Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Why shovel? and ice dam info

Today was the first day that really felt like winter here. Even with the dusting of snow on the ground Monday morning, the air on Monday just wasn’t as brisk as today.

We have a roof rake. We have ice melt. We have a shovel, and we probably have ice scrapers for the cars. And our neighbor just got a snowblower and says he’s looking forward to doing the whole block.

But we don’t have Heat Trak mats for our front steps. Those look convenient.

Update February 19, 2017:

The second winter after having our roof redone, it started leaking into our enclosed porch again. We think that it wasn’t through the roof itself this time, but rather from behind the gutters. The gutters filled with ice, the melting snow from higher up pushed its way backwards through the fascia and soffit boards, and came in dripping from the soffit boards inside the porch. Unlike 2 years ago, there was no water coming in through the porch ceiling.

Even if our house were completely unheated, we would have snow melt on our roof because of sunshine. With the right combination of cold temperatures and snow melt, the front gutter will gradually fill with ice and create a larger and larger block of ice.

We need to replace the fascia and soffit boards when we rebuild the front porch, and we need to replace the beat-up gutters anyway. Hopefully with a proper pitch to the soffit boards and a sane flashing approach, we can keep the water that backs up behind an iced-up gutter from backing into the porch itself. In part, that requires a contractor who understands that the gutter will ice up, that snow will melt, and that we want a backup plan for keeping the water outside.

I’ve also been looking into heat tape or heat cable for the gutter and downspouts. There are two basic types of heat cable: constant wattage, and self-regulating. We want self-regulating. We also want some sort of sanity control that turns it off if the weather is warm or if there’s no snow, so it’s not using power when it’s not needed. Perhaps a wifi-interactive switch would help.

If we want to melt ice on the eaves, there’s lots of panel choices shown here:

Here are some other useful local links:

Moonworks and NE Gutter Kings both offer gutter caps that can have heat cable run through them, which seems helpful in terms of distributing the area that can melt.

In general with gutters, we want to look at materials options and size options. Larger size seems better, given that the majority of the overly large house roof goes down to a total span of 25 feet of gutter. We want strong, because we don’t want ladders to damage the gutters. Would fiberglass or nylon be strong enough? Would the heat transfer characteristics be better or worse for preventing ice build-up and for letting the heat cable work?

How far out of the downspouts do we want to run the heat cable?

Where should the outlet and switch be for ease of installing heat cables?

Do we want cleanouts to create escape paths for water? Removable gutters for the winter? Rain chains instead of downspouts?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Make the investors unhappy

When would you be willing to go to jail? What would be so worth protesting that you would give up your liberty and maim your future in order to speak out?

But wait. What would going to jail accomplish?

Does it increase your credibility once you regain your voice?

Does it amplify your message?

Are the people who run our justice system and our jails going to be horrified at jailing you or a thousand like you? Are you human to them in a way that millions of others are not? Are you immune from vilification? From lies and smears and innuendo and mockery and disbelief and dehumanization?

Will our justice system and our jails be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of protestors? In this existing and scalable system of mass incarceration, the largest in human history, will so many people join you that the cells will fill and no more will be able to be built?

Will the cries from broken families reach the privileged who have not had to hear the cries from hundreds of thousands of families torn asunder by our deportation of millions over the past two decades?

You may not be able to avoid jail. You may decide to engage in meaningful speech or action that puts you at risk of being jailed (whether you realized it or not), where jail is a side effect. But do not kid yourself that jail itself is a practical or even impractical path to resistance or change.

Find another path.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rig sailboats, not elections

Yes, our elections are rigged. Not by people faking the results as they count ballots, but by the rules that prevent too many people from voting to start with.

Voter id laws are specifically designed to drive down the ability to vote for the less privileged. The biggest effect is to suppress voting for racial minorities. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/voting-rights-court-decisions-racism/493937/

Closing polling places creates obstacles for people with less free time and fewer transportation options, suppressing votes from the less privileged. Choosing which polling places to close based on demographics or voting patterns is even worse. https://www.thenation.com/article/there-are-868-fewer-places-to-vote-in-2016-because-the-supreme-court-gutted-the-voting-rights-act/

Every presidential election, there are stories about people waiting in line for hours to vote. Those stories are overwhelmingly from urban areas, and it suppresses votes from minority populations and from the less privileged.

And decades of mass incarceration overwhelmingly targeting the black community, combined with laws removing the right to vote from those in jail and those who have already served their time, has created enormous racial disparities in who is allowed to vote.

Every registration deadline is an unnecessary hurdle. Every obstacle to early voting and absentee voting suppresses votes. Every flimsy excuse used to toss voter registrations and every even flimsier excuse to toss ballots is a failure to respect democracy.

Having 50 states running 50 different voting systems could be a wonderful laboratory for experimenting and figuring out how to increase voting rates, but instead is being used to develop more and more precise ways to reduce voting rates among less privileged populations. And every disparity in how voting works across the country makes it harder to have a sensible conversation about how voting should work.

And then there’s the Electoral College, which is weighted to ensure that people who live in small states and rural states have a larger voice than people who live in large states and urban states. Maine gets 4 votes in the Electoral College. The population of Massachusetts is 5 times the population of Maine, but we don’t get 20 votes in the Electoral College. We get 11.

We could solve this. We could demand a Voting Rights amendment to the Constitution. We could ensure that everyone who wants to vote has a reasonable chance to vote, and that your opportunity to vote does not vary dramatically depending on where you live. We could insist that voting matters because a government’s legitimacy depends on consent of the governed. We could insist that voting matters because a population that has a voice is more engaged in the necessary shared task of living together. And with time, we might even collectively start to believe it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wait, now they recommend car seats?

When David was a newborn, we carefully followed the AAP recommendations about how to avoid SIDS: no crib bumpers, put down on his back for sleeping, nothing else in the crib for the first year. I heard plenty from prior parents of newborns about how different the recommendations were, and I heard the doubt in their voices (whether it was intended or imagined on my part) about whether these recommendations were really necessary. How could they doubt, I wondered. Human knowledge advances, and of course we should follow the latest advice.

Now AAP recommends that newborns sleep in the same room as the parents for the first year. And here I am doubting the new recommendation, or possibly just feeling the gut-level punch of being told we hadn’t done the best we could as parents. We put David in his own room across the hall after about a month, and we know we all got more sleep that way. But if this recommendation had been in place five years ago, we would have taken it as the current gospel, and we would never have known any differently. I know that, just like I’ve always known that recommendations would continue to change. Maybe I just figured it would take longer than 5 years to start feeling like I belong to a previous and outdated generation of parents.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why are j2 and efax so expensive?

Short answer: because customers don’t shop around.

If you want a simple voicemail line because you don’t want to use the voicemail service that came with your cell plan or your home line, Google Voice is free. Maxemail was $24 to $84/year. j2 and efax cost even more, if you can even get their voicemail service to work correctly. Why use j2 or efax?

If you want a simple fax line, Maxemail was $24 to $84/year. efax is over $200/year. You can see some other prices at www.faxcompare.com: typically $60 to $120/year. The cost for efax is through the roof.

What bonus do you get with efax? Semi-personalized trolling if you dare to criticize them publicly. And while efax might outsource their customer service to the lowest bidder in other countries, the efax troll could be someone in your own country! I’ve removed over 10 nasty comments from the efax troll just this past week. That kind of semi-personalize trolling service that efax provides costs money, so rest assured that the revenue from efax’s premium prices are being put to good use.

A smart troll would cost more. Perhaps when efax raises their prices again, they’ll be able to afford that.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Kids Footstop

Time for new shoes for David, and we had heard good things recently about Kids Footstop in Winchester. Those good things were right! Friendly and competent help, a nice selection of decent brands, and they carefully measured David’s feet with the same sort of Brannock device that I remember from when I was a kid. Turns out he’s currently a 12.5 with regular width, so aiming a little up for longer wear means either 12.5 in Tsukihoshi or 13 in most other brands. No wonder he was having trouble getting his size 11 Stride Rites on.

The Tsukihoshi shoes are machine washable and unbelievably lightweight, but don’t come with light-up options. The Skechers had an on/off switch for the lights, which we really liked the idea of, but the foodbed was too squishy. The Pediped shoes were waterproof, which would have been really nice for the winter, but they were too stiff and might have been a bit too tight across the toebox. The Stride Rites that he landed on, the same brand that he just wore out, have a very odd-looking tread that resembles rubber balls. He declared them “perfect!”

The price was pretty much the same as Zappo’s, with some assurance that he’s actually getting the right size shoe and a chance for him to try them on first. We could have saved a few dollars if we knew exactly what we wanted and shopped around online, and it would have been the wrong few dollars to save.

Reputation management, j2 style

Are you concerned about the reputation of your business? Do you want to know how to turn unhappy customers into your best asset? Well, j2 has the winning formula!

Keep unhappy customers focused on your business! A happy customer tells 3 others about your business, while an unhappy customer tells 100 others about your business. But sometimes 100 isn’t enough. If you can keep those unhappy customers thinking about your business, you can persuade them to expand their reach. Maybe they will keep writing about your business, and that’s marketing that you just can’t buy.

Demean your unhappy customers publicly! Call them names. Accuse them of being dishonest or stupid. Hurl the worst insults you can think of, like “feminist.” Don’t worry about changing the opinions of your unhappy customers. Your real audience is prospective future customers. They want to know how you treat your current customers, and this is your chance to show them what life will be like if they decide to go with your business.

Do not try to resolve complaints! Never show weakness in any way. If you decide that it’s really important to offer some sort of refund or compensation for having failed to provide the product or service you promised, then make sure to include a statement blaming the customer for your failure. Remember, an unhappy customer tells many more people about your business than a happy customer does, and how you respond to failure is what truly decides whether customers are happy or unhappy.

Do not listen to your customers! You know your business better than anyone else, so why would you listen to people who have different priorities? They will wind up diverting you from your real priorities. There is nothing you can learn from listening to your customers, because customers are notoriously focused on silly distractions like pricing, products and services, and customer service.

Ignore the Better Business Bureau! The BBB is an antiquated holdover from before customers could talk to each other directly and before sites like Ripoff Reports or Google. Nobody cares about an F rating from the BBB any longer.

Hide behind multiple business names! Shell games have a long and glorious history. If your customers can’t figure out whether you are j2, eFax, TrustFax, RapidFax, or lots of other names, they won’t be able to figure out where those pesky credit card charges are really coming from. And you can stop them from leaving for months by pretending that they are contacting the wrong company. Want to cancel? Oops, guess again!

If all else fails, you can always buy another competitor, jack up the prices, and hope that some of their customers are too busy to notice and find a better alternative.

Friday, September 30, 2016

An online chat with eFax (a j2 company)

Note: j2, which owns eFax and many other disreputable companies, has an F rating from the BBB with hundreds of complaints. Before you trust them with a credit card number, take a look at their Google search results.

 Stanley Kox: Hi, my name is Stanley Kox. How may I help you? 
 Michael: I am responding to your email saying that you have moved my service from Maxemail to eFax (both companies now say they are one company). I do not agree to the eFax terms and conditions. I have been saying this since your first warning that you were going to change the terms and conditions.

Regarding Account Number: [-----]
Fax Number: [-----]
Temporary Password: [-----]

As I have said before by email and by phone, I demand that eFax cancel this account immediately. I also demand that you refund the prepaid charges for the remainder of the year, since you refuse to honor the prepaid contract under the previous terms and conditions.

On February 4, 2016, I paid $ [-----] for one year of voicemail service for this phone number. The invoice number was  [-----]. The Visa card charged ended in  [-----]. Because Maxemail and eFax forced me to stop using that phone number as of August 30, 2016, I was only able to use 6 full months of the service. eFax owes me a refund of $ [-----]. That refund should be sent by check to the name and address on file. 
 Stanley Kox: I will be glad to assist you with the cancellation request via this chat session. Would you like to proceed? 
 Michael: Yes. 
 Stanley Kox: Thank you for providing the information. Please allow me a moment while I pull up your account. 
 Stanley Kox: As per the records, there is a voicemail service activated on your account. 
 Stanley Kox: I hope you are still online with me. 
 Michael: Yes. 
 Stanley Kox: Please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation: 
1) Moving to another provider 
2) Bought a fax machine 
3) Business or role changed 
4) Short term project completed 
5) Financial reasons 
6) Problems with faxing or billing 
7) Dissatisfied with quality of service 
8) Too costly 
 Michael: I told you. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: I completely understand your wish to discontinue. I'd like to suggest that you make use of our service at least for the period you have paid for, so that you can receive and send any pending faxes. 
 Stanley Kox: This will also ensure that you make the maximum utilization of our service. The usage charges for sending faxes are applicable. 
 Stanley Kox: All you need to do is to just contact us once at the end of your current billing cycle. 
 Michael: No. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: Please remember once this number is closed, your number will be reassigned and you will no longer have access to any new faxes sent to you at this number or have access to faxes stored in your online message center. 
 Stanley Kox: Would you like to keep your number active till the end of your current billing cycle? 
 Michael: No. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: Okay, I will go ahead and cancel your account.
An e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.
Is there anything else I may assist you with? 
 Michael: Yes. Please send the refund that I have been demanding. 
 Michael: I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. You therefore owe me a refund.
 Michael: See above for details. 
 Stanley Kox: I will go ahead an cancel your account. However, please contact our Billing Support department over the phone as they will be able to assist you better with your concern regarding refund. You can reach them at 1-323-817-3205. 
 Michael: Your billing support department on the phone has refused to provide a refund, claiming that eFax is under no obligation to provide any service or honor any contract at all. 
 Michael: They are not able to assist me better. 
 Stanley Kox: I am sorry, as per the company policy there is no refund applicable towards your account. 
 Michael: Because? 
 Michael: I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. You therefore owe me a refund.
 Stanley Kox: I apologize for the inconvenience. However, as mentioned above there is no refund applicable towards your account. Kindly check paragraph 17B of our Customers Agreement athttp://www.efax.com/customer-agreement#17. The paragraph clearly mentions that the activation fee, the monthly or the annual fee are non refundable. 
 Michael: That's the agreement that I do not accept. 
 Stanley Kox: Please contact our Billing Support department for further assistance regarding refund. 
 Michael: I have done that. They have refused. 
 Michael: I have now spent close to an hour on this online chat. 
 Michael: Will you provide that refund? 

 Stanley Kox: I am sorry, there is no refund applicable towards your account. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Are you considering eFax? Or any other j2 company?

Note: j2, which owns eFax and many other disreputable companies, has an F rating from the BBB with hundreds of complaints. Before you trust them with a credit card number, take a look at their Google search results.

j2 owns about half of the fax line companies out there, including eFax. The web is littered with complaints about those companies. What is particularly striking is the companies that were independent and had good reputations, but had slews of complaints after j2 bought them.

j2, in the guise of eFax, recently bought MaxEmail. The transition has not yet completed, but customers like me have already fled. I was glad to leave j2 in 2005, and there is no way I’m going back to a j2 company like eFax.

The companies say that prices will remain the same. Reality check: one line I looked at is going from $14.85 to $84.00 under eFax, more than 5.5x the previous price.

The companies say that the allowed fax pages will remain comparable. Reality check: one line I looked at is going from unlimited inbound pages to just 250 inbound pages. And I will lose the rollover of over 22,000 pages/messages, as well as the usage credit on the account.

The companies say that the terms and conditions will remain comparable. Reality check: if I want to reclaim my own fax number that I had ported in originally, MaxEmail charged nothing, while eFax charges between $40 and $500.

The companies say that the services will remain comparable. Reality check: we had a couple of voicemail lines with MaxEmail which allowed callers to leave messages without pressing buttons. That may sound unimportant for human callers, but it’s actually critically important with a number of health care providers for our child who use automated systems to leave messages. Those automated systems can leave a message with MaxEmail, but they cannot with eFax, because eFax doesn’t offer that capability.

The companies say that customer service will remain good. Reality check: eFax refuses to issue refunds for prepaid services even when they unilaterally change terms and conditions, and even when they disable necessary features. When I tried emailing four different fax services to ask similar questions, three of those fax services answered the questions within a couple of hours. eFax did not reply for 3 days.

I don’t know if MaxEmail will be kept around as a zombie brand, the way j2 has done with so many other brands. I’ve recommended MaxEmail many times between January 2005 and August 2016. That’s why I feel like I need to publicly unrecommend them now.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Out with the old, in with the new

February 2016: I lost my primary credit card processor when Amazon Local Payments closed. (Advance notice: several months.) I replaced them with Square, which had been our previous credit card processor and which we still had as a backup. Getting our data out of Amazon Local Payments before they deleted their records took some hours. At least they gave a few months notice. No other costs.

June 2016: I lost my shopping cart service when Americart folded. (Advance notice: initially 1 week, then 4 weeks, then uncertain, then they surprised us one morning.) They replaced themselves with Capital One Spark Pay, which has been buggy and dim-witted, but at least saved us from having to redo the shopping cart integration on thousands of web pages. Setting up the new back end took about 100 hours including testing. Putting in bug reports has taken about 20 hours, and is ongoing.

August 2016: I lost my primary software sales channel when Kagi folded. (Advance notice: none at all.) I replaced them with FastSpring. Switching took about 20 hours of research, 10 hours of setup, and a week of downtime while switching over. Other costs: income for some sales that vanished along with Kagi.

August/September 2016: I lost two voicemail lines and one fax line when Maxemail folded. (Advance notice: 1-4 weeks estimated, with no certainty.) I replaced the voicemail lines with Google Voice and the fax line with Nextiva vFax. Setup for the voicemail lines was about 30 minutes and worked immediately. Setup for the fax line was about 2 hours of phone calls and paperwork, and 15 days of waiting to port the number. Other costs: $50 in advance payments to Maxemail gone, and some hours of research to decide on replacements.

September 2016: I lost my ability to process credit cards from web site orders when Capital One Spark Pay decided that they would no longer allow manual processing. (Advance notice: none at all, then 8 days.) I replaced manual processing with Stripe’s online gateway. Research was about 30 hours, setup was about 1 hour, testing is ongoing.

At the end of all of this, I am simply dealing with different providers. Nothing is better or cheaper or more likely to work correctly. And all of the changes since June have been one crisis after another with little warning and lousy communication.

I’m hesitant to even think about the providers who are acting reliable this year. At this point it feels like another shoe is always about to drop.

Spark Pay is removing manual credit card processing

Capital One’s Spark Pay (aka SparkPay) division offers shopping cart software for web sites. They provide the back end that lets our customers put items into a shopping cart and then enter payment information. With a credit card, a merchant might use a payment gateway to charge the card automatically, or the merchant might collect the credit card information from Spark Pay to charge the card manually (offline processing).

The merchant might prefer to do offline processing of the credit card for any number of reasons: to examine payments for fraud attempts, to use a processor which isn’t connected to a gateway that the shopping cart software can interface with, to wait to confirm that an item is in stock or to wait until the item has shipped before charging the card, or to confirm total order amounts before charging a card.

Spark Pay used to offer both options. Starting September 27, that’s over, according to this email from Spark Pay:

We're enhancing security.

Starting September 27, 2016, we'll no longer be able to store your CVV data for
offline processing. 

What This Means for You

Your customers' CVV data will not be available after September 27th. You'll need to
modify your manual offline credit card processing before then to ensure compliance
with PCI standards. 

Capital One(r) will not impose any fees for this change.

What Spark Pay is not mentioning is that processors all require the CVV code in order to charge a card. When Spark Pay no longer gives that CVV data to the merchant, the merchant cannot charge the customer’s card at all. It’s completely unclear why Spark Pay would give the merchant the remaining credit card data, since it’s basically useless without the CVV code. (Note: to be precise, it’s actually the CVV-2 code, which is the security code printed on the card, rather than the CVV or CVV-1 code which is encoded in the magnetic stripe.)

PCI standards (both for PCI-DSS and for PA-DSS) are very clear that merchants and payment applications must not store CVV data after the card is authorized. But if you delete the CVV data before the card is authorized, you’ll never get to charge the card at all. That’s precisely why the CVV data is so important to protect: it’s what lets you use the card to make purchases.

But Spark Pay is insisting that they cannot store CVV data BEFORE authorization, a complete misstatement of the PCI standards. And Spark Pay insists that merchants can still charge credit cards without the CVV code, even though that’s just not true. In fact, their own credit card processing division is perfectly happy to confirm that a charge will be denied without a CVV code. Spark Pay tried last week to identify an alternative processor that does not require a CVV code, and could not find any.

With almost zero notice, Spark Pay is effectively disabling their shopping cart software, while still pretending that merchants will be able to process credit cards without a CVV code even though Spark Pay knows that isn’t true.

Do you use a processor which doesn’t require CVV codes? Please speak up in the comments here. (Though be aware that they’re likely to start requiring CVV codes soon if they don’t already, because everyone else has started doing that in recent years.)

Do you know a payment gateway which doesn’t require PCI compliance paperwork? Please speak up in the comments here. We were delighted to stop having to do PCI compliance paperwork every quarter when we switched from using Elavon to using Square for processing credit cards, but Spark Pay doesn’t offer Square as a payment gateway.

If you are a Spark Pay merchant who is affected by this, give them a call at 1-800-936-9006, Ext. 1, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday to Friday. Ask for an account manager. Ask for a supervisor. And good luck to us all.

Added on September 18, 2016: If you go to Spark Pay’s support page at http://kb.mysparkpay.com/what-are-cvv-authentication-codes-and-why-are-they-not-stored.aspx you’ll find the following about CVV codes:

Storing CVV-2 Information

This information is not permanently stored because that action is prohibited by law. The Visa USA Inc. Operating Regulations explicitly prohibits merchants and/or their agents from storing the CVV-2 data. The merchant may require this code to complete any transaction, whether it be online, over the phone, or in person. Some merchants chose to process payment on purchase of the item, while others wait until the order has been shipped. To accommodate these methods,Spark Pay online store CVV-2 information until the order payment is obtained, then it is stricken.

Prohibited by law? Technically, our laws are written by Congress, not by Visa USA. Also, the CVV-2 data cannot be stored after authorization. Other than that, this is a reasonable policy that meets the requirements of credit card processing, data security, and common sense. Keep the data only as long as you need it, then delete it. Too bad they aren’t sticking with this policy.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

More than test scores

Our town’s schools are not well regarded by anyone except parents with kids in the schools, and perhaps some of the kids themselves. We don’t invest a lot in the schools, we don’t maintain the schools, the population is lower income, there’s a long history of people in the community using Catholic schools instead of public schools, and the test scores are mediocre. But lots of parents with kids in the schools are happy with them.

Is this like Congress, where everyone is happy with their personal Representative/teacher but hates Congress/schools as a whole? Or is this a case where people have no real comparison point because they haven’t experienced many different schools? Or is this like preschool, where kids are pretty well guaranteed to learn lots of things because that’s how growing brains work, so if the preschool doesn’t actively hurt the kids they naturally seem like they’re doing a good job?

The most common story I hear about school ratings is that it’s based on test scores, which correlate to family income, family educational attainment, and other factors which aren’t changed by moving to a new town. But the core question as we decide whether to try to stay here or move to a different town is will our child do better in a different school with the same family, since we’re not willing to change his family.

Here’s a local parent talking about a recent ranking of area schools where our town did poorly: “Oh yay, another list where you have to scroll down past 25 or 30 to see a town with a median home price under $900,000. They do provide some interesting data for constructive criticism and feedback to school boards (class size is a good example) - but the emphasis on sports and AP courses is always going to skew results and take emphasis away from equally - if not more important factors - like music and arts, after school activities, volunteer/community service clubs, cultural programs, etc.”

So it sounds like we compare poorly on class size, sports, and AP courses as well, not just on test scores. I agree that the last set of factors are important too, but I’m not convinced we actually do better on any of those other metrics. Are we giving kids three hours a week of music and arts, while other towns are only giving kids one hour a week? Do we have more field trips, more in-school enrichment, more volunteer opportunities, or more after school activities?

My guess is that we are comparable or worse than lots of towns on those other factors as well. We tell ourselves stories about those other factors precisely because they aren’t measured, and therefore we don’t have to worry about facts contradicting our narrative.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A failure of imagination

From a local Facebook group: “His name should be posted, he was taking pics of kids he did not know. That is disgusting. And obviously every kind of wrong. Why protect his privacy? It is scary that anyone can take pics at any time. But something should be done to protect kids. A grown man that has no connection to these children should be in trouble. There is no reason for him to take pics of kids. Wrong Wrong Wrong”

This is the park my mother used to play in when she was a child. Her mind is back in that time now half the time we see her. Some photos will help to keep her company.

I helped design this playground when it was built 15 years ago. It’s wonderful to see it being actively used, and I can get much better photos for my portfolio now. Have you ever seen a playground designer’s portfolio? It’s far more persuasive when it shows happy kids than when it looks empty.

When I was a kid, we lived in an apartment building on this block. They tore it down years ago to build a park and playground, and my brother never forgave the city. I want to show him that while it was hard on us then, at least the playground is making a lot of kids happy now.

We’re hoping to adopt a child, and the adoption agency told us to put together a book showing that we live in a kid-friendly neighborhood. Birthmothers choose adoptive parents based on those books, so if we ever want to be parents (we’ve been waiting for years), we have to get some really good photos of our local playground and show that there are lots of kids in the neighborhood.

My grandchild’s church is raising money to rebuild their playground, and they also are trying to figure out what playground features kids will actually use. There’s so much variation in playground equipment these days. They’ve asked people to send in photos of what we think they should include.

I’m teaching myself photography, preparing for when my grandchild will come to visit me in the fall. I promised his parents I would take lots of photos while he is here. I’m getting better, but it takes a lot of practice. You wouldn’t believe how many of these photos come out blurry. Kids are in constant motion.

This is the playground where we always thought we would raise our child, but he was stillborn. I have come here every month for the past 25 years to try to remember how our lives were supposed to turn out. If he had lived, he might have been pushing his own child on the swings right over there. My wife cannot stand to even walk past the playground, but some photos give her comfort.

And a million other stories that don’t fit today’s paranoid mindset. Right now, photography is not a crime, even though lots of parents want it to be. And photography is not really the issue, because the response to adults taking photos is the same as the response to adults entering a playground at all. We have collectively lost track of the fact that most people aren’t child molesters, and most people who are child molesters prey on kids they actually have personal access to.

From a local Facebook group: “Not sure if it's illegal but I can't think of one GOOD HEALTHY reason to take pictures of kids you don't know.”

Thanks, Facebook group, for helping to spread hysteria
Last week an adult in an SUV spoke to a 10-year-old boy who was on the sidewalk in front of his house, and then drove off. Within a couple of hours, hundreds of local parents heard falsely from other local parents that there had been an attempted kidnapping at a playground. Far fewer heard the police issue a statement the next day saying that there had been no attempted kidnapping, and asking people to stop spreading rumors like that.

From a local news article: “One park-goer approached the man and asked if he knew any kids at the park, to which the man responded, “No.” When asked if he was taking photos of the kids, he reportedly did not immediately respond, and then continued taking pictures. The man then allegedly began to delete pictures and attempted to flee the park.”

Thanks, local newspaper. A guy was taking photos in a public park using his cell phone. After someone confronted him, he started to leave before being stopped by the very people who didn’t want him there in the first place. And you managed to use the word “flee” four times in one short article to describe the guy trying to leave, including in the headline, even though the police confirmed that the guy had not done anything illegal. When you left your house this morning to go to work, did you “flee” the residence? How much creepy language do you need to use to keep convincing parents that the world is a terrifying place?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Try asking for what you want

Our temple runs a bunch of programs for kids that are free and open to anyone. We want people to show up, and we hope people will decide to keep coming back. But if we are hoping that people who don’t decide to join as members will at least make a donation, I think we have to ask. Since we have a flyer about the various family programs, that seems like a fine place to put the request.

We are delighted that you’re joining us for family programs at Temple X. Your participation and support helps us keep our doors open, hire great staff, and run these programs that connect our children to vibrant Jewish experiences and community. Here are three ways you can support us:

Spread the word and bring a friend! We love meeting new people, so tell your friends about our lively family programs.

Donate! Membership dues only cover a portion of our expenses. A lot of our programs happen on Shabbat when we don’t want to talk about money, so when it’s not Shabbat please consider sending a donation to Temple X.

Join us as members! We are committed to creating an active and meaningful community together, and we would love to have your family become members too.

The alternative that we are currently pursuing is apparently to refuse to ask for money, advertise the programs as free, and then become more and more resentful that people are slow to join as members and don’t donate anything to cover the costs of running these programs. Having secret expectations of people is mean and self-defeating.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Show me the money

It’s budget time for our synagogue, which means the board is reviewing a spreadsheet of the past couple of years of budgeted line items, actual expenditures, projected expenditures, and next year’s proposed budget.

The budget numbers are presumably reviewed and discussed in some detail by the finance committee. The head of the finance committee resigned last winter, and I don’t think he’s been replaced. The finance committee discussions (if there are any) are not really reported, so we don’t know which line items they have examined carefully or what conclusions they’ve drawn.

At the last board meeting, people raised questions about random line items. It didn’t matter whether the line item was a summary line for a $200,000 operation or a $250 expense. The response was the same for pretty much all questions: it’s too hard to know why we’re spending that money, changing it won’t really affect our overall budget, or this is not the right time of the year to try to change that item.

I’m not sure how any of this should ideally work, but it’s pretty clear that the current approach is far from any ideal. Some suggestions:

Some items are non-discretionary and/or non-negotiable. We should know what we’re spending on worker’s comp insurance or employment taxes, for example, but we cannot change them except as a side effect of changing our payroll. Those items should be marked in the budget, because they are not worth discussing on their own.

Some items are recurring annual expenses that should be shopped around periodically, such as property and liability insurance ($21,000 per year) or photocopier leases ($7000 per year). We should track when each of those was most recently verified to be a reasonable price and when contracts are due for renewal. The board or the finance committee should discuss how often the prices should be examined and make sure a plan is in place to have an actual person do the actual work, not sit around speculating at length about what a reasonable price might be.

Some items such as advertising for our preschool are optional expenses, where we should discuss how the money is being spent, whether it seems to be effective, and whether we should allocate more or less money to that item.

Our goals in reviewing the budget should explicitly be to verify that it is accurate, identify ideas for raising revenue or decreasing expenses, and to identify what choices we actually have and understand the budget implications of those choices.

None of that is happening in a coherent fashion, and I object to that. Recurring annual expenses are not being shopped around periodically, and I object to that. There are specific optional expenses which are being wasted with no oversight, and I object to that. But I don’t know if those objections add up to enough reason to vote against the proposed budget for next year. It would be a symbolic protest vote, because there is no actual hope of forcing a change in practice or a change in the proposed budget. The executive committee talks about the board having an obligation to approve the proposed budget, but has not provided any meaningful path for the board to change or even productively question any aspect of the budget. I’d rather not vote at all.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Setting the seder table

Aside from being a wonderful image of a seder table, what else does this inspire? And how do we make this work in practical terms?

Ever since friends gave us a bag of plagues (small plush representations of the 10 plagues), we’ve set those out for each person to have one at the start of the seder. When the time comes to read the list of plagues, each person with that plague (and we’ve learned it helps to pass them out in order in case you can’t tell the difference between the plush cattle disease and the plush wild beasts) lifts up that plague, or throws that plague at an image of Pharaoh on the couch. This does something to make more concrete the idea of a series of plagues. Throwing the plagues at Pharaoh is satisfying, but also a bit dangerous with all the wineglasses around. Perhaps a tall glass cylinder vase that the plagues get stacked into? Yes, with a Pharaoh at the bottom that the plagues are all piling on top of.

Were the plagues against Pharaoh or against the Egyptians? That’s a huge discussion, and an important one to have. There are issues of how nations can be led, how people are judged for the behavior of their leaders and how they might try to exercise influence or control over their leaders, the appropriateness of collective punishment, etc. Whenever you choose an illustration, you risk reducing ambiguity and imagination. Perhaps a two-sided plush showing Pharaoh on one side and Egypt on the other? The summative nature of the series of plagues works in either case, and the clear glass borders of the cylinder vase emphasize that the plagues were specific in their application to the Egyptians and yet meant to be seen as a lesson to other nations.

What else can we have props for on the seder table? A burning bush candle? Baby Moses in a small reed basket on wheels that we send down the Blutrack Nile? A motorized lazy susan to represent wandering lost in the desert? Or along those lines, perhaps some figures hanging off the ceiling fan blades with a sign pointing North and a question mark as the ceiling fan slowly turns? Surely some of these might spark more conversation than why there’s an egg (or an orange) on the seder plate.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Life update

House: still broken. Nothing repaired in the past 4 months, and the main sewer line has backed up into the basement 3 times.

House insurance: Finally settled our insurance claim, after 8 months of fighting the insurance company. Original $17K offer turned into $55K, which was a rather substantial improvement. Thanks to friends and family who offered advice about how to deal with the horrible lying scum who our insurance company forced us to deal with.

Cars: Working. Still liking the new car. Just haven't had time to take it to the body shop to get the minor damage from December repaired.

Dog: Only one trip to the vet, which turned out to be a toenail problem. Thank God for easy.

Health: Not ok. Time-consuming and frustrating. David is recovering from major surgery, with more to come later this year.

Health insurance: About 3 hours a week managing this for the past few months, but it’s now mostly done for the rest of 2016 thanks to the crazy number of claims in February. Mostly time-consuming rather than frustrating.

Lisa’s work: Ok! This remains a bright spot, which is huge.

Michael’s work: Not ok!

Temple board: I failed to have any impact on the board or the Temple, but I feel good about having tried my best. Joining was the right thing to do, and stepping back now is as well.

David: Rowdy, not listening well. Lots of joy, lots of frustration, flipping back and forth repeatedly within minutes. Lots of sweet moments.

David’s preschool: We have a new one for next year, and we have notified the current one that we will not be returning. Good to have the decision made, and we have heard great reports from other parents who have used the new preschool.

City government: I’m pretty sure anarchy would provide better municipal services. But we had one tangible victory when the city made the dangerous two-way street by our house into a one-way street and eventually put up sufficient signage to convince drivers that they had made the change.

Search for where to live: Difficult and slow. We cannot afford the places we like, we don’t like the places we can afford. For place, read both house and community.

Hobbies, friends: Improving. I read a book. I’ve seen a few friends.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Settling debts

Somewhere in Palatine, Illinois, an envelope will arrive tomorrow bearing our final mortgage payment to Ditech Financial. It has been a long 18 years of payments on this very old house, watching the balance decline to a point where one little insurance settlement does the trick and now we own the place.

It came at a cost. We have not kept up with the gradual decline of the house. The kitchen and bathroom have both missed at least two generations of remodeling. Cheap building materials from the early 1970s were not intended to last this long, and they haven’t. Refinancing the house 5 or 10 years ago to pull money out to do sensible remodels and repairs would have been a fine choice, and it’s a choice that we watched plenty of friends make. Somehow we never got organized enough with plans to do that ourselves. Maybe next year.

So I know this stage won’t last long. We’ll have to borrow money on the house again to do necessary repairs over the next couple of years, or we’ll move to another place and take out a new mortgage. And with taxes and utilities and insurance, the mortgage was less than half of our monthly house expenses anyway, not counting the inevitable repairs. But we decided many years ago that it would be nice to pay off our mortgage if we did stay in the house, and we kept our eye on that ball, and here we are.

I’m also keenly aware that we are incredibly lucky. I bought this house back when an entire house near Boston was only $225,000. The lack of lending standards back then that eventually destroyed our economy also allowed me to “qualify” for a mortgage in the first place. Our income has been stable enough that we never had to miss payments, and we didn’t run into some other crisis that meant missing payments.

Despite the contemporary view that it’s gauche (not just rare) to have a mortgage burning party, I want to celebrate our good luck. After all, graduations and weddings and even birthdays depend on luck as well. I remember my parents burning copies of their mortgage documents in the fireplace. It was the one and only time they ever used the fireplace in the house I grew up in. I’m thinking I’ll use my Weber grill instead, the one made by Weber-Stephen Products of Palatine, Illinois. For just one blazing minute, let them be the Palatine company to hold our mortgage instead.

The magic number is 10

A Conservative shul with an enormous membership might have weekday services every morning and every evening. A Conservative shul with a tiny membership might have services on Shabbat with no regular weekday services. Regardless of the number of services, each service requires a minyan of 10 Jewish adults.

My Conservative shul has a typical membership: neither enormous nor tiny, but smaller than it once was. The interests of that membership in daily services has waxed and waned, and is presently at that awkward point where not enough people show up to guarantee a minyan, but too many people show up to have it be clearly pointless to hope for a minyan. That awkward number is reinforced by minyan game theory, in particular the minyaner’s dilemma.

If you are not personally committed to going to the service, but you definitely want to go to the service if by doing so you will be the 10th adult so that the service can happen, then you need to know how many other people are definitely going and how many other people are in your position. Assume there are not quite enough regulars to make a minyan. The more irregulars there are, the greater the chance that enough of the irregulars will show up to make a minyan without you showing up. But all of the irregulars are in the same position, and they are each making the same guess about the behavior of the others. When there are not enough regulars, the difference between a sustainable service and an unsustainable service is not actually how good the congregation is at probability. The difference is how the irregulars feel about being the 12th or 14th adult at the service. You need to feel really good about that in order to typically have enough of a cushion that when the usual variation in attendance happens (due to weather, illness, vacations, or key sporting events on television) you don’t often drop below 10.

There are probably ways to affect this by building in escalating rewards. With 10 adults we get to have the service. With 12 adults we get to have dessert afterwards. With 14 adults we get to have a beer afterwards, or we all get party yarmulkes. Or we could skip the party yarmulkes and just act as excited about the 14th person showing up as we do about the 10th person showing up. After all, that 14th person showing up today is what makes it far more likely that the 10th person will show up next week.

My shul gave up on daily weekday services some years ago. Now there’s just a Wednesday evening service each week, with a Thursday evening service added once a month when there’s a board meeting on Thursday evening. Most of the regulars who want a weekday service just come on Wednesdays now. Not enough board members want to go to a service before the board meeting to reliably make a minyan, so as board members we were recently asked whether we want to continue having a service before board meetings. To encourage honest answers, we were told that all answers were ok. Some people said no, some people said they already show up and are frustrated that there isn’t a minyan, some people said yes but they would not personally show up for it, and not enough people said that they had not been showing up and would start showing up regularly. After reading the responses, I thought the conclusion would be that we should stop having the Thursday evening service. Instead we were scolded over email for our wrong answers, and we heard extensive lectures at the next board meeting about the importance of worship services, the importance of community, and the obligation of supporting synagogue functions that we are not interested in so that other people will support the functions that we are interested in.

Aside from the inanity of a group of volunteers being subjected to self-righteous scolding, there was no attempt to examine how far this logic would go. If I am interested in 5 synagogue functions a month and there are 50 to choose from, how many am I obligated to show up at? 10? 30? All 50? Is there any limit to how many daily services we should hold despite a sufficient lack of interest in actually showing up? When I go to a function I’m not interested in, how clear do I need to make it that I’m not interested in being there in order to satisfy the people who need to know that other people are making sacrifices so that more functions can happen? If I go to 10 functions that I don’t want to go to each month, and then I start enjoying 3 of those functions, do they no longer count?

I can see going to a service out of religious obligation or community obligation. I can see a lot of valid reasons to go that do not require me to be delighted to be there. But what I heard at the board meeting is that my attendance at the service will be valued only if my heart clearly is not in it. That seems like a terrible paradigm for a religious service and a destructive model to create for the next generation. I’d rather go back to the party yarmulkes idea.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Speaking up

This is me speaking up, right here and right now.

I grew up being told that people, you and me and every single one of us, have an obligation to speak up in the face of a new Hitler.

Being on guard in a country that perpetually denies its own history is difficult. America displays not just the typical national exceptionalism which refuses examples from the history of other nations, but an exceptionalism that divorces discussion of our present and future from our own past. “It could never happen here,” the decades-long rallying cry of the American chattering classes, is an evidence-free optimism that has no rational justification and unfortunately forestalls reasoned discussion of how to safeguard our country from a future some of us now see ourselves hurtling towards.

We must not wait for mass graves and concentration camps with gas chambers. We must be watchful for public figures who seek to create and exploit divisions, who advocate hatred and violence based on those divisions, and who do not welcome limits on their individual power or on governmental power. We must treat those public figures warily, we must look askance at their followers and cheerleaders, and we must work to make sure that they do not achieve political power because a political movement based on those premises is dangerous.

Trump and his followers have formed precisely that movement.

This is me, speaking up, while I can.

The members of my extended family who ultimately escaped Hitler’s Germany recalled how he started out seeming ridiculous to the educated classes even in Germany, whether liberal or conservative. He was an object of derision, a clown, a shouting lunatic who could never achieve power.

But millions of bodies, among them many who knew that “it could never happen here,” were ground into dust beneath the boots of the Third Reich. So inevitably was the national conscience of what had been an enlightened country.

We are not so enlightened a country. We do not have as far to fall, and it will not necessarily take us as long.

Trump and his supporters do not regret the increasing violence at his rallies; they rejoice in it. That should be enough to remove them from serious consideration as a political force, because we are supposed to have limits on free speech precisely to stop demagogues from inciting immediate violence. Our press has chosen to promote spectacle, however, and we are all suffering for it. We are watching a hateful politics rise to power on the promise of a violently-enforced Christian white supremacy, and our electorate is rewarding every increase in extremist rhetoric.

I have been glad to live in a country where I can often worship freely, where I am often free to hold minority political views, where I can often freely associate with anyone I choose, where I can say and write and publish many things that I choose to say and write and publish. And I have been glad to live in a country where those who have different faiths and different opinions and different friends also enjoy those freedoms. Trump and his supporters do not value that diversity. In fact, the only unifying principle of Trump’s movement is a forceful rejection of that diversity. Trump’s domestic and foreign policy choices, when expressed coherently, change with a frequency that is usually only possible in dream sequences. But even if those choices congeal into a semi-solid state—even if his followers all adopt those choices as their own—the founding principle of Trump’s movement is hatred and violence, and the mechanisms of violence and hatred are how they will seek to enforce those choices.

Perhaps we will not elect Trump. But he has poisoned our national well of discourse deeply, his followers have drunk far too deeply, and remediation will take a generational change.

I hope for better than our present for my child and yours.

This is me, speaking up. I encourage you to speak up as well.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

So hard to keep track of who Edgepark hates

We have employer-sponsored commercial health insurance for our family, which is lovely. Cigna is a kind and benevolent group of control freaks who tell us exactly what sorts of medical care we are allowed to receive (benefits limitations, prior authorizations, medical reviews, etc.) and who we can use as providers (network limitations).

So when we need medical supplies or medical equipment, Cigna gives us a very short list of companies we are allowed to order from. One of those companies is Edgepark.

Edgepark refuses to sell to customers in a number of states when those customers have Medicaid as secondary insurance. Medicaid helps a lot of people with lower incomes, and Edgepark’s billing department was quite clear that they don’t want customers like that. “People like that are often on fixed incomes,” Edgepark’s billing department supervisor says, and expects me to understand that people like that are undesirable.

My son is 4. His fixed income is $0, as is the case for many 4-year-olds. Despite that, I don’t actually understand why he is undesirable. I think he’s quite cute. More importantly, he is insured.

There are a lot of levels of insanity and frustration here:

(1) We have already hit our son’s out-of-pocket maximum for the year with Cigna, so Cigna would pay Edgepark at 100%. Cigna can confirm this to Edgepark. There would not be any remainder to bill to any secondary insurance or to the customer. Yet Edgepark is very concerned about not being able to collect the $0 balance after Cigna pays them 100% of the contracted amount.

(2) We should be able to decline to use our secondary insurance, and I tried that. I offered to provide full payment for anything that Cigna does not cover. Edgepark says that’s not possible. Why exactly am I not allowed to decline a benefit? The offer of a handout from the state suddenly comes with handcuffs that are not removed even if I decline the handout.

(3) Medicaid as secondary insurance will only cover providers that are in network with our primary insurance, even if there are no such providers. They add no provider options. Instead they remove provider options, even when they are not involved in the financial transaction at all.

(4) Cigna offers no network adequacy exceptions for medical supplies. If there is no cardiologist within 50 miles who is in network, Cigna will let you see an out-of-network cardiologist. That isn’t true with medical supplies, for which Cigna does not recognize any obligation to have any providers in network. But even if they did, they say that Edgepark is technically an option for us to use even if Edgepark refuses to accept our orders.

(5) Edgepark will not bill our insurance and ship the order after they have been paid in full by our primary insurance, or even by us. It is so important to refuse to do business with people who have Medicaid as secondary insurance that even receiving full payment up front would not be enough to overcome Edgepark’s moral objections to poor people and disabled people.

(6) Medicaid is such a persistent stigma for Edgepark that if they get even a hint of Medicaid on a potential customer, they put a block on the account and refuse to remove the Medicaid information.

(7) Edgepark is so concerned about someone with secondary Medicaid possibly concealing that fact and paying on their own that Edgepark hides its own policy about this when signing up potential customers. Remember, it’s not about the money. It’s about not contaminating your customer pool with the wrong sort of people.

What would be different if Edgepark were refusing to do business with black people? It might help to know that 22% of people covered by Medicaid are black, while only 13% of the US population is black. But that’s ok with Cigna (the folks who decide what providers we have to choose from at all); black Medicaid customers can always shop at Byram instead of Edgepark. It doesn’t matter that Byram randomly cancels orders, is frequently back-ordered, doesn’t offer samples, and has fewer product choices. After all, the problem with “separate but equal” was probably the equal part, right?

I’m sure this is fixable. Edgepark could develop a corporate conscience. Cigna could decide to pressure their providers to accept all of their customers, even if they might be poor. We could change the law to say that providers who are willing to be “in network” for a plan must accept all customers who have that plan. We could change the law to say that providers who are willing to be “in network” for any plan must accept Medicare and Medicaid. We could improve societal attitudes towards poor people.

I don’t see any of that happening. Do you?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Playground notes

Places we have tried

Robbins Farm Park, Arlington
very long slide, lots of structures, peaceful even when moderately crowded

Joey’s Park, Belmont
zip line, huge connected walkway structure

Places to try

Alexander Kemp Playground, Cambridge
natural playground

Nelson Park, Plymouth
on the water

Dacey Community Field, Franklin
huge handicap-accessible

Tadpole Playground, Boston Common

Lincoln Elementary School, Lincoln
rubbery surface

Action Cove Playground, West Newbury
wooden fort structure, small zip line

Stanley Park, Westfield
waterwheel and duck pond

Esplanade Playspace, Boston

Thomas Menino Park, Charlestown

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Revenue stream

I was distressed at the ritual committee meeting today to learn that the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had recently decided that it’s now ok for Conservative Jews to eat kitniyot during Passover. The common five grains like wheat are still prohibited, but corn on the cob can start showing up on the seder table. I don’t mind other people making that choice, but I’m feeling a bit lost in this modern world.

Leaving aside the fact that the ruling managed to work in polygamy, the most entertaining aspect of the ruling was learning that back when pottery dishes were reasonably inexpensive, the common practice was to destroy all of your pottery dishes for the start of Passover and buy a new set to use for Passover and then the coming year. Spring cleaning writ noisy.

When I started buying ritual Judaica, I was excited to find so many choices and to be able to choose pieces that spoke to me. I could have a menorah that I loved, and Shabbat candlesticks, and a treasured tallis from Lisa, and a few other things, and then suddenly I was done. There are only so many ritual items you need. Sure, another menorah occasionally enters our life when we find ourselves in Florida with a newborn at the start of Chanukah, but mostly we’re reduced to choosing pretty candles for Shabbat and Chanukah.

It’s a problem that the Judaica industry must also feel. A Miriam’s Cup for the Passover table is a recent addition, and gives each family a chance to search for a new item as well as being a step towards improving gender equality in the tradition. Still, it’s only one more item to find, and then we’re done again.

So I propose a new tradition: the sacrificial dish for the start of Passover, an item which must be purchased each year. It should have a decoration or design related to chametz, and should ideally be used for at least one family meal before the start of Passover. To celebrate the beginning or ending of cleaning the house for Passover, the entire family can gather around and smash the sacrificial dish. I don’t know if there should be a blessing, a song, or a reading to accompany the ceremony, or simply a moment of calm reflection on all that has happened since the previous Passover before the required ritual destruction. Now we do as our ancestors did in ancient times and destroy this dish to prepare for celebrating the Passover.

And if an annual shopping expedition for a sacrificial dish is not enough, surely every family now needs a ritual hammer with which to smash the sacrificial dish.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Looks like a nice day to play ball

This image is a clear way of illustrating the difference between equality and equity. Should each of the three fans be given the same box to stand on, or should each be given what they need to be able to see?

But look a little further than the foreground, and the image raises far more questions. Should these three fans be relegated to peering over an outfield wall while the more affluent white fans are welcome in the ballpark? Or is my assumption of the racial makeup in the stands colored by living in Boston?

There is no pretense of equality or equity in what we pay the professional athletes vs. what we pay anyone else in the ballpark. Thousands of people want to come watch these athletes play ball, while nobody wants to watch me edit pdf files. How should pay reflect that? Aside from establishing minimum salaries, how do equality and equity factor into collective bargaining? And since the entire ballpark was built with taxpayer financing, what sort of public access should there be?

Illustrators and designers routinely have their work ripped off, devalued, and undervalued, while content distributors, internet service providers, and hardware and software companies rake in huge amounts of money. Doesn’t distributing an image for free perpetuate that inequity?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Rally for the home team

There are 329 state-funded local cultural councils in Massachusetts. There are between 2 and 4 statewide awards each year for LCCs, so if they are randomly distributed across all of the LCCs, any particular LCC should expect to receive an award roughly once every 110 years.

Next month, Medford is receiving its 4th statewide award in the past 9 years. That’s not random. In fact, it’s unprecedented.

(One of the projects we funded when I was on the LCC also won a statewide Gold Star Award, so we’re getting recognition for actual programs as well.)

Medford has had a good number of very active and talented volunteers. That’s part of it. Medford’s city government decided to support the LCC financially, which many cities and towns do not do. That’s also part of it. Medford’s arts organizations and business organizations formed a productive coalition to make the arts more visible in Medford, and that’s part of it. But it’s all hard to reconcile with a city that let one of the largest capacity live theaters in the Boston area rot for decades, a city that blatantly refused to help find a home for a local arts center, a city that allowed a premier dance center to go permanently dark directly across the street from City Hall, a city that cannot seem to support a single bookstore or a single art gallery.

There will always be contradictions, and perhaps art thrives in the spaces where contradictions thrive. But there’s an exciting story to tell here if the new Medford administration wants to promote Medford as a home for the arts.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Not running a synagogue

Paul Levy, when he was president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, had a blog called “Running A Hospital.” His blog provided some insights into how a hospital CEO viewed various aspects of running a hospital. Then he resigned, and continued his blog with a name change to “Not Running A Hospital.”

Last year I joined my synagogue’s board and gradually discovered that the board has no serious involvement in running the synagogue. Day to day operations cannot be the charge of a group that only meets once a month, but in principle a board could make policy decisions. I suspect the board I’m on is a vestigial remnant of some past time when the board did make such policy decisions, but over time the role of the board has, um, changed? Withered? Atrophied? Fled to Florida?

Let me be clear: I like rituals, and Judaism is full of rituals. Those rituals provide structure and comfort, and allow layers of meaning to both encrust themselves and reveal themselves over lifetimes of experience. Those rituals allow connections within the world today and to generations past and future. The rituals evolve, participation ebbs and flows, and still they provide a deep continuity.

But monthly board meetings as ritual? Incantations of calling the meeting to order and asking for committee reports don’t do it for me. Please join us as we rise on line 12 of the youth group proposed budget and say together, “Thank you for not needing us to do anything or decide anything.” No, I’m ok with skipping that service.

So being on the board has left me more informed about the various decisions that we’re not making. It has sparked plenty of conversations about how synagogue policies could be different, but few of those conversations have happened with other board members and none have had any hope of implementation. With no expectation of affecting actual policies at present, I might as well focus on organizing my thoughts about how policies could be different and why they should be different. And perhaps at some point in the future, I can be a useful part of a team that is running a synagogue.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Correcting gaps in our synagogue membership categories

Because the congregation must be financially viable to survive as a congregation, it is easy for the leadership to focus on membership as a means of maximizing dues. Because we live in a consumerist society, it is easy for individuals and families to focus on minimizing dues (and an easy way is to avoid becoming a member). This focus on dues distracts us from the important aspects of the congregation: community, education, worship, and tikkun olam. We need to focus on building and supporting a meaningful community, make it clear that membership is an important statement of belonging to our community, and ensure that there are no obstacles to becoming and remaining members of our community.

Our synagogue’s current membership policy as spelled out in the bylaws clearly works for the many individuals and families who are members. Unmarried Jewish adults can be individual members, and families where at least one adult is Jewish and all adults in the family are committed to the goals of the congregation can be family members. This leaves a couple of gaps. If an adult wants to be a member but their spouse does not, that adult has no membership option. If a family includes a Jewish child but no Jewish adult (as can happen through death or divorce), that family has no membership option.

We can correct the first gap (when an adult wants to be a member but their spouse does not) by striking the word “unmarried” from the description of individual membership. We should also make it clear that an individual member is welcome to become a family member at any point when a partner or child would also like to be a member.

We can correct the second gap (when a family includes a Jewish child but no Jewish adult) by changing the definition of family membership to be a family where at least one adult or child is Jewish, rather than requiring at least one Jewish adult. It takes courage for a non-Jewish adult to raise a child in Judaism, and we should provide every support rather than turn them away. We want them to feel welcome in our congregation as a family and be able to participate in congregational life. We want the child to attend Hebrew School and to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We should open our doors, not close them.

There are good reasons to require family membership for a child to attend Hebrew School and to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It reinforces a model of community participation and belonging and ensures greater financial support for the congregation. But that membership requirement should not be a litmus test that some families are not allowed to pass.

If asked, we would make exceptions to our written rules to accommodate individual requests. But rather than exclude some prospective members and then depend on them being willing to ask for exceptions, we should amend our rules so that we can be as welcoming as possible.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cummings Park

I’ve lived directly next door to Cummings Park for over 17 years. Cummings Park is a small city-owned playground (also called a tot lot or pocket park). Over that time, there have been numerous competing groups of park users:

• teenagers drinking and vandalizing the playground structures (primarily at night)
• dog owners using it as a dog park so their dogs can exercise and go to the bathroom
• adults shooting heroin (primarily at night)
• young children using it as a playground

As with any public space, there are many individual occasional uses as well: birthday parties, geocaching, people doing yoga or tai chi, adults reading or chatting, etc. The only problematic uses are the ones that are incompatible with the intended primary use as a playground for young children (dog run, alcohol and drugs, smoking, and vandalism) or are incompatible with the park being directly next door to people’s homes (noise at night, fires, or golf balls).

There are signs saying that most of those problematic uses are not allowed, but the signs are largely ignored because they are never enforced. Even the huge new "NO DOGS ALLOWED" signs at both entrance gates are often ignored because there is no enforcement mechanism.

For the first decade that I lived next door to Cummings Park, it was a constant source of problems and was seldom used by young children. One week about 7 or 8 years ago, the city finally repaired the vandalized structures and removed the graffiti, the police started occasionally reminding people that the park is closed at night, and families started donating toys to the playground. A number of significant changes happened:

• young children and families started using the playground in far greater numbers
• vandalism mostly stopped
• drinking and drug use in the playground was greatly reduced (as measured by the far lower number of empty bottles and empty needles left in the playground)

The donated toys were a huge part of that turn-around. They encourage families to use the playground and extend the play options for young children. They helped Cummings Park become a destination playground for families who live closer to other parks. They were an asset to the two separate family day cares that both use the playground. And even when the playground is not in use by young children, the presence of the donated toys sends a clear signal that the playground is actively used by young children.

Local musician Matt Heaton even wrote a song about the donated toys in Cummings Park, titled “Outside Toys”.

If you never saw the range of toys donated to Cummings Park, you might not understand the full range of toys that passed through there: shovels and pails, balls, toy trucks and construction vehicles, ride-on toys, walk-behind toys, Cozy Coupes, scooters and tricycles and the occasional bicycle, several play kitchens and plastic slides, little basketball poles, toy lawnmowers, and most recently a plastic gas pump that allowed kids to pretend to be gassing up the various play vehicles.

Here’s a selection of the smaller toys in Cummings Park last year:

Toys eventually wear out, and several park neighbors took responsibility for periodically sorting through the toys and throwing out the broken ones. We also repaired toys when possible, inflated balls and bicycle tires, and worked with the parks department to report wear and damage to the permanent play structures. Mike Nestor at the parks department has been a real ally for years in working with us to keep Cummings Park in good shape to be used by young children and families.

It was, therefore, horrifying to see that the city last week abruptly removed every single donated toy in Cummings Park. This apparently happened around the same time in many or all city playgrounds. There was no warning, no notification, no opportunity for public input, and apparently no recourse. To replace the toys in Cummings Park alone would cost thousands of dollars, and people will be far more reluctant to donate toys when they expect that the city will arbitrarily confiscate them all again at any moment. Cummings Park is now far less appealing and useful for many families who want to use it as a playground. Instead, Cummings Park now looks barren and abandoned, which is exactly the sort of appearance that will lead to an increase in problematic uses of the playground. In a matter of days, it led to a noticeable increase in the use of the playground as an off-leash dog park.

There is widespread frustration, disappointment, and anger about the city’s removal of the toys from Cummings Park on local family-oriented Facebook groups. Here are comments from the last few days:
What happened at Cummings park??? We went there today and it was all cleared out!!! The kids were so sad!
Oh no! Sarah's park!!!!!
My kids loved using the toys at that park 
Oh, my boys will be devastated!!! So sad!
So sad! I think people generally do a good job of getting rid of broken toys. I think it's more of an eyesore NOT seeing them 
That is terrible, I can't believe they did that! 
Oh no my girls are gonna be sad next time we drive by. My oldest had a favorite bike that she always rode on. 
My son uses the toys more than the structures. 
Ours too! Heartbreaking. 
So sad! My daughter loves that park and used pretty much everything! When she was learning to walk she could still play. It's our favorite park. Awwww... 
So sad. Bring the toys back 
My daughter played more with the toys there than the structures. She will be so upset. I hope they bring them back. 
Devastating.... my son adored the toys 
It kept the kids happy. Now what? 
My other question is why, and is it just going to happen again if the community replaces them? I'd love to know who made the decision and how to make that person aware of just how unpopular it is. 
I can't believe they got rid of everything without any kind of notification or explanation, it seemed pretty obvious that the toys are used and enjoyed by the children who play there. It actually is the reason why we choose to go to Cummings park over other parks the majority of the time! My boys loved the diggers, dump trucks, etc they could use with the sand and all of the different vehicles there. Hopefully the city will bring them back. 
My daughter always bee lines for the cozy coupe and usually followed that with a session of digging and dumping sand in or with any kind of bucket or container. Small slides are a hit with the littlest ones too - less daunting than then permanent ones. I'm happy to help with this adventure come spring. We love this park! I'm just hoping it's not in vain. Is there any news on whether this is going to be happening repeatedly?
People have reported that Mike Nestor only wanted broken toys to be removed. It is unclear who in the city made the decision to remove ALL the toys, but it is very clear that it was a bad decision and a serious error. This error should be addressed openly, the city should issue a clear apology to the community for this error, the city should explicitly state that donated toys in good condition are allowed in the playgrounds, and the city should replace the toys.

There are several stakeholders who the city should include in any major decisions about Cummings Park:

1. The immediate neighbors of Cummings Park.

2. Sarah Volpe, who has brought her family day care to Cummings Park every day for many years.

3. Andrea Breen at Medford Family Network, who has run the playgroups in the park program for years, is very familiar with many of the city playgrounds, and knows that Cummings Park is in better condition than many because neighbors help care for it.

4. Park users, who can be reached through the Cummings Park Medford Facebook group, the Medford Moms Facebook group, the Medford Family Network mailing list, and signs posted in the park itself.

Here is my list of actions the city should take to improve Cummings Park:

1. Establish some practical enforcement mechanism for the park rules, with police enforcement when necessary to remove dogs and to remove people who are using the park at night.

2. Provide a clear way for park neighbors, community members, and park users to report problematic uses of the park at any hour and get a prompt response.

3. Install “no smoking” signs. This is one of the few actual park rules for which there is no sign.

4. Provide better fencing or containment for the basketball mini-court (which is also sometimes used for hockey and lacrosse), or convert that mini-court into a different use more compatible with being just a few feet from a neighboring home.

5. Clear the sidewalks around Cummings Park in the winter when it snow, and clear a single path through the park itself between the two gates (ensuring that the gates can open).

6. Consider installing water for a bubbler and/or the ability to water new plantings.

7. Consider adding a port-a-potty (as exists at Victory Park) in the corner by the intersection, so that little kids don’t have to use the fence line as their toilet. (This may cause more problems than it solves, but it should at least be discussed.)

8. Hire a new landscape contractor who will mow the grass more than once a month in the summer.

9. Establish a maintenance plan and replacement plan for the park structures. The bouncy bridge on the taller play structure has structural connecting links that are almost worn through, and much of the plastic on the climbing structures is now old enough that it is more prone to break and leave sharp edges. The benches under the gazebo are all bent down at the ends, greatly reducing their usable seating area.

10. Establish a maintenance plan and replacement plan for the park trees and landscaping. Many shrubs have died, the tree warden has confirmed that a number of the trees are unhealthy, and new donated plants cannot survive because there is no on-site water access.

11. Establish a community liaison or two for each city park who can help organize needs and wants for the park, and who can help communicate with the appropriate city employees and with residents and park users.

12. Plan to do regular requests on a schedule for graffiti removal by the Middlesex Sherriff’s Graffiti Removal Unit, which costs the city almost nothing to do. This has been a far less frequent problem at Cummings Park since the donated toys started, but it is an ongoing problem at other parks (and around the city).