shouldn't -- matter what Ted Kennedy wants. This isn't -- and shouldn't -- be about Ted Kennedy.

If appointments are the right way to go, so be it. And if special elections are the right way to go, so be it. But to nakedly move the goalposts during the game based on whichever side is leading the State seems like a total subversion of everything I thought I learned in Civics 101. And to say that the desires of one man who has profited tremendously in every sense of the word from his many years in the U.S. Senate should trump our entire democratic process is to make an absolute mockery of the entire system.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

FVL Signature Drive: Heading into the Homestretch

The latest update from Fair Vote Lowell is below in italics:

So far, Fair Vote Lowell supporters have collected nearly 5000 signatures! Our goal is 4188 – but this is the number of valid signatures required and many of those 5000 collected could not be certified due to errors, primarily in addresses.

It has been so much hard work and getting to the finish line still seems to be uphill. Our deadline now is less than 10 days away and we still need over 1000 signatures.

Can we do it? Absolutely – it’s only 120 per day. Twenty people willing to do six per day will do it. Sixty people willing to do 2 per day and we’ve got it. But we cannot do it without your help.

What can you do?

1. If you are a Lowell resident and registered voter and have not yet signed, please contact us at and we’ll find a way for you to sign (and bring a friend!)

2. If you have petitions in your home and you haven’t gotten around to turning in your signatures, please get them to us now.

3. If you still want to gather signatures, there’s still time. Let us know, we still need you.

Have you ever wanted to really make a difference? Do you want to play a role in Lowell’s history? This is your chance.

Together, we can make a better Lowell, but we have to do it now.

Sailors in a Landlocked Country? Yes..

Often, even relatively well-informed people -- the types who watch the news and at least passively follow Iraq and Afghanistan -- express surprise (or worse, disbelief) that there are Sailors working on the ground in those areas. In fact, there are thousands. They work as Seabees, Hospital Corpsmen, doctors, lawyers, Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs, SEALs, riverine forces, intel, administration, and in support capacities for all of the above.

The Sailor you see here is assigned to a Marine battalion. In the picture, he is treating a boy who suffered a head injury after falling into a canal in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Ray Weicker Campaign Kickoff, 25 AUG

Event: Ray Weicker for Lowell Campaign Kickoff Party
What: Cocktail Party
Host: Raymond Weicker for Lowell City Council
Start Time: Tuesday, August 25 at 5:30pm
End Time: Tuesday, August 25 at 8:30pm
Where: The Old Court

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dharma Buns: Quick Update

I found out today via e-mail that Dharma Buns (between Centro and Brinan's on Market) won't open this month, but will more likely open sometime in September. I heard great things about their sandwiches during Folk Festival (potentially biased sources though, it was the owner's table out on Market Street) and am looking forward to trying out a Guinness milkshake. From Dharma Buns:

Meanwhile, we're happy to report that the City of Lowell has granted Dharma Buns a wine and malt beverage restaurant license. This means we can definitely go ahead with our plans of offering the best, most flavorful and delicious craft beers, Belgian Ales and Imperial Stouts, as well as a simple selection of affordable yet high-quality wines, that we feel will pair off perfectly with our sandwich selection. John holds certification from Boston University in wine mastery and will be putting his knowledge to some very good use. We've also discovered a rare milkshake recipe that calls for Guinness which we are just aching to try out. Obviously this stuff will not be available for take-out or delivery but served strictly as a sit-in option on Market Street.

Moving Lowell Forward Enthusiasm Sweeping the Downtown

I've got Friday night at Garcia Brogan's inked in on the calendar for the Moving Lowell Forward (MLF) kickoff event. Other than coming to the event, scarfing down hearty portions of food and beer, and making a small donation if asked, I had no specific way of supporting or advertising the event, as it's already been mentioned by Lynne and Cliff.

But when I saw the level to which one downtowner had already gone to champion the kickoff, I was impressed enough to stop, take a picture, and post.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thinking About Exploitation..

Prior to a recent post about a Harvard Div Schooler's experiment with homelessness, I've never really *gone negative* here on the blog before; in fact, I think that the fact that I tend to stay positive and cheerlead a bit here is a fair and valid critique of the site. (But I would counter that anyone who knows me could say my online persona and my real self are one and the same).

But a recent comment from someone who found the post via a Google search made me do a little chin-scratching about what I said, and what I think can be constituted as *exploitation.*

The main crux of the matter is this -- is the relationship in question a two-way deal, or is one party *using* the other for personal gain without a reciprocal offering in turn?

I offered that the student, with a neat little website dedicated to his project, complete with contact information (laid out for potential publishers?) was essentially exploiting the homeless population of Harvard Square. I'll admit that I made that judgement without ever having met the individual, and I'll admit that I could be wrong -- it's possible that somehow the writings or lessons learned from the project could help facilitate better understanding of homeless issues...however, based on what I gathered from the Globe story, and from looking at the site, I'm just not seeing it. Right or wrong, I'll stand by my original words.

People are allowed to have opinions and they're allowed to make judgements. At the end of the day, I'm not a big fan of this guy's project -- and that has more to do with the project than the individual himself.

I don't hide much here on the site. I know I've talked at length about why I decided to join the military in the first place, and why I've decided to make it a career (to sum it up in a few words, it's about being in the action vs. being on the sidelines). However, I've also never hidden the fact that I'm potentially interested in writing and/or politics someday.

Of course, a military background would help to further either of those goals (just look at the career of so many great American writers and pols from the 20th century!), but I would argue vociferiously with anyone who said that meant I was *exploiting* the service that I love. My argument back is a simple one -- I'll give as much or more than I'll take. I'm not *pretending* to be in the service; on the contrary, a coming deployment is quite real, and it's definitely already impacting my employment prospects and near-term plans. It will become a heckuva lot more real as the calendar pages start to turn. If I ever tried to write a long magazine piece or book about it, yes, I would be *using* the experience, but I also know it would be experience of someone who put all his energies into a very real-life situation that really impacted real people.

I would say the same for my decision to move here, to write this blog about it, and to become involved in the community. There's plenty of give that goes along with that take. There are the obvious things like property and other taxes, as well as dollars spent locally. Then are less tangible things like promoting a place, an idea, or ideas about a place.

I wrote the post in question just after having written about "Yes Men" and the revulsion I felt towards a hoax that was played on the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in India in 1984. Some clever video editing showed that the hoax "really wasn't so bad" but I would counter that those who were served by it were the "Yes Men," while the action was played on the backs of the BBC, Dow Chemical, and yes, the real victims of the Bhopal Disaster.

I feel the same way about the Borat and Bruno movies that are supposed to show how xenophobic and homophobic Americans are. I would counter that they show only how Borat-phobic and Bruno-phobic we can be when we're put into uncomfortable situations with strangers who falsely identify themselves to try to create a *gotcha* for a screen capture.

At the end of the day, I lump a Harvard student playing homeless for the summer, replete with promotional website, in this latter category; it just smacks of insincerity and pompous one-wayism. Maybe if it were a documentary about an actual homeless person, or an exposition about ways to address social problems in America, I'd feel differently.

But that's the beauty of the 1st Amendment.

I've got the freedom to think it. You've got the freedom to agree or disagree.

And we could both be a little right, a little wrong, or both.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Happens in the Blogosphere...

A few months ago, Cliff Krieger (Right-Side-of-Lowell) posted a link to a great spoof of blogs, which showed a lonely man sitting out on a precipice in one of them big rectangular states. The caption read, "Blogging: Never Before Have So Many with So Little to Say Said So Much to So Few." A great twist on Mr. Churchill's quote after the Battle of Britain, and something most bloggers and blog readers have probably thought about.

The drum I like to beat, however, is that blogs drive a lot more debate than some people realize, because the chattering classes who put together other types of media often mine them for information. There are a couple *real* news stories that I know I caught on either Left in Lowell or Richard Howe in the past year before seeing in print and a couple times the slant of the blogosphere seemed to even influence an editorial page or two (I'll admit there could be some coincidence at play there, but that's why I used a safe word like "seemed.")

Whatever your take on the Lowell Sun, however, it is read by many thousands each day. Its editorials and Mr. Wallace's Saturday Chat grab the attention of many who've probably never read a blog, let alone read regularly or comment. As one quick anecdotal example to support this, I had heard about Choice Voting petitioners who were going door-to-door in the Highlands on a day where Choice Voting had been mentioned in the Chat. What had previously been a pained "elevator pitch" of a seemingly complicated system became much easier for this group, because resident after resident was telling them, "I'm already familiar with it...I saw it in this morning's Sun."

There have been several instances that come to mind recently where Kendall Wallace has drawn on Lowell city election data with an outright "hat tip" to the source, Howe's site. Today's Chat (I would have linked but couldn't find it online) is another great example of a story that started online (specifically, on LiL) made its way into print. Wallace mentions the comment from the "Downtowner" who tried to smear Franky Descoteaux for somehow being un-American, the subsequent posting of Franky's bio to her site, the link from LiL, and some reader comments, to include one from LiL co-author Lynne Lupien.

Even though Wallace didn't mention LiL by name, he was transparent about his having drawn from "the blogs" for the piece. One finer point that was missed, however, is the distinction between "blogger" and "commenter." To me, the blogger is only the person writing the original post on a blog, and anyone who leaves a comment is just that -- a commenter.

I don't get tons of comments here, but in the case of the blogs that do, I hope that readers are able to distinguish the opinions and views of the writers from those who leave "drive-by" comments that may or may not add value or come from a genuine place.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Franky D Karaoke Pics

The Franky D fundraiser last night at the Old Court was a great time. Unfortunately, my camera batteries died on me halfway though, but I was still able to get a few shots, including Franky and Matt dancing, an amazing rendition of Earth, Wind, and Fire's "September," a duet featuring Ratriey's middle-school music teacher, Mrs. Neary, and of course Jerry Bisantz just lighting the place up everytime he got in front of the mic.

As the night went on, people seemed a lot more willing to get up and sing, which could either be attributed to the ice already having broken by others, or perhaps the cumulative effect that several cocktails can have on one's courage.

Several CC candidates were there, to include Paul Belley (who gave what I'm told was another great Sweet Caroline rendition, which I missed when I went downstairs to get food), Ryan Berard, Joe Mendonca, and probably several others and even a sitting Councilor or two that I may have missed from the table where we sat.

Also, Patrick Murphy's Meet and Greet / Charitable Fundraiser is going to be tonight, 14 AUG, at Hookslide Kelly's from 7:30-9:30.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gimmickry that Serves No One...Except John Frame

I saw the headline "Homeless at Harvard" in Sunday's Globe, so, like a sucker, I clicked on the story to read about Divinity School student John Frame's experiment with homelessness for this year's summer session. Basically, this 30 year-0ld who's working on his third Master's Degree and has plans for a doctorate is camping out in Cambridge Common and other spots around Harvard Square to try to understand the plight of the homeless. Or, maybe more accurately, to get 15 minutes of fame with a Globe story and a chance for a book deal someday.

To follow up on a piece I did last week about "Gotcha" journalism, which uses elaborate set-ups and hoaxes to try to prove how [insert synonym for 'reprehensible'] other people are, seeing the John Frame story made me realize how unimpressed and turned-off I am towards gimmicks like this.

Much like a person wearing a blindfold to experience blindness, or an aunt and uncle *borrowing* their nephews to understand parenting, John Frame isn't really going to ever be homeless during this experiment. At any moment, he can just walk away from his situation, which really makes him the total opposite of an *actual* homeless person resigned to his or her fate.

I think if John Frame were going to really sell all of his possessions, take a vow of poverty, and decide to actually live in the Great Outdoors -- to suffer through the harsh New England winters as well as its beautiful (albeit humid) summers, I would be more inclined to at least give him some credit for follow-through, even though I still don't know what it would prove.

But I just don't think this sort of stunt is going to help any actual homeless person. It may not directly hurt any actual homeless people either, so in a sense it's harmless.

But it still smacks of exploitation.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rosemont Block Party

On Saturday, a friend and I headed down to Rosemont (between Lafayette and Alma) for the block party. Highlights included Paul Belley crooning Sweet Caroline and another Neil Diamond hit (can't remember the name right now). Paul explained to us how the system of Street Captains, implemented in the wake of the flooding that dealt such a heavy blow to his neighborhood in 2006 and 2007, had so many spillover effects in other areas. As it turns out, the naming of one resident on each street as being *in charge* led to heightened levels of engagement and trust among the neighbors, and actually helped nip some small-scale problems in the bud. Paul is going to be on WCAP tomorrow morning (Monday the 10th) at 7:30 a.m.

We also had the chance to meet Joe Mendonca, another Pawtucketville resident running for Council this year. Joe explained some of his ideas for making Lowell more of a regional economic engine, as well as ways to bring more life to the Downtown.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Franky D Fundraiser at the Old Court -- Next Thursday, 13 AUG

Below is an e-mail that I received as a member of the Franky for Lowell list. This event is definitely inked in on my calendar, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun, but my only critique going in is that $50 to walk in the door ($25 for a ticket purchased at Humanity x 2) seems sort of steep. That said, I know money matters in politics, and I know that Franky's election would be a huge win for Downtown Lowell. Hope to see you there..

I have vowed a campaign of innovation and fresh ideas. Next Thursday, I will attempt to put my voice where my mouth is - with a unique Karaoke Fundraiser at the Old Court from 7:00pm - 10:00pm. The goal with this event is first and foremost to have some fun. We're hoping to bring a little levity to what some have described as a contentious political season.

We're using the "American Idol" format with gregarious host Jerry Bisantz, co-founder and director of Image Theater, and three celebrity judges: radio personality Bob Ellis, State Rep. Tom Golden, and entertainer Trish Neary.

Tickets are $30 at the door or $25 if purchased online or at my Campaign Headquarters, 128 Merrimack St., Lowell.

For more information please visit my website,

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

You + 42 = A Better Lowell

Here's an update to the previous press release from ONE Lowell, posted earlier this week. LTC's own Danny Dang is going to be working on a YouTube short to support the Choice Voting initiative, so look for a future link here on this site.

You + 42 = a Better Lowell: Kick Off on August 9th

On August 9th city reformers who commit to gathering 42 signatures will be meeting in Belvidere to commit to obtaining the remaining signatures needed for the petition to change Lowell’s voting system. The event is part of the Fair Vote Lowell Campaign, an initiative to replace Lowell’s “winner-take-all” system to the more democratic and fair “choice voting” system.

LOWELL, MA July 30, 2009 – On August 9th, dozens of citizens will meet together to commit to a final push in gathering the remaining signatures necessary for reforming Lowell’s antiquated voting system. Reformers will commit to gathering 42 signatures each before the deadline on August 27th for getting the petition on the ballot. Fair Vote Lowell currently has gathered over 2000 signatures but needs 4188 valid signatures to get the petition on the ballot.

On Sunday, August 9th, reformers will be meeting at 25 Fairmount St. in Lowell at 1:00 pm to get their training, petitions, and maps of city areas for them to cover. The event will provide food, drinks, and an opportunity for people to get to know other Lowell reformers. The event is open to all who want to join the Fair Vote Lowell campaign and be part of the You + 42 = a Better Lowell. It is also an opportunity for those who want to sign the petition but have not yet had the opportunity to drop by and sign it! For those who want be part of the You + 42 = a Better Lowell but cannot attend on Sunday, please contact Victoria Fahlberg at 978-654-6957 x 102.

According to Victoria Fahlberg of Fair Vote Lowell, “The good news is that nearly every person we speak with is happy to sign the petition and have voiced a lot of support for Choice Voting. The bad news is that summertime is not the best time for going door to door, as so many people aren’t at home.”

Reformers are frustrated with the current “at-large,” “winner-take-all” voting system that allows for as few as 51% of voters to win up to all 9 city council seats. The remaining 49% of voters often feel that their vote doesn’t count. When that happens, they eventually become discouraged and stop voting. In fact, voter turnout in Lowell has declined from over 70% before adopting the current system to the dismal 26% turnout in the last election. The current system also creates barriers for candidates from smaller neighborhoods, lower income neighborhoods, and diverse neighborhoods from being elected. Finally, it is very expensive for new candidates to run a winning campaign. In 2005 the average cost for first time winning candidates was $31,649 and in 2007 that increased to $42,682.

Fair Vote organizers feel that now is the time for Lowell to revitalize its city government. Many of Lowell’s brightest and most talented residents won’t run for office because the barriers to getting elected feel overwhelming. According to Dayne Lamb, a Fair Vote Lowell reformer and downtown resident, “Choice voting allows everyone in Lowell to win. It levels the playing field for all City Council and School Committee candidates, offering voters a real opportunity to make their vote count whether in support of a new challenger or familiar incumbent. A fair, choice vote system is more representative than our current system and feeling like your vote counts encourages voter turnout. This is good for democracy and will be great for Lowell!”

Again, August 9th is the day for those who want to reform Lowell’s voting system and to join with other committed reformers and make change happen. The location is 25 Fairmount St. in Lowell, meeting time is 1:00pm. All reformers welcome! Lots of good food!

About Fair Vote Lowell:
Fair Vote Lowell is an initiative to increase voter participation, open up opportunities for new candidates, and create local elective bodies that are representative of all residents in Lowell, Massachusetts. Our mission is simple: To transform Lowell's voting system for local elections of city councilors and school committee from the current "Winner take All" system to "Choice Voting", a system that is fair and promotes greater representation for all.

Victoria Fahlberg ONE Lowell978-654-6957

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Social Capital: A Positive-Sum Game

I just got back from Hot Dog Diplomacy, a gathering of local bloggers, commenters, Tweeters, City Council candidates, local hot dog fans, and friends and family thereof. It was proposed on a blog ( after its author had a light-bulb-over-the-head moment while talking to the owner of the just-reopened Elliot's -- why not bring together the online community together to celebrate the reopening? This came, of course, on the heels of a lot of recent online discussion about the pros and cons of anonymity as well as the recent Gates-Crowley incident in Cambridge (hence the title of the event). The idea was born, the blogs and Facebook were the media used to publicize, and a lot of people just had a great time.

The event didn't cost anything to put together and it didn't monopolize anyone's time or have any dominant viewpoint or agenda...on the contrary, it was really just a bunch of people hanging out in the store and out on Elliot Street meeting new people (bridging social capital) and catching up with people they already know (bonding social capital).

Events like these strengthen the community because they increase our overall level of social capital without any cost to anyone. We all get to eat from the pie, but when we do, there isn't anything fact, it's actually bigger when we all walk away.

The easy thing to say is 'let's do this more often,' which works to the point that it's not over-diluted. For what it's worth, I'll throw out that once every couple months seems like the ideal periodicity for open events like this that bring the online world into the real world.

At least four City Council challengers were present: Franky Descoteaux, Paul Belley, Ryan Berard, and Patrick Murphy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fair Vote Lowell Press Release

Below is a press release from Fair Vote Lowell:

City Reformers Hit the Streets on August 9th

On August 9th city reformers will be canvassing Lowell’s neighborhoods in an effort to obtain the remaining signatures needed for the petition to change Lowell’s voting system. The event is part of the Fair Vote Lowell Campaign, an initiative to replace Lowell’s “winner-take-all” system to the more democratic and fair “choice voting” system.

LOWELL, MA July 30, 2009 – On August 9th, dozens of committed citizens will take to the streets in an effort to reform Lowell’s voting system. They will go door-to-door in neighborhoods across the city collecting signatures to get a petition on the November 3rd ballot to replace Lowell’s current “winner-take-all” voting system to the more democratic and fair “choice voting” system. It is also an opportunity for those who want to sign the petition but have not yet had the opportunity to drop by and sign it!

Organized by the Fair Vote Lowell Campaign, the event anticipates that dozens of people will get over 2400 signatures in about four hours. The event is open to anyone who wants to help revitalize Lowell’s voting system. Participants will meet at 25 Fairmont Street in Lowell at 1:00 pm on August 9th to get their training and marching orders.

Armed with petitions, pens, maps, voter registration lists, food and drinks, this band of reformers are confident that the first step to changing Lowell’s voting system will be accomplished. Event organizers plan to end the day with more food, fun and lively conversation. For those who want to participate but cannot make the August 9th date, please contact event organizers.

Fair Vote Lowell reformers are frustrated with the current “at-large,” “winner-take-all” voting system that allows for as few as 51% of voters to win up to all 9 city council seats. The remaining 49% of voters often feel that their vote doesn’t count. When that happens, they eventually become discouraged and stop voting. In fact, voter turnout in Lowell has declined from over 70% before adopting the current system to the dismal 26% turnout in the last election. The current system also creates barriers for candidates from smaller neighborhoods, lower income neighborhoods, and diverse neighborhoods from being elected. Finally, it is very expensive for new candidates to run a winning campaign. In 2005 the average cost for first time winning candidates was $31,649 and in 2007 that increased to $42,682.

Fair Vote organizers feel that now is the time for Lowell to revitalize its city government. Many of Lowell’s brightest and most talented residents won’t run for office because the barriers to getting elected feel overwhelming. According to Victoria Fahlberg, a Fair Vote Lowell reformer, “The entire city is losing out with the current system. Choice voting in Lowell will level the playing field for new candidates. It is a system that is more democratic than what we currently have and will provide fair representation for all of Lowell’s residents.”

Again, August 9th is the day for those who want to reform Lowell’s voting system and to join with other committed reformers and make change happen. The location is 25 Fairmount St. in Lowell, meeting time is 1:00pm. All reformers welcome!

About Fair Vote Lowell:

Fair Vote Lowell is an initiative to increase voter participation, open up opportunities for new candidates, and create local elective bodies that are representative of all residents in Lowell, Massachusetts. Our mission is simple: We’re here to transform Lowell's voting system for local elections of city councilors and school committee from the current "Winner take All" system to "Choice Voting", a system that is fair and promotes greater representation for all.

Victoria Fahlberg ONE Lowell 978-654-6957

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Caveat Twitterius

This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, which dealth with the threat that spoofing creates for on-line communities.

At the end of the day, though, spoofing is really just a type of prank. There are ways to avoid it, there are verification safeguards, and then there's the way it could lose value upon exposure.

The REAL threat -- and this time I mean it! -- may come from people trying to elicit personal information or otherwise scam you using these sites. Since I opened a Twitter account a few months ago, I've noticed that I've gotten dozens of "followers" who I've never heard of. Considering I haven't actually tweeted since the week I opened the account (not that I wouldn't do it, I just haven't), I don't think I've suddenly found legions who love my debonair wit (yeah, right). That hasn't happened so much with Facebook, but I did just notice a bikini model who I'd never heard of, claiming to be a member of my graduating class, trying to "friend" me. Thankfully, with Facebook you can nip that stuff in the bud by not confirming.

I don't really know why this happens.

With a hat tip to Occam and his Razor, the Twitter thing may just be mistaken identity. I have a common first name and a somewhat common last name, so it's quite possible that it was a simple case of the wrong Greg Page. (There are two minor celebrities with the same name, so that adds to the plausibility here).

Next, it might just be someone trying to inflate his or her own stats. Actual celebrities with actual accounts are known to have millions of followers. People looking for their own ego boost, or just trying to cure boredom, might try to manipulate their own follower numbers by blindly adding thousands and thousands of people that they follow. The Big Idea here is that if half those people reciprocate the follow, a pimply kid drinking soda in his basement could eventually have more followers than Brad Pitt.

Third, it could be a commercial thing. Since the dawn of marketing, companies have been looking to target their advertising using clever consumer research. By scooping up tons of information about what people do and don't like -- and then hiring an intern or two to sort it all out over Starbucks -- someone, somewhere thinks they're going to make a buck. It could also be someone's inroad into a marketing pitch (again, that's with the idea that a certain percentage of people will automatically reciprocate follows).

Next, it might be scam-related. We've all heard about the long-lost relative scams, the click- here-for-the-survey-that-asks-for-personal-info scam, etc. The only limit on these types of scams is the creativity of the scam writer.

To take it another step into the dark side, someone could be trying to craft a set up. I'm not sure how many documented cases of this (can you say 'urban legend'?) but I have heard people tell me about a scam that involves someone Facebook friending people in his area using some bogus "party guy" image. He (or they) gather/s information about all these "friends," to include things like addresses, phone numbers, workplaces, etc. Because people often post personal data in their status updates, i.e. Jamie and the boyz are soooo totally going to Cancun next week...YEAAAH!, the supposed Facebook friend now has the info he needs to be able to rob Jamie's house clean before he gets back. For that example, which really doesn't seem too far-fetched, take all the many ways theft can be done entirely online, and you can see why people who would do us harm can probably find endless sources of baseline material online.

At the end of the day, a little bit of common sense and discretion can probably get people around most of this. Still, it's just important to keep in mind that there are going to be bad actors lurking in ANY community, and the on-line one is no different.

So when bikini models who you've never heard of suddenly want to be your *friend* it might be wise to check your vanity at the door.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Actual Threat to Online Communities

Last night, I wound up having a long conversation with the friend of mine who first suggested to me that even with its elaborate set-ups and clever video manipulation, "Borat" failed to show Americans as a bunch of boorish clowns. Instead, it showed how even a bunch of people who could no sooner leap mountains than find Kazakhstan on a world map were more or less welcoming to an overbearing stranger with some wacky personal habits.

He just saw "Bruno," which is apparently supposed to show Americans are a bunch of homophobic clowns, but may actually have more to say about whether we're a bunch of Bruno-phobic people wary of overbearing imposter Austrians. (And that comes in addition to the tiredness of the Germans-and-Austrians-as-Nazis brand of comedy...again, not an offense to my sense of empathy for modern-day German speakers or to victims of Nazis, but a full and painful affront to the funnybone).

Anyway, we got to talking about the Internet and identity. After both taking a very middle-of-the-road position on anonymity (at the end of the day, it's the writer's choice, it's been around forever and not about to go anywhere), we got to talking about an actual threat to online communities -- identity spoofing.

There have been many famous cases of this in the past -- two that come to mind right away are that of baseball manager Tony LaRussa and NBA player Ron Artest -- both have had people create Twitter accounts purporting to be the celebrity and making comments that caused massive ripples across the Internet, and, of course, reverberating soundly throughout the "real world." In LaRussa's case, it led to a lawsuit against Twitter.

More recently, a New York tabloid had reported on its gossip page that a New York Mets player had been out cavorting with some young bimbos at a certain nightspot...when in fact, he had been with his wife in the hospital, who was giving birth to their child at the time. The Post's source for their "information"? Twitter. Sure enough, someone created an account using the player's name and identity in order to put out the disinformation.

Also this week, I heard about a catering service owner being *busted* for ordering all of his employees to give five-star reviews for his wonderful food and service on a particular Internet review website (thankfully, it didn't take much sleuthing to figure out something was up when the site got hit with the flood of near-simultaneous glowing reviews...or when two of the employees made formal complaints the next day). On top of that, I was giving a book an *Amazon read* when I saw comments that were casting a lot of other comments into doubt. I had never really thought about the verification mechanisms before, but it seems that publishers and authors have very obvious, and very perverse, incentives to manipulate those ratings.

I don't think anonymous writers are creating a threat to this community -- the virtual one, the bricks, mortar, and people one -- or the areas where the two come together (i.e. Hot Dog Diplomacy). If comments become too incendiary, authors can screen them out, before or after the fact. If bloggers become too incendiary, they can be marginalized -- much like a TV channel you don't enjoy watching, you can simply not click on the site for a blog you don't want to read.

In fact, even for the warts it does have, anonymous writing has a type of purity that the "open kimono" variety doesn't -- by definition, you can't be a self-promoter if there's no tangible, flesh-and-blood *self* to be promoted by whatever it is you're putting out.

But I'm a bit more worried about spoofing...I guess it could go "real world" as well (For instance, no one from the Sun verified a letter I had sent them before they published). But online it just seems too easy. A comment style -- for instance, a mini *letter* to the author closed with a "best, [insert author's initials]" could be easily aped. Amazon reviews, or reviews, can be manipulated to steer business to or from an establishment or corporation. A false Twitter account could make people really believe you're making light of dead St. Louis Cardinals.

Maybe as media formats like Facebook and Twitter mature, better verification measures will be put in place.

Maybe if false alarm commenting becomes a problem, bloggers can tie comments to specific, vetted e-mail addresses before posting.

Maybe Amazon will find ways to flag suspicious patterns of five-star and one-star comments.

In the meantime, though, I may need a grain of salt to go with what I digest online.