Monday, March 30, 2009

Regional History? Maybe Not So Much..

A note to anyone making movies: If you want to lure in suckers like me, just add the "Based on a True Story" tag and I'm all yours.

I'm not much of a movie buff, and certainly not much of a horror movie buff, but when I saw the trailer for "The Haunting in Connecticut" I was definitely intrigued. I've seen enough History Channel and 48 Hours-type of specials on ghosts to have my curiosity piqued in the first place, but to know that something a) really happened, and b) happened right here in New England, I thought I'd check it out last night at the Lowell Showcase Cinema.

The movie was only so-so, but the entire time, the history dork in me (hey, the same one that drew me to a nearly two-hour presentation on Charles Herbert Allen earlier that day) stayed close to the story and everything going on in the hopes that future Google searches and Internet exploration would tell me more about the former mortuary in Southington, CT and the crazy necromancy that must have gone on there.

Not so much.

I've poked around a bit today during breaks from work to see what I could learn about the Snedekers' former house up near the Massachusetts border, and it looks like the movie used "based on" in the loosest sense possible.

I guess there's no quality control board that can determine what one person's definition of "based on" is, but from a marketing standpoint, it's genius. There's a huge allure I feel (hey, I can't be the only one) to something exciting that supposedly happened, where just another ho-hum teenagers-screaming-and-ghosts-slamming-doors horror movie wouldn't draw me away from whatever else I was doing.

Maybe I should've done that Google research before going to the theater, but maybe I subconsciously decided not to for fear of spoiling the fun ahead of time. Either way, my ten dollars and I have since parted.

What's that they say about fools?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Citizen Journalism and Afghanistan

Watch more CBS News videos on AOL Video

A big term that's been used a lot lately in the local blogosphere is citizen journalism. Put simply, it just refers to the idea that we don't necessarily need to "wait" for monolithic news entities to tell us what's going on -- by using things like Twitter and blogs, we can pass and receive real-time information about things like, say, a bank robbery on Gorham St. or a fire down Highland St.

The War on Terror (or, sorry Cliff, I should've said 'The Really Long Contingency Operation in the CENTCOM AOR') should be no different.

Rather than just blame the media for giving us a bum rap, it's a great idea for military people to get out there and tell their story (to the degree that security and other considerations will allow, that is).

That's why it's great to see people like Retired Capt. Mullaney writing books and going on the talk shows and telling their stories and the stories of their guys -- it's not the obnoxious flag-waving and the I'm-more-American-than-you Sean Hannity-style of idiocy, but it's also not the equally obnoxious Rosie O'Donnell look-how-many-convicts-are-in-the-ranks idiocy either.

I hope more citizen journalism like this makes its way into the debate in the near future -- the punditry shouldn't just be limited to egghead intellectuals and high-volume commentators who use bombast and certitude to make up for the gaps in their knowledge and experience.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What's the Matter with Downtown?

Last night at UML, Karon Bergeron of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce spoke about ways that the downtown can be better linked with the university in order to serve UML students, downtown business owners, residents, and everyone in between.

I thought one of the best points brought up was the issue of incentive for students (one of the Audiopark guys said it and so did Brett Cromwell, among others). For the crowd of people old enough to be out on their own after dark (say, 14 and up) but too young to legally get into any of the bars, it just seems like there isn't much to do downtown. Even if the transportation piece were perfect, there's only so many times you can go out and spin your wheels while being barred entry to most of the places everyone else seems to be going.

I know I've written about how great a comedy club would be (and yes, I know Mickey's is doing Wednesday comedy starting next week, and I'm lamenting that Wednesday is the single toughest weeknight for me because of a Thursday morning brief). But that would still have to be all ages, or at least 18+ to accomodate college students, and that wouldn't fly for a bar.

Another idea I've heard is a pool hall. I remember doing that back in high school when there was, well, nothing else to do.

A movie theater seems even better, as it could literally attract ALL ages for various types of entertainment. Of course, the tricky part there is where the heck can you do it, and where the heck can you handle parking. A couple places come to mind, but they're, uh...spoken for already.

Probably the best idea is that of a mixed-use large art/music space modeled after Providence's AS 220 ( That could bring large numbers of young people from this and surrounding communities together, give them something constructive/creative to do, and get them (and their dollars!) into downtown eating establishments and other stores.

Now comes the part where I have to admit how much easier it is to talk about these types of things than to try to bring them to fruition, what with the risks that whatever entrepreneurs/sponsors would be taking.

In the meantime, I guess I'll use the blog to cheerlead other peoples' good ideas and see what else comes up at places like LDNA meetings and events like this. Last I heard, we might be on tap for an all-expenses paid trip overseas in Fiscal Year 2011, so with any luck I'll come back with enough money to possibly invest in someone else's great idea and actually help it off the ground.

Oh, and for the record, next Tuesday's talk at UML is going to be led by Victoria Fahlberg of One Lowell. It concerns Proportional Representation (PR) voting systems (like the one they have in Cambridge) and the way that helps give a voice to minority interest groups in a way that a first-nine-past-the-post system does not.

I'm sure there are many great points behind the argument for switching, but I think there might even be a more obvious and immediate solution to diversifying the field of the city's elected officials -- get more candidates of color to run.

Take a look around at your Governor and your President. Their victories should show you that old canards about white voters being unwilling to support candidates of color needs to go out the window. I'm sure that PR and districting come with their own sets of advantages, but I think back to my post about why my friend got elected to the Oregon State House (because he ran!) and honestly think things could change in 2009 if we see a ballot that includes more candidates of color.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why I'll Tweet

I just got back from an informal local blogger lunch that included Tony Accardi, Jackie Doherty, Richard Howe, Cliff Krieger, and me. (Note to all who missed it: There's a consensus agreement that we should do another one down the road, and that we should shoot for a weekend...stay tuned because I'll post on the idea again in a couple months).

Of course, we talked a lot about the New New Media, which naturally included a quick Twitter lesson (a Twittorial?) from Dick and Tony to the non-initiated in the group.

For those who haven't heard about it, it's a way for people to give quick bits of information (limited to 140 characters max) out about what they're doing at any given time, what's going on in their community, or just any random thoughts that pop into their mind. It was great for me because a) I got to learn about something I didn't previously understand; and, b) it helps me to answer a question I came into the lunch today with -- how on earth to sort through the mass of information in the blogosphere.

Simply put, I really believe there are more blogs out there than there are people to read them. By nature, then, any blogger and/or blog reader has to limit themselves to what they can reasonably read/keep up with on a regular basis. My quick shorthand is whether I actually learn something. Interesting commentary or snippets of local news that I'm not going to get anywhere else, and I'm sold. Dear Diary-type of stuff, or any other personal stuff that comes without any broader commentary or ideas, and I tune out pretty quick. Readability is important too -- brevity and punctuation are both pluses, ceteris paribus.

That's why I'm sold on Twitter. I probably won't become a "follower" of many people's individual Tweets, but when it's done in a community forum sort of way (and thanks to today's lunch, I've learned that the #Lowell thread serves that purpose), it's a one-stop shop worth checking. Someone might Tweet on something that's not worthy of a blog entry in and of itself (i.e. hey, check out this great new breakfast place), and there's a huge swathe of people that might not have the time or inclination to become outright bloggers, but will Tweet. They can report on planned events (say, a community meeting), something spontaneous like a fire or disturbance, or just offer reminders of things going on (i.e. someone Tweeting to say they're at the Revolving Museum for the Film Festival).

And on that note, time to set up my Twitter account, and then offer up a quick "Tweet" about a meeting tonight at UML.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Positive Ticketing -- Coming to Lowell

At tonight's Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting, Police Chief Ken Lavallee laid out an idea that started in Richmond, British Columbia that will come to Lowell soon -- positive ticketing.

Here's how it works: Lots of young people flood the downtown area in the post-school day/pre-dinner hours. Their interactions with the police usually come in the form of "don'ts" and "shouldn'ts" that might me met with the threat of a ticket and resultant fine. However, positive ticketing aims to change that -- by offering police officers downtown with the chance to reward good behavior.

Using money from local donors and large organizations, police will be *armed* with gift certificates to local eating establishments and entertainment venues that they can give to teenagers who do the right thing -- those who actually wait for the appropriate lights to change before crossing the street, those who help to prevent minor quality-of-life problems (littering and vandalism), and those who generally exhibit good-citizen type of behavior in public.

Sounds like a pretty neat idea, and it's good to see an idea that succeeded somewhere else being adopted locally.

Also speaking at the meeting tonight were Suzzanne Cromwell, who promoted the 2nd Annual Film Festival (first weekend in April), which will focus on "Food, Fair Trade, and the Global Economy," and City Manager Bernie Lynch, who gave a detailed analysis of the city's budget for this and the next fiscal year.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Three Dirty Letters that Could Make You Rich..

Anyone reading this blog probably already knows how much I love audiobooks. Among my favorites are the Peter Lynch and Jim Cramer books on investing, which I've listened to more than a few times during my sometimes seemingly-interminable jaunts down 395.

Anyway, Peter Lynch ran the Magellan fund in the 1980s, which was the runaway top performer among mutual funds at the time. Jim Cramer ran a hedge fund which also posted great numbers into the 1990s. Although there are many areas where Cramer and Lynch diverge, one of the secrets to their success included a willingness to go where others might -- to find bargains with growth potential, they took the (admittedly amoral) step of investing in areas that sounded morally shaky (Phillip Morris), mafia-associated (Waste Management), or just boring (say, a boring-sounding office supply company).

Right now, the three most toxic letters in the American English vernacular are these -- AIG. Nearly every single piece of media coverage (and there's no shortage of it) is negative. Whatever the rightness or the wrongness of it, it's easy to feel upset when your tax dollars are supporting huge bonuses for a company that nearly failed based on its own recklessness. And for politicians, it's easy to throw red meat at constituents by making displays of mock outrage. Those are ripe conditions for most everyday investors to be scared off completely.

Right now, AIG is trading at about $1.25 a share or so. That's way up from its 52-week low of 33 cents, but of course WAY down from its pre-crash high of $49.50. Assuming it doesn't completely go belly up (after all the brouhaha, do you really think *we'd* let it?), there's only one direction it can really go.

Let's say you plunk down for 100 shares of AIG. Chances are, if you're willing to hold on, you can ride that right up back to a *normal* P/E ratio when the eceonomy re-stabilizes (and yes, it will). Along the way, you might do really well if you reinvest the dividends that it and other financials will use to lure investors back onboard the train during the climb back to normalcy.

What's the absolute worst that could happen? You're out the cost of a very expensive dinner, a gift you might bring to a wedding, a few tanks of gas, or however else you look at just over a hundred dollars.

There is, however, a potentially huge upside, provided you're not too morally repulsed by the bonuses and the negligence that led to this situation in the first place to become involved. I'll close here by going back to one of my favorite Buffett-isms: "The key is to be fearful when others are greedy, and to be greedy when others are fearful."

So what's the key to the key? Turn on the TV and watch CNBC for a while. Now, are you feeling greedy? Or fearful? Take your pulse and find out -- you can't benefit from Mr. Buffett's wisdom if you ARE one of the "others" he talks about..

Thursday, March 19, 2009

News Media Just Makin' It Up..

I'm on duty today, so I'm captive in a small room with cable news running all day. Even with the various channels to choose from, I can't help but notice the same stories just looping over and over. Two that gall me a bit are the so-called "feud" between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer, and the so-called "dis" from Mike Krzyzewski towards President Obama.

I watched both, so if you haven't seen them I'll spare you the trouble:

The first, which has been widely billed as some kind of great Frasier v. Ali type of showdown, was really just Jon Stewart letting off some righteous indignation and Jim Cramer being very conciliatory and understanding. Hardly a fight. A "fight" to me implies two parties doing something aggressive. One guy sitting there, smiling, and saying, "You know you're right in some ways and I can do better" does not a fight make...unless the media wishes it were so.

The second seems to be on a constant Fox News loop, as Fox News just keeps tripping over itself to make President Obama look bad in any way it can. All that really happened was that Mike Krzyzewski made a joke about Obama not picking Duke for his Final Four...with a smile, he made some quip about how the President ought to focus more on the economy than on his NCAA brackets. Hardly the stuff of Jerry Springer-style oohing and aahing...but based on the way the news media (even Headline News!) is covering this, you would think Duke's basketball coach came off the top rope with his elbow, which is hardly the case.

If there were such a thing as an "un-salute" (A middle finger? An obscene gesture?) I would give one today for all the news media that has sought to trump up Stewart v. Cramer or Krzyzewski v. Obama, neither of which ever had any of the makings of a 'fight' or even two-way incivility.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Time Vampires, Open Kimonos, and other Lexical Joys

When it comes to anything involving words, or the English language in general, I'm a self-admitted (but unrepentant) dork. In another life, I think I would've become an English professor (but at least in this life I can be the next best thing, an ESL teacher). Anyway, I've stumbled across a few good expressions lately that I'd like to share:

(1) Time vampire. Pretty much speaks to itself, but it's any activity or obligation that, well, sucks away your time, often in a sneaky manner. It can be voluntary (playing with all the new gizmos on your cell phone), semi-voluntary (getting sucked into TV shows with relatives), or involuntary (endless staff meetings). I first heard this expression last week, and finally got to use it today. For a 2:00 p.m. brief, I had to be "on call" from 12:45 onward to set up the room and welcome people in. Then the brief itself took an hour and fifteen minutes, followed by fifteen more minutes of people standing around and talking in the room I had to lock up. By the end of normal working hours, when I wondered why I hadn't gotten through any of the several dozen messages I had to read/summarize for tomorrow, I realized, "Wow, that whole brief thing ate up the meat of my afternoon. What a time vampire."

(2) Open kimono. As the name suggests, this just means you're basically letting it all hang out there, much as you might if someone, well, opened your kimono. I first heard this come from an Admiral who was getting ready to do a "Lessons Learned" type session following a situation where the unit being discussed had screwed something up. "I don't want you guys to hold back here...between these four walls we're going to put everything out's going to be open kimono."

(3) Sat for sea. This one will take a little more explaining. "Sat" is military shorthand for "satisfactory." XOs in particular are quick to describe things as "unsat" as a means of expressing displeasure, so of course "sat" is a way of saying something's good enough. For a seagoing unit trying to do maintenance on a particular system or part, "sat for sea" just means something is "good enough." Where it gets more interesting is when it gets brought into different realms, as in "I'm not so sure about my date to the Submarine Ball, but I guess you could say she's 'sat for sea.'" The sailor who said that is saying that he feels okay walking in with this companion on his arm, but he's not otherwise particularly psyched (or at least willing to admit it to his buddies).

(4) Soup sandwich. This is an old military mainstay (even featured on but the main idea here is that if you try to literally picture a soup sandwich, it's something that doesn't make any sense, won't hold up, just generally won't work. It's usually used to describe someone, as in "Thompson? Yeah, that guy's a real soup sandwich." It can also be used to describe a plan, an idea, or a uniform in need of some new creases and a trip to the dry cleaner's.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Bernie Madoff: I Wish I'd Said That!

I just read a phenomenal piece of original writing/thinking by Joe Nocera in today's New York Times:

It gave me that very distinct feeling that you get when you see/read/hear something that hits you in all the right places and makes you say, "I wish I had come up with that." With a tip of the hat to Mr. Nocera, I just want to say that the main thrust of his piece is that the *victims* of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi Scheme are not entirely without blame themselves.

I had been kicking that around in my head for a couple of days through constant media exposure to the "I hate Bernie Madoff more than you do" sweepstakes infecting the commentariat and the hard news itself. After all, there are only so many people who lose $5 million I can feel sorry for -- how many Americans will ever have $5 million to lose?!?? Also, any investor anywhere should appreciate that with the chance for gain should come the chance for risk -- if these very same people had continued to get the 10-12% steady returns ad infinitum, they wouldn't be queuing up to claim that it was somehow unfair or that some score ought to be settled.

Anyway, Nocera explains this all far better than I could dream to, and gives tons of other great examples where ordinary investors got screwed over by bad ideas, shaky investments, and yes, Ponzi schemes, without ever seeing any of it back.

If you've got the time, this is a great read.

A Blogger Lunch..

A conversation with a couple local bloggers last week gave rise to the idea of having an informal lunch for any local bloggers, prospective bloggers, readers of blogs, etc. to get together and share some back-and-forth on current events -- local, state, federal, international, whatever.

The somewhat arbitrarily-set time/date/place for said roundtable would be Tuesday, March 24 at 11:00 a.m. at Cafe Aiello.

I'll be there with a Globe and a Sun in tow.

I don't think there's any real organizer behind this so no need for anything so formal as an RSVP. The only thing I ask is that if you are: a) reading this, and b) a local blogger, you give it a mention on your blog so as many potential would-be participants as possible are made aware.

If you use Twitter, that might also be a good venue for spreading said word (I haven't begun Tweeting yet but may jump on the bandwagon soon..)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Who Was Elizabeth Durante?

Elizabeth Durante was a Connecticut College student traveling to Boston's Logan Airport to spend her spring break delivering medical supplies to the needy in Uganda when a colleague of mine driving the wrong way on 395 with no headlights on smashed into her van head on and killed her.

I mention this not to vilify or condemn Petty Officer Musser (the courts will do that), to say the casinos shouldn't serve alcohol after the bars close (Gov. Rell might try), or even to eulogize the life of someone I never knew (her friends and family are doing that now).

I just want to mention it here in this space as a reminder of how fleeting human life is. In this case, someone who wasn't doing anything inherently dangerous (riding to the airport), serving in a war zone, or in anything other than perfect health was killed suddenly and without any warning. Something similar could happen to virtually anyone at virtually any moment.

So, cliched though it might be, it still bears repeating -- take advantage of every day that you're given.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Taxes, Flat Tires, and the Joys of Outsourcing

I didn't go to work yesterday.

Nothing illegal, unethical, or defiant about that. As the Navy giveth, I'll taketh -- with 2.5 days a month being added to the till, coupled all the others stored up in the account, I'm staring down the barrel of a whole bunch of off days between now and September. I've thought about it quite a bit and determined that I'll get far more bang for my proverbial buck by spreading the days out in ones and twos than I would from storing them all up for a big month of nothing doing (experience teaches me that too many days off in a row is not always good).

Anyway, back to yesterday. One of my major, written goals for the day was knocking out that pesky tax return which had been looming over my head for some time. What normally wouldn't be all that complicated changed this year because: a) I became a homeowner, and b) I sold a bunch of the securities I picked up with deployment income in order to do it.

I thought it wouldn't be that bad -- just follow the prompts on TurboTax, and voila...right?

Turns out it wasn't really that simple. I wasn't sure what all the prompts were really asking, I didn't know which of the errors actually required validating, and I didn't know whether certain pieces of information were needed by the IRS or were just there for general reference.

After far too many minutes (hours?) on hold with the folks at TurboTax, Vanguard, and Bank of America trying to solve all the problems I was having with importing 1099s, I decided it was time to make a foray into the *Tax District* on Central Street (y'know, the area between the Canal and Jackson Street where all the tax help stores or shells thereof sit between the beauty salons or shells thereof).

I'm incredibly glad I did. The missus and I trudged down through the wintry mix, we encountered some friendly, helpful folks at H & R Block, and got down to work. I answered a bunch of questions, printed out a whole bunch of forms (thankfully the W-2 and all the 1099s and everything else were all online), and learned a lot from someone who does this for a living.

We wrapped everything up just before seven, and guess what? The refund they came up with was the same one that I generated with TurboTax, right down to the last digit.

Guess what else? That doesn't make the trip or the money spent a *waste.* In fact, far from it. By heading down there, meeting with a real person (if you remember my earlier post about this, I always hit zero as soon as I encounter a phone tree), I bought a huge amount of peace of mind that I won't be spending the next 5-10 years making license plates in Walpole. I learned about potential deductions to look out for next year, I found out about other quirks in the process, and I got what was essentially a *sanity check* (a term I always use when I want to run an idea or thought process past someone else for general calibration).

Bottom Line: I'm quite glad I went and I'll happily do the same next year. Any sense of pride of having *done it myself* or of conquering the byzantine U.S. Tax Code is far outweighed by the relief that I felt immediately upon leaving that office yesterday and heading back down Central and then Market back to home.

The last time I thought about how great it is to call the pros, it was pouring rain, it was near dark, my cell phone battery was near death, and I had a flat tire on 290 just east of Shrewsbury. Even with a good spare in the trunk I put a call into AAA.

Within less than 15 minutes, there was a big truck behind me with some nice big flashing lights. Even if I had had a jack (I didn't) and been able to do it myself, having that massive truck with the big flashing lights behind me took a potentially VERY dangerous situation (run the numbers on the danger of changing tires by the side of a busy's scary..for a local example look what happened to the girl on the Connector a couple years ago) and made it way safer. I could see car after car changing lanes to avoid the situation entirely, despite the rain, the overcast sky, and the rapid onset of darkness.

In both situations, I paid a nominal sum (I say *nominal* relative to the potential extreme cost of NOT using either service) to a trained professional and was able to turn a potentially vexing, stressful situation into a smooth ride home, literally and then figuratively.

As I like to say, all skills are great to have for when they're *really* needed (firing a weapon, driving a standard, changing a tire, etc.)

However, to the degree that I can help it, I'll save those examples for the real emergencies. Wherever else possible, I'll happily outsource.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tipping My Hat to Jim Yong Kim

Dartmouth College made national news recently by selecting the first-ever Asian-American President of an Ivy League University -- Jim Yong Kim.

Unfortunately for the school, they made headlines again after a student sent a racist e-mail to over 1000 people at the college:

From the Boston Globe story:
The anonymous e-mail referred to Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-born Harvard medical school professor and global health pioneer, as a “Chinaman” and went on to bemoan the loss of another “hard-working American’s job” to "an immigrant willing to work in substandard conditions at near-subsistent wage.''

“Unless ‘Jim Yong Kim’ means ‘I love Freedom’ in Chinese, I don’t want anything to do with him,” the e-mail said. “Dartmouth is America, not Panda Garden Rice Village Restaurant."

Obviously, there's nothing funny, witty, or incisive about what this writer is saying. In addition to being extremely ignorant, it also conflates "Asian" with "Chinese," something that frankly surprises me to have come from any even borderline-educated/aware contemporary twentysomething.

But we all get it. I don't need to go into a long spiel here about why the comments are dumb, the amazing contributions that Asian-Americans have made and make to contemporary American culture, the sacrifices of Daniel Inouye's RCT in World War II, the internment crime, etc. We can all agree each other to death that the e-mail was stupid, racist, and inappropriate. Not much of a *learning point* or *talking point* there.

The learning point in this story, however, comes from Dr. Kim's response:

Also from the story:
Kim distributed his own message to the Dartmouth community, acknowledging the “unfortunate” e-mail. He said he hopes the incident will bring about “better understanding and greater compassion” for all segments of the community.

He then gave the offending writer a pass: “I also don’t want this lapse in judgment to limit his prospects for the future. Dartmouth students are very talented, but we all make mistakes – especially when we are young."

That's a phenomenal response. For all the cliches out there about the importance of "being the bigger man," that type of mentality is more honored in the breach than the observance. Dr. Kim, however, really showed himself to be magnanimous and gracious by staying entirely above the fray. He could have easily taken some kind of a drastic step and possibly jeopardized this kid's chance at earning a prestigious Bachelor's Degree.

But he didn't.

He didn't start a cycle of recriminations about what type of speech should or shouldn't be allowed on college campuses, he didn't start a crusade about the enduring acceptability of anti-Asian racism in some circles, the offensive way Asians are stereotyped in popular culture, or anything else of the sort.

Instead, with a figurative wave of the hand, he effectively dismissed the e-mail and its author by quickly recognizing it for what it was, and then moving on to the bigger and better challenges of heading up a nationally-renowned college.

It was particularly inspiring to see this story -- and Dr. Kim's response -- because I've been thinking a lot lately about whether and how to respond to real or perceived slights.

I think this is a really vexing question because there's never an easy answer. "Just letting things go" is often unsatisfying (and dangerous if the thing you're letting go calls your reputation into question, in which case you really should respond). However, you can't go around getting spun up or defensive every time someone cuts you with a verbal jab across the chin.

Somewhere, of course, a balance must be struck. I'm not sure what it is. But I also know that if you show me a person who says "I don't care what anyone else thinks of me," I can easily and quickly show you a liar. In fact, I think the people who say that the loudest, and who try the hardest to cultivate that devil-may-care persona, are often the quickest to get touchy when they go on the receiving end of some type of criticism, fair or not.

I will admit, however, that in the vast majority of cases, most digs and potshots really can be do otherwise is to make a tremendous time/energy expenditure for a possibly little or even negative gain. At the same time, however, reputation really does matter, so I could only advise anyone in good faith that if you think someone is sullying yours, you should try to nip it in the bud if you can.

But I guess the key is being able to distinguish something like that from a lone idiot throwing spitballs in the corner, which is easily ignorable. For Dr. Kim, that was probably particularly doable considering the e-mail writer made a broadside against an entire race -- not a truly personal attack on an individual's actions or his character.

And if there is a spitball thrower somewhere in the circle of the people you work or otherwise interact with, I would advise going easy on the fire and brimstone. When in doubt, heed this old adage from southern American politics: "It's better to have 'em inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

What is YPGL?

The 'YPGL' referenced in the title stands for 'Young Professionals of Greater Lowell' and it's a group for, well, young professionals (and if you're wondering, the 'young' part is defined very loosely) to get together and exchange business cards, talk about ideas, look for jobs, etc.

From the website, the mission is stated as being twofold:
  • First - to position Greater Lowell as an alluring career destination-alternative to Boston or Rt. 128; targeting not only area natives, but also showcasing Lowell to potential new business leaders from outside the region.
  • Second – to provide a networking forum for existing young people working in Greater Lowell in the areas of business, education, non-profits as well as government.
I've done the last two YPGL events -- a Devils game back in February and the Trivia Night at Major's last Thursday and had a great time at each. I thought the Trivia Night was great because it's a ow-cost event ($10 registration), it's right downtown, and it doesn't require much effort other than showing up.

The next event they're doing is a Boston Harbor Cruise on the Thursday before Memorial Day. I've heard great things about it, but at $68.50 x 2 tickets, the logistical effort of getting to and from Boston, and the effort to get into something other than my summer *uniform* of flip-flops, cargo shorts, and t-shirt, I'll probably pass.

The good news, however, is that most of the roughly once-a-month events are low-key and close to home.

If you're interested in this type of stuff, the group's website is:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Great First-Hand Stuff on Afghanistan

As I'm eating breakfast and sipping Awake Tea before PT, I'm flipping through these Afghanistan slide show photo presentations -- they're amazing. They've got great shots of the urban markets, the countryside, and you can see how strong the focus here is on what the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) are doing.

PRTs, by the way, are a great example of jointness in action -- many of the *ground pounders* running these things are wearing uniforms that say "US Air Force" and "US Navy."

If you've got ten minutes or so, I recommend checking some of this stuff out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Your Own Rorschach Test

Quick -- think of a time when you felt that someone unfairly judged you using incomplete information, inferences, hearsay, or whatever else put a better, fairer decision out of reach. If you don't have one, sit and think for second before moving on.


Now think of a time when you unfairly judged or otherwise drew a conclusion about someone else using incomplete information, inferences, hearsay, etc.

Got one?

If so, I bet that took you a bit longer. Why? Because other people are judgemental and make unfair snap decisions. You, however, don't -- hence the difficulty with Step Two.

Once we cut away from that pretense, it's important for us all to admit that we're constantly judging the world around us and those in it even though we lack total information when we do it. It would be impossible not to. Because we are NEVER going to have complete information, we obviously have to adapt and use shortcuts...otherwise, simple decisions like whether to wear a jacket, what to order for lunch, and whether to take the bus or the train would become impossible gut-wrenching tasks that would prevent us from doing, well, just about anything else.

So, yes, we're always judging (as we must) so let's stop pretending that we don't. What we can control, however, is how we judge. In other words, in spite of the constant *information deficit* we face, we can default towards assuming the best, or assuming the worst. And which direction we decide to go says a lot more about us than the subjects we judge. That's why it reminds me of the ink blot test, or Rorschach Test, that psychologists use. The ink blots never change, but based on people's perceptions of the blots, psychologists are able to draw inferences about the viewers. Fascinating stuff, right?

Here are a couple real-life examples I've noticed:

(1) At work. Because many of the people I interact with at work don't really know what I do all day (which is quite fine by me, thank you, as it mostly involves research-type work from behind a closed door), I often get asked or ribbed a bit about what it is I actually do. There are two distinct forms that it comes in, and they're easily discernible from one another -- first, there's the honest, plaintive inquiry -- "Hey, man, what do you mostly occupy your time with? Who do you reach out to? What sources do you use? Oh, really, how do you like it?" From the tone and the open, inquiring nature of the questions, it's very clear this person is at least neutral, but is mainly assuming the best (i.e. there's something of value there, and he/she just doesn't understand it but wants to). The second form, however, is FAR less inquisitive, far more opinionated and far more likely to include such wonderful zingers as "...but you don't really do anything anyway" or a sarcastic "like you serve a purpose here," etc.

In other words, my role at the command is the ink blot. To put it into dorky scentific terms, I'm the x-variable, or the constant. But one person sees something they don't know, assumes the best, and asks the open question, whereas another makes a negative assumption without seeking out more information. The viewer/interpreter changes, but the blot doesn't.

(2) At church. This shouldn't amaze any churchgoer. As someone who's moved around MANY times in the past five years and been to many churches, I could tell you hands-down you're not going to find many more places where lots of judging is going on, never mind the admonitions of the man whose life and death we're there to celebrate. At my church, it's a quite large sanctuary and the services have sort of an open, come-and-go feel. So you could literally go for weeks and weeks on end, and unless you knew where a certain person sat, or had a way to seek them out, you might never see them. So every week, my girlfriend, her mom, her aunt, and other assorted family members and I roll in just after 10 a.m., find seats in roughly the same area, grab the kids from Sunday school and leave around noon. Almost without fail, someone who we haven't seen in a while will come to say hi, and, again, it tends to fall between two visible, easily discernible extremes.

First, on the good side, there's the big grin, the bear hug, and the "it's been awhile, neighbor" that's said in a friendly, neutral, no-fault sort of way. That's, of course, always well-received by us, and it seems quite well-intentioned. The person saying it seems to realize that while, yes, we haven't seen each other, that could be for any number of reasons, including the possibility that we've just missed each other week after week.

On the other hand, however, there is the "greeting" of the more judgemental, scornful variety. There's the inevitable "Where have you beens" said without a smile or even honest curiosity, but the frowning of someone who feels they're calling you out for having done something wrong. You might have to see it to believe it (it's one of those things that's sort of hard to *capture* in written form), but if you can believe this, we've even had the same people make the same snide comments about our *never* being there.. in consecutive weeks! Unless someone had been stricken with amnesia, I know that seems hard to believe, but it's true. We honestly haven't figured out a way to respond without coming off as sarcastic or defensive ourselves.

All I do is ignore it and laugh it off, which is about all I can do with the work example, too. As the Choosing A Soundtrack (linked to your right) author has written before, arguing with the irrational or the idiotic is often a fool's errand anyway, as it quickly becomes difficult to tell who the idiot is in such arguments.

Before I give you the wrong impression about either my workplace or church, mind you, I'm talking about a very small percentage of people here. Many more fall into the "assume the best" category, but really, the VAST majority of people have way too much going on in their own lives to care that much about others. Most people, I really believe, are too busy to spend their time worrying about what others do or don't do.

Still, if there's any point to this blog entry, let it be this: Let's start by admitting we all judge the world around us, including the people around us. Great -- now that we've disabused ourselves of the fiction that we don't judge or make assumptions, let's try to always assume the best when we lack complete information, which is virtually always. To do any less than that says nothing about the people we judge, but it says everything about ourselves.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Re-Visiting Cafe Aiello for the First Time

On Saturday, I made it back into Cafe Aiello on Gorham Street for the first time since it re-opened in February. The thing I always loved most about Aiello -- the layout -- hasn't changed. It's still nice and spacious, with two separate *sections* and tons of elbow room for anyone looking to hang out, do some reading, work on the Internet (yes, still free Wi-Fi in there). It's got the comfy chairs over by the entrance on Gorham, it's got the long table for holding court in the other section, and it's even got the picture of Jonathan Papelbon's back from the newspaper clipping following the Red Sox sweep of the Rockies back in 2007 right at eye-level for anyone using the men's room.

The best change I quickly noticed was the hot deli sandwiches they're offering up at the counter (and I'll put in a hearty recommendation for the Roger Dodger here, it's got roast beef, melted cheese, some mayo and a bunch of other fixings, panini-style). There's a decent (and growing) selection of teas, coffee coming from a Seattle supplier (though I wouldn't know what that means, I'm trying to quit the bean), and a bunch of Elvis-themed sandwiches (Jif, bananas, and nutella for the daring).

What I could gather is that business has been steadily picking up day-by-day, probably just because word-of-mouth has tipped people off to the fact that they've reopened. Judging from the fact that someone in my building ardently tried to convince me that Cafe Aiello was not open after I mentioned I was heading there on Saturday (despite my protestations that no, I just popped my head in the other day and spoke to three baristas who were quite clear that it was), it seems that there is still more word to be spread.

One other note -- if you are an artist, or know any local artists, it's worth mentioning that the owners are looking for locally-produced work to hang on their walls. For any interested, I would recommend dropping in and asking about how to go forward getting your stuff displayed.