Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More magick beans

Of all the fantasies foisted upon a gullible world by a cynical news media, I suppose this one is the one most likely to make my bile rise. Make your fortune!! Become a [fill in the blank]!

It takes me back many years, when I was scratching out a living at a well-known Boston historic site. Someone brought in a matchbook promotion for something called, I think, the Radical History Review. It read, with obvious sarcasm:

Earn big money! Become a historian!

This little bit of trenchant wit stayed with us long after the matches were gone, for those were the days when people smoked.

But we already were historians. Most of us who snickered at this matchbook already had advanced degrees in the field, or were in graduate school. What are we to make of these jejeune tales, which appear online (at least) about once a week? Headlines pump up hope, and stories that don't puncture that hope by mentioning, "oh yeah. You need a specialised education to get this dream job, and when you get the education, there will be innumerable objections to hiring you."

You might just as well stay in your mud-hole with the other peasants.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010


Truncation in math can lead to unexpected consequences. But truncation in interwebz headlines can lead to unintended hilarity. Today, Yahoo's helpful local headlines included

Mass. church picnic interrupted by goose...

One would think there has been altogether too much goosing at church activities over the last few decades for that to merit a headline. As it happens, the last word of the headline was


Knowing that isn't much of an improvement. This proves that sometimes, you should just put the story down and back slowly away.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Oh, sorry

As a rule, the average person involved in the comment thread of an online news item has the intellect of a chipmunk. This is usually why the people preparing those items--I can't say writing them, because most of them aren't written--can get away with having no intellect at all.

Every rule has its exceptions. Yesterday being Sunday, someone apparently did a core dump of old news items over at Yahoo news. One supposes they had a food fight in the newsroom, and decided to run the stories that were still legible after the duels between spaghetti Bolognoese and blueberry pie.

One of the items they trotted out as "news" is nearly the oldest journalistic chestnut of all: the rags-to-riches-to-rags story. This is the one where someone hits the lottery or has a patentable idea or a lost relation, hits the jackpot and suddenly finds their life a) becomes so out of control that they end up in the poorhouse or b) becomes so immensely complicated they want to give it all away and go back the way they were.

This little morality play has been with us for at least a century, going back to the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry, if not further. The game has always been to ignore the 99 people who are sensible enough to benefit from their good fortune and interview the one who has either gone broke through excess or is wringing their hands over the stress of success.

Case in point: the lead story was about a flight attendant, now 50, who had a patentable idea: a very good one, evidently. She must have been a disappointment because her sole bit of recklessness was to buy one car at full price. She fell more into the "poor me, I'm successful" bin.

Let's prove that comment threads sometimes do have alert readers. According to the story, our heroine is now 50. She patented her gizmo five years ago, at age 45. When she did so, she left her job as a flight attendant, at which she had worked for 35 years, to run the new business her idea had created.

Incredibly, numbers of alert readers popped up in the thread, commenting in various ways upon the woman's first success, which was to start her career as a flight attendant at the age of ten. There were actually more alert readers than there were bozos who lapped it all up, or politically challenged two-finger typists who blamed all the failures on Obama.

Now, back in Journalism 101, we all learnt that if you got them laughing in the lead, it was a good thing only if the readers were laughing with you, not at you. In this case, the survivor of the newsroom food fight had the slowest coaches in the audience world--thread commenters--laughing at Yahoo before they could even scroll down to the rest of the story, which was just as dismal.

Next, more shocking proof that journalistic cliches are dangerous for good stories, and poison for bad ones (sigh).


Thursday, September 16, 2010

In my not-so-little town, Part 1

People from away generally snicker when they hear the name of my town, Marblehead*. Sometimes the town will make one quietly proud. Other times, it truly merits the chuckles of people from fur off.

Part one of the back story: My town is a town, in the New England political sense. We have an annually elected Board of Selectfolk and an open town meeting: a true inheritance from our sturdy Yankee past. Open town meeting means about what it says. Anyone registered to vote can show up and vote. If you're not registered, you can come anyway, take a seat on the stage where voters can keep an eye on you, and watch "democracy in action."

Marblehead's population hovers around 21,000, with some 12,000 registered voters. There isn't enough public space in town to accommodate 100 percent of the electorate if they chose to show up for meeting.

Open town meetings only work well in communities with a population, say, between 300 and 3000 people. There, it's usually possible to set aside one day in the year and get through all the public business in that day, and put every voter under one roof to do it. A quorum, however modest, stands a fair chance of being representative of the whole range of local public opinion.

In the sticks of my childhood, once towns reached 3000-6000 people, they began to adopt sensible expediencies like representative meetings and hired town managers (things that enlightened Massachusetts TINOs—towns in name only—also do). It used to be a point of pride that when population reached 10,000, a New Hampshire community applied for a city charter. That was before all them damn Massachusetts people with their starry-eyed delusions about town government began to infest--err, settle-- southern New Hampshire.

The place I grew up was a town that had been incorporated into the state capital about 100 years before I was born. We were a separate ward with a population of about 1500. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. Even people in the other party were on speaking terms with the city councilor. We had our own representative in the General Court and people were mostly on speaking terms with her, too. As a ward of a small city, voters had more voice in government than most residents of most Massachusetts towns, including this one.

Open town meetings in communities the size of mine combine dubious historical tradition with Massachusetts ward politics at its seamiest. I avoid the damn thing as much as possible, but as the spouse of a town employee there are times when I must show up, and even when I don't, I get the blow by blow. In 39 years as a registered voter here, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times when the public business got done in one night. "Democracy in action" means a meeting packed with the adherents of one special interest group or the other. This has been made much easier since the advent of local cable TV. Many of those for a measure simply wait at home watching until their pet issue is on the horizon. They dash up to Meeting, wait for a few votes, say their piece if so minded, vote, carry their question, and leave. Democracy in action my arse.

So, the civics lesson is that anyone can pack an open town meeting for anything, and odds are the outcome will in no way represent the whole of popular sentiment.

In the future, we'll introduce an individual who is demanding what amounts to a private town meeting, which he hopes to pack. His goal is to flip a bird at zoning ordinances arrived at by two-thirds majority of previous town meetings (such as they were), at the state land court, at several successive levels of the Massachusetts court system, and incidentally at his neighbours. None of this, mind, is in the abstract. This person built a house knowing that he was violating the law. He has lost every attempt at law to remedy this self-inflicted wound, probably spending much more than the house is worth in this quixotic undertaking. Now he intends to take advantage of the town's silly political relic, the open town meeting, and hold a meeting to make his illegal acts legal. And I'm damned if he isn't likely to get away with it.

Marblehead, meet Athol.

* Originally Marble Harbour, the name derived from the white rocks at the harbour mouth seen by the first Europeans when they arrived. On landing, they discovered the white wasn't marble: it was bird shit. In the nearly 400 years since then, not much has changed: things here are seldom what they seem.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On the flood the rude bridge arches

This family unit has sadly delayed kayaking the Concord River. Do you give credence to evidence from an authoritative written source, in this case Quiet Water Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island? Or do you prefer hearsay from a library patron? Typically, my librarian spouse won't believe it's raining without finding a forecast online, in print, or broadcast: but in this case she chose to believe a hearsay account that the Concord River is too crowded with speeding motorboats to make good kayaking. Of such things resistance to good ideas is made.

Possibly there are seasons when the river is crowded with motorboats. Possibly in those seasons the motorboats habitually scoff at the 10 mph speed limit. Neither was the case this weekend, when I finally sold the trip at home.

The launching ramp off Route 225 was certainly busy, but the number of stinkpotters getting out balanced the number going in. These weren't joyriders or water-skiers, but fisherfolk, who weren't in much of a hurry to go anywhere and generally respectful of the speed limit. There was no problem sharing the water. We set out upstream, our usual practice, although the Concord River's current ranges from imperceptible to negligible. We'd started late, so it was a question how far we'd get. We agreed it would be nice to reach the North Bridge on this expedition.

Despite downstream dams and gentrified encroachment, and thanks to remediation of what was once one of America's most polluted rivers, the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge offers a fairly good idea of what Henry David Thoreau and his brother saw during their rowing trip on the Concord and Merrimack River in 1839. This isn't a long river, but it's a respectably wide one that swallows up, or minimises, most evidence of its human users and abuttors.

The two most prominent species of resident seemed to be Great Blue herons in many stages of development, and more turtles—probably painted turtles— than I can recall seeing in one place at one time.

No, we didn't make it to Concord and the North Bridge: time ran out on us maybe twenty minutes short of that destination, and with the lack of current we wanted to be sure to get back to the landing in daylight. Never mind: that gives us a reason to go back.

Score one for evidence.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Getting no respect

That's as good a way as any to bring together some unrelated topics.

First, there's "My name is Earl," who lost his sense of direction on the way to New England. I'm no fan of big hurricanes: I can remember some pretty scary moments as a child during Hurricane Carol. However, I'd like a modest return on the investment in storm preparations at a time of year when one doesn't have to remove the outcome with a snowblower. That storm had no respect.

Then there's the matter of Yosemite bears. Readers will quickly recall that this family unit spent seven days searching for bears with no results until the final hours of our visit. My daughter reports that during her three days of Labour Day hiking, climbing and camping in the Tuolomne back country, she saw five. The bears have no respect.

Finally--for the moment--this week I've started a job I've been working toward for five years. Today, at the end of my second day on the job, I come home to find, of course, a summons for jury duty.

I wouldn't find this as annoying if Massachusetts' celebrated "one day-one trial" jury system lived up to its claims of even-handedness. I can hardly count the people I know who have lived much or all of their adult lives under this system and have never been called. I've been called, with this one, eight or nine times and served on two juries. My wife, the jurisprudence junkie, was well behind my score but is catching up: she also got a summons today.

Fortunately, I'm going to a court where the odds are that I'll know at least one attorney, and it's not until December. Still, the Massachusetts court system has no respect.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

More confederacies of dunces

Sitting in the crosshairs of a tropical storm. This has been more or less established fact in the mind of anyone with a minimal exposure to the science of meteorology since the start of the week. I don't make my living at it, so I don't have to cloud my predictions with six lanes of wiggle room. In broadcast weather, it is no longer enough to state observed phenomena and draw my conclusions. It is necessary to think of the ratings.

Pardon me, but thinking of the ratings has been part of the current problem. Thinking of the ratings has escalated six-inch snowfalls into disaster stories. Thinking of the ratings has morphed thunderstorms into the end of the world. Thinking of the ratings has pumped and fluffed up so many routine weather events, some of which didn't happen, that television meteorology has less credibility than ever. This has happened at the same time that the science has vastly improved its ability to predict what are, after all, chaotic events.

How does broadcast journalism fill in the gap? Hey kids, lets conduct a poll. The uses of TV polls have become steadily more idiotic. Do we have spine enough to say "Obama is a Christian, and and any belief to the contrary is either lies or stupidity?" Of course not, think of the ratings: lets conduct a poll. Can we go out on a limb enough to say "all models show Hurricane Earl having a significant effect on large and populous areas of the east coast?" No; lets conduct a poll, whose results show that an overwhelming majority of the respondents "don't believe in" Hurricane Earl, as if its course and very existence were matters of faith, not evidence.

Now, having done that, these fools will go to bed Friday night secure in the belief that because a jury of people as stupid as themselves have said the storm isn't going to happen and doesn't exist, that everything is all right. There remains a slight, shrinking chance that they will get lucky: weather is chaos theory in action, so anything can happen. However, the laws of probability are no longer on their side. So, if a tree skewers their car or the neighbours' shed flies through the living room, these imbeciles will want someone to blame. It couldn't possibly be their responsibility for being fools.

There is rough justice in the likelihood that they will blame the broadcast media who were so concerned about the ratings that they couldn't manage to offer the evidence.