Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Google is smarter than Harvard.

Just in case you were wondering, Google is actually smarter than Harvard and here's the proof ...

In searching for this book, "Weisber, Stewart E. (2009). Barney Frank: The Story of America's only Left-handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman," my first stop was Harvard's online library catalog, Hollis, where I entered the information exactly as I had retrieved it from a Wikipedia entry about Boston's Combat Zone. Hollis responded in this manner, "No results found. Your query did not produce any results."

It seemed odd to me that the world's largest university library system would have no record of a book. So I entered the same information into a Google search, which immediately returned this, "Showing results for: Weisberg, Stuart E. (2009). Barney Frank: The Story of America's only Left-handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman," with a link to Amazon, followed by another 5,919 after that.

I am certain there is a raging academic debate as to whether an online university catalog should require an exact citation or not   this is after all the kind of thing that academics debate   but in a world where the people's encyclopedia Wikipedia offers up an erroneous reference and Harvard draws a blank on it, it is nice to know that some geeks in Mountain View, California are smart enough to figure it out. The score is now Google 1, Harvard 0.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Two Houses.

These are two houses, and two very short stories.  

This small house is in Somerville, on Beacon Street.  

It’s brick and put together with a lot of care.  So much so that even the untrained eye can see the quality. It harkens back to very good examples of local brick work of prior centuries. 

It’s also not completed and has been under construction for a very long time.  So long in fact that one can't help but ask why.  A neighbor ventured this theory:

The house is the builder's last effort.  When he finishes it, he will retire. He can't bear this fact, and it prevents him from ever being able to complete it.  Whatever awaits him on the other side of a completed house, he does not want to meet.

The Greeks had stories about people like him.  Sisyphus' task would never end.  This man has a task that he won’t ever let end.  Funny that.

In Southbridge, Massachusetts on land adjacent to a golf course sits a different house, a vacant house of quite some significance in New England architectural history.  It looks like this.

It is known as the Wells House, named for its first owner George Wells, the president of American Optical, at one time the largest manufacturer of steel eyeglasses in the United States.

It was completed in 1933, designed by Paul Wood, a young architect at Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott.  It is one of the very first examples of modernism in New England, predating by five years Walter Gropius' much more famous house in Lincoln.

However, unlike the Gropius House, the Wells House is not protected by any Society of the Well-Meaning to care for its needs. It stands subject to the wear of time and the tear of the elements as its fate is bartered in the impersonal and uncaring hands of the market. This is part blessing. The house is no fossil to architecture nor has it been vacuum-sealed by the shrink-wrappers of history, the preservationists. Yet, it is also part threat. Before the roof falls in at Wells, it needs a new owner.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Grab Bag: Mama Cass stirs Christopher Hitchens.

It's summer time, so the posts take a little respite. But Friday is a Grab Bag Day, so here is a Grab Bag thought.

Earlier, I listened to the Mamas and the Papas sing "Go Where You Wanna Go", their 1965 hit. Since the song was recorded before I was born, it wouldn't strain credulity if I ran out a string of associations, nay memories, stretching my whole life long.  Interestingly though the song brings back only one thought, a tuneful thought of sorts.

Christopher Hitchens, public intellectual, pompous ass, pugilist. He is the thought.

This might sound odd, and perhaps it is, but in his memoir -- at least I believe it is in his memoir -- Hitchens describes coming to the United States for the first time. The year was 1969.  He was still a student at Oxford but took the summer to drive around this country. To him, America was something an Englishman could almost hardly imagine. From his cold, damp, hide-bound island, empire no more, here was a place that was alive with energy and enthusiasm. Hitchens noted with a wonderment and awe that America could fight a war and send a man to the moon at the same time.

Christopher Hitchens later became an American citizen and made some good money poking fun at our shibboleths, but during that summer the man once described as a "drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay" felt the cool wind in his hair and listened to Mama Cass over and over again.  He reveled in that moment, accompanied by an anthem to youth, its indulgences and freedoms and to independence.

Hitchens was a man I loved to hate, and I suspect I wasn't alone. Perhaps because he popped bubbles so desperately in need of popping, he reeked of a smugness that rankled. On reflection, however, nothing he said runs to counter to me. I miss his British acerbity on the public stage. He never shied from saying things that needed saying, nor avoided a scuffle or was cowed by a bully.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A thought for the Fourth of July.

What an amazing species we are, that we could fashion from this feather a quill pen,

 and from that quill pen, a nation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Friday Grab Bag (on a Thursday): Weegee won't marry a Brooklyn girl; Is it all bunk?: Whither Janet Yellen?

It's Friday. Well no, it's Thursday, but tomorrow's Friday the 4th of July.  We will be celebrating our independence, Hurricane Arthur will be soaking Boston and Cambridge passing just off the coast of Nantucket, France will be playing Germany in the World Cup, and Friday's Grab Bag will have already happened, today.  Happy 4th!  "When in the course of human events ..."

*  *  * 

Behold a wonderful book, Sidewalks of America: Folklore, Legends, Sagas, Traditions, Customs, Songs, Stories and Sayings of Cityfolk, a 1954 collection by B.A. Botkin.  A friend loaned it to me.  On page 21, I come across this little gem:

... Weegee told us ... he wants to get married.  "So far I haven't been married as yet and I'm 47, but that wouldn't stop me.  Of course," he added, "I don't believe in marriage.  I'm a free soul.  But I'd be glad to humor the girl along and marry her." He paused, then added, "One thing -- I don't think I'll find her in Brooklyn." (quoted from "Why Weegee Won't Marry a Brooklyn Girl," by Jean Evans, PM Picture News, April 21, 1946).

*  *  * 

Yesterday, I found myself in the MIT Press Bookstore. I looked at the books, and they all were so damn serious.

Then I thought to myself, "What if it's all bunk? The whole lot of it, just bunk?"

*  *  *

If my memory serves me well, The New Republic used to run a box in its magazine filled with headlines from various publications that drew exactly opposite conclusions from the same news event.  It was hilarious to read, a good antidote to the pomposity of print media before the advent of the internet.  Well, I just had a time warp, courtesy of a Google search.  Look at the two headlines about Janet Yellen and interest rates:

The search originated in these interesting sentences from a story about wealth from the tech boom in the Bay Area:
"Quantitative easing, the policy that drove a great deal of wealth into Bay area tech, is expected to end this fall, and interesting rates will likely rise again before long.  If the market assessments of observers like Tom Perkins are correct, these changes will cause wealth to flow into lower-risk investments, and the start up economy will finally slow down." (Nathan Heller, "California Screaming", New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014.)  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Death by a thousand curb cuts.

At tomorrow’s Cambridge City Council meeting, councilors will consider a proposed rules change transferring special permit granting authority from the Cambridge Planning Board, where it currently resides, to the City Council.  Special permits, a zoning tool allowing uses and activities  beyond what is allowed "by right" under certain conditions, require approval by the local special permit granting authority.

In my view, moving the authority ("SPGA") from the Planning Board to the City Council is a terrible idea and, if adopted, will create untold problems for the Council, where only one member of the current nine can claim any expertise in urban design, planning or architecture.

More importantly, the citizens of Cambridge will not see an improved process or better outcomes. Instead, they will see a further contorting of our public debate because now all development will become overtly political. Furthermore, the relationship between councilors and developers will grow toxically close, undermining the principle of healthy arms-length deliberation by the decision-making body. What follows began as an list serve exchange and expresses my views on the matter in greater detail.


I do not believe having the City Council doing specific project review is a good idea. As an urban planner who served on that body for four years, it was never my experience that the Council was prepared to do the detailed work of project review. My opinion has not changed since. It's not what a City Council is made for, and it's not what it should be doing with its valuable time.

There are plenty of instances showing just what a tough time the Council has in making timely decisions in contentious development debates. 

Consider curb cuts. These petitions over access to the public way come to the Council periodically after a thorough review by city staff.  Sometimes they are non-controversial, but often they cause a firestorm of opposition requiring huge amounts of discussion and negotiation. The curb cut on Avon Hill split the neighborhood and demanded months of work to sort through.  A curb cut, by anybody’s reckoning, is microscopic compared to the complexity of design arguments on a 20 story building where thousands of different design criteria come into play.

The Foundry Building is another example.  In 2009, the city was given this structure — a building of about 60,000 sq. feet — as part of a mitigation agreement with Alexandria Real Estate for its Binney Street developments. As of this month, June 2014 — five years later — the City Council still has not been able to decide what should happen with that building.  This does not auger success (or sane governance) if the Council's responsibilities expand in a significant manner.

To me, the Foundry Building process is typical of what happens when political bodies try to get their hands around a very specific decision.  Individual councilors focus on their individual concerns, and can grow intransigent.  This locks up the process and freezes any motion.  To unfreeze the situation, pols negotiate with each other until a sufficient number of votes are reached.  That is not urban design. Nor would it be project review.  It is horse-trading, plain and simple.

Furthermore, the political pressures will force us to design by committee. Given the amount of trouble we already have reaching agreement about buildings under our existing process, I cannot imagine how this is an improvement.  Blandness will prevail in our design choices.  Everyone from developers to community voices will opt for "safe" because it will be the easiest.  Offending the least number of people is not a mark of leadership. Not in environmentalism.  Not in urban design.  It just seems like architectural retrenchment to me — and expresses fundamentally conservative tastes rather than progressive and challenging ones. This is not a version of project review I want to see.

Also, the scope of work involved in project review is large. I count nine projects "Special Permit - Granted" in 2014, totaling altogether 1.9 million square feet.  I wonder — on what basis will unelected aides and their councilors be making decisions about what passes muster? What happens in the case when only three community members show up to the meeting? Do they become the group to decide?  And what happens when nobody shows up to voice an opinion? Is it just the whim of the councilor — say one trained as a peace activist, or in non-profit management, or in law — to decide what that building should look like?  This is not an improvement over our current system.

Now, consider the impact this will have on the relationship between city councilors who will hold final say over projects and developers who stand to reap huge benefits for projects that move forward.  Developers will be petitioning councilors constantly, seeking their blessing on minute aspects of design and aesthetics.  Over time, this will bind these two parties together at the hip more closely.  The logical conclusion of this relationship is not a healthy picture at all.  Added to this, it is simply true that councilors have busy schedules and focus on their own issues — whether those are early childhood development or greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  Often this means they defer to committee chairs on subject matters not their own.  In practice, this is not a bad thing — it is how committees are supposed to work — but it means that all of this design decision-making authority will be run through one committee chairperson (or possibly two, if there are co-chairs).  That is simply worse than the system we have now, whatever its flaws.

The special permit granting authority also creates a new (and onerous) timetable for the City Council, one which I believe it will have a hard time meeting.  Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A Section 9, the SPGA is required to hold its initial hearing within 65 days of an application having been filed.  The decision has to be handed down within 90 days of that initial hearing, unless the timeline is extended by agreement of both parties.  This will be in addition to the timeline the Council must meet for all zoning petitions, and if the Council fails to act in the 90 days, this provision kicks in:
Failure by the special permit granting authority to take final action within said ninety days or extended time, if applicable, shall be deemed to be a grant of the special permit. (MGL, Ch.40A, sec.9)
As well, it is worth noting that the appeals provisions in MGL Ch 40A section 17 are broadly inclusive:
Any person aggrieved by a decision of the board of appeals or any special permit granting authority … whether or not previously a party to the proceeding ... may appeal to the land court department, the superior court department in which the land concerned is situated …
Furthermore …
If the complaint is filed by someone other than the original applicant, appellant or petitioner, such original applicant, appellant, or petitioner and all members of the board of appeals or special permit granting authority shall be named as parties defendant with their addresses.
It is fair and reasonable to ask if the Council will effectively be able to meet the mandated timelines without creating a situation of endless extensions producing something very close to a work-stoppage on all development.  Furthermore, my reading of the appeals provision states that anyone can file an appeal, and that all city councilors would be named as defendants.  This could quickly become an unworkable situation in a city where all development proposals are highly politicized and contentious. 

Planning boards were established exactly to create separation between elected bodies and more technical decisions that need to be made about buildings.  Accountability is a good thing, of course — we want the ability to throw the SOBs out of office at the next election — but it is axiom that politicians often can't see further down the road anyway. Someone needs to keep an eye on the long-range needs and demands of this community.  In a place where small numbers of active voters can skew any discussion significantly and developers pursue their own agenda, this proposal won't solve any of it.  In fact, it will only make it a lot worse.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Tragedy of Iraq (cont.)

How’s this for a deeply worrying opening paragraph: "Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.” ("Syrian aircraft bomb Sunni militant targets inside Iraq”, Washington Post, June 25, 2014). It has an apocalyptic "End of Days" feel to it.

As if that weren't enough, the border region between Syria and Iraq is fast becoming an ungoverned zone under the control of ISIS, the violent Sunni extremist group currently engaged in overthrowing the Maliki government in Baghdad, according to veteran journalist Robin Wright. Wright made the claim on Monday's Diane Rehm Show, but apparently has seen this coming for quite some time. In a September, 2013 New York Times piece entitled "Imagining a Remapped Middle East", she put forward the idea that lines in the Middle East could get redrawn, posing this fundamental question:
A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy Fran├žois Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions. 
To answer it, she notes that even strongly nationalistic countries like Syria now have multiple nationalisms within their borders, the ever-present phenomenon of "cleansing" always adds to the challenge and "guns exacerbate differences". Events, it seems, have caught up with her foresight.  Today's Post furthers her thesis with a map entitled “How ISIS is carving out a new country.”

The Post goes on to describe the situation this way:
ISIS militants are fighting the governments on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, and an apparent decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene to help Maliki further tangles the already complex knot of actors in the overlapping crises.
In Syria, the United States opposes both Assad and ISIS, which it condemns as a terrorist, al-Qaeda-inspired organization.
Iran supports both Assad and Maliki and is sending aid to both, although Iraq’s ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday denied reports that the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was in Baghdad helping the government there, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.
As Iraq disintegrates, the inability of the U.S. to act effectively in this scenario only makes its culpability in helping to create it all the worse. Whatever course the U.S. does choose, dealing with ISIS, buffered as it is by two failing states, will come at a huge cost. Deep war weariness severely constrains American options. It seems that our interests will lead us to a strange bed-fellowship with Iran and therefore with Assad of Syria, and both will present ethical conundrums as well as geopolitical ones.  Watching the fragile Middle East unravel this way is like watching a car crash in high definition slow motion.