Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Coming in 2016 ... Men in tuxedoes, Women in ballgowns ... but with a twist!

In 2016, we're reinventing the wheel.

Here's the idea ... it's a Brit period piece par excellence, worthy of Masterpiece Theater, as familiar to you as an old pair of shoes. But WITH A TWIST ...

It's going to be called ...


And it's going to have all the hard-core drama you've ever wanted, but with a grittier, more urban feel to it.

Tell us who you think should be starring in this blockbuster new series.

Who plays him ...?

Who plays them ...!?

Who plays them ...?

Who plays him ...?

You know the characters, you know the plot, now help us come up with the twist.  In DownTOWN ABBEY, this scene will look exactly the same, only different ...

Send your suggestions today!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Art Review - Class Distinctions: The MFA takes on Dutch painting and scores a knock-out!

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until January 18, 2016, and it is worth the visit.

While the title might suggest a preponderance of either Rembrandts or Vermeers to view, you'd be mistaken.  There are a few, but they are further between. No matter, the show is an opportunity to spend time among some of the artists who did not travel as famously through the centuries. In fact, the real strength of the collection comes from the many painters whom you haven't seen before who nevertheless played an important part in the 17th century scene in the Netherlands, artists who captured both a style of expression and a moment in history, combining to retell a chapter in the evolution of Western art and the time and place in which they operated.

There are majestic landscapes like the View of the Plain of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds by Jacob van Ruisdael, a grand vision depicted on a small canvas with excruciating detail. And there is the more intimate scene captured in Street Musicians at the Door by Jacob Ochtervelt in which a complex mix of artistic and social conventions work delicately together to say a lot about the world in which the artist painted. 

Not that you won't see the genius of Vermeer and his unique insight about the meaning of external light in his world-renowned The Astronomer, nor will you miss Rembrandt, especially in a very good commentary about his brush stroke genius from an otherwise unremarkable portrait, courtesy of the museum's worthwhile audio guide.

But it is the Ochtervelt painting that lends its image to the MFA's promotional materials about the show, and for good reason. The painting's gentle play between light and dark, inside and outside, wealth and poverty, stasis and itinerancy, capture so succinctly what the museum is trying to explore: How do art and society intermingle? Sometimes their approach is a little thick in the thumbs but the curators get it right often enough, and regardless, they provoke thought.

What answer would I give to their question? Surely not in exact proximity or slavish representation, I maintain, but through ways intended and unintended, artists holding up mirrors to their times, to their worlds, to themselves.

I do recommend making your way to the MFA to come up with your own answers, or your own questions. It's worth the journey.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nissan Leaf Test Drive w Ethan

The other day, my friend Ethan and I took his Nissan Leaf out for a test drive ... on a very rainy day in Cambridge.

Here's the video of that wonderful day! Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I have lived in the world with my eyes open

Verily, I say unto thee, here are two quotes for Christmas ...

The first comes from the Mahatma himself, as reported in Joe Lelyveld's book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

I deny being a visionary. I do not accept the claim of saintliness. I am of the earth, earthy ... I am prone to as many weaknesses as you are. But I have seen the world. I have lived in the world with my eyes open. (1920) 
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi 1869-1948

"I have lived in the world with my eyes open." Those are words to live by. That could be a creed for a whole religion unto itself.

The second comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, from his lovely book Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, his reflections on being a young preacher at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.

Nevertheless the academic life has its allurements. It is really simpler than the ministry. As a teacher your only task is to discover the truth. As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides the truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins. 
What is particularly disquieting to a young man in the ministry is the fact that some of his fine old colleagues make such a virtue of their ignorance. They are sure that there is no Second Isaiah and have never heard that Deuteronomy represents a later development in the law.... Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists. But the traditionalists in the pulpit are much more certain than the others that the Lord is on their side. (1916)
Reinhold Niebuhr 1892-1971

The chafings of a young man looking upon his life and his work with an intelligent, critical eye and a clear, articulate voice. "Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists." Somehow, that rang true for me.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A fact I wish weren't a fact

On Tuesday, Generation Citizen held its annual Civics Day on Beacon Hill, a time when middle school and high school students from around the greater Boston region get the chance to present their strategies of how to make the world a better place.

It's heartening to be reminded that the responsibility of an individual in society is to be a citizen, an active participant in questions of public importance, and not simply a passive recipient of decisions made elsewhere by other people. This is especially true in the United States, where we all originally came from someplace else and our citizenship is grounded in a set of ideas and ideals. 

The eighth grade students from Josiah Quincy School in Boston's Chinatown focused their project on curbing gun violence. They identified the federal Tiahrt Amendment as a big impediment to safer gun laws.  They have a point. According to Wikipedia, the Tiahrt Amendment prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. This precludes gun trace data from being used in academic research of gun use in crime. Additionally, the law blocks any data legally released from being admissible in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers."

That was the substance of their efforts, to get this amendment modified or repealed. But our group discussion focused on their arguments and the presentation of their thinking.

How could they tell a better story, to convince and persuade? Well, a few good examples are often an effective a way of drawing your audience in. Did any of the eighth graders have any experience with gun violence? A girl on my right started to speak. Without hesitating, she listed three people she knew who had been shot -- friends, and friends of her family. This from a 13-year old girl.

With some reluctance, I asked the others in the group if they all had similar stories of gun violence. They all nodded in agreement. 

It's hard not to conclude that we adults have failed these children. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The British are witty, exemplar automobilium ...

As we all know, a lot of humor resides in hitting the slightly off-key note. Wow, that sounded flat!

There’s a young guy in London named Sam. He’s got his own YouTube channel called Seen Through Glass where he indulges a car addiction.

There’s a (reputable) British car magazine named EVO that also posts car videos on YouTube. Every December, EVO does a year-end review of their favorites which they call EVO Car Of The Year, or ECOTY for short.

Here’s Sam’s recent video send up of EVO Car Of The Year ... 

Of course, the joke makes more sense if you've seen the ECOTY video, so I'll post it below. Because of the limitations of Blogger, I can only post one video at a time, so I'll post a text link instead, but it will get you there just the same.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Restaurant Review - Bastille Kitchen

Last night, I had the opportunity to eat at Bastille Kitchen, a restaurant on Melcher Street in Boston. It had gotten good word-of-mouth reviews from friends, and was very much on my list of places to try.

Bastille Kitchen
49 Melcher Street, Boston
nearest T stop - South Station

The decor, the location in the old warehouse district across Fort Point Channel and the layout of the interior space all work very well.  Attractively remodeled to highlight hints of the building’s industrial past, the exposed brick walls and the high ceilings are comfortably lit to provide both a sense of space and intimacy.  The restaurant has two main areas, an upstairs bar and dinner seating area, and a downstairs lounge area.  My group sat upstairs, and I was only able to glimpse the downstairs.  

The food was tasty, but I would describe it as conventional French and formulaic.  I chose steak frites which is always a very reliable choice, and certainly not an place where a chef can show off any skills. Others at the table had short ribs Wellington, a very rich and deliciously tasty fare, scallops, and a grilled sole. Each dish was flavorful and enjoyable, but entirely predictable, and something you’ve eaten before. This is food that is supposed to satisfy, not surprise, and that’s exactly what it did. In that sense, it’s a middle of the road experience, reliable but exceedingly familiar. Unchallenging.

The wine list was not extensive but had a reasonable mix of offerings, almost all of them French, that complemented well items elsewhere on the menu. 

The restaurant felt full but not crowded which made their inability to seat us at a full table for our 8:30p reservation a little perplexing. To be fair to them, we booked for 3 but showed up with four, but it seemed odd that their only option was to have us sit at a high bar table.  Perfectly comfortable, but a reservation is a reservation, and by Boston terms, 8:30p is reasonably late for a seating even on a Saturday night, all of which should have given them more options. 

Couple that with and inexperienced wait staff and a hefty ticket price, and it starts to get annoying. The overall service could use a little help. Our waitress seemed eager to get us to order food, but then would disappear for a long time after the food was ordered. There wasn’t a flow to any of it, or frankly a pleasantness, and the delicate touch of how to make customers feel their presence is both enjoyed and appreciated was lacking. It seemed as though she had been told to get her tables through and out as quickly as possible. Given the cost of the meal, that’s not a good strategy. 

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed it, but was not impressed. It underwhelmed me. Still, I can imagine that if you're one of the many young people who flock to this city for finance or tech or university, Bastille Kitchen is the right mix of ersatz fancy and entirely approachable to make for a fun night out. The lounge area keeps rocking till the wee hours, which is a bonus. But if you’re not in that crowd any longer (and I’m not), it’s a bit of a let down, only because it’s not as sophisticated as it wants to give off on first impression. No sin in any of that, but still, it ain’t inexpensive either. Go and enjoy, and you will, but wear only your middlebrow hat. That will fend off unwarranted disappointment too. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

First Impressions ... Driving the 2016 Chevy Volt

Today I test drove the 2016 Chevy Volt courtesy of Mirak Chevrolet in Arlington, Massachusetts.

It’s a car that I’ve been interested in for quite some time, and one that I’m even considering purchasing, so I was very pleased to have the chance to take it around today for a short drive.

Here are some of my first impressions of the car ...

It’s a good size for a car — not too big, not too small.  It’s a hatchback with a reasonably sized area under the hatch. The back seat folds down allowing you to haul a good amount of gear back there and the space is uncluttered and usuable.

The styling is nothing to write home about, but not unattractive. I actually liked the styling of the first version of this car, which was slightly boxy and was often described as a science project. I thought that older version was distinctive. This newer shape has more curves, is more aggressive up at the front, and is by all accounts more conventional. 

The interior is comfortable and in particular the driver’s seat is both well padded and well bolstered, making it a real improvement over my current, worn out driver’s seat in my ancient Subaru.

The cabin is well organized but feels small. The instrument displays and all the information about the car’s performance including all the dials are very well designed.

Visibility is good, but not spectacular. It is hard to gauge the front of the car because the hood slopes down too rapidly, leaving the driver with no clear sense of if he is going to scrape something. This is a poor design choice of the GM engineers.  
Contrary to what I’d thought I’d read, this electric car does make noise, in a good sense.  There is of course the road noise while driving (the car drives on Michelins, presumably with low rolling resistance). But additionally, the electric motors also make a whirring noise, which is helpful to gauge speed.

The famed torque from electric motors on acceleration is impressive though not overwhelming. The brake pedal feel is good. The suspension is good, though the car is not as buttoned down as its Chevy cousin, the Corvette. That’s not unexpected, but I guess I always want my cars to be a little sportier.  The batteries down low in the car have to be helpful in keeping this thing tight in the corners. 

My overall impressions are that this is a solid, well-constructed car with some very important innovations tucked under the hood and in the drive train. Is it worth the $40,000 sticker price (there are approximately $10,000 is federal and state rebates on this car)? That depends on how you feel about what they've managed to accomplish in the total package.  I think probably yes, and it's good to know the cars are popular. The car I drove already had a deposit on it, and the dealer says they are offering  3 to 4 test rides a week. 

Electrons for propulsion are the future, and coming from a major American manufacturer, this is undoubtedly an important car. 

My next stop is Ford, to see what they have to offer in their plug-in options. Then, I’ll make the switch away from gas-powered to a battery powered driven world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cars in Cambridge

A Bentley goes shopping at Trader Joe's ...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Walking with my dad in Sagaponack the day after Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving found me on Long Island visiting family.

On Friday, I walked the roads of Sagaponack with my father to burn off calories from the night before.

As we walked, he talked of friends and acquaintances gone by, memories of the New York literary and art worlds that called that place home in the middle of last century.

The listing was impressive. Some were famous, others less so. Many had connections to Harvard.

Even if New York City was the lodestar of culture then, the painters were attracted to the light and big skies of eastern Long Island and the writers perhaps to the luxuriant, quiet fields that grew potatoes and corn. Still, to be that far out of the city was to be quite some distance from civilization, at least as it was understood in 1955. This was long before the uber, uber wealthy began turning the fields into house lots.

Here were some of the names:

Peter Matthiessen
George Plimpton
Joe Fox
Truman Capote
John Irving
Willem de Kooning
Jackson Pollock

They were all white men, but that's all that world consisted of. It's interesting to remember the postwar anointed, unmistakably bourgeois and precious in their tastes but in some ways much more radical and interesting than today's lawyer soccer moms and their Audi-driving tech entrepreneur partner dads.

This old crowd gripped American culture tightly in both hands and argued with much passion about it all over too much booze at Elaine's.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Collarless Economy, wearing the shirt that fits this century

We've talked a lot about the white collar economy.  It looks like this ...

Or perhaps more infamously, like this ...

We've also talked a lot about the blue collar economy.  It looks like this ...

Or like this ...

Or perhaps like this ...

I think it's time we started talking about the collarless economy. It looks like this ...

Or like this ...

Or perhaps like this ...

Like so much else these days, the collarless economy is a Millennial reexamination, both literal and metaphoric, of the hard and soft boundaries surrounding work. 

All photos obtained through Google images.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A skatepark opens in East Cambridge

Yesterday, to much pomp and circumstance, under the curving concrete deck of I-93, next to North Point Park, opened a skatepark.

Boston mayor Marty Walsh at the mike
The mayors of Boston and Cambridge were there. Cambridge deputy city manager Lisa Peterson was there. Old folks like me were there. And the rest of the crowd was young and held in their hands something with wheels on it - a board or a bike or skates or something. The wind and the cold couldn't keep any of us away.

Skaters and bikers enjoying the fun
If ever there were an example of "Build It And They Will Come", this is it. Situated in what might be called throwaway land, it's a genius vision of how to bring life into a place that would otherwise be considered a liability.

Every 15-year-old whoever hops on a board to grind or carve on the glass-smooth surface needs to thank Renata von Tscharner, the president of Charles River Conservancy. Renata's vision saw this into being and her perseverance ensured her vision actually became a ribbon cutting.

Renata von Tscharner, prime mover

Of course, she needed money too, and Peter Lynch, the Boston-based financial guru funded the construction of the park and got his name on the plaque in exchange.

Saturday morning's events were a reminder of just how much good is going on in Boston and Cambridge these days, and why we should never take this good fortune for granted. It all may change someday. Given that it took Renata about a decade to bring this idea from concept to concrete, it's important to remember just how hard it is to change something for the better, and how much time it takes. We live in lucky times in this part of the world.

Heck, the event was good enough to lure skateboarding royalty out for the day ... Robert Winters graced us with his presence, showing off his latest equipment ...

That's quite a board there, sir. Custom built?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stars are shining in New Bedford

I give you this ... Two young women arrive in a 19th century whaling port, just starting out on their way. They find some space in the ground floor of old building. They decide to open up for business.

Now, you tell me what happens next.

No, this isn’t the story of innocence lost and a fall from grace straight from the pen of Jane Austen. 

It's the story of 21st century courage and creativity breathing new life into a city that had grown old and run low on energy.

I give you two young women ...

Dena Haden (left) and Sarah Athanas (right)

I give you an old building ...

1213 Purchase Street

I give you a 19th century whaling port ...

New Bedford, Massachusetts

Mix them all together ... and behold ...

But what is it? It's a co-working space ... a place where people come with their laptops to sit at communal tables and work on their projects or at their jobs. Places like these are upending our antiquated notions of the 9 to 5, and it's also giving new life to American urban centers that had lost their way and their employment base in a globalized world. 

It even has the requisite ping pong table

Dena Haden and Sarah Athanas, the co-founders of the recently opened Groundwork! New Bedford, decided that a co-working space could work only blocks from the fishing piers that are still loaded with boats, and the early indications are favorable.  

At least, their strong partnership with the city of New Bedford indicates that the city would like to see this transformation happen. It is through this partnership that the ground floor space was created. The city owns the building and they were happy to have this tenant in there, at least, that's my guess. I am told the city covered most of the fit-out, and they obviously spent their money in the right places.  

Taking it to the next level means the work is never done

Getting underway was important to both Dena and Sarah so they began with a beta version last year, in smaller room, upstairs next to the New Bedford Economic Development Council. It was at that time that they developed a relationship with Workbar, a partnership to support them while they sort through the nitty gritty of their new business as well as articulate the broader vision.

According to Dena, a strong art scene in New Bedford along with the proximity of UMass Dartmouth creates a strong catalyst for the efforts Groundwork! is undertaking. In other words, it's the seeds of redefining a city better known for hosting the young Herman Melville than for hosting young entrepreneurs. But just as Melville's travels in the 1840s started him on his voyage for his Great White Whale and the great American novel, New Bedford once again hopes to be a home port for 21st century American creativity.

Atop Johnny Cake Hill one still finds the Seamen's Bethel: "In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot." [Moby Dick]

One final thing to say about the space: it is magnificent. Open, airy, light, warm, a perfect reinterpretation of industrial space in a non-industrial age. In that special way that blesses some places, it has a good vibe. If you need a definition of "vibe", let's just say that you'll know it when you feel it, and you feel it there.

As for me, how did I get down there? Well, I joined Workbar Zipcar maven Alexa and her band of merry travelers that included Larry and Shannon and Dave ...

I went to walk around the city, and what follows are some random photos from my wanderings ...

A photo of a photo from the museum: No one should pretend that the fish industry isn't hard, hard work

The story of the 19th century: whaling = jobs (gray pyramid), but population growth (red bars) had to wait for the textile mills.

New Bedford is one of those oddities that pertains to Massachusetts uniquely, an American city that was very wealthy in 1830.

It's a pretty red, and what about those windows?

And then there were those damn blue shoes!

But you can't finish a blog post like this without handing it back to the King of Hyper-Monomania, Captain Ahab himself ...

"What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?"
"Sing out for him!" was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.
"Good!" cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation in which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
"And what do ye next, men?"
"Lower away, and after him!"
"A what tune is it ye pull to, men?"
"A dead whale or a stove boat!"

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A photograph of me, aged 49

It's worth observing yourself every once in a while, and thinking about where you are, whence you have come, and whither you might go, or be going.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The election is done. It's ok to start your life again.

The election is done, and that's a relief.

It's time to give the vitriol a pause, and get on with the business of living our lives. Also, it's important to allow this new Council time to find its feet and move forward on the issues in front of us all.

Congratulations to the newly elected councillors, but most of all to the newest, Jan Devereaux. I can say from experience that that experience, the experience of being elevated to the role of public official, is quite an experience. I wish her well in her first term.

The loss of Dennis Benzan is a real loss for the city. He spoke clearly for his constituency and worked hard on their behalf. He also was very clear about the need to tie the fortunes of Cambridge's most vulnerable to the fortunes of Cambridge's most fortunate. And it wasn't just rhetoric. He articulated a strategy that used development opportunities in Central Square to generate opportunities for the residents of The Port, both in jobs and in housing. The loss of this voice and the energy he put behind it will likely stalemate us on these discussions for a Council term if not longer. That means the parking lots of Central Square will remain, and all the social justice issues that we all claim to care about will get plenty of lip service, but not a lot of effective action.

Similarly, on the School Committee side, I congratulate the newest members, Emily Dexter and Manikka Bowman, and I share my condolences with Fran Cronin who lost her seat. With a new superintendent coming in, there will be a lot of work to do and the Committee will need to start on Day 1.

Now, it's time to get on with the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What's really important as Election Day approaches

As we approach Election Day next Tuesday, I thought it was worthwhile to remind us all what this city looked like not very long ago. The photograph is Kendall Square in 1981. The blocks and blocks of empty parking lots formed MIT’s boundary. On the other side, low industrial buildings bordered East Cambridge. In between sat an abandoned, aggressive urban wasteland.
That land has seen many transformations over the intervening years and it is the basis of our debates today. Still, as we make our way to the polls next Tuesday, we should remember that returning to the past of this photograph is not an option in any sense. Our communal discussion must rightly and importantly be focused on how we go forward, together, as one community, in this challenging but opportunity-filled time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What Central Square are we trying to preserve?

Sometimes, it takes really looking to see.

Here are some photos of Central Square in Cambridge. It is the Central Square that I inherited when I moved to Cambridge in the 1990s. It's presumably the same Central Square that existed when a prior generation of middle-class, educated immigrants moved here in the 1980s, and no doubt the same Central Square that existed even back in the 1970s for yet another prior generation, if anyone can remember back that far. In other words, nothing has changed in 40 years.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, this land is considered sacred to some, cannot be touched, should not be changed. In other words, we should saddle another two generations of Cantabrigians, native and immigrant alike, with as equally hostile an urban environment as we were blessed with ... lifeless, aggressive, uninviting, useless.

Um, by the way, it's basically all parking lots for blocks and blocks along Bishop Allen Drive near Prospect Street.

Essex Street, looking west

Norfolk Street, looking west

Norfolk Street, looking east

The Norfolk Street lots, together

Essex and Bishop Allen, looking south

Vail Court, parking lot joined to an empty building

Bishop Allen, looking north

Prospect Street (Lyndell's), oh, and btw, both buildings in this photo are unoccupied

Prospect Street, the old Cambridge College building (now empty)

Prospect Street - the Whole Foods lot

Temple Street, looking east

So I ask again, what Central Square are we trying to preserve? Honestly, why are we trying to preserve this? What sensibility says this is what we deserve? What design esthetic says we've arrived at some realization of our goal? What version of creativity says it can never be better? Nevermind that we don't need this much parking, we shouldn't have this much parking. Nevermind that each of these parking lots is less than a tenth of a mile from a T stop and many major bus lines.

Oh yes, and every photo in this post (except for the Whole Foods parking lot, which is just outside this map) was taken in this small area ...