Bill Weye

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A hole in the Columbia Gas explosion story

The hole in the ground where the Scores strip club used to be isn’t the only hole in Springfield this morning.

Media reporting has left a gaping, unexplained hole after Columbia Gas admitted the cause of the explosion on Worthington Street was human error.

Here’s a basic timeline of what happened Friday, November 23:

  • potential gas leak reported
  • 4:05pm Columbia gas shows up
  • 4:20pm Columbia gas punctures the pipe
  • Columbia gas reports the puncture and evacuation proceeds
  • 5:25pm explosion

Okay, why/how did Columbia Gas originally show up? It wasn’t for the puncture that happened at 4:20.

In fact, there have been reports of natural gas smells at Scores for some time:

On Friday night, a dancer at the club told the Globe that she had smelled gas in the building over the past four months. She said the club’s owner used deodorizers to mask the scent.

Besides, the puncture happened out on the street, at the building foundation. In one hour how does an overpowering gas smell move from outside to inside the building on the second floor?

Lastly, except for one story in the Boston Globe, media members seem to be afraid to speak with strippers that worked at Scores.  It might upset some sensibilities, but talking to the strippers might push this story along.

Photo from WBUR/AP.

What a 2nd grade teacher did this summer

School teachers do all kinds of things in the summer. Hang out, travel, spend time with their families, learn.

My sister Patty took one of her former students, now in the fourth grade, to the zoo. From the story I heard, the little boy has lived a rough life. Already. He was a behavior problem in school, which probably had something to do with having a less than stable home.

Patty brought the student under her wing, staying in touch with him and his family, inside and out of school. At the end of his year in my sister’s class, the boy won a bicycle for being the most improved student. He didn’t know what to do with it. He’d never ridden a bike.

If you were to ask my sister’s colleagues at the elementary school she teaches at, some might say she’s a strange bird. She taught in an inner city school with inner city problems (Springfield, MA); left for a plum job in the suburbs, only to get bored and realize those kids didn’t need her; then come back to the city because the job was more rewarding.

Students in Patty’s class get presents from her at Christmas. Don’t think just pens, pencils, and paper. Depending on the student, the present is more likely to be underwear, socks, or other essentials.

Sometimes, that’s the way teachers in an inner city school roll.

Join a CSA and you’re going to know A LOT about the food source

I received Riverland Currents this morning, the weekly newsletter from the CSA (community supported agriculture) I joined this year. It was interesting, though not exactly what I was expecting. Actually, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe news about how a tractor broke down, the weather was too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, or maybe even photos showing off the sun tans the farmers have already developed?

Instead, the newsletter had a lot of talk about maggots of all varieties: seed corn maggots and cabbage root maggots, among others (the photo above is of maggots eating broccoli roots). The details about maggots and their prevention!

This has been a threat for us every year so over the last 2 years we developed a system to deal with cabbage root maggots which involves getting row cover on the crop the very same day we put it in the ground. The row cover acts as a physical barrier preventing adult maggot flies from laying eggs on the plants that in turn hatch into maggot larvae and feed on the roots of the young seedlings. After two years of great success using this row cover method this year we inexplicably were still hit hard with root maggots underneath the row cover.

Impressive stuff. I guess that’s part of what you pay for with a CSA share: information about the food source. Though I never thought about maggot news. When you’re shopping in a big grocery store with little signs proclaiming “local produce!”, they never mention maggots next to the photo of some hardscrabble Farmer Brown.

Photo by mcav0y and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Local television news will show a lot, but tell you little about a tornado

Do ever feel like you know less about what’s happening in your community after watching television for a few minutes. That happened to me when I was watching the local news stations, WWLP, WGGB, and CBS3, about the tornado that ripped through Western Massachusetts.

It’s often true, we do know less, or at least no more, after watching much of television news. The exceptions are rare, when television news reporters give relevant, useful information to the local community in the aftermath of natural disaster. After the tornado in Springfield and surrounding towns, 90% of the television news was pure bullshit.

This happens because images — photos or video — often can’t tell us what we need to know (I didn’t say what we want to know), like: how my neighbors and neighborhood is, who’s hurt, where are people gathering in the aftermath, or who do I contact if I’m hurt. An image can’t give you any of that information. A person does. Of course a person can talk over images (called a “voice-over”), and the Springfield news stations did a lot of that, to useless effect. Mostly. There’s a problem with voice-overs: if you don’t have information to tell your viewers, the segment turns into “oh, look at that roof! Look at that tree! Oh, that car was flipped over!” It’s kind of like watching auto racing for the car crashes.

The difference maker

There was one exception to the typical television news coverage in Springfield, a report done by Bill Shields on WSBK TV-38 during their 9pm news. It was an exceptional report for a number of reasons. He was on the phone without video speaking to the news anchor back in the Boston studio. Shields was reporting, using only his voice, on things he experienced. The segment lasted about 5 minutes, which is long. Most local news segments don’t stretch longer than 90 seconds. His reporting was gripping: he described both details and the big picture, he was personal, and he put his witness into a context of 30 years of news reporting in New England. Thirty years?! How come Bill Shields hasn’t been laid off yet?

What’s to be done about our crappy news?

Not to be a pessimist, but not much can be done. There are too many obstacles to making change, most of them economic. For local television stations the number one profit center is their news broadcast. They’ll never take a chance on improving the news product if it means possibly disturbing the bottom line. In fact, despite the well meaning and sometimes dedicated news folks, the television news has turned into entertainment. Mostly, it’s the amusement hour.

If you’re interested in a aftermath video, here’s a good 3 minutes a guy shot on the way to work.

Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Without Breaking The Bank, Local Businesses Can Drive Customers Using Discounts via Twitter Lists

This is a proposal for an experiment in Western Massachusetts to start our own “Twitter-pon” list. Most small businesses using Groupon don’t fair well, at the end of the day. But there’s a way around it: start a Twitter list of local businesses that offer discounts directly to customers. Here’s the logic and details:

I don’t get Groupon. Or LivingSocial, or whatever the next location-based couponing site is going to be. And there will be others. Because that business has such a low barrier to entry and the profit margins are so high, if you’ve got $50-100k anyone can do it. It’s not brain surgery.

Try Googling “groupon scam” or “groupon ripoff” and read the stories. They’re not hard to find. For consumers it’s mostly a good deal, but they’re not the ones footing the bill for the discount. It’s the local businesses, often small operations themselves, that have to pay for the discount, pay a fee to Groupon, and pay a tax on the whole thing. Restaurants in particular, because the margins are so tight, seem to suffer when they try Groupon. Ponder this: if the economy was humming along, do you think Groupon ever gets off the ground?

Phone Books, Craigslist, and Twitter

I think about those things a lot, phone books, Craigslist, and Twitter. They’re all different communication tools, but they do have one critical thing in common: they’re communication from individual people that’s aggregated into a whole new thing. What gives the phone book value is not that my friend’s phone number is inside, it’s that nearly everyone has a number inside.

The same can be said for both Craigslist and Twitter: when all the individual communication points are combined, it gives more value to each, in addition to the bunch of posts or tweets (easier to live in a city than an island by yourself).

But there’s a problem, especially with Twitter: while communication can be aggregated by following someone, sometimes that’s both too much and not enough. It’s too much because I don’t want all the communication from someone that has an interesting tweet once a month. BUT I do want that one tweet because it’s a local business and they’ve got a great discount on dry cleaning. See the problem?

The Power of @WMApons, Twitter Lists and #wmapon

There are sites that aggregate discount offer tweets from big businesses (two, here and here), but there’s not a site or tool that slices the number of businesses down even further, creating a group of businesses based on geography that offer discounts or coupons via tweets. Maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t found such a targeted group.

This might blow up in my face, but here’s the idea. I’ve created a new Twitter account called Western Mass Discounts (@WMApons) and along with that a list of the same name. Why do both? People don’t want to muck up their main Twitter feed by following a 100 different local businesses, BUT I think they would follow list of pure local business discounts.

Think of the @WMApons list as a mall full of businesses offering deals. People go to the mall because they’re in the buying mood, and that’s why people would look at the @WMApons list: because they know local business are offering deals there. Remember, living on an island is hard. Better to be in the city or mall where the commerce is happening.

How To Join @WMApons

Making this idea hum like a finely tuned engine is going to possibly require local businesses that want to join @WMApons to create another Twitter account dedicated to ONLY your discount or coupon offers. Why? Because, remember, people want deals. That’s what you want to give them. If you foul-up the list with general tweets about how great business was today, then the perceived value of the list is diminished. The more valuable the list, the greater the number of followers, and the number of potential customers increases. Pretty cool, yeah?

That’s the idea, anyhow. If you have questions or suggestions for tweaks on this experiment, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, if you’re a local business go follow @WMApons and if you’re a person looking for deals, follow the @WMApons/wmapons list.

Of course, like the phone book, Craigslist, and Twitter, the more people who use @WMApons, the more valuable it becomes.

Photo by eschipul and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Storming in Sunderland

On May 4, 2010 there was a storm that whipped through Western Massachusetts. It knocked out power to many places in the area. This video was shot in Sunderland, MA, where these types of storms are frequent in the summer.

Sugarloaf Moutain and the surrounding area is a place of sometimes turbulent, strange weather. The Native American name for the mountain is Wequamps, and is a place of myth: it’s supposed to be body of a giant, human devouring beaver who lived in the former glacial Lake Hitchcock (now the Connecticut River).

Tax resistance in Western Massachusetts [VIDEO]

In 1992 I made this 30 minute documentary about federal tax resisters in Western Massachusetts. The event precipitating the video was the arrest for nonpayment of taxes by US Marshals and IRS agents of Randy Kehler on December 3, 1991. Kehler, his wife Betsy Corner and daughter, had been living in their house since 1989 when the IRS seized it.

Path of Greatest Resistance: tax resistance in Western Massachusetts,  tries to understand the motivations of a variety of tax resisters that lived in Western Mass. along with Kehler and Corner. In addition to Kehler, featured in the video are Andrea Ayvazian, Wally Nelson, Brayton Shanley, among others.

Looking back at the video, it holds up pretty well (only the first 4 minutes make me cringe). Of course the quality isn’t up to today’s digital standards, but I think the story is still a compelling one. There are some interviews where the video is dark. Believe it or not, at the time both the Shanley’s and Wally Nelson were homesteaders — that is, they were living without electricity, so our recording was done with battery power and no extra lights.

The video is from a VHS transfer, pre-digital recording or editing. I’ve remastered the audio and created new title and credit sequences. Otherwise, the video is as it was in 1992.

Emily Harding-Morick was my primary collaborator on this project, and deserves much credit for helping me make the documentary a reality.

http://blip.tv/file/3508464

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