Monday, November 24, 2008


Odette England, Attentional Landscapes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How do you feel?

After making a couple of dozen “I [Heart] whatever” bumper stickers (actually, literally using whatever might be funny), it’s time to play around with replacing the heart. The classic Rorschach ink blot seems like a natural choice: the shape is right, a deep red filter in Photoshop makes the color right, and there’s the additional layer of your feelings towards Rorschach being open to interpretation.

Actual bumper stickers now available at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What can we do for our country?

In his post on expectations for Obama’s presidency, Douglas Rushkoff says:

The election of Obama is itself a cue. It’s a cue that America can elect a smart, capable, and caring person as its leader. That we are capable of transcending the logic of short-term self-interest, fear, and even racism. And if we are capable of doing this, it means we are better than we act most of the time. This moment is the bang of the starter’s pistol – an awakening, an opportunity.

But this new narrative is not the story of how we are led by some new person. It’s the story of how we lead ourselves. It’s about how we accept the cue to act.

No, the opportunity is not to create the next great website for modeling bottom-up community activity, but to go and actually do the stuff. It is to participate [in] the public school, work towards alternative energy possibilities, design and install bicycle lanes, argue at work for equal pay for women, assist local agriculture projects, develop complementary currencies and non-profit credit unions.
Seizing this opportunity requires our taking actions, as individuals and in groups, that will actually reclaim our country as ours.

I had long wanted to be an observer at a polling place, to guard the individual right to vote. What I rediscovered on Election Day was that I had an even clearer view as a poll worker. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is about going ahead and participating, not just wishing or wondering or commenting. Sure, tell those in power what they are doing wrong. You can be vocal about more issues than you can dive headfirst into. But speaking up is not a substitute for action.

In the years since 2001, Michael and I have often talked about the dangers of not speaking up when you disagree with a government’s policy. What can you say, and where do you say it, in order to make a difference? It’s nice to think we can set that conversation aside for a more hopeful one: what can we do to make our world better? Is it enough to get paid for creating content that we hope will improve student outcomes in the classroom? Does it require helping individual students? Can I count uprooting invasive weeds in other people’s yards and strewing flower seeds around as a piece of doing my part? How do we find time and energy to lead when life has become so very complicated? More questions than answers, but at least the questions are more fun to ask.

Particularly when our government started sanctioning torture, I wanted a way to say “Not in my name.” With the distance of history, we say with broad strokes that a population was silent. How can we avoid that future judgment on us? Speaking up effectively requires determining our audience. Are we trying to reach our elected officials, our neighbors, our distributed communities, those beyond our borders, or just crying out to the future?

The new and eternal question of how we can make our world better also involves determining who we are trying to reach. The collective answer must be everyone, but we must also each come up with our own approaches. You scatter flower seeds, and I return shopping carts, and Roberta leads a more communal approach to child care, and our neighbor digs out his neighbor’s car, and that’s how we extend our sense of home by a few more blocks. And that’s how we must approach our communities and our world as well.

Games back in the day

BibliOdyssey has posted a lovely collection of game boards from the past 500 years. I’m particularly taken with this round board of music notation:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Organic architecture

Back in September, we drove through several miles of Fire Island by the Hamptons. We saw egrets and great blue herons, marsh and dune and flooded out road, and beach houses both tacky and marvelous. But nothing like this gem from outside Rio de Janeiro.

The main page of the architects’ site is a slide show of this beach house.

Not buying it

Thomas Garvey will be posting about Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Merchant of Venice, which we saw last night. I agree with him that there is much not to like in the production, from the eerie stillness of Antonio while the court hearing swirls around him to the near-complete excision of the play’s racism. The occasional background music is much weaker than I expected. The stunning two-level space at Midway Studios with massive columns below and 200 feet of wrap-around glass railing in the balcony is only used twice to good effect: the columns when Jessica is lolling around Portia’s estate and the glass railing when Launcelot is wrestling with his inner fiend and his conscience. Doug Lockwood’s Launcelot and Marianna Bassham’s Nerissa are the standout performances, with Launcelot dropped in from a comedy that includes unstrained and unrestrained humor and Nerissa straight out of Sex and the City.

Wow, a play obsessed with money and lending, done when our own financial and credit markets have collapsed: what could be more timely? And there’s plenty of stage business involving money changing hands, some that almost makes sense and some that just serves to distract. The problem is that this production loses all class distinctions; nothing is made of a wealthy prince and an indebted merchant being on equal footing in gambling for Portia’s hand. The servants do not act or dress like servants, and we can hardly keep track of which side characters have money and which do not. The constant and easy flow of cash on stage confuses claims of poverty, contradicts the rationale for Antonio borrowing from Shylock in the first place (and for not paying him back), and alienates the audience from the world of Belmont and Venice. We are, after all, living in a world where cash flow has been problematically reduced. The most charitable interpretation of this directorial choice is that the omnipresence of money actually reduces money’s salience and keeps the conflict centered on promises and contracts instead.

Of course, the show is actually about anti-Semitism, or so I keep hearing. Jeremiah Kissel’s Shylock, directed by Melia Bensussen, is a snarling raving parody of Shakespeare’s parody of his time’s anti-Semitism. He certainly brings a lot of energy to the role. And here is where I think the press attention to these two observant Jews choosing this particular portrayal of Shylock is rather overblown. How the audience responds to this multiply-removed depiction of The Jew reflects the audience’s inner world rather than Kissel’s, Bensussen’s, or Shakespeare’s. For myself, the anti-Semitism expressed in the play was muted by all of the characters being so unlikeable. Prejudice is, perhaps, less sharp when surrounded by prejudice and expressed by characters with so many other flaws as well. There is a mild shock of seeing Kissel embrace and enhance the worst of Shylock, just as there is a mild shock in seeing the photo of the enormous swastika painted on the Newton shul’s sign yesterday. But neither should be confused with a serious threat. The fact that Kissel’s performance is so over-the-top, and that the swastika was painted backwards, provides a comforting reassurance of that in both cases. It’s just not reasonable to take either one too seriously.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holy Copays, Batman!

Ah, open enrollment. A time of chaos and despair PowerPoint and false statistics, and always some new advice from HR. Last year, HR advised employees that having children was expensive for the company. This year, I learned a lot more at the benefits presentation:

1. If providing a benefit to the employees does not cost money, then HR believes it cannot have value.

2. If providing a benefit to the employees does cost money, then scolding employees for using the benefit is the best way to reduce usage. Don’t listen to your doctor; make your own health care decisions.

3. Chiropractic care is useless, and could even cost more money because chiropractors could injure their patients. Stop making your own health care decisions.

4. It’s important to be an informed health care consumer, so try to understand your EOBs.

5. There are never errors or fraud in medical billing, so stop trying to understand your EOBs.

6. It’s important to HR to regain our trust, as long as that doesn’t involve improving benefits, treating employees like adults, or answering questions. So the bold new step HR has taken to regain our trust is to reduce our direct interactions with anyone who works for HR.

There are so many internal contradictions in their presentation, you can’t help but agree with something they say. But the most informative minute was before the presentation started, when we talked to one employee who works directly for HR and another employee who HR used in an intranet video presentation about the medical plans. They’re both on their spouse’s health insurance instead of this one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Free parking

Parts of downtown Boston have switched over to a new on-street parking system where you pay at a central box for a slip that you leave on your dashboard. (It’s not clear to me how motorcycles or convertibles are supposed to comply.) Paying for parking is a current issue in my town as well, where parking has been free. There’s a time limit (in some areas), but no enforcement of the time limit. And the only solution that most people can imagine is adding traditional parking meters and enforcement.

So I’ve been wondering about how people think about paying for on-street parking. The current popular system in downtown areas is parking meters and enforcement, where the parking meter rate is significantly cheaper than off-street parking and parking tickets cost more than off-street parking. The revenue from parking meter payments covers the cost of the meters, but parking tickets represent significant revenue. The city wants revenue from parking tickets, turnover at parking spots, and less traffic. The businesses and restaurants want parking to not feel burdensome to their customers in terms of availability, cost, and risk of tickets. And drivers, when we’re discussing the situation away from our cars, generally accept the risk of getting tickets ourselves in exchange for the benefits of ticketing others (higher turnover, higher city revenue, and schadenfreude).

Personally, I hate getting parking tickets. And I think a lot of other people do, too. It’s not so much the expense of the ticket as the random enforcement, the ticketing mistakes, and the sense that the city government claims an inverse correlation between general moral uprightness and parking tickets. If we’re going to change the parking system in Boston or in my city, I’d like to see it changed in a way that reduces ticketing.

In a city like mine, the only real concern for on-street parking is making sure that cars don’t occupy spaces in the business district all day. We don’t need meters; we only need a bit of enforcement of the existing time limits. But parking in a downtown like Boston could use some imagination.

Right now, we have to guess ahead of time how long we’re going to want to be in the parking space and round up. I was happier guessing on the high end when I knew the next car would benefit from my overestimate, but the parking slips remove that consolation. A parking ticket makes parking much more expensive if we forget to pay the meter, if we overstay our up-front payment, or if we overstay the upper time limit. On the other hand, once we get a ticket, there’s no further payment required for staying in the parking space for many hours beyond the upper time limit.

Switching to smart meters or smart parking slip boxes means we could make on-street parking work much more like a parking garage. We could remove the up-front guesswork, pay for the time we actually use, and scale the payments for overstays to fit the length of the overstay. Right now we pay 25 cents per 15 minutes with an up-front guess on how much time we’ll be, with a 2-hour upper limit and a single $25 ticket for an overstay. We could leave a pay up-front option in place, but add an option of swiping a credit card on arrival and returning your parking slip on departure, where you’d pay the regular rate per 15 minutes up to 2 hours and $2.50 per 15 minutes after that. No more having to guess ahead of time, no more paying for time you don’t use, no more free parking once you’ve been ticketed, and a payment for staying beyond the limit that is scaled to the amount of time you’ve overstayed.

And once we’re looking at a system like that, we can adapt the parking rate to the projected or even actual demand for space at different times of day. We can set a higher upper time limit for evenings in restaurant and theater districts. We can set a higher rate during peak demand. We can lower the rate in shopping districts during times when we want to increase shopping. And smart meters can be integrated into live parking availability maps that resemble live traffic maps, reducing traffic and frustration.

Or we could just keep chasing parking ticket revenue, increasing the stress, misery, and unfairness involved in parking downtown. Punishing others is so satisfying.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Where do you go?

At lunch, I had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a conversation rather than reading my book. One of my (unknown) coworkers was saying that her ultra-conservative relatives are talking about moving to Canada rather than live through an Obama administration.

It was all I could do not to laugh.

I wonder if these ultra-conservatives plan to refuse to participate in Canada's socialist medical plan, or if they have any clue just how high the VAT is, or if they understand that Canada doesn't have a democratically elected president.

Canada: when you just can't live with American politics anymore.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On being a cog in a wheel of democracy

Monday evening I stopped by the election office to volunteer as a poll worker for Tuesday afternoon, and today I was privileged to help over 500 people cast their ballots. The work was mundane, and repetitive, and uplifting, and I couldn’t stop smiling while I was doing it.

I was relieved to learn more about how the elections in my town work, how the votes are counted and how the voter rolls work. I checked people off on the voter rolls and handed out ballots, explained how the ballot scanner works and reassured people that their votes were being counted, and helped voters get replacement ballots to fill out when their first ballot was rejected by the scanner due to overvotes or stray marks. Half a dozen times or more, a voter came back to the scanner with their replacement ballot, and every time the replacement ballot was perfect. I saw parents explaining the voting process to their children, and families and friends coming to the polls together, and neighbors catching up, and people returning to the polls to accompany other family members long after they had voted themselves. I saw people who were voting for the first time as an adult, or for the first time as an American citizen, or for the first time for a presidential candidate who inspired them. I saw a woman with portable oxygen, and some people who could barely walk, and some in wheelchairs, and some who could barely see, or hear, or speak. And I played my small part in helping them all vote, and I truly could not stop smiling.

I was unsure about this choice ahead of time. I had strong feelings about parts of this election, and being a poll worker meant I couldn’t hold a sign or distribute information outside the polling place. I had to put my own opinions aside in favor of helping the voting process run smoothly for all voters. In the end it was easy to do because I believe we need a democracy as much as anything.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Vardibidian eloquently writes today:

Your Humble Blogger is trying not to get too obsessed with tomorrow’s election. I like elections, but there is the danger that the election becomes the graven idol of democracy, if you know what I mean. So I thought I would just write a little note pointing out that we have, in the United States, accomplished an enormous amount already, and will need to accomplish a lot more after Wednesday, no matter who takes office in January.

I do wish that the tremendous popular movement and organization that Barack Obama and his associates had gathered were focused slightly less on his election and his person, and a little more on potential policy outcomes. If we elect Barack Obama and don’t push for a sane health care and health insurance industry, it won’t happen. If we elect sixty Democratic Senators, and don’t push for a sane foreign policy, a sane relationship between our nation and the rest of the world, particularly the countries who (to quote Sen. McCain, don’t like us very much), it won’t happen. If we elect three hundred Democratic Congressmen, and we don’t push for sane and urgent action on climate change, our atmosphere and our oceans, our energy needs and our energy habits, it won’t happen.

But if we do push for those things, they might. And we have institutions, now, that will allow us to push together. We have symbols, now, to guide us together. We have the rituals, now, that will keep us together. And we have the values, now, expressed for us, to us, and with us, that have brought us together and will bind us together.

So when you go out tomorrow to vote, Gentle Reader, or if you have already voted or even if you aren’t a citizen of our United States and can’t vote, enjoy the election, the marvel that is a nation coming together to put a group of people out of power without having to shoot them. Elections are marvelous miracles, and we should enjoy them. But they aren’t the work of democracy. Wednesday, and Thursday, and December and January and February, and every day is the work of making ourselves a free, self-governing nation, a steward of the world (who isn’t?) and a good and fitting home of the brave.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

To which I add a hearty amen.

One more day