Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Leaking government secrets: patriotic?

This past week we learned that a 29-year-old systems administrator working for the NSA -- actually working for Booz Allen, under contract with the NSA -- leaked classified information about two government programs to access telephone records and Internet traffic. (More about this story here.) Both are part of the government's efforts to combat terrorism and, arguably, make us all safer.

The counter argument is that the government is accessing massive amounts of personal data that should be private, violating the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. From this perspective, the leaker and the two newspapers that published the material (The Guardian and The Washington Post) serve the public interest.

My brother Warren, a journalist, has been "debating" the issue with a few of his colleagues, copying me on the back and forth. The discussion stimulated me sufficiently to chime in. To wit,

I'm old enough to remember Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, yet too young to recall the details to be able to discern the parallels and differences with this incident.

Nonetheless, from my vantage point on the far side of the elephant, I think the disclosure is beneficial for (hopefully) starting a public debate on the rights of the government to sweep our personal data. The Supreme Court borrowed from Donald Rumsfeld when it declared that you can't sue for what you don't know. Now we know what we didn't know, and I see where the ACLU has already filed suit.

Despite the administration's declarations of transparency, one cannot disclose a secret without losing one's security clearance and likely going to jail. So even before Congress, the system requires one to lie, rather than tell the truth. The only way for the truth to out is through leaks. Ironically, while the public and the press benefit under our First Amendment rights, the leaker will likely go to jail.

Last point: I don't agree that this disclosure will compromise national security. I have long assumed that we have the capability, technologically, to read and listen to most any conversation that interests the government. For a terrorist to be surprised by this disclosure suggests a high degree of naivete; just look at the precautions taken by Osama Bin Laden to avoid creating a digital trail.

Sorry, one more last ironic point: while we worry about the Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE providing equipment for our telecommunications networks, the threat is really the "lowly" IT guy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Paying it backward

Zoe Goodell, working the drive-through window at the Exit 6
Starbucks in Nashua.
Feeling the holiday spirit, my daughter Andrea pulls into the drive-through lane at Starbucks, planning to pay for the person behind her. She’s surprised to find that someone ahead of her has the same idea, so her skinny vanilla latte is gratis.

A couple weeks later, after the holidays, she receives the same generosity. However with no one behind her, she can’t reciprocate.

Paying it forward — actually backward through the drive-through lane — is a common event, according to Judy Johnson, manager of the Starbucks at Exit 6 in Nashua. During December, these random acts of kindness happen every day. And they continue throughout the year, just not as often.

“Sometimes it only lasts a couple. Sometimes it goes on and on and on,” Judy says, recalling that the longest sequence at the Exit 6 store was more than 20 cars. She attributes the motivation to people just wanting “to do something nice for someone, a random stranger.”

Those who haven’t experienced someone buying their coffee are surprised. A typical reaction, Judy says, is “Do I know that person?”

The baristas like to have fun with the experience, sometimes adding a hint of intrigue to the generosity — telling a woman that the guy in the car ahead bought her coffee, then watching for the reaction.

Zoe Goodell, a barista at the Exit 6 Starbucks, works the drive-though and sees this parade of kindness firsthand. “I think it’s really great when people pay for each other.”

When the person at the window is buying a $2 coffee and the car behind has a $20 order? Usually the sequence stops. But the generosity invariably restarts, Judy says, when someone pulls up to the window and offers to pay for the next order, sometimes saying they want to repay a prior act of kindness.

While most of the action occurs in the drive-through, patrons inside the store — Judy calls it “the cafe” — will occasionally buy coffee for each other. She says that doesn’t happen as often, nor last as long.

Why the difference between the drive-through and the cafe? Maybe it’s that the drive-through is “quick and easy,” Judy says, or perhaps it’s the anonymity. Aren’t we taught that giving anonymously is a high virtue? Reflecting that, perhaps, sometimes a cafe customer will purchase a gift card and leave it with the store, to buy as many orders as it takes to deplete the value.

Judy invites me to personally witness this display of human nature. So I arrive at the Exit 6 Starbucks shortly before 8:00 on a Monday morning.

I wonder if this is the best day for such an experiment, two days after winter storm Nemo traverses New England, closing 450 of the 500 Starbucks in the region. Will customers be in any mood to be generous, after this disruption in their lives and on a Monday morning? Perhaps sensing that people may be on edge, Starbucks is offering patrons a free tall coffee until 11 am.

Judy has me don the signature green apron and positions me near the window, where I can observe and listen to the conversations.

Zoe and Jen Donnelly are working the drive-through, performing a graceful ballet of constant motion. Both wear headsets. Zoe talks, Jen mainly listens and responds to the orders. As customers speak into the intercom in the drive-through lane, fingers fly over the touch screen and the two young women silently prepare the drinks, at times asking one of the other baristas to bring food from the refrigerated case in front, sometimes going for it themselves. As each car pulls up, Zoe opens the window with a friendly greeting, accepts payment, and carefully hands the order to the driver.

Judy checks to ensure we have a line of cars, scans the various orders on Starbucks’ version of an air-traffic-control radar, and selects one to start the pay-it-backward game. I offer to pay for the order, but she shakes her head.

When the car pulls to the window and holds out a $5 bill, Zoe cheerfully informs the driver that the driver in front has paid for her order. Surprised and pleased, she hands the $5 bill to Zoe as a tip, not offering to pay for the next car.

“That’s unusual,” Zoe says.

Judy scans the orders and starts the process again. When Zoe tells the driver the person in front already paid, the response is a blend of curiosity and pleasure.

“Oh they did?”

But no offer to reciprocate.

The snow is beginning to fall. Judy heads for her desk in the back. Nemo disrupted their weekend, and she needs to catch up. I pull out my Starbucks card. Zoe picks another car, and we try again.

The next driver, hearing the news, pauses. “What’s the guy behind me getting?”

Zoe responds with I can’t recall what. But the total is only $2.45. He pays it backward.
The next car, informed that the driver in front paid for the order, looks forward. “Who was he, or she?”

With no car behind, there’s no way to pay it backward. “I’ll pass it on somewhere,” he says and drives off.

A driver orders a tall coffee. Zoe informs her that it’s free because of the snowstorm. That is unexpected and causes a long pause. “Oh. Okay. Thank you.”

We start again. An older woman arrives at the window. She is obviously surprised, maybe even stunned. “This is the first time someone ever paid for my coffee.”

One man, told the order behind is $3 more than his, breaks the chain. Another, whose order is $2.67 pays $8.07 for the car behind with no hesitation.

We can’t seem to get momentum, and I’m losing track of the numbers and the details of each transaction. My pen is almost out of ink.

“This is the last” I say to Zoe, again handing her my Starbucks card. Amazingly, we get a run of six cars, each driver showing surprise and pleasure. Reflexively, they immediately look to see who is in the car in front, seeking recognition. The lack of connection makes a connection.

The seventh car pulls to the window. Zoe smiles and says the person in front paid for her order. She looks forward toward the car pulling away, says “oh,” smiles — and doesn’t offer to pay it backward.

As I leave the store and walk to my car through the falling snow, I realize that the real benefit of my $11.50 investment in this experiment is not the total number of cars without a break. It’s each individual’s experience of receiving a small act of kindness, like the woman who exclaimed that no one had ever bought her coffee.

Perhaps even more than the surprised patrons, the baristas enjoy the whole experience and the part they play. Their faces light up talking about it. “I love when that happens,” says Erin Peña, another barista at the Exit 6 store.

As Judy explains, “We play along. It creates a camaraderie in the store.”

Still trying to understand the psychology, I ask my daughter her motivation for buying someone’s coffee. She emails me that “the first time was pure holiday spirit. I was feeling cheerful as Christmas was approaching and really wanted to put a smile on someone's face. However, after that first experience, I believe that I was even more compelled to do it, secretly hoping that if the ‘game’ had not been being played before I drove up, I could at least start it. In both scenarios, I wanted to make someone happy.”

The pay-it-forward phenomenon is not unique to the Exit 6 Starbucks. Erin, who worked at the Leominster, Massachusetts, store before transferring to Nashua, says it happens in the drive-through there. Searching YouTube reveals several TV news reports about the trend, including the story of one Starbucks in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the pay-it-forward sequence lasted over an hour and totaled 100 cars.

Across the nation, one person at a time, spending a few dollars for a random act of kindness.

Note: This is the second of two articles I wrote for the news writing class I took at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications this winter. Meg Heckman, formerly a reporter with the Concord Monitor and now pursuing her master's degree at Northeastern, taught the class.

Flatley adds apartments, retail to technology park

Neighbors gather to hear construction update and plans

Note: This is one of two articles I wrote for a News Writing class taught by Meg Heckman at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. It was a great class, as Meg shared her tested experience as a reporter, conveyed with an enthusiasm for journalism. The Loeb school makes such learning very accessible to the community, offering a range of classes on journalism and social media, most free.

January 26, 2013 -- Approximately fifteen people from the Lancashire Heights neighborhood in south Nashua turned out Saturday afternoon to hear the progress and plans for the development of the Nashua Technology Park, now renamed Gateway Hills. Dick Cane, Director of Planning and Development for the John J. Flatley company, briefed the group on the development project, which is adding apartments and a strip shopping center to the current office park.

The Flately company owns 400 acres in south Nashua, located to the west of the Everett Turnpike and north of Spit Brook Road.

“No one knows we’re here,” said Cane, stating that the office buildings are largely hidden from drivers on the highway and Spit Brook Road. That made it challenging to lease the three buildings Flatley purchased from HP in 2007. Despite the soft economy and the lack of visibility, the company has leased over 500,000 square feet, and the buildings are now over 90% occupied. Flatley is planning construction of another 240,000 square foot R&D building, perhaps as early as this year. The companies in the existing buildings are well-known technology firms: Amphenol, Aspentech, Benchmark Electronics, Dell, and Skillsoft.

Apartment construction

What largely drew the neighbors to the meeting are the new apartments being constructed parallel to the homes on Chaucer Road in Lancashire Heights. Called Tara Heights, the first phase consists of five buildings that will house 180 one- and two-bedroom apartments and a clubhouse. Rents will range from $1,150 per month for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,600 for a two-bedroom corner unit. Cane said tenants will begin moving in during May, with the last building occupied in September.

The second phase of apartment construction will add 140 units and extend the complex eastward towards the Everett Turnpike.

The apartments are separated from the neighborhood by a 300 foot buffer, and no streets connect the site and the neighborhood. A gravel emergency road, required by the Nashua Fire Department, will provide emergency access to the complex from Shakespeare Road in the neighborhood. However, the emergency road will be blocked by a chain to prevent traffic.

Cain said that construction required “a lot more blasting for utilities than we assumed” due to the amount of granite in the area. John Cepaitis, who lives north of the apartments, at 16 Shakespeare Road, told Cane that he and his wife have found cracks in their foundation and inside along the fireplace. Although the blasting firm took photographs of the homes adjacent to the apartment site, to be able to determine whether the blasting caused damage, Cepaitis’ home was not included in the survey, since it does not face the apartments. According to Cepaitis, although farther away, his house sits on a granite ledge, possibly making it susceptible to damage from the blasting.

Strip retail

In addition to the apartments, construction of a strip retail center along Spit Brook road is well underway, following clearing of trees and leveling of the land last summer. The five-building site will include medical and dental offices, a coffee shop with drive-through, dry cleaner, hairdresser, what Cane called a “small dining” establishment, and possibly a bank or other financial institution. Only the medical and dental offices have been leased, according to Cane, and the coffee shop has provided a letter of intent.

Cane said the design of the retail center is upscale, with clock-tower architecture and the use of earth tones. He said the Flatley Company wants to create a good first impression of the Gateway Hills development, and the retail site is the most visible.

The company’s vision is that the medical offices and retail businesses will serve the people living in the apartments, many of them working for the companies in the technology park.


Several proposed road extensions within the development need to be approved by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Adjustment. According to Cane, these will be presented during the February and March board meetings.

Looking longer term, Cane believes only the southern 260 of the 400 acres owned by Flatley will be developed over the next three to five years. He doesn’t see the northern section being developed sooner unless a company needs space that can’t be accommodated by the existing site.

Within the 260 acres, he said that Flatley may construct a hotel to serve the companies in the area and provide an alternative to the existing, castle-looking Radisson, which Flatley doesn’t own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lame-Duck Congress

Can this lame-duck Congress redeem itself and deal with the looming fiscal cliff?

The roles haven't changed: the Republicans still control the House, the Democrats the Senate, and President Obama was reelected to a second term. But perhaps, hopefully, the election sent a message to our elected officials that it's time to reach across the aisle and find bipartisan solutions to the nation's financial challenges.

In that spirit, today I sent the following email to my New Hampshire delegation, Speaker Boehner, Senator McConnell, and Senator Reid:
As you return to Congress following the 2012 election, I urge you to take the necessary steps to avoid the fiscal cliff, reduce the debt, and ensure the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare. 
To accomplish this challenge, I believe spending must be reduced – defense included – and tax revenue increased. The latter should include increased tax rates, on the most financially fortunate Americans, and reductions in tax deductions.
No sacred cows or rigid ideologies. Please leave your political affiliation at the door and approach this vital work as an honest broker.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A recap of the 2012 election

Before the echoes of the convention speeches, the attack ads, and the chattering television pundits fade to silence, I want to reflect on the election.

I voted to reelect President Barack Obama, overturn the Republican majorities in Congress and the New Hampshire House and Senate, and elect a Democrat to replace Governor John Lynch. While my goals weren't fully realized – the Republicans remain the majority in the U.S. House and New Hampshire Senate – I am pleased with the outcome and hope we will have a more effective government than the past two years.

This election is notable because I voted a straight party ticket for the first time in my life, although I still label myself an Independent. I have always weighed each race and voted for the candidate I felt would best fill the position. Until this election, that philosophy yielded a mix of Democrats and Republicans. Political parties have seemed a necessary evil and straight party voting has been anathema, so this election is an indication of a sea change in my view of the political landscape. So, before I forget, what drove my votes?

1. The Economy

The thesis of Mitt Romney's campaign argued that Barack Obama was responsible and accountable for the poor performance of the economic recovery, that the policies pursued by the Obama administration were ineffective – even hindered the recovery.

The steps taken by the Bush and Obama administrations at the beginning of the Great Recession, in the fall of 2008 and early 2009, decelerated the downward spiral and positioned the economy to recover. Government policies notwithstanding, I believe the slope of the recovery has been equally influenced by forces around the globe: the fiscal crisis in Greece, the malaise in Europe, the depressed housing market in the U.S., the caution of the banks as they seek to restore their balance sheets, and the bankruptcy and recovery of the auto industry.

I have no way to know whether a "pure" Republican response to the crisis would have yielded better results. However, I suspect that had GM and Chrysler not undergone a government-imposed bankruptcy and restructuring, the economies of Michigan and Ohio would be in far worse shape today. I don't believe the free market, as it was functioning in 2009, would have provided the capital, had the power to restructure the debt, nor moved as quickly to save the companies.

The growing U.S. debt is a concern and certainly must be addressed. Yet my college economics class and listening to various economists over the years leave me with enough belief in Keynesian theories to conclude that reducing debt by cutting government expenditures can stall an economic recovery. I think Britain and Greece are examples. Blaming the Obama administration for growing the debt during the past four years seems unfair. I suspect John McCain would be just as guilty, had he won the 2008 election.

Considering the state of the economy, I saw no basis to criticize President Obama's performance and vote for Mitt Romney.

2. Healthcare

Next to the economy, the Republican's second talking point was the repeal of Obamacare. Their original argument to "repeal and replace" simply changed to "repeal," with no discussion or, in my opinion, intent to replace.

The Affordable Care Act certainly has flaws, and the process that passed it exemplified the metaphor of making sausage. The very silver lining to that cloud, however, is we now have a framework for providing health care insurance to most Americans, with a balance to the historically punitive power of the insurance companies in the "free" market.

For very personal reasons, I'm not willing to start over; I have no faith that under a Romney administration we would see reasonable access for all Americans – even within my lifetime. That would be a moral failing, as the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't provide comprehensive access to health care. Seeing the statistics on cost and medical outcomes, we can't even argue we have the best system for our society (meaning not just fortunate individuals).

President Obama overwhelmingly won my vote on this issue.

3. Social Values

I find it odd that while Republicans decry the role of government in our lives, they feel justified in defining the social values that everyone should live by.

Same-sex marriage most resonates with me, as I see it as a human rights issue, comparable to the civil rights struggles that played out on the TV screen of my youth. The Republican majority in the New Hampshire House unsuccessfully attempted to overturn same-sex marriage this year, arguing that the prior legislature had no right to make it legal. Of course, that was based on the religious belief that same-sex marriage is "wrong," that marriage should only recognize a relationship between a woman and a man. The 2012 Republican platform also states this position.

That's not my religious belief, and I don't want that imposed on the same-sex couples I know and respect and love. I don't want that sanctified loving relationship, nor the legal protections it affords, denied to any gay or lesbian couple.

Other values were debated during the campaign, including abortion, access to contraceptives, funding for Planned Parenthood. On all of them, I sided with President Obama and the Democratic candidates running for Congress and offices in New Hampshire.

4. Candidate Mitt Romney

No doubt Mitt Romney is a smart and decent man, despite portrayals of him being an unfeeling oligarch. I do respect his business experience and success, and the pragmatism that requires. That's not what concerned me.

Rather, I couldn't determine his political leanings from the course of his campaign. During the primaries, he tacked to the most conservative side of the party, calling himself a "severely conservative Republican governor" during one of the debates. Once he had the nomination, though, he tacked back toward the center, sounding like the most moderate person in the first debate with President Obama.

Who was the real Mitt Romney and how would he lead the nation? I wasn't willing to take a chance voting for him, with a hope that he would govern as a moderate. On this point, I voted against Mitt Romney.

5. Bipartisanship and Compromise

Washington has been in gridlock the past two years, since the Republicans assumed control of the House following the 2010 election. There's no better example of this than the bickering over the debt and raising the debt ceiling, the failed Congressional debt commission, and the resulting fiscal cliff that looms at the end of the year.

I am critical of President Obama for not adopting the work of the Simpson-Bowles Commission as a baseline plan to address the debt. Politically, I recognize that had he embraced their dramatic approach, he would have created a target for the Republicans, whose mantra is spending cuts with no increase in taxes.

Despite the possible missed opportunity, the President and House Speaker John Boehner almost crafted a deal, until it was scuttled by the conservative members of the House. That led to the failed Congressional debt commission and now the ticking time bomb of sequestration, which I've heard the New Hampshire Republican delegation repeatedly decry. Ironically, sequestration is linked to their own unwillingness to compromise on increasing tax revenue – which would violate their pledge to Grover Norquist.

While I'm not so naive that I would argue the behavior of the Democrats in Congress is pure, I find greater fault with the Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's admonition rings loudly in my ears:
The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
I think the Republicans in the House and Senate have worked to that end, employing the strategy articulated as just say no, and betting they would win the Presidency.

President Obama won my vote by the Republican Congress losing it. However, I struggled a bit voting against Charlie Bass. I respect his independence and willingness to vote against his party on various issues. He's a model for all of our elected representatives. Unfortunately, he's only one voice among many Republicans who don't seem to share his philosophy. So I voted for Ann McLane Kuster.

The Outlook

I'm very encouraged by the outcome of the election in New Hampshire: the House has flipped from Republican to Democratic majority and Democrat Maggie Hassan will replace John Lynch. I think we will have a more balanced agenda.

During the President's second term, we'll see the implementation of Obamacare and can begin to address the inflating cost of health care. I'm not worried about backtracking on social issues. I hope, fervently hope, that we'll see the bipartisan statesmanship to truly address the debt and long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare.

With President Obama reelected, Mitch McConnell's goal is no longer relevant, making me hopeful that Congress can break the partisan gridlock, despite the same majorities in the House and Senate. The most pressing issue is dealing with the fiscal cliff. I urge the lame-duck Congress to address this and not kick the proverbial can to the next Congress.

These next six weeks should be very interesting.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Romney compliments Israeli health care

On his recent international trip to demonstrate his foreign policy credentials, Mitt Romney, the assumed Republican presidential nominee, complimented Israel's health care system — at least the cost and outcome. As reported by the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Governor Romney said
Our health care costs are completely out of control. Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the GDP in Israel? 8 percent. You spend 8 percent of GDP on health care. And you’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our GDP on health care. 10 percentage points more. That gap, that 10 percent cost, let me compare that with the size of our military. Our military budget is 4 percent. Our gap with Israel is 10 points of GDP. We have to find ways, not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to finally manage our health care costs.
Ironically, the Israeli health care system is funded through taxes, imposes a mandate for everyone to participate (through taxes), provides access to all citizens (regardless of employment or income), and controls health care costs with government involvement in physician contracts and capping hospital costs.

Measured by two outcomes — child mortality and life expectancy — Israelis do better than Americans.

Given all the bashing of Obamacare, particularly following the Supreme Court ruling, it's ironic that Mitt Romney would choose to highlight Israeli healthcare. Their results surely reflect the construction of their system.

During the development of what became the Affordable Care Act, the Christian Broadcasting Network produced this profile of the Israeli health care system. It provides a good overview of the key attributes and notes pros and cons compared with the American counterpoint.

If you want more on Mitt Romney's remarks and the resulting reaction, here's another article.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

More on health care

A few more thoughts about the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act:

This gentleman called in to Diane Rehm's Friday News Roundup yesterday to describe the difficulty of obtaining health insurance under the present system and why the Affordable Care Act offers hope. His story is touching and compelling and the core issue our Senators and Representatives should be solving.

This family's story isn't the only example.

A colleague is getting divorced and is concerned that his soon-to-be-former wife won't be able to get health insurance. She doesn't work and likely has what the insurance companies would consider a pre-existing condition.

I recently explored forming my own consulting company and getting health insurance for my family. The state's major insurance company said they would not underwrite my daughter until 10 years past her last surgery.

Those against Obamacare seem largely focused on the supposed government takeover of the health insurance industry — such claims seem hyperbole to me — and what the government can and cannot tell citizens to do. I just wish they would be as passionate about the moral issue of ensuring access to health insurance for all Americans.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Supreme Court upholds the health care law

I was pretty sure the Supreme Court was going to strike down the Affordable Care Act, given the uproar about the provision or mandate requiring people to buy health insurance coverage. That the Court didn't and that Chief Justice John Roberts joined — nay wrote — the majority opinion brought tears to my eyes when I heard the breaking news yesterday morning.

We live in a politically polarized country, so it is not a surprise that those who oppose the health care law — dubbed Obamacare — immediately called for the law's repeal. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promises a vote on July 11, when the House returns from recess. And House Majority Leader John Boehner is almost apoplectic in arguing that the only reasonable course is for the law to be "ripped out by its roots."

While it's far from perfect — can anything designed by committee be even close to perfect? — the Affordable Care Act is a positive step forward in successfully addressing the major health-care issue this country faces: access to health insurance. And it attempts to limit the rising cost of health care.

I think we need to give it a chance to work and then improve it. And I felt compelled to say so to my Republican Senator and Representative:
Congress passed the law. The President signed it. The Supreme Court upheld it. 
Now let us see how it works and then make improvements based upon experience – not hypothetical concerns or political ideology. 
To state that you want to repeal the law without offering a specific, comprehensive alternative is irresponsible, in my opinion. The Affordable Care Act, despite its shortcomings, provides a means for Americans to have health insurance without denied coverage due to preexisting conditions and the risk of rescission, with serious illness. To help address the increasing cost of medical care, the law contains several provisions, including emphasizing preventative care and limiting the amount insurance companies can spend on administration and marketing. 
Rather than hurting economic growth, I believe ready access to health care that is not tied to employment will actually stimulate entrepreneurial activity, new business creation, and job growth. 
It’s a travesty that America is the only developed nation without universal access to health insurance. I believe we have a moral obligation as a country to solve that problem – which the free market has been unable to do on its own. 
So let’s suspend the rhetoric and give the law a fair chance to work.
Read the Supreme Court's full ruling here.