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Stateside: Aunt Minnie and the Mow-Ped

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

Aunt Minnie and the Mow-Ped

The column's kinda long this week - doing a bit of a catch-up. The topical stuff is at the end, so feel free to skip the peevish rest of it!

One thing about going away for three weeks is that you get a clear idea of how much junk mail you're sent. I was surprised it turned out to be only one piece a day, but I guess that's because a couple of days a month I get none at all. Once your name gets onto a mailing list here - either from giving a contribution or subscribing to something - you can bet there'll be no end of like-minded organisations who are using the same letter-writers to get their message out there in an envelope that typically contains at least four pieces of paper plus the return envelope. Whole forests have died in my (consistently mis-spelt) name without my wanting it to be so.

Magazines are among the most aggressive, and subscribing to them doesn't necessarily mean you won't hear from them again for a year. A couple of months into your subscription you'll be sent an offer of an early-bird renewal form. Then there's the charitable organisations, which never seem to give up and which must spend a large part of their budget on direct mailing. One of the most persistent and profligate is Amnesty International, who include a costly decal every time. Often mailings contain a survey or a petition, and the really cocky ones like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Democrats send you a membership card even though you haven't sent them any money.

Some of the mailings are bin-fodder even before being opened, like the one from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which sent a foolscap-sized "fold and detach along perforation" style envelope with the following message on the front: "Ms Barker, You have a big stake in Social Security and Medicare - like everyone in your generation. Yet you were not one of the nearly 16,000,000 seniors who answered our previous letters. I think I know why." OK, just for you, dear readers, I opened it. No mention of Mrs Kennelly's guess at why I didn't answer, just three heavy pages of closely typed (in small type) begging letter, a petition to send to my local rep and senators, and a temporary membership card.

Some of the letters are unintentionally funny, at least to my squalid mind. Take the "P.S." that appears under Bill Clinton's signature in a begging letter for the Democratic National Committee, which "helps" the Democratic candidates in the House and Senate races at the federal level: "As President, I tried never to forget where I came from - and never forget the hard-working people like you who meet each day resolved to make the world a better place for the next generation. I was pulling for you every day as President, and I'm still pulling for you..." Pulling what, Bill? Please don't do anyone from the next generation out of a job - or even an internship - on my account.

What's my point? It's nothing to do with who sends the mail, actually, it's to do with who delivers it. Bulk mailings are done at a cut rate, and it seems to me that at some point the cost of handling and transporting the sheer volume and weight of this junk mail means that the income from those bulk mailings no longer subsidises the delivery of full-priced mail. In fact, the reverse becomes true. As the volume of full-price mail diminishes - with the growth in on-line transactions and accounts, email and the use of couriers - it's people who write letters to friends and send a cheque through the mail to pay their bills, and the smaller businesses who send invoices through the mail, who are subsidising the junk mail.

The extra cost doesn't come from the number of posties needed to deliver the mail so much as the cost of airline fuel to transport it, and facilities and people to sort it. But there obviously is an impact on the amount of mail a postie has to carry. Which brings me to my next pet peeve - the Mow-Ped. The United States Postal Service is conducting a trial use of that damned stupid epitome of everything that's wrong about research and development in this country - the Segway. No doubt the gaga-ism that pervades the media here over this gyroscopic wonder that goes at 9 mph and will be used on the footpath has been picked up in the Antipodes, or you might have read my previous rant.

My nickname for it reflects my feeling that it will just mow pedestrians down. Moreover, it's the product of a pervasive attitude among the research community here that, given enough money, they can invent anything and if it turns out to be something nobody much needs and has many good reasons not to be wanted, then they'll throw some more money into a marketing campaign to convince millions of people that they do need it. The attitude is at its most destructive in the pharmaceutical and automotive industries. Oops, now I'm stepping in more pet peeves!

Back to the Mow-Ped. One of the interesting things I've learned here is that "sidewalk" isn't just the US word for "footpath". It's part of a group of words that define the rights a pedestrian has out on the streets - sidewalk, crosswalk and jaywalk. There are very few pedestrian crossings here of the zebra kind, and that is because the pedestrian has the right of way once they have stepped out onto the street. Obviously, if people just wandered out onto the street haphazardly there would be chaos, which is why jaywalking is a crime. The place for you to cross is called a crosswalk, and they're at every intersection and place in between where it makes sense to have one because of the volume of foot traffic.

The Mow-Ped will be a worse hazard to pedestrians than people riding their bikes on the footpath. And I bet it will be a medical hazard to the mail carriers. Walking keeps your blood and muscles moving; standing on a motorised cocktail stick does not. Posties don't ride bikes here. They walk, and for good reason. Mail boxes aren't typically out on the street. They will usually be a slot in the door, or inside an apartment complex foyer, and it would be ludicrous to have to keep getting on and off a bike - or a Mow-Ped - to walk up people's steps.

My local postie said he thought they might work for posties delivering in a business district where they can just hand the letters over in the shop doorway, but not anywhere else. "And what about hills?" he asked. Well, they're testing them in San Francisco, so we'll see what we shall see. In the meantime, the amount of critical press the Segway is getting is zilch. "Ooh, aren't they cute. And they go nine miles an hour!" the local free-to-air heads coo on the news, not so much as wondering if going 9 miles per hour from one set of steps to another, twenty feet away, is actually a meaningful measure.

And so to Aunt Minnie. One of the magazines I subscribed to from a direct mailing is 'California Journal'. By its own lights, it is a non-partisan, non-ideological analysis of California government and politics, established in 1970. Aunt Minnie is the name CJ coined for the Californian equivalent of Uncle Sam, and refers to the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, who appears on the state's Great Seal. Every two years (when - if they haven't termed out - all 80 members of the state assembly and half the 40 senators come up for re-election) CJ salutes "the Legislature's best and brightest" with the Minnie Awards. They've been doing this since 1990 and over time both the method and the criteria for some of the awards have changed, but I thought - with an election coming up on July 27 - that you might like to apply the Minnie measure locally.

You can access the full text on-line at the link below, but the five areas in which the Minnies were awarded (excluding Legislator of the Year, and Rookie of the Year) were: integrity, problem-solving, hard-working, potential, and quick study (the US phrase for "fast learner"). The awards were based on the results of more than 60 detailed interviews, plus 40 email questionnaires returned by legislative offices, where the member and staff from each of the 120 offices were asked to list their top three members in each category.

The Californian legislature, of course, operates under a completely different system from the Westminster style of parliament New Zealand has. For one thing, the number of bills that are introduced is staggering. Rules are in place to limit it to 65 for a Senator and 30 for an Assembly Member in any two-year session, and to have a cut-off time after which any such introductions have to be approved by either the Speaker (in the Assembly) or the Senate Committee on Rules.

All the same, in the course of a regular session, the Legislature will consider approximately 7,000 bills in addition to numerous constitutional amendments and other resolutions, according to 'California's Legislature', a handbook published by the Office of the Chief Clerk of the Assembly in 2000. So the reference to 'number of bills passed into law' in one of the Minnie Awards criteria can encompass a lot of legislation at the level of whether paint horses and Appaloosa's can compete in horse races at fairs licensed to have quarter horse racing.

All the same, the Minnie criteria seem like they'd travel well to any voting public. You know what integrity is, right? And problem-solving - including bringing people of diverse views together to find common ground. Hard-working, both in parliament and out for constituencies. Potential - not just for leadership but for accomplishing worthwhile things. Quick study - able to size up the legislative process, other members, and the politics behind an issue in addition to its policy ramifications. Having made your judgment, please don't go messing it up by trying to vote strategically - that's consultant-speak for one of the ways politicians steal your vote from you before you get to the ballot box (another is by not standing candidates in certain electorates).

Your job as a voter is to put a tick next to the names of the one person who will best represent your electorate and the one party whose policies most closely represent what you would like to see accomplished over the next three years. As politicians are so fond of saying, the only poll that counts is the one on election night. If you don't vote for whom and what you truly believe in, that person and party will never know you care.

The Minnies are at:

Lea Barker
Sunday, July 21, 2002.

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