Rethinking Borderline. Should I continue this blog?

I feel bad about blogging. Lately it's been hard to come up with posts, and when I do, it seems that a lot of readers don't like what I have to say.

There're other problems, too. It takes a lot of time to blog. Borderline has written something like 200 or 300 posts since 2005, and some of them take many hours to write, research, or maintain, such as the ones listed on this page. I can't write this stuff during the day, it's always at night or on the weekend, or when I have a day off from work. I'm writing this post right now at 10:30 pm on a Saturday night. So blogging is taking away from my free time, which I could otherwise be spending with my family, or doing other more productive things around the house, or just relaxing.

And I don't make any money on this blog. Not one red cent. I know I could make some money using Google Adsense or the Boston Blogs advertising banner, but it just seems ... wrong. I really did start Borderline out of a labor of love, talking about all of the interesting things about Waltham and Newton, and to add commercials just takes away from the independent spirit that I want to have on Borderline. As regular Borderline readers know, I love tweaking the nose of the establishment and business community, which includes companies, connected people, and mainstream media titans. It would seem hypocritical to start taking money from this group, even if it was only indirectly through the automatic advertising banners that Google uses with Adsense.

So what should I do? Take a break? Sell it? Open it up to other writers? Give it up?

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Someone's Having Fun at the Fortune Cookie Factory

On Friday night we went to a nice dinner at our favorite local Chinese restaurant. The meal is always followed by pineapple cubes and fortune cookies. These days the fortune includes an unpronounceable Chinese phrase with lots of Xs and Zs, and lucky lottery numbers. But the main attraction is still the fortune, usually something suggesting wisdom, cleverness, or immenent luck.

Not this time. In my fortune, it read:
Your pain is breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Huh? This sounds more like a phrase that might be uttered by Darth Vader before he dispatches some particularly hapless underling, or something a pumped-up World Wrestling Federation star might spit at his opponent in the pre-match, on-screen posturing session.




Waltham sends Northland packing, the Common is saved! (For now)

This news brings a smile to Borderline: The Northland Invesment Corporation was told by the City of Waltham that there's no way its ridiculous plan to build a hulking, snooty development at the northern end of Moody Street will be allowed to move forward in its current form. Northland was able to muster support from pro-development Councilor Gary Marchese, but everyone else on the council who took part in the vote rightly recognized that residents are fed up developers and the special benefits and zoning variances sent their way. From the News Tribune article:
"I have never in 18 years on the council, seen more opposition to a proposal," Councilor Robert G. Logan said. Indeed, before the meeting began, protesters lined the front of City Hall bearing signs that read "Save Our Common, Say NO to Northland."
You may also remember that Borderline wrote about Northland's development demands late last year, which actually drew criticism from a fan of the proposal, a reader named James. Good for James for putting forward an unpopular, contrarian view, but I have to ask, what made you think other residents of Waltham wanted this?

Thank you city councilors, for recognizing what a mistake this project would be, and not going along with the developers, as you have in past cases.

I would also like to give thanks to the News Tribune and the Boston Globe for attempting to cover both sides of this development-related issue. I've given the Globe a lot of crap lately, and have hammered both papers for sucking up to developers and big corporations (see " Boston Globe's news pages become free advertising for Verizon", Blackout, part II. Media misses the story at first, then gets it wrong", "Sloppy reporting on Waltham development", and "News-Tribune sucks up to the realtors ... again"). But this time reporters and editors at both papers showed some backbone, and made a point of covering the real grassroots anger over at out-of-control development in Waltham.

Now it's time to see if Northland comes back with something else. Larry G. and co., we're watching you, and we'll bite back again if you try to ram another monster development down our throats!

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The Boston Globe Challenges Borderline; Proves It Really Doesn't Get Blogs

The Globe really doesn't like Borderline. I criticized the online version of the Boston Globe for calling their news-lite publishing experiment a "blog", and they huffily responded with this:
... Globe West Updates is clearly a "blog" according to the generally-accepted definition and we will continue to use the term ...
The Globe further challenged Borderline to look up this alleged definition, which I did. And lo and behold, almost all of the generally accepted definitions would exclude the Globe's effort. I responded with this:
Ralph: You mention the "generally-accepted definition" of a blog. Accepted by whom? Big Media?

I followed up your challenge to look it up. So I did. And the generally accepted definition I found supports what I have been saying all along. When I used Google to define "blogs" almost all the results stress personal thoughts and perspectives, comments, etc. as opposed to publishing news bits.

So Ralph, and your anonymous booster, you're WRONG. The Globe blog is not a blog. If you want to have a blog, it's not hard: Simply turn down the news, crank up the personality, get comments, and get a clue.
I'll add one thing here: I don't think the Globe was lying, and attempting to bluster its way out of a jam. They just don't get blogging.

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Borderline interviews Newton Alderman Ken Parker: Mayor Cohen, Newton North, CPA, Hannon, Verizon discussed

Borderline from time to time interviews local residents and pols on the weighty issues of the day. Well, actually only one time -- with Guive Mirfendereski, back in April of 2006. But I have invited other people to participate in the interviews, anyone who wants to talk about life and issues in Newton or Waltham (email Borderline at borderlineblog@gmail.com if you are interested), and someone recently responded: Newton Alderman Ken Parker.

Parker agreed to the ground rules of the Borderline interview format, which are as follows:

1. I choose the questions.

2. I will publish everything you have to say in your reply, and it
will not be edited down for space considerations, like a newspaper. It
may be spread into multiple posts if it is long, however.

3. There is one exception to No. 2: If your reply contains something
that could get me into legal trouble (i.e., plagiarism, defamation) I
will send the reply back and ask you to revise before printing.
Otherwise I won't print that reply.

4. You can choose not to answer a question, but that will be noted in
the transcript.

Parker generously agreed, so here is the complete transcript of the interview. Note that Borderline sent the questions on Dec 4, 2006 and he replied on January 9, 2007.

Borderline: In the most recent issue [Nov. 29, 2006] of the Newton Tab, you've reacted to Mayor Cohen's budget plans as failing to take into account critical expenditures. In your opinion, what are the three issues that will cause the most grief for Newton's budget in the next five years?

Parker: Mayor Cohen’s budget practices are irresponsible and unrealistic. He has been diverting funds from the operating budget for years to set aside for the NNHS project, while cutting teachers and other city staff. In his budget forecast, he predicts that at the end of five years the City will have a $9 million budget deficit. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report on budget forecasting predicts that the deficit will be $36 million if Mayor Cohen’s practices continue. You can read their draft report here:

In addition, the Blue Ribbon Commission chides Mayor Cohen for neglecting infrastructure. Was this neglect forced upon the Mayor? No, he had better choices available to him. For the past few years, Mayor Cohen has been setting aside millions of dollars each year in a fund for the Newton North High School Project, while cutting teachers, firefighters and police.

During the most recent budget process this past spring, Mayor Cohen cut the funds for preventive maintenance of City Buildings by 37.7%. Even after the Board of Aldermen passed a unanimous resolution asking him to restore the $70 thousand he had cut, he maintained that he did not have the funds to do so. Only after members of the Board of Aldermen wrote to him and continued to highlight the issue publicly did he relent and restore the cut.

If the Mayor goes ahead with his borrowing plan for Newton North High School, we can expect further cuts in teachers firefighters and police, as well as continued neglect of City infrastructure.

Borderline: What do you find most encouraging about the plans for the new Newton North High School?

Parker: I am encouraged that after years of insisting on a hybrid renovation of the existing building, the Mayor finally came around to the position that many of us have long held in favor of building a new school. Of course, the problem is that that Mayor’s plan for a new school is overpriced and fails to address serious educational, financing, environmental and safety concerns, but since he changed his position on whether to build a new school, I am hopeful that he may yet end his refusal to compromise regarding the site plan and financing plan.

Borderline: What worries you most about the NNHS rebuilding project?

Parker: Paying for it. The Mayor wants to build an overpriced school with a sprawled-out design that requires additional foundation work, specialized construction to build irregular corners, demolition and reconstruction of the existing stadium, and depression of the stadium below grade. The bottom line is that the Mayor’s plan will cost more than $325 per square foot to construct. When you add $20 million in soft costs, you get a total project cost of $375 per square foot. Compare this price tag with the cost of the last six public high schools built in Massachusetts. Their construction costs ranged from $146 to $189 per square foot. Adjusted to inflation to the midpoint of the NNHS project (2008), those six schools would cost an average of $229 per square foot to build.

The problem with the Mayor’s financing plan is that he uses more than 94% of new school-related borrowing over the next five years on this one project, leaving us less than 6% to deal with the pressing needs at many of our elementary and middle schools. In fact, the Mayor’s financing plan for NNHS uses up 88% of all new borrowing for the next five years. That leaves very little for renovating our fire stations and other crumbling infrastructure let alone the estimated $100 million of work needed on our other schools.

Borderline: Why should or shouldn't the Newton South athletic fields be "astroturfed" using CPA funds, as opposed to School or City funds, which have been used to tend the fields in the past?

Parker: First, please allow me to make a comment on the phrasing of your question. "Astroturf" is like a green rug placed over concrete. It is a terrible, unsafe playing surface and is not being considered in Newton (or anywhere else these days). The surface being considered for Newton South High School’s fields is in-filled synthetic turf, which is a soft, multi-layered playing surface being used at many municipal, university, and professional playing fields around the country.

That correction having been stipulated, I’ll proceed to answer your question. I have been pointing out to the Mayor for years that the fields at Newton South High School are unusable most of the time. In fact, I have proposed repeated budget resolutions to that effect, several of which passed the Board of Aldermen unanimously. For years, the Mayor ignored this problem, but, to his credit, he endorsed the proposal of the NEWTURF group, led by Ted Tye, to create new in-filled synthetic turf fields at Newton South High School.

I strongly support creating playable new fields at Newton South by approving the NEWTURF initiative.

So that bring us to the question of how to pay for the new fields. While my preference would have been to see the fields included in the NSHS renovation project (which I advocated at the time) or paid for out of our Capital Improvement Plan and Supplemental Capital Budget (which I proposed repeatedly with unanimous support from my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen), I was not in a position to dictate terms, so I accepted the Mayor’s preferred funding source (CPA funds).

That having been said, as soon as I realized that my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen were not comfortable appropriating CPA funds for this purpose, I asked the Mayor to switch the funding source to general-fund backed borrowing, which I have been told (through an intermediary) that he has agreed to do.

Borderline: What have residents been telling you about their feelings concerning use of the CPA funds for NSHS astroturf?

Parker: Most of my calls and emails have been in favor of the NEWTURF initiative. People point out that the current fields are unusable and that on such a wet site, a natural grass field is not a viable option, since even with an expensive new drainage system, it would turn to mud for a considerable period of time after we get much rain, where as in-filled synthetic turf can be playable right after it rains.

Many people have also pointed out to me that synthetic turf can be played on three-times as much as natural grass (it won’t die if you abuse it) and that it costs much less to maintain (no need for watering, re-seeding, or mowing).

There is also some people who just hate the idea of synthetic sports fields. Some of these people have indicated to me that they hate sports fields, period. They want to see fields kept pure and natural without teams of kids running around on them. To be fair, others of this group don’t hate sports, just synthetic turf.

Also, a small group of neighbors has expressed opposition to the project, but some of them say they will be okay with it if there are no lights (there aren’t) and if concerns about noise and screening are addressed. There may be one or two of them who will not be happy with any playing field in their backyard.

Finally, there is a small but very vocal group of people who object to the use of CPA funds, but say they have no problem with the artificial surface itself. I wonder what will happen when CPA funds are no longer the proposed funding source for the project—will these people drop their opposition to NEWTURF or will they come up with new reasons to oppose it?

Borderline: You talk of supporting the Municipal WiFi for Newton. Considering most households already have high-speed access, what's the point?

Parker: I don’t just talk of supporting Municipal WiFi, I have been working on bringing it to Newton for more than three years, and it looks like we are close to success! I assume that Borderline is joking when asking what the point is, since comparing municipal WiFi to wired high-speed access is like comparing an airplane to a train. Depending on where you’re going, the train may get you there just as fast, but there are many places the train just won’t work and many things it just can’t do.

If all you are interested in is getting on the Internet while sitting at your desk at home, then RCN or Comcast or even your buddies at Verizon may meet your needs (for a pretty penny). But what if you want to surf the web in a public park? Or check your email at a store? Or watch a movie on your laptop at a friend’s house (who doesn’t have a high-speed connection). Then, you want municipal WiFi.

And for folks who are dependent on Internet access for their work, WiFi provides a great backup to your wired connection. RCN down? No problem, you can still download the presentation before rushing off to an important meeting or conference. Just log on to the free WiFi service (one free hour per day anywhere in Newton).

Another advantage for Newton residents, is that municipal WiFi offers another choice for high-speed residential Internet access. A choice that is expected to cost about half what folks are paying now for Comcast, RCN, and Verizon. That not only benefits people who make the switch, it also helps to keep prices low for the other service providers who want to keep their existing customers.

But the most important reason to have Municipal WiFi is that it gives access to City Departments to improve services and public safety. With municipal WiFi, the Fire Department will be able to download building plans from the scene of a fire, getting people out more quickly with less chance of loss of life. They will also be able to locate an address more quickly. By a similar token, the police will be better able to send a picture of a suspect to their colleagues in another community, before that suspect gets away or commits another crime. The Public Works Department will be able to read water meters remotely, saving the time and expense of sending an employee to your home. Better yet, if one of your pipes springs a leak while you are on vacation, you can be notified by a message to your cell phone, so that you can have a neighbor turn off your water service before your house floods.

And municipal WiFi will not only improve City services, it will also save a great deal of money. Free WiFi access will allow us to replace cell phones with wireless Voice-Over IP phones. It will allow us to use employee time more efficiently by directing parking meter enforcement officers to meters that are actually expired, so that they don’t waste their time wandering around looking at meters with plenty of time remaining.

It can also help to clean up our parks, as smart trash cans can signal our Parks and Recreation Department when they are nearly full, so that they do not overflow.

There are a great many more advantages to municipal WiFi. You can read about them in my recent Newton TAB column, which you can find here:

You can also find the terms of the agreement I negotiated with Galaxy Internet here:

Borderline: What's your stance on Verizon to get access to the Newton cable market? Considering some of their underhanded lobbying efforts (see http://borderlinenewtonwaltham.blogspot.com/2006/11/despite-hynesnew-media-strategics.html), is this the type of company that should be allowed to do business in Newton?

My initial instinct is to be repulsed by the kind of tactics you describe, but having read your blog entry, I’m still not sure which law Verizon has broken. Please send me more information on this topic and I will check with the City of Newton Law Department to see if Verizon’s franchise application (that was recently signed by Mayor Cohen) is legal. My big concern was that they tried (illegally, I am sure) to enter the Newton cable market without contributing to our public access station, NewTV. However, my understanding is that they finally agreed to honor their obligations under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and pay a portion of their proceeds to support Newton public access television. If I have this wrong or am missing something, please fill me in.

Borderline: Why should or shouldn't the City of Newton buy Pat Hannon's property adjoining Crystal Lake?

Parker: I have been working on this issue for about as long as the Newton WiFi proposal. I strongly support acquiring this parcel (with CPA funds) as it is a perfect addition to the public swimming area on Crystal Lake and the upper portion of the site would make a great park.

That having been said, Mayor Cohen may have ended any chance of the deal going through by low-balling Pat Hannon with an offer half a million less than the property’s assessed value. My understanding is that Mr. Hannon has listed the property with a broker and indicated that he is no longer willing to sell his property to the City after the Mayor’s low offer.

Borderline: Are you interested in running for any other city or state office?

Parker: Yeah, sure. You have something in mind?

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What part of "blog" does the Globe not understand?

I've ranted about this before, but I am going to do it again: STOP CALLING THE GLOBE'S WESTWORD/WEST UPDATES A BLOG!

Reporters posting news articles and random news tidbits, without any real opinions or mechanism to comment, is not blogging. It's just typical MSM one-way reporting, albeit in an online-only medium.

And Ralph Ranalli, if you are reading this message, I am sorry to be so harsh, but the last time you left a comment on Borderline it was the summertime and you said comments would be enabled ASAP. If it's not going to happen, and the site will merely continue to report news rather than other things like freeform opinion, then please remove the word "blog" from this part of the Globe website. 'Cause it ain't a blog.

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