Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Grab Bag: Mass. Ave. (is) schizo; More music

It's Friday, which means it's Grab Bag day.

Thought #1: Mass. Ave. doesn't know what it is or what it wants to be.  It's spent the last 100 years trying to figure itself out, but without great success.  It's incoherent, urbanistically.

Look at these photos.  They are of neighboring buildings (heading west to east) along the avenue from Hancock to Lee Streets.

904 Mass Ave: Single-story storefront (1915)

900 Mass Ave: Of the English manor style, brick, more appropriate for the Back Bay (1900)

898 Mass Ave: Wood-framed country house, appropriate to Central Connecticut (1920)

896 Mass Ave: Single story retail (1920)

888 Mass Ave: Six stories, apartment living (1889)

878 Mass Ave: Wood-framed, sandwiched between two much taller buildings (1890,  People's Republik 1937)
872 Mass Ave: Nine-stories 1970s unpleasantness (1979)

Below is a graph of these building heights in order heading east to west along the avenue from Central Square.   The tallest building is 9 stories and was built in 1979.  The next tallest is 6 stories and was built in 1889.   Everything else was built between 1915 and 1937 and ranges from 1 to 4 stories.  It's schizophrenic.

Thought #2: Amy Alvey and Mark Kilianski, aka "Hoot and Holler", played the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge last night.  They are fabulous.  I highly recommend going to hear them when you get the chance.  Here they make their (beautiful) music together:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IPCC 2014 Report released; Web relic found

The world economy will not collapse by switching from fossil fuels to renewables, according to the most recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change, released last week.

The 2014 document is the third in a series by the IPCC.  The earlier reports established that climate change is man-made and poses a serious threat to humans.   This year's findings state that the net impact of a massive shift away from carbon-based energy would be negligible, but only if taken in the context of a complete "energy revolution" that ends our dependence on oil, gas and coal.

The report is the work of an international group of 1,250 experts, including American Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

A Google search to find out more about him points to his website, which to put it mildly, hasn't seen any graphical razzle-dazzle since the early days of the internet.  Think mid-1990s.  For a  man so focused on the future of the planet, he's not evincing it in his life on the World Wide Web.  If it weren't all digital, it should be in a museum.  It's quaint and rather appealing for being so, but it also raises the question -- what happens to the now millions of web interfaces that existed at an earlier time on the internet?  Are they lost to us forever?  That would be a shame.  They have an historical importance not just for their content, but also for their appearance.  The web, like the automobile, changed human beings forever.  It would be unfortunate not to save some early examples of this world-altering phenomenon in its infancy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Michael Gross, Paul Goldberger and changing cities

In a small out of the way nightclub on West 16th Street in Manhattan, New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger and author Michael Gross came together last week to talk about buildings in New York City.  They called their tete a tete "Manhattan's New Gilded Age."

Gross and Goldberger

Gross has just written House of Outrageous Fortune about the new building at 15 Central Park West, designed and built for New York's uber-wealthy.  His story is shocking in its excess, the sheer gluttony of fortune of the very rich and their every need.  No, not need.  Whim. It's gold bathing in gold.

Goldberger, on the other hand, is milder mannered.  He's a thoughtful man who understands the strain that global wealth is putting on the city.  On the one hand, he states unequivocally that cities need to change or die.  On the other, he recognizes that the extremely wealthy (of whom there are many) park their money in New York real estate because it is a good investment, a "safe deposit box in the sky" he quipped. They have little or no connection to the community where they own.  They could have chosen London instead.

The crowd that evening was young, educated and white.  They might be the same people who would go to that club on a Saturday night, but it was a Wednesday and they were there to relax with a drink and listen to two writers talk about their city.

New York was in many senses a much smaller place back in the 1970s, for the white middle-class at least, Goldberger rightly pointed out. Much of the city was out of bounds.  The parks were off limits at night, not by any ordinance but by the rougher rules of urban life.  The Bronx could have been the moon.  Manhattan's Soho itself was artsy but ungentrified.  Walking down lower Broadway was as an aggressive experience.  Stores spilled out onto sidewalks, selling piles of jeans, or piles of shoes.  History informs.

A woman raised her hand.  She looked like she was in her early thirties. She said that she had lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for ten years, but had moved out recently.  By the time she left, she said, her community was unrecognizable.  She was angry about it.

It wasn't clear to me who was supposed to solve this problem for her.  In my eye, she is the gentrification she is cursing.  The uber-wealthy are an interesting phenomenon, but they are the gilded peacock in a cage. Exotic, but not the norm.  The broader story is about a real estate market chasing this woman, and all her friends and everyone else who came to that talk that night.  Williamsburg changed because she moved there.  If she wanted it to remain as quaint old working-class industrial Williamsburg, she should never have been part of the trend that redefined it.

It struck me how many of the same themes are true in Cambridge too. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Debating Master Plans in the Cambridge City Council

Last Monday’s Cambridge City Council meeting was the place for a committed debate about the wisdom of conducting a city-wide master planning process led by the Council.

Opponents of the master plan proposal wonder if the master plan discussion really is just a stalking horse for a development moratorium.

Advocates of the master plan say: the situation in Cambridge has gotten out of control. Someone left the barn door open and no horses are left inside.

The battle lines are interestingly drawn.  The greatest schism is the generational one, particularly in Central Square, where the discussion has been raging for quite some time.    Those who support the master plan idea don't trust a 2-year planning process for Central Square known as “C2”.  This group tends to be older, with many property owners among them.  Some harbor a deep cynicism towards the whole effort and those who ran it: the process has been rigged from the start, the public was never really listened to, the deals done before any planning actually happened.  They want a fresh look, and they want the Council, as elected leaders, to lead it.  

The other side doesn't trust the master plan idea in large part because they do trust C2, and feel that to undermine it would be highly destructive to public confidence in any planning.  This group has a larger contingent of younger people, newer to the city (though almost all on both sides are not originally from Cambridge).  It has attracted many architects and planners. 

There is a huge amount of development in Cambridge right now. It’s not just in the Kendall Square area.   It’s a reflection of an economic cycle and the overall desirability of Cambridge as a place to live and to work. Most communities struggle to capitalize on either of these. Cambridge is feeling the combined force of both at once.

To be fair, Cambridge’s many squares are what might be called swing zones. Measured by the yardstick of urban land on a major transit line in an old, established community, the nodal areas along Red Line stops (Alewife, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall) are underdeveloped.  Often their pattern is haphazard, with single story buildings surrounded by parking lots, but all this is beginning to change.  

The worst thing the City Council could do is to create a set of expectations that they could not meet, and there is simply no way that the Cambridge City Council, either at the staff level, or at the councillor level, could handle the work involved in a master plan.

The Council’s proper role is as a political body: to hear the community and interpret it — the frustrations, hopes, fears, wishes.  Then the Council must make sense out of these by parceling out policies that will work for the city.  That parceling will establish priorities, and in establishing priorities will be picking winners and losers.  This is one thing a political body does, deciding who gets the final say.  

Of course, in a city like Cambridge neither side is strong enough to win outright.  If ever there was a development story that is "developing ...", this is it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How much do you think that dead ox weighs?

(Verbatim transcript from a fascinating story on NPR this morning, about "the wisdom of the crowd" and The Good Judgment Project, which seeks to apply the wisdom of crowds to predict geopolitical events.)

All of his studies brought [Philip] Tetlock to at least two important conclusions.

First, if you want people to get better at making predictions, you need to keep score of how accurate their predictions turn out to be, so they have concrete feedback.

But also, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.

"The wisdom of crowds is a very important part of this project, and it's an important driver of accuracy," Tetlock said.

The wisdom of crowds is a concept first discovered by the British statistician Francis Galton in 1906.

Galton was at a fair where about 800 people had tried to guess the weight of a dead ox in a competition. After the prize was awarded, Galton collected all the guesses so he could figure out how far off the mark the average guess was.

It turned out that most of the guesses were really bad — way too high or way too low. But when Galton averaged them together, he was shocked:

The dead ox weighed 1,198 pounds. The crowd's average: 1,197.

Finding The True Signal

"There's a lot of noise, a lot of statistical random variation," Tetlock said. "But it's random variation around a signal, a true signal, and when you add all of the random variation on each side of the true signal together, you get closer to the true signal."

In other words, there are errors on every side of the mark, but there is a truth at the center that people are responding to, and if you average a large number of predictions together, the errors will end up canceling each other out, and you are left with a more accurate guess.

That is the wisdom of the crowd.
The point of the Good Judgment Project was to figure out if what was true for the dead ox is true for world events as well.
It is.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

So, What Makes You So Special?

Here are some interesting facts about 26-year-old wunderkind Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer genius who plays forward for renown powerhouse Barcelona:
  • He scores almost every single game.
  • More than half of his goals come in the final 15 minutes of a half — which means that his goals “count” even more because the opposing team has less time to respond with a goal of their own.
  • In 2012, he scored five goals in a single game, during tournament play against Bayer Leverkusen.
  • In January of this year, he scored twice in 30 minutes in his first game back after sitting on the bench for two months with a hamstring injury.
  • Barcelona stands to win its fourth title in nine years, the most since Liverpool accomplished the feat between 1977 and 1984.
Messi is accomplishing all of this at the world’s highest level of competitive soccer, UEFA Champions League, host to most of the world’s best players in a truly global sport.

Here’s what violinist Itzhak Perlman said about musical talent:
Well first of all, there is an innate musicality that you hear immediately, you know, and it doesn't matter the level of playing, but you can already hear that something there, that they are being affected by the music. You know, sometimes, you know, when we see tapes of people who want to come into our program, we see even the look on the face when they hear a particular harmony. That already tells you that somebody has got this musical feel.
Here’s what Perlman added:

And then of course there is the challenge of the development. You know, if you hear somebody who's 12 who's amazing, you say to yourself, you know, I hope that they've survived their gift and that they continue to be amazing when they're 18 and 19 years old. You know, that's always a problem, how you develop through these years.

If the rich are like us, only richer, then the talented are something completely different altogether. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

NLRB to NCAA, "Take That!"

A recent ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board reminds me just how out of control college sports is, and the NCAA basketball tournament is the perfect time to rail against the multibillion dollar entertainment industry that college sports has become. 

In a case filed in Chicago involving the Northwestern University football program asking whether college players had the right to unionize, NLRB regional director Peter Ohr found that "Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be eligible to form a union based on a number of factors, including the time they devote to football (as many as 50 hours some weeks), and the control exerted by coaches and their scholarships, which Mr. Ohr deemed a contract for compensation.

"It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students,’ ” the decision said.” (NY Times, 26 March 2014)

This is the right stance to take on the matter.  Given the huge dollar amounts flowing into the system through television contracts, including a $7.3 billion contract to broadcast college football playoffs and a 14 year $10.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament, some change in the system is clearly needed. The notion of the scholar-athlete is nothing but an anachronism in much of college sports, and certainly in the marquee programs (men's football and basketball) at the country’s largest (if not best) schools. 

When universities reap huge financial rewards off the backs of 18, 19, 20 year old athletes who may lose their college career in an instant by an injury, who are steered through college not for their benefit but to maintain their eligibility to play, and who are spending the majority of their time on developing skills that are not transferable to the workplace, then something is broken.  It is time for universities to acknowledge that big time college sports at certain universities has nothing to do with their academic mission.  It's entertainment and money.

If we needed any reminding how perverted the system has become, this map does just that.

Today's Diane Rehm Show had an informed, lively discussion on the topic.