Brian Keaney

Month: August, 2010

4,417

St. Patrick’s Day my senior year of college was probably the worst of my life.  I wasn’t one to normally attend Eucharistic adoration, but we all knew that war in Iraq was imminent and so I went to offer up a couple prayers, for whatever they were worth, for peace.  At the end Fr. Bob stood on the altar and told us that the president would be addressing the nation shortly to announce that we were going to war for the second time in my college career.

I watched, with hundreds of my classmates and the rest of the world, as President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or face the full fury of the American military.  I was with a number of my Irish-Catholic friends that night, but we did not celebrate our patron’s feast day.  No, instead we dreaded a war that I believed then to be unjust and one that would drag in more than one of our classmates before it was over.

For the next several months my AIM away message gave the number of Americans and Iraqis who had died, gone missing, or were captured.  I stopped only when President Bush declared mission accomplished on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, but little did I know how wrong either of us was to believe that.

Had I continued, today it would reflect that the body count has risen to over 100,000 people.  That’s 100,000 dead mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children, the vast majority of whom did absolutely nothing wrong but had the extreme misfortune to be born in what was once the cradle of civilization.

Tonight I watched a very different president give a very different speech.  I could go on and on about how extremely generous he was to the administration who created the mess he inherited, but I won’t.  Instead, I want to give another number.  This number represents the number of Americans who lost their lives in Iraq since that Monday night in March.  That number is 4,417.

4,417.

Many good things have happened in Iraq since then, and for that we should be glad.  However, I am sure that comes as little comfort to the families, to the mothers, to the fathers, to the husbands, wives, and children, of those 4,417 American men and women.

I still don’t know much my prayers are worth, but tonight I’ll be once again offering them up for peace in our world, for peace in Iraq, and that those 4,417 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis may rest in eternal peace.

Where I lived, there are rainbows

I must admit that I do love rainbows.  It sounds like something a 7-year old girl would say, but when I lived in Hawai’i I really began to appreciate them.  They were stunningly beautiful at times, and scarcely a week went by that I didn’t see at least one or two.  On my visuals page I  have this picture of a rainbow rising out of the lava field at Volcano National Park on the Big Island.

I also have a number of shots on my Facebook page, including this one.  I didn’t normally bring my camera with me to work, but I was glad I did this day.  As seen from my office, this rainbow arced directly above Punchbowl, a dormant volcano right in the heart of Honolulu.

As much I like them, it’s clear that this guy was really affected by the admittedly beautiful rainbow he saw from his front yard (via Human Nature).

It’s easy enough to call the guy a kook, especially after he tells a reporter that he was physically knocked down by the “powerful rainbow rays.”  Still, I think there is something to be said for the sense of wonder this man still possesses.  When was the last time any of us were knocked down, literally or even figuratively, by something of immense beauty?  Have we really all become so cynical and jaded to the world?  I fear that I have.

As I am wont to do, I’ve been taking my Jeep out onto the beach to light a bonfire most Saturday nights this summer.   To get there requires two miles of off-roading and then four-wheeling a couple hundred yards through the dunes.  Just a few miles away is civilization, but in my head I’m worlds away.   I love the beach anyway, but there is something special about it at night.  You can truly clear your head when there is nothing around you except stars and surf and sand.

I think I was in that frame of mind more when I lived in Honolulu.  When I first moved there I noticed that I would often weave in and out of people on the sidewalk.  I wanted to get to where I was going, but the locals were perfectly content to stroll along and get there whenever they got there.  If can can, if no can no can, as they say.  I slowed down a bit after a few months, but I don’t think the New Englander in me ever completely left.

After living there I can now say with some degree of certainty that Hawai’i  is a foreign country that happens to use American currency.  It’s a place unlike any other I’ve been to in the United States, or anywhere else, for that matter.  I miss it still, and I’ll often listen to Hapa, Iz, and other Hawaiian artists at my desk and in my Jeep.  There’s something about the whole culture, and the music in particular, that just soothes the soul.

One of my favorites hapa hula songs is “Where I live, there are rainbows.”  I can’t find the particular version I like so much online, but the lyrics capture much of the magic of the place.

Where I live there are rainbows
With flowers full of color
And birds filled with song
I can smile when it’s raining
Touch the warmth of the sun
I hear children laughing
In this place that I love

(hat tip for the lyrics to Senator Gary Hooser, with whom I once worked)

Hawai’i is still a place that I love.  Someday I’ll return “and never stray, from Honolulu, in Hawai`i nei.”

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Just try

No patty-fingers, if you please. The proprieties at all times.

I don’t remember where I first heard the expression “it is far easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” but it has proven to be some of the truest, if not wisest, advice I’ve ever taken.  It’s amazing what you can do when you just do it and worry about the proprieties later.

It’s also true when you are not playing patty-fingers (or going a-walkin’ out, or going to a threshin’ party).  On my desk at work I have a full rigged ship in a bottle.  It’s nothing special, but I like the ocean and sail boats, and it brings a little color (and plenty of jokes at my expense) to my office.  I’ve had it for a few weeks now, and since I got it a few of the staysails have been caught on lines and not falling properly.

They are not a big deal and I’m sure no one has noticed them but me, but my inability to fix them by tapping on the glass or shaking the bottle has been mildly bothersome.  Today, for no particular reason, I grabbed the piece of cork firmly squeezed into the bottle’s neck and, much to my surprise, it wasn’t firmly squeezed in there at all.

Once it was out a simple tie wrap was easily inserted and knocked the offending sails back into place.  I had just assumed that the cork was too small and too tightly jammed in to be removed.  All I had to do was try and I was able to do it without much effort at all.  By challenging my own conventional wisdom I was able to accomplish what had previously vexed me.  I’m now left wondering what else I can do that I previously thought impossible.

Hollywood has given up

It being a rainy day here on the Cape, movies are in order.  My sister and her boyfriend are off to the theater – she to see Eat, Pray, Love, and The Expendables for him.  The latter, I believe, is the final proof that Hollywood has simply given up.  For the better part of a decade the summer blockbusters have either been comic books brought to the silver screen or a 1970’s or 1980’s TV show made into a feature length film.

At least some effort was made to add some originality to the remakes, however.  With the X-Men, for example, Rogue was no longer a reformed villain.  Now she is a confused teenage girl trying to find herself at Professor Xavier’s school.  The Dukes of Hazard in the Johnny Knoxville version also were not just some “good old boys, never meaning no harm.”  No, in the film they enjoyed blowing stuff up and general mayhem for its own sake.  Not exactly faithful to the original in either case, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Expendables just screams out that the film industry has finally, at long last, run out of ideas.  No longer are they even attempting to remake a former winner and try to add some sort of luster to faded glory.  They are not even bothering to come up with an original script anymore; they just throwing together a dozen or so former headliners (whose own stars have faded considerably in the decades since they were good popular) and hoping that a long list of credits will be enough to pry wallets open in a troubled economy.

Call me a snob, but I’m not wasting my money on it.  I’m staying home and watching Borat on DVD instead.  I may have seen it before, but at least Cohen came up with a unique character and concept.  That’s worth the price of admission any day.

Better teachers make for better students

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Cross posted to myDedham.org.

Since news broke on myDedham last week about the Avery School being identified for improvement by the federal government – and parents subsequently being offered the choice to transfer their kids to other schools – its been a hot topic of discussion around town.  Traffic to the blog has been way up, and when I ran into an Avery parent at a bar on the Cape last weekend it’s all we talked about.

It’s also got me thinking about the research I did in grad school.  My Master’s thesis was on what cities and towns in Massachusetts can do to improve their education systems.  My single biggest surprise was reading over and over again about just how critically important teachers are. Obviously everyone understands that they play a crucial role; without them a school is just a building full of books and kids.

However, teacher effectiveness is the single biggest variable when you look at how successful students are. It’s more important than poverty, language spoken at home, parents’ education level, and the like.  A disadvantaged student with a great teacher will leap ahead while a student with everything going for her will likely fall behind if she is stuck with an ineffective teacher.  Studies show this over and over again.

To mention one recent study, a Harvard economist has found that by age 27, students with good kindergarten teachers are earning about $1,000 more per year than students who had average teachers.  In fact, they “estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year.  That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers.” Read the rest of this entry »

The books of the 21st century

James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce & Andrew CarnegieAsk me about my recent graduation and you are likely to hear me tell you about my favorite part.  Of all the pomp and circumstance, splendor and spectacle – of which there was plenty – I enjoyed the conferring of my degree the most.  This may seem natural as it was the culmination of years of work, but that’s not the reason why.

After awarding the degree, President Faust welcomed me and my classmates into “the fellowship of educated men.”  I’ve boasted more about this fellowship than ever I ever dreamed of bragging about the university that made it possible.  I go out of my way to avoid dropping the H-bomb, but anyone who already knows where I went has heard about my new membership in “the fellowship.”

That was a great moment and one I will not soon forget, but lately I’ve had another academic ceremony on my mind.  When my sister was pinned as a nurse, a speaker – the dean, I believe – reminded the new RNs that though this occasion marked the end of their formal schooling, it was not the end of their education.  There would be conferences to attend and journal articles to read, and it was important that they availed themselves of these and other resources.

For all the ancient traditions, exhortations in Latin, highbrowed discourses, and other reminders of the place we new graduates were expected to take in the world order, I don’t remember similar sentiments being expressed at my own commencement.  I suppose that perhaps such an admonition would be considered unnecessary to such a group of academics and overachievers, but the obvious points often are the ones most worthy of repeating.  That a commencement is a beginning, not an ending, is every bit as true at an Ivy League institution as it is at a community college.

I know just how fortunate I am to hold one degree, much less two.  Many of my friends – and certainly countless people that I hold in great esteem – were never even afforded the opportunity.  How many geniuses have been born in the African bush or in a South American rainforest without access to even a rudimentary education?  How many perfectly intelligent individuals here in the United States cannot afford higher education?

Here at home, and in other somewhat developed countries, there are plenty of people out there far smarter and better informed than myself who have never seen the inside of a classroom.  There’s more than a grain of truth in Will Hunting’s statement that a jackass from Harvard “wasted $150,000 on an education [he] coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

The fictional Will Hunting had an extraordinary intellectual aptitude, but the point is well taken.  Since the time of Ben Franklin and the Junto’s Library Company, the use of public libraries to self-educate has been apparent.  In true ‘teach a man to fish’ fashion, Andrew Carnegie devoted a large portion of his fortune to building public libraries so that every man would have the opportunity to better himself.  The poor Scottish immigrant once famously wrote of his charitable endeavors that

I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing. They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring and open to these chief treasures of the world — those stored up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.

By design, I’m rarely sitting down in one place long enough to read. I try to do so before retiring each night, but it doesn’t always happen.  Books on tape are not new inventions, but I’ve never been a big fan of fiction. (Though I am now trying to read some of the books I was supposed to read in high school English classes – I’m currently on A Tale of Two Cities.)

Some day, when I’ve paid off the two degrees I have currently,  I’d like to go back to school once again.  I have more than passing interests in both business and law, and so a joint MBA-JD is appealing.  It is also expensive.

In the meantime, I’ve been downloading a number of free podcasts from iTunes that are both instructive and edifying.  The best part is that I can take them with me wherever I go.  You can’t read a book while driving, mowing the lawn, or at the gym, but I’ve been playing podcasts from my iPhone while doing all three and more.

For example, during an hour and a half long car ride Sunday night I listened to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke speak at the London School of Economics, and Legal Lad opine on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  In previous listening sessions I’ve enjoyed Stuff You Should Know‘s discussions of everything from saunas to James Bond, and the Wall Street Journal’s Your Money Matters podcasts on personal finance.

There are podcasts on just about every conceivable topic.  I’m even looking into using material I will be creating for a new project of my own in the coming weeks and making it available as a podcast for downloading.  I don’t expect that it should become very popular with a broad audience – by definition the subject matter will be rather narrowly focused, as a matter of fact – but if the goal is to disseminate information, and it is, then this is a great way to do it.

If he were alive today, I bet Carnegie would be an avid supporter of these podcasts.  Some of the brightest minds from the most reknowned institutions (and some raving, but entertaining, lunatics) are offering their thoughts and insights for all to hear and digest.  Their wisdom can be consumed any time, day or night, and absolutely free of charge.

These are the books of the 21st century.  While they cannot and will not replace a university degree, they are a terrific way for someone like myself, someone with a desire for knowledge but lacking the resources to pursue formal higher education, to educate and better themselves on the cheap.

Small goals, big results

Today we celebrated my grandfather’s 90th birthday.  Nine decades is quite an accomplishment, but I don’t think he or anyone else set out to actually live that long.  You live your life one day at a time, and before you know it 32,850 of them have gone by.

I thought of this as I went for a run the other night.  Even at 10:30 p.m. the air was thick with humidity, and I had to stop to walk a few times.  At least, I am blaming it on the humidity.  I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that my fat ass hadn’t been out for a run in weeks and has barely been making it to the gym.

As I often will when running in difficult weather, I found myself setting small goals for myself.  Get to the top of this hill, and you can walk part of the way down.  Make it to the stop sign, and then you will be halfway to the next intersection.  Setting these small goals made it easier to complete the whole loop.  I wasn’t running a couple of miles then, I was just running to the next corner.  Breaking it into bite sized pieces made it easier to do.

I’ve neglected this website for some time (the most recent post on branding and ice cream was written for work and originally posted on the company blog), even though I have several half written posts on topics ranging from rainbows to 19th century economists.  I’ve decided that I will attempt to write more posts, but they will each be shorter.  Rather then pen 2,000 words on a topic, I will break it up into four 500 word pieces if need be.  This will pose a challenge as I’ve never been accused of being brief, but like when I set out for a run I think it is good to try and challenge myself.

Some day I’d like to write a book, run a marathon, and maybe even live to be 90.  None of those are realistic short term endeavorers, however.  You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run, so I’m going to blog before I’m a Pulitzer prize winning historian.

Everyone loves free ice cream, and four Boston brands know it

There is a specific type of bell that can get my attention even if you ring it softly from 100 yards away.  I don’t know what it is called, and I would be hard pressed to even describe it, but it is one of those sounds that I would know anywhere.  I have a Pavlovian reaction, really, since each time I hear it I instinctively turn around and look for the Ice Cream Man.

He was a little old man who, for as long as I could remember, drove the ice cream truck where my family vacationed.  He would shake half a dozen or so of these bells from the top of the dune to announce his presence in the parking lot.  For the uninitiated, after the bells came a hand painted piece of wood with two words  on it: Ice Cream.

Before he could raise his sign the sound of those bells had every kid on the beach scurrying from Cape Cod Bay and back up the sand with our hands outstretched.  Who needed the ocean to cool off when there was ice cream, and what’s better than free (at least for us kids) ice cream?

For my money, not much.  I love the stuff, and your stock will go way up in my book if you start handing it out.  Fortunately for all of us, there are a few Boston brands that are ensuring I can get a free fix.  They’ve figured out that the kid in all of us is an emotional sweet spot that opens right up when ice cream is at stake.

The Red Cross is one outfit that is using ice cream as the pathway to our hearts (and arteries), although technically it isn’t free — you do need to let them take a pint of blood.  That’s not a bad deal; you give the gift of life and receive a coupon for a free quart ofFriendly’s ice cream for the effort.  Talk about a win-win.

If you can’t make it to one of the Red Cross’ dozens of donation sites around the area, fear not — the ice cream can come to you.  Ben and Jerry’s has a truck out roaming about the streets of Boston and the surrounding areas handing out free samples of their deliciousness.  Want them to stop by your office?  Send them a tweet at @BenJerrysTruck and ask them to pay a visit to you and your co-workers.  Corporate blogger and President of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Paul Levy did yesterday, and it looks like the truck will be visiting today.  Talk about a way to boost employee morale!

If frozen drinks – no, not those kind – are more your thing, the hamburger joint b.good is now sporting a jet black ice cream truckwith orange flames painted down the side.  They are handing out free shakes downtown, in the Back Bay, and in communities with one of their restaurants as a way to drum up business.  They are also responding to tweets at @b_good_, so get social and get a free shake.

Ben and Jerry’s and b.good are both looking to boost sales, and even the Red Cross is hoping donations will pick up during the traditionally slow summer months by offering this promotion.  The Boston Police Department isn’t one of those organizations looking to increase its activity — but it  has realized that giving kids free ice cream is a great way to boost their brand, so they’ve gotten in on the action, too.

Operation Hoodsie Cup has officers driving their own truck of ice creamy awesomeness to city parks and playgrounds through Labor Day.  Uniformed officers will hand out free Hoodsies, interact with kids and teens, and hopefully build a rapport with them.  They won’t make a special trip to see you, but if you follow them on Twitter at @Boston_Police or check out their website they will share their route for the day.

Other cities call their cruisers black and whites, but no one wants to see the inside of one — a Hoodsie, on the other hand,  is a black and white every mother would be happy to see her child get in to.  And that’s really the point of all of these efforts.  Whether trying to sell a hamburger, establish a friendly relationship with inner city kids, or convince someone to voluntarily get stuck with a needle, associating a brand (especially retail) with a positive, innocent, universal theme can tap into hidden reserves of loyalty.  Ice cream puts a smile on everybody’s face.  What brand doesn’t go well with smiles?

[Update: In the “every party has a pooper” department, it turns out not every mother wants to see their kids dig into a Hoodsie.]

Photo (cc) by Pink Sherbet Photography used under this creative commons license.

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