Monday, April 29, 2013

Jason's Courage

I'm not the basketball fan I once was, but I still very clearly remember meeting Jason Collins way back when.  I was 17 and had just seen him play in the Final Four, which, like, must have totally, been,  like, the coolest thing...ever.  Anyway, what made him memorable was his legitimate down-to-earth manner "Hey dude, I'm from North Hollywood and went to high school at Harvard-Westlake.  What about you?" as opposed to the "No, really, it's not a big deal," humblebragging that I've come to loathe in celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and other self-important types since.

Anyway, one of the first things that came to mind today when I heard he had come out was that it was a courageous move.  I don't use that word lightly, and in fact don't use it much at all.

Collins is getting a ton of support from current teammates, former teammates, future Hall of Famers (i.e. Kobe Bryant), Chelsea Clinton, and everyone in between.  So in that sense it's no big deal.  But by coming out as a professional athlete, when many fellow ballplayers are not so accepting (even if they will be wise enough to keep their thoughts to themselves), he is subjecting himself to certain inevitable taunts, judgements, and stares, not to mention possibly-innocent-but-stupid personal questions that no one would ever ask a straight athlete.

Someday it won't be a big deal.  But today is not that day.  By coming out while still in uniform, Collins has made it easier for #2, #3, and so on.  The candid, matter-of-fact, apolitical approach he took with the SI interview was a perfect first step -- not just for him, but for gay athletes and future gay athletes everywhere.

By contrast, I'm getting tired of politicians (esp. conservative ones*) cloaking themselves in the language of courage and heroism by coming out in favor of gay rights, to include marriage rights.

The reason why?

As a TIME magazine cover recently declared, the battle for gay rights is essentially over.  Yes, embers from the battle are still glowing, and gays can't marry everywhere, and they can even legally be discriminated against in 34 states.  But that's not the point.  The point is that the tide has turned, and it ain't turning back.  Look at support for gay rights broken down by age groups, and the demographics are too powerful to miss.

When the next Senator Portman comes out to support gay rights, the question should be more to the tune of "What took you so long?" and less to the tune of "How did you muster the courage?"

Being pro-gay rights before it was cool is noble.  That's where Bill Weld gets serious props.

But thinking you're somehow anomalous or brave because you think gays should be able to do whatever straights can do just isn't all that special.  In fact, I bet you that if you sampled thirty-something conservative white males in the Northeast it would be rarer to find DOMA supporters than marriage equality supporters.

Supporting a position when it can land you in physical harm (i.e. marching in Selma) or when it can bring you professional harm (i.e. Gary Johnson's position on drugs while serving in NM) is noble.  Taking the popular side at all times (i.e. Bill Clinton signing DOMA in office, and then condemning it in 2013) is not.  See the difference?  One takes courage, and the other is kind of like a wingtips-on-the-podium, impassioned speech in the City Council chamber that precedes a clearly-developing 9-0 vote.**

* I could've gone after either side there, but chose to single out conservatives because I think we're more guilty of thinking we're somehow being *special* or *anomalous* by supporting gay rights.  We're not.  Joe Biden isn't special for calling for marriage equality in a late-night TV interview, Joe Kennedy isn't special for marching in the Gay Rights parade...but neither is any GOP 'leader' or 'thinker' who 'lays it on the line' to say that gays deserve equality.

** A Home Run Derby: (free cuts for the fences with meatballs coming across the plate and no one trying to get you out).  A hypothetical example: "A resolution to declare that the City supports immigrants from all backgrounds."  

Friday, April 19, 2013

Feeling Better...Now

I'm exhausted and about to go to bed.  Before I do, I want to relay an exchange I just witnessed on NECN.  The reporter on scene in Watertown asked a Watertown FD member how he felt, and he bursted out, "Feeling"

If I could try to summarize the general feeling among the people in the crowd in a single word, it would be this: "relieved."  Many of the people congregating now have spent most of the past day inside their homes, in some cases laying on the floor in fear.  Some of their children will have nightmares for years.  Many people in surrounding towns were just as terrified.

For right now, they are relieved.  They can breathe again, they can relax again, and they can sleep well tonight.

From what I can gather using my own senses, the feeling out there is NOT bloodlust.  It is NOT about hate, retribution, name-calling, or jingoism.  It's relief.  Pure and simple.

Some will try to jam in their own narrative, and describe the feeling in Watertown as something else.  They are wrong.  There is elation.  There is gratitude.  There is admiration and appreciation for the uniformed personnel who put their own lives at risk in order to help take him alive.  The suspect is already in the hands of some of the best medical professionals in the world, and will remain so for some time.  He will receive a trial.  Through that process, the world will learn about what it's like to grow up in one of the most welcoming, tolerant, open places in the world.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hey You! Easy on the F5 Key..

Mid-day yesterday, someone a bit older and a bit wiser told me to stop the constant browser refreshing, because it was a big waste of time.  "When something actually breaks, you'll hear about," he said.  "In the meantime, do something else, like read a book."

This was good advice.  Monday's attack has kept me pretty much glued to any media I can get my hands on, but the reality is that no matter how hard I concentrate while staring into my screen, it's not helping.  

The advice I got was identical to something I heard many moons ago from the smartest person I've ever met (CO of my first Navy command), who told me to: (1) Not get wrapped up in the daily news cycle; and (2) Listen to audiobooks rather than the "same damn songs on the radio."  

While I'm not a fan of the empty platitudes that tend to come from life coaches (i.e. "Believe and you can achieve!"or "Never give up!") I treasure practical, useful advice.  Here is some that relates to time-saving:

(1) Adhere to the OHIO Principle -- Only Handle It Once.  I've been using this around the house and it's a gem.  For too long, I've picked stuff up just to put it back down again...maybe it went into a neater-looking pile, but it didn't solve the root issue.  Same thing with e-mails: I can keep the inbox much lighter by either responding, archiving, or deleting on site.  For longer, personal e-mails, I might intentionally let them *ferment* for some time in my inbox, but most other stuff can be routed much more quickly.

(2) Use time 'nooks' when you find them.  For instance, if someone says they'll pick you up at 4:30 but they don't actually get there until 6:30, sitting around complaining is pretty futile.  Take advantage of whatever's around -- laptop, phone, books, etc. and use the time well. 

(3) Timeboxing.  If you fear that a meeting may go on too long, just start out by saying, "I have to leave at [whatever time is one hour from the start]."  Then, when that time comes, pick up your stuff and just walk out, exactly one hour older.  Chances are, the people who are making that meeting drag on for too long are just a tiny fraction of those present -- don't allow them to be "time vampires."

(4) Pomodoros.  So, some guy somewhere gets credited for "inventing" the system that means you focus on one single task for a set time period -- no e-mails, no checking the Twitter feed, no daydreaming.  He used a 25-minute timer that looked like a tomato and coined the term after the Italian word for tomato.  Basically, pick out your time blocks in 25-minute chunks and hit it hard for that time.  To fully embrace the system, intersperse your pomodoros with 5-minute breaks.  Adjust as need (and oh yes, there's an app for that...several, in fact).  

Okay, that's enough time spent blogging.  Back to work... (right after a quick check, though...I gotta know if these guys are ID'd yet)..

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Speaking of Reaching Out

I just heard about this family's story on Gerry Nutter's site and got this link to donate from Left in Lowell.

Best of luck to the Corcoran family on the long road ahead.  

Come Again?

Pop star Justin Bieber has been in the news lately because of a comment he left in the guestbook at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam:  
"Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber." 
I understand that the folks who preserve Anne Frank's legacy have come to Mr. Bieber's defense.  That said, it doesn't change the way I feel -- it's nauseating to think that someone could be so self-centered in light of what they (may) have seen and learned during that visit.

Good will come of it, for sure -- as a result of this flap, more young people will learn about Anne Frank.  Hopefully, Mr. Bieber will learn why this guestbook comment riles up many people, and he can learn to be less self-centered.

I think that whenever tragedies take place, people should keep their self-centered impulses in check as best they can.  In addition to the obligatory knee-jerk comments rolling around online (the 'false flag' geniuses who use Boston EMS preparedness as their 'proof', the jerks who blame this on American foreign policy when we still don't know who did it, and the jerks who blame Muslims when we still don't know who did it).

By the way, I've been glued to the media (mostly NECN, but also national) since yesterday afternoon and must say they have shown phenomenal restraint as far as the finger-pointing and speculation goes.

But anyway, I want to quickly return to the self-centered impulse thing.  Mixed in among the heartfelt Facebook posts about resilience, thoughts and prayers, coming back stronger, loving first responders, etc. have been some "me-me-me" sort of posts.

I realize these are posted when emotions are still raw, but what I don't like is that the first poster implies a lot of personal heroism when there was no shortage of first responder capability on-site.  The second one speaks for itself.  Most amateur runners can predict their finish time for a short-distance event, like a 5k.  But 26.2 miles?  That's a bit more challenging.

As you can see, I stripped all names, pics, in-line comments, etc.  out of respect for those who posted (as I said, this stuff comes up when emotions are raw).  I will also acknowledge that both posts reference the greater community and event, even if those are de-emphasized.  

ALL people, myself included, have self-centered impulses.  As my first boss used to always tell me, "I'm still waiting to have my first unselfish thought...and I'm not holding my breath."  (He was one of the best human beings I've ever known, btw, and he was a helicopter crewman in Vietnam).  

In times of tragedy, though, sometimes the best course of action is to make sure we're focusing on the people who have really suffered, and who are really grieving.    

Monday, April 15, 2013

Threat Levels

One of the things that I keep hearing on the NECN loop is that there was no prior warning or threat that preceded today's attack.

That makes sense.

While our unit was in Afghanistan, we were asked several times a day about the "threat level" associated with the roads and buildings in Kabul.  We did exhaustive studies trying to correlate the actual high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks with threat streams in the days prior.

Guess what kind of correlation we found?

None at all.

The reason that makes sense is that if attackers are competent, part of their strategy is to practice good Operational Security (OPSEC).

Whoever is responsible for today's attack was not only competent enough to plan a coordinated bombing in the middle of a crowded area, but to keep the plans quiet enough that they were not brought forward to authorities beforehand (...and that's how a lot of thwarted attacks get thwarted...the people doing the planning can't help themselves from sharing plans w/the uninitiated).

My hope is that the crime will be solved with the help of video surveillance, forensics, and old-fashioned police work (i.e. hotel receipts, flight manifests, and through information that may come to light now from people who inadvertently gain special knowledge about what happened and feel compelled to come forward.

That's the stuff I'm really interested in, and that's the stuff that'll keep me glued to the media as it all unfolds.

As to the "How could we not have known?" questions, however, I am much less interested.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

You Want to be Avant Garde? Join the Plug Pullers...

I'm watching the Council meeting tonight.

After hearing about someone's lack of options regarding cable service, and then some issues about rates ("Ohh!  The rates!") I just want to offer a suggestion to everyone who is tired of paying absurd monthly cable rates -- just stop.  I'm not advocating some kind of civil resistance, or proposing some kind of scam, but I am saying that there are other options.

I went back to the stripped-down option from Comcast.  I still get all the local channels, plus the low-number news channels, and then a couple of legit cable channels.  But that's it.  No gazillion-channel, movie/sport/rerun bonanzas.  By my estimate, I am now saving more than $900 annually by taking this key step.

The best part?

I don't need to be embarrassed, or feel shame, when someone asks if I saw a particular thing on cable, when I respond, "I don't have it."  In fact, I can actually say it in a way that implies that I'm cutting edge.  I can stream Netflix for $9/month, and YouTube seems to be offering more and more good content as it's now figured out how to get its business model right.

Eventually, more people will go this route, and the cable companies will be forced to offer more appealing "bundle" options, or even -- gasp -- a la carte channel ordering.

In the meantime, I'm not that sympathetic for anyone who complains about the cost of cable.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Talkin' Bout Stylometry

A discussion has recently sparked up over on Left in Lowell regarding stylometry.  Stylometry basically involves looking at patterns in someone's linguistic style in order to determine authorship -- it has been used to look at everything from Shakespeare to the Federalist Papers to anonymous letters in corporations.

It is not new, and it is not necessarily technical.

What is new, however, is the amount of writing samples that anyone can grab on the Internet.  In the analog era, I would've had to break into someone's attic and steal their hand-written letters; today, however, I just need to play around with Google a bit to get the data.

Stylometry can involve many components, including word choice, average word length of text, average sentence length, average paragraph length, punctuation, and style.  With the last element in particular, it's something that be quickly and easy seen by a human reader.

Some components of stylometry prove to be not-so-useful.  Witness this chart comparing two writing samples for letter usage frequency.  Pretty cool, huh?

Well, not really.  The problem is, all you're really seeing here is a common pattern of English.  This would be great to have with you if you were flying to LA for a "Wheel of Fortune" taping, but other than that, it's not super-useful.

The chart below, however, is far more useful.  What you're seeing there in blue is punctuation usage from the letter recently sent to the Sun in which the writer attempted an imitation attack against Jack Mitchell, a Left in Lowell blogger, using an amateurish combination of well-known "Jack-isms." The green sample below represents punctuation usage from the entire corpus of entries from the Brookside Tom blog.

Chi-square analysis of this  punctuation similarity you see above would only be explained by about 1 in 7 cases that might "just sort of occur" in a population sample.  By no means does it implicate Brookside Tom as the letter's author.  I ran samples involving other well-educated, talented writers and found similar results (for those who are little fast and loose with their punctuation, or for those who enjoy heavy dash, semi-colon, and parenthesis usage, not so much).

Word length carried more meaning.  The chi-square value of the results here showed that maybe 1 in 15 samples pulled from the general population would've looked something like this.

But that's when you have to go beyond the numbers and the graphs.  The letter-writer and Brookside Tom both eschew usage of the Oxford comma.  That can be seen with enough repetition in both the blog posting and even in the short letter that it reveals a pattern.  Both writers demonstrate an odd capitalization of non-proper nouns when they are placed inside of quotation marks.  They don't teach that kind of stuff in English class.  Anywhere.  That's where the randomness that could explain some of graphs 2 and 3 stops being so random.  Because that doesn't correlate with the aforementioned attributes, you now have to look at the entire thing differently...and the "random" factors are now diminished by entire orders of magnitude.

Both writers show a style that involves multi-paragraph screeds that wrap up with single-line conclusions that stand on their own.  Both show repeated, consistent use of independent and subordinate clauses inside of sentences, bookended by commas.  Both draw heavily on martial themes, images, and metaphors.

Admittedly, the last couple of paragraphs rely on subjective analysis that only a grammarian could love.  However, taken in their totality, and bearing in mind Brookside Tom's statements on Left in Lowell that he was not the author, they point to an extremely sophisticated imitation attack against both Jack and Brookside Tom.  Meanwhile, the true author conducted what is known as an obfuscation attack.

The letter-writer indicates that the Sun had the packet attached to the letter "in their possession for some time."  What would now be interesting to see is whether the Sun acknowledges this.  If so, in what format did this material originally arrive?  Was it also sent anonymously?  If not, how might the author have been privy to that bit of information?  Answers to those sorts of questions might help us pinpoint the actual identity of the sender. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

And Now, A Statement from our Mayor...

Mayor's statement in italics, below: 

I write to you from my hospital room in the early hours of this morning. A lot of thoughts have been bouncing round my head the last few weeks, and yet I’ve had little time to sneak away and put them to paper.

I first entered politics because of family. I was lucky to have the example of my grandfather, George B. Murphy, who sat in the Council chambers decades before me, and who stood up for the people of his neighborhood--the Flats--and fought for those in Lowell like them, who had little and had been left out.  Were it not for my family, I would not be in public life. My mother and father, brother and sister, and sister-in-law worked so hard to give me the opportunity to serve and gave me all the love and support I needed to do it.

As it has been my honor to represent you both as a councilor and now mayor, I have sought to make the most of your trust in me. As a fellow human being, I have come up short again and again. Mostly I am not interested in the pomp of the office or in becoming a great politician, but have been focused instead on becoming a better policymaker. Having endured a lot of nonsense over the last year, I certainly regret times where I might have been outspoken about matters not directly related to policy. I have a straightforward style that I should not have let stray from what matters most.  Many who know me can also understand that while I take my job very seriously, I try not to take myself too seriously and if, in the latter case, my actions or comments have offended any of you, I sincerely apologize.

Thankfully, Spring is here. The Lenten season has only recently come to an end. And in that spirit of forgiveness and renewal, the city needs us to move on to more important issues than these. We are part of this larger family, where we must respect and resolve differences in order to move forward.

Whatever fate the Council decides for me later tonight, I will abide by. As much as I have tried to include and involve more and more people into the political process, in our form of government the mayor is elected by his colleagues. I feel no sense of entitlement to the position; I have, however, always felt a sense of obligation to do the most that I can with the short time that I have.

I hope people can learn from this moment. I have, and yet I intend to continue in my own way over the next nine months to focus on substantive policy issues, particularly our schools, that will hopefully help you and your children for years to come.

To all those who have offered me kind words and support, I thank you for your confidence in me. I ask for your patience as I try my best to perform the role of mayor and the more important role as husband and father. It will surely be a challenge. Yet as I stare through the lifting darkness of this room and see the silhouette of my beautiful wife and two-day old son, sleeping together so peacefully, I am prepared to meet it. For I have all the confidence and happiness that I will need in this world.