CWW: Big Lots is Coming

I noticed a Big Lots sign on the Greendale Mall a couple of weeks ago (sorry, no picture) and thought I was hallucinating, but then Dee confirmed that, yes, Big Lots is coming to the Greendale Mall in early November.

I love Big Lots.  It’s my primary source for Tom’s of Maine Cinnamint toothpaste, blue nail polish on deep discount, Dinosaur Soap (which we now have enough of a supply to last until we grow out of dinosaurs and into Legos), the random DeCecco product, and whatever else looks good. 

I believe my husband likes Big Lots because he has this conspiracy theory about how the dental establishment is forcing out firm-bristled toothbrushes, and his hobby is scouring odd lots stores for the firmest bristled toothbrushes he can find. 

Big Lots is also to blame for our owning nearly every character, major and minor, from Bob the Builder, in tiny die-cast detail.  Seriously, how many excavators can one stop-motion character (and, I suppose, his on-again-off-again-girlfriend/sexual harrassment lawsuit waiting to happen) possess before someone arranges for an intervention?

If you join the Big Lots Buzz Club, you can occasionally get a 20% off coupon.

Once it opens, I hope to do a post comparing this one to the one in Fitchburg (because the selection and vibe of a BL tends to be different from one store to the next).

Beware the boys and girls of Charlton

A quick drive through the western suburbs recently leads me to surmise that the knicker-clad lads of Charlton are in the habit of kicking soccer balls into the street . . .

. . . and that the befrocked Charlton lassies are just clumsy (like those in Auburn), and likely to hurtle into the roadway as I pass.

In my travels through Charlton, though, I have seen many squirrels and an occasional deer in the road, but no children.  Perhaps they’ve got the clumsy & clueless quarantined in some other part of town.

Free Business/Social Media Seminars

Via frequent commenter/person who will always meet me in the wee hours to pick up trash, Bob Q:

The New England Business Expo will be at the DCU Center on Thursday, October 28, and there will be numerous (free) seminars on social media for business owners.  For example:

1. Online Video Marketing

2. How to Network and use LinkedIn

3. Develop an Effective Social Media Marketing Strategy for Your Business

4. Social Networking Sites: A Double-Edged Sword for Employers

On Privatization

I’d taped an episode of Coffee with Konnie last Thursday morning (which was an experience, and which deserves a separate post), and she sprung a question on me which I wasn’t prepared for.  The question was what I felt about privatizing Hope Cemetery.  So I was not completely surprised to see this order on today’s City Council agenda:

10d. Request City Manager report on what savings, if any, can be realized from the sale/transfer or privatization of city owned garages and parking lots, Hope Cemetery and the DCU/Convention Center. (Lukes)  

I feel strongly about privatization, or, rather, against privatization, but I don’t think I was able to express why and how I feel on camera (we’ll see, I suppose, but I think I had a look of horror on my face, followed by some sputtering).  There’s a reason I have a blog and not a vlog; I really do need time to think about what I want to say, and I don’t do terribly well on the fly.  Also, I talk with my hands and have big hair.

Why privatize?

The move toward “privatization” in many areas is a tacit admission that in some (though certainly not all) areas, governments in the past have bitten off more than they can chew — either the government solution became too cumbersome, too expensive, or the well-intentioned champions of old failed to see where their efforts would lead 50 years later.

It’s ok to admit this failure, and admit that perhaps someone else or some other entity might be better at doing a certain worthwhile thing.  (Konnie mentioned the example of City Hospital, which is an example of a formerly city-owned entity that has morphed into something else.)  Or even that it might be a worthwhile thing better left to individuals.  In some instances, despite hassles & expense, government is in a better position to do certain things, and “society” may be worse off if we hand these functions to someone else.

Why the thought of Worcester privatizing certain services scares me

Worcester is notoriously bad at making sensible choices about its future, so these decisions (to privatize or not) are full of opportunities for well-intentioned city councilors, local demagogues, opportunists & random dunderheads to grasp failure out of the jaws of success.  Government and its hangers-on are often as short-sighted and clumsy in their “privatization” efforts as they were years ago when government took on all sorts of roles willy-nilly without regard to whether it really ought to have.

We ought to ask ourselves first and foremost — regardless of whether government ought to have taken on X (because in many cases it probably oughtn’t have done) — is there an overall benefit now to shift that responsibility to some other entity for the foreseeable future?  That overall benefit needs to take a lot more things into account now, including all of the liabilities that government heedlessly created for itself as it assumed more and more responsibilities.  (And, of course, whether those liabilities will be mitigated by any privatization efforts, but more on that in a few paragraphs.)

The decisions are going to require better brains than Worcester possesses.  (I have absolutely no confidence that Worcester will ever be capable of an intelligent governmental decision.  I don’t mean that to be offensive; I think Worcester does many activities that require no vision quite well.  I have just not agreed with any major project the city has had a hand in that has occurred in the past fifty years.)

What concerns me is the wholesale assumption that corporations do things more efficiently than government.  Corporations are in the business of making money — ostensibly to make money for shareholders, though I think the excesses that occurred after certain bank bailouts made it clear that even the shareholders must defer to the desires of upper executives.  I’ll say that again: corporations are in the business of making money.  And they can make money one of two ways, when it comes to performing functions that the government previously did: by paying people less, or by just plain doing less.

It’s the former that I worry about the most.  Konnie also asked me what I would feel about library privatization, and I outlined what I said here: that Worcester already pays nearly nothing compared to every other community, and that I’m not sure what savings we’d gain from privatization.

But what about the pension liability? she asked.

I admitted that I haven’t a clue about pension liabilities, and I’m sure it’s something to worry about.  But I know what privatization would bring: we’d fire all the librarians, a private library corporation would hire them back at much less than what they’re worth, and the employees would pay into Social Security rather than a pension.  Those who’d paid 20+ years into their pension would be officially screwed: upon retirement, they wouldn’t get a full pension, and they would have their Social Security reduced by their pension.  Privatization would do nothing about those employees who are currently receiving pensions.

And — of course– we’re subsidizing Social Security as well.  All that would happen would be to shift the “we”-as-taxpayers-of-Worcester to the “we”-as-federal-taxpayers.  We’d force people to take a significant pay cut and we ultimately wouldn’t “save” anything, but we’d just shift our taxes, or our subsidies, from one area to another.

Two Visions for our Posterity

I asked Konnie where privatization would end — privatizing parks?  And she really delighted in that idea.  I said that I felt that we were taking everything good about government and were willing to sell our children’s future for short-term gains.

Oh, the children, she said.  When people talk about the children, they’re really talking about raises for themselves.

(As an aside, when I mention children, I’m actually thinking about children — my own and the others of their generation, and the generations that will follow.  And perhaps Konnie’s also worried about them in a different way — that she doesn’t want them saddled with the cost and bureaucracy of the bad decisions of the past.  I’m worried that they won’t have anything — parks, libraries, good schools — with which they can continue the democratic experiment of which I’m so fond.)

Like the teachers, I said, who agreed to less salary in exchange for paying less of a percentage of their benefit premiums, and who are now being portrayed as being greedy?

You see, there are people in the media who will claim that there’s a “boat-load” of teachers making over $100,000.  That twenty or thirty or forty years ago, public school teachers were holy unmercenaries who would have taught for crumbs of bread and a glass of water once a week, but now the teachers are money-grubbers who dare ask for a wage commensurate with holding a master’s degree and for the city to not rewrite history when it comes to previous collective bargaining agreements.

Good teachers are worth paying a premium for, whether in salaries, benefits, or both.  I think most people would agree that too much of our tax dollar is spent, not on salaries for outstanding teachers and for quality school buildings, but on things like administration, unfunded state & federal mandates, and the salaries of lackluster/deadweight teachers  who are protected from firing by union contracts.  Government usually doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to tackle the excesses & trim the dead weight, because it’s beholden to special interests for votes & campaign dollars, or to state/federal government for various bits of largesse.  Some feel that because of this governmental cowardice, privatization is the only way to clear the deck, which unfortunately tosses the baby (the high quality teachers) out with the bathwater.  The best solution would be a government with guts & common sense, but unless Tracy Novick can be cloned, that ain’t happening.

So, yes, I understand the concern that we will be passing on debt to our children, grandchildren, and beyond.  But any concern about that must also be tempered with an overall vision of the positive aspects of our legacy — we must remain concerned with giving our children/grandchildren a quality education, with giving them access to books and other media, with giving them access to excellent recreational and cultural opportunities, just as much as we must worry about the cost (current and future) of those things and not saddling those children/grandchildren with ever-increasing debt.

We can either look at all of these things — parks, cemeteries, schools, libraries — as burdens that our society should offload onto the most willing taker, or we can look at them as part of what makes our society civilized.  It’s entirely fair to examine how we’re funding these things — and I’m sure that each of my readers can present a list of areas where they feel things can be improved.  And it may sometimes prove difficult to make any of those improvements through the City Council or the City Manager.  But if key services/amenities are privatized, what further recourse will you have for grievances with a private entity/corporation?  Voting with your feet/dollars?  That might work at the shopping mall, but not at the local library or park.  Let’s not just look at the dollar figure in the budget that could be “saved”, but what will be lost — be it in the areas of quality, universal access, local control, etc.

That moment when Konnie asked me about privatization is emblematic of how we as a community can get polarized over these issues — one camp wanting to preserve resources/amenities for themselves and future generations, and the other camp wanting to keep costs down for themselves, their children and future generations.  As in most things, both sides have important priorities that don’t need to be mutually exclusive.  When the topic of privatization comes up tonight, I hope that cooler heads may prevail and that we as a community may prefer to search for creative/constructive ways to address budget issues instead of chasing quick fixes.

(note: I don’t have exact quotes from either Konnie or me, so I’ve related the rough outline of our conversation in italics.  Any misrepresentations of that conversation are, of course, mine.)

Worcester CityFarm

As mentioned here and here, Dave Goldberg’s vision for CityFarm is coming together:

CityFarm is a development plan for 10 acres of downtown Worcester. It will feature renewable energy sources and high-tech experiments in sustainability. Through webcams it will offer unparalleled educational opportunities anywhere on earth. There will be partnerships with area colleges and attractions bringing locals and tourists to downtown Worcester. CityFarm is an urban model for food production in the 21st century. It will put Worcester on the worldwide map much like with modern rocketry nearly one hundred years previous.

If you’d like more information, you can visit Dave’s Facebook page; he’ll also be creating a fan page for CityFarm on FB as well.

Sundaes on Sunday


via the WPL website:
The Worcester Public Library at 3 Salem Square, Worcester Massachusetts, will be open 24 Sundays from 1:30 to 5:30 P.M. starting Sunday, October 24, 2010 through April 17, 2011. Funds from the city will pay for seventeen of the open Sundays; the remaining seven will be funded by donations received by the Worcester Public Library Foundation.

To celebrate, a ‘Sundays-at-the-Library’ kickoff will take place on October 24, 2010.

Enjoy a free ice cream sundae to celebrate the library’s Sunday openings!

Attend a special authortalk featuring mystery writer Rosemary Herbert. From 2:30p.m to 4:00p.m., the author will discuss her book Front Page Teaser, which includes a key scene at the Worcester Public Library!

Also on Sunday…the library will be unveiling the new DiscXpress II (DX2) machine.  The DX2 is the library’s new DVD Self-Check and Dispensing station.  Patrons can browse the new DX2 DVD selections and then easily use the self-check and dispensing station for their feature films, children’s films, anime and more!  The library have over 2000 brand new DX2 DVDs!

A few other library items of interest:

Head librarian Mark Contois was on Coffee with Konnie a month or so ago.

Teen librarian Rezarta Reso was on Soapbox (not talking about the library).

Pingsheng Chen recently made a presentation on implementing new technologies in reference services.

(Image: Worcester, Massachusetts Mural, a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 image from Jimmy Emerson’s photostream.)

A dash of modernity for Luddites & Cheap Yanks

It will come as no great surprise to my regular readers to learn that I watch TV on one of the older/bulkier CRT sets, and that I was not among the hordes who dashed out to buy a flat-screen digital television when the FCC mandated that transmissions all be digital by June of last year.  That’s because I’m frugal and couldn’t care less about the “latest & greatest” technology being pursued by the masses.  Anyway, I have bad eyesight & my husband has lousy hearing, so high-definition & surround-sound would be wasted on us.

Unless you’ve been in a coma or hiding in your secluded mountaintop retreat, you probably know that the older sets (like mine) that used to be able to pull in analog television broadcasts are incapable of processing the new digital signals.  So you could upgrade to a digital TV, buy a digital converter box (or get a no-frills one free via government coupon), or subscribe to cable/satellite television service.

The digital transition last year didn’t affect my household, as we’ve been very satisfied subscribers to Dish Network for about 10 years — we currently have a satellite receiver that has a built-in hard drive DVR so that we can record programs (sort of like TiVO but without subscription fees).  You may or may not know that the one weakness in satellite service is the provision of local channels.  You can use an antenna and pull the locals in yourself (we did this for about 7 years), or you can pay your satellite provider a bit extra to have them included in your channel line-up (we did this the last couple of years).

Because we weren’t directly affected by the digital transition, I confess that my husband and I didn’t pay close attention to what exactly was going on in the over-the-air world of television broadcasting.  Then one day earlier this year my husband heard of a show on PBS he wanted to watch, and couldn’t seem to find it on any of the PBS affiliates we’ve been getting in our “local channels” package.  He discovered then that many broadcast channels now have “sub-channels“, and our satellite “locals” didn’t include those!

I’m probably one of the last to discover these “sub-channels”, and if so, feel free to skip this paragraph — it’ll be old news to you.  For those few of you who didn’t already know, these extra channels became possible because digital transmissions use less bandwidth within a particular channel’s frequency than the old analog transmissions.  PBS, for instance, now transmits 6 channels from Boston over the same bandwidth that once could only hold two analog broadcasts — channels 2 & 44.

If you’ve been paying for cable television throughout last year’s transition, you’ve probably just noticed a few extra channels in your on-screen guide, so perhaps the note above will have been news to you also.  Cable subscribers have usually received most local channels, even in the basic packages, and given what cable subscribers pay, they certainly ought to.

Anyway, the discovery of these “sub-channels” has caused my family to rethink some  decisions — and no, we haven’t switched to Charter.  My husband did some homework and discovered that Dish Network had created a digital converter that has a built-in hard drive, like our existing satellite receiver/DVR.  It’s called the DTVpal, and we’ve had one since last spring.  Despite being marketed by Dish Network, there are no fees involved with this device — just attach a coaxial cable from your existing over-the-air antenna and you’re off & running.

So when it’s time for us to renew our subscription to Dish Network service, we’ll be kissing their “locals package” goodbye, thanks to the DTVpal.

I could have gotten one of the government’s free converter boxes, of course, but to record programs I’d still need to pipe them into a VCR or DVD recorder, and I’ve grown attached to recording shows to a hard drive in my satellite receiver.  For that reason, the DTVpal was the perfect choice — and the interface & remote are very similar to what we have enjoyed on the satellite receiver.

This post is primarily a “heads-up” to those folks who’ve been getting local channels through a satellite provider, and also for those people who only get the over-the-air channels, and who might like to have the ability to digitally convert *and* record shows.

my new pal

The DTVpal was sold exclusively by Sears at first, though you can now find them on eBay and on a few websites, because — unfortunately — the DTVpal has been discontinued.  For the quickest of my readers, there’s a very reasonably-priced new-in-the-box DTVpal being offered on a nearby Craigslist site for even less than we paid for ours.  And even better bargains can be had if you don’t mind a second-hand unit from eBay.

If you prefer something new, there’s an identical product now being offered by Channel Master called the CM-7000PAL DVR, which will cost you about $100 more.

To give you a sense of what’s “extra” out there now in the digital spectrum, here is a list of the channels my DTVpal currently brings in:

2.1 7.1 10.1 13.1 26.3 38.1 48.1 62.2 69.1
2.2 7.2 10.2 13.2 27.1 44.1 56.1 64.1 69.2
4.1 7.3 11.1 23.1 28.1 44.2 58.1 64.2 69.3
5.1 8.1 11.2 25.1 28.2 44.3 58.2 68.1 72.1
6.1 8.2 11.3 26.1 36.1 44.4 58.3 68.2 72.2
6.2 9.1 12.1 26.2 36.2 46.1 62.1 68.3 74.2

A few of the new channels are simply high-definition versions of the same thing being broadcast on another sub-channel in the same frequency.  Several channels above just aren’t of interest to me or my family.  And a few of the above channels have weak signals — in case you didn’t know, with digital broadcasts, there are no “snowy” channels, you either receive the signal or it cuts out completely.  When all is said & done, that leaves a LOT of local channels, far more than I’ve ever received over the air on an analog TV, and about as many as my husband used to get from Greater Media Cable’s “basic package” in the 1980s — but this time for free.

I recommend that you explore what’s out there.  In particular, I enjoy several programs on the Rhode Island & New Hampshire PBS affiliates (hello, Doc Martin), and the Boston PBS affiliate at channel 44 has sub-channels for niche interests like children’s television & home improvement.  You might just discover something “extra” on digital television that you didn’t previously know was available to you.

Burns Bridge Borings

Via MassDOT — borings (not in the “uninteresting” sense) on the Burns Bridge October 25, 26, 27

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the process of designing the replacement of the Kenneth F. Burns Memorial Bridge, which carries Route Nine over Lake Quinsigamond.

During the week of October 25, 2010, the geotechnical consultant for the Burns Bridge Replacement Project will perform a series of borings in the vicinity of the bridge. 

  • During the boring in the area between Route Nine and Lincoln Park parking lot, three parking spaces in the lot will be occupied by the drilling truck.  Drilling this boring will take one day, two at the most.
  • Borings on Route Nine will have to be conducted at night (9 PM to 6 AM) when one lane of traffic can be shut down. Closing your windows will help to minimize the noise impact of this work.
  • Borings will take place around the central arch of the existing bridge on the following dates: 10/25, 10/26 and 10/27. During this time period, expect this arch to be fully or partially blocked. 

For additional information, please visit the Burns Bridge Project Website.