Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I am in Atlanta for the American Planning Association conference right now.  Atlanta is a city of many things, but it is certainly a place that has directed a great amount of its post World War II resources in support of the automobile.  This produces some mad infrastructure, but also creates some fascinating patterns on the landscape, all of them in concrete.  Here are a few, taken from a parking deck beneath the Georgia Dome, the downtown sports arena. Though only 18 years old, the Georgia Dome will soon be torn down to be replaced by another dome, even better than the last.  I will reflect on this entire trip in an upcoming post.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Boston in a civic sense: The Marathon bombings one year later.

The Marathon bombings were an anarchistic act that tell us nothing interesting about global terrorism, anti-Americanism or anything else so grand.  They only remind us that nihilism combined with a willingness to harm can blend with some fairly unremarkable items such as wire and nails to bring about bloodshed, heartache and fear.  

The bombings also exposed the soft side of civicness.  When we go out in the street to celebrate  — say, to watch somebody run 13 miles per hour for hours at a time with apparent ease — we turn our city into our playground. It’s an act of joy that puts us in proximity to human greatness, but it also moves us closer to vulnerability.  

This is slightly different than observing that freedom and security are often in tension.  

A year has passed since the bombs went off, and Marathon Monday certainly was going to come again.  Johnny Kelley, Heartbreak Hill, the Red Sox game, Patriot’s Day — Boston is a city of history with a great sense of humor, but it is also a city deeply reverential about its lore.  

So officials met, discussed, planned. The Boston police and its sister agencies had to figure what the gaps were and how they could be filled.  The show would go on.  

And this year’s show has gone on.  As I stood in a festive South Station at noon today, there on two TV screens was Boston in its spring time glory: on the one, Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz dug his foot into the mound, trying to hold off the Orioles; on the other, Nigerian Rita Jeptoo knelt down to commune with the ground after breaking the women’s record by two full minutes in this year’s run.  

We each participate how we can, and my part happened the night before, when on the last-minute prompting of someone I know, I joined another great but much newer Boston tradition, riding a bike the whole Marathon route.  Since I hadn’t really prepared to do this, I wasn't going to get the whole thing done.  I headed out from Cambridge at midnight to join the incoming riders who were departing Hopkington at the same time.  

A college student had come up with this genius idea six years ago, and it’s now a full 1,000 riders strong, though because of security concerns, some good arrangements, like a commuter train to the starting point, were canceled this year.  

As with so much in Boston, the ride is an irreverent twist on Marathon, the tongue is in the cheek when some people can pedal the route starting at midnight the night before and claim to have gone the whole way. 

As it turns out, it all had a deeper, unavoidable resonance.  I will never run the Boston Marathon.  It’s just not in the cards.  For one, I’d never get a number, and given what I saw when I crossed back into Newton and hit the hills, I don’t think I’d finish.  But I’ve seen part of the route ... joined by nothing but the stillness of the night air and its April chill, joined by young riders unfazed by fatigue as their crisp metallic gears cut through the dark, joined by Brookline DPW trucks removing trash barrels by truck-mounted floodlights at one in the morning, joined by empty Green Line trains sitting patiently on their tracks, waiting out the hours in silence, neither asleep nor fully awake, eager to get back to work in the morning. 

It is a celebration.  It was at least, filled with a kind of Boston love that is Boston: underdog but not quitter. 

My brown fenders rattled as I hit the potholes, two riders on my tail about thirty yards back, each of them with good speed too. There were no working streetlights on this section of Commonwealth Ave.  The road squiggled up ahead and at the light, there were a couple of options to chose. I leaned over my shoulder and shouted to no one in particular “Which way does this go?” I gestured with my left hand to ask, left up ahead? There was speed, it was dark, I didn’t want to lead those two astray. A guy fixing the tracks, a T employee, shouted back from beside his pickup truck, “Right!”  Go right.  The three riders rumbled home.  

We all were creatures of the night, the sprites and fairies and ghouls and goblins that flit in the dark, in the other kingdom, before the dawn breaks and we go.  It was a fitting way to celebrate the runners who populate the day, and all the many many workers, working men and women, who stay up late to transform our streets and sidewalks from concrete into a land of imagination, a land of celebration.

Friday, April 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

904 Mass Ave: Single-story storefront (1915)

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

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

896 Mass Ave: Single story retail (1920)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IPCC 2014 Report released; Web relic found

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Michael Gross, Paul Goldberger and changing cities

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

Gross and Goldberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Debating Master Plans in the Cambridge City Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How much do you think that dead ox weighs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding The True Signal

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

So, What Makes You So Special?

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

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

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

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