4/17/2015

"Miserable wretch" and the shame machine

I once had homeroom with the late John Ertha at Boston Latin Academy.  Mr. Ertha was a genial man, one who could spin tales that would mesmerize the class (or at least us kids waiting for first period).  Anyone who got him angry received the brand of "miserable wretch."  One time, a homeroom member denigrated another teacher, and Mr. Ertha ended that conversation with that thunderous sobriquet.

The teaching moment in this ugly tirade from a female ESPN reporter isn't what she said.  Certainly it had its mean girl patina, one where a pretty female swats someone else with her lesser looks with the charm of Cruella DeVille.  The teaching moment is that all of us got that satisfaction of calling her a miserable wretch, basking in her schadenfreude when ESPN suspended her for acting like a total bitch (Ivy league sorority strain?), through the completely opaque veil of anonymity.

If the cameras weren't rolling, this would never have been an issue.  Her "miserable wretchedness" would be safely out of the public eye.  The tow company (itself having a checkered past) had its cameras rolling, thus displaying an ugliness we usually reserve behind closed doors.  Thence, the week-long suspension, which depending on who you hear from, is either just right, too excessive, or requires a walk of shame to HR for the last paycheck and escort from the building.

When we apply shame correctly, the object of shame is humbled, and likely has an indirect effect on us not to repeat what others do.  Shame as entertainment, as a way to display our own insecurities, is shallow, self-serving and wrong.  Piling on with the intent of "running the person out of town" is naked mob rule, not anything remotely resembling showing the person the error of their ways in a dignified manner.

It could well be that she returns a better reporter.  However, female reporters have managed to keep their cool even when news is jarring and emotionally wrenching.  The occasional blooper, including ones that involve obscenities, have found themselves on gag reels for ages; this one where a reporter, caught unaware, dressed down someone else in an ugly fashion, may not be as quickly forgiveable.

4/06/2015

Clickbait English

Last July 4, I wrote the entry Internet Demonstrative Pronoun Abuse with a jaded eye towards what people write about and how far they can shock/sensationalize people.

You know that 'one weird trick' gimmick?  It's pure diet spam - one that charges you $79 a month, charged directly to your credit card, for garbage pills purported to lose weight.  (And good luck trying to get out of it, unless you chargeback.) 

You would think websites would learn from this and avoid this kind of chicanery, one with plenty of shiny bait, but hiding garbage (or even worse, malware and/or identity theft).

They haven't.

When you see breathless action words, aggressively pleading questions, outrageous claims, and so forth, you've entered the world of Clickbait English.  Clickbait English is a lot like the oversimplified language in Orwell's 1984 - it condescends, appeals to the lowest common denominator, and is not meant for critical thinkers.  There are no nuances, just plenty of noise.

If spam/fraud companies can lure eyeballs to their spam/fraud products, websites can do the same with their articles, only they're a shade more scrupulous.  Most of the time, their articles are innocent and wouldn't be read if they had a boring headline.  They're covering a dull, boring article in fancy, superficial patina so the less-attentive take it as a must-read.

Other times, the articles are advertorials - articles that look serious, but are paid for by other companies to shill their goods.  Advertorials are slightly less sketchy versions of the 'one weird trick' gimmick, only it's done by legitimate corporations and companies.  If you're reading about your health and you've just thought to yourself, "Isn't that the Cheerios pitch?" then you've just read an advertorial.

Clickbait English is the perfect medium for gossip webpages, tabloids, and fan sites that want you to know everything right now, and scammers and hackers love it because each "meet," "here is," "is this the best ever," and "wait, what" is a perfect opportunity to inject drive-by downloads for ransomware, viruses that are expensive to remove, spyware that can harvest keystrokes to clean out bank accounts, and deposit reams upon reams of spam into email boxes, costing the end user tons in bandwidth.

To top it off, Clickbait English reduces the normal person to a babbling, obnoxious fool, one with such disjointed, random thoughts that it's hard to take them seriously.  Just like reality TV shows and infomercials, who are looking to relieve you of your money under the guise of improving your life, Clickbait English reduces the rational into a huge mess of cliches and doublespeak.

I thought of other words to describe this, but Clickbait English fits best because all it does is act like a carnival barker, trying to show people something sensational, but all they're doing is relieving them of time and money - and lots of both.

(This web post shills for nobody and is the opinion of only the blogger.)

4/01/2015

Resistance, I-95, and the Olympics

I think Shirley Leung should read up on the Southwest Corridor and I-95 before talking about us commoners complaining about the Olympic bid.

Most of the resentment behind the Olympics is that the Olympics will benefit the few while enriching the neo-aristocrats and politicians.  Money for them, while the public gets stuck with the bill.

To go back further on why there is resistance to this Olympic bid, go further back to the Turnpike extension, which does benefit a lot of people, but all but wiped out the Watertown trolley line.  The residents of Weston and Newton didn't want an expressway going through their towns and had the power to stop it (they didn't, but made the developers pay huge bucks for eminent domain); however, residents of the South End, fresh out of seeing the West End razed for "urban renewal," didn't get have those voices and saw their tenement housing and other buildings razed for the Turnpike.  The builders knew that the residents there had no representatives, and thus no problem taking houses or land by eminent domain for pennies.  

"Boston to Chicago without a stop light" had the asterisk "at the expense of the South End."

Meanwhile, the New Haven/Penn Central railroad embankment between just outside of Back Bay and just outside of Forest Hills functioned as a wall between the haves and have nots, making certain streets dangerous and uninhabitable.  In the initial stages of building, under the guise of reconfiguring Columbus Avenue, the Jackson Square and Roxbury Crossing neighborhoods became sparse, removing all traces of livelihood.

This time, however, the residents would never let something like the West End and South End happen ever again, and especially not allow the powerful to steamroll over them.  They rallied, and in 1972, Gov. Sargent stopped all road building within Route 128.  (The embankment still stood even after Gov. Sargent dropped I-95 through downtown Boston, only to be taken down in 1979 when the area was rebuilt into into the Southwest Corridor Orange Line and commuter rail areas, plus the Southwest Corridor Park, which travels on the same embankment.)

The same is true with the Olympics.  Resistance is often seen as a reflexive, selfish action by busybodies with too much time on their hands and not enough information.  When everyone says no loud enough, with enough force to convince the Olympic committee to drop the bid (and there are rumors that the USOC may just do that), mindful, coordinated, and continuous pressure and resistance works.  Sure, there are those who will obnoxiously make impossible demands to shock the burghers, and others will go into hyper-agitative mode to place a violent heckler's veto on the proceedings, but when the Olympics has that very real potential of locking down the serfs and commoners while the upper class enjoys their circuses, complete with self-congratulatory back patting, obnoxious selfies and overpriced gewgaws, it's no surprise when everyone comes out against it.

After this horrific winter, with jammed traffic, numerous breakdowns and delays on the T, and the frustration of the public when a victory parade took precedence over snow removal, those powerful antibodies in people didn't diminish - they exponentially grew and immunized the public.  Politicians and leaders who wish not to be swept out in anti-Olympic fervor and newspaper columnists who do not wish to be seen as cheerleaders should best be heed the tea leaves.

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.

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