Non-Breaking “Breaking News”

I’m getting very annoyed with the way local media is abusing the term “breaking news”. To my mind, stories must meet these criteria to be termed “Breaking News”

  1. The story must have just become known,
  2. and be of an urgent or emergency nature
  3. or supremely important

I’m a Boston Globe subscriber, and we watch the Channel 5 news. Both are bothering me with their misuses of “breaking news”.

The Globe sends out breaking news emails, and they’re pretty good about doing it in timely fashion, but I’m really starting to wonder about their news judgement. For example, Friday, I got an email from them: “Breaking News Alert: Baker promises state funding to offset any Planned Parenthood cuts”. This is not urgent, this is not an emergency, it doesn’t rise to the level of importance I would expect —and it is done via an email, which means it’s an interruption. Lately, they’ve been supplementing it with “morning”, “midday” and “afternoon” reads.

I do read the news. But it if isn’t pressing, I’d prefer to read it on my own schedule.

They also send out a morning digest of the headlines— that, I do appreciate and enjoy, because it comes on a schedule and is not an interruption. I also do appreciate the breaking new alerts that truly are breaking; for example the alert they sent out last week of a major problem on the expressway. They weren’t doing the email alerts at the time of the Marathon bombing, but it would have been entirely appropriate then.

WCVB misuses the term in another way, to promote news stories that have already been broken. This weekend’s example would be the fire in Warwick that happened overnight, but was still being described as “breaking” on the 6 PM newscast the following day. It’s especially annoying when there is nothing new to the story, and they’ve been telling the story all afternoon on their various newscasts. If there is nothing new to add, and the story is more than a couple of hours old, it is no longer “breaking”.

The term “breaking news” used to imply some sort of emergency. If news organizations continue to abuse it, like the boy who cried “Wolf”, the public will learn to ignore it.

 

 

Stupidity #1,836,753

Sometimes, I find myself doing the same stupid thing over and over again.

I bought Seasons 1 and 2 of the remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG is probably my favorite of the Star Trek series. I managed to wade through Season 1 but didn’t make it very far into Season 2.

When Borders was closing, I saw a complete DVD set of The World At War on sale for $30. My Dad and I used watch it together when it first came out, and I can still remember the theme music. The box set is sitting in a drawer, unopened.

I started re-watching episodes of WKRP In Cincinnati on YouTube. I didn’t care for the quality, and the bootleg versions they had were clipped top and bottom, so I bought the complete box set of all the seasons. So far, I’ve just made it to the middle of Season 1, where Mama Carlson does a performance review of the station.

A couple of weeks ago iTunes had a sale on the first season of Batman, for only $10. I loved Batman as a kid, and still sometimes catch it on MeTV. I enjoy it differently than I did then, but it’s still fun. I haven’t watched any of it yet.

And now, I find myself wanting to sign up for HBO in order to get Game of Thrones. I haven’t seen it, but it looks interesting. Lot of people are really into it. But am I really ready to binge watch 60 hours of it? The clock is ticking; the next season begins this summer.

Absent Friends

Christmas is a time to get together with friends and family, but it’s also a time to remember those who aren’t with us anymore.  My brother was showing some old videos from 19 years ago, and it was striking how many of those people aren’t with us anymore.

I miss my Dad. I miss his picking out the perfect Christmas tree, and how he’d play the piano downstairs. It’s been mostly silent since he died.

I miss Grandma. She always reminded me of Miss Marple, all white haired and fluffy, but always wanting to be part of things. Whenever she came for Christmas Eve, my uncle (from the other side of the family) would always flirt outrageously with her, and she’d lap it up.

I miss Fran, the neighbor from across the street. She had been a friend of my mother’s mother, then a friend of my mother’s, then a friend of the family. Opinionated, no-nonsense, but had a great sense of humor; we called her “Auntie” and she was, except for the DNA.

I miss Anne and Bob. Anne was the fun aunt of all my aunts, the one most likely to play with her nephews and nieces. It took a while for her husband Bob to grow on the family, but grow he did; he stuck by Anne by thick and thin.

I miss Dot. She was the widow of the uncle I never knew, and the mother of the cousin who died as a teenager. In spite of all that, she was fun to be around. She had a great sense of humor, and a funny, very plainspoken way of expressing herself. She seldom filtered herself, even when she probably should have. She was a great companion for my mother.

I miss my Aunt Sandy, my mother’s older sister. She too had a great sense of humor. She was very much a gourmet cook, with adventurous tastes, and my Dad and I used to joke about how she was going to be serving “Roast Platypus” for dinner sometime.

Then there are the friends, who are still with us, but literally absent for the evening: brother Tom, Kip and Joanna, Chrissie, and my two sisters, who I’ll be seeing next weekend.

Christmases are like a long running play; older members leave, and new members join the cast. My nephews and nieces are now young adults, as are my cousin’s kids. Over time, the play continues, but the cast evolves.

But here’s to absent friends.

 

The Perfect Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

We just finished putting up the Christmas tree. It’s always a lot of work, and it’s always nice to bask in the glow of the lights when it’s done. This year’s tree isn’t perfect, but it is pretty nice.

I remember growing up, my Dad always picked out the family tree, and he had a well earned reputation for picking out a Perfect Tree. Our trees were always much nicer than the Charlie Brown trees my cousins had.

So when he died, my two brothers and I all felt strongly that we had to live up to his reputation, and none of us was willing to cede responsibility for getting the tree to the others. So off we went, the Three Wise Men — or is it the Three Stooges? on a bitterly cold December day to find The Perfect Tree. It took forever, because of course, there is no such thing, and even less so 36 years ago when shaped trees were less common. It took nearly an hour for the three of us to agree on one. It was a great tree though.

Nowadays, it’s just me. I still like to get a nicely shaped tree, but it’s easier now, because trees are more likely to be nicely shaped, and I have less enthusiasm for standing around a windswept tree lot trying to find The Perfect Tree. But every time, I always think of Dad.

Goodbye EX-500

I just got rid of my first motorcycle, a 1987 Kawasaki EX-500 the other day. It had been taking up space in the garage for a decade and a half.

I’d been interested in motorcycles for a long, long time before I got the bike — privately. My parents were very opposed to motorcycles, and I was pretty conservative in the way I manifested myself, so I think it was a shock when I actually got it. (I think my relatives have gotten over being shocked at anything I do).

I started buying motorcycle magazines in 1986 or so, and by 1987, I’d decided on the EX-500 — sporty, but a good beginner bike. I put down my money in the spring of 1987, intending to pick up the bike after taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.

It was a disaster. I bombed out of the course. In hindsight, it didn’t help that the instructor was a screamer who just made me tenser when I screwed up. At the end, I came home from that weekend convinced motorcycles were not for me. I called up the dealer and cancelled the order, rather to his disbelief.

And yet… over the next few weeks, I found that it really was something I wanted to do. I still found myself looking at bikes hungrily. So I found another instructor who gave me one on one instruction, found that it went well, and called the dealer back, found that they still had the bike, and picked it up in the mid-summer of 1987.

It took me a while to get comfortable on the bike. I remember doing a lot of practice on Green Lodge street, where there is no traffic. Then I started taking it out on the side roads in traffic, and started to get comfortable.

This was all on my learners permit, which restricted me to daytime operation within the state. I had jury duty scheduled in early fall, so I couldn’t make the appointment until after that was over. In the meantime, I practiced circles and figures eight for the license test, and got so I could do one in a fairly tight area.

Finally, I had my appointment in early October. The inspector had me do a circle and figure eight in an area about twice as big as the areas I’d been practicing for, so I whipped through them confidently. He then told me to go down the road half a mile and come back, and as I did, I could see him in the rear view mirror go inside to do the paperwork. I had my license.

That October was when I first developed my liking for night rides, since I could now ride at night. It wasn’t until the following year that I really started to get into riding. I got better at it,  and got more confident. I developed that awareness of other vehicles that motorcyclists have. And I found I really enjoyed it.

The ride that sticks out in my memory was a trip out along the Mohawk Trail in July of 1993. I got to Mount Greylock at the end of the day, and took the road up to the summit. To the west, the sun was setting. To the east, the full moon was rising. It was awesome.

By the late 1990’s though, the bike was getting unreliable. It developed some sort of intermittent electrical problem that left me stranded a couple of times. I took it to one place to get fixed; the problem came back. I took it to a second place to get fixed; they said they found it, and I was just about to pick it up, when they came back and said it had died on the owner while he took it on a test ride. They got to the root of the problem, but I never fully trusted it again.

I was coming back from a short ride to visit my aunt when the end came. I was 90 seconds from home, when the car ahead of me stopped short. I slammed on the brakes, and was just congratulating myself for making a good emergency stop when I heard the squeal of brakes, and got tossed over the handlebars, breaking my collarbone.

The bike sustained enough damage — broken windscreen, mirror, and other scuffs, that it wasn’t worth fixing, especially given its past issues. So I got a new one, and the EX-500 has been sitting in the garage ever since. I wanted to be rid of it, but couldn’t figure out how. Dealers didn’t want it, and there weren’t any local junkyards.

I got a little more serious about this fall, and started looking online, and finally found a page that suggested Kars4Kids. I’d heard their jingle on the radio, of course, but didn’t realize they dealt with dead bikes too. I called them a couple of weeks ago, and asked them about it. “Sure!” they said. I told them the bike was damaged. “That’s OK”. I told them it had been sitting in the garage for 15 years. “Wow” they said, but they’d still take it. Great. So I put some air back in the rear tire so I could move it, and got it out from under all the accumulated junk. Last Wednesday, I wheeled it out to the street, and when I came home, it was gone.

So, Trump.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the election, and my two readers have both asked me what I think about it. I came down with a cold the night before, and spent Election Night shivering in bed with the chills, as I watched the unfolding disaster, and spent most of the time since recovering, which sounds metaphorical, but isn’t.

For the first week, I was too ill and too upset to read much of the news. I’ve been about 10 – 14 days behind on Twitter for a while, and spent most of the past week catching up. It was hard reading all the pre-election certitude in the cold hard light of hindsight.

I’ve never been so sorry to be proven right. I was saying a year ago that Trump scared me, because I saw very clearly what a weak candidate Hilary Clinton was. In July, I wrote, “Hillary Clinton feels like Martha Coakley writ large; people will find a reason not to vote for her.” She seems unauthentic, doesn’t seem to be intellectually honest, and never defined herself well enough for people to vote for her; she relied on the belief that Trump was clearly unsuitable.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Trump won fair and square. It doesn’t matter that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump; in our system, the states elect the president, not the people. And there are enough states with enough people that the economy has left behind that have spoken. There have been protests of the election, but to my mind, that’s wrong. You don’t protest free elections, and that goes double if you didn’t vote. I felt sick enough to work from home Tuesday morning, but I still voted.

Next, I’m hoping I’m wrong about him. I’d like to be proven wrong, because the better he does, the better we do. One of the columnists in the Globe wrote, “I don’t want Trump to succeed. I want him to fail spectacularly.” I get what he’s saying, but I hope Trump manages to pivot away from his more extreme positions. and perform reasonably. My Uncle Kip claims that we’ll see a different Donald Trump, and I hope he’s right. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Finally, I’m seeing a lot on Twitter about opposing every move he makes. I despised the Republicans for doing that to Obama, and I’ll despise the Democrats if they do that to Trump. To my mind, the duty of an opposition party is to fight the policies they oppose, find common ground where they can, try to influence the president by providing an alternative, and remember they are Americans first and partisans second. President Obama seems to be taking that to heart, and I hope other members of his party do as well.

The thing that dismays me is that people either couldn’t see his character issues, or saw them, and decided they were OK. There are a lot of people who should have known better, but voted for him anyway.

What truly scares me is the outright fascism his victory has enabled. All the little neo-Nazis and white supremacists are crawling out from under their rocks into the light of day. It’s become more acceptable to be racist in public. I’m seeing reports of people being harassed just because of who they are. I worry about people like my friend Rami, one of the nicest, friendliest people around, getting hassled because of his name and appearance.

Trump hasn’t helped with his statements or his actions. He did make a point of telling people to “Stop it”, but then he’s gone on to appoint Stephen Bannon and Jeffrey Sessions to important posts. He’s still leading with his mouth. He still doesn’t seem to think through his actions. He still seems, well… nuts. And he’s already in line to be the most corrupt president ever – witness the foreign governments lining up to stay at the Trump hotels, and the settlement of the Trump University case.

Unfortunately, he also has a Republican Congress to back him up, and the Republicans in Congress so far haven’t shown any inclination to put country above party, or to consider the people their actions affect. I’m hoping there may still be enough institutional decency left – or at least, enough institutional protectiveness of their own prerogatives – to prevent the worst of the abuses.

I suspect that the way it will play out is that it will be Amateur Hour for the first six months or so – he is inexperienced in government, and doesn’t seem to be surrounding himself with good people. He will attempt to bully his way around, and manage to offend enough of Congress that he will engender opposition within his own party. As his policy initiatives become clearer, the media will find people who will be hurt by them, and allow them to tell their stories. The biggest advantage Obamacare has right now is that there are already a lot of people dependent on it. After a while, he’ll realize that if he wants to get anything done, he’ll need more experienced hands to help him, and hopefully, get rid of the strident right wingers.

In the end, it will come down to his willingness to be bound by the rule of law. If he recognizes that, while it won’t be great, we’ll be OK.

Five Years of tedohara.net

I noticed last month when I renewed my domain registrations that it’s been five years since I first set up this site. I meant to say something on the actual anniversary, but it slipped my mind.

I initially set up the site because I was concerned about my job. I felt uncertain about the company’s prospects, and was unhappy with the commute, and felt that as a web developer, I’d be more credible if I had my own site. I wanted to be able to show off my CSS and JavaScript skills. To my mind the actual content was secondary, though I figured I’d have some web development posts.

I knew from my own browsing that I wanted to use WordPress, but it took me a nearly a year to get to find a host and actually get going. I’d say it took me several months from thinking “I should do this,” to actually starting to look into hosting companies, and then a few months of frustration of looking at hosts casually, to a couple of months of thinking about it more seriously, to a month or so of trying to decide, to actually pulling the trigger on DreamHost.

I requested the domain on a Thursday night, August 11, 2011, and the domain became reachable on the internet the following day, with a ‘parked’ site. I spent Friday night setting up emails and excitedly exploring the DreamHost control panel, and finally that Saturday morning, I downloaded and installed WordPress and made my first post.

My First Post, using the stock Twenty-Eleven theme and imagery.

My first post, using the stock Twenty-Eleven theme and imagery.

I knew I wanted something more custom, so I quickly customized the header images. Still, I knew I wanted something less generic looking, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I also didn’t know how to implement what I wanted once I figured out what I wanted. I initially thought I needed to write my own theme, but stumbled upon child themes, and figured out how to implement what I wanted over the 2011 holidays. The present theme debuted New Years Eve of 2011.

As I said, initially, the content was secondary to simply having a site, though I did want to focus some on web development. Over time, I’ve done fewer work related posts, and it’s become more of a place where I can show off my pictures, talk about things I’ve done, or simply spout off about something. I do try to post something at least once a month, but otherwise, I post when I have something to say.

I’m under no illusions that many people are reading this. I’ve long suspected it’s basically my sister, my mother (hi Mum!) and occasionally my dive buddies, and when I finally installed Jetpack in May, the stats tend to back this up. My post “I Expect My Leaders to be Grownups” did get some notice, chiefly because I @ replied to something Marco Arment posted to Twitter with a link to the post, and he retweeted it to his 100,000 followers.

Still, it’s nice having my own site. It gives me a place to talk about things if I want, and a place to post my photography. It’s also nice owning a domain name, as it allows me to create sub-domains and create email addresses at will. And I agree with Marco Arment that it’s best to own your online identity.

So what’s next? I tinker with things periodically. A few weeks back I switched the sidebar from the right to the left, and I’ve been experimenting with adding Twitter support. I switched over all the imagery to retina quality over the past year. I’m aware that my current theme is getting long in the tooth, but for better or worse, I like the way it looks, so I’m not sure what to do. Right now, I’m leaning towards creating a version that keeps the basic colors and typography, but is more responsive, handling both larger and smaller sizes better.

Stay tuned.

How Did We Get Here?

I. The Candidates

In the years that I’ve been able to vote, I don’t recall disliking both candidates as much as I do these two:

  • I voted enthusiastically for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.
  • I voted for George Bush, but also respected Dukakis in 1988.
  • In 1992, I voted for George Bush. I really respected his pragmatism, and the way he was able to pull together a bunch of disparate countries during the Gulf War.
  • In 1996, I felt comfortable voting for Bob Dole. I didn’t like Dole’s ‘attack dog’ persona, but felt that at core, he was principled and honest.
  • In 2000, I simply couldn’t decide. I neither liked nor disliked either candidate. In the end, I ended up voting for Gore, rooting for Bush on the way from the poll booth, then rooting against Bush during all the legal maneuvering. I didn’t care for either one, but I didn’t dislike either one either.
  • In 2004, I voted for Kerry.  I wasn’t enthusiastic for Kerry, but I respected him.
  • I voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. I’m happy with these votes. I don’t think he’s nearly as liberal as his vilifiers make him out to be. He’s pragmatic, and he thinks before reacting.

Which brings us to this year. Ugh. Out of all the people in the country, these two are our choice. A raging racist narcissist/fascist, and a power hungry politician whose only guiding principle appears to be a desire for power.

Trump taps into the anger and frustration– and, let’s be plain– the racism of a lot of white Americans. There are a lot of people who are worried by him, but for a lot of people, he’s talking the kind of trash these people want to hear.

Even worse, I think Hillary Clinton is an incredibly weak candidate. You never get the sense of a set of core values, like you did with Bernie Sanders. You might not agree with Sanders, but it was easy to see that his positions arose out of a consistent set of values and philosophy that drove them. I don’t have a sense that Hillary stands for anything other than Hillary.

She is not an inspiring leader or politician. She can’t work a crowd like her husband, or inspire like Reagan. She can say the lines, but in her mouth, they sound hollow.

There is the sense that both Clintons feel they are above the law; that they are willing to bend the law or facts to suit themselves. The problems with the State Department emails speak for themselves.

Hillary Clinton feels like Martha Coakley writ large; people will find a reason not to vote for her.

Trump really worries me. I do see the parallels to the rise of Nazism in Germany in his campaign.

He doesn’t seem to understand the Constitution. He doesn’t seem to understand what the role of the President is in our system.

He leads with his mouth, and doesn’t appear to think at all.   He’s changed his stands on so many things that I can’t credibly predict how he would react on anything. He is reckless and hateful and doesn’t give a damn who he hurts, or who he provokes.

I think the thing that worries me most about Trump is his lack of understanding or respect for the Constitution. The two main reasons our system of government works are the divided structure of the government, preventing a concentration of power in any branch, and a cultural respect for the institution of the government, instilled by our Founding Fathers.

It’s this respect for the law that fundamentally keeps office holders in bounds. In 1952, in response to a steel mill strike, Harry Truman nationalized the steel mills. The owners sued, won the case, and Truman obeyed the court, returning the mills to their owners. Once this respect for the law breaks down, it’s all over, and we’re in the same boat as any banana republic.

He is incredibly dangerous, and I think he has a decent shot at winning.

II. How Did We Get Here?

So how did we get here? How is it that these two are the choice we’re left with?

Civics

I think the first place to look is the educational system. Instead of teaching history and civics, we teach “social studies”. Kids don’t learn American history — we were playing a game one evening, and none of my nephews knew who George III was — and they don’t have a sense of how things work. They learn the trappings of patriotism — red, white and blue, let’s wave some flags — but they don’t know the meaning. They don’t know of the sacrifices made during the Revolutionary War, or of the service to country made by both the soldiers and the home front during World War II. They have little sense of civic duty; what we owe our country and our countrymen, in return for what it provides us. We’ve come to see voting or serving on a jury as a chore, let alone making sacrifices for the larger good.

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the “is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.” The way it works is you concentrate your political opponents into one or two districts; you may lose that district, but you’ve strengthened your hand in the rest of them. My friend Barbara recently sent me a long an interesting article about how the Republican party gerrymandered its way into Congressional dominance. What you wind up with is long rambling Congressional districts that resemble a salamander on a map, designed to create “safe” districts for incumbents.

Primaries

Once you’ve created safe districts, you’ve moved the electoral action from the general election to the primaries. In a general election, you have to appeal to the full electorate; in a primary, you only have to appeal to party members, and primaries on both sides favor the extremes on both sides, as the more extreme candidates are more likely to fire up their supporters. This is how the Tea Party became a force in Congress, and what explains the radical turn to the right of the Republican party; with safe Republican seats, the battles turned to the primaries, and a number of more moderate Republican congressmen and senators lost their seats in the primaries.

(It also explains the rise of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.)

The Media

Coverage of the election by the media has been piss-poor.

It used to be that newscasts were something networks and television stations ran to satisfy the public service obligations of their broadcast license. And then, somewhere along the line, broadcasters realized newscasts could be incredibly profitable, and that’s all she wrote.

It used to be that journalists would report what a candidate said, but then they would also report whether what was said was accurate.  Now, they’re so afraid of looking “partial” that they do not call either side on whether they’re lying or not.

It used to be that reporters would focus on the important stuff. Now they’d rather report on what’s become viral on youTube.

Most pernicious, it used be that the media reported on where the candidates stood. Now, they’d rather report on the polls.

They’d rather broadcast highly stylized “debates” that say nothing, and are more about each candidate scoring off each other, than in-depth interviews explaining how each would govern.

The Electorate

We’ve become an electorate that would rather “send a message” than elect someone to serve us. People don’t take the election seriously enough. Voting is perceived as a nuisance rather than a duty to be taken seriously.

III. What’s to Be Done?

Unfortunately, I think Donald Trump is far too dangerous to risk voting for anyone other than Hillary Clinton. He scares the hell out of me. If he means what he says, a vote for Trump is a vote for repression, for shooting from the hip, of risking war because our president can’t be trusted to think before he acts. And if he doesn’t mean what he says, then what the hell does he stand for?

There are a lot of disaffected Bernie Sanders followers, and a lot of people disaffected by both candidates, who are talking about write in votes, or not voting, or voting for a third party. Normally, I believe in voting for who you want to vote for, but I feel that Trump is such a clear and present danger that there is no choice but to hold one’s nose and vote for Clinton.

But we also need to examine what brought us to this place, and what we can do to prevent ourselves from being in this bind again.

Education

There needs to be more emphasis on history in schools. History does repeat itself,  and if you can recognize the historical patterns, you can act on that recognition. There needs to be more emphasis, both at home and at school, on civics, on duty, on being part of something larger than oneself or one’s family.

Districting

I think the day of manually drawn electoral districts needs to come to a close. One technique that has worked is bipartisan districting commissions; if both sides are part of the process, there is less likelihood of shenanigans. Both sides need to recognize that gerrymandering is a two edged sword. What I would like to see is both sides agree ahead of time to accept a computer generated district map. The algorithms for the mapping software should favor compactness, equal populations, natural boundaries and existing municipal boundaries.

The Media and Us

The media need to stop with the horse race coverage already. I don’t want to know what the percentage points are; I want to know what the candidates stand for, what their biases are, how they plan to run things. How do they plan on dealing with Congress? Do they understand the powers and limitations of the office? Are they honest? Do they tend to parse the truth? What’s their past experience?

I’ve never cared for the debates. I think they’re just theater, and they’re more about scoring points off one’s opponents than communicating what the candidate is about.

What I’d really like to see is a long one-on-one interview with each candidate with a really skilled interviewer. Charlie Rose would be great. I don’t want someone to “nail” the candidate; I want someone who can talk with them about themselves, and dig a little bit and find out what makes them tick.

No president gets to do exactly what they want to do, so for me, individual promises and stands of the moment aren’t particularly important. I want a President who is intellectually honest, has a set of core values that I can generally live with, and the competence to work toward those values.

A lot of the British population voted for the Brexit, hoping to send a message about immigration and the sovereignty of British law, and then, when it won, when the pound dropped, and they saw the prospect of  international markets closing against them, had second thoughts. Elections do have consequences.

What people tend to forget is that a campaign is a long job interview, and at the end of the day, we’re not sending a message, we’re hiring someone. To serve us. Not their own interests, not their career, not their egos. Us. All of us.

Focus 40

I attended the Focus 40 event at Northeastern tonight. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, it was designed to focus on envisioning the state of transportation in the Greater Boston and 2040. Although a planning session for the T, the panel discussion actually said very little about the MBTA. It was more about what the role of government vs private enterprise should be, how climate change will potentially affect the transportation system, and potentially how new technologies such as Uber or Lyft, or self driving cars are the way of the future.

It was all very interesting, and there were a number of very well known people there. Transportation Secretary Pollack and another state Cabinet officer opened the talk, and I saw the new General Manager of the T there. Former Transportation secretary (and father of the Big Dig) Fred Salvucci spoke from the floor, and former Governor Dukakis was there.

For me though, it was a little too orientated toward transit advocates. A couple of panelists, when asked for a headline from 2040, announced the last of the private automobile. I’m not having it, at least not entirely. I don’t dispute the appeal of on-demand ride sharing programs like Uber, but I’m not as bullish on autonomous vehicles. For one thing, if everyone has their own self driving car, that’s still a ton of congestion on the road. More importantly, though, they overlook how enjoyable and empowering it is to drive oneself.

I like to drive, and I know my brother likes to drive even more than I do. They say things like you could read or relax while on the train or in a self driving car, but I’d much rather be the driver than a passenger.

I’ve been a rail fan since I discovered the subway commuting to BC. But we moved our office from Newton to downtown Boston in December, and I’ve been chafing at riding the commuter rail since. It’s a lot more expensive than driving to Newton, and a lot more inconvenient in many ways. Driving, I could be a few minutes late and not worry; taking the train, if I’m a couple of minutes late, I’ll miss the train, and have to take the next one — and the gaps between trains are long. I used to work late quite often; now I have to drop things in the middle in order to be sure of catching the train — after 6:15, the gaps between trains are even longer. The trains are too crowded to read easily*. And paradoxically, I’m riding my bicycle much less. I used to keep it in the back of the car and go for a ride after work; now, I don’t have the bike with me, and I don’t have the time to go someplace after getting back to the station.

Personally, I suspect transportation in 2040 will be much like transportation now. There will still be people driving themselves, either because they can afford to, or they like to, or are going someplace the system doesn’t easily serve. I think the rapid transit and commuter rail systems will still be vital, simply because of their capacity to move a lot of people at once. I do think ride sharing programs like Uber and Lyft will pick up a lot of the “last mile” traffic, and bleed some usage from the bus system. I suspect buses will be routed much more dynamically than they are now,  and possibly even on demand. I think a bus route could be managed by an autonomous vehicle, but I also believe that the unions will be able to block it from happening for a while. And hanging over all these trends is the risk of catastrophic weather caused by climate change causing heavy damage.

* On the reverse commute to Providence this was not the case.  

Hornblower

My new copy of The Hornblower Companion, by C. S. Forester, arrived last week. It’s a companion book to the Horatio Hornblower series of books about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic era. Besides containing a set of maps showing where each of Hornblower’s adventures took place, Forester describes his writing style, and explains how each of the books was written. It replaces my very well worn original copy.

When I think back, a quote from the Companion was among the first words I read about the series. I was eleven or twelve, and had found a Reader’s Digest volume of condensed books; among them was a condensed version of Beat To Quarters, the original volume in the series. The preface contained Forester’s comments from the Companion describing the setting. And then I dove into Beat To Quarters:

It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land, he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day, the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.

The book is about a British sea captain who has been sent on a mission to support a rebellion in Central America against Spain. To prevent the Spanish from finding out, he has orders to avoid sighting land until he arrives in the Gulf of Fonseca, to meet with the leader of the rebellion. He accomplishes his orders, and after seven months at sea, manages a perfect landfall, only to find the leader is a madman who has decreed himself to be El Supremo (the Almighty). Nonetheless, he carries out his orders, is able to capture a much larger Spanish ship, the Natividad by surprise, and turn her over the rebels. After the two ships part, Hornblower finds out that during the time he was out of communication with the Admiralty that a treaty has been signed with the Spanish, they are now allies, and he now has to fight the larger Natividad – in open waters, without the benefit of surprise. Complicating matters, he has provide passage back to England to an English lady, (the sister of the Duke of Wellington) who has been stranded in Panama.

I just lapped that book up. My father had passed down his love of nautical lore to me, and Forester has an admirably clear and easy to read style. There’s plenty of adventure, and Hornblower is very human too – he’s quite self conscious, and has no self confidence. For example, he would rather lead than drive, and then condemns himself for being too soft.

I finished the condensed book, but didn’t realize exactly what I was missing, or that what I’d just read was the first book in a series. Then, one day, about a year later, I was cleaning up downstairs and found a boxed set of Captain Horatio Hornblower: Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line and Flying Colors in one set. It’s easy for me to date the time I read them: Christmastime when I was in the 8th grade. I distinctly remember being buried in Ship of the Line during the week before Christmas; the rest of the class was making a lot of noise, and I was just absorbed by the adventures of HMS Sutherland. Sister Theresa Ann came in, and I was the only one who didn’t get in trouble, because I was too wrapped up in Hornblower to get into trouble.

After finishing those books, I went to the library and read the other books in the series. And much later, I bought my own copies of all eleven books, plus the Companion. I’ve reread them all dozens of times. For a while, it was a personal Christmas tradition to reread Ship of the Line at Christmas time.


I have a special fondness for the Companion. Forester and Isaac Asimov are my two favorite authors, and in the latter part of the Companion, Forester describes his writing process. First, he comes across something that he recognizes as the basis of an idea:

…It happens that…the initial stimulus is recognized for what it is. The causal phrase dropped by a friend in conversation, the paragraph in a book, the incident observed by the roadside, has some special quality and is accorded a special welcome. But having been welcomed, it is forgotten, or at least, ignored. It sinks into the horrid slime of my subconscious like a waterlogged timber into the slime at the bottom of a harbour… [At some point] the original idea reappears in my mind, and it has grown.

From there, he describes how the plot gradually comes together for him. Unlike Asimov, he did all his plotting ahead of time. Gradually the plot starts to demand more and more of his attention. And then it comes time to actually write. Unlike Asimov, who was incredibly prolific because he enjoyed the process of writing, Forester found writing to be painful and fatiguing:

The happy-go-lucky methods of the jellyfish have to be abandoned for the diligence of the ant and the endurance of the mule. For me, personally, the change of state occasioned by starting to write is abrupt and violent. It is the difference between standing at the top of the  toboggan slide and starting the descent. It is taking the plunge, swallowing the pill, walking through the door marked “Abandon All Hope.”

In I, Asimov, his (third) autobiography, Asimov described how he enjoyed reading his own writing:

A prolific writer… has to love his own writing.

I do. I can pick up one of my own books, start reading it anywhere, and immediately be lost in it and keep reading until I am shaken out of it by some external event.

By contrast, Forester was deeply self critical of his writing. In the Companion, he compares reviewing his own work to an “ugly woman” looking at her make-up in the mirror to see if anything can be done, and asks, “Can a finished book ever be as good as the book the writer dreamed of before he started writing it?”

And yet, as an adult, part of the reason I still enjoy the series is Forester’s command of the language. He clearly has a sense of the sound and the rhythm of his words.  I love this passage describing the tactics of composition:

The words must be chosen, the sentences devised, which most accurately and most economically – and most suitably – describe the scene I am witnessing…An awkward sentence may bring the reader back to reality, just as a breaking stick may alert the feeding deer.


Hornblower has served as the inspiration for a lot of writers, among them Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and Nicholas Meyer, the writer and director of Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk was modeled on Hornblower.

So if I’ve convinced you to read the series, where should you start?  There are two ways to do it. You can read them in the order in which they were written, as I did, starting with Beat To Quarters. Beat To Quarters was originally intended to be a standalone novel, so it’s more self-contained. It also means there are more inconsistencies with the rest of the series. As he filled out Hornblower’s life, Forester became more aware that he was writing a series and paid more attention to continuity. Or you could read them chronologically, starting with the beginning of his career as a seasick seventeen year old in Mr Midshipman Hornblower, continuing all the way to Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Whichever way you decide, you’re in for a treat.