Greg Boone

Riding slow, climbing high

I’ve been riding my bike more slowly lately.

I used to race my bike. Leaving with just enough time to get where I was going, and hoping I hit every light green to make it on time. Not since November 9.

I’ve been riding slowly lately. Feeling the road beneath my tires. The slip of the pedals under my Vans, their soles worn almost smooth. I have to concentrate as I push the crank, pulling the chain through from the rear gearset to the front.

I’ve been riding slowly and somehow still get places on time. Slowing down, you see the city in a different way. The drivers are more human, the architecture more apparent, and the streets quieter.

My buddy Nate and I went up to Leadville this weekend. Leadville is the highest incorporate city in the USA, and the second highest municipality.

Based on the name, you might think Leadville was a lead mining town, but prospectors were there for gold originally. While looking for gold, miners found deposits of cerussite, a lead carbonate that was used in lead paint and contained high amounts of silver.

The “Unsinkable” Molly Brown — who surivied the Titanic — lived in Leadville. Oscar Wilde came through the swanky Tabor Opera House on a lecture circuit in 1882. There are giant Victorian style buildings all over town. With their art deco facades and spectacular turrets. It’s hard to imagine looking at it today, but Leadville was a boomtown.

Today, Leadville has a lot of coffee shops for a city of fewer than 3,000 people, a brewery, the old saloon, a slammin antiques store, and a handful of bars along the main drag. Walking around the city this past Saturday reminded of Escanaba, MI, a town that wears its former great lakes shipping glory on it’s sleeve, and inspired me on our way through two summers ago.

A lot of what keeps these towns kicking these days is tourism. Mining is still the major employer in Leadville, but they employ fewer than 500 people, and the population has been declining steadily since the WWII, when the military had a ski warfare training base, Camp Hale, near Leadville.

There’s also a place called Melanzana, a clothing company that makes all their goods by hand, in Leadville.Melanzana was founded in 2003 and has had a mission to make durable outdoor gear in Leadville ever since. A brewery called Periodic Brewing Company, which, in addition to having good beer, has the most clever name of any brewery in the state: Pb, the chemical symbol for lead. The pizza place, High Mountain Pies, has some of the best pizza I’ve had since moving here. Colorado Mountain College teaches a curriculum not found at most institutions of higher learning. Courses specific to the needs of mountainous places with programs in forest firefighting, avalanche technician, natural resource management.

It’s easy to look at a place like Leadville and only see the decay, to see it as what it once was, it’s former greatness, and ignore its beauty, and dream of its potential. While it’s hard to imagine 14,000 people will want to live in the highest city in the continent, where the average summer high barely cracks the mid 70s, and annual snowfall clocks in a nearly 300", it’s not hard to imagine a second life for the town that doesn’t depend on the local ski resorts or bringing back some former glory.

This is a consistent hangup for me on the mantra of making America great again. One thing that makes America persistently great is that it’s built on dreaming of the future and creating opportunity. Talk about “clean coal” and opening up our natural areas for mining and exploitation isn’t talk about creating opportunity and lifting people up, it’s clinging to the past and shouting loud enough to drown out dissent.

Riding my bike more slowly gives me control over what to think about, and how to think about it. It allows me to wonder what the future holds for myself, my family, and the communities we inhabit. It gives me peace amidst the chaos of road traffic; peace in a tumultuous world of violence in place of understanding; peace in an turbulent era of victimizing in place of the pursuit of justice. Peace in Donald Trump’s America.

Donald Trump, public service, and me

If you’ve read this blog or follow me on social media you might already know that I wasn’t a Trump supporter. I was raised to be suspicious of people who lied, cheated, and stole their way to the top. I was disgusted and terrified by the words he chose to use when talking about my fellow Americans from marginalized communities: People of color, LGBT people, the disabled, women, and especially Muslims. To me, most of his policy statements, in the rare event he gave one, rang as flippant and rooted in racist ideas about people’s motives. What makes me most nervous is that we have no idea what to expect from him other than making America great again. We learned on the campaign trail that we can’t trust the sincerity of anything he says. If he says something racist, he’s just joking. If he says something sexist like how he “grabs [women] by the pussy,” it’s “just locker room talk.” So is he serious about the wall? About banning Muslims from entering the country? About making immigrants walk around with special ID cards? We have no idea. I wasn’t a Romney or McCain supporter in the last two elections, but at least we know what we were in for if they won.

I’ve been ruminating about what all of this unease means for me, my job, and my family these last few days. I think back on the first day I sat down in the event center at 1800 F Street to take my oath of office, and the pride I felt saying those words:

I, Gregory Boone, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I never really thought I’d be able to serve the federal government. I’m not a scientist or engineer or a lawyer and the jobs I did qualify for seemed out of reach. Once I was there, despite feeling really lucky and proud to walk past his portrait every morning, I didn’t really think of my job in terms of being an Obama Administration official but a US government official. There were plenty of things I thought Obama was wrong about. Trade policy, abuse of intelligence agencies, even, to some extent, healthcare. This nuance of working for the executive branch but not the administration is important and difficult to grasp to those of us who are new to it. I’ve been leaning on the wisdom of others these last few days in attempt to gain some perspective.

Susan Hennessey in the Lawfare blog talks about the ethics of serving in Trump’s National Security Agency. She served for several years and strongly believes that “an empowered intelligence community makes the world safer for people and ideas,” and “whoever the President may be, it is a critical authority necessary to keep Americans safe.” There are limits and bounds on that mission that are important for the health of our republic and we are part of the system of checks and balances. Therefore:

“It is the duty of rational, reasonable experts to serve their country in a Trump administration, even at the political level, if asked. If he will accept it, Trump must have wise and informed counsel. Americans will be served by principled individuals in government defending our Constitution and role in the world. Those who stay home to satisfy ideals of personal integrity will not make our world safer.”

This cuts at the core of the oath of office. We public servants are the front line between the government and the people of this country. We were hired to put our skill and expertise to work for the American people and the Constitution.

As Jen Pahlka, CEO of Code for America, wrote this week, we need to continue to “do everything they can to serve [our] real bosses: the American public.” Jen’s thoughts, and my colleague Noah Kunin’s, touched closer to the work we we do at 18F. Even if some of us came to 18F because they were inspired by President Obama, we ultimately came driven by the principle that the government should work better for it’s people.

At 18F we like to say we’re taking back the term “good enough for government work,” reclaiming it to mean we strive for the highest possible quality in everything we do. We can disagree with politicians about what government should be doing, and those politicians will certainly tell us what that answer is for the next 4 years, but we’re here to do. We’re here to do well and do good.

So, like Noah Kunin, I’m staying. I’m staying because Jen Pahlka is right, this is a movement happening at every level of government here in the US and around the world. We get nowhere if we don’t show up. I hoped I could serve the US government beyond my term, and I continue to hope for that.

I’m staying. I’m finishing my coffee.

Just a ten letter word

I recently attended my first show at Red Rocks and it was as good as everyone has hyped the venue to be. The scene is beautiful, with a huge stage and brilliant sound (suggesting they had some good engineers, and good luck with the weather). We were also seeing some of my favorite acts: Atmosphere headlined, supported by Brother Ali, Lizzo, and the 16-years-defunct punk band LFTR PLLR.

If one of those bands seems out of place its because LFTR PLLR is not only an art punk band but one of Slug from Atmosphere’s favorite bands. There’s even a song named for the band in one of Atmosphere’s most famous records, Seven’s Travels, and a line in “Reflections” on the same record borrowed from the LFTR PLLR track “Roaming the Foam.” Slug and LFTR PLLR have been friends since the early 90s. According to the story Craig Finn told on stage, the friendship started at a bar in Minneapolis in the late 90s around the time Atmosphere was about to put out a record called Overcast. At the time Atmosphere had five members: Slug, Spawn, Ant, Stress, and Beyond (now Musab). Despite all this history that long-time Atmosphere fans might have known some of, a lot of people were pretty annoyed by this punk band taking up the stage.

The whole show got me thinking about my own appreciation of hip hop, and my discovery of Craig Finn’s current band, The Hold Steady.

When I was in high school I worked at a place called THE GARAGE. At THE GARAGE we had shows every Friday and Saturday night on two stages: The main stage and the (smaller) lounge stage. We did a wide range of music, usually themed by night: punk, metal, prog rock, hip hop, jam bands, and plenty of music that didn’t fit neatly into any of those genre. One night, punk and hip hop were happening on alternate stages on the same night and there was some harassment and antagonism from, in my memory the punks, against the hip hop crowd. During the week THE GARAGE did a wide range of programming led by the youth, and the week after that show, I remember our adult supervisor, Eric, led a dialog between the punk and hip hop bands and fans who were at the show the previous night. The goal was the help each side understand the underpinnings of the music in hopes that it would develop some empathy across the aisle.

Most of my friends weren’t into hip hop and, let’s be honest, it was probably a little driven by racism. I really only knew about the main stream stuff they’d play at school dances and I didn’t get it. Plus, there were a lot of older white folks in my life telling me hip hop was “diarrhea of the mouth,” (:point-left: guitar teacher, he was Nugent fan. It was a thing) and other such derisive terms. That night’s discussion, I learned that hip hop and punk aren’t necessarily that far apart, and there was a lot of interesting rap music coming out of our scene.

Atmosphere was my introduction to hip hop. Specifically, the Seven’s Travels album. I learned about Brother Ali from that album. I first saw Atmosphere during the You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having tour at First Avenue where he was supported by a rapper called POS, who repped a crew called Doomtree. I didn’t know what any of those words meant but I was fixin’ to learn. POS had just put out an album called Audition and featured a few punk rock voices on his tracks. One of those tracks, “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)” opened with Craig Finn:

I’ve only walked out on one single movie
It was an action-adventure
It was a blood-sucking summer

I dug in to those lyrics in a pre-Genius era of googled lyric snippets and liner notes and found that this guy was behind The Hold Steady and that band from that Atmosphere song, “Lifter Puller.” It turned out that POS was in a punk band called Building Better Bombs. Later, I learned about a band called The Plastic Constellations, and that Aaron Mader from that band was a DJ in Doomtree.

It was endless. I love finding connections in music, whether its learning about jazz through De La Soul or discovering the diversity in my local music scene, they give me a better appreciation for the artistry behind the music. Like all things, diversity makes your scene better. It was for that reason I was excited that night at Red Rocks (and to see a band I never thought I’d get to see). It’s also why I’m excited to live in a city now that can support such diverse artists as Wheelchair Sports Camp, Brent Cowles, Dressy Bessy, Nathaniel Rateliff, and, of course, the Flobots.

It’s also why I don’t really understand the people who were upset about the punk band being on stage. I know they probably came there to hear some hip hop, but as Prince once said:

If you free your mind up baby, maybe you’d understand.

The personal is always political

A best friend of mine recently came out as trans. I’ve known several trans people in my life but she is definitely the closest.

It wasn’t my first reaction but as the news sat with me I was taken back to a recent trip to Colorado Springs. We were passing through on our way from the Great Sand Dunes (beautiful) and stopped for a day hike at the Garden of the Gods (also beautiful). It was soon after the Obama Administration directed all public schools to allow transgender access to restrooms and order that will almost certainly be applied unevenly across the 13,506 school districts in the united states.

I was on my way out of the extremely crowded bathroom when one of the men waiting in line remarked on the female custodial staff cleaning the place. The man next to him said she must be trans because she’s in the men’s room. The cleaning woman said “hey, that’s offensive,” but not for the reason I was hoping. The men then made a joke about sexual assault that really wasn’t worth remembering because the thing is, it wasn’t a joke, it was a belief statement.

The joke, and all jokes like it, are premised on the idea that there’s One Way to be a human assigned by the sex you’re born with. Anybody who claims to deviate from that One Way is either making it up, or a predator. The only way to make a joke like that is to actually believe it.

To me, this is a good example of why people are always wrong when they say they want to keep personal issues out of politics. The personal is always political. We live in a society that has more or less operated on a regime of segregating people for more than a hundred years. As Shannon Keating writes in Buzzfeed, we, white cis men, have gotten really good at coming up with reasons to isolate others from any space we deem within our sphere.

Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms.

Before that it was workplaces and public libraries segregating women into their own realm so as not to be too distracting to the men trying to do “serious” reading. It was “protecting” women from “the threat of dirt and disease.” Since WWII it has been a range of different takes on the same themes: Women (and I’m going to specify white women) have weaker bodies that need to be protected from unsubstantiated threats in public restrooms. These so-called threats are always based on perceptions of weakness or danger among a marginalized population.

Those perceptions come from an unwillingness to understand the humanity of these individuals. They persist because we allow them to.

A large part of why I left my last job was because derogatory comments about trans people were allowed in the workplace. When I complained, nothing changed. My team, 10 white men, one woman, and one person of color, was told to “keep it classy,” and I fear if the message had been anything other than that, more people would have complained about politically correctness taking over the workplace.

It’s not politically correct to think that Anchorman is an unacceptable standard for workplace decorum in the 21st Century. It’s not politically correct to ask that your public places be welcoming to all. It’s not politically correct to say that if anybody hired to work for your company should be comfortable doing that work without repressing their humanity. It’s not politically correct to say that my friend is the same wonderful person I’ve always known. It’s not politically correct to say she should have the same freedom we all have to use the bathroom in peace. It’s not politically correct to insist we treat her with the dignity and respect with which she was afforded before she came out. It’s simply correct.

I’m extremely happy for my friend despite being certain she and her family will encounter people like those deplorable humans in the Garden of the Gods bathroom. I’m happy she has committed to fully expressing and performing herself. She has invested the time and emotional energy to deeply understand her humanity, her gender, and her identity.

It gives me hope, in a world with seemingly little of it sometimes, that she was able to find the resources she has to begin transitioning and performing her whole person. Hope that my generation will raise our children to appreciate the diversity in their world in ways that affirm the dignity of those who currently face real discrimination and persistent threats from all corners of life.

On whiteness in tech

I’m a white, cis, hetero male and I work in tech — sorta. That puts me in a pretty established majority. Last year men accounted for 70% of all employees at Twitter. White folks were 59%. 67% of Facebookers are men. 52% are white. 93% are straight. I don’t know what those numbers are where I work and for complicated bureaucratic reasons I don’t fully understand, it might be a while before I do. That said, 18F is the most diverse team I’ve ever worked on but we are far from perfect.

This week, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that it’s diversity hasn’t improved because there aren’t enough qualified people in “the pipeline.” What makes the news that came out of Facebook this week upsetting is that while we have not given up trying to build a diverse team, it appears one of the largest tech companies has. A statement like this is not only false, it’s dangerous. It’s a sign to all the companies smaller than them that this myth is an acceptable reason to give up.

This is bigger than Facebook. It’s part of a societal problem where minorities are forced, by people in power, to prove themselves worthy of the benefit of the doubt. If you need proof this is the case in tech hiring, read some of the stories being shared by people under the hashtag, #FBNoExcuses. Many of them are mutli-tweet stories and I encourage you to read through all of them.

I first learned of the article and hashtag when I noticed a tweet from Kaya Thomas, a Code2040 Fellow, who wrote a moving and powerful piece about her experience trying to find a job as a Dartmouth student graduating soon with a degree in computer science. Most salient:

I thought about all the work I’ve put into to get to where I am today and wondered will it even matter when I start my job search in a few months. According to most tech companies, if I can’t pass an algorithmic challenge or if I’m not a “culture fit” I don’t belong.

Look up Thomas, on Twitter or her website, and you’ll see she has a resume any recruiter should find impressive, especially for someone who hasn’t yet graduated. Yet:

There’s really no excuse for behavior like this. I don’t have a computer science degree and my first job in the US was as a software developer. It wasn’t anything like the kind of work being done at Apple, but I was writing the code that powered most of the CFPB’s website — I was one of their contractors. I went into that interview not having a clue what to expect and assuming I wouldn’t get the job because I had so little real programming experience. I’m thankful for the experience but definitely felt like a fraud at times.

Beyond tech, we see this kind of behavior when the press seemingly justifies the killing of a black man because he had been pulled over a lot or because of the firearm he was legally permitted to carry. When Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police, people who look like me accused me of defending a domestic abuser for saying it was wrong to execute him. Domestic abuse is a terrible thing but it doesn’t not make one eligible for the death penalty, particularly in a state where the death penalty was abolished in 1911.

We also see it when people who look like me complain about political correctness or get away with micro-aggressive behavior. People who look like me get to walk through life fairly comfortably. People who look like me can say the most heinous, incendiary things and get nominated to run for president. When there’s even a whif of sharing that comfortability, people who look like me get incense. They see it as a personal attack, taking away their freedom of speech.

What this twisted sect of society that I happen to share some genetic traits with don’t know, and refuse to believe, is the every day lived experiences of minority populations. They refuse to believe that Muslim women in the U.S. are called “ISIS” in public. They refuse to believe that the reason Philando Castile was pulled over so much was more likely because he was black than because he was a bad driver. They refuse to believe that when we say “hey guys” people who don’t identify as “guys” might feel excluded by that language.

Though I try hard not to, I’m sure that I do the same things men are notorious for in the workplace and in society. Interrupting, offering up the same idea as a non-male co-worker and claiming it as mine, being dismissive of the contributions of my colleagues. I try not to, but I’m sure it happens. I also try to recognize it when it happens and apologize for it when I do. I’m fortunate enough to work at a place with a strong code of conduct, and only hope that our efforts to build a culture where that behavior can be called out have been successful. It’s not enough to try, it’s not enough to apologize; we have to consciously correct ourselves. We have to be different, be better, and change our default settings to make sure everyone can come to work without fear and know their contributions will be appreciated equally by their peers.

I can’t imagine giving up on that. Shame on Facebook for being OK with this disturbing status quo.

Content design and education

A couple friends of mine work as teachers here in Denver (by the way, we made it to Denver!) and we recently started talking about design in education. One friend told me he proposed some design standards for his fellow teachers. The problem he was trying to solve was relatively simple: Each teacher makes a Moodle site for each class, the designs of those pages vary wildly and result in a mostly confusing education experience for students.

I’m not a teacher (anymore), but my friend’s school-wide standards idea got me thinking: We do a lot of this kind of thing at 18F. What are some ways our approach to solving design problems might apply in education?

The problem of design

Slate’s Dan Kois recently articulated one version of this problem on Slate’s “Mom and Dad are Fighting” podcast. Kois described a “parenting fail” (around the 3:50 mark). His kid missed an assignment because the due date was not in the learning management system but in Google Classroom (and this was, apparently, not obvious). He fired off an angry missive to the teacher. On the show he said his initial reaction was:

What the fuck is Google Classroom? … [And] why have we gone from homework in one fucking place my kid doesn’t remember to look at to contradictory instructions in two fucking places my kid doesn’t remember to look at?

Kois admits taking out his frustration on the teacher was wrong — hence the fail.

In all likelihood part of the problem is that the first system was either a garbage fire of user experience (for the teacher, too, no doubt) or didn’t provide the teacher enough flexibility to organize the assignments. Or both. Needing a more robust platform, they turned to Google Classroom. None of that is the teacher’s fault, but is there something the teacher, or the school, could do to prevent confusion like that? Here are a few steps to take to build learner-centered class webpages.

1. Talk to students.

Start with understanding what the students need. Find an opportunity to watch students navigate their daily homework routine and think aloud while they do it. Pay attention to what they’re saying, where they’re making mistakes and strategies they use to correct them. You might even record them. Then design the page for your students.

This is a classic format for usability studies, and even asking five students can lead to insights that improve the experience for all.

2. Adopt school- or district-wide standards

Consistency across common elements like link color, typography, buttons, and information architecture can save a student time and energy by instantly recognizing them across each of their classes. That’s time and energy they now have for being successful. Consistency across the district means less re-learning when they move schools. Plus it makes it easier for teachers new and old to develop new classes without repeating these routine decisions.

The National Parks have a common standard that lets people instantly recognize and trust park resources, rangers, and informational materials no matter which park they’re at. The same could be done for schools or even districts. Resources like WebAIM and content guides (shameless plug) can help ensure your standards are accessible to all students. Make sure to test these standards with real students, while you’re making them, too.

3. Design for the student

Travis Grandy, a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at UMass, recently wrote about ways to improve his syllabus after realizing many of his students weren’t reading it. Grandy’s tips are great and the same basic concepts could apply to a course website or any document given to a student. He redesigned his syllabus because:

Even with a thorough … syllabus, I still had to respond to the same student questions over and over again, and … I felt my course needed a larger narrative that unified learning outcomes with course requirements, and expectations about the day-to-day work students do in my class.

After redesigning, he recommends periodically re-checking the designs every once in a while.

Your class speaks for itself

Again, I’m not a teacher, but like any artifact, your course website is an expression of your course goals and an expression of you. These are a few tools you can use to figure out how to balance those interests. Kois loves his kid’s school, he says so on his podcast. His frustration rose out of uncertainty over whether his kid was as successful as they could be. It was probably a great assignment, well designed and supported by the teacher’s expertise. Why risk students not being able to complete it properly?

The delinquency forbearance

I have fortunately been able to make on-time repayments for my federal student loans every month since they went into repayment. So, I was only a little confused when I got a letter in the mail from my loan servicer telling me that a “delinquency forbearance” had been placed on my loans.

It turns out that it is standard practice to put a customer’s loans into forbearance when they request a change in repayment terms. When I called this morning to ask what the forbearance was all about I was told they do this in order to “keep the account current,” while the change is processed.

Here’s the problem with that. To a borrower, a forbearance might seem like an innocuous month off from paying your loans. Extra money in your pocket for a month is always good, and you changed your repayment presumably to get a lower rate so on the surface it seems like a good deal. It is, until you look up what it actually is and what happens during a forbearance period.

Not a deferment

There are two ways of delaying payment on student loans: deferment and forbearance. deferments are used to pause repayments for really specific reasons when it doesn’t make sense for you to be repaying your loans. For example, if you go back to school you can request a deferment on your existing loans. You can request one for up to three years if you are experiencing prolonged unemployment. One awesome part of deferments is that depending on your loan, the government might pay your interest for you. That means if you end up unemployed for three years after you graduate, you can stop payment on your loans and not worry about interest piling up and capitalizing.

A forbearance is much different.

With forbearance, you may be able to stop making payments or reduce your monthly payment for up to 12 months. Interest will continue to accrue on your subsidized and unsubsidized loans (including all PLUS loans). – studentaid.ed.gov

That last sentence is key, and according to the letter I got, not only does it accrue, but if you don’t pay it during the forbearance period, it capitalizes. Let’s say, like the average med student, you have $166,000 in student loan debt after you graduate (your principle) and you ask and are granted forbearance for a year right as your repayment begins. At 7.5% interest, your loan will earn $34.10 in interest every day during that period for a total of $12,446.50 for the year. And if you don’t pay it before the end of the year, it will capitalize – added to the $166,000 principle. So now your post-graduation debt is $178,446.50. This means once you go back into repayment, your payments might be higher than you planned.

Even if the forbearance period is shorter than a year, it could still be long enough to accrue enough interest to cancel out a monthly payment you already made. When a loan servicer signs its customers up for an automatic forbearance to “keep the account current” while they process repayment requests, they’re signing us up for a whole lot more than a month off of paying our loans.

On top of all that, the interest rate award for enrolling in autopay is suspended during forbearance, so you will be earning interest at a slightly-higher-than-normal rate. It’s like rubbing salt in the wound.

Borrower’s have rights

According to the Department of Education’s materials, the borrower must request a forbearance or deferral. The “automatic” in an automatic forbearance means the servicer is obligated to grant it if the borrow meets the requirements. And that’s the way it should be. If a borrower cannot make payments, these are good options, but that’s a decision the borrower needs to make. A loan servicer should never be able to impose a damaging financial decision on a borrower, and they certainly shouldn’t penalize those who are making good on their payments.

As for the servicer’s need to keep the account “current,” if stopping payment for a month is truly necessary in order to apply a new payment plan, it should be a deferment, not a forbearance. Having a variety of payment plans is valuable because it gives us options that can meet our current financial needs. Since other methods of adjusting loans aren’t available to federal student loans – refinancing, discharging, etc. – it’s vital that these options be useful and not harmful to borrowers. Penalizing borrowers with capitalized interest is no way to reinforce these as good options.

Here’s the thing. Student loans are the worst and the system is incredibly opaque. There’s no consumer choice in the matter: I’m stuck with the servicer ED assigned to me. I have no idea if my monthly payment is going back to the Department of Education, my university, or simply lining the coffers of the the servicing company executives. The autopay system is such a disaster that for the first nine months of repayment I went into my account every day to make sure my payment was scheduled, went through, and the next month’s was queued up properly. Sometimes I even double paid accidentally. In a system so thoroughly stacked against the borrower, we don’t need more opportunities to fail.

A journey to the UP

This post is about a trip we took to the UP from Northern Wisconsin.

Tips:

  1. Day passes for Michigan State Parks are good for unlimited parking in any park for 24 hours. We managed to see 3 in one trip: Gogebic, Porcupine Mountains, and Bond Falls.
  2. There are two campgrounds on the southwest side of Lake Gogebic, the state and the county park. If you have a tent, go to the state park.

The trip

In early October back we decided to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, also known as the UP (pronounced ‘yoop’). If you don’t know: Michigan is made up of two peninsulas and the two are connected by the Mackinac Bridge (or, “the bridge”). The upper peninsula is a little larger than Maryland and is about 30% of Michigan’s total size. It is said only trolls live below the bridge. At about 311 thousand residents the UP is technically large enough to become a state, and indeed statehood movements have been around about as long as Michigan has been a state. It even has a state fair – Michigan’s only. For what it’s worth, it would be the third state with representation in Congress with a population smaller than Washington, D.C.

Gogebic

Sun streaks through the trees on the Gogebic hiking trail.

Living in Vilas County we are just a short journey from the border with the UP. The nearest route into the UP is at Land O’ Lakes, WI, and the second is Presque Isle. On our way in from DC we passed through Escanaba but this time we headed north. Our first stop was Lake Gogebic, about an hour from here by way of Presque Isle.

We arrived about two hours before sunset and camped at Lake Gogebic State Park the first night. We decided to hike before we pitched the tent and, though it meant pitching it at sunset, meant we got to walk the short hiking trail at the park.

I woke up at sunrise over the opposite side of the lake. Gogebic is a massive body of water located in the heart of the almost-million acre Ottawa National forest and spans 14 miles north to south and 2.5 miles east to west. The water was still with that beautiful appearance of glass I love about lakes in the early morning. The Hungarians call this effect “tükörsima:” As smooth as the surface of a mirror. I really don’t know of a single word in English that captures that appearance.

Sunrise over Lake Gogebic

The Porkies

The next morning we planned to go home but instead packed up the tent and went north on Highway 64 to the Porcupine Mountains State Park, on the south shore of Lake Superior. We had just enough time to get there and hike along the Lake of the Clouds (the overlook hike was captured for Google Street View).

Greg and Danielle on the Lake of the Clouds hike.

Lake of the Clouds was amazing. A long lake situated between two ridges in the Porkies. As you walk along the north ridge, you follow the lakeshore from several hundred feet high. At some points you walk right along the cliff face and at others you are immersed in lush, old growth forest. The hike we did was about 2.5 miles out and back, but connected to other trails that could take you hundreds of miles deep into the heart of this impressive expanse of public land.

Bond Falls

We drove along the shore on the way back, opting for the slightly longer route along highway 45. For lunch we stopped in a cafe in Ontonagon before heading south to Paulding where we managed to sneak in a hike to Bond Falls before returning to Wisconsin. Unfortunately it was not dark enough to see the legendary light.

My aunt and uncle have a great story about a family vacation they took to the UP where everybody in the car was hungry and they were lost, trying to find their cabin. When they stopped to ask where the nearest McDonalds was, they were told “probably about 90 miles that way.” Depending on where they’re located the towns seem to be mining, shipping, or agriculture communities. But though the towns are few and far between comes a tremendous amount of public land. About a third of the peninsula is protected making it a dream destination for the particularly outdoorsy. With famous places like the Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Sault Ste. Marie, places like Bond Falls, the Porkies or Gogebic might often go overlooked. If you have time to take the journey leisurely, though, little places like these are well worth the trip.

Leaflet and Stamen on the blog

I changed the tagline of my blog to “Nomad public servant, learning out loud” when we moved out of DC. In addition to writing about the different places we’ve visited, I also end up writing a lot of these posts from places other than where we live. So over Thanksgiving weekend I decided it was time I learned how to do some mapping work. The last time I tried to map something, it was about six years ago, in Google Maps, and I had no idea what I was doing.

I ended up with a giant, hand-crafted JSON file that got loaded to create markers for the map. It was also completely separate from any real data. It was just a big list of places and descriptions. While it looked cool, it also only loaded on Firefox (puzzlingly) and all other browsers got a blank beige placeholder.

I also tried to link location data to blog posts in WordPress once upon a time. I think if I did either of those again I’d probably do them differently, and it would probably look more like how I did it with this blog.

How it works

Each blog post has a loc field in the frontmatter. This post has loc: st-germain. Then I created an include to create a map placeholder and a Liquid filter that cross-references that value against a file at _data/locations.yml to get the latitude and longitude. The location data is added to the dataset on the div. It looks like this:

Then I have some really simple javascript that picks up the dataset and produces a map. There’s also a page showing all the locations as markers. For that piece I added a JSON dump of the _data/locations.yml into a script tag and load it with JSON.parse(document.getElementById('map-data').innerHTML);, then iterate over the values.

What I used

I used Jekyll’s data directory to keep the location data. I could probably geocode these values, too, and that would take the manual work out of figuring out where these places are, but I decided since there’s only a handful right now it was easier to look them up.

Leaflet powers the map itself based on OpenStreetMap data. It’s pretty straightforward to configure and comes with some smart defaults. I used Stamen’s Toner Lite tiles for the base layer. I wanted to go with the Terrain tiles but lack of international coverage mean I couldn’t map some of the places without some exta work. Regardless, it’s really great that Stamen offer these excellent tiles for free, and that Leaflet is open source. The only trick with loading the tiles was figuring out how to do it over HTTPS, after some googling, I ended up adding the tile layer like this:

var Toner = L.tileLayer('https://stamen-tiles-{s}.a.ssl.fastly.net/toner-lite/{z}/{x}/{y}.{
  ext}', {
    attribution: 'Map tiles by <a href="http://stamen.com">Stamen Design</a>,
   under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0">CC BY 3.0</a>.
   Data by <a href="http://openstreetmap.org">OpenStreetMap</a>, under <a
   href="http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright">ODbL</a>.',
    minZoom: 0,
    maxZoom: 20,
    ext: 'png'
});

Figuring things out from there was pretty easy thanks to Leaflet’s clear documentation. I also used underscore but not as much as planned and could probably rewrite the JS to work without the extra dependency.

What’s next?

I hope to keep finding things to map in the blog. Sometimes I write about places after we visit and there are a few places we visited this year that I haven’t written about yet. Hopefully I can do the writing and find a way to capture those locations on the main map. Maybe with a different color marker? Maybe with route lines leading from where the post was written to where the post is about? It was a lot of fun figuring this out and I’m excited to learn more about what leaflet can do.

Jamar

On November 16, 2015 Minneapolis became the latest city to witness a black person shot dead by police. His name was Jamar Clark, he was 24 years old and unarmed.

The shooting sparked a protest that ultimately shut down I-94 for a short stretch. I wrote on Facebook the morning after that I was proud of my friends in Minneapolis who stood up for justice that night. While it turns out I didn’t know anybody on I-94 that night, I remain proud of every Minneapolitan who has gone to one of those protests, donated to a legal defense fund, or in any way stood up for justice in their community.

A black lives matter protest in Minneapolis
Photo: Fibonacci Blue

It’s easy to look at that protest and say: “That’s dangerous,” or “think of the people who didn’t get home on time,” or speculate about what might have happened because a small stretch of I-94 was shut down for a couple hours. It’s easy to feel inconvenienced by traffic jams.

If that traffic jam were caused by people holding signs that said “Traffic Jams Matter” and they weren’t protesting abysmal road conditions, I might agree with folks who criticized the protesters. But those signs didn’t read “Traffic Jams Matter,” they read “Black Lives Matter,” and the brave souls camping at the 4th Precinct every night aren’t holding signs that read “Entrances to Buildings Matter,” their’s, too, read “Black Lives Matter.”

Just the basic fact that a member of the public was killed by their government should cause alarm. Police killing people should be rare, even rarer should be questions about whether the killing was necessary. But at 873 people shot dead by police this year, it’s anything but rare.

So far a plurality (45%) of those 873 were people of color (a majority if you include the 63 where race of the victim was “unknown”). 30 were unarmed and black. At least 72 were shot dead by police in November – nearly 2.5 per day. There have been 11 since November 16 when Jamar Clark was shot dead in a Minneapolis house. The accounts of these shootings are a depressing read because either the person killed was horrifically violent or because they might have been innocent.

It’s easy to cherry pick the most heinous stories out of the list of nearly 900. It’s harder for anybody who wasn’t there to know whether the shooting was justified. I think most people can agree that shooting a suspect dead should be the solution of last resort.

Jamar Clark got into a “physical altercation” with police but was unarmed and witnesses say he was not resisting arrest. Some accounts say he was in handcuffs. The NAACP said he was murdered “execution style.”

Police say he disarmed an officer. Even if that’s true it is difficult for me to imagine how ending his life was the only option available to the officers.

Situations like these always provoke a lot of questions in my head: If he truly disarmed an officer, are police officers not trained in disarming suspects? If they are, why didn’t they? Otherwise, why aren’t they? Did he need to be shot in the head to neutralize the threat? If the police shot him in the leg would he still be alive? Would he get due process and a fair trial? The last question we will never get an answer to because, like so many others, Jamar Clark is dead. And dead people can’t answer questions.

Police are supposed to protect and serve the public. The police in this case appeared to be protecting and serving the paramedic on site and the person who needed medical attention but once they killed Jamar Clark, they were also protecting and serving prejudices embedded in our criminal justice system. Prejudices that manifest themselves in the form of disproportionate numbers of black people being incarcerated. While nationally the incarceration rate is an already-too-high 732 per 100,000 residents, the rate among blacks is 2,207 per 100,000 the rate climbs to nearly 9% for black people around my age. Among Latinos it’s nearly 1,000 per 100,000. Add them together, you get nearly 3,173 per 100,000 black or Latino residents of the United States of America behind bars. Among whites, it’s 380 per 100,000.

When we live in a society in which people with black skin are unfairly targeted and mistreated by the criminal justice system and people should protest. When protesters tell Mayor Betsy Hodges that “we’re working on it,” isn’t enough, or scoff at her attempt to reword their questions for them, this is what they mean. We need leaders at every level of government and in every community who believe that this isn’t right.

We need leaders who say “Black Lives Matter.” We need them to, when a black person is shot dead by police, say that taking the life of an individual takes life out of the community. We need them to say that 900 people shot dead by police in one year is unacceptable. It’s unbelievable to think we live in a country that violent, and unacceptable if we truly do.

I’m proud of the Minneapolitans who this week said, “it doesn’t have to be this way,” or knows that this is about far more than releasing the tapes. This is about demanding justice for a young black person shot dead by police, and justice for a community wronged on a daily basis by the criminal justice system.