Thursday, February 28, 2013

Woody Allen on my mind.

I've been watching Woody Allen films recently.  As with most things, it's not entirely clear why.  To the best of my knowledge, it all started when I saw a three minute clip from Hannah and Her Sisters on YouTube.  It was one of those accidental YouTube sightings, when you're actually looking for something else, and then out of the corner of your eye, you see a "Suggested Post".

I loved Hannah and Her Sisters.  It came from that halcyon time (whatever the hell that actually means) in Allen's movie making -- the decade and a half centered around the 1980s when the ink that formed in drops at the nib of his prolific pen was all pearls ... and movies upon movies, each of deceptive depth, bounced like too many little pink playground balls before our eyes.  In New York, these balls were called Spaldeens, though you would have spelled them correctly "Spaldings".  Wisdom cloaked in neurotic New Yorkese.

One of the great moments in Hannah is a meal around a large table in a New York apartment.  I can think of no other scene that conveys that New York better, by inhabiting so intimately the room in which the complexity of Manhattan life takes place.

Then there's a scene when Woody walks around the Upper West Side, including a portion on Broadway.  I cannot quite place the actual location though I know I know it well.  It's like trying to remember a dream.  The knowledge is there, deeply ingrained, but not responding.  Of course, Hannah was filmed almost 30 years ago. 

A street setting caught on film becomes a historical record of place.  But why can't I remember?

Our minds distill the past.  Then we construct narratives that link these memories together.  We are trying to explain ourselves to ourselves.  This is literally the story of our lives as told to us by us.  It helps us take meaning out of the mincemeat of experience.  But we only achieve this by blurring the rest.  Even when confronted with the actual photographic record of it, we see only our memory.

I mean, who really remembers when a gallon of gasoline cost $1.03, as it does at one gas station in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)?  Who remembers when you could see a whole row of pay telephones like in Manhattan (1979)?  Who else finds it odd to see interior shots of New York offices where the electric typewriter, not the computer, is the professional's writing tool, as in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)?

And btw, exactly where was Klein's Pharmacy on Broadway?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

T.S. Eliot and snow.

When it snowed in Massachusetts the other day, I thought of T.S. Eliot. 

He had so many good lines of poetry.  Some so concise as to be bons mots, really.

For example, "Winter kept us warm" which is as true a statement about winter as there ever could be, especially when followed by: "covering Earth in forgetful snow".  How true.

But there are others …

"I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be."  The great indecider who could not even fill the starring role.

And of course, there's

"Do I dare to eat a peach?"

And this one, that gives me the pall of unease:

We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It has a "Through the Looking Glass" quality to it, but its guilt comes by association. Robert McNamara, one of the most beguiling public figures of the last century, secretary of defense to presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a prime architect of the Vietnam War, declared his love for this quote as he reflected back on his life in his final days.

That McNamara would grab onto Eliot seems odd to me.  It runs two of my 20th century themes into each other, and they should not cross.  At least not in my mind.  I picture them each waiting in separate waiting rooms. Both there.  Both eager to see the doctor.  Both oblivious to the other waiting next door.

Eliot: Anglo-American.  Traditionalist.  Modernist.  Literary. 1920s.  Inheritor and observer of the disillusionment that followed the First World War.
McNamara: Technocrat.  Warmonger.  Wizkid.  New Frontiersman. 1960s.  Decision-maker and instigator of the disillusionment that followed the Vietnam War.

Regardless, their world is a bygone era now. I should let it go.  All of it.  And besides, the wench is dead.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


WBUR reporter Sacha Pfeiffer has a story on the radio this morning about "netiquette", the rules of DOs and DONTs in our online-saturated life.  (You can find it here.)

It is very funny, and painfully accurate about the torments of social media angst we've opened up for ourselves with emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter and on and on.  Example: Post on Facebook but not getting a lot of "likes", or Tweet, but not getting a lot of "retweets"?  What does this say about you?

And there was the question of condolences - should you ever use a text message to express condolences on the death of a colleague's loved one?  For a 50-something, this was a NO-NO: it was too impersonal and therefore not considerate.  For a 20-something, this was a YES-YES, it was intimate and did not require a response.

Finally, there came the question of the exclamation point "!".  You know, the hyper-activated response on a mundane subject matter that nevertheless gets many!!!!  A comedian interviewed said that when he got one of these emails, he immediately became super self-conscious about ending his sentences with a lowly period "."  It made him feel like he was conveying that he was an internet serial killer, or a Goth girl, sitting there sulking.

Great story.  Worth listening to.  And I mean it!!!!!

Here is the story, one more time:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Green & Building: Do They Ever Really Go Together?

Cambridge's commercial real estate is exploding and almost entirely in Kendall Square.  Last year, according to the city's website, six new projects broke ground, totaling over 1.8 million square feet in new construction.  That is a staggering number in a city of 6 square miles and 105,000 inhabitants. 

How should environmentalists, particularly those focused on carbon reduction, view this construction?  Should they oppose it all because of its net impacts?  Should they support construction in Kendall Square because this new construction is geared toward innovation, and from this innovation may come answers to our oil dependency?  Is there ever a point at which we will say that economic activity must cease because of its impacts on our planet?

In a recent group email, I rambled in these pastures.  The organizing question of the exchange was -- should a local environmental organization take a position on the massive amounts of development happening in Cambridge.  My view is "yes", it should.  But there is no need to over-simplify an admittedly complex issue.

Here's what I wrote:

Here are some "green" questions that come to my mind --
  • Should we support new development at all?  If yes, then how much?  At what point should we oppose it?
  • Where should new development locate?
  • What types of development do we prefer to see -- housing? commercial? Why?
  • What conditions should we seek to put on new development -- required LEED construction, incentives to reduce auto travel to and from work such as reduced parking availability, subsidized T passes for tenants, etc.?
  • Should we have an opinion about the appearance of buildings, or just about their net impact on the environment?
Because the new development is transforming the city in so many ways, here are some "other-than-green" questions that I can't avoid as I think about the development question --
  • How do we incorporate 21st century buildings into what is in effect a 19th century city?
  • As a community with a progressive value set, how should we respond to economic activity that represents the forefront of human scientific endeavor (the Human Genome Project as only one example), but requires big buildings to accomplish these goals? 
  • Who are all these new people moving in -- they all seem to be half my age with twice my intelligence?
  • Where are they going to live, and with all of their plentiful disposable income, what are they doing to housing prices?
  • Does Cambridge need to house them all, or can Medford take some of them?  Would anybody want to live in Medford anyway if they had the option of living in Cambridge?
  • How many coffee shops does a city really need, and does a cup of drip coffee really cost $4.00?
  • Should I hate this development because it fattens the city's coffers, or should I love it?  Or can I have a third thought about it?

And, as another person has already pointed out -- is anybody doing any regional planning here? (I agree -- I think the answer to this is "no".)  Are we just left to fend for ourselves and try to do the best we can?

These are just some of the questions, but I will add this --

The mantra among urban planners these days is "Put density near transit" which can also be phrased "If you have a transit node, then density should go there".  This is especially true when there is a rail line.  It is a more efficient use of resources -- land, infrastructure, energy, and reduces per capita energy consumption significantly.  I agree with the sentiment.  I also do not agree with the contention that the Red Line is at capacity -- which is sometimes heard these days.  

Getting one's mind around the technology explosion underway, particularly in the life sciences, is difficult to do.  From an urban perspective however, the Red Line forms the spine of today's Massachusetts technology corridor -- from Alewife station in the north down to UMass Boston in the south with stops at Tufts (Davis Square), Harvard, MIT, Mass General, the state legislature (Park Street), and connections to the Seaport District, Logan Airport and Amtrak (NYC and Washington DC) at South Station.  There are few transit lines in the world that can boast this level of "connectivity".  A regional planner -- particularly one focused on economic development -- would notice this and work to augment it, not undermine it.  How we view it may be different, but regional planning cuts lots of ways.

I also know from studying innovations clusters that the activity happening in Kendall Square is fairly unique (read "exceptionally unique") in the United States, and indeed in the world.  Paris, France for example, is trying to replicate this phenomenon.  NYC is too.  San Francisco/Bay Area has it in some ways, but at much lower densities.  Google has solar panels shading their parking lots Mountain View, CA, but an employee has a 40 minute drive to any meeting in San Francisco.  At some level, it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks of us, but it's worth noting.

The development in Kendall Square is being driven by forces that extend well beyond the boundaries of Cambridge.  Companies build buildings here because they want to hire the bright, energetic young minds who have loads of ideas, skills and ambitions.  These people may develop a revolutionary Alzheimer's drug, or a next cancer therapy.  And many of these young scientists are also entrepreneurs.  They may have arrived here because of MIT, but they stay here because Novartis or Microsoft offers them a job after they finish their PhD.  Or they decide to start their own company.  Companies -- particularly drug companies -- want to be near this talent pool, especially because world-class research hospitals are just across the river.