Monday, June 23, 2008

taking the tax out of taxachusetts

Saw a bumper sticker in Cambridge the other day (next to a Ron Paul sticker!) encouraging people to vote Yes in November to ban income taxes in Massachusetts. Finding this more than a bit incredulous, I had to check out the website to see if it was a joke or if it was some radical-fringe thing that was far too good of an idea to ever take hold among the masses. And, to my surprise, there really is an initiative afloat to ban state income tax. And, yes, it got enough signatures to be put to a state-wide vote in November.

I find it amazing that, in a state like this, such an initiative could gain so much ground. I suppose I'm going to have to stop using Taxachusetts as the butt of my liberal jokes because there are apparently a lot of right-thinking people somewhere in this state. It would seem to be a safe assumption that such a thing would be voted down in a landslide, but according to the website, the polls are about even (46% opposed to the initiative, 45% in favor). Granted, some of those people may be the "Great, I'll just stop paying state income taxes and still get all my goodies!" types whose "positions" are in no way the result of any logical thought process, but in this rare case their lack of intelligence could actually benefit the whole of the population.

Maybe this is the result of too much too fast by the state government. You know what they say about a frog in hot water...perhaps the state went so crazy with income taxes that enough people woke up and started taking some real action to halt the madness. Or, less likely but possible still, maybe there's starting to be a shift in popular opinion away from massive, bureaucracy-laden programs that fail with near-absolute reliability.

Either way, the fact is that a ban on state income tax would radically change my opinion of this state and put it on the short list of places I'd be willing to consider settling down in. Of course, I'd have to wait and see how the government went about stealing money with the ban in place. One thing we all know is no government will just roll over and allow its funding to shrink without trying some new and creative ways to keep the gravy train flowing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Been a busy weekend, which is of course a good thing. Despite not going to church in Cambridge like I had intended to (see previous post), I still walked over from the Common and wandered a little, mainly just the college and in between. It did take up most of the afternoon though. In particular, walking through a little of MIT was kinda strange. (It only took me 12 years to get there, but better late than never.) Seeing people studying through the library windows, I was glad to not be them...yet I also envied them a little. I had wanted to be that caliber of student back in the day but just never was, and here I am looking at people who are doing what I never had an opportunity to do, or at least squandered what opportunity I did have if it was ever there. Oh well, we all have our limitations I guess.

Another odd thing is the story behind the statue. I don't know how it got there but I'd love to find out. That's because it claims Harvard founded the college when it's fairly well-known that he didn't. The Freedom Trail guidebook actually addresses this briefly:
This park [John Harvard Mall, near the Bunker Hill Monument] was laid out in the 1940s in honor of John Harvard, a "sometime minister of God's word" who lived nearby. When Harvard died in 1638, he left his library and half his money -- some 320 books and more than 800 pounds -- to the still-unnamed college at Cambridge. In return for this generous bequest, it was ordered that the college "shalbee called Harvard College." Contrary to popular belief, John Harvard was not the college's founder, nor did he have any association with the school until he was on his deathbed.
So I guess the powers that be sometime in Harvard's history thought it'd be good to be able to claim an individual founder? Quite a testament to Harvard's unwavering commitment to the truth and factual evidence, eh? It was then as it is now.

And...more pics...

west side of the New State House, had to get away from there fast to avoid choking on the thick stench of liberalism in the air

Charles River Dam, and rain clouds that briefly forced me into the Museum of Science

Longfellow Bridge

again, better late than never

I suppose this is to be expected at an institution where apparently science is the god of the day, but it's a reminder that I wouldn't have missed some things about MIT

the John Harvard "founder" statue, ignore the random guy in the picture

entryway to the Harvard mall, statue in distance

T on weekends = useless

First, though, let me rant for a while about how horrible the public transportation system up here is. Every Sunday I've tried to use it so far, it has failed me. When I went to Christ the King's morning service three weeks ago, there was some kind of maintenance going on along the line and they made us all get off at a station, board buses and be driven to the next station, then go get on another trail -- in effect skipping a link in the rail system at the expense of at least 20 minutes added time to the trip. I should have been early but wound up 15 or so minutes late, and that's even without getting lost like I usually do when in a new area for the first time.

I decided I'd see how the drive into downtown was, which meant I was going to Citylife Church's morning service since they have parking available at the hotel garage. Well, I did that the previous two weeks and neither attempt went great. I learned that the GPS is hopeless among tall buildings, as it can't keep good enough satellite contact to reliably track me through the city streets. So, yeah, when I really need it to work, in the middle of downtown with streets flying by and no familiar landmarks, that's when it craps out. Wonderful. The first time I showed up a half-hour or so after the service started and so I had to kill time in Boston until the evening service -- not necessarily bad but I'd have rather gone to church in the morning and had the rest of the day left uninterrupted to explore. Last week I miraculously arrived in time for the morning service but had an awesome time crossing a few bridges and burning a few gallons of gas before finally getting out of the city.

So, having decided to put driving to rest for a bit and give the T another chance, I made a second attempt to ride the subway out to Christ the King for the morning service. And, what happened? A repeat performance, this time due to a different section of track being out of service which would have resulted in a longer delay than last time. Running a little tighter for time this morning, and disgusted with yet another unexpected setback thanks to the T system, I just got off and hiked to Citylife's service instead of trying to continue the journey out to Cambridge. So that's a perfect 2-for-2 now with me planning to ride the T only to get rebuffed by unexpected maintenance. One would think they'd at least post a sign at each station, or at least the end station, about the maintenance, but no. I guess that'd make things too easy to figure out. Who knows.

I can't help but wonder why people elsewhere seem so high on Boston's public transit system. I guess it's necessary on weekdays just because traffic is so bad, so maybe it's one of those things that shines a little brighter when compared to the alternative. But on weekends it's anything but reliable. Washington's Metro was far better I think. I can't remember ever getting kicked around like a soccer ball while riding that, and the trains and stations are even cleaner, hard as that is to believe. Here some lines branch outside of the city, too, so I can be on one train and have to get off and wait 15 minutes at the station for the next train to come so I end up at the right end station. In case it's not obvious, I'm not impressed.

Unfortunately, transportation, including mass transit, could weigh heavily on what church I eventually decide to start attending full-time. Among the two I've visited, one seems preferable in some ways (has Sunday School, probably older and less college-ish congregation, slightly more traditional) but is all but out of reach due to the lack of reliable mass transit combined with the lack of ample parking space nearby, and the other hasn't been too bad and is more convenient for driving and downtown stuff but one I've felt very much like an outsider in during the few times I've been. It's a heck of a way to choose a church, but it seems that my decision may already be made on the basis of accessibility alone. One thing that could work in my favor is Citylife has a classical service early on Sunday morning and that could actually be the best one of the lot, but the early start time has been an insurmountable barrier to my attendance so far. I suppose it might also be time to broaden my church search to include not just PCA churches but whatever remotely reformed congregations I can locate in the area.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

almost halfway there

Here's a random fact that anyone paying attention to baseball (anyone?) is well aware of. We're almost to the All-Star Break and the Cubs are still treating the rest of the league like their footstool. Should we be surprised? Of course not, it's not like the Cubs haven't been the best team in the league since the start of the season. In fact, I'm beginning to think I should go ahead and give my supervisor a heads-up that I'll be missing some days in the early November time frame. After squandering chances to see the Bears in the Stupid Bowl and see an NBA Finals game right in my backyard, only if I'm dead will I miss out on seeing the Cubs crush the first opponent to visit Wrigley for a World Series game in 63 years.

cape cod rail trail and more

Finally did some real biking yesterday, for the first time this year. Actually got out to the Cape, too, so two firsts in the same day! I ended up doing almost all biking and very little sightseeing except from the trail, so I still need to make at least one more trip out. Despite an early (for me) start and using up all the daylight I could to put in better than 70 miles of pedaling, I have some unfinished business to take care of on the bike too, as there are a few smaller trails that I wasn't able to get to. But next time I'll hopefully be a little more prepared to take on the surprisingly (and painfully) steep hills on some trails and the brutal headwind that tortured me for the most of the return leg of the main trip. That constant wind from one direction may be an unfortunate reality that I have to get used to out here, being near the ocean and all.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail is a decent day ride that also has some good side trails. In fact, I thought my best ride of the day was out to Nauset Light and back. (I'd call it a lightHOUSE, but apparently they're just called "lights" in these parts.) The scenery on the Cape is plenty diverse to make for a good trip -- beaches and dunes, dense forests, small lakes, towns, and even some hills. As a side note, it's very surprising how hilly some areas around here are -- nothing like the Maryland part of the Atlantic coast I'm used to.

I did get a few pictures, of course. A funny thing with bike trails is that the scenery is mostly just countryside or town/city stuff so there's not a whole lot to take a picture of. It's quite unlike hiking out west or roaming in distant lands, where everything looks photo-worthy when you first see it. I only took pics when I stopped at a side destination or landmark.

Anyway, pictures...

boardwalk bridge on Cape Cod Rail Trail (that's a lake on the left)

boardwalk to Coast Guard Beach

as true today as in 1927

Nauset Light -- a real, actual, operating lighthouse (ocean is to the right)

yes, folks, that's a paved road leading straight off a ~30' cliff -- they're aren't kidding about beaches around here eroding (Nauset Beach, eastern side of the Cape)

Herring Cove Beach, northwestern tip of the Cape (the beach extends further in the other direction but that was looking toward the sun)

looking north or so from the Province Lands trail near Herring Cove (that's rain over the water, thankfully it never came ashore)

sunset at Herring Cove

Saturday, June 14, 2008

demographic winter

As it usually happens, whenever I start reading Chuck Colson's Breakpoint emails after some time away, I seem to choose good ones to read. Some things don't change I guess. This past week he had a three-part series on demographics that was so interesting I just now ordered the heretofore unknown documentary he was referring to. The producer makes the case that changing worldviews and the exaggeration of the "population bomb" threat in decades past has made underpopulation a huge threat to a lot of societies — not just the usual suspects like Japan and Europe, and not just in developed nations either. And from what Chuck had to say, he makes a pretty convincing case.

For one, if you compare birthrates of a nation to that nation's economic growth (or decline) 45-50 years later, the producer claims you'll find that they match each other very closely. There are a few reasons for this. For one, middle-aged people tend to be both the prime producers and prime contributors in an economy. They have the experience and the energy to be the most productive with their time, and they have to provide for their families. And in a consumer-driven society, they're the ones spending the most money. Young people, especially nowadays, don't yet have money to spend in large quanties — or they damage their own economic future and thus the country's by doing it anyway. They're too occupied with saving and paying off their college debts, in itself a crippling effect with increasing consequences to the economy, to worry about someone else's. Older folks tend to spend much less, being in the mode of conserving what they have and no longer spending lots of money to support a family.

Perhaps the main reason, though, is that throughout history, from early civilizations to the present and everywhere in the world, it's been the trend for the middle-aged in society to care for both the old and the young. History and common sense both show there's just no way around this. So it's imperative for a robust economy to have a significant portion of its population of prime working age so that their generation can care for others and still propel the economy. If that sizeable middle-aged population is missing from a society, then those who are relied upon to keep the economy moving are instead stretched too thin with caring for proportionally oversized elderly and/or younger populations to have much left for themselves or their own families. One can debate the pros and cons of how to care for others all day, but the economic facts of yesteryear show such a demographic imbalance to be an obstacle to the growth and overall health of a society.

Case in point: take Japan. According to Breakpoint, the Japanese did not experience a baby boom after WWII like the U.S. and other nations did. So in the 90's, their previously booming economy hit hard times and still hasn't recovered. And the demographic imbalance there is only getting worse, to the point that Japan is seen as the example of what can happen if the replacement rate for a generation dips too low. Colson also cites Latvia as a place where this is happening, and Russia and China have "demographic catastrophies" on the horizon unless drastic action is taken to reverse the trend. This far along the course, I'm not sure that's even possible.

Speaking of catastrophies, does anyone else think this applies greatly to the U.S. as well? We have a huge chunk of our population that has been the movers and shakers in our economy for so many years that is fast approaching retirement. This isn't a news flash, of course, but it's yet another reminder that we have a freight train of a problem coming our way and seem content to just stand back and watch the wreck that's about to happen. But I guess that's an unsurprising result in a culture that tells people to look out for their own best interests above and beyond those of their countrymen or their country itself.

Something that surprised me is the fact that the problem is not limited to western civilizations. Countries like Mexico, Thailand, and Burma are also mentioned in the rundown. And in the case of Mexico, this affects not just the Mexican economy, of course, but ours in the U.S. as well. Many justify or at least brush off the low birthrate among U.S. women with the reasoning that we'll just continue to grow our population and our economy by importing labor to do what the shrinking native-born workforce won't do or doesn't have the manpower to do. But what if that labor supply also shrinks? Mexico's economy could slow down more and more as its prime laborers continue to head north in larger percentages. Or ours could slow down if labor in Mexico becomes so hard to find that opportunities improve enough there to keep workers in the country or they don't leave because there's no one else to care for their families. Another possibility is that the Mexican economy will continue to become even more dependent on American dollars flowing back across the border as more workers are needed here and domestic industries decline there. That doesn't strike me as a good arrangement for either country.

There was a lot more in those Breakpoints that isn't addressed here, but I'll mention one more thing in closing. What's the most reliable antidote to this demographic imbalance problem and also an indicator of future economic success? You guessed it, the prevalence of religious faith among a population. Colson puts it well:
Ultimately, the documentary makes the reality of demographic winter, and its consequences, brutally clear. It also makes it clear that the demographic decline it documents is not the result of some plague or other biological agent — it is the predictable product of our worldviews and values. Any society that devalues marriage, that encourages people to place career above family, that embraces abortion, will see its fertility rates plummet.

But, as Spengler and others have pointed out, the root of the problem is "the decline of religious faith." Loss of faith in the world to come leaves us grasping for everything we can get in this one, even at the expense of future generations. Not surprisingly, the exception to these demographic changes is among religious believers, who take seriously the command to be fruitful and multiply — who believe in the family and see children as a gift from God. Their belief in the world to come makes them fruitful in this one. And, it makes it urgent to know and articulate our worldview to others while we can.
Good closing words, those.

Here's a very good article from the Breakpoint references that's actually encouraging as far as our cultural future is concerned. At least go read the awesome opening quote.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

new camera

So my trusty old Canon finally crapped out on me. That thing had seen everything from the constant heat of the Egyptian desert to the ice cold water of a stream in the Grand Canyon and managed to hold out through all that. But it just couldn't take the move to Boston I guess. Oh well, overall a reliable and easy-to-use camera, even if the photo quality of high-contrast landscape pictures wasn't something to write home about.

Well, most of the pics I shoot are of high-contrast landscape settings. As tempted as I was to get another Canon just for their reliability (and the ease of being able to use AA batts), I wanted something with some proven picture-taking quality. I know a few folks with Sony's and their pictures always seem to come out well, and Consumer Reports ranks their subcompact models right at the top of the list for quality and overall value both, so I decided to try one of those out this time.

So...the new camera. So far it's very nice. The 10-megapixel, 3200 ISO, and 5x optical zoom are probably overkill (by a lot) for my picture-taking skills, but the high ISO should at least help prevent blurry pictures in dark settings. Small enough to carry in a pocket (big deal on hiking trips for which loading and unloading a backpack can be a pain both figuratively and literally), big LCD screen, easy to use (though I haven't even scratched the surface of its features yet), and seems to take good pictures outdoors. It's very fast too, with much less first-shot and next-shot delay than I'm used to.

The only downside so far has been cost. That's a big one though, and thankfully so far this guy has been worth the hefty upcharge. It's a good $100 more than many comparable models and even considerably more expensive than other Sony's, even with the decent price I got at Circuit City. (Those people must rejoice every time they see me walk in the door now.) Consumer Reports said its only drawback was the lack of indication for the shutter being adjusted and ready to shoot, but I played with the options for a few minutes and figured out how to add that feature as well as very helpful gridlines on the screen. This should make one wonder just how much the CR gurus really play with the cameras they test as opposed to just checking a handful of basic capabilities. One thing that concerns me is the whole too much heat and not enough space to dissipate it thing, but time will tell whether or not that's a factor.

Overall I'm impressed. I can't recommend it yet, but it's a Sony and I paid good money (to me) for it so I have high hopes.

a small event that changed history?

Here's an interesting quote from a Freedom Trail guide I bought yesterday about an event at the Old South Church:
On March 6, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren delivered an oration "perpetuating the memory of the horrid massacre" [i.e. the Boston Massacre] on its fifth anniversary. Again thousands of people packed the meeting-house, so tightly that Warren had to climb in through a window.

Legend has it that a British ensign was planning to throw an egg at Warren at the first sign of treason. In the ensuing confusion, all of the town's leading patriots -- including Warren, [Sam] Adams, and Hancock -- were to have been arrested. It was a wonderful plan, except for one thing. The ensign fell on his way to the meeting, breaking his leg (as well as the egg), and he never showed up.
Although the book says it's only legend, I bet there's some truth to it. Pretty funny and interesting, and also a reminder that small events can have a great impact on history.

freedom trail

I wandered a bit of the Freedom Trail yesterday afternoon and finally got some pics of Boston (with the new camera, but more on that later). I did more wandering and looking than purposeful walking really, so I figure I only covered about a third of the trail. But I saw a lot of good sites, like the Granary Burial Ground, the Old South Church, and the Old State House. There was also some kind of farmers'/produce market that caused great trouble for anyone attempting to follow the Trail through it, a street entertainment thing with performers that were good enough to get some of my cash, some sort of military bands show in Faneuil Hall, and other oddities that I didn't expect to see. Overall a good time, but there's a lot along the Trail so I'll have to allot at least another afternoon to it.

Anyway, some pics are below. Note the balcony on the Old State House that came in handy for open-air oratories. There's also an open-air pulpit on the second story of the Park Street Church that faces the street corner (it's very hard to see in the picture) -- now there's a church feature you don't see much of anymore. I couldn't get a better shot of the Old North Church because it was closed, and so this was my stopping point for the day. And for you who don't follow even the basics of sports, the Garden in the last picture is where the Celtics will host the Lakers tonight in Game 2 of the NBA finals.

Park Street Church from the Boston Common

Self-explanatory, in Granary Burial Ground

Old South Meeting-House (i.e. Old South Church)

Old State House

Awesome street performer

Rose Kennedy Greenway (I think)

Old North Church

Zakim Bridge (over the Charles River) and TD Banknorth Garden