Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: The collapse of the nation-state? The return of the city-state?

Today is a Friday, which means it's Grab Bag day.  Here are my two intriguing thoughts for today, thoughts that will remain here as questions in need of answers.  If you've got insights, feel free to chime in:

  1. Have we entered an era where we are witnessing the collapse of the nation-state and the return of the city-state? In the developed world, are New York, Boston, San Francisco, London, Paris, Shanghai more like each other and more like ancient Athens, fortified and yet isolated by economic, political, social and demographic pressures that in effect allow them to make their own foreign policies irrespective of their national political dialogues?  Perhaps it's not just that they are allowed to, but rather that they are forced to.  If these cities are not dependent on the nations that host them but need to interact with labor markets and capital flows from across this globe, where do we go from here?  What does it say about the political divide in the United States where red and blue states seem to be marching in two very different directions at the same time?  Does that rift heal or only grow more intense in this new condition?
  2. When did our sense of architecture include the notion of a disposable building?  Did an American 150 years ago have a very static sense of the future -- life for the next generation will be largely like life is for us now?  Did a European 500 years ago assume that they had reached the pinnacle of human existence?  And, if that notion ever truly existed, that the future would look very much like today, when did it change?  I think it's fair to say that in today's advanced industrialized economies, most would accede to the statement that their lives will be very different 10 years from now.  Technology alone ensures that.  But has this notion of change applied to our buildings as well?  In the 1880s, Cambridge City Hall was designed and built to look like it would be around for a long, long time.  Presumably, that design statement was no accident. Now, buildings go up with an outer skin of glass, conveying a very different feeling about permanence and the role that building will be playing in the future. What are we in fact saying with them?
Ah, random thoughts for a Friday.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keith Moon, we hardly knew ya

Keith Moon, the erstwhile drummer for the rock group The Who, was famous for flushing explosives down toilets.

Indeed, once in 1967 in Flint Michigan he tried to flush a stick of dynamite down a Holiday Inn bowl.  When the lit dynamite didn't flush, he had the good sense to jump out of the bathroom moments before shards of flying porcelain sprayed the room.

Disappointed that his toilet plan hadn't succeeded exactly as he had hoped, Moon allegedly went downstairs and drove a Cadillac (he later claimed it was a Lincoln Continental) into the hotel pool, causing him to break his tooth.  This account is disputed by others who claim that Moon broke his tooth not by driving a car into a full swimming pool but by diving into an empty one.

As a boy, Moon was sent to the Alperton Secondary Modern School after failing his eleven plus exam at his prior school.  At Alperton, a teacher assessed the future rock drummer this way: "Retarded artistically.  Idiotic in other respects."  I kid you not.

Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in London on September 7, 1978, having dined out earlier that evening with Paul and Linda McCartney.  He was 32 years old.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

This tragedy, the horrific violence

Looking in the mirror is a humbling thing this eve.  All 46 years of breathing self look back at me.  In light of all the very small children killed in two Connecticut classrooms on Friday, this is hard.

These little lives were on the road to life. 

Of the many photographs of the horror, I gravitated toward this one -- the boy, hands half-covering his face with shock in his eyes, his older sister caring and comforting him with her arm around him while she herself looks intently at the ground.  This was every younger brother and older sister.   See it in them, courage, care, concern, fear and shock.  Not comprehending the incomprehensible is not a sin.  But a child would not know this.  Obama is right.  Our hearts are broken.

The political points are as obvious to me as they are maddening.  To those who say "Guns don't kill people, people kill people", the correct response is "People with guns kill people."  And they continue to.  Even children.  To this day.  Many children.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Strange memories from 93rd Street

When I was a young boy, I lived with my mother and my sister on East 93rd Street in Manhattan.  We had a dog, a Gordon Setter.  Like many setters, he was wire thin when he was young.  Concentration camp thin. Gordons are black with brown spots and also like a lot of setters, he was nervous.  Some might call it alert, but others would certainly call it neurotic. 

That was, of course, before he ballooned out in later years.  Imagine a straight piece of uncooked spaghetti transforming into a basketball over the span of a decade.  And then there were the ticks.  But I'm losing the thread of my story. 

My mother once said to me that she'd wished she'd been a little more adventurous with his name.  She'd wanted to call him Glenraven Ballachulish, which is actually a place name in Scotland.  When I told a school friend about this years later, he just laughed.

The dog had a name: Nat.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Networks and proximity.

Did you ever think about how beguilingly simple LinkedIn is? It follows the basic rubric that every 4th grader knows -- we're friends, and he's a friend of yours, so in a sense your friend becomes my friend too.  Facebook isn't different in nature, in fact it even grabbed the word "friend" creating along the way the new English participle "friending".  But Facebook is less explicit in the value it assigns to the links that build the network of friends. With Facebook the goal is to have the platform to express yourself to an audience, whereas with LinkedIn, in some senses the goal is the network itself.

Now, look at your LinkedIn network.  How many of them are in the same city as you?  Indeed, going through your connections and mapping them spatially, would the greatest amount of activity, the greatest amount of connectivity, appear closest to where you physically are?  Why is that?  What role does proximity play in the creation of a social network? 

This question was being swatted back and forth by me and Quinton Zondervan like a ping pong ball over a net stretched across two coffee cups.  Its related question -- what role does proximity play in the capacity of a social network to expand? -- was the real object of our desire, the true set point we sought, but it seemed impossible to answer the second one without first getting a handle on the first. 

Suffice it to say that Quinton and I both assume that proximity in the relational tie increases the strength of the relational tie and that the strength of the connection diminishes as distance increases.  In other words, closer is stronger.

How and why this is relevant comes clearer in an example from the real-world of urban development.  There is much talk, presumably accurate and measurable, of the importance of MIT to the development of Kendall Square.  In my imagining, this means that social networks get created at the university and then expand into the neighboring area of Kendall Square, like little arms of energy shooting out from the main orb (for some reason, I can't help but think of this like some cartooney depiction of a solar flare - at least what my mind imagines a cartoon of a solar flare to look like).  These little explosions of energy seed an environment that is highly creative and highly innovative.  It is the Ur-situation, much like those Walt Disney cartoon movies from the 1940s where the lightening bolt strikes the muck and mire of a swampy marsh on prehistoric earth and a single-celled organism springs to life.

Now, let's fast forward this eco-experiment a generation (roughly equivalent to 30 years).  With innovation flourishing there exists a high degree of bio-diversity in this innovation ecosystem.  Unfortunately, it means that the bigger predators recognize a food source, and they start lumbering our way.  Say a Microsoft decides to locate in Kendall Square, to tap into the tremendous talent pool that exists here.  Or a Google.  Or a Novartis.  In these instances, they are trying to appropriate the entire network already developed at MIT, lock stock and barrel.  They are not interested in fostering innovation.  They are interested in capturing the entirety of it and they will use their gullet to digest it whole.  Innovation decreases as mono-cultures replace the highly complex and diverse environments that precede them. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review. The New Geography of Jobs.

If you take the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to New York City and look left when crossing the Delaware River, you'll see the famous sign "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" plastered across the neighboring bridge, the Lower Trenton.  If ever there was a marker to indicate where you are on the Northeast Corridor, this is it.

Unfortunately the sign, originally installed in 1935, refers to an American world that no longer exists.  Things are no longer "Made in U.S.A." and shipped to a waiting and appreciative world, at least not in the quantity they used to be. American manufacturing has been on the decline for decades and with this decline has come a retreat in economic leadership and global political influence, leaving this country searching for a new macro-economic identity grounded in the new economic realities.  America wants to find its niche in this globalized world - what can it still do uniquely, something that can't be captured or successfully imitated by other competitor nations or interests?  

New paths are emerging for the American economy and they are promising.  They emphasize innovation, creativity and broad imagination. In other words, they focus on the human mind in all its capacities. This is an exciting turn of events.  At the same time, these new paths carry with them all the warning signs of an economy that is dividing this nation sharply.  Economic transformation almost always brings social transformation with it, and in this upcoming century the "haves" will be able to accumulate plenty but the "have nots" are likely to lose even more. The challenge for millions of Americans is how to be carried by the upside of the change, and not to be trapped under the downside of it.    

Furthermore, this division has great implications for urban America with some cities coming out as big winners, and others being left behind.  Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts tells this story very well. Bordering MIT and once the home of the heavy industries that supported Cambridge from the 19th century well into the 20th, Main Street collapsed into disuse, disrepair and abandonment  in the 1970s as the industrial base withered away.  In the last 20 years however it has been reborn into an amalgam of 21st century American urbanity.  Gleaming with glass and steel, the street's new structures are like a display case of urban American prosperity on steroids. Construction now booms all around the MIT campus and the proximity is no accident. 

Proximity is seen as key to the long-term success of any venture.  The investors backing these efforts want to be near the knowledge factory known as the Institute.  It is not random chance that with MIT in the mix the city's coffers are flush with cash.  MIT has sought to blur the line between its campus and the outside world, hoping to foster this world of innovation. They seem to be succeeding. 

What is true in Cambridge is also true in San Francisco and in Brooklyn but not true in Flint, Michigan or Bakersfield, California.  Why is this and what does it mean?  The cities of the Rust Belt have yet to write any chapters about rebirth.    More problematic, today's winners are likely to be tomorrow's too as the competition for the young, talented creative labor force intensifies.  Path dependency is what economists call it, and it means that where you come from is where you're headed, which is another way of saying that history matters. 

Making sense of this new world is of critical importance as job growth, economic vitality and income security consume the national debate. Elected officials at all levels, but particularly at the local level, have ample reason to pay attention, as do business and labor leaders along with young people heading off to college, and those who aren't.  Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has taken on this challenge in his new book, The New Geography of Jobs, and the story he tells is profound.

Moretti has done a good deed by sitting down to write.  He's clear and concise.  He has tackled these vexing questions from many angles - the decline in American manufacturing; the phenomenon of path dependency that he calls The Great Divergence; the reason why people choose to live where they live.  He has writer's knack for pulling out the illustrative detail while never losing the broad sweep of events.  It is truly a skill to be equally at home in the abstract realm of statistics and the very emotion-laden world of human decision-making. Most economists forget that the conclusions they draw from their sample populations also contain the drama of people's actual lives within them.   Moretti remembers this while avoiding another trap of economists.   He doesn't leave his story in the realm of the theoretical, but constantly brings his tale back to real-world existence in a way that amplifies the argument by making it coincide with everyday experience.  Most importantly, he knows his subject well and he's talking about something that is shaping our future more than we realize.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

After watching Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong, I cannot but conclude that comedy is truly the highest form of art.

Joined on screen by Bing Crosby, (a young) Joan Collins, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Sellers, Robert Morley, and special guests Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

God bless the damned fools, every one of them.

On August 21, 1876, Captain Alfred Johnson landed his 16 foot sailboat in Liverpool, England,  becoming the first person to successfully complete the transatlantic voyage solo. He was 29 years old at the time.

He had named his little dory Centennial in honor of his nation's 100th birthday, and had departed the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts 66 days earlier. 

Shortly before his death in 1927, the Boston Sunday Post asked him "Just why did you make the trip across the Atlantic in a dory, Cap'n?" He answered, "Lots of people have asked me that, and I always try to tell 'em the truth.  I made the trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

And another Thanksgiving tradition ...

"Football is the quintessential American sport.  Every play begins with a meeting and ends with an act of violence."

-- Michael Kinsley (I believe)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cui dono hunc libellum?

It's not Catullus, but it's close.

It's also the phrase that came to my mind while looking at the first book printed in North America, a psalter published by Stephen Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1639.  Called the Bay Psalm Book, it sits in the Houghton Library at Harvard and is as valued by book collectors as a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio of Shakespeare.

What an odd little book, hunc libellum.  What a lovely little book, lepidum hunc libellum.

Imagine coastal Massachusetts of the 1630s, and how it must have seemed to the European mind. Its impenetrably dark woods emitting wild and strange sounds crowded these white semi-literate settlers at every turn, almost pushing them back into the sea.  In these dark woods, an unknown and "savage race" of native peoples speaking no language ever seen or heard in Europe eyed them with great suspicion and intentions unknown.  From 90F in late August to 8F and 5 feet of snow in early February, the extreme swings of temperature and climate were as disorienting as they were potentially deadly. Every plant new to sight and smell and taste was a savior or a murderer depending on its toxicity.  Unidentified beasts lurked deep in the dark land, growling, browsing, climbing, scratching, howling, as if man needed any further reminder that he was granted no God-given dominion here.

All of this, all of it, was what a few English settlers saw and felt in those first years on these shores.  And what did they decide to do?  They took their latest technology, their most advanced item, the printing press, and they published a bunch of songs that a Jewish tribe wrote down on papyrus in the arid Near Eastern desert sometime 2,500 years before.

What an odd little book, hunc libellum.  Its leather binding protected the pages which survived the cold winters, the floods, the snows, the diseases, the animals, the attacks, the fires. Like St. Peter upon his rock so these Protestants upon this book in this strange and hostile land founded their churches, their universities, their traditions, their laws.  From this book, steeped by the brew of time, sprang a kaleidoscope of culture, like the rainbow hair from the 1960s pop artist Peter Max.  America is the kaleidoscope.  America is the rainbow.

All you need is ... ?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crowd sourcing democracy

In democracies, elections are the moments when the tectonic plates of political alignment shift.  The  pressure that moves these plates derives in part from subterranean drivers of the economy.  When these fundamental drivers change, politics needs to incorporate this new reality in a timely manner.  When the politics are not flexible enough to do that, and new and changing needs get no hearing, then the public discourse grows harsher and radical and sudden shifts become more likely. Think of the 19th century transformation from agrarian to industrial economies in North America and Europe as an example.  Technological change produced massive social change and a reordering of society.  Political theory and practice struggled mightily to make sense of this.  Whether through Marxism or  through capitalism, the ripples are still felt today.  But change continues. American politics struggles at this moment on how to change social support systems that were created at the height of our industrialization process -- dating from before the Second World War.  The American economy that existed when those were created has long since disappeared.  Our politics is working on how to have this tectonic shift reflected elsewhere in our lives.  And now, with the acceleration of the Information Age, we face new challenges. 

What our Founding Fathers left behind is still quite remarkable.  The democratic impulse combined with a broad franchise, while ancient in its origins, is consistently modern in so many surprising respects.   The wigged Revolutionaries who trotted to Philadelphia in 1787 to debate a new Constitution could not have been further from our modern techno-savvy entrepreneurs, but each understood a basic truth that has proven persistently true -- a crowd has a wisdom unto itself, and by putting something to the crowd in a vote, that wisdom can emerge.  We know it now as "crowd sourcing".  Let the people speak.  In politics, this crowd sourcing impluse allows the relevant ideas to rise to the top of the agenda which in the long run is the best way that people's concerns get heard. 

This is all preamble to a blog post about a book on jobs in the new economy, but that will have to wait for my next post.

Monday, November 12, 2012

All Lost in the Supermarket

Days after last week's election, I found myself wandering in Whole Foods feeling like some poor lost soul in Willy Wonka's version of the Garden of Eden, not unlike a bewildered gnome in the Land of Plenty. 

Food stuffs, aisle after aisle of them, were neatly arranged on shelves deep and broad.  The staff, a combination of art history majors and organic gardeners who run their own honey-producing beehives off their Somerville roofs and Ethiopian immigrants who marvel each day at this place called America, are responsive to any box of organic pasta that might be askew but are daunting in the professionalism which they bring to what they care for. 

They are the Guardians to the Platonic Idea we called Food.  Whole Foods after all is a supermarket with a governing philosophy.  

No doubt I was searching for something expensive, but the wide aisles and the sheer amount of stuff around me, and the expense of it, got me thinking -- who is this proverbial angry white male, the voter who chose Scott Brown over Elizabeth Warren, the voter who chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, and what the hell does he want?

For my answer, I turned to the cheese aisle.  What would he make of this, I wondered?

What would he make of a hundred different choices of cheese from around the world, all sitting on a refrigerated shelf, just waiting to be chosen?  And what would he make of the people stooping deliberately and dramatically over this array, considering their cheeses like Sherlock Holmes drawing on his pipe, waiting for the insight to arrive through the blue haze of smoke? 

This angry man, would he find this experience an enlightening expansion of his horizons?  Or would he find it ridiculous, frightening, or even threatening -- an example of a world that he neither recognizes nor welcomes?

We have split into two nations in some important ways.  Who walks into a Whole Foods? In Cambridge, we know the type.  We're in the cheese aisle. 

But who doesn't walk into a Whole Foods? Him we don't know, because he's not in the cheese aisle.  When confronted with such opulence, is he coaxed to vent a resentment at an America he's been told is filled with "takers", as Mitt Romney said.  The ultimate private capital billionaire reached out to this voter with a message that was narrow, angry, divisive, hyperbolic.  The GOP continues to maw its cud, as well they should. 

But we dismiss his anger at our own peril.  Like this little gnome trying to decide between a Gorgonzola and a St. Andre, we'd be fools not to see what's around us too.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The 2012 Election and the new (Silent) Majority

The election is over now.  Barack Obama is our president.

Meanwhile the Republicans are eating their young.  The unrepentant among them, and there are many, vie to show the ostrich how to do its work by digging their heads as deep as the sand will let them.  The intelligent among them, and they still exist, try to measure the length of their self-imposed tunnel before they even bother looking for the light.  And the final third of this triumvirate is the real rope around the Republican Party's neck -- the fringe element that controls the party by controlling the primary process for choosing candidates.  This element is frightening, and large, and accounts for the claims that climate change is a hoax and there is such a thing as legitimate rape, both uttered by GOP politicians. As a young woman said today on a radio call-in show: "No thinking person will vote for that, no matter what their governmental philosophy might be."  And that is exactly the point.  No thinking person will vote for that, ever.

Moderate GOP leaders seem blind to the dark shadow this dispossessed angry voter casts over their chances to appeal to 21st century multicultural, inclusive, cooperative America.  Christie Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey GOP governor herself, pointed out that older white fundamentalist Christian males are simply not enough to build an electable party, never mind a governing coalition.  She certainly qualifies as one of the intelligent ones. 

Meanwhile for the rest of us, Election Day was good.  In Massachusetts, long lines of Cambridge voters met poll workers when doors opened at 7AM.  The lines didn't lessen, the voters did not let up, for hours and hours.  There was a massive effort to turn out the vote, to see Elizabeth Warren become the first female Senator from the state.

Her bid to defeat Scott Brown had a deep meaning to many here.  More than just the sting of having a Republican in the seat that had been Ted Kennedy's, there is a sense among liberals that a new majority is coming into being.  It is progressive and Left-leaning, and it votes Democratic.  It is the antithesis to the Nixon Silent Majority of the early 1970s, when disaffected Southern conservative Democrats joined forces with Northern urban working-class Catholics to abandon the Democratic party in droves, over Civil Rights, over Women's Rights, over the Vietnam War.  Ronald Reagan understood this ten years later and expanded it.  With his folksy control of the airwaves, he cloaked the country in the American flag and his brand of conservatism (which seems strikingly tolerant and cooperative compared to today's Republican rhetoric).  Liberals were on the run.  Democrat George McGovern won only Massachusetts in the 1972 presidential election.  Democrat Walter Mondale won only Minnesota in 1984.

But that has changed in large part because the country has changed.  While the South hasn't budged, remaining strongly Republican (at least they are true to that conservative value), the northern urban centers have experienced a true renaissance.  The cloak of their old industrial past has been shed.  They have become the new home of innovation, hipness, finance, information, and strongly Democratic-leaning politics. Even Detroit, a city on the perpetual downturn, is finding small places of upturn in this new century.  For activists, this election had to be an assertion of a new blue majority.  And it was.

At first glance of the electoral map, you might not come to that conclusion with so much red to see. 

In this county-by-county look at the dispersion of Democratic (blue) and Republican (red) votes in 2012, vast swaths of the middle part of the country are Republican, and solidly so.  But of course the population concentrations exist along the coasts.  From Maine down to Washington DC, Democratic.  Bordering the Great Lakes, also Democratic.  The West Coast almost in its full entirety, Democratic.  The exception is in the South, where the coastal counties along Gulf Coast remain Republican.

As it turns out, the blue districts correlate with the economic activity most strongly associated with 21st century America, the America that is still the innovation hub for the world: the Bostons, New Yorks, San Franciscos, Seattles.  These areas share a lot in common -- multicultural, tolerant, high levels of education, high incomes, long histories of immigrant arrivals living in close proximity and high density to the existing populations.

This map speaks of today's America, and it points to the challenge that the Republican Party faces.  The blue areas will not only continue to be blue for the foreseeable future, but they will continue to grow, in population, in economic strength, in wealth and in power.  They will both contribute and be influenced by the globalized work environment that is our new reality and soon to be our new norm.  They prize innovation, inclusion, and cooperation in their ethic.  And they see the Democratic Party not only as reflecting that, but as understanding it and implementing those values in its own work. In this world, in multicultural America, old divisions such as skin color and language of origin lessen in importance, to be replaced by new divisions -- education level, access to capital and information -- presenting a whole new set of thorny challenges. 

Can the Republicans understand this enough to have something relevant to say about it?  I think not in the near future.  Their endless focus on tax cuts seems to betray a lack of deeper comprehension of the complexity of the challenges, and the momentum within the party to travel down bad alleyways that are ultimately dead-ends is too strong to alter nimbly and responsively.  But it is safe to assume that even for Republicans eventually it will not be heresy or punishable by political death to utter the words: science is real and women are equals.  If not, it's the way of the Dodo bird for them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.

This is a review of a book I haven't read.  But in some senses, I have.  And in some senses, so have you.

Yesterday, journalist and Pulitzer-prize winning New York Timesman Timothy Egan talked with Tom Ashbrook on the NPR radio show On Point about his new book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.  It's the story of Edward Curtis, who traveled this country in the early part of the 20th century to photograph the disappearing Native American tribes in their still intact cultures. 

Curtis the person I did not know, though some of the photos I had seen before.  Arresting in their composition, black and white, they capture both a moment in time and something more.  A man collecting rushes from the side of his canoe; the portrait of Chief Joseph, called the Indian Napoleon; these I had seen. 

But I know the book for another reason. 

We have much lore in the United States.  Our presidential candidates espouse a good amount of it each election cycle.  Last night's debate was no different. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know this very well and they know the phrases too, and if they don't, their pollsters do: We are the exceptional nation.  We are the unique nation.  We stand up to tyrants. We lead, we do not follow. 

The importance of these words is clear, and last night, their immediate impact was also clear.  In this hyper-mediated age, CNN kindly ran a focus group, broken out by gender with real-time tracking of responses to the candidates as they talked.  Say something bellicose, men respond favorably, say something moderate, women tend to be more positive.

These phrases originate mostly from our understanding of the meaning of the end of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism and imperialism in Germany and Japan. In the post-war era we demonstrated both deep foresight and great generosity about the systems needed in a much-changed world.  We sat at the top of the global heap, there by our own American ability to climb and by our capacity to unleash an arsenal of democracy, all in the name of an ideal.  Heady stuff!

Much of this national lore still animates us. It certainly reappeared in the 2003 talk of "a march to Baghdad" that sounded more like the march to Paris 60 years before.  Of course, in 2003 there was no champagne or kisses from French girls.  The faulty analogy led to differences too great to even sneer at, and the cost of the error is still being felt.

But there is another national lore as deep in our collective national self, perhaps deeper because it is older, and closer to our American core.  No founding myth can expunge it, indeed no national saga can exist without it.  It is this American truth that Edward Curtis went out and photographed. It is the story of Native Americans, in their native lands and in their native cultures, in those waning days.  Curtis found them and photographed them before that life was made extinct by the full arrival of European-based American culture. 

The story is heart-rending in many ways.  Seattle, the only major North American city named after a Native American, declared it illegal for a Native American to live within the city's limits.  Curtis found the last remaining one and photographed her.  The Comanche, some of the most feared warriors who roamed the Southwest, ended up being forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, and by the time Curtis caught up with them, they all had short hair and were wearing ties.  Any hippie or Old Testament raconteur would recognized the metaphorical Samson-like castration contained in a haircut and the expression of control and of being leashed in the donning of a neck-tie.

Most moving of all were the recordings of the people that Curtis made on wax cylinders, a technique he learned from E.H. Harriman. To hear the sounds of the bear dance recorded in 1910 -- crackly sounds on a primitive technology of an ancient dance -- haunts.  A tribal leader who was wearing a full bear's skin chants a simple, powerful sound that crosses across time.  The dancer was the carrier of a tradition that may have gone back centuries but was soon to die.  We hear it today as if it arrived by capsule from Mars, but it was us. It was America.  It is America.  As much America as any of our other founding tales. 

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Bridge That Is Also A Place

At its highest point, it is higher than the top of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.  Its concrete and steel arch effortlessly over the cavernous rock walls and water below.  It catches the warmth of the Southwestern sun beautifully.  It's a modern civil engineering marvel.

It is the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, spanning the Colorado River, connecting Arizona and Nevada, diverting traffic off of the top of the Hoover Dam which sits 1,500 feet to its north.

An elegant solution to a complicated problem.

It does not compete with its sister structure.  Rather it compliments her perfectly.

Honestly, the message seems unecessary

Separated by 80 years, these two paired beauties revive a primal nativist creed in me: America the doer; America the solver; America the ingenious; America the determined; America the skilled; America the brave.
Foreground completed during the Great Depression (1936).  Background, completed during the Great Recession (2010). Public works at their best.

This bridge is a testimonial to an America that has by no means disappeared, one where technical skill, engineering can-do, and a tremendously sensitive aesthetic understanding meld form to function with brawn, delicacy and awareness, creating something that will stand the test of generations.

To the detail, beautiful.
The tragedy of this bridge is that this public works project -- all paid for by the taxpayers of this land, where the states of Nevada and Arizona partnered with the federal government to achieve this major success -- will never be lauded for the victory that it is.  Unlike the Hoover Dam next to it (and temporally before it) or the NASA space program of the 1960s, this massive public effort will not similarly shine in the public's mind, largely due to the toxic (and politically-motivated) cynicism and endless demagoguery which says that government bureaucrats never get anything right.  Here is something that is not only governmental but also exceedingly right -- and far (far) better than the container loads of plastic crap we import daily from China to fulfill our consumerist gluttony courtesy of private sector benevolence and wisdom.

Now that my high horse has grown tired, I can also note that standing on the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge, 1000 feet above the gorge below, with two 18-wheelers rolling over it at 60 m.p.h. one feels not so much as a shimmer under foot. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Where do you want to meet?

This post is really a "what have I been up to lately" post. 

And the answer is: Not blogging, for one.  At least not blogging recently. 

I did go see US Senate Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren face-off against incumbent Republican Scott Brown last night up in Lowell, courtesy of her regional coordinator James Hutchinson who kindly invited me and gave me a ticket. 

Mind if we snap a photo while you wait?

Scott Brown has the ignominious quality of having defeated Angus McQuilken for the state senate seat vacated by Cheryl Jacques about ten years ago now.  It was a sad, unhappy and unfortunate outcome, with the knock-on effect that Scott Brown is now our federal representative.  To be honest, remembering all those years ago, the district was always basically Republican even though Democrat Jacques held onto it for many years.

Fast forward to 2012, and Warren held her own and more last night, through the bogus charges about her Native American heritage, and "whose side was she on" in the asbestos claims.  All lawyers are taught to make a case.  Brown is a crafty pol and a skilled debater.  He's no slouch, and he's reaching for his tar and feathers and brush.  But she's no slouch either, and wisdom is that things are tilting Dem in this state as in many states.  As one pundit said the other day, "the race is hers to lose".  Turn out the vote is all I can urge.  Turn out the damn vote.

But that, for all its inherent interest, is not why I write.  Why I write is that a group I am connected with -- planners and architects (see our website here) -- is about to start a study, using software provided by OpenPlans called ShareAbouts (thank you Ellen McDermott), to map places where people meet.  We've chosen Kendall Square in Cambridge as our target area. Click here to see our map.

Why is this important?  Well, if you're interested in innovation, and who in Cambridge is not interested in innovation, then who you're talking to, and when, and where and how, all become part of the discussion of the likelihood that you'll have a new idea.  It seems crazy, but that may actually be the point.  It is crazy, and that is what makes it worthwhile.

The best description I've heard is that innovation is decontextualization.  Now, that's a very MIT Media Lab way of saying it, but it's a good insight. Taking things out of one context and putting them into another context and seeing what that tells you is perhaps the best way to come to a new idea.  Or maybe it is the most predictable way to come to a new idea.  In any event, hearing what others think is one way to do this.  And the best way to hear what they think is to see them in person, to get the full richness of their person.  All of it very interesting.  Click on those links above to learn more.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

The other day, I had to move my grandfather clock. The clock had belonged to my grandmother, and I believe to her father before that. It's a duly grand thing, handsome, august, a very metaphor of time itself -- time that passes and time that is past.

The head had to be removed to make the move.

It was put into a box.

I couldn't help but think that my grandmother's clock had been beheaded, like a king. I started to repeat the odd phrase, the title of this post, "The King is Dead. Long Live the King."  For when you behead a king those who believe in the kingdom must reassert the authority of the monarchy immediately. 

Other blog posts will tell you that while traveling in France earlier this year, I became obsessed with Louis XVI and his precipitous demise.  The French people had had enough, though I think Louis' head fell into a basket, not a box.

England has had its headless, kingless moments too, and given this clock, Charles I of England came to my mind.  He lost his head to a London crowd some 140 years earlier marking the start of the English Civil War. 

Unceremoniously had his head put into a box. My clock. What does it mean to kill a king? Who defends this headless body? What kind of revolution is that?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Timeline. Kendall Square (expanded)

Below you will find an expanded timeline.  I apologize for the size -- graphics issues are still being worked out.  You should open the image with a program (like Preview on a Mac) that allows you to zoom in to see the details.

I have continued to expand my timeline of events in Kendall Square, and with the aid of new timeline software, I am able to manage more data points with greater ease.

You will notice that I separate events by actors -- namely, who is the key protagonist of the action.  So far, I include:
  • Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA)
  • The City of Cambridge
  • the [Cambridge] City Council
  • The Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan (KSURP)
  • MIT 
  • Commercial  

Please feel free to share with me more data and/or further moments of historical importance, by posting below or contacting me by email.  This project with continue as more information becomes available to me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review. Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies.

A spy tells you things about someone else that they don't want you to know.   A double-crossing spy tells you things about someone else that they do want you to know. 

When you're dealing with spies, it's important to know what you've got.  As troops amassed on the southern coast of England in May 1944 for the invasion on the Normandy beaches that would become famous under the name D-Day, this distinction became crucial. 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  Ben Macintyre.
At that very moment, a small group of spies was busy spreading all sorts of lies in an effort to deceive the Germans as to the time and the place of the main Allied assault onto continental Europe.  What was special about these spies, and what gave them a particular credibility among their German audience was that each of them began their espionage career as an employee of the Third Reich, recruited to find out everything they could about their evil British enemy.  But in each case, this rag-tag group of people determined that the defeat of Nazi Germany was truly the goal worth fighting for, and decided that their work in the war would be to trip up their German spymasters.

On St. James's Street in London, it fell to a very small group of British eccentrics, public school boys besotted with cricket analogies and misogynists to a man, to determine the reliability of this potentially powerful weapon against Adolph Hitler.  They were part of B Section, a group within MI5 whose job was counterespionage.  Their initial tools were a group of German spies landed on English soil in 1940 in preparation for the invasion of England to take place that year.  Not one of these spies evaded detection.  Four of them agreed to serve as double agents.  A very new front was opened in the war, this time, it would be a war of guile and nerves. 

The agents would have fit in any James Bond novel.  Dusan "Dusko" Popov, elegant, daring, with a voracious appetite for women, was friends with Johann ("Johnny") Jebsen, a 22-year old heir of a German shipping company, and an Anglophile with a love of P.G. Wodehouse.  Popov offered himself as a spy.  Jebsen was recruited later on.  Both hated the Nazis.  Both were brave and fearless.  Popov fed disinformation to the Germans in the run-up to D-Day, Jebsen shared a mass of real information about the Germans with the British.  Popov survived the war.  Jebsen's fate was less kind. In the slippery world of espionage, he trusted someone he should not have, and it did not turn out well.

These characters, and many others, populate the new book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.  Double Cross is compelling, a true page-turner.  The quirky Brits, broad-hearted and small-minded at the same time, cook up these crazy schemes that just might work.  Against them are pitted the Germans whose army intelligence service is slow-footed, dim-witted, pleasure-seeking and always one step behind their English adversaries.  However, lurking in the background of German army incompetence is the menacing specter of the party faithful -- the Nazi efficiency, mania and brutality.  

Double Cross has all the markings of a spy thriller, but it is more than that.  It is real.  These characters were not the construct of someone's fertile mind (though many of the spies and spymasters possessed very fertile minds themselves).  They were people who were not there to read scripts but to write them, in real time.  Their lives, and their response to their circumstances, created a drama that is both full and with the benefit of hindsight, deeply consequential -- the human drama lifted to the level of history.

Double Cross is also the story of small people in the eyes of history who rise to their part when the light of luck and fate shines upon them.  For all their failings, these people did not fail.  Macintyre lifts Jebsen most among them. 

Ultimately, Double Cross is a summer-time read of the highest order.  Fun, gripping, eventful, romantic in the way of old-time film noir, it does not disappoint.  You won't put it down till you find out what happened on D-Day.  That's the truth, if you believe it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review. Boston, The Irish, The Projects, The Kennedys.

I am in a recycling mode these days -- emptying out old drawers, looking in old boxes.  Throwing things out.

It has an odd cleansing quality to it.  Waves of nostalgia mix with the liberating notion that the weight of the past is not a forever and forever proposition.  Cords can be cut.  Docked boats can be unmoored. 

All of this applies to electronic files as well.  Yesterday, I found this review I wrote in 2000 of two wonderful books, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer.

The review is 12 years old.  The books, even older.  But all stand the test of time, and so get posted here.


Review of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer

Sam Seidel
March, 2000

Northeastern cities hold their value exactly because they have not fully succumbed to the powers of Khaki-clad, latte sippers.  They still retain the grit their 19th century immigrant and industrial past -- the sights, sounds and smells preserved in the journey from the Old World to the new.  But for immigrant groups, the past can be a two-edged sword.

Take South Boston, for example.  As it comes under tremendous pressure with the arrival of the new convention center, its strong core is still there – Irish and working class – “a country all unto itself” in the words of one longtime Boston developer. All Souls, A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald, walks us into that world.

MacDonald has us learn about his childhood through a story told with a childlike innocence.   Except that the events are anything but innocent—the violent chaos of the 1974 busing riots; the disintegration of this same neighborhood a decade later under the oppressive influence of guns and drugs – courtesy of gangster Whitey Bulger, brother of former Massachusetts state Senate President William Bulger.   

All Souls is a tale of just exactly what it feels like to be at the bottom of the ladder, and be told that you’re at the top.  MacDonald is able to retell these events with unaccusatory skill, rendering that time and that place with uncanny touch.  As the protected sanctuary of his childhood dissolves and the guns and drugs move in, MacDonald realizes that the true demon here is something different.  The code of the street is the code of silence.  As long as it holds people in its grip, the downfall can continue.  Ironically, only through reaching out to the neighboring black communities of Roxbury and Dorchester is MacDonald able to see a way out of the spiral.

But Boston has long been an Irish town, home to some of this country's greatest citizens.  Take, for example, the Kennedys, emblems of power and prestige.  They started their battles in the end of the 19th century, when legendary politicians like James Michael Curley and John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald ruled the town.  By the time Joseph Kennedy, Sr. married Honey Fitz’s daughter, Curley and Fitzgerald were already locked in battle with the old-line Brahmin establishment.  Joe himself, and then his children, would reap the benefit of their efforts.

Adam Clymer's new biography of Joe’s only surviving male child, Senator Ted Kennedy, examines the results.  The book, simply named Edward M. Kennedy, tells the story of Kennedy’s  uncommon privilege  -- First Communion from the Pope, son of the U.S. ambassador in London, and, by the age of 28, brother of a president of the United States. It tells the story of a towering figure in American political life whose most enduring political lessons may have been those learned through those early fighters in the older Boston’s immigrant ward politics.

But it also tells of a man who had clearly left those politics behind.  Though Kennedy felt that the working class Irish were his core constituency, who had rallied to his side numerous times, he supported busing, and became a pariah in South Boston.  After being booed off stage during an anti-busing rally at Boston City Hall, he never stepped foot in South Boston to campaign during his1976 Senate reelection campaign.

Kennedy’s rejection of Southie was possible because of his national, as well as global appeal.  And that is probably pure Kennedy – a unique combination of wit, grit and grace.  As a senator, he has put his mark on the most important social legislation of the past quarter century.  As an international figure his admirers come from a broad ideological spectrum, from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan.  To his credit Clymer, a reporter for The New York Times, keeps to the story, and does not waste time with scandal, unless it relates to Kennedy's political fortunes.  In all, this is an oddly moving book.

Michael Patrick MacDonald’s amazing tale about this amazing town and Clymer’s well-tempered assessment of one of the seminal American figures of the second half of the 20th century open up the world of Boston – its past, its neighborhoods, its uniqueness.   A city rich in its people has produced two fine tales.  Read them both.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Some of my thoughts about cities, circa 2001

The paragraphs below are the opening of an essay I wrote while a graduate student in 2001.  In reflection, it's interesting to note the problems I identify as being urban problems -- they seem from another era. Indeed they are from another era, and I am certain that any list I drew up today would look very different.  Note: The interconnection between urban space and urban politics has only grown more apparent to me in the intervening years:

The concept of “the city” has always fascinated me, in large part because cities are the cynosure of the social and physical extremes – wealth and poverty, the lofty skyscraper and the pastoral city park.  But I have come to realize that the understanding I had of cities was too limited.

My initial conception was that cities were political beings first and foremost.  I came to that conclusion because the majority of my work had been in political contexts, and I did what people often do – I generalized from my specific experience.   While not only being too constrained, this view of “city as politics” was also almost unavoidably pessimistic.  It meant that per force, I thought of cities in terms of their negatives: an amalgamation of the social problems that American cities are famous for – poverty, crime, and the economic and racial segregation that are typical of our big urban centers.  And the only solutions I could imagine were political. 

But I have begun to understand that a city is not only a grouping of negatives, nor is it only political.  A city is also physical, and it is an intricate weave of opportunities and constraints.  This addition layer of necessary information adds difficult complexity to understanding cities.  It increases the variables innumerably.  But it also gets at what I now consider to be a fundamental fact – that political aspects of a city are inextricably intertwined with the physical aspects of a city.  In other worlds, space matters – in a way that I did not foresee, nor in full candor, that I fully yet understand.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Timeline. Kendall Square - 1963 to 1982

Below is a timeline of the history of Kendall Square and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) from 1963 to 1982.  It was an era that laid the groundwork for the "modern" Kendall Square.  Indeed it is impossible to understand today's successes outside of the context from which they arose.  Today's enthusiasm must have seemed like a distant dream in the early 1970s when NASA left Cambridge.

The dates of the timeline are significant because they span from the beginning of the "Redevelopment Era" when governmental bodies were created with wide-ranging power to radically reshape cities, to the arrival of the current executive director of the CRA, Joe Tulimieri. 

Timeline of activities and decisions in Kendall Square, 1963-1982

All of the information contained in the timeline comes from a wonderful history of the time by Thad Tercyak, a planner who worked at the CRA from 1968 to 1990.  Here is Thad in his own words:
In 1968, as an economist-urban planner specializing in urban redevelopment projects and completing seven years as a director of two major urban renewal projects with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, I was hired by the CRA as an Associate Director. I left the CRA in 1990. I participated in virtually all of the events described in this narrative which occurred during my 22 years with the CRA, 1968 to 1990. Descriptions of the events which occurred between 1963 and 1968 before I joined the CRA and descriptions of the events after I left the CRA in 1990 are based on CRA records and reports, and conversations with CRA staff.
Thad decided to write this account after a call put out by Cambridge's own Robert Winters in 2011 asking for any additional information about the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.

You can read the full text of Thad's article at Robert's website:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Two cartoons about Britain after the war.

Here are two cartoons from 1948 featuring Charley, archetypal British post-war chap, adjusting to his new world.

The first deals with town planning. "Charley in New Town" addresses the post-war desire to rethink the city.  Of course, in America, this was the period of massive suburbanization.

Here's the video:

Next is "Charley's March of Time" about the British post-war national insurance plans.

Both are very interesting and amusing and worth taking a look.

And I will add this interesting video about the English town: 

This last video comes from this rather fascinating collection of videos from the British Council Film Collection, which can be found here:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boris Johnson Wins The Gold!

Welcome to the London Olympics, 2012.  Let the Games Begin!
Boris Johnson's Olympic Welcome

(also at:

Though I was hoping it was an in-house job, I stand now corrected -- it's crafty editing by someone known as cassetteboy.

I'd prefer it be the "Official Welcome" but we'll take it nonetheless -- it fits the man starring in it.

See it here!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Michael Herr. More Vietnam.

Last night, I watched the Marines retake Hue.  It was 1968 all over again.

It was one of those television war shows with a You Are There quality to it.  It came complete with computer graphics showing the ancient city with its 100 ft. thick walls, its layout, the relative positions of the battling forces, American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese, and their movements.  It also came with plenty of footage, grainy video that nevertheless conveyed the fear and the chaos while never losing the morality tale of Hue and the larger Tet Offensive of which it was a part -- in war, a defeat on the battlefield can constitute a victory in the larger conflict when people's attitudes and their morale are the actual thing being fought over. 

More telling than those doing the fighting and dying (not to mention the killing) were the news reporters.  They were part farce, part undeniable bravery -- interviews were done, cameras rolling, at the front lines.  One reporter managed to interrupt a Marine reloading his weapon long enough to get him to say "This sucks" -- referring to the mayhem -- before he returned to firing indiscriminately over a wall taller than him, rifle aloft in his outstretched arms, jangling away.  Such scenes may be common in war, but they are no longer common on a television screen.

CUT.  Cue Michael Herr.  Herr catches the vibe exactly right when he comments in Dispatches:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it ...

What he says about writing and war could be said about the 1960s in general.  Everything was going to need a rethinking.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Interview. Quinton Zondervan, biotech entrepreneur, environmentalist, writer

Quinton Zondervan, the Cambridge-based biotech entrepreneur, environmentalist and playwright sat down with me recently to answer this simple question: How does a 41-year-old father of two with a masters degree from MIT do it all -- start a company to invent new drugs to combat infectious diseases; save the world from our looming environmental crisis; and adapt a Shakespeare play to the issues and concerns of our 21st century?  Here is what he told me, about himself, about this question and about his summer plans:

Tell us about yourself and your background.
I was born in the Netherlands.  My family was from Suriname in South America, and they moved back when I was 2 years old.  So I grew up in Suriname in the tropics and that’s where a lot of my environmental sense was actually born.  I really lived in the environment more than I do here.  I came to the United States when I was 15 and went to high school here, went to college here in Florida and then I moved to Massachusetts to go to MIT and settled down here.  I got married, and I'm raising kids and started my own company.  I'm an entrepreneur.  That's where I am now. 

What did you study as an undergraduate?
Undergraduate was at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I studied computer science and mathematics there, and then computer science at MIT for a masters.

What is your day job?
Currently I run a biotech company. We are working on cloning human antibodies against infectious disease targets and using the antibodies as medicine but in a new way. All the antibody drugs that exist today are single antibodies -- one antibody per disease, but for infectious diseases that doesn't work because the disease is too complicated to attack it with a single antibody clone.  So what you really need is a diverse set of antibodies which is more how our own immune system responds to an infection. What we're trying to do is to harness that innate response but we pick the best of the best antibodies from different people and combine them together into a super drug that is more powerful than any individual's immune response could be and is resistant to the bacteria's own evolution so if you attack it with one antibody it can evolve around it, but if you have a diverse set of antibodies that is challenging the bacteria in so many ways, it can't easily evolve around it.

Tell me about the history of the company?
As an undergraduate, I met this fellow student who happened to be Dutch and who happened to have an interest in chess which is how we met and he and I became fast friends.  He was studying biochemistry and I was in computer science so we had very different academic interests, but I've always had a broad interest in science in general.  He and I kept in touch and we've been friends all our lives since then.  About six years ago, he had been working at another company where he had been exploring some of these ideas and that didn't really work out for him so he contacted me and said he still had all these ideas but he couldn't really deploy them at his current company and I was transitioning out of having a steady job in software and really looking for starting my own company and so I said "Let's get together and do this".  So it was his idea and my entrepreneurial spirit and that's how we got together and started the company.

Where did you start the company?
It was in Cambridge.  He was living in Denmark at the time, so he moved back to Cambridge and we started the company in Cambridge.

Tell us about the early formation stage of the company, where did the money come from, and how did you choose where to locate?
Starting a company is all about money, especially in a capital-intensive industry like ours where we don't expect to actually make a profit until 10 years down the road.

In our particular case, for various reasons, most people said, "No, I'm not really interested in this."  I happened to have a friend who got very rich in the Dot Com era.  He was very early at Google and he also started his own company that he sold to Yahoo so he was able to step up and fund the company.  So he funded us a little bit at the beginning, like $250,000, which gave us enough time to do full-time fundraising.  We weren't able to raise money elsewhere, so we went back to him and said "either you fund it or we can't do it" so at that point he gave us $2 million and that was enough to get the company off the ground to rent a laboratory, start hiring some scientists and really start doing the work.  In terms of fundraising, we've raised $25 million so far, which in terms of spending takes us out to the end of next year.

Have you told us the name of the company yet?

In terms of location, we rented our lab space in West Cambridge.  Both co-founders were living in Cambridge, so we wanted to build it close to home, but it turned out not to be the ideal location for us.  One of the [reasons] was cost, not just absolute cost, but the quality of the space for the amount of rent that you pay.  It is just more expensive in Cambridge to get high quality laboratory and office space compared to 128.  So that was one consideration and the other one was that although we live in Cambridge, most of the people we end up hiring don't and so for them it is actually more convenient for them to be out there.  And we anticipated growth, and so as you need more space, it becomes an even bigger problem because the expense goes up, so for all those reasons it just made more sense to move out once we had started the company.  After 2 years we moved out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Ceiling Tile that Killed Milena Del Valle

Six years ago today, Milena Del Valle was killed while driving through Boston's Big Dig when a large section of the tunnel's concrete ceiling tile crashed down on the car she was in. 

In 2007, I worked on a piece for The Next American City about her death, and about the Big Dig.  The piece was never published -- indeed, it was still in the process of further editing when I put it down.

I stumbled across it the other day and I decided to post it below unchanged from the time I stopped working on it in 2007.  In that way, the article stands as a time capsule from a half-decade ago to some of those attitudes about the project.

What strikes me most in re-reading it is the ambivalence expressed in it about the value of the Big Dig as a public infrastructure investment.

While further reporting would have delved into the interconnection between the almost $15 billion of public money spent and the hoped-for impact on the city of Boston and the region, in 2007 it seems the jury was still out as to whether this had been all just been a colossal waste of time and dollars.

Fast-forward to 2012, and it is clear to me now that the catalytic impact of the Big Dig is real and is happening.  Moreover, it is in full swing.  A short walk around the waterfront in the Seaport District on July 4th weekend -- or a visit to a Boston Society of Architects presentation about the 2.6 million square feet of office, retail and residential space soon to be built -- tells me that this zone is poised to explode with people and with activity.  Here is Boston's great expansion, happening in our time before our eyes.

I make no particular claim about the writing -- either its style or its flow. With further work, I feel it would have pulled itself together nicely, but it did not receive further work, so it is as it stands -- perhaps imperfect, certainly unfinished.  Its substance however is solid, and it hindsight, more emphasis should have been given to potential boom that the Big Dig was supposed to unlock.  Therein may lie a follow-on article, better written and up-to-date looking at all that had been made possible by this much debated and much maligned tunnel.  As the intervening five plus years have told us, the dreams of a few are becoming the reality of many.

The story reiterates the point I have felt for many years now -- timelines are long in urban contexts.  To change a city requires a strategic vision, a broad perspective and a deep patience.  It simply doesn't happen any other way.


Article written by Sam Seidel in 2007, not published 

On July 10, 2006 support bolts gave way in the multi-billion dollar tunnel snaking through Boston’s downtown, the Big Dig, causing 12 tons of concrete ceiling paneling to fall on a passing automobile, crushing it but leaving the driver’s side untouched. Unfortunately, the passenger, Milena Del Valle, was not so lucky. She was killed instantly.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On call. On the phone.

I am standing with a friend on a dirt road in the pitch black of a country night.  We stand in darkness because of the heavy canopy of leaves over our heads, but down the hill, the moon's blue-green glow bathes a neighbor's treeless suburban lawn in iridescent light.

Yet I can still see my friend's face from the glow of his iPhone screen.  He's talking to his higher-up, explaining that the report of the plane crash was a false alarm.  A police officer already went to the beach to check it out.  What he found was a lot of Chinese lanterns floating in the water, candles still flickering.  From a distance, they easily could be mistaken for the windows of an airplane floating on the surface.  There is no need for further action.  We feel confident that we know what happened.

The next morning, it's the phone again. A guy has jumped off a bridge.  Dead on impact and the body was recovered. This case is closed now too.  Cup of coffee?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Michael Herr. Dispatches. 34 years later.

A great book was published 34 years ago.  Dispatches by Michael Herr is his rock n' roll disquisition on Vietnam.  It's what a war feels like when you walk through it -- its sights, sounds, smells -- what it means to be out there, way out there.

My editorial mind forces me to add that I pulled this book off my shelf to see just how distanced we have become from war today. This kind of reporting is no longer found in American English.  It doesn't even seem possible.  As a result, we skirt a truth -- the full cost, fury, madness, pathology, death and dare I say it, humanity of what we set in motion when we ring the clarion bell to arms.

In early December, I came back from my first operations with the Marines.  I'd lain scrunched up for hours in a flimsy bunker that was falling apart even faster than I was, listening to it going on, the moaning and the whining and the dull repetitions of whump whump whump and dit dit dit, listening to a boy who'd somehow broken his thumb sobbing and gagging, thinking, "Oh my God, this fucking thing is on a loop!" until the heavy shooting stopped but not the thing: at the lz waiting for the choppers to Phu Bai one last shell came in, landing in the middle of a pile full of body bags, making a mess that no one wanted to clean up, "a real shit detail." It was after midnight when I finally got back to Saigon, riding in from Tan Son Nhut in an open jeep with some sniper-obsessed MPs, and there was a small package of mail waiting for me at the hotel. I put my fatigues out in the hall room and closed the door on them. I may have even locked it. I had the I Corps DT's, liver, spleen, brains, a blue-black swollen thumb moved around and flashed to me, they were playing over the walls of the shower where I spent a half-hour, they were on the bed-sheets, but I wasn't afraid of them, I was laughing at them, what could they do to me? I filled a water glass with Armagnac and rolled a joint, and then started to read my mail. In one of the letters there was news that a friend of mine had killed himself in New York. When I turned off the lights and got into bed I lay there trying to remember what he had looked like. He had done it with pills, but no matter what I tried to imagine, all I saw was blood and bone fragment, not my dead friend. After a while I broke through for a second and saw him, but by that time all I could do with it was file him in with the rest and go to sleep. (p. 66-7)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Memories of the 1970s

The closing of the Harvard Square Cinema on Church Street is <begin list now>:

  • A loss
  • A marker of time's passing
  • A symptom of today's entertainment economics
  • A harbinger of things to come
  • An opportunity to reflect
  • An ...

I'll chose "an opportunity to reflect", and dwell there just a moment.

When the doors of the theater close, the Rocky Horror Picture Show will be made homeless.  A regular feature since 1984, 28 years ago, the great movie with its flamboyant twist on a hackneyed plot line -- a couple's car breaks down in a storm, "Didn't we pass a castle on the road a couple of miles back?", you get the rest -- will be seeking a new roof over its head to get out of the rain.  Of course, any Rocky Horror veteran knows that no matter how enjoyable the movie, you go for the show -- the floor show -- the real life humans who dress up in their own versions of costumes of the characters on the screen and act out the film in front of your very own eyes.  The gags that fall to the audience make it good too -- rice thrown at the wedding scene, handfuls of it; playing cards at "cards for sorrow, cards for pain", and no one can forget "Where's your f*ing neck?!" 

It all comes back to me now.  Like every kid originally from the Big Apple, I'm impressed that Harvard Square has hosted Rocky Horror since the mid-80s, but I remember -- oh God, here we go -- I remember going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the old New Yorker theater on Broadway and 89th Street in Manhattan six years earlier, in the late 1970s.

It was a wild time, to be out so late -- all shows start at midnight -- in this slightly subversive world. My friends and I were all of 11 or 12 years old at the time.  But it was New York, and it was the 1970s.  The New Yorker was a long distance from where the others lived -- they were all East Side kids -- but I wasn't far from my father's, who lived just up Broadway.  Was it dangerous?  Who knows.  Certainly, there was the blue haze of smoke in theater -- it was the 1970s after all -- but I am sure most of the kids in the theater, and they were mostly kids, slightly older than my gang, but still kids, were just like me.  Adventure and excitement.

Of course, the film is an odd twist on Frankenstein's castle, with a cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-furter (Tim Curry) and his creation Rocky (Peter Hinwood), who prances around in nothing but gold shorts. Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) are the starchy, straight-laced lost newlyweds.  Add to this one of the great characters in film, the handyman Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien) and his wife Magenta (Patricia Quinn), sprinkle in the singer Meat Loaf, and it all comes to life.  Every Friday and Saturday night at midnight, it all came to life.

The New Yorker Theater has long since succumbed to the wrecking ball.  I don't remember when it was exactly -- probably around the time Rocky Horror was opening up in Harvard Square -- but it was sad nonetheless. Manhattan was gentrifying. Land values on the Upper West Side were going up.  There was a higher and better use of the land.  That means housing. Down came the old, and up went something new.

With the theater went a bookstore too, just around the corner.  It was also called the New Yorker, I believe.  I remember standing in front of the plate glass window of the bookstore one morning.  I want to say it was a cold day, but that may be mistaken.  I was with my father.  I think we were walking the dog.  The bookstore had a display of neighborhood authors in the window.  There was my father's newly printed book, Sunrise.  That dates this memory to around 1980.  Next to it was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate.  A little outpost of authorship in a little bookstore on a small side street amongst the canyons of Manhattan. 

That West Side is gone now.  Like all eras, it was, but went. Yet it lingers as a little memory in the canyons of my mind.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Culture of Innovation

Looking out over the roofs of Kendall Square from a 14th floor window, the unmistakeable absence of meaningful urban design greets the eye.  The buildings, boxy, blocky and red brick, mimic too closely the architect's drawings from which they emerged decades earlier.  In that, they resemble a cartoon depiction of themselves.  The resulting urban space feels unfulfilled.  It is a victory of function over form, of plan over design.  All of it leaves the palate tasteless. 

It also confirms the hypothesis that people who fill these buildings didn't come here because it looked good.

But then, why did they come?  What is it about Kendall Square?

Often is it heard that the mixing and mingling -- the chance encounter -- is the important aspect of what drives innovation.  In this respect, proximity and design matters a great deal, and Kendall Square's ability nurture  a creative environment in spite of its design limitations requires asking what else is at work.

The success of Kendall Square must come from a cultural component.  Innovation is as much about a mindset as it is about a set of external factors.  Pascal Marmier, the Swiss consul located here in Cambridge, pointed toward some of these components in an interview he gave back in May: "I think it is a story of people who are thinking bold, who are thinking outside of the box.  People who are young and are encouraged to be thinking about this.  It is something that is strong in the culture.  It is something that makes you creative or willing to explore what people call 'white spaces' where not a lot of people are going."    Marmier goes on to talk about "the ability of people to deal with uncertainty".  Some words jump out here: bold, young, in the culture, willing to explore, 'white spaces', ability to deal with uncertainty.

  • Universities develop capacity in students.  Presumably, universities are the first place where the mindset is established, the first step on a ladder of innovation.  The level to which the university embraces this role must be important, not just in allowing risk taking, but in encouraging it. This embrace can be programmatic, offering opportunities for students to embrace this risk either as individuals or as groups, in and out of the classroom.  
  • Universities leverage their position to bridge the gap. It may also be a reflection of the university's own willingness to adopt risk, to capitalize on its most important asset, its people.  MIT, for example, maintains that its off-campus building projects are a reflection of its willingness to step in and bridge the gap between the university and commerce.  To use one of MIT's own examples, the presence of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences building, a university-funded project, resulted directly in a privately-funded development on Main Street in Cambridge to house Pfizer.  From a strategic development perspective, this is an interesting claim, and if accurate -- that a university development spurred a non-university development -- important. 
  • History gives some clues. The 1990s must be a template for what we are witnessing today.  An era of true upheaval with a multitude of outcomes, it represented a time when a 22 year old might become a very rich CEO overnight.  The world has changed significantly from 15 years ago, but that effect lingers on.  
  • People are the ultimate network technology.  Something truly novel to today is the highly networked nature not just of networks, but of people themselves. In some ways, the new internet is not the electrons flying around in and behind your computer screen.  The actual internet is your network of friends and acquaintances, professional and personal, who support, challenge, inform, share with you and with others.  In an odd twist to our information-saturated world where we spend more of our days staring at screens, the personal has become much more valuable.  The human component is reasserting itself in a highly detached world. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

And I thought this was car country!

Last night, while considering a trip to Dallas, Texas, I got on Google Maps to see the location of the Magnolia Hotel in downtown.

I began to notice the number of airports listed on the map and it seemed like quite a lot.  So this morning, I did a quick survey.

I count 22 separate airports within 40 miles (or so) of downtown Dallas.  Twenty-two, and I have no illusion that this is a complete list.

Who needs a car anymore, I ask you?

Dallas Executive Airport
Dallas Love Field Airport
Mesquite Metro
Grand Prairie Muni
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
Lakeview Airport
Airpark-Dallas Airport
Northwest Regional
Fort Worth Alliance Airport
Hicks Airfield
Kenneth Copeland Airport
Meacham International Airport
Sycamore Strip
Fort Worth Spinks Airport
Arlington Municipal Airport
Lancaster Airport
Ferris Red Oak Municipal Heliport
Terrell Municipal Airport
Airpark East
Rives Air Park
Rockwall Municipal Airport