Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chris Tyll for State Senate (Maine)

I learned today from a buddy who I served with in Iraq in 2006-07 that one of our platoon leaders, Chris Tyll, recently launched a bid for a State Senate seat in Maine.

I was thrilled to hear it.

I was at Chris' command at Little Creek (sort of Norfolk, sort of Virginia Beach) and first met him in 2005. I was the N2 (that's the Intel Officer) of the Task Unit that deployed with his platoon to Fallujah in October 2006.

Suffice to say, we got to know each other much more closely then. As the mentor of a group of Iraqi Policemen (IP) who essentially became the Fallujah SWAT Team, Chris trained and operated with his fellow SEALs and the Iraqis, day-in and day-out for several months. Meanwhile, he put a tremendous amount of trust in me, which was unusual because I was an Ensign (he was an O-3) and, more importantly, I was a non-SEAL attached to his unit in a support role. He trusted me enough to let me *hold my own* in town with the Marines and the IPs. This, in turn, let me carry out my job in a completely different, better way than I could have if I had been tethered and chained to the FOB. His guys came out way better for it, I came away with a ton of confidence that I carried with me right into the Army (...if only all the people cracking those 'Navy guy' jokes had any idea!), and more than a few ne'er-do-wells were swept off the battlefield at the same time that the Sunni tribe-inspired "Anbar Awakening" was taking hold across the Euphrates River Valley.

I haven't kept in touch with Chris much since I PCS'd from that command in March 2008, but I know he moved to Portland, bought a pizza place (Pat's Pizza) and is very active in veterans' causes in the Portland area. This may not seem relevant in the bigger context, but I'll also note that he was a Surface Warfare Officer who deployed twice (I believe on the Valley Forge and the Princeton) before going to BUD/S and becoming a SEAL. That experience, plus his USNA and NAPS time, means he can relate to veterans all across the spectrum of experience and Military Occupational Specialties. It probably didn't hurt that he was born in a place called 'Bad Axe.' Seriously.

Chris' leadership had a big impact on my military career, and, by extension, my life. He took a risk by placing me in a somewhat atypical role, and the impact of that decision isn't lost on me. I have no doubt he would make an excellent State Senator for Maine, and wish him the best of luck in the process.

Steady Mobbin'

As I woke up early this morning to feed the little one, I jumped back into bed planning to drift right back to sleep. On a whim, however, I grabbed my phone and started scanning some of the day's headlines. When a headline about a "Cash Mob" in Malden caught my eye, I clicked, thinking, "Hey, didn't we just have one of those here?"

Sure enough, Lowell got some great coverage in this article. The author, Kathleen Pierce, notes that a cash mob earlier this week descended upon Humanity and Mambo Grill. Owner Franky Descoteaux, is on record referring to the "strong sense that the community was supporting you through the effort. It was a great blessing." She experienced a 15-20 percent sales spike during the cash mob.

Interestingly, the article mentions at the end how the guy who hatched the idea had no idea how it would go, and were really just hoping that "a single person would show up." The neat thing is that once a movement gains enough steam to get coverage like this in the Globe, it will attract more participants. Like any trend, it just needs a big enough tailwind to really take off initially...and sometimes, people are drawn to it just because lots of other people are drawn to it.

My unsolicited $0.02 to the folks running the Lowell Cash Mob is to just make sure they're done often enough to buoy people's interest, but that they're *rare* enough to remain special. I'm not sure what the magical periodicity would be on this, but my hunch is once a month.

If you're curious about when the next one might pop up in Lowell, follow @LowellCashMob on Twitter. (That's how the Mayor's Office got tipped off, btw).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Sisters We Hardly Know

Today, Mayor Murphy was telling me about one of the many ideas on his mind -- reviving the relationship between Lowell and the Sister Cities that have formally been designated as such over the course of Lowell's history. In most cases, the relationships have lain more or less dormant for years.

Just a couple hours later, a sizable delegation from CAMOLA
(Cameroonians of Lowell Association) dropped in during the
Mayor's Office Hours (4-6 Weds., 3-5 Fri...come as you are, no appointment needed).

The major issue on their minds was a restoration of Lowell's Sister City relationship with Bamenda, Cameroon. No surprise -- Mayor Murphy wants to take the initial steps on this via social media. We learned from the CAMOLA leaders that many people in Bamenda are plugged in to things like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Lowell has several other Sister City relationships, all of which can be used for mutual benefit. As the Cameroonian-Americans in the office reminded us today, the relationship between Lowell and Bamenda should not be seen as one in which Lowell acts as a benefactor or charity FOR Bamenda, but instead one in which Lowell and Bamenda help each other, serving as mutual benefactors.

The revival of the Sister City relationships is one of several initiatives that will spring from the Mayor's Office over the coming weeks and months -- not as a charity or a 'feel-good' story for the groups that will be directly involved, but instead as a source of mutual education and enrichment.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Every Public Figure's Dilemma

With a whopping one week under my belt now about life as a quasi-public figure, at least in a hyper-local sense, here's one thing I've found: You have to walk a fine line about what you do, or don't respond to.

If you follow the Stephanopoulos/Carville line of thinking from 1992, encapsulated by the chapter in Hardball titled "Leave No Shot Unanswered," you respond to everything. By doing so, you're *in the ring* but you also open yourself up to charges of being thin-skinned, irritable, soft, petty, etc.

If you ignore whatever *it* is, you stay out of the fray, and avoid the risk of dragging *it* out even further, but you also must accept the fact that "history's first draft" got it wrong, and your non-response will be seen by some as tacit acknowledgement.

This all popped up for me based on something printed in the Lowell Sun's The Column.

There was a quote printed there, purportedly from me, that was not a misquote, or a quote taken out of context, or a misunderstanding, or an I-thought-it-was-off-the-record, or whatever other such thing that public figures often say when quotes show up that put them in an unflattering light.

It was fiction. I had one 30-second phone call with a single staffer from a single office (you can guess it if you like one-in-four odds). That person said "This person cannot do such-and-such" and I replied, "Okay, I understand...thanks." Bear in mind, this happened on my first day on the job. During the first morning.

I didn't have to pick this battle, or write this post -- I saw online that Cliff Krieger and Kad Barma did the fighting for me. I also saw that Jack Mitchell took the time to point out that Tom Golden and I were laughing about it yesterday afternoon at Dom Polski.

The reason I'm not more upset, though, is that the supposed "quote" didn't go after something truly personal like character or integrity. Instead, it made me sound either like a bumbling Jarhead or the next coming of H.R. Haldeman.

If you want a real scandal, I'll throw all the clues on the table: I went to the ONLY River Hawks game that I saw the entire season and walked away with the full enchilada for the next season -- season tix to the Pavilion, a VIP suite for a game, and some badass gear. I was then offered a job that presented a perfect opportunity for myriad reasons, even though I didn't even know it existed until the offer came -- expecting only pad thai on the way in. Then I went to the Water Festival fundraiser, bought a raffle ticket, and took the Khmer tapestry. The next day, stopping in at CNAG only expecting to stay long enough to say hi to Jack, Bob, and Ann Marie (no relation), came away a couple hours later with three straight raffle prizes worth a few hundy.

If it sounds like I'm counting the cards, or weighting the dice, or paying the White Sox not to win the Series, those would all be more plausible than the idea that I'm going to screw up the chain of command and forget protocol and process along the way.

And besides, that might make for a more fun story.

LDNA Summary, 26MAR

Tonight, the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association met at LTC.

7:05 p.m. Meeting begins. All current Officers are re-elected to positions, which will be for a two-year duration (Kathleen Marcin - President; Stephen Green, Vice-President; Greg Page - Treasurer; Adam Jensen - Secretary).

Kathleen introduces Greg Page and asks him to discuss initiatives coming from the Office of the Mayor. Discussion includes mayor's office hours (4-6 p.m. Weds, 3-5 p.m. Fri), @LowellMayor Twitter account, coming Public Service Announcement campaign about city ordinances (designed so that people don't learn about ordinances AS they're being fined/punished), and a UML/Middlesex/LHS service learning requirement hub (more details coming down the road on that one, stay tuned).

7:18 p.m. Andy Jacobsen, owner of Brew'd Awakenings (61 Market) spoke to the group about "Busk Stops." Busk Stops are used in several cities in Canada and in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. All they really are designated areas in which buskers, or live musicians, can perform. The idea is to pick spots around downtown during which musicians can play between the hours of 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily. Musicians would be able to put out a coin basket or guitar case and collect donations or sell CDs. They would not, however, be able to solicit or harass. No amplification would be allowed. Performers would not be allowed to use profanity or threatening language. Busk Stops would be marked with fact, that's the only cost of a busk stop. They would help bring life to downtown. At the beginning, they would probably not be might take a little while for the idea to take hold. There would be 4 busk stops spread across downtown. They would possibly not be used during the Folk Festival. There is no scheduling or arrangement associated with busk stops. The general rule is that any musician can play for up to an hour (although they could play longer if no one is waiting). Andy's next step is to meet with several of the CCs to *pitch* the idea, explain how it would work, and answer their questions one-on-one. Several cities in TN use busk stops as part of what they call the "Main Street Program." KMM points out that we've always talked about "needing more people on the street...we need that critical mass."

7:44 p.m. Stephen Greene talks about the coming Spring Cleanup. With Earth Day coming on Sunday, 22APR, the downtown planned cleanup is slated for Sat, 21APR (rain date is 28APR). Most likely rally point is Mack Plaza at 0900.

7:48 p.m. License Commission. Next meeting is this Thursday for the Big Fortunato Summit (BFS). Several LPD officers will speak at the BFS. After that, the next License Commission meeting will be held on 12APR at 6:30 p.m.

7:52 p.m. Issues surrounding the Major's-to-the-Dub building move. Folks on Middle Street could be affected negatively by the noise.

8:01 p.m. Stephen Greene announces that on the second Saturday of the month, e-waste can be brought to the Prince Spaghetti factory.

8:20 p.m. Meeting adjourns.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Recognizing Good Government

Today's WSJ ran a great article highlighting the work of Rhode Island's Democratic State Treasurer, Gina Raimondi, who has worked against powerful union interests to prevent Rhode Island's pension liability from ruining the state.

Some highlights:

"The new law shifts all workers from defined-benefit pensions into hybrid plans, which include a modest annuity and a defined-contribution component. It also increases the retirement age to 67 from 62 for all workers and suspends cost-of-living adjustments for retirees until the pension system, which is only about 50% funded, reaches a more healthy state."

"Because there has been little legislative or public support for raising taxes, the Ocean State has been cutting public services to pay its pension bills."

"Soon after she set to work on fixing the state's pension system, flouting the advice of her Democratic colleagues. 'Candidly, most people in my political circle told me not to do it because it is politically challenging and it's kind of the third rail,' she says. 'So most political advice I got was: Don't own the issue. Stay away from the issue. Put it on someone else.'"

It was great to read the article -- not just to learn about what she did but HOW she did it...she reached out to the unions and criss-crossed the state (okay well in RI that part's not hard) to explain why it was important.

The article hits upon the theme that you can't *just* jack up your property taxes endlessly. The problem with that is that people have the freedom to move. Central Falls, RI learned that the hard way -- when more residents then leave, a vicious circle is created by the decline in city revenue.

The second theme that it hits upon is a personal favorite -- preventing the system from falling off a cliff should NOT be seen as being anti-government or anti-government employees. In fact, it should be seen as the complete opposite: by saving the system from imploding, you're protecting the livelihoods and the retirements of the very people whose hard work keeps it running.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mayor's Open Door (Press Release)

Lowell, MA, March 20, 2012 – Mayor Patrick Murphy has formally announced that he will hold Office Hours in the Office of the Mayor in City Hall. During two designated time periods each week – 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays – Lowellians will be able to meet with the Mayor on a drop-in basis to discuss whatever issues, concerns, or ideas are on their minds. No appointments are necessary.

The announcement of formal Office Hours fits with one of Mayor Murphy’s primary objectives during his tenure as Lowell’s Mayor – increasing citizens’ direct access to government.

“Too often, citizens feel disengaged from government, even at the municipal level, because of a distance they perceive between themselves and the people making the decisions,” Murphy said. “By announcing regular blocks of time during which I can be accessible, I hope to break down that perceived barrier. There are people in this city who have lived and worked here for years, but have never been inside this office, which is really their office,” he added.

Mayor Murphy will also hold “Virtual Office Hours” the first Monday of each month from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. During that time period, Mayor Murphy will be signed on to his Facebook page, available to chat, respond to Wall Posts, or Facebook messages in real time. Mayor Murphy’s first Virtual Office Hours will be held on Monday, April 2nd.

Direct meetings with the Mayor are not limited to the Office Hour blocks of time of Wednesdays and Fridays. Any resident who would like to meet with Mayor Murphy, but cannot do so during those times because of work, family, or other commitments, can reach out to directly to the Office of the Mayor to schedule a more convenient time. To schedule a meeting with Mayor Murphy, please contact Greg Page at (978) 674-1551 or e-mail

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Location, Location...and Lowell

Today's Sunday Globe Magazine ran a piece about 11 commonwealth towns and cities whose real estate values have weathered the storm of recession and the busting of the housing bubble.
Only one of the municipalities -- Great Barrington -- is west of Lowell.

The article notes that, "Some of the winning communities -- such as Somerville, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain -- are especially attractive to young professionals, particularly since home prices in these spots are more within reach (though still well over the state median)."

Of course, that all depends whose reach you're talking about. The median values in Somerville, Charlestown, and JP are, respectively: $445,000, $620,000, and $500,500. Especially with the way loan information verification and minimum required down payments have changed in the last several years, I have no clue how a young professional is going to plunk down a payment, and then afford to keep up with, notes that large. Absent a rich (and generous!) family member or some great investment skill/luck, that's hard for a lot of young people to do.

Enter Lowell.

Assume a young professional single person or couple is employed or going to school in Boston or its immediate environs. Maybe they're set in what they're doing, or maybe they want to keep options open, but they realize that most of the likely options are in or near the Unofficial Capital of New England, and want to buy a place and stay within reasonable commuting ease/distance. With Brockton excepted (equidistant from Boston and Providence, both less than 30m), the other Gateway Cities (if we're using MASSInc's original list of 11), just aren't going to let you do that.

New Bedford and Fall River, at twice Lowell's distance from Boston, work for commutes to Providence but not up to the Hub of the World (I'm sure some people do it, but most would not. Worcester, Haverhill, and Fitchburg all have mass transit options, but if you needed to use a car sometimes, would cause you WAY more headaches over the course of a commuting year than Rte 3-128-93 would (not that it's easy to do except in off-peak hours, but still...)

Of course, Holyoke, Pittsfield, and Springfield aren't even in this equation.

For people looking to buy, but priced out of Cambridge-Somerville-JP-Charlestown and still looking to commute to Boston, or at least keep the option alive, you'd be down to just Lowell and Brockton as far as the original 11 Gateway Cities go. Oh, and Lawrence.

Without even getting into a which-of-these-cities-offers-the-most for people hypothetical scenario with a predictable outcome, or explaining why I would RATHER live in Lowell than in the trendier yuppie-burgs, I would just point out the obvious but sometimes-underappreciated Lowell's geography is an important factor in its appeal.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Scott Brown at the SAC

Senator Brown appeared at the SAC last night for a fundraiser. In a brief speech, he hit upon all his basic "bread-and-butter" talking points:

* We should be careful not to let America drift off in the direction of Greece or other struggling European nations that didn't think ahead on fiscal/monetary matters

* Rather than just demonize the 1%, we should do whatever we can to encourage innovation, investment, and employment.

* He talked about how his recent support for things like VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) angered some fringe conservatives, but that he didn't mind because he reads legislation, and then votes the way he wants to, rather than kowtow to a party line. He also drew on personal experience -- as a six year-old, he tried to violently intervene to prevent his mother from being surprise here, those attempts were not successful. He knows this issue because he has seen it and lived it.

* He really beat his *I'm a regular guy* drum, which I'm personally not a huge fan, because I kind of disagree (how many regular guys serve in the US Senate and earned a big chunk of their livelihood as male models?), but also because I file that stuff under "things you don't need to advertise if they stand on their own." Kind of like how it drives me nuts when people talk about how "humble" they are, or even better yet, when people insistently advertise -- unsolicited -- how they "don't care what other people think." It's like, the more you need to tell people that, the less true it must be [insert quote about honor and silverware here].

Still, nothing is perfect. Scott Brown is no exception. Still, I really believe him when he says he votes his conscience. I also believe the GOP needs its moderates and its compromisers.

A wee bit of honesty doesn't hurt either -- I'd rather hear a Presidential candidate acknowledge that the President doesn't set or control gas prices than hear some baloney promise about "$2.50 a gallon" just because it rouses the rabble.

Well, What if it Works?

There was a great piece in today's WSJ about how New Orleans' Idea Village spawned an entrepreneurial community in The Big Easy that reached a level of critical mass that has helped make the city a draw for other entrepreneurs.

The opening paragraphs talk about how the founders were initially rebuffed by doubters, but charged ahead anyway, being bold enough to ask "Well, what if it works?"

It didn't take long for me to think, "Why not here?" Why not a North-by-Northeast conference? This one is getting tacked to the idea board...

Friday, March 16, 2012

A View From the Cheap Seats...St Patty's Breakfast Wrap-Up

This won't be a comprehensive summary of the speeches at this morning's St. Patrick's Day breakfast at the ICC, but just a couple things I scratched down in my program during the event.
The trick with the speeches at these sorts of things is to throw some jabs with just enough *oopmh* to actually land, but still keeping everything above the belt. That's not easy to do. If you try to go too tame, you won't be funny (and if you just substitute the names of people present into well-worn jokes that don't even necessarily apply to them, then you're just going to elicit groans). If you go too acerbic, you still wind up with the proverbial turd-in-the-punchbowl problem: People are a lot thinner-skinned in reality than they are in theory. Besides, humor shouldn't be used to mask actual barbs...if you recall the speech Owen Wilson gave to Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers, his advice was sage -- "Everyone knows Jen loves to shop..." can be a lead-in to some guffaws and knee-slapping, but if you are going to use the pretext of humor to stand up and point out people's flaws, you're going to hear the caterers clinking the glasses, so to speak.

Anyway, back to the speeches. I didn't think there were any below-the-ribs uppercuts today. The Sun caught a lot of flak, unsurprisingly, but that was such a common theme that Campanini was able to just sort of raise his glass and roll with it. The CM's line about having more writers than the Sun landed in the sweet spot I described above, because it addressed issues of New Media vs. Old Media and the fading relevance of the city's paper of record, but left just enough unsaid so that those who know the background of the issues between the two institutions could enjoy what he pointed out, but there was no blunt force behind it...someone coming in from Elizabeth Warren's staff, for instance, might not know why it was so funny to some of us in the crowd.

Ditto for the CM's line about Sam Poulten registering ten times on the sign-in sheets, or Mayor Murphy's bit about the different advice that he and Rodney Elliott (the counter-Bernie) received when they asked Lynch a year ago about how they could speak at the breakfast -- that joke touched on Elliott's mayoral aspirations and his rivalry with Lynch without hitting any raw nerves.

One thing that people forget all too often when speaking in public: stay on your toes just enough so that you're able to call an audible when you need to. Senator Brown opened right up with, "It's great to be here with all these wonderful distinguished speakers, guests, etc...[and then, while glancing down at Murphy and losing the cheerful tone that the sentence started with] and the Mayor." Boilerplate stuff, but it was well-delivered and set the tone for the rest of Brown's speech.

Here's where Elizabeth Warren made a wrong turn: She gave the EXACT same opener. Maybe that's a sign that it's a hackneyed opening, but regardless, the bigger point is that she should've scratched that intro altogether. The joke simply doesn't work when someone just gave it, two speeches ago.

On a sidenote, that kind of reminds me of some of the interminable "hot-button issue" CC meetings where people come with prepared speeches. If someone gets up before you and says exactly what you were going to say, making all your key points, asking for the same considerations, etc. Just acknowledge what the previous speaker said, state your emphatic agreement, and be done. Don't just barrel ahead with Diatribe 1.0 just because it's what you prepared.

Kudos to State Rep. Tom Golden for originality with the movie posters (but could Henri Marchand have made a better Mini-Me?) and for Rep. Nangle continuing to *own* his cell-phone message bit. As for Rep. Murphy, I wasn't a fan of the pre-fab [insert name of subject here] jokes, but I will say this: He kept it short. Most of the speakers overshot the four-minute time limit, which dulled the audience's edge for speeches later in the lineup. This is probably the oldest advice around speech-giving, but that doesn't make it any less true: When in doubt, keep it short.

Sheriff Koutoujian drew some applause when he started a sentence with "In conclusion..." [think Bill Clinton at the 1988 Dem. Nat'l Convention] which might have been the funniest moment during his speech. Where he really confused people in the crowd who didn't know he had an Assistant in his office named "Pat Murphy" was the long, apocryphal story about "Pat Murphy" being arrested by his guys, which led the folks at our table (Citizens Media Group) to wonder: a) where is this material coming from? and b) who the heck calls our Mayor 'Pat?' Maybe a lot of people in the audience knew they weren't one and the same, but (speaking for one table, at least), that explained the puzzled silence from us during that part of the program. We only learned afterwards that the entire joke had nothing to with Hizzoner, the Mayor.

And speaking of keeping it brief, I hereby conclude this blog entry!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

ACE: Coming to Lowell

American Capital Energy recently announced it would be moving its corporate HQ to Pawtucket Boulevard in Lowell. It outgrew its old digs in North Chelmsford and expects its rapid growth to continue. From its website:

American Capital Energy is the premiere solar engineering, procurement and construction contractor and solar developer in the United States. We help businesses adopt solar power as a viable cost-savings solution. We also work with utilities to meet their renewable energy portfolio standard requirements through strategic partnerships with solar photovoltaic (PV) module manufacturers and experienced installation companies.

Founded in 2005, ACE is a privately held, American-owned and operated company with roots in solar dating back to the 1970s. We have installed more than 40 MW of solar PV in seven states. Our projects include some of the most challenging brownfield installations and some of the largest solar rooftop arrays in the United States. We are also currently managing 20 percent of all utility-scale arrays under construction in the United States for 2010.

Our clients depend on us as a preferred vendor and partner. We are committed to delivering projects on time, on budget and exceeding power production estimates. Whatever a client’s project needs, ACE provides a finished solar array that is both good for the environment and good for business.

Kudos to Theresa Park and everyone else in DPD who helped make this happen. In a perfect world, more clean energy companies will see what ACE saw in Lowell, and a critical mass will form that will attract more fledgling companies to set up shop here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

All Things, Trivial

The missus and I are hanging out this week with my parents in Florida.

It's a great deal all-around -- the grandparents get to spend time with their granddaughter, and we get a nice little break from the real world. This is the first time I've really relaxed since leaving Afghanistan (Fort Dix was easy but this isn't even comparable). In fact, yesterday I had to ask -- seriously -- what day of the week it was. If there were ever a litmus test to really *getting away,* that'd be it.

The other night we went to a trivia event sponsored by the retirement community in which my parents live. It was a lot of fun -- the range of ages, backgrounds, and experiences at the table came together to put us *just* outside the money, but we had a blast doing it.

And one of the reasons it was great is that the almost entirely senior citizen crowd didn't bring smartphones to the fight. In fact, most of the people there probably either didn't own them, or at least didn't know how to operate them.

Smartphones have taken a lot of the fun away from trivia events that are theoretically supposed to be about pooling together the collective experience and knowledge of a diverse group in order to achieve a goal. Seeing people use smartphones at trivia events is discouraging, esp. because it's hard to police the activity (hey, I was just texting!), so all you can do is just grin and bear it. I'm not necessarily blaming the event organizers, either, because it's hard for them to enforce the policy without turning into probing hall monitors.

Either way, glad to know the seniors are doing the trivia thing the right way!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Caveat Emptor: Force-Placed Insurance

A judge in Florida recently granted class action status to a group of homeowners trying to fight back against Wells Fargo for force-placing hazard insurance on their homes, at prices far beyond market rates (and for which Wells took a kickback from the insurer!)

That's good news for homeowners. I say that with personal knowledge because I am now dealing with the fact that a very expensive flood insurance policy was force-placed on my unit while I was deployed.

I'm not screaming and yelling, because there are *sort of* two sides to this -- I ignored some fine print, and I did not renew the policy that I took out the last time I went through this consumer nightmare (regardless of the fact that I don't live in a flood zone...or that I'm six stories up)! I think I sort of treated it like the problem that would go away if I just ignored it.

I will fight this, but only as much as time and energy allow. In the meantime, most of my tax refund is about to vanish into thin air.

Here's why I decided to post: If YOU are thinking about buying a home, or just bought a home (or heck, if you own ANY home with an outstanding mortgage held by a bank), take the time to FIND OUT if you might be on the hook for any hazard insurance that could theoretically be force-placed upon you.

Big companies like Wells Fargo are banking (literally) on the fact that a certain percentage of homeowners won't read all the fine print, won't carefully screen every piece of mail that comes from the company, and won't bark loud enough when the Big Squeeze comes.

Trust me when I say it: "Don't be that guy."

ADDENDUM: This excellent New York Times article explains the issues that homeowners face in these situations, including some cost-benefit analysis about fighting the bank. They even have a quote from a homeowner who thought that the issue was a dead one after he didn't hear from his bank when the policy lapsed...until he got the 'retroactive' news, with the concomitant steep bill.

Good Government in Boston

Today's Wall Street Journal includes this piece about efforts by the Patrick Administration to reduce useless red tape that wastes businesses' time and resources.

In a lot of cases, Gov. Patrick is looking to get rid of regulations that have sat on the books for reasons unknown, causing hassle without social benefit.

From the article:
"Under Massachusetts regulations, a hair salon owner who wants to sell her shop to an employee must first temporarily close down. A funeral director can't hire a part-time apprentice -- only full-time is allowed. The state's legal size for a sea clam differs from what federal requirements specify."
Glad to see that Gov. Patrick is looking to clear this stuff off the books. This isn't a Republican or Democrat issue -- and it shoudn't be -- but rather one of good governance.

Also from the article: Massachusetts ranked 24th among US states in overall business tax climate in fiscal 2012, according to the Tax Foundation's annual State Business Tax Climate index. And our unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, while the national average is at 8.3 percent.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How a Cultural Shift Could Impact Downtown

Since Marty Meehan left Congress to take the helm as Chancellor at UML, he's made some very visible, noticeable changes (Tsongas Center @ UML, University Crossing, and the UML Inn and Conference Center, to name a few).

University Crossing is going to lead to major changes in the "Upper Merrimack Street" area, and the impact of the student infusion to the ICC can already be felt at several downtown businesses, to include two on my street alone (Brew'd and Wings over Lowell).

Besides the visible property acquisitions, another change afoot at UML is a cultural shift from being a primarily commuter school to being a primarily residential school. As Meehan recently said to a CC subcommittee (thanks, LTC): "When I went there, it was a 75 percent commuter school. It's now about 60-40." The Aiken Street and Marginal Street housing is expected to tip that to 50-50, and Meehan is going to keep pushing from there, tipping the balance towards a majority-residential student body.

There are lots of benefits to that, such as higher graduation rates, higher student satisfaction, and greater camaraderie, but the immediate impact of the Aiken Street project (472 suites) is going to mean good things for downtown businesses, as it'll add lots of potential customers with disposable income. For downtown residents, it will also mean the area will have more of a college-town *feel.* It will mean more fans at Spinners Games (if the dorms are occupied year-round). It will mean more fans at RiverHawks games, more patrons at the shops and bars in the area, and just a big injection of energy and activity into that area, regardless of whether the overall economy is booming or dragging. And the land is already owned by the University, so there's no property tax void created by the dorm construction.

Sounds like a win-win.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Khmer? I Can (Well, I Hope, Anyway)

One of my post-deployment "And this time I mean it!" resolutions is to learn Khmer this year. It's something I've always wanted to be able to do, but the imperative now is that I have a child who is going to be growing up bilingual, and I don't want to be completely separated from that (even if speaking will be a struggle and I'll have a funny accent).

But anyway, back to the resolution...I don't mean to say I want to learn Khmer in the way that a self-conscious white guy can earn *bonus points* by throwing out a "choum reap sua" or an "aakun" at the right moment at Pai-Lin or someone's cousin's cousin's house, but instead to really learn it, as in being able to read a newspaper or listen a Voice of America (VOA) Broadcast and actually glean something about the content.

That goal, I know, is going to be a long, time-consuming slog. One thing that compounds the difficulty is that Khmer is, unlike, say, French, German, or Japanese, is a "boutique" language for which learning material -- particularly good stuff -- is really hard to find. And while no one ever really learns a language without authentic experiences (listening, reading, speaking, or writing in the language, as opposed to memorizing grammar rules and lists of vocab words), the classroom stuff is a great building block. Right now, if I tried to listen to VOA in Khmer, it'd basically be a waste, because it's 90%+ incomprehensible.

Enter new media. Thanks to YouTube, a guy in Stockton named Kimheng, armed only with a webcam, his eight year-old brother, and the truly bilingual knowledge that comes from being the son of Cambodian immigrants, and now I've got 24/7 access to "Let's Learn Khmer" completely for free.

I can endlessly loop/repeat the lessons (which I can't do with real people, who understandably get annoyed when I ask them to say everything at about 10 rpm), I can read the actual Khmer script that comes with the terms, and I can work on the building blocks I'll need for the heavy lifting ambitious stuff, like the VOA broadcasts. If I sound like a YouTube True Believer, it's because I am -- nothing like this would have existed even just a few years ago.

I got into an excellent conversation with fellow blogger Cliff Krieger the other day about education, culture, and the uphill challenges faced by urban educators. One thing I know we agreed on is that spending more money is not, in and of itself, going to fix much when negative environmental and cultural influences are too strong.

One thing we should bear in mind, though, is that the *digital natives* are growing up with social media that can be an amazing educational tool. I can see that firsthand with the way my cousins' literacy skills have shot through the roof since they started using their older siblings' Facebook accounts (that brings up entirely separate issues, but I won't go there with this entry). Forced to raise their reading, writing, and spelling skills in order to keep up, they've improved in all those areas by leaps and bounds.

All of my initial literacy, math, and vocabulary skills came about at an age when I cared far more about sports -- not just playing but following and understanding them -- than I did about school. I wonder if social media can bring out avenues through which kids can hone their 3Rs without having to go up against countervailing social pressures, or even realize they're being *tricked* into skills that will help them when it comes time for milestones like going to school, taking the MCAS, and graduating.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Because You Love Them

Yesterday, a friend of mine, who is a federal employee, posted a Washington Post op-ed to Facebook standing up for public sector workers, and imploring people to stop "bashing" them.
I'm not sure what, in particular, that author referred to (if it was actual bashing, then yes, that's a bad thing, and it shouldn't be done).

BUT if it was just an overreaction to people challenging or criticizing public sector benefits packages, today's Wall Street Journal has this cautionary tale about what's happening in Stockton, Hercules, and Lincoln, California...all of which face the real threat of needing to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which could in turn hurt other CA municipalities and possibly the state itself. The people it will REALLY hurt in the short-term are the very public sector workers who could serve their own self-interest more effectively by showing a willingness to compromise, even if that means some sacrifices up front.

Hercules already voted last year to lay off 37 percent of its city workers. San Carlos and Half Moon Bay have already "outsourced" law enforcement and recreation management. Lincoln's municipal consultant concedes in the article that the city may be forced to outsource most of its services (to include police and fire) to surrounding districts.

None of that sounds like a big win for the public workforce.

Having only ever worked in the public sector, I hope I have some credibility to stand on when I say that the next time someone proposes a modification to government worker compensation packages, hatred for those people might not be the underlying motive.

In fact, it might be the complete opposite.