January 21, 2009

Why Rick Warren Was Actually a Good Choice for America

Filed under: Judaism, Politics — marcstober @ 8:24 am

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walked in to an inauguration. Sounds like a joke, but this was the normal way of doing things at one point. Water down the religious elements so much that they would be palatable to the majority, and not very religious. It almost makes religion the joke.

Much was made about Rick Warren being the minister to deliver the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. He is against gay marriage and used the name of Jesus in the invocation. I think this was actually a good thing. I don’t agree with him; I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God and my rabbi permits gay marriage.

I think that we have actually improved the separation of church and state by recognizing that people of various faiths don’t have to agree on their religious beliefs, so long as we can all participate in our democracy.

November 4, 2008

Voting Booth Fonts

Filed under: Information Politics, Politics — marcstober @ 1:11 pm

One of the things I found challenging about voting this morning is that you are confronted simply with the candidates’ names. There are no graphic clues to help you choose which one to vote for. They are not organized by party or any other characteristic.

Moreover, they are not in the font and color we’ve come to associate with the candidates: McCain in the Optima font with a gold device on a navy blue background; Obama with his rising-sun-over-fields logo and heavy use of the Gotham font on a lighter blue background (although I realized while looking for an image to place above, his name is usually in a complementary serif font). So, I have to stop and think about it, and I think there must be a certain amount of human error that this causes.

We are used to this from store packaging – if you are looking for Tide you grab a bottle with certain shades of orange and yellow, and if the store-brand detergent wants to compete they make their package as close to the same shades as possible. Maybe candidates should be allowed to submit a logo and their names in a specific font. While it might seem like too much marketing, it might actually help ensure people vote for the candidate they intended.

June 25, 2008

Historic Times

Filed under: Politics — marcstober @ 1:02 pm

We are living in historic times, those of us here in 2008. Up until now our society has, basically, been in the shadow of World War II. Increasing globalization, advances in electronic communications and medicine, highways and aviation, improvements in human rights, literacy and nearly universal college education, modern national borders–these are the forces that have shaped our lives and have, in general, have been constants since the FDR administration. But that hasn’t been true for all of human history, and there’s no reason to think things can’t–as Barack Obama says–change.

An op-ed by Gary Hart in today’s New York Times expresses this better and with more experienced insight than I can.

September 25, 2007

Speaking (really, speaking) out

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 8:25 am

Development (the real estate kind) and in particular development at the the former Omni Foods/proposed Chestnut Hill Square site in Newton is a topic that I tend to have interest in and opinions about. Last night I decided to put my “money where my mouth is,” or more accurately, put my mouth and the rest of the body where usually only my words go, and speak up at a public hearing on a zoning amendment being proposed in Newton.

It was terrifying. I got confused about when to speak and fumbled through what I was trying to say. A reporter from the Tab asked my name so maybe I’ll find out what I actually said there. 🙂

I do feel like I had my “day in court,” so to speak (sorry for the mixed idioms, I know this is a legislative not a judicial hearing, but that might have made it even more terrifying). Blogs are a great source of ideas and letters to the editor have their place as well, but if you have a strong and different opinion on a topic such as this, it’s important to register it in the official public forum. More people should do so. Moreover it was good experience for me – maybe things like the height of office buildings isn’t worth staying out late over, but certainly next time there is a matter worth speaking out over, I will be more composed.

August 16, 2007

The Hidden Cost of Doing Little Things to Save the Planet

Filed under: House Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 1:29 pm

My father always made a big deal about turning off certain appliances when we weren’t using them; now I’m the dad and it’s my job. Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles (even a new book on the topic) about how doing little things–like unplugging cell phone chargers (I’ve seen this in a few places recently) and turning off or unplugging other appliances that draw small amounts of current (I like the term “flea” power)–can save a lot of energy.

I just came across an article in the Wall Street Journal (an news outlet which, like PBS, I find worth paying for to get a perspective that differs from the rest of the media herd) that confirms what I’d thought all along: devices that don’t do much generally don’t use a lot of energy.

This is important because efforts to encourage people to do things that are easy, like unplugging a cell phone charger or reusing a plastic bag, are likely to consume our psychic energy and make us feel good without doing things that, from a scientific basis, could really make a difference. It’s the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics from basic physics: things that create a lot of light, heat, and/or movement consume a lot of energy. A light bulb that could burn your hand while illuminating the room is a lot bigger problem than some device with a little LED that gets just a little warmer than room temperature.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to do the big stuff: either it’s expensive and hard to know if it’s worthwhile, or it would require unacceptable changes in life. Right now I’m trying to find someone to insulate my attic, which I’ve decided, even at a cost of more than a thousand dollars, is the biggest difference I can make; even getting someone to come give me an estimate is a hassle. But keeping my house uncomfortably cold, or not using the car, are not realistic options. Newer houses are better insulated than mine will ever be, but tend to be bigger—according the WSJ article above, they have more than 45% more space to light and heat than those built a generation ago.

I’m not going to lose sleep worrying if I’ve done enough little things to save the planet; I’m going to lose sleep over the big ones.

June 25, 2007

Richardson for President

Filed under: Politics — marcstober @ 10:05 pm

For all of you (i.e., no one) who have been awaiting the official pronouncement: I support Bill Richardson to be the Democratic party’s candidate for President.

There are really just two reasons:

1. He’s a governor. Senators have won democratic primaries, but none have been elected president. I don’t pretend to know why, but maybe it’s because Senators, who spend more time arguing their party’s position on Capitol Hill, better appeal to the party faithful, while chief executives have less partisan responsibilities and so are more appealing to swing voters like myself (who “swing” the election).

2. He supports Israel, and seems to do so in an appropriately and authentically American manner. What I mean is that while I personally support Israel because it’s a Jewish country, he supports Israel because it is an ally and friend of the United States on a secular level, and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for that while helping promote peace. (Indeed, it’s certainly not in America’s interest to lose an ally in the region.)

A few months ago, I may not have been supportive of his “No Troops Left Behind” platform. I don’t think the war in Iraq was a completely bad thing. But, I think our troops have done their job; they can take down a regime but no one can impose a stable democracy on another nation. Hopefully the new Iraq will also be our ally in the region, but they’ll need to come to that on their own.

June 11, 2007

More Starter Homes?

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 10:59 pm

Repost of an article I submitted on TheGardenCity.net:

This article in today’s Globe talks about “a disparate collection of real estate agents, homebuilders, housing activists, and public officials who expect to propose legislation later this year that would either require or encourage municipalities to promote construction of ‘starter homes,’ which are in short supply in Boston’s suburbs. The houses would be modest…priced so families earning between about$80,000 and $130,000 could afford them.”

Our house was featured in another Globe article on housing prices (by the same writer) just about a year ago, and our family income is in the neighborhood of the high end of that range. We’ve been talking on this blog lately about mixed-use development such as Chestnut Hill Square, and what demographic would like to live over a mall. Chuck has blogged in favor of building up. Current state affordable housing law seems to encourage these many-unit buildings. But I probably would not have moved my family to Newton if the only thing in my price range was a high-rise condo. I would have gone somewhere else, where I could get a yard and driveway, even if it meant a longer commute to work. In fact, we moved here from Brookline largely because Newton was, relatively speaking, more affordable. Of course, not everyone is going to be able to afford a single-family here, but is it inevitable that that Newton is no longer going to be a place where middle-class families have their own back yards? Is this something we want, that we should try to change, or that’s just going to happen?

May 5, 2007


Filed under: Information Politics, Politics — marcstober @ 9:48 am

Finally, the Supreme Court has recognized that intellectual property rights exist to promote progress (Microsoft vs. At&T and KSR vs. Teleflex), and not simply to protect some intrinsic right of ownership.

I’ve think this is a pretty straightfoward reading of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) and it’s bothered me that people don’t get it: not my congressman who I once wrote to about IP issues; not the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals which has most jurisdiction over these matters; and not the lawyers in my family who will talk your ear off about politics and justice but can’t be engaged on this issue. Concern about this has seemed to be the exclusive province of a geeky subculture that reads Slashdot and Wired magazine, where Lawrence Lessig’s columns mostly “preach to the converted.” But it’s not a geeky issue; the free exchange of ideas (and access to technology to promote that exchange) is fundamental to our democracy.

Perhaps we should have been using an analogy: should a restaurant go out of business because someone patented putting ketchup on a hamburger? Should I lose my house because I didn’t license the patent on putting the diswasher next to the sink? Some things are obvious; but adopting obvious ideas was becoming something that could risk one’s company or career. Chefs, interior designers, and software developers have similar jobs: we aren’t hired to invent something new and patentable as often as we’re hired to make to order that same general sort of thing everyone else is doing. What’s fair is for people and businesses doing actual creative work to be protected without their legal budget exceeding their R&D cost, but until now the the legal system didn’t see it this way.


April 24, 2007

Zoning Meeting

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 11:19 pm

Zoning matters in Newton, I think, for a different reason than a lot of people think. The Jackson Homestead’s website (our city’s history museum which I have yet to visit in person) has a great “movie map” of residential development in Newton; you can see on it that growth since about 1960 has been marginal, at the edges. I don’t agree with the people who quite vocally say that large new development will be a “disaster” to the “quality of life” in town. Perhaps building the Mass Pike or (the present-day) Route 128, or the railroads before that, or the subdivisions that created our neighborhoods mostly before anyone alive today was born were projects that could create such drastic change. Areas such as that south of the Fort Point Channel in Boston are undergoing the sort of redevelopment (to include new highways, subways, multiple high-rise buildings, museums, and a convention center that must be large enough to see from space). And let’s not forget this type of truly large-impact development is still the norm in areas that are less mature than Newton, or where economic conditions are such that old properties turn over and don’t retain value such as they do exceptionally well here.

The real threat zoning has to Newton is more along the lines of what economists call “opportunity cost,” that is, the possibility that once a given parcel is developed on the terms of a given zoning law we lose the chance to have that parcel developed into something else. This is particularly important in Newton because the city is so mature development-wise and most residents (and a lot of commercial tenants) have valuable property with no intention of moving; one a parcel is developed into one thing, there isn’t going to vacant land available for something else (at least when that something else requires a large commercial space, like a grocery store or hotel) anytime soon. Moreover, the threat may come from existing zoning as much as from new zoning—something could be developed in compliance with laws on the books that may not be the same as what would be enacted as the best zoning laws today (even in the theoretical in absence of proposed development). Put simply, when a large lot gets filled up with a large apartment building, a neighborhood loses its chance to have a convenient grocery store.

With these thoughts in mind I attended the public hearing last night of the Zoning and Planning committee of Newton’s Board of Alderman regarding the creation of a Planned Business District category of zoning, which may be suitable for various locations in the city but at the moment is being proposed by a developer who wants to redevelop a parcel that, until it closed, had the closest grocery store to my house, and is in a commercial area that I’ve been visiting for years even before I moved to Newton. In general, I am in favor of both the zoning change and the proposed development, in particular because I think the various elected and appointed officials, the city’s Planning Department, and even the developer and his attorneys have done an outstanding job in revising and amending the proposed change to make it conform with what is in the best interests of Newton and expressed in its Comprehensive Plan. I tend to see these sort of things in contrast to what I see in visits to my in-laws in suburban Cleveland where new developments are going up with all the problems we are talking about, such as the absurd Legacy Village which mimics a village center surrounded by a moat of parking lots (at least it has a grocery store). There are probably a couple areas that were commented upon by public speakers that are yet to be addressed: e.g., more direct mitigation for abutters, both during and after construction; and a need for “real” public transit that will encourage shoppers. Some issues are difficult: does limiting parking encourage transit, or merely increase traffic when people look for parking on surrounding streets? One commenter (who unfortunately did not have as good rhetorical styles as is points) asked why does the debate on height restrictions even matter; how tall the building is not as important measurement as how it actually impacts traffic—I thought that was a good point. In general, though, we are requiring developers to implement transit improvements, relationships to existing streets, etc.—we are ahead of the curve. Unfortunately our current zoning does not really match what we actually (at least as expressed by the Comprehensive Plan work) want Newton to look like, and state law provides that developers will get to do something with their land if the city doesn’t agree. (Avalon apartments are fine, but do we really want every vacant property to default to this?)

A few public speakers at the meeting spoke that we shouldn’t change zoning at the request of a developer. In an ideal world, we as citizens would figure out what zoning change we need and then the developers would build accordingly. In the real world, zoning changes don’t draft themselves, and I think it’s reasonable to allow that this is how the process works: until a property owner has a need to redevelop their land, we can’t expect that zoning changes will come before the board, even if it’s a change most citizens would agree to.

Of course, the citizens who show up at hearings aren’t usually the ones who agree to the request. This was part of my interest in attending; I’ve never been to an actual aldermanic-level (or selectmen or town or city council-level elsewhere) meeting before. I have been following local politics online through the Tab and the GardenCity.net sites, but I’d gotten the impression (confirmed by the meeting!) than this does not give a complete picture. In particular, what is the role of these blogs and websites in local politics? I find that I read these sites because I tend to empathize with the issues people raise in their comments and posts there, and because I feel I must have something in common with other citizens who want to connect with each other online. On the other hand, I don’t really agree with the decidedly antidevelopment sentiment of the most vocal people either at the meeting or online. My sense after going to the meeting (and this is probably “duh” for any experienced politicians) is that people who have a strong opinion or vested interest, particularly against what is being proposed, are over-represented both in the public hearing and online. (Much in the same way, as noted above, that it takes someone with a vested interest to propose a zoning or other amendment in the first place.) A smaller number of people—who may be for, against, or indifferent to the issue—are there out of motivation to participate or observe rather than a motivation to see the issue come out one way or another. As much as I’d like to think that I can get involved in politics from the comfort of my desk, reading blogs while waiting for code to compile, this is not the case on the conservative world of politics. As much as I appreciate Alderman Parker’s presence online, I do not agree with his views on this project (nor did I find his wandering around the room throughout and in one case, speaking out of turn conducive to due process). On the other hand, Board of Alderman President Baker made the most insightful comments I heard, although I haven’t come across a website describing his positions.

Anyhow, I am writing a message to the committee with my opinions. I like living in Newton because we have a local government that considers these issues, and is not driven by either the activists on one side or business on the other.

April 1, 2007

The Times on Life in Newton

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 4:15 pm

As I write this, Hannah is watching a Barbie movie, relaxing after a classmate’s birthday party at My First Yoga this morning. Not content to just sit on the couch, however, she saw Cheryl cleaning for Pesach and started putting away a stack of her DVDs.

Little did I know that growing up as a girl in Newton was going to be the subject of a New York Times article today that followed a house-of-worship-attending girl, including a mention that her church is right across the street from the aforementioned children’s yoga studio!

It’s a loaded issue. The politics of growing up are not new; when I was a kid, Barbie was bad because she symbolized the objectification of women, teaching girls that their worth would be rated on their friends and, especially, their figure. But something happened in the process of debunking that message. Barbie still looks great but now she’s a smart, confident, athletic leader who heroically saves the kingdom—girls have to be everything.

And, I would add, that I think we have made a lot of progress in gender equality since these issues were raised in my childhood in the ’70’s and ’80’s: today it’s just as important for boys and fathers to be thin and popular as it is for their moms and daughter to be smart and rich.

The article doesn’t mention it explicitly, but I think the religious angle is part of it, too, especially here. I tend to think of Newton a “capital of the religious left,” being home to, in addition to a seemingly disproportionate number of churches and synagogues, both Jewish and Protestant seminaries, a Catholic college, and an actual Chasidic Rebbe. We can debate whether buying organic or kosher is more politically correct. But in some sense this choice seems to be a luxury reserved for people who, even if we worry about paying a big mortgage, don’t actually worry about keeping chicken in our pots.

This raises two questions in my mind: first of all, who says we have to be all these things, and what is it about human psychology that we infer this intense competition? Certainly most of the other parents I’ve met seem like nice people who are, like us, simply trying to make the right choices do well for their families. It might be wise to keep in mind that destructive tendency to see others’ situation as competition goes back as far as the tenth commandment, not to covet. Secondly, what perverse incentives do we read into this article in which doing well in school, getting exercise, being involved in a church and having a good cup of coffee are now symptoms of a problem? I feel lucky that we live in walking distance of Newton Centre—we worked hard to find a house here (and are still working hard to pay for it!) because it’s a nice place to live.

As I write, the cynical answer that comes to mind is that this discussion helps sell papers. The New York Times is the parent company of the Boston Globe and, while the Times is often criticized for being elitist, it’s exactly that perception of elitism that propels it from being a metropolitan New York City publication to being a de rigueur national paper. To keep up with your neighbors in the Newton of the article, you need to take the Globe and the Sunday Times. From what I have seen in the media, it sure seems that way. But from personal experience, I’m not quite sure that’s the city I live in.

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