Saturday, May 31, 2008

Endorsement: Senator John Kerry

A week from today I head to Lowell for the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention, where I will represent the second Suffolk district as a delegate.

At the convention, delegates will be asked to nominate a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Senator John Kerry, whose term expires in early 2009. I will vote to nominate Senator Kerry.

While this may not be a surprise to many who are not even sure there's a choice this year, it comes after a week of research that included conversations with both Senator Kerry and his Democratic opponent, Ed O'Reilly. My reasons for supporting Senator Kerry are as follows:

1) Cape Wind. Ed O'Reilly does not support it. Senator Kerry is still undecided, depending on the outcome of a study into the environmental impact of the project. I support Cape Wind, and believe it should have been approved long ago. The opposition to the project is based on the legitimate claims of many who live near the proposed off-shore wind farm or will be affected by it. However, their claims are significantly overridden by the potential benefits of the project. A wind farm, whether privately operated or not, is the type of alternative energy project that the United States should be investing in and promoting. While I wish Senator Kerry would support the project, at least he doesn't oppose it.

2) I am fine with Senator Kerry's position on the Iraq war. Ed O'Reilly sees this as a wedge issue; in particular, Senator Kerry's vote in favor of the resolution that ultimately (but not explicitly) led to the war. In reality, Senator Kerry was one of the first Senators to vote on a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal. He made a commitment at a meeting with convention delegates today to continue to oppose funding for a long-term presence in Iraq. I actually am not completely in favor of a deadline for withdrawal, and I think the larger issue in play is the U.S. relationship with the world, and the fact that we need to change the way the world looks at us (John Edwards words, not mine). Regardless, I trust Senator Kerry on this issue and am not swayed by Mr. O'Reilly's points.

3) Senator Kerry is not complacent. I am not a fan of Democratic convention delegates picking nominees. While I am proud to be a convention delegate, true democracy demands that all Democrats have a say in who the party nominee is. This naturally means I would support Ed O'Reilly. If he receives 15 or more percent of the delegates at the convention, then party rules dictate there will be a primary. And with a primary all Democrats have a chance to vote to pick the nominee.

Except I don't see a reason for a primary this year, because Senator Kerry is as engaged as he always has been in the causes of Massachusetts. Having already established that, on the issues, I think he's the better candidate, I don't see a reason to extend this process any further. To go further, as Senator Kerry noted today, Democrats have a huge chance to make gains in the Senate and House, and he can help in that effort. I see no reason to deter from that effort by forcing a primary. While I would never, ever call a primary a distraction, the choice for Massachusetts Democrats this year is just too overwhelmingly clear to delay the selection of our pick.

I enjoyed meeting Ed O'Reilly this week and appreciated his hospitality. I trust he is a great man and a fantastic attorney. But I see no reason this year to take the junior Senator seat away from John Kerry.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Opening the Cottage

Levanto Beach Cottage
South Lyme, Conn.
May 25, 2008

View from the front porch
David Levanto after pasta dinner
South Lyme, Conn.
May 25, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ear Pain

I have a special relationship to my ears. I have had ear trouble my entire life. As a child, I would regularly suffer from middle ear infections. By the age of five I could pronounce "Amoxicillin" without even hesitating; that was the normal prescription when my ears would be in pain.

Ear infection pain is hell. There's no other way to describe it. Beyond the fact that the pain is a combination of a throb, a burn, and being poked by a needle, it frustrates you. You have the consistent belief that you can reach into your ear and cover the pain. Except it's on the other side of the ear drum. That doesn't stop you from trying, poking your finger into your ear as far as possible, only to come away disappointed each time.

As a kid, I had ear operations a number of times to insert "tubes." Literally the tube creates a tiny hole in the ear drum that relieves pressure on the inside of the ear, and allows fluid to drain straight outside. The tubes worked, except it meant you had to plug your ears when you swam to protect the vital inner section of the ear.

Needless to say, throughout life I have gotten pretty good at self-diagnosis. About eight or nine years ago, I suffered an ear infection while at work. I could tell. For me, besides the pain, when I have an ear infection I walk funny (an ear infection affects my balance). I calmly called my doctor, who was on call, and said, "I have an inner ear infection and need you to prescribe me some Amoxicillin." The doctor, who I had seen only twice since starting my job, was pretty amazed. He quizzed me for a bit about my condition (as if Amoxicillin is a controlled narcotic or something), until I finally said, "Trust me doc, I have been here before. I know my ears well."

I am not sure, in reality, why my ears are bad. I think it has to do with the development of the Eustachian tube, which is the passage way that connects the inner ear to one's nose (it's what is supposed to allow air to escape from the ear, serving the natural purpose of the artificial tube in the ear drum). I think my Eustachian tube is different from other adults. It doesn't stay clear as much. And when it's blocked, like after a fairly minor cold, my ears pay the price.

My ear history comes into play during what is becoming a fairly common part of my job lately. Flying. Flying is harsh on a person's ears, due to the change in air pressure on ascent and descent. This week, I had a trip to Austin, Texas, and over last weekend, my ears were blocked. I knew this was a problem. I had heard stories of people who blew out eardrums because their ears were blocked while heading in for landing.

I had talked to my ear, nose and throat specialist about this possibility. The flippant nature of his advice is something I will never forget. "Well, if you're ears are blocked, you shouldn't fly [Have you ever heard of anyone giving this excuse for not going on a trip?]. But if you must, then take some Sudafed, use nose spray a few hours before you change altitude, and we'll just hope for the best."

I was forced to hope for the best this past Wednesday and Friday, when I flew to and from Austin. Fortunately, the regiment my specialist prescribed worked. The flight to Austin was rather painful in flight, but the descent went fine. My jaws were rather sore on landing from how aggressively I chewed gum on the plane (chewing gum moves the jaw, which causes the Eustachian tube to open and equalizes the ears). Driving around Austin, my ears were not in pain, but they were sore, kind of like as if they were trying to figure out what I had just did to them.

By the way, my current primary care doctor tells me that Sudafed is not good to take, since it raises blood pressure. Sudafed and I have been friends since I was old enough to swallow. If my doctor is in the process of ending that relationship, them's fightin' words.

Avoid Getting Burned

In Austin, Texas this week for work, my co-worker and I drove by a church with a sign that said:

"Exposure to the Son helps you avoid being burned."

You got to love Texas. In reality, I really do like Austin quite a bit.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday is Football Day

For the last seven years, I have played football on Sundays in the coed Boston Ski and Sports Club league. Not only is it good to be active at least one day of the week, but football Sundays are a good reason to catch up with friends.

Over the course of several seasons (I play in two separate seasons each year), friendly rivalries have developed. Today witnessed the latest chapter of the showdown between my team (called "The Beer is Always Cold" and the "Pocket Rockets."

After the game, we all went to Donahue's in Watertown to watch the first half of the Celtics vs. Cavaliers game.

Representatives from the "Pocket Rockets" vs."The Beer is Always Cold"

Donahue's Pub

May 18, 2008

It's perhaps fitting that we played to a draw on the field. Ties are allowed in my league.

Suffolk University and Beacon Hill

Each night the last week I attended at least one local civic meeting or event. The most important, in my opinion, was a public meeting hosted by the BRA on Thursday regarding Suffolk. I posted earlier that Senator John Kerry was to speak at the Ward 5 Democratic Committee meeting that night. Senator Kerry had to cancel, which allowed me to attend the Suffolk meeting instead.

To recap, Suffolk is currently writing a new Institutional Master Plan (IMP), an important document required by the Boston Redevelopment Authority to outline Suffolk's plans for development for the next ten years. Suffolk is discussing the plan and working through issues with a task force, organized by the BRA, of neighbors, city officials and Suffolk executives. Suffolk submitted its IMP for review in mid-April, and there is a sixty-day review period. The meeting this past Thursday was an opportunity for the public to give its feedback to the IMP and ask questions.

The reason Suffolk is causing problems is classic "town and gown." Many of Suffolk's buildings are on Beacon Hill. Suffolk students walk around the neighborhood, eat here and live here. Suffolk has grown quite a bit in the last five years or so, meaning more students are here. Some students are pretty bad neighbors.

Suffolk wants to continue to develop its facilities and programs, and it likes being located in downtown Boston. Many that live near Suffolk buildings feel that the institution has too much of a negative impact on the neighborhood. Some even believe Suffolk should sell its buildings on Beacon Hill and move away.
Here are my thoughts on the topic:

1) I have not been to every Suffolk meeting. I went to the public meeting Thursday, and previously went to a public meeting in late January. I can tell you one thing. Suffolk is trying very hard to work with the neighborhoods. I saw significant evidence that they are willing to compromise with Beacon Hill. They have proposed enlarging the current non-expansion zone in place on Beacon Hill to include, among other spots, the area where the 100 Cambridge building is and where the Bowdoin Street condominiums are. That's important to me.

2) Key to the debate is the definition of expansion. Suffolk currently has roughly 5200 students. Actually they record them as "full-time-equivalent" students-- or "FTE's"-- a number that is a tad lower than the actually student number. Suffolk currently has an enrollment of about 4800 FTE. Per the IMP, they want to stop growing at 5000 FTE. This means while the FTE number has grown significantly over the past five years, it's not going to grow that much more. It follows to me that the number of students around Beacon Hill is not going to increase much in the coming years.

Now there are a lot of hidden aspects to the FTE number, some of which I am still investigating. Like how much of the FTE number is commuter students, or students who don't need to live anywhere near the campus. If the commuter percentage decreases, it follows that more students will be living near the campus. In addition, Suffolk doesn't have a good track record holding to FTE promises made in previous IMPs. Suffolk acknowledges this and says it will stick to the number.

3) Are students *really* that bad? I live on the north slope of Beacon Hill, near many younger residents. I rent, and this side of the hill has more rental properties that are less expensive, relatively speaking. I hear loud parties all the time, because on Beacon Hill, we all live on top of each other. But I am not sure how many of the parties are actually students. Many are, I am sure. But how many are young professionals like me? Is the issue here one of working with students and enabling them to be better neighbors, or is it an issue of engaging younger, mostly single, residents? How are those two issues related? How much of the reaction to the Suffolk issue is really evidence of this larger issue?

I don't think Suffolk should move off of Beacon Hill. I think they have a place here. I appreciate what they've done to try to compromise with the neighborhood. There's rhetoric on either side. I can say at this point, if Suffolk agrees to enlarging the non-expansion zone and really agrees to cap its FTE growth numbers, I think they will have done quite a bit to limit the impact of their plans on Beacon Hill.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Beacon Hill Civic Association Board Meeting Monday

This Monday marks the end of my fifth year on the Beacon Hill Civic Association board. I have told the board's officers that I would like to continue for a sixth year, and I hope they will nominate me to serve the next term (each board member serves for a term of only one year).

The final meeting for this term is going to be busy. According to the board packet I received on Friday, the board will be voting on the fate of Phillips Street Park. The City of Boston intends to refurbish the park and has allotted money to do so. Over the last year, a public process has created a compromise design for the park. It includes a playground for children and an area for common use. It's not perfect, but it meets the needs of a huge variety of people, and I intend to support it on Monday. Given that I have been to all of the Phillips Street Park meetings, I am hoping that my opinions are valid.

Also at the meeting, board members will hear the latest related to Suffolk and the university's institutional master plan (IMP) process. From the packet, it appears that the board will be voting on the IMP at the next meeting in June. The timing is important here, since in June, we will be into the next board term and will inevitably have new faces among us. The next board is formally elected at the annual meeting, which is later this month.

Separately, I am planning to attend the Ward 5 Democratic Committee meeting Thursday. Loyal readers know I was elected to that committee in February per the results of the Massachusetts primary. Senator Kerry is expected to speak, and the ward committee will decide whether to endorse a candidate in the Presidential Democratic primary race.

All told, a nice week of civic involvement for me...

Absolutely No Momentum

There's no difference between no momentum and "absolutely" no momentum. The term "absolutely" is a useless word, prime to be struck by my editing pen. But I mention it here for emphasis: The 2008 Democratic Primary campaign has shown absolutely no momentum for either candidate.

Obama voters have voted for Obama. Since Super Tuesday, this category includes African Americans, younger voters, and those who make more money and have completed college. Clinton voters have voted for Clinton. Since Super Tuesday, the Clinton voter is typically blue-collar and/or older. Clinton has also done well among women, unless they are African American, and her support in this category wanes among younger women and among women who've completed college (since that would overlap with a demographic favorable to Obama).

In contest after contest since early February, the make up of either candidate's support has not changed. Each primary is a census on a given state's make up against those demographics. We now know that the younger or college-educated Democratic audience in Indiana is almost the same size as the blue collar or older one.

I admire the fact that Democrats across the country have stuck to their hunches. They have not been swayed by talk of momentum (proof there hasn't been any). From a broader perspective, the way the media has covered this race is humorous. Under the no-momentum theory, a casual observer could have predicted a Clinton victory by ten points in Pennsylvania back in February. It's just the way the demographics in Pennsylvania fall, and the way the "Democratic census" in that state would work out. Yet the morning after, we heard pundit after pundit saying that Hillary had momentum. We heard it for a week.

Truth be told, the media are dieing to say that someone, anyone, has momentum. Because a horse race with no race is boring. After Pennsylvania, many reporters couldn't wait any longer, and proclaimed that Clinton had finally received the big "mo."

Except they were wrong. The results in North Carolina and Indiana are exactly as one would have predicted back on Super Tuesday, looking and the Democratic make-up in each state. At that time, you could have called North Carolina for Obama by a dozen and said Clinton would win Indiana by a couple.

But while the results showed no momentum, the media said the opposite: That Obama had momentum and the race was over. We heard Tim Russert say early Wednesday morning that we now know who the Democratic nominee will be.

While Obama might readily win the nomination, he has not picked up any momentum from Tuesday's victories. New polls today from West Virginia show Clinton extending her lead there. Using the theory of no momentum, let's make some predictions on how the remaining contests will unfold. To do this, I will look at the demographics of each state versus the results on Super Tuesday (yes-- results from early February). Here goes:

1) Clinton wins West Virginia by 24.
2) Clinton wins Kentucky by more than 20. Could even be 30.
3) Obama wins Oregon by 7.
4) Obama wins Montana by 9.
5) Clinton wins Puerto Rico by 12.
6) Obama wins South Dakota by 6.

Let's see if I am right.

It's important to call each primary what it is. They are not snap-shot polls of the electorate. They are reflections of the unique demographic mixes of each state. When Clinton wins West Virginia on Tuesday, it will not be because she has momentum and has won over voters, it will be because the group of voters that she appeals to will be much larger. We shouldn't read more into it than that.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Tribute: Dr. Donald "Robbie" Robinson

Last summer the History Channel produced a series on the ten most important dates in American history you never heard of. Each episode focused on one event that had a profound effect on how we live today. For example, one episode was on the famous Einstein Letter, which many argue is the reason the United States developed the atomic bomb. And the rest is history, as they say.

If I were to put together my own list of the dates that have, to this point, most affected the course of my life, I would definitely mark down the random day in April 1996 that I met Dr. Donald "Robbie" Robinson. He and his wife were the directors of Boston University's Washington D.C. program, and my meeting with Dr. Robinson was a pre-requisite to being accepted into the program.

Based on that interview, Dr. Robinson not only accepted me into the D.C. program for the Fall of 1996, he recommended I be placed as an intern in the White House, where I would work for then Vice President Gore. I will never forget the unwavering confidence he had in me that day. Without his help, both in terms of that confidence, and his Rolodex, there's no way I would have interned in the White House.

No doubt during his more than 25-year tenure as the head of the D.C. program, Dr. Robinson personally affected the lives of hundreds of young Americans, not to mention, grew one of the most successful programs of its kind in the country.

I learned last week that Dr. Robinson passed away at the end of April at the age of 71.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Boston Civic Summit

I attended the Boston Civic Summit today. While I do enjoy any reason to visit the sparkling new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, I was not expecting to spend most of the day there. The summit turned out to be a fairly good event.

The best measure of civic involvement in Boston is by counting people who vote. Turnout in Boston in November of 2007 was 14 percent (of registered voters). That's pretty bad. This year, turnout should be high, since we're in a Presidential year. Maybe it will even reach 60 percent (it was in the high 50s in 2004).

What I find ironic about this is that the great majority of issues I hear every day from Boston residents are local issues. Crime. Education. Picking up trash. These are issues that are not really addressed by the President of the United States. They are issues that are addressed by the Mayor and Boston City Councilors. Yet, turnout this November for the Presidential election could be three times as high as turnout will be in November 2009, when Boston will elect a Mayor and the entire slate of City Councilors. For the election that really matters for the issues my neighbors care about, no one will bother to vote.

In some ways I like that Boston has off-year municipal elections. Since so few voters actually go to the polls, the people who do vote are *really* important. Local candidates work very hard to figure out who they will be-- based on voting records for similar municipal elections. The flood of auto calls and literature I receive ahead of these elections is pretty impressive.

Back to the civic summit. In my opinion, the afternoon was better than the morning. I got a chance to chat with Adam Gaffin, who runs Universal Hub, about better ways for me to get his site Beacon Hill information, without causing extra work for him.

The lunch talk was outstanding. Dr. Thomas Sander, who is the Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, discussed the need for social capital. The fact that social capital within neighborhoods is what creates trust and improves quality of life. The fact that cities with high social capital are just bound to be nice places to live. The fact that as residents we need to "bond" to neighbors who resemble us and "bridge" to neighbors who don't look like us.

The best part of the talk was at the end. Eva Webster, who's with the Aberdeen-Brighton Residents Association, made a passionate plea for all to bridge social economic classes in our neighborhoods. I hear her. Beacon Hill isn't exactly known for being diverse in this regard.

After the lunch talk, the 400+ participants held a town meeting of sorts. It was a little long, but the format resulted in a few near-term civic initiatives that should be goals for the entire civic summit:
  • Establishing a civic association exchange program,
  • Improving the after school mentoring and tutoring program,
  • Enhancing the summer employment program for at-risk kids, and
  • Creating a city-wide litter and anti-graffiti program.
Long-term goals were selected as well, though the short term ones took special attention. Participants were asked to volunteer to support one of the four initiatives. I picked the civic association exchange program. There is a follow up meeting planned for June 3 in the evening back at the Boston Convention Center.

Overall, I had low expectations for the event, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to see so many people talking about ways to make Boston better without complaining all the time. The passion was contagious.

Michael Pahre files his report here.

In London an Undershirt is not Required

Covent Gardens, London
April 27, 2008

Work sent me to London for nine days in April. Despite the fact we speak the same language, England and the United States are quite different.

1. In England, they don't wear undershirts. It is quite uncool to wear a white t-shirt under a button down, collared shirt. I wear one all the time, primarily because I don't think many appreciate seeing my chest hair or the sweat under my arms. In England, apparently these items show off virility. I can imagine the pheromones released on a hot summer day, when a virile man emerges from the underground and is dripping with sweat. And supposedly they are the civilized ones?

2. A cigarette is called a fag. This one I find particularly humorous. But perhaps more troubling is the fact they call erasers rubbers. I told everyone not to ask loudly for one in an American store.

3. There's no such thing as a shower curtain. Puzzling, but on my few occasions to London this is a common trait. The shower is really a nozzle that is useless unless it occupies one hand. More strangely, the only water barrier is a small, glass divider that only progresses less than half way down the outside of the tub. Water inevitably splashes all over the floor.

4. You are not fired in London. You are sacked.

5. You order "to take away," not "to go." I found it quite annoying that in any coffee shop, deli or even McDonald's, they ask you if you are eating in or "taking away," and they are incessant on the answer. Then I learned that London has an extra tax if you eat your food in an establishment, versus ordering it to go.

6. The overhead compartments in airplanes are called lockers.

7. Man flu. England is much less PC than the U.S. It's almost accepted that men can't handle pain as well as women. A co-worker of mine came down with a bout of the "man flu" while I was there, which is basically the flu, but apparently it's supposed to inspire more empathy because it's flu afflicting a man.

8. In the U.S., the sense of a nation is far more pronounced. OK, here's where I throw in my comparative political lesson. I was quite surprised that in London, there is more of a connection to England than the United Kingdom. After quite an argument with another colleague, I admitted that England is actually a country, as is Wales and Scotland. In London, they cheer for the English soccer team. I found the regional affiliations to be far more pronounced than in the U.S. When I was in central Europe in December, I did not see many German flags (many Bavarian ones, but no German).

This same barometer is applied to the U.K. I saw far more English flags than U.K. flags. Now this could be because I was in town during the week of St. George's day, but I think there is something more to it. Unlike my previous trips to London, this time I stayed away from the tourist hotspots and remained in the neighborhoods, so I think this observation carries more meaning.

9. One sunny day a week is just fine. In London, they must have found a cure for seasonal affective disorder. It was sunny for exactly one day. Luckily it was a Saturday, so I could enjoy it by taking the train to Brighton on the coast. The weather in London, like the local food, is horrible. Enough said.

My favorite place in London is officially the Punch & Judy pub in Covent Gardens. The pub isn't much-- it reminds me of a Boston college bar (I could even smell vomit inside). But the view is amazing.

Punch & Judy balcony
Gardens, London

April 27, 2008

I stayed in a "flat" rented by my company in Connaught Village near Marble Arch. There was a pub right across the street called the Duke of Kendall pub. Every Sunday, a wonderful old woman comes to the pub to play the piano, with wise gentlemen surrounding him to create a sing along. I have no idea what they sang, but the site mesmerized me. I took the picture below from the elevator lobby down the hall from the flat on my final day in London. Note it's raining.

Duke of Kendall Pub
Connaught Village, London
April 29, 2008