Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Worst Album Covers: Too absurdly funny not to post ...

Normally, this blog tries to hold itself to a (slightly) more serious tone.

But these are the worst album covers of all time according to the blog  And what a feast it is!

Click here to see them.

Or paste this into your browser -

Enjoy, or excuse, whichever you feel is more appropriate.  They are all real, as far as I can tell.

Friday, March 30, 2012

John Carter: A Truly Awful Film

It is nice to know that they still are making truly awful films.  I know, because I just saw one.  John Carter, a recent release based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale is the worst movie I've seen since watching Transylvania 6-5000 in a San Francisco theater in 1986.  Inexplicably, known actors show up in these flops -- Jeff Goldblum in that one, Willem Dafoe in this one.  Go figure.

What is enjoyable about these sorts of films is that they are so bad, any noise in the theater is actually a welcome distraction.  In 1986, it was a group of screaming teenagers sitting to my right.  Today, it was the sound of my snorting nostrils as I failed to contain my laughter at the total incomprehensibility of the film.   My only compensation for this -- the theater was entirely empty save for two other brave souls three rows ahead of me.

I imagine $40 million was wasted producing this pile, but I probably underestimate by a factor of ten.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Random Walk to Springtime

As the tree outside my 2nd floor window tries to push out its green buds into this wildly swinging weather -- 80F last week, 20F last night -- I thought I'd take you through a random walk -- not the same random walk that economists take, but the random walk  I took yesterday into Boston to visit an office near the State House.

In my mind.  Of course every random walk through space and time is also a walk through the mind's various streets and alleyways, and this one is no exception to that rule.  Each path leads to the next, each word borrows from the last (to misquote Joyce) and in the same way that it can be hard to retrace one's steps, it can be hard at times to follow the mental map too.  But I love that place where metaphor and reality meet and imitate each other too closely, and such is the nature of my blog, I suppose.  Enough of this drivel!  Here's what I saw:

Even politicians get to enjoy!
Spring is springing in Boston, and on Beacon Hill too, but it's all too early to my recollection.  Massachusetts didn't used to see it until May, if my memory serves me well.  Not even April yet, the flowers and the trees are showing their colors already.

I Don't Need This Much Room.   En route.  If the Paris Metro is at or near capacity, the T in Boston is underused, nevermind underfunded.  The Red Line, the T's highest usage line, and 100 years old last week, is empty at noon time on a Monday.  The train I'm riding in dates from 1970.  Both of these should not be the case in a city that strives to be a world-beater in today's economy.  We are trying to wean ourselves from our cars.  If this is so, then why can I witness this?

In the business, they call this "Transporting air"

Housing: How to Make a Downtown.  Downtown Crossing, Boston. I see that the city of Boston is busy putting in housing right in the heart of downtown, exactly what every doctor prescribes for the health of night-life, retail districts, vibrant urbanity.  Good for them.  Cambridge hasn't yet figured out how to make this happen.

Cambridge believes: "Tom Menino says 'housing', and it is so."

It Takes More than a Village.  Kendall Square, Cambridge.  If building buildings in the right places is good, then building the right buildings is also critical.  Urban spaces need urban places.  And urban places need good architecture.  These two buildings below, within half a block of each other in eastern Cambridge win a combined award for some of the truly most nauseating architecture of the second half of the 20th century.  The first of these two I refer to as the Death Star, harkening back to my fascination with the first Star Wars movie.  Its likeness is uncanny.  Nevermind that it houses the Cambridge Innovation Center, a place that certainly has the Force with it.  It's awful. 

Darth Vader would be proud
The second of these two buildings is the New England version of what should only exist in the terrible television shows from the late 1970s.  Dallas comes to mind. 

Nausea finds its urban form
A Meeting of the Minds!  Here now, but looking forward. Nevertheless, the truth is, there is truly nothing like spring in Boston.  The lights of Fenway will soon be on.  The sky overhead is fresh and clear, except when it's raining of course.  And two great and ancient North American cities stare each other down across the small expanse of the Charles River, batter and pitcher, meeting at the midpoint of the bridges that connect them, cradling our collective history and inventing a new future for the world.

Two trains converge, saying "I'll meet you halfway"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alice retires

Today's announcement by state representative Alice Wolf that she will retire at the end of this term on Beacon Hill takes from Cambridge one of the great political voices of the past 25 years.  Public life is demanding, no question, and she has represented a lot of causes and people over the years, and waged many a battle in that time.  Her departure, while not totally surprising, nonetheless prompts the pause that these announcements always do.  Time does pass.  With Alice's departure, and Bob Healy's declared retirement in 2013, and Margaret Drury's handing on the baton as the City Clerk, an era departs the field.

Earlier in the day, biking to a patient visit at Brigham and Women's hospital, I spotted yet more of the next era that is ushering its way undeniably in: new construction in Cambridge.  The building is 650 Main Street.

Photo taken from Portland Street

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A recent discussion at Harvard's Design School about planning as an academic and a professional endeavor got me thinking that there are two scales at which planners typically operate: the minute and the vast. 

In the "minute" category, I place community processes where a single street corner might be a topic for months and months of meetings in which the discussion will ebb and flow, with no real decisions being reached.  The planner tries to gauge the tenor of the comments while paying attention to the specific ideas being put forward and proposing possible solutions to the question at hand.  This "inclusive" planning empowers the community for itself with the planner as facilitator to a public that is the ultimate decision maker.  This type of planning is typical for community development departments in cities around the country, and it comes from a long and worthy tradition, an effort to offset the abuses of the past, where community input was viewed simply as an impediment to a grand idea, an idea that represented someone else's interests.

The cliche that the public process almost always produces a better outcome also happens to be true and is one of the benefits of this type of planning.  However, in the worst of cases, an empowered public fragments into smaller warring factions, and a very long and arduous but responsible process blows up with nothing to show except bruised feelings and angry neighbors.

Under "vast", I include the projects that happen at such a large scale that they swamp the capacity of a neighborhood or even a city to respond to them.  They are driven by financial concerns that far outstrip the locality's scope, and their impact will redefine the area that they are located in.  Cities struggle with the dance that these types of projects represent.  Since the projects are by definition transformative, they offer opportunities much greater than what a local government can produce on its own.  But they will fundamentally alter the circumstances on the ground, and therefore they produce a deep apprehension and wariness.  They are not so much about fixing the old as they are about building the new.  The planner, almost always in private pay in this instance, is no longer the facilitator but the creator and the definer.  The issue becomes less about mitigating the impact and more about augmenting the impact.  This is about defining the world in 21st century terms and applying all that thinking to create the next version of urban space.

Eastern Cambridge is dealing with much of this right now, not dissimilar from massive projects around the globe, where whole new cities are being created in deserts.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A new gist, and some new buildings

This blog needs a new gist.  The old one, the travel record, was then.  It had its own raison d'etre and needed nothing else.  A photograph of a chateau in France is interesting because we don't have them back home, except the imitative kind, and therefore worthy of posting.

But to bang on the daily beat and leave it sounding like something other than a drumbeat, that is another question altogether.

The month of March, of course, doesn't particularly inspire.  Its resplendent grayness is offset by the unusually warm weather that is both a cause of concern, and of some celebration.  We eco-types waiver between the very human instinct towards the sun and its warmth, and ruing this too too early harbinger of spring.  I say let's call it "man made" and proclaim that we've outperformed nature in this regard, and leave it at that.

One possible gist for this blog is "Cambridge as a hotbed of innovation", a very interesting topic on many levels.  As an urban phenomenon, it happens at so many different scales -- the street scale, the neighborhood scale, the city scale, the transportation scale, the regional scale, the national scale and the global scale.  Trying to parse through these layers is no easy matter.

Its promoters say that Cambridge is off the charts in its winnings.  A Globe story today reports that three out of top six winners at South by Southwest were Cambridge-based companies with roots at M.I.T.  This certainly goes beyond accidental good luck.

One further measure of Cambridge's success is the amount of construction going on in the city, and not just in eastern Cambridge.  The other day, while riding my bike down Binney Street towards the Apple Store at Cambridgeside Galleria to look at the latest MacBook Pro, I realized just how many parking lots there are.  Parking lots are like banked gold to a large scale developer in a hot market, and this is a hot market.  So I started to look around, and I decided that I would snap a couple of photos of some of the new buildings going up around town.  Here's just the start of what I see:

Destruction before construction.  Windsor Street near Mass. Ave. (photo from November 2011)

Bent Street (photo taken from First Street)

Friday, March 16, 2012

View From the Road: Kevin Lynch's Day Out

NOTE [11 March 2013]: The MIT link below seems to have been deactivated, so use this link for the same video from

This is a fabulous video from the archives of MIT of a drive around Cambridge and Boston by the famed urban theorist Kevin Lynch, filmed one summer's day in 1958 through the windscreen of his car.  I definitely recommend taking a look.

It's all filmed in "high speed" and the opening minute of the film takes place in Cambridge.  What is particularly striking to me is how much of the city has NOT changed in the intervening 54 years, with the profound exception of eastern Cambridge which is still the process of transforming itself.

[Two notes: 1. Thanks to Saul T. for the video; 2. One viewer claims that the film has to be from at least 1964, based on some of the construction seen, and the appearance of the '64 Chevy Impala.  I am agnostic as to the date, but I am in agreement with those who call the footage "cool".]

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Big Bad Roadway Remembered

The Inner Belt, a roadway project that would have reaped destruction through the Boston area, including cutting through the heart of Cambridge, was one of the terrible transportation ideas from the 1960s that was finally killed by the activism of the early 1970s.  The Cambridge Historical Society is examining this fascinating topic in a series of discussions beginning on April 4.

The implications of the Inner Belt were massive, and focused almost entirely on the needs of the automobile.  Streets right through the heart of Central Square in Cambridge would have been obliterated, similar to the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston which had already succumbed to the wrecking ball before the project was halted.  As we know, courtesy of almost fifty years of hindsight to help us, these projects created dead zones throughout urban areas, dead zones that take a very long time to bring back to life.

I applaud the CHS for focusing on this topic, both because the issues still have implications for today's decision-makers, and for activating what I call "near history", history that is near enough to the present to be part of living memory, and benefit from the breathing record of those times.  Indeed, some of the activists who successfully stopped it will be a part of the program.

Of course, though projects come and go, needs remain, and many of the same questions raised by the Inner Belt -- namely, how to overcome the spoke and hub pattern of transit into downtown Boston by creating circumferential systems -- have not yet been solved.  As the economy goes through its next iteration, with the rise of Kendall Square in Cambridge as one of the key players regionally, and the efforts by Boston to develop the Seaport district, the pressures only mount to have the public investments in transit aid the effective movement of people around the region, particularly as cities regain their luster as hip, cool places to be after decades of flight.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Making it Real

Of my Paris stories, the one I like the most is that very cold day when I found myself down by the Seine.  I had been out for hours and my body was shuddering in my heavy winter jacket, trying to regain the warmth that the bitter wind had bereft of it.   I turned to my right and saw Notre Dame in the middle distance with the moon rising up behind it.  The sky was a winter afternoon chalky blue-gray.  This magical scene entranced me.

I must confess that the first corresponding image to pop into my brain was perhaps less romantic.  It was from the very first Star Wars film, when Luke Skywalker, alone, lonely and pondering his future, looks across the desert and sees two suns rising, or was it setting.

A few weeks later, I had a similar disassociated moment while in the center of the very ancient streets of Tours, France.  Surrounded by buildings dating from the 14th century, buildings that people still live in, I couldn't help but think that I was in the midst of a Disney recreation of exactly this scene.

The real had become a mere imitation of the imitation.

It's the odd power that image makers have finely honed over a century of image making -- to relegate the authentic to myth and substitute in its place a reproduction --  like saying that milk comes from a carton or peas from a can.

I fear this is a smoking gun with some American fingerprints on it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Playing Palin

Julianne Moore's true challenge in the new film Game Change is not Sarah Palin.  It is Tina Fey.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kendall Square Meets

The Kendall Square Association had its annual meeting this morning, and the energy was infectious.

Home to the innovation economy in Cambridge and in Massachusetts as a whole, Kendall Square also has the odd distinction of being the location for the collision of two slogans: "The Future Is Happening Here" and "My God, the 1980s were an awful time for office architecture".  The association, known by its acronym KSA, was created in part to encourage the first, and fight against the second.

As to the future happening here, the case is very strong.  The stats that Tim Rowe, the president of the board of the KSA, and Travis McCready, its executive director, trot out are truly impressive, including the one which says that on a per capita basis the venture capital investment is higher here than even California, and much higher than New York.  Of course, that is a convenient rendering of data, and may indeed show that Massachusetts has a higher intensity of VC activity, but California has a 2011 population of 37.6 million people to Massachusetts' 6.6 million people.  California undeniably has the bigger pie from which to slice.

But I am quibbling here, because regardless the overall story in Massachusetts tells something both fascinating and deeply important.  The future really is happening here, and its happening in ways that speak to the dynamism of the people involved, and their gung ho belief in our collective capacity to imagine.   Human imagination is seen as the cornerstone of the work ahead, and given its intangible nature, it's quite startling to realize just how much is being perched upon its shoulders.  How to support and nurture it seems to be one of the core mission statements of the group. 

To do this, I see a certain style has developed in this world.  Much of it contains a very deliberate looseness and informality to the approach that is based on the perception that people are most creative when they are allowed to let their hair down.  The thinking must go: innovation is the heart of what our American economy has to offer the world, and innovation is reliant on people who feel unconstrained to dream, for dreaming is at the heart of many of the most profound innovations.  Given the dollar amounts tossed around, it is an amazing model for economic growth.

Speaking of economic growth, another telling statistic is the role that start-ups, defined as companies under 5 years old, have in job creation.  No surprise, it is the smaller, newer companies that create jobs.  It is the older companies that shed jobs.  Ergo?  Not hard to fill in that blank.

This is very interesting stuff, and in my mind it sits in contrast to efforts I had the chance to see in France.  France is aware of this innovation culture.  Paris, for example, is a university city.  Paris has the density, undeniably, and density is one of the golden children of Kendall Square, something both Tim and Travis and the others point to as part of its "special sauce".  Density allows the odd happenstance, the random meeting, the unexpected encounter that furthers an idea or fleshes out an insight or sparks a wholly new one, but Paris doesn't seem to have a culture of coordination - perhaps that is the word I am seeking.  The lack of coordination means the lack of the random spark that can start off so many new ideas.  These are very interesting questions.

And we haven't even begun to talk about bad architecture.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Politics of Urban Space

I caught the end of a very interesting conversation at Harvard on the politics of urban space and I was reminded of my most basic definition of politics: politics is the means by which we allocate power.  What is power?  Power is who gets to determine what, or slightly more expressively whose priorities determine our public choices.  Priorities are ultimately expressions of values.  So politics is the vehicle by which we determine whose values hold sway.  Democratic politics allows for transitions for one set of values to other sets of values peacefully, either quickly or over time, through elections and political action.

What is interesting about urban space is that it is "sticky" - to use the term often used by economics to describe wages - its capacity to incorporate change is much slower than that of politics.   Once built, it takes a building, a street, a tunnel, a bridge, a very long time to get unbuilt.  Not that things don't get unbuilt - just think of Paris in the 1860s, when Haussmann destroyed a 600 year old city to build a new one in its place, or less dramatically think of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, one of the great architectural gems of the first years of the 20th century, unbuilt in 1960s at the hands of a changing urban dynamic, different tastes, and a new power structure.

It also bears remembering that urban space is always a representation of power (I think of Versailles, the quintessential demonstration of power through built form), and at the same time a conferrer of power (the Mall is Washington is an excellent example of this).  We err if we imagine that urban spaces can somehow be separated from the people who create them and who use them.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Election Day in MA Today

Ah, the drum of politics bangs, and its pulsing beat thumps "Vote".

Today is an election day in Massachusetts, part of Super Tuesday, and it is the first step in the march to November 6th for the voting public of the Bay State.

Of course, at the national level, Obama's the favorite around here, in both senses -- he is the most liked locally, and he will win the Cambridge voting public handily and undoubtedly will take Massachusetts too.  That fact pushes voters' interest down ballot, to the local contests, including for a neighbor of mine, Brian Corr, who is running for State Committee.

And of course the main contest in the state is the battle between Republican U.S. senator Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.  Warren has a steep challenge to unseat Brown, who has proven again and again that he knows how to win in contests separated by small margins (just ask Angus McQuilken).

Monday, March 5, 2012

From Cavett to Cambridge

Dick Cavett has been aiding my transition back to my daily Cambridge routine.  As odd as that statement sounds, it is altogether true.  The Dick Cavett Show, which aired on ABC television from 1968 to 1975, brought his intelligent blond-haired humor to the small screen, joined with his many guests of the culture of that time, including many rock legends. On YouTube one can find an August 19, 1969 show in which the Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills and David Crosby stop by the studio on their return from Woodstock.  The music and the banter are fascinating and Cavett, who looks as if he's trying too hard to be cool, holds his own in talking to these sometimes inexpressive youth.  Of the group, Joni Mitchell in particular stands out for her beauty coupled with her beautifully expressive voice, her odd intonations and her invitingly honest story lines.

Also on YouTube is a Cavett-hosted 1971 debate between 27-year-old Vietnam veteran John Kerry, and 25-year-old veteran John O'Neill who was put up by the Nixon administration to undermine Kerry's anti-war voice.  War presents similar problems across generations, but Kerry utters his famous line that no one wants to be the last man to die for a mistake, a point that both veterans implicitly agree on as the end of the Vietnam war finally seems in sight. Cavett's closing question to both participants is "Do you feel that you've been treated fairly" in the back-and-forth?  Both said yes, and both were.  The war wasn't to end for another four years. 

John Lennon and Yoko Ono visit Cavett on set in 1971, as does George Harrison.   Jimi Hendrix does the same the year prior.  If it's an era that holds any interest for you, it's worth seeing all of these people when they were young and defining a culture that was to dominate American consciousness for a generation and more.  Why I am visiting those years I am not as sure.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Challenge of the Return

Landed on American shores, Paris recedes in my rearview mirror.  A wonderful place to pause.  But now the daily life resurrects itself.

Snow, at least a dusting, and cold, though not overwhelming, meet me in Cambridge, Massachusetts upon my return.