3/23/2015

Triple foam hypocrisy

When you think about Starbucks, do you think about coffee or political discussion?

(Me?  I think of the 20 oz Cool Lime Refresher they're about to serve me, along with the $2 cake pop that's gone within a second.  I also think of Starbucks as a place where getting a seat is a miracle if you can get the gadabouts and their laptops out of the way.)

Starbucks caters to the upper class.  It is not Dunkin' Donuts, where $10 gets you three coffees and a box of donuts that have been out perhaps longer than this morning.  I'm a Dunkin's guy.  The people I order from almost always get it right (because all I get is a chocolate milk or an iced tea, and a donut or a muffin).  At Starbucks, $10 gets you some kind of fancy coffee, a pastry that's been out longer than a parolee, and music that only encourages people to spread out their space.

And up until a few days ago, a twee, superficial, lazy soundbite about race.

I don't like being preached to by a company that says one thing and does another, which is why their overbearing attempt to discuss race failed miserably.  You cannot hashtag your way to action if your own side of the fence is full of muck you don't want people seeing.  

How racially and culturally diverse is the upper-level management structure?  Oh, have you tried our thirteen syllable, nine ingredient 60oz drink yet?  Who gets the money from fair trade - the workers or the company?  Here's one of our new fudge pops with our own Madagascar chocolate!

You can only dodge and weave so much until the other boxer connects with such force your nose is touching your earlobe.

The discussion about race is futile and superficial coming from a company that's virtually all white, serves an upscale clientele, and sees opening a store in a non-white area as an experiment in whether they'll drink the coffee, hang outside and panhandle, harass customers, and then tell shareholders, "well, we tried, it failed, let them put in a fast food place where all the non-whites get fat and someone else with a nag complex gets on their ass to lose weight."

(Not in those exact words, of course.  They'll cover that those honest thoughts in buzzwords before the end of this sentence.)

The real discussion on race doesn't come from buzzwords or propaganda.  It comes when both sides see good things about each other and help each other succeed without interference.  It's when one side drops its stereotypes about the other.  It's when people stop flinging money and resources when it's not wanted and where it doesn't work.  And most importantly, it's when both sides reject the fringe and noise from the extremes and work from the middle out.

Starbucks' CEO states that "this discussion isn't over."  As far as I'm concerned, there was never a discussion - just a bunch of baristas doodling nothing on their customer's cups.  Maybe they should leave the cups for the contents so people don't accidentally get hi-test espresso when they're supposed to be drinking decaf.

3/13/2015

The Needham Gambit

A gambit, in the realms of chess, is when a player dumps lesser pieces, such as pawns, to get a better advantage to gain stronger pieces later on in the game.

On the Needham line, the 6:50 from Needham Heights and the 5:55 from South Station have not been restored yet, as have many other trains in the Commuter Rail system.  Currently, the horror stories abound of beyond crush capacity trains,  missed stops, etc.  (At least at where I get on (Highland) the 7:07 didn't have very many passengers when it ran; I don't board the 7:52 as it is likely a sardine can.)

One theory that often crosses my mind: with the "recovery" schedule, the T may decide to amend the trains to speed them up.  That is, those stations with the lowest boardings will be bypassed in favor of the highest.

If the T wanted to favor the Needham passengers, trains from South Station may run express from Hersey to Ruggles in the morning, and from Ruggles to Hersey in the evening, shaving at least 15 minutes from trip time.  Or, trains would only stop at Roslindale and West Roxbury during rush hour, omitting Bellevue and Highland (but would be available during the off-peak and weekends) shifting those riders to buses on the Belgrade Avenue corridor and ultimately to Forest Hills.

Why would the T take the Needham Gambit?

Remember, of the over 3000 passengers that board Needham trains daily, two-thirds board at Needham stops.  The T sees Needham passengers as easier to make revenue from than the Roslindale/West Roxbury passengers who use the commuter rail to avoid the crowding on buses and the Orange Line.

The T's thought is if they restrain service on the Needham Line within Boston, passengers will give up and use the buses and Orange Line, and as such those seats would go to Needham passengers.  This reduces overcrowding and unnecessary stops, which is great for Needham-bound passengers, but lousy for West Roxbury/Roslindale passengers, who are shifted onto crowded buses and trains.

It's how the "E" line between Arborway and Heath Street disappeared: when the Orange Line opened in 1987, the Orange Line offered quicker and more direct service via Back Bay (and to Copley, if they didn't mind a short walk down Dartmouth Street).  On the former "E" line a one-seat ride from Arborway to Copley took about 30-40 minutes and was subject to traffic; the Orange Line took 12 minutes.  Once the T re-introduced the Route 39 bus, which operated without overhead wires and reduced trip times, the "E" line past Heath Street became redundant, despite demands for its restoration.

(Incidentally, the Massachusetts Turnpike eliminated the "A" Watertown line, reducing a 45 minute trolley trip to six minutes by car.  The T offered a "trial" bustitution of the Route 57, which eventually became permanent.)

The T also see Boston Latin School kids - who ride between West Roxbury and Ruggles - as a revenue problem.  Again, the T desires Needham passengers, not Latin School kids looking to avoid crowded charter/Route 39 buses and to whom the T loses considerable revenue nine months out of the year.   Hence, by sending the trains from Hersey directly to Ruggles, the students are again captured by the West Roxbury bus lines, the charters, and the Orange Line.

All of these trains could be returned on March 30 intact.  I think, however, if the Needham Gambit is successful, the same principle will be applied to each line - the times and stations least served will be sacrificed  and quietly phased out so that other more heavily-used stations can accept more passengers.

I can understand the T wants money from select (read: wealthy) passengers who will fork over the money (almost equal to a monthly car payment) to ride the trains and get a better ride.  It shouldn't leave the casual (read: low to middle class) riders as sacrificial pawns.

3/01/2015

401K (215K after taxes)

Jonathan Trugman of the New York opines government opinions about investment is bad for retirement accounts, and is more a stick in the eye to Wall Street than to the average investor.

I'm not against 401K programs per se, but I think a lot of people are really uneducated and misled about how they work; many people are told fantastical stories about "free money" and "the magic of compounding" and "set it and forget it" and all those other bromides, without noticing the "free money" gets eaten by fees, the magic of compounding is at the whim of the stock market, and if the markets ever tank, that money is gone forever.

That million dollars your 401K administrator is promising you is also an unattainable fantasy unless you can really weather a huge amount of risk.  After all, investment is risking the money you earn on the stock market, and the messages to "save more" are really "put more risk into your investment account."

401K pre-tax contributions have been a boon to investors, as it has long reduced taxable income, and it would be more damaging if the government told employers that the matching contributions they made would be taxed as ordinary income.  That "free money," in the eyes of the government, is still earned income, and thus taxable income.  

Two things would happen if the government taxes matching contributions: employers would severely reduce or eliminate them, as it would affect the employee's taxable income, and employees would reduce or stop 401K contributions, as they would no longer receive that added benefit.

Hence a retirement account loses all meaning; it is now a socialized investment vehicle that the government can raid at will and the contributor has no say in funding.  Couple that with government-approved funds and bonds that satisfy only wonks, activists and control freaks, and you might as well call it a supplemental Social Security fund.

2/12/2015

Shock treatment, MBTA style

A few months from now, in the sweet smells of spring thanks to the tons of once-frozen water on the grass, the commutes from MBTA hell will be a distant memory.  Sitting on Mass Ave waiting for baseball traffic to clear will be nicer than sitting in snow-choked lanes while a rousing five mile game of "mother may I?" plays out.

Forgive me for saying this, but each and every one of us, including myself, is at fault for not demanding that the MBTA get its collective business in order.  That's right: we spent too much time dissecting deflated footballs and not enough time wondering why the hell we have 30-45 year old trains falling apart and why it took three winter storms to direct disinfecting sunshine on this kind of neglect.

Beverly Scott may have been brilliant, but she was overwhelmed.  You need a GM who not only can manage the cash, but know at a moment's notice where the 43 bus is, how long it takes for a train to go from Alewife to Wollaston with a crush load, what the best governing speed is on a Cummins ISL engine coupled with a Allison B400R5 transmission, and how many people are at least 100 days away from retirement and when they should begin to know what their retirement benefits are.

It's not Gov. Charlie Baker's fault either, no matter how much the intelligentsia wants so much to hand off the poo-diapered baby (and curl up into the thumb-sucking  fetal position when they can't).  He will not fill the MBTA with like-minded automatons because he's not in a position to do so.

Yet, when we're asked to absorb a fare hike, we do everything in our power to agitprop our way out of doing it.  That's the very first thing the new GM should do - tell the riders who use our system that we need money, not just brains, to run an efficient MBTA system.  If it means dynamic pricing (peak of the peak fares, pricing by distance, eliminating CharlieCard discounts), no weekend service to allow for needed repairs, eliminating nakedly political bus and train routes to protect narrow interests, then it must happen without hesitation.

We can boycott, protest, march and scream to our heart's content, plead of legislative graft going to bloated pensions and even more bloated debt instead of much-needed repairs, and hold our collective breath until we exhaust every shade of blue, but those days of cheap fares are now over. The illusion of single-payor transit - virtually free or heavily subsidized - is no longer unacceptable.

These past few weeks, we have gotten virtual shock treatment, the ammonia-like stench of the very worst of middle and upper management chicanery unavoidably wafting up our noses.

Now are we willing to pay more for a so-called "world class" transit system, or will we default to more of the same third-world, banana republic dreck?

The choice is inevitably ours.

2/09/2015

Snowbound 2015

Here it is, February 9, 2015, and I had written a blog post regarding the Blizzard of 2013 the day before, predicting it being not as bad.  1996 was far worse.  I was a temp back then, working in Quincy, and we got storms every week, consistently.  At least we got to 107 inches in stages, not 3/4 to that record in 17 days.

Our winter was lagging behind, with nice, warm temperatures in December.  Mother Nature lulled us into believing that this winter would be like 2012, with very little snow.

Mother Nature, seeing our complacency and smug satisfaction tossed us a wicked curve ball.

"You want snow?  I'll give you as much as you want.  Just watch."

We have never seen a phenomenon in New England in our generation.  Nevertheless, snow of this magnitude also melts and can be removed.  It will take awhile, and it requires much more patience than we're used to in our "immediate gratification" world.  We want the thaw we were denied in January to come and turn our mountains of crystalline water to melt, but that takes time.

In Boston, it's been the light, fluffy kind, not the hard, pasty heart attack slop.  If it were more compact, we'd know where to put it.  If the ratio of water to snow is about 15 to 1, at 75 inches we have five inches of water when melted down.

Think about it.  If we had no snow this year and we then had a harsh drought, our lawns would be parched.  Five inches of fresh water will certainly help come spring.

We're all anxious and tired of hearing forecasters say "more snow! more snow!"  This is Mother Nature at her finest, putting her version of the ammonia ampule under our complacent noses and making us sniff its reality.  The streets will be cleaned off; the MBTA will run back to as normal as it can (well, we can all dream, can't we?); we will return to our routines.  It just takes time, patience, and perhaps a little appreciation that our neighbors to the North deal with this every winter with a smile - and perhaps it's time to get a little advice on how they deal with it.

2/05/2015

Operation Blue Dragon

If the city of Boston and the city of Cambridge wanted to get back into the good graces of its snow-fatigued citizens,  it would put into motion an effort to clear snow to reduce congestion and traffic.

I propose what would be called Operation Blue Dragon, which would be coordinated between MassDot, the MBTA, the Boston Traffic Division, and police.  This would allow crews to clear all snow mounds and streets to pavement, and avoid the huge snow mountains that are out there and the delays that come with them.

If a snowstorm of more than 12 inches occurs, the City of Boston would activate Operation Blue Dragon immediately after the storm.  Any public gatherings and activities would be postponed until cleanup is complete - no parades, no marches, and no parties.

Phase I would involve a 48 hour passenger vehicle ban, in concurrency with a 48 hour parking ban, on all major streets. Essential personnel and public transit vehicles would be exempted; all cars in violation of the ban would be subject to a stiff fine and/or vehicle towing.  The MBTA rapid transit system would only run in the tunnels, with connecting bus service to surface stations only.  To encourage the use of public transportation, fares would be waived for 96 hours after the storm.

Phase II would be restriction of major roads to small passenger cars and public transit vehicles only, with a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour.  The MBTA would be allowed to run on a modified winter schedule, with headways of 10 minutes or less and with parallel bus service on the surface.  

Once the roads are deemed clear and safe for driving, Operation Blue Dragon would end.

In both phases, snow would be required to be cleared up to the curb; sidewalks would be required to be fully cleared of snow and salted; major roads would be required to be salted and sanded at regular intervals 24 hours after a storm.  The disposal of snow would require dump trucks, large and small front loaders, and snow augers, but volunteers with snow shovels and snow throwers can also help.

This is one of many ideas.  For a snowstorm of this magnitude, thinking is much better than panicking - which has happened all too often this week.

1/31/2015

Teetotalers unite!

When I tell people I don't drink, they understand it to mean I don't drink alcohol.  I get the usual questions: Why not?  Do you take medications that prevent you from drinking?  Did you get drunk and regret it?  Do you turn mean when you drink?

Once a year or on special occasions, I'll have a rum and coke, but usually that's it.  Beer, vodka, whiskey, even mixed drinks don't interest me.  My brothers at least have good taste in beer and don't overdo it.  My parents never drank save the occasional Golden Dream or champagne.

A social drinker sees a bar as a nirvana, an oasis.  To a non-drinker like myself and many others, a bar is like being lost in a unfamiliar city.  I often find the taste of alcoholic drinks overpowering, and normally I don't finish them.  Personally, I don't find anything redeeming in going to a bar, betting loaded, and then figuring out how to get home without passing out or puking.  In those places, I don't see alcohol is not a social lubricant; it's a way to show how the nicest and sanest of people can become totally obnoxious once they get a few in them.  

We had Friday night Rats in college; I have no regrets missing all of them.  I don't regret not attending keg parties.  I found other things to do other than get written up, arrested, or anything else.

(Many wondered why I liked to spend my time in the library a lot and didn't come home until it closed.)

That doesn't mean because I am a teetotaler, I'm Carrie Nation.  Prohibiting people from consuming and enjoying alcohol responsibly is not a thing I would ever attempt to do.  Far from it - if you want a drink, please have one. Responsible drinkers are best; they'll have their fill, they may get a little happy, and then go home.  Irresponsible ones are the people you find in the news, in increasingly disturbing situations.  

To parahrase a quote from the New York Post, being sober in Boston is like living right across the street from Yankee Stadium, but being a hard-core Red Sox fan.  We're a town where drinking is expected, but some are shunned because they choose not to by free will.

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