Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Networking in my automobile.

Exiting the Home Depot parking lot, I drove north until I could get under I-93, at the spot where twelve lanes of the interstate lift off to fly over Somerville and Medford. At Route 38, I stopped for a red light.

While waiting for the light to change, I had a change of heart. In
the metaphors of today’s digital world, I wondered: wasn't our road building craze of the last century nothing more than a massive connectivity upgrade? After all, what are roads but a network? What is a freeway but increased bandwidth? What are cars but the iPhone of their day? In the end, is anything different but the size of it all? Aren't roads just a technologically crude version of the internet and all its modern offshoots, virtues we promote shamelessly today?

More than that, Planner's Bible says that roads, particularly interstates, undermine cities. Actually, I now think quite the opposite. Their construction accentuated the importance of cities rather than diminished them.  Roads connected surrounding areas to the urban centers that supported them. Without that network, cities were purely local phenomena. With the network, cities became regional phenomena. New York stretched to New Jersey and Connecticut. Boston stretched to central Massachusetts and New Hampshire. As the reach of the city expanded, so too did access to the city. 

Then, like Walter Mitty, my light turned green, and I drove on.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

There's always a story behind a story.

True story — Two guys drinking at a bar start talking about someone who won the Massachusetts lottery twice in six months.  

To one, it smacked of a fix, someone on the inside helping out a friend. To the other, it was just blind good luck.

Then they started to trading their own stories.  One bought a scratch ticket once that won him $20,000.  Instead of bringing it into the lottery office, he sold the it to a “professional gambler” in a cash transaction completed in a parking lot. The “gambler” took his cut and handed over the rest of it in bills. The guy said his pocket was bulging bigger than you could imagine. 

Not to be outdone, the other won $44,000 once at the dog track.  He claimed he’d been offered the same deal, with a “professional gambler” willing to buy the winning ticket off him. Honestly it didn’t sound true.  The dollar amount sounded like too much too.  

It was a kind of nuclear arms race of “you won’t believe how much I've won” stories. But as I listened to these two, I couldn’t help but feel with both of them, there was a story behind these stories. Because there’s always a story behind a story.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The havoc the wind can wreak.

The fate of a plastic plate — that was my practical and philosophical question. 

I had a vision for it, you can be sure. It was going to end up in a recycle bin. Of that I was certain. I would put it there by my own hand. 

However, it wasn’t as simple a proposition as that. Outdoors, near the water, the wind was kicking up, as wind near the water will do. The plate and I were there too. A warm October day and large buildings nearby meant it was gusting. Sudden bursts emerged without warning. 

Oh, did I mention the sandwich? The heavy brick-like sandwich? The tasteless pointless sandwich that nevertheless aided me by holding the plate down? The bread was cardboard. The meat was colorless and indecipherable. Was it turkey? Was it ham? It was simply impossible to tell. But the help was appreciated.

The seagulls down by the waterfront are a savvy group. They play innocent. I’m just enjoying the sunshine like you buddy, that’s what the little gray and white-winged guy next to me is saying. But they are thinking to themselves, there is food nearby, and if I can just wait long enough, it may come to me. Still, they get only so close. They know when they are not wanted. 

The outdoor tables find these gusts no trouble at all. They are built for it.

Just then, it happened. A mighty breeze blew up strong. My hand could not still the tiller and the sandwich was simply no match. The whole thing, plastic plate with its leaden cargo, simply lifted off the table and flopped upside down on the ground. The plate then reared up again, carried further by another gust. If I couldn’t put a hand on it, or step on it, it would end up in the water.  

In the water? 

Litter! I would litter in Boston Harbor.  

I walked slowly toward that black disk peacefully resting on the wooden boardwalk. Only two more steps and I'd have it.  

But then again — Gust! Blow! 

Plate go! 

Into water.  

It bobbed on the surface, a visual blemish against me and against the damn wind. 

I walked away in disgust. Somehow, it served them right!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Iraq and Saigon. Deja vu all over again.

At least at a superficial level, America is once again unerringly being itself.

Our efforts to subdue ISIS through airstrikes masks a disturbing parallel — we have seen this whole drama before.  The year was 1975 and America was just completing an episode eerily similar this one. 

Up until that year, we maintained the fiction that the puppet regime in Saigon still had validity. Having supported it economically and militarily for over a decade, perhaps we didn't have any other option than to believe it. Meanwhile, a foe that earlier had vexed U.S. forces in the field with its military and political acumen finally demonstrated how much stronger it was than our allies, the South Vietnamese. The policy of Vietnamization, encouraging the South to take over the fighting duties from the Americans with the aid of U.S. military and financial support, proved itself to be nothing but a fig leaf. As soon as American forces ceased combat operations, southern forces weakened. When the enemy finally closed in on their capital, the South crumbled more quickly than anyone predicted. The U.S. was left to fly choppers off the embassy roof evacuating only those of our allies lucky enough to punch their way onto a departing craft.

Well, we’ve been in Iraq over a decade now. We destroyed the country that had existed when we arrived.  In the process, we undermined the social, political, economic and military structure that had been in place, first with a war and then with a series of failed policies of peace. We trained and armed a reconstituted national army and security forces, pouring in huge amounts of American man-hours and dollars and expensive equipment. We supported local leaders who lacked the support of their populace. In the end, everything we put in place was no match for a foe who showed greater skill and determination at the moment it counts, defeating our allies handily and capturing plenty of our sophisticated weaponry in the process. We are left trying to shape the battlefield and the negotiating table through the one tool we alone have, air power.

If Vietnam and Iraq sound painfully familiar, it is because they are. Somehow, we Americans are always willing, and apparently always able, to convince ourselves that American largesse will simply overwhelm forces arrayed against us.  Because we can bring more to the fight, we will eventually win, so the thinking goes. This has proved not to be the case in every single conflict we've engaged in since 1945 (Grenada is a fair exception), and it is perhaps time that we reevaluate our assumptions.  

The one consolation in all of this is to remember that 1975 was a dangerous year too. Mutually assured destruction was an active part of the political vocabulary then, and nobody mistook Vietnam for anything but a proxy war between bigger players. We, by which I mean the world, survived that time, and we will survive this one too.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The most expensive item in the room.

The old duffers lined the hall.  Their mammoth tour bus waited patiently outside. The men all looked like veterans of Omaha Beach, but actually they were more likely to be veterans of Woodstock. Time does that.

Sarah was very good — smart, energetic, informed, thought-provoking — the kind of tour guide any museum would like to have and any tourist would want to get, feeding loads of information in very digestible chunks.  

She pointed to the desk in the center of the room. Henry David Thoreau felt no need to lock his cabin when he left and didn’t mind if he found someone sitting there when he returned. But he always locked his desk, as the scratch marks around the keyhole proved. Safeguarding the contents of his mind was more important to him than protecting the contents of his house. 

She stumbled a little bit on the Transcendentalists, admitting that their organizing principles still eluded her.  They believed in the goodness of all mankind and were back-to-nature types, which all sounded rather hippie-ish. A chuckle rose from the audience. 

In a separate room, she asked if anyone knew what the most expensive item in there was.  People guessed this and that. No, none of these. It was the mirror, which was made of polished silver. Mirrors were a rarity in colonial times, owned by very few, and many 17th century inhabitants went years without ever seeing their own reflection, or even knowing what they themselves looked like.  

It’s a proposition of existential wonderment — what would it mean to go decades or a whole lifetime without ever seeing your own face? What sort of person would such a colonial man be who never had the opportunity to look upon himself but only looked out onto others? There is a reason the verb "to reflect" means "to throw back heat or light" as a mirror does, but also "to think deeply" or "to contemplate". It all adds a different wrinkle on the admonition to "be self-aware." 

Today, we suffer no such dearth. Our faces are as familiar to us as anything we see, and our opportunities to see our own reflections, whether on surfaces or in digital formats, gives us almost endless opportunities to reflect. Moreover, in today's world, we are also surrounded by other human faces, in the form of persons or on screens or in the pages of print media. Our daily visual landscape is littered with eyes-nose-mouth, which is unlike the earliest days of colonial America, when to see the face of another human being was more common than seeing an image of one's own, but still itself a rare occurrence. If there is such a thing as social evolution, this must surely be a part of it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A trip to Concord.

In Concord, MA, a British soldier, wounded in the fighting around the Old North Bridge, died near the town green, about a half-mile's march from the battle. His fellow redcoats gave him a summary burial there where he finally fell, thousands of miles from his home. History did not preserve his name, but it didn’t forget the location of the most significant event in this young man’s life. A gravestone still stands today.  It all took place on Wednesday, April 19, 1775.

The stone begs the question how different our country and our lives could have been.  Unlike our European cousins — say, France or Germany or Belgium or the Netherlands or Russia — our towns and villages are not littered with the dead of foreign troops who once trod here, musket or rifle in hand, and grave markers do not daily remind us of an alien presence on our native soil. Over the last century and a half, America has had the luxury of exporting its virtues and its soldiers overseas, and as such we have always been able to look outwards upon the world, not been forced to look sideways onto ourselves. 

How different would we be were we daily confronted with the “what if?” in which others had come here to try to impose their will and their virtues on us? We would not necessarily be a better breed, but undoubtedly we would be a humbler one. That much is certain.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A stroll through Central Park.

I walked back through Central Park, passed the ball fields and found a park bench.  On the green grass in front of me, under the shade of a large tree, were four or five young families, moms and dads with young infants, mostly toddlers. It was late afternoon on a hot end-of-summer’s day. The new parents had a Treffpunkt, a place to come together to let their kids run around in the company of others. The spires of Central Park West rose in the not too far off.

There was one woman in particular. Attractive at this distance, white tank top and pale army green shorts, looking after her small child. She was bending over the stroller, tilting herself in such a way that was easy to misinterpret but near impossible to miss. If she was looking for somebody, she was showing it. If she wasn’t, she seemed like she was.  

It was harder to interpret the motion of the men around her. All were dads, but it wasn’t clear if one of them was the dad to her child. They milled about, darting and feinting like small birds whirling in sudden little dances that evaporated as quickly as they came, but in the end all seemed to be attached to other women, or perhaps more importantly, to other children. The men may have wanted to be hers, but that was just the flirtations of young parents debating their own choice of partner. I concluded that this woman was alone, with her child.

I stayed for a while to watch. It occurred to me, what a different New York City this was than the one I grew up in in the 1970s. The idea that white middle class parents, and all these parents were white and middle class, would use the park in the same way that suburban parents might use a playground felt so foreign. Undeniably, it represents a great improvement over the much more dangerous and dirty Central Park of my youth – one need only look at a Gary Winograd photo to be reminded what a pit hole New York was back then. But I couldn’t help but wonder, where did all the poor people go?  What park do they now get to use?  

That’s the challenge in a pluralistic and diverse city like New York. When an outfit like the Central Park Conservancy gets created, it's supposed to tap into the huge amount of private wealth that rings the park, and use that money for the betterment of the place. It does this by cleaning it up, planting and prettifying it, but also by forcing out all the undesirable elements, the messier people, the noisier people, the people who don’t have a four year college degree or speak English as their primary language. Or for that matter, have white skin. It makes the park an urban refuge for the affluent. 

We decried this sort of thing when Robert Moses tried it nearly a century ago with clever tricks to keep the poor off of public beaches, but there is no similar protest today. Today happens through the palliative of “public-private partnerships,” a catch-all phrase designed to convey a best-of-both-worlds scenario — the harshness of private greed softened by a sense of public purpose and the incompetence of public decision-making made sharper by the application steel-eyed private management practices. 

Yet we know that in a city such as New York, it is the poor who have the greater need of easily-accesible public open space. Central Park has always been described as the lung of Manhattan Island, a place where one could breathe, but by slow and steady creep, money has once again won the day and bought that air for only those who can afford to possess it.