Friday, March 26, 2010

Small change adds up to big savings when "going green"


This morning, the Associated Press reported that the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has found a simple way to cut costs and "go green". By simply changing the school's default e-mail font from Arial to Century Gothic, printing e-mails will now use 30 percent less ink. The article also states that with the price of printer ink estimated at $10,000 per gallon (yes, that's ten thousand dollars... no typos here), 30 percent savings will really start to add up.

We live in a world where "going green" is getting trendy, which makes many people ignore the problem, labeling recycling and eco-friendly policies as the work of "tree-huggers". Skeptics of global warming and other ecological problems scoff at the idea that doing little things can make a difference, and many people believe that doing their part doesn't make a real impact.

I argue quite the contrary. I believe that it is in the little things that we have the opportunity to make the greatest impact. Not everyone can afford to buy all eco-friendly products all the time, but we can all afford to recycle the packaging of whatever products we do buy. Not everyone can carpool to work or take public transportation, but we can all walk or bike more on the weekends, using our cars less. Not everyone can afford energy-efficient appliances, but we can all turn off lights and faucets and unplug electronics and appliances when they aren't in use. Small change adds up to big change, when everyone is contributing in some way.

Computers and printing are one of the biggest sources of waste in my daily life. My work computer remains on (albeit frequently "asleep") 24 hours a day, seven days a week because my employer requires it. Colleagues print multiple copies of e-mails for filing that never happens, wasting reams of paper and gallons of ink. So while I understand that there are people who will laugh and shake their heads at the idea that changing e-mail's default font is good for the earth, I'm not one of them. If changing the font saves the University of Wisconsin 30 percent more ink, it's also saving them from buying (and throwing away) more packaging and it's saving them money. If the footer of my e-mails (reading please consider the environment before printing this e-mail) prevents even one person from needlessly printing a few pages, I will have made a small difference.

This is not to say that big change isn't needed to combat our environmental problems, but in the absence of a worldwide rallying cry in favor of eco-friendly measures, the little things will have to count. As a frequently cited quotation states, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." —Margaret Mead

So change your e-mail fonts. Don't print out unnecessary e-mails. Turn off your computer when you're done for the day. Buy products with less packaging and recycle the leftovers. Ride a bike. Buy local. Do the things you can that will make an impact without convincing yourself that doing so little will never add up to much. The world (and your wallet) will thank you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books for crooks? Why I donated to the Prison Book Program

Ten minutes ago I donated five American Century dictionaries to prisoners in Massachusetts.

The Prison Book Program is a grassroots organization that has been sending books to prisoners since 1972. Based in my own backyard (just outside of Boston), the organization sends free books to prisoners and is currently hoping to collect enough money to buy 1,000 college-level dictionaries for inmates.

Wondering why I donated five dictionaries to inmates?
  • First and foremost, I believe in a right to education for all. The prison system in the United States focuses on a punitive form of justice, not a rehabilitative one, but an educated prisoner makes for a more useful member of society after his release. By providing books (and dictionaries) we are encouraging inmates to educate themselves and become more productive members of society after their releases.

  • The majority of inmates currently incarcerated are reading at a sub-standard level. Not only are dictionaries are important to understand words in books read for pleasure, but they are important for inmates who are signing important legal documents. It is critical that people understand all the materials given to them and dictionaries allow prisoners to do that.

  • Plenty of people make poor decisions that land them in prison, but many learn from their mistakes and should have an opportunity to better themselves. Other inmates are incarcerated due to a failure of the justice system. All prisoners should have access to books, but I feel especially passionate that those people who are unjustly locked up and those who have a desire to improve themselves through education should have access to all the books they can read.
There are, of course, half a dozen more reasons why this cause is important to me, but I think the inmates say it best. The Prison Book Program website publishes actual requests from inmates. One says,
"I have to have my room mate [sic] help me with the big words... I have only been reading now for about 21 months. I am 46 years old and when I get out of prison, my son will be 11 years old. And I would love to be able to read and write to my son. So please if you all could see to help me I will be able to help my son when I get home. The dictionary will help learne [sic] how to spell big words."
Like this inmate, many of people who end up in prison have the proverbial odds stacked against them. These are low-income people with little or no education, living in poor neighborhoods, and failing to see that there are any positive options. I only wish that the man quoted above had better opportunities for education in his youth; if he had, perhaps he wouldn't be in prison today. Since he is in prison, however, I'm glad that he's making an effort to improve his circumstances by learning to read and write. When he gets out of prison he'll be able to teach his son that it's never to late to learn.

If you're interested in donating dictionaries to inmates, know that the Prison Book Program is buying 1,000 dictionaries at the wholesale price of $2.47. By donating less than it costs to buy a latte at Starbucks, you'll send a much-needed and much-appreciated dictionary to an inmate. Give up fancy coffee for a single week and you can send 10 dictionaries to folks who really need them. Besides, you can donate online with the click of a button.

For more information on the Prison Book Program, visit their website:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung! (Or, the crocuses have, at least.)

This weekend marks the official start of spring, but the sun is shining, the snow has melted, and the crocuses in my yard are blooming bright purple and white. Teeny little tufts of green grass are poking through the lawn, and my lilies are slowly poking up from the dirt. I've dusted off my flip flops and optimistically stowed away my winter jacket in a closet. Since it feels like spring, all that's left to do is to wait for Saturday's First Day of Spring announcement, and it's official.

I am one of those hearty New Englanders who actually enjoys all four seasons and extols the virtues of fall foliage and winter snowfalls. I like to haughtily turn my nose up at people who bemoan the weather and the gloominess of winter. Secretly though, I'm glad to see it go. I love a white Christmas and making snow angels, but I hate shoveling and driving in Boston traffic when there's a storm. So I'm understandably excited to see a few days of sunshine; my spirits have lifted considerably! I love that I can go for a walk with a light sweater instead of bundling up in a long winter jacket complete with scarf, hat, gloves, and boots. Ahhh, spring!

In fact, I believe I'll go take advantage of some of that almost-spring sunshine right now...

What are you still doing here? Get outside!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Short and sweet: sound advice from fortune cookies

I am a firm believer in the fact that a steaming container of Chinese food can make a bad day better. If not because of the salty and sweet goodness found at the bottom of a container filled with orange chicken, then at least for the pick-me-up found inside a fortune cookie.

So for today, I simply leave you with my latest fortune cookie message:
Despair is criminal.

So cheer up, dear readers. There's always a sunny side, and if you're due some cheeriness, I'm sure it's on its way.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Upward Bound needs your help: Why TRiO programs need to be fully-funded recently posted a call to action, asking readers to contact their federal elected officials in support of TRiO programs.

TRiO programs are “federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.” In essence, these programs allow low-income and disabled students the opportunity and tools to become the first in their families to go to college.

According to, during the last grant cycle (in 2007) for TRiO’s Upward Bound (UB) program, nearly 200 Upward Bound programs lost their funding, including a disproportionate number of programs housed at historically black institutions. It is my understanding that in response to this loss, an amendment to the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) “provided $57 million each year for fiscal years 2008-2001” to fund UB programs that served approximately 12,000 students. Unfortunately, because the funds were put into effect immediately – and didn’t result in forward-funding like typical TRiO grants – there are no funds to account for these programs once the CCRAA’s money runs out.

Essentially, by not providing additional discretionary funds to cover the costs of these programs, the government has decided to cut the number of active Upward Bound programs from 964 to 788, serving 12,000 fewer students each year. This is in addition to the over 39,000 students who already lost services for fiscal year 2010, due to rising costs.

Why is Upward Bound so important?

For starters, Upward Bound evens the academic playing field for at-risk kids. The teenagers who participate in UB programs can be from low-income or minority families, the first in their families to go to college. Many are also homeless or living “doubled up” with friends or family. Most UB students are a combination of some or all of those things. They also live in economically-depressed areas, like rural communities with high rates of poverty and few social service programs or big cities with lots of crime and few jobs. These are kids who are unlikely to go on to college without the guidance of a program like Upward Bound.

As a former UB student, I urge you – the readers – to encourage your elected officials to support the expansion of TRiO programs and, consequently, funding for the 2011 fiscal year. Because of the Upward Bound program, I was encouraged to go to college and given the tools to do so.

I grew up in a rural, economically-depressed area, where less than half of my classmates made it through four-year college. With Upward Bound's guidance (and financial assistance) I applied to seven colleges and universities, was accepted at six, and graduated cum laude in four years with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology. I was the first in my family to go to and graduate from college. It was something no one else had ever been able to do. In fact, shortly after my graduation, I had to attend the funeral of a family member. At the service, my grandfather pulled me close to him and said to anyone who would listen, “That’s my granddaughter – she’s a college graduate!”

The fact that I went to and was able to graduate from college was no small feat. I didn’t know anything about college until Upward Bound came along and helped me through the process. I wouldn’t have known to take difficult courses and the SATs – kids who have college graduates for parents know those things, but why would it occur to the rest of us? That I was guided through the process and given the skills (academic and emotional) to cope with and excel in college, resulted in my becoming the first person in my family to go to college; I hope that future generations of my family will be able to pursue their dreams of higher education as well.

In addition to helping me as a high school student, Upward Bound was also able to provide me with an internship during the summer, in between semesters at college. That lead to offers of employment every summer thereafter and turned into a fulltime job upon graduation. I was eventually promoted from Office Manager to Academic Advisor, and I was given the opportunity to help guide hundreds of other kids through the college process. I also helped to educate parents, teaching them how to advocate for themselves and their children by requesting AP classes and extracurricular activities at their children’s schools. I helped raise funds to cover the gaps between a student’s financial aid packet and the cost of college. I took everything that Upward Bound taught me, turned around, and taught it to those kids coming up behind me. I know the value of what was given to me and am eager to pay my good fortune forward.

TRiO programs need to be fully-funded. The opportunity to grow up with Upward Bound and then work for the program made me who I am today. The government likes to count things, to prove that their programs are making a difference. I don’t know if you can count the individuals who went on to lead productive lives because of UB, but I’m afraid that you can count the number of people who didn’t – they’re the ones in dead-end service jobs, in prison, in rough neighborhoods, and in bad relationships, because they didn’t have access to someone who cared about them and guided them through high school and college. They didn’t have the support networks that UB students build with their classmates, teachers, and advisors. They didn’t know that anyone believed in them, and they didn’t get the chance to shine.

College should not be a privilege enjoyed only by the rich or the offspring of college graduates. TRiO programs (including Upward Bound) allow children of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnicities to achieve academic success. These students grow up to give back to their communities and become productive members of society. Eliminating or level-funding TRiO programming is irresponsible and will result in a greater discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in American society.

By not funding the Upward Bound program, we are denying our children the opportunity to take charge of their education and we are most certainly depriving ourselves of a brighter future filled with teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, social workers, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs who knew what it was like to grow up poor. These are precisely the kind of people we need to make the world a better place. They are the people who give back to their communities by mentoring the next generation of at-risk kids so that the cycle of learning and giving back continues.

Please join the cause and write to your elected officials. You can find them online through the call to action and read more about the issue at the Council for Opportunity in Education.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The five best websites you've never heard of

What's not to love about the Internet? Okay, okay, maybe pop-up ads, spam e-mail, and viruses, but otherwise, the World Wide Web is full of fascinating stuff guaranteed to give you something to do. If you're in the market for some new distractions, check out these five best websites you've never heard of.
  1. Listography
    According to the website's "About" page, "Listography provides users (listographers) of all ages an easy-to-use tool for creative list writing and sharing." Not only can you make your own lists (Bands I've seen in concert, Items to get at the grocery store, Places I'd like to visit), but you can peruse other people's lists. Go ahead; give it a try!

  2. Sporcle
    If we're RLF's, maybe you've heard of the wonderful distraction that is Sporcle, but otherwise, chances are that you haven't. If you're the kind of person that would be amused trying to recall all the lyrics to Don McLean's American Pie (in 14 minutes or less) or if you know George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words, or if you think you'd have fun identifying companies by their logos, Sporcle is for you. Some games take just a minute, others give you upwards of 15 minutes, so there's a distraction for any period of time you've got.

  3. Slashfood
    Slashfood is the best blog for foodies. The site covers everything from dessert wines to newfangled ketchup packets to wacky products made with bacon, and I love reading all of it. You're also likely to stumble across restaurant news, polls, and debates about tipping and service.

  4. I have seen the whole of the Internet
    Seriously, that's the name of the blog. And if you don't have time to read all those hilarious e-mails that people forward you and poke around YouTube for funny dog videos, just head over to Joanne Casey's ("Internet Caretaker") blog, and you'll be brought up to speed in no time.

  5. Wordle
    Wordle creates a "word cloud" based on text entered by the user. According to the site, "the clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text," and you can change the color and font of your creation. A Wordle graphic appeared in this IT&O article; they're fun to make and handy when you need a unique picture!
If you've got five minutes to waste, now's the time to get poking around the Internet. Enjoy!

Monday, March 01, 2010

The battle for marriage equality rages on

I admittedly don't follow politics very closely. The reason isn't that I don't care about what happens in the world, it's that I don't like to watch grown men slinging proverbial mud at one another, running dirty campaigns, and spouting their hateful opinions and misguided ideas to any media outlet foolish enough to listen. I also find the influence of money in the political arena heartbreaking; those campaigns with more money shouldn't "win" simply because their money buys more airtime and more flyers.

One issue in particular is always in the spotlight -- equal marriage rights. In fact, this battle rages on across the country making progress and then falling back. I'm sometimes shocked at how long "we the people" are able to debate an issue! Back when Inner Thoughts & Outbursts was just a column in a weekly newspaper, I wrote a piece comparing the battle for marriage equality (allowing same-sex couples to marry) to the battle for civil rights (allowing black children to attend the same schools as white children). In that editorial I stated that now, as always, the answer to a human rights question is equality. Denying marriage (or calling it a "civil union") to gay couples is unequal and unconstitutional.

Sitting down to reread the column (written this very week, six years ago), I am shocked that the issue is still so prominent in politics and in the public eye. I expected gay marriage to be commonplace by now. I didn't expect that the battle would still be so prevalent and that states that had granted equal marriage rights would have to fight to defend their positions, sometimes losing and having once-granted rights suddenly taken away.

All hope is not lost, however. About a month ago I read a story about a high school in California targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The WBC routinely protests gay rights and carries signs reading, "God hates fags," "God hates the U.S.A." and other such nonsense. The WBC is also a group with enough cash behind it so as to have a sophisticated website and a whole staff committed to organizing press opportunities and protests. While I was shocked that such a group would target a high school, I was pleasantly surprised to read about the school's response.

According to the article, Gunn High School's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) planned a peaceful counter demonstration that not only showed its support in the fight for gay rights, but poked fun at the WBC protesters. Students from other schools and school groups joined the GSA and spent the morning singing songs, waving flags, and holding a peaceful demonstration. They even carried signs reading "God hates signs" and "Love is Love" to poke fun at the ridiculousness of WBC's hateful protesting.

Students interviewed for the article talked about the peace and love behind the demonstration, and discussed why they won't be deterred by protesters' intolerance. When I read the kids' sentiments and saw their funny signs, I felt a wave of relief rush over me; maybe the future isn't doomed! Perhaps there is still hope for polite politics!

The kids of Gunn High School showed class when they responded to such hatred in a peaceful and tongue-in-cheek way. They also gave me hope that someday marriage equality will no longer be an issue -- it'll just be the norm and everyone will be able to enjoy the same rights. Someday these children will grow into adults, and maybe the political mudslinging will stop. Maybe these young people will be able to separate politics from human rights and our national policies will change for the better. Maybe, there will come a day when I can turn on the television or read the news and not be dismayed by the ugliness and bigotry displayed there, because there won't be any.