Things I’m Reading This Week: 12/26/2017

Things I'm Reading

Just some longform media I’ve been reading you might find of interest.

Ma Bell In Pixels?

Are big tech companies really making the world “a better place”? Or are they just maximizing profits and pursuing monopolies? Some really pertinent questions, as we watch our democracy erode.

“What has the greatest collection of humanity and IQ and financial capital been brought together to accomplish?” Galloway asked the crowd. “To save world hunger? To create greater comity of man? I don’t think so. … Their singular mission, simply put, it’s to sell another fucking Nissan.”

Today’s technologists work at for-profit businesses, doing what for-profit businesses do in America—maximizing shareholder profits by acquiring functional control of markets, as well as intimate details of our lives. Big Tech makes aspects of daily life more convenient (if more fraught), but that’s not the same as making the world a better place. Mainly, the goal has become making more money, via more monopoly.

and also:

We already know these firms have crippled entrepreneurship, by either buying out competitors or copying their features and using overwhelming market share to destroy them—tactics that would be familiar to the authors of the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts. We already know they’ve concentrated economic gains in a few small enclaves, leaving large swathes of the country behind. We already know they religiously avoid taxes and cut special deals with intimidated public officials, burdening the rest of society. We already know their surveillance capabilities rival any in history, handing over a comprehensive profile of your every waking moment for advertisers and behaviorists to exploit. We already know the addictive qualities of their products have undermined social relationships, expanded divisiveness, and transformed what it means to be human. We already know their drive for profits ignores how their platforms can be weaponized, scarring millions and undermining democracy.

The rest of this article explores actual answers and options, which is really useful as a blueprint. We ignore this at our own peril. Included is a detailed look at European data privacy laws coming into effect next year, net neutrality, and more. The whole thing is worth a good read.

Expand Your Perspective

If there’s something we all should be doing, it’s stretching our comfort zones, and our minds. I am giving this book list (46 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2018) a thorough going through, to find some things to put on my commuter train rotation.

There Is No Bottom

There’s so much horrible news coming out of #45’s “administration”—everything from nearly eliminating two national monuments in Utah, to the world’s biggest tax gift to the super wealthy, to his war on sensible climate change mitigation—that it can be hard to keep up. Every day, though, there seems to be some little very uncontroversial protection for the vulnerable that he destroys, seemingly just for the joy of hurting little people. Here is one such:

The Trump administration is scaling back the use of fines against nursing homes that harm residents or place them in grave risk of injury, part of a broader relaxation of regulations under the president.

The shift in the Medicare program’s penalty protocols was requested by the nursing home industry.

If business—any business—asks, it will receive from this “administration.” I mean, it’s not like it’s commonplace to hear horror stories of seniors in nursing homes being abused or even dying from neglect, or anything.

When you think there’s a bottom, don’t look down, because you still haven’t hit it.

No, Jeff Flake Is Not The Center

In case you missed this excellent as well as entertaining Vox video on what the Overton Window is and how Trump is shifting it to the far right, it’s worth a watch.

Star Wars: The Middle Child

Todd VanDerWerff at Vox has a nice write up summing up the backlash to The Last Jedi from many fans, from a number of different directions. The article is super spoily, so I am not going to quote it at all, but it goes nicely into the issues some have, and why this particular critic liked the film.

Non-spoiler: I kind of liked it. Especially after sitting on it for a bit. It actually touched on themes I’ve long seen as potential and under the surface of the Star Wars universe, so in that respect it delivered some things for me that I’ve long thought in my head.

Mass Fiscal Alliance Cites Hate Group in Mailers


The Safe Communities Act has brought out the worst in the Mass Fiscal Alliance, who is trying to scuttle the bill, by sending out flyers with information produced by a white supremacist hate group.

If you don’t know much about the Safe Communities Act, it’s merely a legal framework to keep our local resources local, instead of being used for federal immigration work. There is nothing controversial about it. Unless you want to spend our local and state tax dollars doing someone else’s job, in order to scare and harass local immigrants…who will then in turn be disinclined to report crime in their communities, or come forward as witnesses to crimes. Shoving immigrants into the shadows only makes us LESS safe.

We need to call our state legislators! If you want to do something concrete about this issue, please visit the action page for the SCA at Progressive Massachusetts, they can get you everything you need.

I Like Donoghue. But No.

State Politics

Speculation runs rampant any time there is an open seat or leadership shakeup. With state Senate president Rosenburg taking, at minimum, an extended leave of absence due to the allegations against his spouse of sexual harassment or assault, everyone wants to know who will be taking over, and like seagulls over a french fry the swarm is immediate and fierce…at least according to the media, who loves a good scramble.

The Boston Herald seems to have been the first to the feast, naming three Democrats “jockeying” for the position. *rolls eyes* One of these named was our own state Senator, Eileen Donoghue.

Anyone who is an old fan of the blog knows that I’m pretty friendly towards Donoghue. She was, after all, a key member of the City Council majority that rid us of the graft-ridden administration of former City Manager, John Cox. She was always a level head on the Council, smart, savvy, and very measured. And I very much like her and her husband personally, as well.

If it weren’t for her voting record, I would be the first on the Eileen Donoghue cheerleading squad. But, I have serious reservations—on the issues.

We progressives have the absolute privilege of living in a state where we have an org like Progressive Massachusetts. Besides formulating a systematic and well-established methodology for advocating on a grassroots level for progressive legislation during every session (a session is two years) of our legislature, they also do the hard work of creating a voting record scorecard. And it is hard work, as the legislature does not make it easy to look at how they’ve voted. It’s a nightmare lack of transparency. (I am proud to be a member of PM and a donor, supporting such work!)

And Senator Donoghue, on her actual voting history on the bills Progressive Mass uses to produce the score, only manages to get a D. On the Senate side, among Dems, there are only two Ds (and 5 Fs). It is highly disappointing. And if you examine the bills PM uses for scoring, they are pretty comprehensive.

What’s more, on the recent criminal justice reform bill up in front of the Senate, which PM also did extensive work on (there were many proposed amendments) and for which they did a “mini scorecard,” Donoghue only managed a very dismal 33% of votes adhering to a progressive viewpoint (and really, the Democratic party platform for the most part).

I am consistently seeing disappointment on social media from other progressive activists from around the district, particularly on the criminal justice bill. It’s not just me, it’s many.

And so, as much as it pains me, and as much as I personally like Eileen Donoghue and her work in and for Lowell, I simply cannot endorse her for a leadership role in the state Senate. She clearly is smart and accomplished; and just as clearly, not voting in a way that I can support. I wish like hell it were otherwise.

I’m not one of those progressives that think the perfect needs to the be enemy of the good. I can be practical when I think it’s warranted. But we need a Senate President who is willing to vote with the party platform a majority of the time. I just don’t see that being Senator Donoghue.

Mayoral Glitch

Local Elections

In case you (probably) missed it, the behind-the-scenes mayoral selection (the phone calls, the meetings in the dead of night…erm, sorry, got carried away) just got not so behind the scenes.

Yesterday, it appeared that Councilor John Leahy had the votes needed to secure the mayoral honor. (Sun article here, you don’t have to click through.)

Those supporting Leahy are Councilors Rodney Elliott, Rita Mercier, David Conway, who was most recently elected to the council, Mayor Ed Kennedy and himself.

Councilor Bill Samaras is the other one in the running who was interested in the position as well.

Well, throw a wrench in that and—you guessed it—it’s over the high school. From a press release by current Mayor Kennedy:

Just yesterday, Councilor Leahy assured me that he was 100 percent committed to Downtown Option 3. Both of us clearly understand that my support for any candidate to serve as the next mayor is contingent upon that candidate’s 100 percent commitment to Option 3.

I am puzzled and troubled by Councilor Leahy’s most recent remarks in which he has stated that he “wants to take a look at all of the options” regarding the high school project. We have been considering all of the options for the past eight or nine months. The election results on November 7 made it abundantly clear that Option 3 is the preferred option of the people of Lowell. A supermajority of pro-Downtown candidates were elected with the understanding that Option 3 requires a six votes for eminent domain land-taking and for the loan order to pay for the project.

I think that Councilor Leahy needs to publicly clarify his position on the high school and indicate publicly which option he supports and intends to pursue if he were to be chosen as the next mayor of Lowell.

If you need to catch up further, Option 3 is one of the options for keeping the high school downtown, requiring the taking of an ugly little property next door which houses some medical practices. It is perfectly positioned to be an added property for the high school and would greatly aid in staging the renovation, as well, since you could start with a new building there, move students into it, and then work on an existing building that is largely emptied. But eminent domain as noted takes 6 votes.

So why is Leahy, who was a vote for keeping the school downtown previously, being so coy?

(Addendum: I forgot to add, by way of reminder, that medical practice group has John freaking Cox as their advocate in the matter. Yeah, that John Cox.)

On Democracy in Lowell

Local Elections, Local Issues

by Santiago Rodriguez Rey

Lynne invited me to participate here regarding the latest elections. But who am I? Well, besides making all those funky looking maps populating the Lowell forum on Facebook casting an eye on the results, let me tell you a couple of things as to give you an idea on who’s writing. I lived exactly two years in Lowell, until December 2015. During that time, I had some radio shows at WUML, UMass’s radio station, and participated in many local activities as a volunteer. My background is in politics and campaigning, so I have always been inclined to pay attention to those things (besides Lowell and my native Buenos Aires, I have lived in Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and Denver, where I finished High School); in most places I participated somehow in campaigns and/or elections. I have had the chance to speak to many city councilors and the current city manager, and both Marty Meehan and Jacqueline Moloney; all interviewed at my show. The same goes for Evan Falchuk when he run for governor. You could take this as a small, short, not so deep or impression lasting piece of observation like De Tocqueville did back in the day when he visited young America. I am just observing, not taking sides, but my background does weigh in. Let’s get to my “On Democracy in Lowell”. 

The Dumbing Down of Lowell

Local Elections, Local Issues

On Lowell Live Feed, an April [2016!] article from Jeff Speck, a highly respected professional city planner who was brought to Lowell to help build long term plans for Lowell’s development, has raised a brouhaha once again. While some off-my-lawn codgers are arguing against bike lanes (especially on Chelmsford St, where not only was that space wasted on the super-wide road, but it’s also the main thoroughfare from the Bruce Freeman Trail into the city), I was especially disgusted by the dismissal of Speck, who again, is a well known city planning expert, by none other than current councilor Dan Rourke, who said, “At least he doesn’t hide his love from the non-profit that paid him huge money to say what they want him to.”

As you might recall, Mr. Rourke lost his reelection bid and will no longer be a city councilor. But it struck me hard, that his dismissal of Lynch-era city planning, and of Speck and the Lowell Plan who brought him in, is an awful lot like the knee jerk reactions that appears to lead the current resident of the White House to undo all the things Obama ever did, from renewable energy initiatives, to education (who is for letting men get away with rape in colleges?? I mean what?), to anything that science says, ever, about anything.

Jeff Speck is an expert in his field. Dan Rourke has zero experience in city planning. So naturally let’s not listen to a word the expert says, because heaven forbid we ever use facts, science, or expertise to determine anything. This strain of anti-intellectualism isn’t new in Lowell, of course. And for now thankfully, the anti-intellectuals are going to be in a small minority. But whether it’s Rita Mercier crying “kids on bikes dealing drugs!” to attempt to remove Father Morissette Boulevard bike lanes (at great expense to the city of course) or Rourke dismissing one of the country’s premiere experts on city planning because it’s part of that “other” faction of Lowell leadership (whether or not you love the Lowell Plan all the time, this is also about the Lynch era of city government), Lowell is constantly caught in the crossfire between people who want facts, expertise, and knowledge to inform our future, and people like Mercier and Rourke (add Elliott and often Belanger in that too) for whom facts be damned.

With such whiplash between smart thinking and thoughtless reactionary grandstanding, Lowell’s progress goes in fits and starts. Friends, this is why local elections matter. Do you have any idea how much further along Lowell would be if we had not had this interim Council of naysayers trying to undo the Lynch era? Have you been counting the number of really great city employees, particularly in the Planning Department, that we’ve lost since Murphy took over? I have, and it’s devastating, the amount of expertise we lost.

It’s great that we had a change election. Obviously this turnover is a side effect of the high school debate, but I’ll take what I can get. But if we constantly go in one direction for 4-7 years, and then backwards for another 4-7 years, as we did going from Cox to Lynch to Murphy, our progress will remain elusive and transitory. Every election should be about striving to keep Lowell moving forward. Complacency is not an option. We might have flipped the City Council (and added a construction project manager, Karen Cirillo, to our roster! go us!), but are you going to be there in two years, and four years, to keep this progress going? Or are we going to let the Merciers and Rourkes undo any progress in the next City Council?

Humans get lazy, I know that. But when it comes to local government, we have an obligation to stick to a vision to see it through, for the future of our lives together here in this city.

PS: can we revisit backyard chickens with this new City Council? Pretty please?

PPS: if you missed this blog in the last little while, a few things happened…some files got deleted somehow and I couldn’t post til my host fixed things, and I had a nasty cold and all my spare time was used up in prepping my house to host a big Thanksgiving gathering. So, hence, no blogging. Hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving, whatever you were doing!

Out of Sight, Please, So We Can Keep Ignoring You

Local Issues, Social Justice

A friend on Facebook posted the Sun’s article (you don’t have to click through to it, but I ethically have to put the link) on the latest City Council motion addressing homelessness. Was it a compassionate look at what initiatives Lowell could produce to reduce homelessness, address addiction, or support those in need at this time of year?

Hah. No, of course not, silly readers! No, it was a motion to “Req. City Mgr. investigate and report on any problem activities in the vicinity of Kirk and Merrimack Streets as well as Merrimack and Central Streets.” What does this have to do with homelessness you ask? Well, it appears that these areas are where several nonprofits serve the homeless meals or provide other services, after which, having nowhere to go because they’re homeless, they congregate, and even when there aren’t “serious” incidents like conflict or fighting, there’s yelling or swearing and it’s bad for business and downtown.

As the Sun quotes Councilor Leary, “This group of people comes out and crosses the street without looking. They seem intoxicated and they’re all over the place. It’s not good for the businesses and it’s not good for the city.”

I’d argue that it’s worse for people who are homeless, some of whom have unaddressed mental health issues, additions, or just terrible luck, than it is to walk by the homeless any day of the week, but hey, who are we kidding? We just want the homeless to be unseen and unheard, amiright? It’s bad for business.

While Lowell has many great nonprofits (please, support them with your dollars and donations! I’ll list the ones I can remember/find at the end) doing amazing daily work on supporting those who are less fortunate, and trying to solve the underlying causes, I feel like every few years, the Lowell City Council looks up, notices that there are homeless around, and then looks to address the appearance of homelessness in the public square. Whether they go after panhandling downtown (illegally), people sleeping on benches, breaking up homeless camps, or what have you, it’s never really about solving the problems for homeless folks and it’s pretty much never done with much or any compassion. Indeed, it often elicits comments like the one from Leary, which is at best tone deaf, and useless for solving the problem at hand.

Of course, the best outcome would be to home the homeless, thus giving them a place to go. It’s not cheap, but it’s a damn sight cheaper than the costs of policing, emergency room health care, and other expenses that the state bears when someone is homeless.

Is this an issue Lowell can address alone? Of course not. It needs to be statewide, nationwide, to be the most effective. But cities large and small across the US are taking matters into their own hands and addressing the actual problem—with measurable results. Maybe the next City Council will be more innovative in how it addresses the underlying causes of homelessness instead of trying to sweep it under a rug for appearance’s sake—because honestly, I think this lame duck Council is a bust.

If you want to help the homeless, instead of bluster, I highly suggest giving the gift of time, goods, or money to these fine organizations:

Lowell Transitional Living Center
House of Hope
Community Teamwork
Coalition for a Better Acre
Lowell Community Health Center
Lowell House, Inc.
Merrimack Valley Food Bank
Open Pantry of Greater Lowell
The Wish Project
Edit: adding…
Living Waters

If you know ones I missed that should be here, let me know! And, please tell your City Councilors that you don’t want homelessness to be unseen and unheard. We need to support real initiatives to address the root causes, not worry about how it looks to have homelessness in our city. If you reduce the homeless rate in our city, you get that outcome anyway, but while actually doing the right thing.

Addendum: Let’s be clear. Specifically, orgs like Living Waters are the ones under attack here. (Though at other times, places the Lowell Transitional Living Center were the focus of this kind of unintentionally hostile interest.)

I visited Living Waters quite some time back. They do amazing work. They open their doors compassionately for those who have no other place to go, or to eat. They have programs for the homeless and underserved. Look at their website: their programs include a makerspace, recreation, a street paper, and housing initiatives.

I would challenge the City Councilors to drop in for a visit some time. Just go; no fanfare, no credit for doing what you should be; just go see, go volunteer. Talk to both the program’s administrators and to the clients.

It’s so easy to be cavalier about appearances when it comes to the homeless. It takes guts, compassion and thoughtfulness to actually see what it is these organizations do. Not just handing out soup before Christmas, but really see what they do on a day to day basis, how they form relationships, learn about the humanity of their clients, see how they struggle, strive, sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. It would be the least some of our community’s political leaders could do.

Things I’m Reading This Week

Local Elections, Things I'm Reading

In a world of soundbites and social media and headlines you don’t even click on (guilty sometimes), I’ve fallen in love with longform journalism. Or as it used to be called: just journalism. I’m that annoying person who will read the entire Mother Jones article, leaving it up in a tab until dammit, I’ve finished the thing! I read a lot of stuff online, and then share it on Facebook when I love it, but then I thought to myself…self, I have a blog. Again. Why not have a curated list of articles I’ve read worthy of your full, longform attention? So maybe this will be a Thing. Or not, my brain can be fickle like that. If you like it, I’ll keep doing it. I am not above being bribed by flattery and eyeballs.

Basically I just am saving this post as a draft until the end of the week, adding things as I read them.

People Making Maps

Local Elections

So folks are starting to have some fun with the data Wayne posted yesterday (as mentioned in the previous post). In particular, Santiago Rodriguez Rey on Lowell Live Feed has created some precinct maps using shapefiles and that data. (Cue olde blogger griping: “Back in my day, sonny, we didn’t have such things as Google maps or shape files! Get off my lawn!”)

Not everyone is or wants to be on LLF, so I got permission to repost the maps he created. After all, this shiny new blog comes with a shiny new media uploading and management system. No more FTPing direct into site folders or using a third party embedding platform…Rwar, you kids have it so easy and why are you still on my lawn??

Data Nerds, Start Your Engines!

Local Elections

The esteemed and excellent Wayne J posted an open Google spreadsheet on Lowell Live Feed with the unofficial precinct by precinct election data for all candidates and the referendum (see other tabs there) from Tuesday’s election. (He also posted the ward/precinct map on request.) I am not the numbers person generally, but geek out, nerdlings, to your heart’s content. Of course, even though I’m really the paintbrush, keyboard, and HTML type, I might have a couple observations of snark interest here and there.

First up: What Happened In Ward 1?

There are no precincts that can hold a candle to 1-2 and 1-3 in elections. They had 1472 and 1247 vote cards cast, a 58% and 52% turnout, respectively. As Belvi goes, so goes Lowell, as they say. So naturally, any analysis has to take into account what happens there.

The first thing I noticed was vote totals for #1 vote getter Nuon, vs Mercier. (I know, I can’t help myself.) Wow, just wow. Belvi was Rita’s stomping ground. I don’t have the numbers per precinct and candidate from 2015 (I looked for it), but I’m guessing that her 438 and 297 finish in those two precincts (versus Nuon’s 832/723 and Kennedy’s 986/840) is less than she’s gotten there in the past. In 2015, Mercier had 6228 total votes (her total from Tuesday was 5730), so one imagines a lot of them had to have come from 1-2 and 1-3.

Turnout of extra voters obviously accounts for much of this difference too. Turnout in 2015 was 18%, versus a hair over 21% in 2017. That’s not as huge a difference as I though, but is 462 more voters in 1-2, and a 444 increase in 1-3 over 2015.

As much as I’d like this to be about Rita Mercier’s embrace of one Donald J. Trump last year, it’s very obvious that probably a majority of it is the high school issue. Karen Cirillo, a real newcomer who was very clear about her pro-downtown stance on the high school, not only made it onto the Council with her first campaign, which is virtually unheard of, but also beat Mercier in 1-2 and 1-3 with 743 and 702 votes. I’m a Cirillo supporter, and I think she’ll be great, but given recent local electoral history, Cirillo got a boost from being a part of the downtown “slate.” Not all downtown candidates made it, so obviously voters saw something in Karen to vote for besides that, but beating Rita Mercier on her home turf so definitively is definitely historic.

Hey 2-3, Where Are You Guys?

Something that puzzles me is that 2-3 has the highest number of registered voters, even more than 1-2, at 2650. And yet only 417 showed up, which is about a 16% turnout (rounded up). This is, of course, the heart of downtown. I suspect that the high registration rate is due to the population of affordable senior housing, and the low turnout rate due to age-related physical and other impediments. I wonder if there is a better way to give access to these voters, and if we’re doing enough to ensure they can make it to the polls. It would be one thing if they weren’t interested, but another thing if physical ability to walk to the polling place was preventing this population from voting. It would be a shame if that were the case. Maybe we could have some city golf carts offering rides?

Sometimes The Leap Jumps You

The last note I will make is about those who try to make the leap from School Committee to Council. Conway obviously made it, and it didn’t hurt (indeed, probably made the difference) to be on the high school downtown slate. If you recall, Leahy and Leary are both SC alum, who made it onto the Council on the strength of their exposure from governing our schools. However, whether it’s being on the wrong side of the high school debate, or something else, Gignac certainly fell far short of the top nine. Being elected elsewhere does not always translate into a win.

Well, I’m sure others will have lots to say. Thanks to Wayne for putting this out there!