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.