The 63 “counties” of Massachusetts

Middlesex County, Massachusetts is huge. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of more than 1.6 million people, with 818 square miles of land area. As a governmental entity, Middlesex has been neutered, electing only a small core of officers (district attorney, sheriff, registrars of deeds and probate) to perform functions that are vestigial offices of county government.

Yet, our county retains its geographic identity alongside 3,143 counties and county-equivalents across the United States. Steve Kornacki, a native of Middlesex County, is fond of ignoring it while devoting fond attention to counties with 1% of the population of the county of his youth. The vast size of Middlesex has rendered it useless as a descriptor of much of anything. Extending from Ashby to Holliston, to North Reading, to Cambridge, there’s a whole lot of a whole lot of things happening that defies a meaningful summary.

Those little counties adored by Steve Kornacki are all centered around a county courthouse, and have become units of analysis on all kids of measures. Middlesex has a population greater than 12 states, including four New England states (ME, NH, VT, RI), and like a state it has a dozen district courthouses and corresponding judicial districts; seven of these districts have a population greater than the average US county (104,435).

Eastern Equine Encephalitis in Middlesex County? That’s not very specific. Eastern Equine Encephalitis in the Third Judicial District of Eastern Middlesex County? For the 172,000 residents of the district that includes Arlington, Belmont, and Cambridge, that’s a defining and meaningful geographic region.

Middlesex County
The 12 “counties” of Middlesex.

If you combine the Boston municipal courts into one unit, there are 63 judicial districts in the Commonwealth. the population of the average Massachusetts judicial district (103,930) is slightly smaller than the national average. These 63 districts, if we declared them to be the equivalent of counties, would make our data comparable to the rest of the nation.

This is really a simple fix, a quick and easy way to create more meaningful statistical entities that aligns to national definitions of existing for “administrative or statistical purposes.” Clearly, the judicial districts serve an administrative purpose, and would provide a more specific and granular unit for statistical purposes, so why not just designate them as counties?

If we call the judicial districts counties, what do we do with the existing counties? We find a new name for them, possibly regions. Where county commissions currently exist, they can become regional commissions. Sheriffs, district attorneys, registrars of probate and deeds could serve regions.

Changing counties to regions and judicial districts to counties is a semantic game. Though it would require more complex legal language to enact it, it requires nothing more than clerical accuracy by the folks combing through the law to identify instances in the text and make adjustments to the language therein. There may be some requirements to describe regions, formerly known as counties, when pointing toward the few constitutional provisions related to counties. Again, this is not a functional change, but it does revolve around items such as the drawing of legislative districts to correspond (as much as possible) within county borders.

That said, the real fun in this proposal would be to name the new counties. Counties could be named for famous folks or prominent geographic features attached to the county, with a preference for names not used for an existing county or municipality. For example, O’Neill county could be named for Tip O’Neill, and the county containing the city of Barnstable (and Hyannis Port) could be Kennedy County.

Here’s a map of the 63 “counties” and their population (2010 census). I think you will agree using these existing districts, served by their very own courthouse, make much more sense for statistical analysis and making decisions based on criteria (such as rates of COVID-19 infection per 100,000 residents).

Playing vaccine roulette

Friday morning, I scored a coveted COVID-19 vaccine appointment at Gillette Stadium using the Massachusetts vaccine website.

Friends have asked how I did it. Here’s my strategy. Your mileage may vary, but it worked for me.

First, you need to view the vaccine sign-up as a poorly designed online ticket website that is not as easy to conquer. If you want tickets for Hamilton or a popular concert, you know that rapidly repeated hits on the refresh button is the key to scoring tickets. Each hit on the refresh button is a low-probability try to land your ticket, but if you make it past the first screen, you have a few minutes to break out your credit card and finalize the transaction.

In the case of the vaccine, making it past the first screen is a digital contest to enter the race through multiple screens before you win an appointment. (Think of it as qualifying for the Boston Marathon.) The probability of success is defined by how fast you can make it through the registration screens compared to other competitors for that appointment.

Before you start, here are the basics. Understand that you can’t sit around and be picky about the date and time. Claim your spot, and once you know the details, be ready to do what you need to do to rearrange your life around the shot. If you make it a couple of pages into the registration process, you will be asked for your health insurance company and policy number. Be ready for this step. Open a text file and type in your policy number before you start your search, so you can cut and paste it into the field when you reach it.

Your adventure begins when you access the start page of the state website,

You will encounter the Find a Vaccination Clinic screen. Your goal come up with a narrow, relevant set of clinics and dates, as the strategy is to quickly focus on one page of results. (If you are clicking on multiple pages from the same search, your search becomes stale and chances are you are losing vaccine opportunities with the ensuing delay.)
Find a Clinic

My strategy was to Search by Name of Location. I selected Gillette. It’s a mass vaccination site with lots of appointments. Gillette offers Moderna. Fenway offers Pfizer. Gillette has a large parking lot. Fenway parking is more of an adventure.

You can also query with your zip code and distance from home, or search by vaccine brand name.  Use multiple browsers with different search parameters, check out the results, and lean on the most promising one. Wander back to backup browser just to see if

If you run a search that has multiple providers, become familiar with their restrictions.  For example, you might see Tree House Deerfield listed among the options, but in the Additional Information section of the listing you will see they serve eligible populations in Franklin County. If you live elsewhere, look elsewhere. Some of the Additional Information listings are very dense, but they generally repeat themselves in subsequent listings for that site.

Tree House





Most or all of these will list their Available Appointments as 0. However, if the vaccine gods are smiling on you, the number will be greater than zero and a little blue button will appear beneath the listing. If you are lucky, hit that button and start to contest to claim your prize.

However, chances are you will need to conduct multiple searches. Get your thumb on your trackpad and get ready for some exercise. It’s time to get down to business, and this is where the speed factor comes in.

The trick is to get into a rapid rhythm; scroll down the page as fast as you can. Don’t slow down to read anything on the page, just fly to the bottom and don’t stop unless you catch a glimpse of a blue button. If you see the blue button beneath the listing, it’s an invitation to attempt to register for the vaccination. Stop scrolling and click on it as fast as you can. If you don’t see a blue button before you reach the bottom of the screen, quickly scroll back to the top, hit the Search button, and repeat the process.

If you click on the blue registration button, the race to the appointment has begun. You are racing against anyone else who has clicked on their blue button for the same appointment. Once you click that blue button, the first set of screens requests your demographic data. As you move through the screens, they will become your friends, because chances are you will need to fill them in multiple times. Hopefully, your browser will autofill most of the fields after the first time through the routine.

Remember, this is a race, and if there is only one appointment, and someone else fills in their screens and gets to the end of the trail faster than you, they will claim the appointment and you will get the consolation screen.

Go back to the beginning






Do not be discouraged. Every time you fill in data in the registration screens, you gain practice and you can move faster through the screens. It will become second nature as you gain practice. Just keep trying. You never know when someone will cancel their shot and free up an appointment, or when additional appointments are released into the system. It has been reported that a week’s supply of appointments are added Thursday mornings, so plan your playtime accordingly.

The bottom line is the more you play, the greater your probability of winning a cherished appointment. Each click on the Search button could be the winning click. Don’t be discouraged. Search, scroll down, scroll up, rinse, repeat.

Good luck.

Senator Cassidy: Demagoguery won’t reopen our schools

The latest congressional outrage is from Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who went onto Fox News Sunday (January 31, 2021) with this pile of televised ignorance that begins at 02:34 into the video:

One area where we decrease. He [Biden] has $170 billion for schools. Now, we’ve already given schools 110% of what they usually receive from the federal government. Parochial schools have opened with a fraction of that money. Charter schools are opened. The real problem is public schools. That issue is not money. That issue is teachers’ unions telling their teachers not to go to work, and putting $170 billion towards teachers unions priorities, takes care of a Democratic constituency group, but it wastes our federal taxpayer dollars for something which is not the problem. We have $20 billion to get kids back to school on top of the roughly $66 billion, which is on top of the $57 billion schools normally get, we can get kids back to school without, you know, kind of bailing out the teachers’ unions.

A billion dollars seems like a boatload of money, but there are 51 million students in the US public schools; talk of each $1 billion translates into about $19.60 per child. I can’t speak for the veracity of the numbers Senator Cassidy has been throwing around, but I do know how to translate seemingly big federal numbers into local impact.

Let’s examine the real numbers behind school funding here in Massachusetts.

There are five strands of federal funding that flow to Massachusetts districts. For FY2021, this amounts to $302.750,324, roughly 2% of all school spending in the state. The state contributed $5,283,343,073, roughly 43% of the state’s school spending, with the rest coming from local taxpayers. Arlington receives about $335,000 from these strands, less than one half of one percent of our $82.5 million operating budget.

So, the feds tossed a few extra coins into the pot to provide $154,245 in federal Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for Arlington. It sounds like a big number when Senator Cassidy talks on Fox News, but local officials understand how relatively insignificant the federal support has been to date.

In Massachusetts, local funds are mostly generated from property taxes, a relatively stable source of funds. State revenues are predominantly from income and sales taxes, which are sensitive to economic downturns. Unlike the federal government, state budgets must be balanced annually.

In Massachusetts, state funding is awarded to school districts based on the property wealth of municipalities; ranging from 17.5% to 90% of the foundation budget, so students attending public schools in cities and towns with a smaller tax base are dependent on less reliable state funding.

There are too many state and federal officials who think they can simply decree that schools should be open for full-time, in-person instruction, and that decree should be enough for local officials to open schools. Those of us who rely on science, not state or federal decrees, know there are safety concerns that need to be addressed before we fully reopen our schools.

Instead of blaming teachers’ unions, let’s place the responsibility where it belongs. The federal government, when controlled by Senator Cassidy’s party, ignored science, failed to provide adequate testing, and fumbled the task of acquiring and distributing vaccine in their own end zone.

My message for Senator Cassidy: stop the school privatization demagoguery and do your job. Give President Biden the tools to fix the federal response, and make sure he can provide the resources we need to vaccinate our educators and open our schools safely.