Monthly Archives: November 2010

Bush Tops Jon Stewart On Black Friday Weekend

Published November 30, 2010

As I mentioned in my story about tax-free holiday shopping, does not provide sales figures. The company did agree to provide a localized list of bestsellers over the four-day shopping period (beginning “Black Friday” and ending “Cyber Monday”).

You might be surprised by which newly published author comes in at No. 1.

George W. Bush's memoir was the best-selling book on in Massachusetts on Black Friday weekend.Here’s how Massachusetts shoppers spent their (tax-free) dollars on Nov 26-29:

  1. “Decision Points” (Bush, George W.)
  2. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth” (Kinney, Jeff)
  3. “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” (Hillenbrand, Laura)
  4. “Life” (Richards, Keith)
  5. “The Investment Answer” (Daniel C. Goldie, Gordon S. Murray)
  6. “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1″ (Mark Twain)
  7. “The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have” (Nepo, Mark)
  8. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race” (Stewart, Jon)
  9. “Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That?: Fabulous Recipes & Easy Tips” (Garten, Ina)
  10. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (Larsson, Stieg)

The Scott Brown effect?

Tax-Free Online Shopping Is A Disadvantage For Mass. Retailers

Published November 30, 2010

In this November 2009 file photo, Marcus Marintez pulls items for shipment inside the 800,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Goodyear, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

In this November 2009 file photo, Marcus Marintez pulls items for shipment inside the 800,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Goodyear, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

By all accounts, this is good news for the Massachusetts economy:

Shopping centers across the region saw a jump in sales over the holiday weekend and they expect a robust rest of the season — as long as retailers keep rolling out the deals.

The Globe says five malls “reported a year-over-year increase in sales over the three-day weekend.” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, estimated a 2 percent increase in sales over the Black Friday weekend.

Even so, Massachusetts retailers lost out on millions of dollars of sales — but it’s difficult to know exactly how much. Why?

“It’s a combination of things. It’s Internet sales. People still buy out of catalogs. … And it’s sales lost to New Hampshire,” says Bob Bliss, a spokesman for the Mass. Department of Revenue.

Those three things have a competitive advantage in common — they don’t charge sales tax.

I suspect mail-order sales are no longer a big threat to Massachusetts retailers; the New Hampshire problem is an old one, but the fact that you have to put on pants and drive there is a deterrent to would-be tax evaders. An Internet retailer such as is hard to beat, though.

I can go to my local Best Buy and purchase a 32″ Samsung LCD TV, on special, for $539.99 + $33.75 tax. Or I can buy the same television at for $537 + 0 tax (and free shipping). does not have to collect Massachusetts sales tax because it does not have a physical presence in Massachusetts. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote a terrific explainer on how (legally) gets away with this. (I asked for Massachusetts sales figures, but they don’t provide them, so I can’t even make an estimate of lost revenue.)

Now, you’re supposed to report your Internet purchases every year on your tax returns — it’s called a use tax — but who does that?

“The last number I saw was probably 3 or 4 million in (use) taxes that were paid,” Bilss said. Wow, I said, that sounds surprisingly high. “It’s quite minimal,” he said — seeing as total sales tax revenue in Mass. is something like $4.5 billion.

This drives state lawmakers and local businesseses and Jon Hurst crazy.

[pullquote author=”Jon Hurst, Retailers Association of Massaschusetts”]” has a 6-and-a-quarter percent head-start over our own employers.”[/pullquote]

“Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers in the marketplace,” Hurst says. “ has a 6-and-a-quarter percent head-start over our own employers.”

Earlier this year, outgoing U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat who represents Massachusetts’ 10th District, introduced the “Main Street Fairness Act,” which would simplify tax collection for states that choose to participate. It would authorize an interstate compact that forces online retailers to collect taxes.

Such a compact already exists, actually, but it is nothing without Congressional approval. In 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick pushed the Legislature to join the compact and pressure Congress. A 2009 analysis by the University of Teneesee at Knoxville estimated that could generate $545 million for Mass.

The debate over a so-called Internet sales tax has gone on for years. Until it’s settled, enjoy the tax-free holiday every day.


Full disclosure: WBUR participates in the Amazon Affiliates program.

Tuesday Morning: Feds Target Probation, Turner Fights On

Published November 30, 2010

What’s news on a cold Tuesday morning in Boston:

Globe: A federal grand jury is targeting the Probation Department. “Federal prosecutors are asking a US grand jury to weigh charges, including fraud, extortion, and conspiracy, in the widening patronage scandal.” (Globe)

Convicted Councilor Chuck Turner has an army of support as he faces expulsion. Turner was convicted of extortion, and there appears to be enough votes on the city council to remove him Wednesday. Left-wing groups say the FBI is making a political attack on the civil rights movement. (Herald)

A man was killed in Dorchester yesterday. This is at least the 70th homicide in Boston this year. The city’s 10-year high was 75, in 2005. (BPD)

Tufts University has a new president. Anthony Monaco is a geneticist and a professor at Oxford. (Tufts Daily)

Michael Curry declared victory in the NAACP presidential election. He is a 42-year-old advocate for community health centers. This was the group’s first contested election in more than 10 years. (Globe)

Photo Of The Day: Starcatcher

Published November 29, 2010

Photographer Dennis H Miller submits a lot of pretty pictures to the WBUR Flickr group, but this one is just wow!

Connected (Dennis H Miller/Flickr)

Connected (Dennis H Miller/Flickr)

It’s a long exposure (almost three hours) in Sturbridge, southwest of Worcester, where the Pike meets Route 84.

I concur with one of the commenters, Dan Squires, on the Flickr page (who also suggested the title for this post): “I really like how you can see the different colors of the stars.”

Share your photographs if you want to see one featured here.

Bloggers Could Get New Access To Mass. Courtrooms

Published November 29, 2010

The John Adams Courthouse on Beacon Hill (Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr)

The John Adams Courthouse on Beacon Hill (Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr)

Massachusetts courtrooms would open up to “citizen journalists and bloggers” under new rules proposed by a subcommittee of the Supreme Judicial Court.

“The proposed rule changes are designed to accommodate the changing nature of both journalists and the way news is reported while still maintaining order and decorum in the Massachusetts Courts,” reads an overview of the changes.

The proposed changes to Rule 1:19 include:

  • Allow laptops and other Internet-connected devices inside courtrooms
  • Redefine “news media” to include citizen journalists and bloggers
  • Add another video camera position for non-mainstream media

…all subject to a judge’s discretion, of course. The rules protect jurors and prospective jurors from photography or recording.

The committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and journalists in print, radio, television and the Web. One member is WBUR’s John Davidow, the executive editor of, who recently launched a Knight Foundation-funded project called Order in the Court 2.0. The aim of the project is to experiment with new media in Quincy district court.

Project director Joe Spurr and producer Val Wang have been hired to help build a model for other courtrooms that want to open up to new media.

“We’re attempting to create an ideal environment for the way a modern courthouse should behave,” Joe tells me.

“For instance we’re aiming to set up a video stream — high upstream, high-quality camera, and will have a site that’s usable where citizens can interact. It could be a hub for any citizen journalist.”

The proposed rules are open for public comment until Jan. 28, 2011. You can send comments to Christine Burak at

The Day The Internet Died — But Not Really

Published November 29, 2010

A young woman talks to herself on a tin can phone. (Florian Seroussi/Flickr)

This is how you communicate when the Internet goes down. (Florian Seroussi/Flickr)

If you’re one of thousands (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of Comcast Internet customers in the Northeast, you probably lost your connection for several hours last night. If you turned to Twitter to kvetch, as I did, you might have learned a bit about how your Internet connection works.

I was right in the middle of digging into the latest Wikileaks release at about 8 p.m. when the company’s DNS servers failed. Argh! I grabbed my iPhone and tweeted my frustration — and it quickly became clear that the problem affected customers throughout Massachusetts as well as the D.C. area. (iPhones, of course, use AT&T’s wireless 3G networks.)

Twitterer Matt Soleyn (@soleynm) was first with the helpful fix:

Comcast DNS servers are down. Point your computer (Google’s Public DNS) for DNS instead as a fix.

I made the change and got back online in seconds.

So what is DNS? When you open a Web browser and type in, a domain name server figures out that points to, an IP address. Humans use domain names because they are much easier to remember than IP addresses. During the outage, you could still type into a browser and get to Google — if you knew that.

A tricky but far easier solution was to switch to a publicly available DNS server such as one provided by Google or OpenDNS.

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue extolled the virtues of Open DNS in August:

Unfortunately, from time to time, your Internet provider’s D.N.S. computer goes down. To you, it seems that the Web itself has gone out, because you can’t pull up any sites at all. In December 2008, for example, 1.2 million Los Angeles citizens thought that the entire Web had gone offline, because of a crashed Time Warner D.N.S. computer.

That story was gleefully provided by OpenDNS, the one-of-a-kind company with a killer idea: to provide a free, alternative D.N.S. service that works better than your Internet provider’s. Faster, more reliably and with more features. You don’t pay anything, sign up for anything or install anything.

It’s a good explainer and worth the read. Soleyn also suggested specifying different providers as your primary and secondary DNS servers, in case one goes out. I set Google as my primary and OpenDNS as my secondary.

Now, I won’t get into the apparently widespread contempt of Comcast, or last night’s competing hashtags, #comcastic and #comcastrophe, or the fact that NPR host Bob Garfield channeled his Comcast rage into a website called

Funny, no one seemed to care when Verizon telephone service went out last month.

Police Officers And Depression

Published November 29, 2010

There is an interesting paragraph inside the Globe’s follow-up story about the suicide of Middlesex Sheriff James DiPaola:

DiPaola’s death also underscored a chillingly high rate of suicides among members of law enforcement.

In 1999, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that male police officers are more than twice as likely as the general population to suffer from depression, and that nearly a quarter of male and female officers have thoughts of suicide, compared with 13 percent of the general population.

I have searched the archives exhaustively and can’t find the paper. Does anyone know more about this?

Update: blogger Rob Anderson at The Angle couldn’t find the study either, but he did find other interesting research on cops and depression. Data suggests suicide rates are higher among police officers than the rest of the population, but that hypothesis is not conclusive.

Monday Morning: DiPaola Mystery, At-Risk 8th Graders

Published November 29, 2010

Good morning! I’m back from a long Thanksgiving vacation and exactly 2.5 pounds heavier. (My flight to Chicago ended up being newsworthy.) A lot happened while I was out — an ex-con was charged with murdering all four victims in the Sept. 28 Mattapan killings. And the Globe opened a probe into Middlesex Sheriff James DiPaola that culminated in his suicide five days later.

What’s news on a chilly, clear Monday in Boston:

DiPaola’s suicide note is sealed for now. Friends and family are trying to understand what caused the sheriff to take his own life after 30 years of service, and they won’t be able to read his explanation until the medical examiner’s investigation is complete. It’s also unclear why DiPaola drove himself to a hotel room in Maine, since he did not appear to have any ties to the state or the resort. (Herald)

The Globe is defending its coverage of DiPaola. “Our stories were well within the boundaries of what news organizations are supposed to do in holding public officials accountable for their use of taxpayer dollars.” (Herald)

The state says thousands of eighth graders are at risk of dropping out of high school. Massachusetts has developed a “early-warning indicator index” that tracks the progress of students. “The new tracking system found that about 7,700, or 36 percent, were at risk of not graduating on time, if at all.” (Globe)

The T is trying to be more bike-friendly. The MBTA is building bicycle shelters at major transit stations. (Herald)

Boston’s NAACP chapter elects a new president today. One of the nation’s oldest branches faces criticism for not remaining active. Earlier this month, the Dorchester Reporter profiled the candidates, Michael Curry and Bill Owens.

A judge today will set a sentencing date for ex-Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Prosecutors plan to ask for a four-year sentence; the defense wants less than three. (AP)

A Comcast outage left Mass. customers wired-less for a few hours. I tweeted up a storm about it last night. (Universal Hub)

Friday Morning: Missing Boy Found, Wind Farm Foe Falls

Published November 26, 2010

What’s news on this rainy, gray, Black Friday?

A seven-year old boy who was lost in the woods was found and returned home to his family on Thanksgiving. The boy had wandered away from his Conway home, lost his way, and endured sub-freezing temperatures until a volunteer rescuer found him. (Herald)

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound has fallen into debt and may not be able to continue to fight Cape Wind. Officials have vowed to fight on, but they’ve been steadily losing funds. (Globe)

Bargain-hunters have been out prowling all night in search of deals on Black Friday. Despite the down economy, many retailers were bracing for huge sales. (New York Times)

Kevin McNicholas, dean of the State House press corps and a WBUR freelance reporter, died on Thursday after a short battle with an aggressive form of cancer. (WBUR)

Thank Goodness, The Pats Are Finally Playing On Thanksgiving

Published November 25, 2010

The Patriots aren't just hungry for Turkey on Thanksgiving. They eat QBs, too. (AP)

The Patriots aren't just hungry for Turkey on Thanksgiving. They eat QBs, too. (AP)

Though they’ve been able to celebrate just five wins among them this year, football fans across the country are jealous of fans in Dallas and Detroit.

Every year, fans of the Cowboys and the Lions kick back after a long, hard day of stuffing stuffing on their plates, chopping down thick carrot sticks and drizzling a deluge of gravy on pounds of turkey to relax and doze in front of the TV as their teams square off in an annual NFL Thanksgiving ritual.

The Lions, Cowboys and their fans (oh my!) get to play every year on Thanksgiving, the one day dedicated to the three F’s: family, food and football. What a day.

It seems unfair, though, that the same teams and the same fans get the prime game slot every year.

Pro football on Thanksgiving began as a marketing gimmick, of course, when the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Lions in 1934, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

The Cowboys’ Thanksgiving ritual doesn’t have quite as historic roots, but they’ve played on the holiday every year since 1966, except in 1975 and 1977.

This year, however, fans across New England will get to have their turkey and eat it, too. The Patriots take on the Lions in Detroit at 12:30 p.m.

Today, for once, enjoy your Patriots. And John Madden’s famous Turducken.