Archive for the 'boston' Category

18
Jun
11

Boston is still the worst city

I was supposed to go downtown today to work on this fast-food campaign that I’m a part of, and when I got there I found swarms of Bruins fans getting ready to watch the team parade the Stanley Cup. What a group. Only swarms of Boston’s finest were able to make me not fear for my personal safety.

Anyway, I couldn’t even get to where I was going because every street was shutdown and anyway, it would have been impossible to move anywhere if they hadn’t been. So I had to just cede the day to Boston and retreat back to Medford. O wait, there is maintenance all along I-93.

Now, I understand maintenance needs to be done on this highway (and I think they were fixing some bridges, and thank god, because those bridges need some lovin’), but not only were some lanes closed down, so that everything moved really slow, but various exits were sealed off so that I can’t get off at my exit without going like 4 miles north and then looping around. This is pretty damn obnoxious because Medford is already way the hell out there, and only I-93 working at optimal speed makes it possible to get into Boston for anything. So now, anytime I have to go down there, I can count on just driving past my house at 70 MPH only to blast back at 70 MPH. “Why not take side streets and not the highway” you say? Are you crazy? Side streets from Boston up to Medford would be as fast as if swam out to sea via the Charles and then up the Mystic River to Medford.

Boston murders me again.

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14
Mar
11

When the Tax Man Come to the Door

From Fortunate Son by CCR

I paid my taxes today. Several questions are always prompted by my run in with turbotax.

First, I could, I think, save a lot of money IF I had taken the time to record every single thing I’ve ever done. This is because the number of possible deductions are enormous, but they all require detailed of records that I would have never thought to record, or worse, I did record them, but did not group them in the right way or did not organize them in such a way as to make them easily accessible. That’s why I might try to make a good faith effort to use MINT, which is a money managing type of software that imports directly into turbotax.

Still, though I wonder if it’s worth it. For me, I don’t make very much money so my taxes aren’t too high and neither are my savings from things. And so for the time it would take me to remember to record the odometer reading every time I get in and out of my car for a business related trip, it might be cheaper just to work a few more hours. This is a common theme though that people mention over and over, which is the loss in time that results from having to fill out taxes, and the cost of procuring all the forms that are needed to document the various parts of the tax scheme.

Another thing I get a kick out of is the really bizarre questions that turbo tax asks me to see if I qualify for certain things. For instance, did I own a ranch in conjunction with a foreign national in 2010? Have I had my septic tank replaced recently? Have I sold milk from my home? A lof of the time, I start reading some questions, and when they stop making any sense, I just answer no and hope I’m not missing something important. I’m also daunted by the fact that if I ever do get to the point where I’m an established member of our economic order (due to house ownership, and maybe participation in an S-corp, etc. etc.) I will have so much paperwork to keep track of that it will be the most obvious decision in the world to hire an accountant, dump documents on them with a forklift, and let them sort through the mess that will undoubtedly be my life.

The most interesting thing though is that Massachusetts apparently lets you take $1 of your tax bill and send it to a public election financing fund. Most people who file by hand probably miss this or desire to skip it. But if you’re doing your taxes electronically, then its kind of a no-brainer I think, since checking the box helps different candidates run in Massachusetts without costing me a cent. This must raise quite a bit of revenue.

The thing though that puzzles me though is that it’s even voluntary at all. Why doesn’t Mass just take $1 dollar off everyone’s tax bill and then give that to the fund? I guess is that its controversial, so that there could be more support for this law if it was specifically flagged as a voluntary contribution that people could avoid. Next thing I wonder then is why this of all things would be controversial. Who even monitors laws like this (as opposed to the usual-suspects for stirring up controversy like sex-education laws, or things involving minorities) and who finds this very controversial. I mean, I guarantee some of the public money in massachusetts goes to way more bizarre and worthless things than this, which seems democratically valuable and pretty important.

A more philosophical question: why couldn’t taxes be made more flexible in general.

Imagine: your taxes are calculated as they are now. WHAT YOU OWE is not up to you, but WHAT you fund is. So that I could move my money away from the arts and theaters and almost exclusively into roads and education (or I might not give anything to roads, since my untutored belief is that public works money disappears into a black hole — instead I would invest in a futurama-like system of transportation tubes). Other people might choose to fund sports arenas or Charles river clean-up projects.

Would this be just like a referendum about funding then? Would important services get shortchanged because people don’t know about the good they do and so refuse to fund them? The answer to these questions is yes, and so politicians get to tell us what to fund as well as how much to pay, but the cost is that politicians get to tell us what to fund — which can often turn out to result in a lot of waste.

PS: this post is a little unclear I think compared to past posts, but I had to write this in a VERY short amount of time so I just flew over the ideas.

06
Mar
11

Drive

Drive by the Cars, one of my all time favorite bands. Poignant is the word I would use to describe it.

***

Many cities are trying to make themselves more bicycle friendly (e.g., see this for Denver’s new effort to institute bike sharing), and I think some of the arguments put forth for this policy choice are good. Bikes are better for the environment, require less infrastructure, and can’t be used to do much damage when driven drunkenly.

There are those who go beyond policy though in pointing out that biking is a type of political statement that strikes against Americans’ excessive individualism and oil-use. Biking is put forward as a civic social alternative to cars which are destructive smog-machines that have driven suburbanization and highway building. Even further, some people make the point that biking is a type of MORALLY EXPANSIVE activity that puts is in a closer relationship to the earth and our cities. For lack of a better word, some people say that biking is better for your SOUL.

I’m very sympathetic to these points and I think that for me, biking is like vegetarianism. I’ve tried to be vegetarian for a while and I’ve just recently tried to make it official. I’ve long thought that trying not to kill animals to eat is a good idea, but I didn’t give it much urgency. I thought I would put in a good faith effort to get around to it, and if I didn’t, o well.

Biking is the same way. If I were a stronger person, I would probably try to bike more often and maybe even get rid of my car.

Today though I realized that this stronger claim — that biking is a necessary component to a more responsible expansive life-style, is wrong, and I feel like I’m positioned to defend the automobile, because being from Dallas, I’m familiar with a driving culture.

There the practical points to note, which is that cars are pretty key in a place like Dallas where things are spaced far apart. Also, things being spaced far apart make land cheap, which is good, if you can capitalize on the sprawl with the proper infrastructure and perhaps not excessive environmental damage (urban footprint is, as I understand it, one of the biggest ways humans impact the environment and a smaller footprint is really good for lots of reason).

But besides this, I think driving a car is itself a type of morally expansive transportation. What I mean is that cars — and this fact is often overlooked, so don’t laugh at its obviousness — allow the owner to transport OTHERS. Even for a single person like me, this has enormous benefits. I can meet friends easily across all parts of the city (well not really easily since Boston has terrible roads, but yea, you get the point), which lets me sustain a more diffuse social network. It also lets me help people out in various ways. I drove my friends home from the liquor store after we had dinner, and let me pick up another friend from the airport as well as dropping him off after he had to leave back to Dallas.

I also use my car to give rides to strangers, though this is taboo and is often greeted with shock, though I don’t know why. Why don’t more people ask for rides? I guess there’s the danger factor, but that doesn’t seem like a very good reason, since I think its usually pretty transparent who could use a ride and who should be ignored. For example, coming back from the shopping center I see people carrying a lot of stuff to the train station, which is a good 15 minute walk a way. Not crushing, but I notice, and I’ve thought about asking people to just get in my car (since I go right by). One day, an elderly Asian man just came up to me and asked for a ride. There was no risk of danger, and since I had been thinking about that same thing, I told him sure.

It was completely unremarkable. I dropped him off at the train station and he left.

What this shows me is that cars are pretty key. They are not, as some have suggested, bubbles of solipsism where anonymous commuters go to amplify American’s misguided obsession with individualism (though for the record, I think individualism, understood properly, is very defensible). Rather they are mobile social platforms where you can talk with your friends, help them get places, or meet them at distant places.

The fact that cars are seen as a symbol of solitude is due more to our conventions about what is acceptable to do with a car (offering rides) than anything about a psychoanalysis of our country’s love of individualism.

30
Jan
11

My theory about Boston

I complain a lot about Boston on this site, and a lot of that complaining is about the road system (here, here, and here).

Today though, driving back from some time I spent with my little brother (from the big brothers big sisters program, not my biological brother who lives in Austin), and I was looking at all the snow and the lack of parking spaces and the really decayed store fronts and everything else, and my overarching theory about the reason for Boston’s failings as a city struck me.

Sure, Boston has good points, I can admit that. I can even admit that it may have good points that many people my age appreciate. Still, I think Boston has a lot of problems, and what is the source of these problems; the major cause of its suckiness in my eyes?

The answer goes back to the mobility problem that Boston is inadequately poised to deal with. Put in economics terms, it is very costly to move around in Boston. Some of this cannot be blamed on the city as a human institution. In other words, the climate makes things cold and creates a lot of snow and that makes it unpleasant and messy to be outdoors, not to mention filling up the streets and parking spaces with snow. The constant freezing during winter also rips up the streets. Ok, fair enough. Boston starts from behind because of its terrible location.

But Boston does nothing to remedy this state of affairs by refusing to improve roads or speed up the T, or make it run to where people want to go.

This has a wide-ranging group of consequences. One is that people just don’t travel. The cost of movement is high, so people stay in. This a verified consequence as I have seen graffiti and craigslist personals (yes, I was looking at craigslist personals as a joke, I realize that sounds like the exact sort of thing that a loser looking at craigslist personals would say, so you’re entitled to disbelieve. Still though, the truth is that I was glancing through it with some friends). A surprising number of the personals just say “I don’t meet people because its so cold that I just don’t want to go out.” Besides speaking to the lonely nature of our society, these people are explaining a profound truth about Boston: that it encourages people to just give up on movement throughout the city.

The second consequences of this is less social and more classically economic. Because the cost of moving out of one’s neighborhood is high, each little store is granted a de facto monopoly. This is why there are WAY more dunkin donuts per sq ft. than you could think was possible as well as why there are WAY more very low quality, fatty, greasy, take out place than you would have ever thought possible. The reason is that low quality stores of all types can subsist merely by being 8 blocks closer than their competitor. In Dallas, you would just travel those extra 8 blocks for the better prices/product/service because doing so costs almost nothing. In Boston though, it can take a broken axle and thirty extra minutes to travel those 8 blocks. So, you get an inability to capitalize to returns to scale which leads to inferior and higher priced products than could otherwise be the case.

06
Jan
11

Driving in Dallas versus Boston

The other day, I drove from Southwestern Boulevard to McKamy in Dallas. I drove this route right at 5 o’clock and it was rush hour. Nonetheless, I didn’t have to stop for a single red light until the last light before my destination. The timing of the lights was fantastic. I drove 10 miles in about 18 minutes at the worst traffic time of the day.

Why did I notice such a ridiculous fact about my trip? Well, I’ve been driving in Boston so long that I was flabbergasted about how well the trip was going right from the start so I felt compelled to keep even closer tabs on what I was doing.

By contrast, in Boston, it takes me more than 20 minutes to travel 5 miles when I try to go to Harvard square from my house in Medford.

So, Dallas’ road system is roughly twice as good as Boston’s. This leads to people being able to do more in a day and also reduces isolation since geographically, all neighborhoods are relatively easy to reach. This expands competition (more shops are within easy reach, thus they must compete more exclusively on price) resulting again in more consumer surplus (see this paper).

Basically, no wonder I like driving so much. In Dallas, it’s pretty awesome.

24
Oct
10

Canvassing in Boston

Just got back from collecting petitions out at Coolidge Corner in Boston. Specifically I was trying to get people to sign forms relating to McDonald’s marketing strategy which depends heavily on appealing to kids, who, as we know from walking outside for 10 minutes, are getting fat at a pretty young age.

I found this experience to be interesting on a variety of levels.

The first thing I discovered is that even foot traffic is a public resource that is competed for by individuals. I don’t want to reduce collecting signatures to an exercise in economic rationality, because it was not mainly about that, but here’s an interesting lesson: what one group can do in terms of getting people’s attention is heavily determined by what other people. So, if other non profit groups primarily ask for money, or ask for support in a rude, off-putting way, then this effects what I can do as a volunteer because people automatically assume that either a) I’m a socially defective radical or b) I want their money for something. Since neither a or b was true, I had to quickly, in the course of 15 seconds, get people to trust me and convince them that I did not want their money. By the end I even started trying “Kids are fat, I don’t want your money.” So, non-profits take heed, what you do effects what others can do using the same tactics.

There were some other interesting moments as well. Some people will just ignore you when you ask them about anything or say anything to them. Then you get some straight d-bags. I was working with someone else on this project and this kid dressed in a north face jacket and well-fit khakis with those ridiculous little man boots that you can get walks by me and complains, in a pretty whiny voice to his father that “all these people are trying to talk to me about mcdonalds.” God forbid people would speak to you.

Then there was the all time lowlight of the day. I saw this very obese man and asked him what he thought about McDonalds. He stumbled by me, but then stopped and turned around. Thinking he was interested, I told him that I wanted to try and convince McDonalds to advertise less to children, to which he responded angrily “O, I like McDonalds.” I felt bad for this guy.

Other people simply told me that “it was the parents’ responsibility” to keep kids from eating. This makes no sense to me. If I told them that I wanted to pass legislation or create some sort of government agency or task force, then maybe this retort would make sense: sometimes a problem is not so bad that it justifies such drastic societal investment. In fact, we leave many choices up to the parents that we could theoretically regulate, such as what video games the child will be able to play or what clothes the kids should wear. However, since the campaign I work with has such modest goals, such as having McDonalds take their vast sum of advertising dollars and throw them at a different demographic, this doesn’t make any sense. Pretend that I could sign a bunch of petitions that would convince kids’ TV stations exec not to program cartoons that display violence against women. Would these people be opposed to such a strategy on the grounds that parents should control what their kids watch? In other words, the goal of the campaign that I was working on did not deny that parents should be responsible for their children, but only that there are ways we can make their jobs easier by eliminating temptations.

Anyway, we got about 65 signatures in 2 hours. 40 of those were mine (25 for the other guy), so I got about 1 signature every 3 minutes. Considering it takes about 1 minute to rope someone in and watch as they wrote everything down, I think this was a pretty good pace. The real key though, which I did not execute well, was to rope in whole families or groups of people and then to get like 4 signatures in 2 minutes or something. This is hard because families are usually enjoying time together and so really don’t want to be hustled for signatures, even though it only takes 2 minutes.

I also wonder how many people don’t stop for the same reason a lot of people don’t vote: they honestly think that the short investment of time I’m asking for is still not justified given the EVEN SMALLER impact their signature will have in getting McDonald’s to stop marketing to kids.

 

11
Oct
10

Boston Inspection Sticker

I went downtown yesterday during business hours, and if anything has been impressed on me while living in Beantown, it is that a trip to the heart of the city anytime between the hours of 8am and 8pm is a disaster. I usually refuse to be on the road during these times.

But I had to get downtown to summer street  right across the water in East Boston. Miraculously, I did not get lost or trapped in traffic or find out that all the roads were closed for no reason. Instead, I arrive easily at my destination and even found a PARKING SPOT (one of the most valuable commodities in Boston) and even had enough quarters to pay for the time I needed.

Totally baffled by my good fortune, I threw in enough quarters to more than pay for the time I would spend away from my car.

I returned well within the allotted time and found a TICKET. HOW!??! I wondered. Well, there was nothing wrong with the meter or how much I paid, but the passing meter person saw that my inspection sticker was out of date. Downtown, those parking people are parking assassins, highly trained operatives designed to raise as much revenue as humanly possible for Boston’s public services. I can’t believe they check the documentation for cars that aren’t violating any parking rules.

But I admit my sticker is out of date and so I do deserve the ticket. Well yes, but here’s the deal, my car passed all the inspection tests related to emissions and safety, but because its old, its onboard computer is glitching up and saying there are problems that do not exist (the check engine light is on but I recently had a mechanic tell me the engine is in good working order). So I fail the test for that reason. I don’t want to pay someone and take the time to reset a computer that has no impact on anything, but of course, I paid the price for that dangerous lawbreaking attitude.

Bottom line: Boston has a silly inspection rule that I couldn’t pass and so they fined for violating it even though I was keeping up with all the other laws.