Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene

Beacon Hill, Boston
August 28, 2011

Point O' Woods Beach
South Lyme, Conn.
August 28, 2011
(Photo Courtesy Mark Levanto)

During a Hurricane, One Can Eat Cake

Empty bread shelves at Walmart.
Norwich, Conn.
August 26, 2011
(Photo Courtesy of Gina Levanto)

There's no bread in advance of Hurricane Irene, but there are Suzy-Qs and donuts!

In Boston, All Politics is SUPER Local

This is where I show my ignorance of Boston political history, for I learned last week that there was a time in Boston when all city councilors were at-large city councilors. The current city council make-up-- nine district councilors and four at-large councilors-- has been in place only since 1982. Prior to that, the council had nine members, all of whom represented the entire city.

District city council representation is vital to the city. I have written in the past about how Boston is a city of neighborhoods, and I have enjoyed meeting residents from other neighborhoods to learn about their homes, their favorite restaurants, and what conditions are like throughout Boston.

To be sure, my concerns about Boston are shared by residents in all the neighborhoods I have seen. We all care about safe streets and better schools. We all worry about economic development and jobs in the city. However, each specific neighborhood has its micro-specific issues that are unique. And that's why district city councilors are so important.

A micro-specific issue on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay is trash. And neighbors in those areas have been very creative on how to keep streets clean. One idea being tossed around is whether certain downtown neighborhoods really need three days of trash pick up. Trash is picked up three days a week in my area of Beacon Hill, which means trash is on the streets three days a week. Considering refuse is put outside the night before pickup, that's a lot of time to have trash at the curb.

My neighbors and I see reducing the number of trash pick up days as a way to make streets cleaner by reducing the amount of time the trash is at the curb. It makes sense to us, and it makes sense to our district city councilor, Mike Ross, who has been supportive of our investigation of the issue. To be clear, Councilor Ross hasn't decided if he wants to reduce a day of pick up, and neither has the Beacon Hill Civic Association. It would be a major change for the neighborhood, so we're all still looking into it.

Removing trash pick-up days to make streets cleaner seems counter-intuitive, especially those who don't follow micro-specific neighborhood issues. Take the at-large Boston City Council candidates. At the "First in the City" City Council forum in June, hosted by Boston's Ward 5 Democratic Committee, the candidates were asked about the possibility of removing a day of trash pick up. A few of the candidates, most notably former City Councilor Michael Flaherty, reacted with near abhorrence. Mr. Flaherty said he would strongly oppose removing a day of pick-up, noting that it would be part of his efforts to keep Boston clean.

To be fair, Mr. Flaherty has not been involved in my discussions, so he doesn't understand that removing a day of pick up can actually make the streets cleaner. Mr. Flaherty has been out of the game for a year or two following his unsuccessful bid for Mayor, so he has some catching up to do. At the same time, it has to be hard for at-large city councilors to understand every micro-specific neighborhood issue in the city. One could make the argument that that's the place for district city councilors.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

This is an Old Photo

Domenico and Margaretta (Lucy) Tedeschi
Somewhere in Italy
Sometime between 1900 and 1910

The young lady in the photo above is my great-grandmother. My dad's dad's mom. She's in Italy (allegedly) standing next to her younger brother. They had yet to travel to America, where she would meet my great-grandfather, Melchiore Levanto, and would settle in the city of Norwich, Conn.

I remember my great grandmother. We called her "Nana" (with a soft a). She was a very bad driver, and I remember her son, my grandfather, who sold insurance, was often coming to her aid after an accident.

The photo above, however, definitely struck me. I wonder what she was thinking. I wonder what she would say today if she looked back over my life and the lives of my brothers, my dad and my dad's family.

I snapped with my iPhone the picture of the photo above last week at the Levanto annual family reunion. I am happy I went.

A Dislocated Finger and a Busted iPhone: Two CR Successes

If you are going to injury yourself, a dislocated finger delivers quite a bit of return. On Wednesday night, playing pick-up softball with co-workers, I tripped over a bat after hitting a weak fly ball to center. I stood up to find the top portion of my left index finger pointing in a direction it shouldn't. It was one of those "look-away" moments, when you want to show everyone your injury but the recoil from the sight is aggressive.

Except the injured finger really didn't hurt that much, and it led to one of the most pleasant ER experiences of my life. Five minutes down the road I checked in at the Newton Wellesley hospital emergency room. I was managed by a very capable ER technician, radiology technician, and even a volunteer or two. It proved to me one of the most understated ways to save money in our healthcare system---better communications skills.

In general, customer relations (or the acronym CR I use in the title of this post) is an oft overlooked area for saving money. Customers can cost individual vendors a lot of money if they keep calling or visiting help desks. In a hospital setting, the equivalent of customers-- patients-- can be overwhelmingly expensive.

Doctors are stereotypically bad communicators. They speak in short sentences, use doctor-speak even though regular English is available, and have completely illegible handwriting. The problem with this is fairly self-apparent. Patients don't understand their doctors, and when something happens next, they panic and go to the emergency room. And ER visits are expensive.

My experience at Newton Wellesley was remarkable because those who treated me were remarkable communicators. They carefully explained to me each procedure, spoke in plain english (a contusion is just a bruise, for heaven's sake), and they related to me on a personal level (I was wearing a UCONN basketball t-shirt). The head of the ER was the attending doctor, and even he was pleasant.

I also learned that the sympathy-to-pain quotient is exceptionally in the patent's favor in the case of a dislocated digit. My finger didn't really hurt, and my prognosis since stepping in the ER was good. But the finger, even I admit, looked really bad.

While sapping up the oohs and ahhs from co-workers the day after my rather ignominious injury on the baseball diamond, my iPhone started acting up. When I placed a call, I couldn't hear anything. I have had other random issues with the phone since I got it in June (replacing my old iPhone). But not being able to place phone calls... well, that's kind of fundamental.

The iPhone saga is not a long one; in fact, not even a saga. I took the iPhone to the Apple Store in Burlington, and the techs there gave me a new phone. No questions asked. That's the type of customer service that earns ridiculous loyalty for Apple, and has made them the largest tech company in the world.

Sometimes we all overlook good customer service when it happens. We should expect it, but we should also hold up examples for others to emulate.

While I am at it, kudos to JetBlue. I sent a tweet two weeks ago saying I was boarding a JetBlue flight to Vegas from Boston. JetBlue tweeted me back, wishing me a pleasant flight. That's cool.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Information is a Scary Thing

Make no mistake about it, I am a Democrat. However, I am not afraid to talk about what the other side thinks, and why they advocate the way that they do. My friend Tom once said a long time ago that he liked how I would express my belief, but then I would back up and say why the other side feels the way that they do---even noting when my adversaries in a political debate had good points.

We're overwhelmed with information nowadays, and sometimes that's not a good thing. We all spend so much time catching up to the information that we sometimes forget the pig picture.

The recently ended debt-limit debate in Washington is a case in point. What I find amazing, in hindsight, is that at some point, several months ago, we all decided that additional debt was a bad thing, and now was the time to fix the issue. The elections last fall convinced us that the growing debt meant uncertainty for business. The voters sent representatives to Congress that were hellbent on reducing the size of government and shrinking government spending. The debt ceiling debate presented the best opportunity to make the voters' sentiment heard.

The only problem is that, heading into the debt ceiling debate, there was no sign-- at all-- that our debt was having a negative impact on the economy. Investors around the world, including large foreign governments already possessing large quantities of U.S. debt, were willing to buy more of it, and with incredibly cheap costs to the U.S. But we were convinced that we needed to stop taking on the debt-- and now.

The truth is, debt isn't the biggest issue we all face right now. It's the crappy economy, and more specifically, the fact that so many are out of work. Yet when one Congressman tried to make the point that the debt is not a concern right now (that creating jobs, instead, was) he was eviscerated by the media. Somehow, even the jobless have been convinced that reducing the size of government will help them get jobs more so than a government that is actively helping them find a job.

Truth be told, we Americans just decided to dramatically cut government spending at a time when the government seems to be the only entity willing to spend. Consumer spending is down. Consumer confidence is in the toilet. No one is buying a house, and even fewer are building houses (an exception being my parents). Companies are spending-- a little-- but most are hoarding the cash they have.

With the government now cutting back spending, I am not sure who is going to pick up spending as a result. The impact will be felt hardest by the individual states, who are dependent on federal spending to make up for tax revenue deficiencies (keep in mind that unlike the feds, state governments can't just print more money to bail themselves out).

We got what we voted for when the debt ceiling compromise was passed. I hope no one is surprised that the markets tanked in response.