Sunday, October 18, 2009

Did the Stormtrooper read the label?

I wrote a story last week for Daily Finance, a finance and business site owned by AOL, about pink-ribbon marketing. It's something that anyone who steps into a store during October is aware of: the masses of pink-packaged items (from toilet paper to chocolates) that appear this month in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most consumers take it for granted that by buying one of these pink-wrapped products, part of the purchase will go to support a breast-cancer charity or foundation.

In researching the story, I interviewed the head of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco, who stated that if a product says "supports breast cancer" without details of how it actually does so, chances are the money does not go to any charity. (You can read her comment in my story.) Since I wanted to check out the validity of her statement, I stopped at a local Kmart and looked at their pink products, writing down exactly what each product said -- or didn't say -- about how the purchase would benefit a breast-cancer charity.

And what I learned is that what BCA says is absolutely true. One product in particular, made by a consumer-product giant (again, read the details in the story), depicted the pink ribbon and some words about how early detection saves lives, but there was no information on how the purchase would help a charity. And after contacting the company, I learned that the purchase would only donate 2 cents to a breast-cancer foundation if the buyer used a coupon issued by the manufacturer at the end of September. Otherwise, the pink packaging was simply there to remind consumers about the cause.

Hopefully the word is getting out to more readers: my story was picked up by Jezebel and the Atlantic magazine's Website later in the week.

Bottom line: donate directly to charities, or, at the very least, read the pink labels very carefully. Otherwise, your money might be going to a corporate bottom line without helping any worthy cause.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jay Leno, ad rates and Daily Finance

Jay Leno 1
Originally uploaded by sgtgary
Jay Leno, who starts his new show on Monday, Sept. 14, isn't getting the same ad rates as competing dramas on other networks, according to the Wall Street Journal. It's also the subject of my blog post today on Daily Finance, an AOL financial Website where I started writing this week.

It's not surprising that Leno can't get rates as high as dramas. The expectations from media and ad executives are that the show won't pull audiences as large as some competing dramas, such as "CSI: Miami," the WSJ notes. In a Variety story, an NBC executive says that they're encouraged by consumer "awareness" of the new show: 82% of consumers know about the program.

But still, that's almost 1/5 of consumers who know nothing about the show. That seems amazing to me given the media stories and advertising hoopla around Leno's move to prime time. These "unaware" people aren't as rare as one might think: a friend mentioned to me this morning that she had no idea Leno was moving to 10 pm. So despite NBC's efforts, the show might just not take prime time by storm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happiness Is a (Fill in the Blank)

Woke up this morning to pick up our hometown daily, the Burlington Free Press, and find a terrific front-page article about my husband's research by Tim Johnson.

As Johnson writes, "these are heady times for numbers crunchers" -- the amount of text and data available now allows researchers like my husband and Chris Danforth, his colleague at University of Vermont, the ability to mine for trends, influence and even the spread of ideas. Peter and Chris examined the happiness levels in blogs, song lyrics, and State of the Union addresses. (Who was the most happy president? JFK beat out Reagan, believe it or not.)

A lot of the press coverage of their paper, published in the Journal of Happiness (love that name), has focused on their findings that sentiment in blogs fell to their lowest level on the days following Michael Jackson's death. Meanwhile, Jackson's song lyrics rate as some of the happiest tunes out there.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If you build a village, will they come?

Originally uploaded by beancounter
In Seven Days last month, I profiled a South Burlington development called South Village that adheres to the New Urbanism approach: making pedestrian-friendly streets, with garages pushed behind the houses, that lead to places you want to visit. A farm stand or a community garden, for example. Some of the better known examples of New Urbanism include Serenbe in Georgia and Seaside in Florida (the setting for "The Truman Show.")

It's a great concept. Who needs another cookie-cutter development with roads that lead nowhere? Unfortunately, the developer started selling a year ago, just as the real estate market ... well, everyone knows that depressing story.

The thing that caught my interest about South Village was that the development has a farm, with an attendant CSA (community-sponsored agriculture). As I say in the article, the development taps into a lot of themes dear to Vermonters' hearts: keeping a working landscape, supporting farms, buying organic from local growers. And apparently the story did grab some readers. One called me asking for the developers' number, saying it was the type of community she had dreamed of, and the piece was one of the most-read stories on Seven Days' site the week it came out.

But as a friend pointed out to me, the development basically reinvents the whole concept of Burlington. For people who live in town, like me, we have the same type of layout: walkable streets, houses (or cottages) tucked close together, garages pushed back behind the house, a strong sense of neighborhood. Well, I can't walk to a farm from my house (the Intervale is too far), but I can walk or bike to the farmer's market on the weekend. Not to mention the cafes, shops, co-op, and theaters.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Accessibility Gaining Traction in Burlington?

Accessibility in Burlington's public schools may be gaining traction, as I reported in Seven Days last week in the newspaper's print run and in its staff blog, Blurt. More than 50 people attended a meeting of a Burlington school board infrastructure committee to give their support toward making the Edmunds school complex accessible to people with disabilities. This is a story that affects the whole community, not just the handful of students in wheelchairs. As one person said to me in an interview, accessibility is something everyone will have to deal with -- as we age, as we cope with friends and relatives with disabilities, or if we get injured.

What was interesting about the meeting was that the committee heard comments from two disability advocates who gave their opinions that the school district is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by shipping disabled students to other schools. The school district has maintained it's in compliance with the law because it offers equivalent educational programs at other town schools. I wonder about how the law applies with issues such as teacher hiring, to throw out another problem: a disabled teacher wouldn't be able to work at Edmunds because of its obstacles (stairs, no elevators.)

At a meeting last Monday, May 4, the school board finance committee received a feasibility report for installing an elevator at Edmunds. The cost: $1.5 million and change. This would be the first step in retooling the entire complex, which includes the elementary school and two gyms. A bit of humor in the meeting: the architect's plan labeled one of the bathrooms "ADA Complaint." The finance committee members got a chuckle out of that typo.

Next up: a phased report with steps for making the entire complex ADA-compliant. It should be done in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Edmunds' Accessibility, Once Again

Michael Wood-Lewis, about whom I wrote in a Seven Days article in March, is organizing support to make Burlington's Edmunds school complex accessible to children and residents with mobility issues. Edmunds, as I noted in the article, is much more than a school: it's a central voting site and holds First Night events, for example. Wood-Lewis likes to describe the building as the most prominent school in Vermont, by which he means it's both one of the most-used schools by members of the public and also one of the community's most identifiable buildings because of its location on Main Street in Vermont's biggest city.

Check out Wood-Lewis' site here.

And consider lending support to this effort. Also, why stop at Edmunds? Think about which other schools or public buildings in your community fall short of allowing access to everyone.

Here's a bit of Wood-Lewis' recent email about his campaign, in which he urges residents to attend an April 28 school board committee meeting at 7 pm at the Ira Allen Building:

Did you know that Burlington schools are segregated? Kids in wheelchairs are not allowed to go to Edmunds. Nor can parents or grandparents with mobility impairments get into the building to visit their children's classrooms. A teacher who now needs a cane? She's unlikely to keep a job there. The students who break legs snowboarding? They'll be out of school or stuck in the library for weeks. Community members who use wheelchairs? They know they are not welcome to partake in the daily use of the building for drama, sports, clubs, meetings, First Night, voting, etc.

We can change all this right now. We can make Edmunds, which is the most prominent public school building in the entire state, accessible to all of us.

A group of a dozen parents, students and supporting professionals are working on this big challenge and WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW. Our community must convince the school board that making Edmunds accessible is a top priority, and we also must convince the Governor and Vermont legislature to support this project with federal stimulus funds. Details:

We came to this work through our nine-year-old son, Ben, who uses a wheelchair and faces a big set-back to his education and support structure if he's not allowed to attend Edmunds Middle School with his friends in two years. As we've learned more about this situation, we're amazed by how many people in our community are effected by Edmunds' lack of accessibility.

Please check his site for more details.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Money, money, money

Vermont Quarter
Originally uploaded by erik jaeger
So. Didn't I predict there would be big bucks coming Vermont's way after our little state pulled through for Obama?

The background: Vermont was the first state to be declared for Obama in November. And our Senators were very cozy with him too. Check out this remark from Sen. Leahy after the election:

Leahy, asked at the news conference if he would invite Obama to visit Vermont, beamed and exclaimed, “Yes, I will; yes, I will; I will, I will, I will!”

The result? Vermont ranks No. 5 on a per-capita basis for how much will be distributed by Obama's federal stimulus plan, according to a March 19 report in Rolling Stone magazine.

So what does it mean for you, my fellow Vermonters? I have no idea, and I'm sure most Vermonters are in the same boat. Thank goodness Rep. Peter Welch will be handing out a guide to how Vermonters can tap into this money, according to the Burlington Free Press:

“Throughout Vermont, folks are wondering how this recovery package will help them weather this economic storm,” Welch said in a written statement. “This one-stop shop will connect Vermonters to the myriad funding opportunities that have been designed to create jobs and rebuild our economy.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

School Accessibility Issues in Vermont

Okay, so this isn't a picture of the Edmunds schools in Burlington (it's a one-room Vermont schoolhouse in Stratton). But both were built before people had accessibility in mind.

And, as I wrote in an article in today's Seven Days newspaper, that's causing some parents to ask when Burlington's schools will become accessible for the disabled -- not just the few students using wheelchairs, but teachers and members of the public with mobility issues, or any student who injures a leg while skiing.

The Edmunds schools, joined middle and elementary schools located on Burlington's Main Street, are the toughest for the disabled to navigate. Children with mobility disabilities aren't allowed to attend -- or can't attend -- because it's impossible for them to reach their classrooms with the buildings' many stairs and floors. Fixing the school to reach ADA compliance could reach $15 million, school officials told me.

And that might prove tough to get the money in today's economic climate. But there's a glimmer of hope with Obama's economic plan, in that some of those funds might be available for a project just like Edmunds.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ben Stein Expelled at UVM?

The latest mini-scandal in Vermont seems to be over Ben Stein -- the one-time host of "Win Ben Stein's Money" and the teacher who repeats "Bueller, Bueller?" in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," not to mention a Nixon speechwriter and noted economics commentator.

UVM announced Ben Stein as its commencement speaker -- and shortly afterwards, the angry emails began flying. And not just from Vermonters: Richard Dawkins wrote to UVM's president that he was "dismayed" at the choice.

So the president of UVM got on the phone with Stein to alert him to the backlash, and Stein agreed not to speak at UVM. But Stein wasn't happy about it. Check out what he wrote to the Burlington Free Press in an email:

Stein called the university’s response to the furor “chicken sh**, and you can quote me on that.”

But one of the most embarrassing facets of the whole embarrassing episode is Stein's comment that the president of UVM "endlessly, endlessly asked me to do it" for a discount (again, from the Burlington Free Press.) And that the president used family connections to ask Stein to speak (apparently some best-friend/brother-in-law connection). Yes, everyone knows budgets are being cut at UVM, but really? Geez.

End result: Howard Dean will be UVM's commencement speaker. I don't predict any protests.

Side comment: I heard Ben Stein speak at an investor conference when I worked at Bloomberg News. It was an Internet/tech conference right after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 or early 2002. Interestingly, he started off making some relevant comments about how expectations of endless growth (as many dot-coms had been making) were untethered from reality, but then spent the rest of his speech talking about how much he missed his recently deceased father and how important it was to develop a strong relationship with your children. The room was unusually attentive -- instead of the usual investing spiel, he gave what was probably the first heart-felt talk ever heard at one of these confabs.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter ritual for February

Seed Packs
Originally uploaded by LollyKnit
I went cross-country skiing today in the Intervale, a piece of farmland in the city of Burlington, and I won't deny it was in the back of my mind to stop in at Gardener's Supply on the way back home.

For the uninitiated, Gardener's Supply is an amazing store full of enough goodies never to bore anyone with the gardening bug. They're also a national catalog company and own a bulb business called Dutch Gardens.

Well, anyone in a cold climate who owns a garden will understand what February means. Time to start planning for spring! Yee-haw.

Seeds, glorious seeds: Those little pictures on the packets keep you going until the last frost date (in Burlington, either mid-May or May 26, depending on your source.)

Maybe I'm crazy this year: I bought two types of watermelon seeds: Mickeylee ("Northern gardeners determined to grow watermelon should try Mickylee.") and Blacktail Mountain watermelon (developed by someone in northern Idaho, so it's gotta work in Vermont!).

Other purchases: sweet basil; Polar bear (white) heirloom zinnias; Swiss giant blend of pansies; Wheatgrass - liquid sunshine; Globe amaranth - Mardi Gras Parade; Marigold snowdrift (white); Snapdragon - cinderella mix; Tomatoes - mortgage lifter; and cilantro.

That doesn't count all the seeds I've saved plus leftovers from last year.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Those wacky Vermont separatists (and yak farmers!) in the New Yorker

I just finished an amusing, fascinating and much too short article in the New Yorker's Jan. 26, 2009 issue called "The Dystopians," by Ben McGrath. It's about the doom-sayers and dystopians who are now getting thrills from the apparent breakdown of the economy that they've been predicting. Unfortunately, only the abstract is available on the New Yorker's site; the read the entire article you need to get a digital account or pick up a hard copy.

But toward the end of the piece, the writer travels to Montpelier to witness a rally of Vermont separatists, a bunch of woolly haired yak farmers who want Vermont to break away from the rest of the US, then begin an expansionist movement to annex Maine and some of Canada. There's not much in the article, though, about why -- why are these yak farmers agitating to remove Vermont from the US? There's a hint that it might be because they fear turmoil from the US when the country, in their view, inevitably descends into social and economic chaos, but it's not spelled out.

In the piece, retired Duke economics professor Thomas Naylor, who is the founder of the Second Vermont Republic, says, "Vermont has nothing, O.K.? We have no big cities. We have no big buildings. We have nothing." So then why leave the union? Doesn't really seem like a compelling argument.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Endurance Junkies Take Over Vermont

Originally uploaded by Mariano Kamp
Well, not really.

But the number of triathletes in Vermont has increased quite a bit during the past 8 to 10 years, according to local competitors I interviewed for a story I wrote in today's Seven Days newspaper.

Part of the increase can be attributed to the large number of athletically inclined Vermonters (Burlington was rated the No. 1 healthy city in the U.S. by the CDC) looking for a new challenge, as well as people moving to the state to take advantage of the mountains, lakes and running trails.

So what's not to like about training in Vermont? Winter.

The story asks triathletes how they cope in the winter. Everyone told me the same thing: it's hard.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Vermont's sad-happy story of the week

Target Poodle
Originally uploaded by lakewentworth
While everyone is cheering the U.S. Airways flight's amazing crash-landing in the Hudson and survival of all 155 passengers, there's another story of death averted that's captured Vermont's attention.

Apparently, Michou, a poodle, was left in a car by his French Canadian owner for three weeks at the Burlington airport. (Note: Photo is NOT a picture of Michou -- check out the Burlington Free Press story from the link).

The poor pooch was just 9 pounds -- down from his normal weight of 25 pounds -- when he was found this week after someone complained of a bad smell coming from a car with Quebec plates (think: giant doggie litter box).

The owner said he didn't realize the dog was in the car.

Meanwhile, authorities in Vermont have given him a ticket for $100.

The good news is that Vermont authorities took custody of the dog, and hopefully he'll find a good home after his ordeal.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Boston Globe article about Burton's controversial boards

My article about Burton Snowboards' controversial boards was published today in the Boston Globe, on the front of the Metro section. The Globe renamed its City & Region section a while back to Metro, so even though it sounds like it should just be about Boston, the section also covers regional stories from other New England states.

The boards have been out for a few months, and while the firestorm has raged in Vermont since November, the boards might gain wider attention once the ski season starts in earnest this month and people start seeing the boards on the slopes. Just from conversation with friends outside of Vermont, it seems like a relatively unknown issue outside of the state.

But what I found so interesting about the boards is the debate among Vermont liberals about free speech. Vermonters are traditionally supporters of free speech, but these boards touched a nerve that has split the ACLU-ers from the family-focused liberals. Some folks think it's an age issue: that older (i.e. parents of small children and anyone more advanced in years) are against it while younger people, because they are more used to sexual images, don't see the problem.