Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Frederick Douglass speaks

Now in this summer of our discontent, words from Frederick Douglass seem not inappropriate ...

It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. 

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. 

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. 

No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck. 

A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Colin Kaepernick is a brave man

Colin Kaepernick is a brave man. About that there can be little doubt.

His detractors, at least some of them, are not known for embracing subtlety or tolerating opposition. The American football-watching male has been trained to shout his views and belittle his opponents. Indeed, I have long felt that one of the responsible parties in the rise of Donald Trump has been sports-talk radio, with its endless bombast and argument-structure that celebrates winning at all cost and giving no quarter.

Colin Kaepernick is staging a protest. Protests should not be mildly inconvenient. They should shock the conscience to awaken the senses. A protest should raise hackles. A few weeks before his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass was asked what advice he would give to a young black American, "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!" the old man answered. By calling into question the whole premise not only of our national anthem, but also the rituals surrounding our multi-billion dollar sports entertainment industry, Colin Kaepernick clearly is hearing Frederick Douglass.

In this simple action, or lack of action in this case, Kaepernick also points out the exploitative nature of professional sports, which use people to prop up this vast wealth-making machine only to discard them where they become too old or too damaged to thrill. Such a moment might arrive after 20 years of glory-filled plays or it could be after 20 minutes and a blown-out knee. That a professional football player can be lauded under the lights for 60 full minutes by 70,000 fans and then subject to dangerous interactions with the police on the way home when he pulls over with a flat tire is just one of the societal misconnections we Americans must address.

Much like the 1968 Mexico City Olympic protests that so indelibly seared a generational image into our national mind, Colin Kaepernick in his gesture has done something much braver and bigger than most. It certainly ridicules the white liberals who harangue other white liberals over their bona fides in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Colin Kaepernick has single-handedly ... and alone ... taken the fight to the lion's den. We wish him well.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Medical School, Uppsala University, 400 years ago

"They really knew how to cut them up in those days."

Photograph and text by Thomas Hughes

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rich Doucette talks to us about The Boston Cup, and why the cars are the stars!

What is it about car people? Why are they just so crazy? "The unusual thing about this, that I consider highly unusual, is that these people who don’t need to do this, do it. You’re driving in 100 degrees in an open car with a thin firewall, and it’s really 130 degrees and the sweat if flying off of you and you’re going to a car show." 

That's how Rich Doucette explains it and he ought to know. He's not only a car person, but every year he puts on the premier classic car show in New England, The Boston Cup.

Rich Doucette and his beloved Mercedes, by chassis types

In the rarified calendar that includes annual events at Amelia Island in Florida and the granddaddy of them all, Pebble Beach in California, Rich has reserved September as the month when classic cars come to Boston.

The Boston Cup - when the cars come to the Common

As he gears up for this year's show on September 25th on Boston Common, a show which will include a Pagani Zonda S and an elegant Dutch car called Spyker among many other goodies, I had the chance to sit down with him to hear about his love of cars, how he started The Boston Cup, and what we can look forward to this year.

Pagani Zonda S, one of the stars of this year's show

"Without even trying, I’ve gotten my PhD in car shows," he says. It all started back in 1969 when he headed off to Northeastern in his '59 Impala. It led to a job at Hill Holiday. This is how he explains it ...
My first co-op job was in the ad business and I started as the mailboy and a lot of times I didn’t park my car there, but they needed me to deliver stuff or get packages or get tapes to the radio stations or printing plates to the Wall Street Journal. So the three partners, Connors, Hill and Cosmopoulas of Hill Holiday would have me use their cars. Jay Hill who was a Brahmin had an old Saab, Steve Cosmopolous who was a Greek had a giant station wagon and Jack Connors had a 1973 BMW 3.0CS. So when I got to drive that I said screw American cars!
Two decades later, "I bought my first Mercedes and I’ve never had anything but Mercedes ever since. I like everything about them. And they invented the automobile, irrefutably!"

A replica of the world's first automobile

That purchase opened a door for Rich that never closed again. “Without me consciously enlisting, I enlisted. Then I started judging." Judging is a different world, which raises all kinds of interesting philosophical issues. Is a rusty part that's original to the car better than a clean part that's a replacement? Does a car also need to be able to run or can it just be beautiful to behold?
You start as an observer and you see what the judges do, and you see what they know and you look for what they’re looking for. If you can be a sponge, it’s not that hard, and then you notice that there’s repetition. And then in some cases you notice that you know more than they do. 
Which leads us to The Boston Cup. Back in 1999 up until 2002 there was a show every year at Castle Hill at the Crane Estate in Ipswich. Rich would go up there with his friends to see the cars, bring a picnic, have a great time. "That show blew me away. That was in 2002."

But good things do come to an end and in 2003, "I called my friend and asked, 'What’s the date for the Castle Hill show?' and he said, 'Oh, they killed it. It’s gone. They’ve lost their venue.'" 

Losing a venue really is the kiss of death for a car show and Rich knew the Castle Hill show wasn't coming back, but when the Museum of Fine Arts exhibited the Ralph Lauren car collection in 2005, it got Rich thinking again, how could he get cars back to Boston? "We should take a little bit of what we saw at Castle Hill, we should take a little bit of what we saw at Ralph Lauren, put it in a pot, stir it up and figure out what we could do," he argued to some friends, but he knew they would have to answer some key questions, "Where could the venue be, what could the format be, what would the date be?"

Car as art, from the 2015 show

They made some decisions.  Go for the same September date as the Castle Hill show. Go for the Boston Common. Call it the Boston Cup.

The choice of the name was deliberate. “We didn’t want to start as a Concours, we wanted to have less pressure. So it’s a classic car show, which gives us flexibility on what we can enter and eases up the restrictions on the severity of the judging."

Approaching the city of Boston in 2009 with the idea, they faced immense challenges. After three years of talking to everybody but getting nowhere, Rich was ready to throw in the towel. "I was almost giving up, then I ran into a guy named Harry Collings who used to run the BRA and Harry asked me how my car show was going and I said, 'Oh, it’s dead.' He invited me over for a cup of coffee, and I told him all about all of it." That was in May and by June 15th, he had a permit. That was the good news. The bad news was, he only had three months to pull together the inaugural show. Lucky for him, getting the cars there was the easiest part. "The car circuit is a lot like the PGA golf circuit. If you go to enough events, you get to know all of the players." The city gave the go-ahead for one year only, adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Rare and (very) expensive, one of last year's standouts, a McLaren F1
Needless to say, that first year went well. Now, going into our 5th year, the show is on much more solid footing. "Herb Chambers is showing his Bugatti Veyron and then we found a ’38 Bugatti, so we’ve got speed and style side-by-side and that’s the theme." They have a theme every year, Made in Massachusetts, Racing, You Don’t Often See This, were a few of them.

Two Bugattis to look for in a month, a 1938 and Herb Chambers' Veyron

To put on a successful car show requires a few ingredients. "You need manufacturing money from the car companies but you also need the largest retail car company." In New England, the largest retailer is Herb Chambers. "For someone like [him], this is the perfect fit for his luxury brands because it’s really an upscale lifestyle show that happens to have cars. So, it’s worked out well. He’s a great partner. Once Herb decides to participate, he’s been great and his people have been great." Then Rich tactfully adds, "Geographically, he’s the 800 lbs gorilla."

Car shows also need cars and car owners love their cars. They are reluctant to hand them over to just anybody. They need to know "their baby won’t get hurt. You got to convince the people who own these cars." At the end of the day, a car show is a lot about trust.

Interestingly, The Boston Cup is an LLC, not a non-profit. With no admission charge and very little cash flow and a goal of returning at least $25,000 to the Boston Parks, a non-profit structure just didn't make sense. The challenge every year is "not losing our shirts like we did the first three years." 

The interview is coming to an end. I want some wrap-up thoughts from Rich so I ask for his advice on choosing a car. His response is not what I'm expecting. 

"Pick the color you’d like.  If they don’t like the color, then there’s no point." Really? Yes, according to Rich, it's the best place to start. "I have gravitated toward black cars for my daily drivers. It’s harder to keep clean, but its more ominous."

At that point, he shows me a picture of him in the Batmobile. The literal Batmobile from the 1960s television show. “It was a piece of crap," he says unceremoniously before adding, "As a car guy, I know what my expectations are for a car show". 

The Cars Are the Stars is his motto and Rich Doucette works hard to make sure they shine by focusing on keeping his four constituents happy,  "The city so that they’ll let us come back; the car owners so we have a car show; the sponsor so they are happy and renew; and the public who come and enjoy it." It's looking like another good year coming up.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Today: Failing to drive the new Fiat 124, and succeeding to drive the Fiat Abarth

Here’s a word to the wise: don’t show up at an Alfa/Fiat dealership and ask to test drive the new Fiat 124 if you have absolutely no intention of buying it. 

The new Fiat 124, sleek Italian looks, functional Japanese functionality

I say that because that is exactly what I did today and the car salesman who was demonstrably French and uninterested in American schmoozing, was not budging. If he gets his way, there will be no test driving of the 124 today. He got his way. He later added that what applied to the Fiat absolutely applied to the Alfa 4C, of which they had two in their showroom. To properly emphasize his point, he said one potential customer had to deposit $30,000 before he could drive the Alfa out of the lot. 

The Alfa 4C is a beautiful car at whatever price

So, with my dreams of the latest Fiat thwarted, I cleared my throat and asked if I could take out an Abarth with a manual transmission. The Fiat Abarth has been around for few years now and is the sportier version of the Fiat 500. My confident tone came from the fact that I might actually buy an Abarth and I could tell that the Frenchman could tell that. He hemmed a bit as the French always do but eventually went to get the key. I’m glad he did because I’m genuinely glad I had the chance to drive it. 

The Fiat Abarth, fun with fun noises too

Although I only drove one of the two cars, here’s a brief review of both. First, the 124.

As car people know, the new Fiat 124 is made in conjunction with Mazda and presents an Italian alternative to the two-seater roadster, a segment that Mazda has dominated for the last 25 years with its Miata. Many are commenting that this recent Italian-Japanese partnership producing the 124 is a good idea all around: Japanese reliability and decades of experience, Italian flare and styling. It bears noting that on the Fiat side, the 124 is a reprint of a car they made for decades starting in the mid-1960s, so it’s a car that comes with a pedigree.

I may yet find a way to drive this car, but since today was not that day, my review will be short-lived. The cockpit is enjoyable enough though I’m told the layout is very similar to the Miata. The one thing I can comment on because I noticed almost immediately - the seat was not very comfortable.
Cockpit of the 124 is good but not great

I think I’m being fair by saying that I am neither a slender man (those days have long since departed), nor am I an outrageously fat man, so a seat that feels too narrow is a seat worth noting.  Beyond that, pedal feel is hard to gauge from a car that isn’t moving, so I'll have nothing to add there. The car does look good, and I don’t doubt that it drives well too. Next time, I’ll either have to bring my checkbook, or do a better job of faking it.

Now, on to the Abarth, a car that I could potentially buy and actually like quite a lot. Quick and sporty with ample room in the cabin and a wonderful exhaust note, this is an exciting car. It handles well, is front-wheel drive and turbocharged but does not get great gas mileage. It also has very little in the way of storage space and it is a two door. In other words, don’t plan any long hauls with this car. It won’t be very friendly to those. 
Fiat Abarth, truly a comfortable place to be

The Abarth trunk is not very spacious

In the end, it’s hard to sum up the Abarth. It’s an attractive, sporty fun machine made for driving quickly and with pleasure. It is perhaps exceptionally handy as an around-town urban car, but for the bigger jobs, it seems as though it would cause more frustrations than it would relieve. 

As for my car buying plans, these two Fiats notwithstanding, nothing yet has knocked the Chevy Volt from the top spot on my list. It's a car with its own set of flaws but has that electric-gas power plant that I find very attractive. The only real rival there is the Tesla Model 3, but that’s years away. I'm open to suggestions though.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

After 65 years, Cpl. Ronald Sparks is finally home again

I paused by Harvard Epworth Church next to Harvard Law School and across from the Cambridge Common to watch the motorcade go by ...

... because this had appeared in my inbox yesterday ...

Please join Arlington to support Army Veteran from Korean War
On Feb. 12, 1951, Cpl. Ronald M. Sparks, United States Army, became missing in action (MIA) while his unit was clearing a road block held by the opposing forces in the vicinity of Hoengsong, Republic of Korea.  A repatriated American Prisoner of War reported that PFC Sparks died while in captivity at POW Camp 1, Changsong, Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea on May 26, 1951.  His remains will be returned to the U.S. on Tuesday, 16 AUG 2016.

His remains will arrive at Boston's Logan Airport and be escorted past his childhood home in Cambridge.  From Cambridge, the escort will continue to DeVito Funeral Home, 1145 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, MA.  The procession entering Arlington will be at approximately 1:00-2:00PM (exact times are not available at this time).  A wake will be held at DeVito Funeral Home on Thursday 18 AUG 2016, from 5-8:00PM.  Graveside services will be conducted at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, MA on Friday, 19 AUG 2016.  All residents are encouraged to line Massachusetts Avenue on Tuesday 16 AUG 2016 to welcome home and pay respects to a fallen hero.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The 21st Century Economy and A Road to Nowhere

“Cities were always the cradles of innovation. Suburbanization was a deviation on the course of history," so author Richard Florida was quoted in a 2014 Boston Globe story entitled, "For tech job seekers, it’s all about the city." As the article's title would suggest, reporter Michael Farrell was exploring the rebirth on central cities, specifically Kendall Square in Cambridge and downtown Boston, as the economic drivers of a region.

I became aware of the quote because someone in the co-working space I use in Central Square, Workbar, posted a worried comment about the move of their employer from Somerville to an inner ring suburb ...
The company I work for moved from Davis Square to Lexington/Bedford. We need a fair amount of lab and prototyping space so the move makes sense.  However, the core of what we do is software/web based.  For that, we need solid developers who understand web services.

I'm of the opinion that the move is making it more difficult for us to attract web developer talent.  However, I may be letting my personal bias cloud my perception.   (I have a desk in Lexington but I work most days from Workbar Cambridge.) Is anyone aware of any research related to work location preferences among developers in the region?  Or, perhaps something that shows preferences by age and/or education?
This question sparked a conversation that could only be called an urban planner’s dream. The interrelated issues of location, transportation, work shed, employment base and demographic distribution all appeared in here. They all ask what makes cities so attractive to today’s educated class?

Speaker 2: Just a quick thought: to get to Lexington/Bedford, you've got to have a car. Might that be an issue for any current employees and/or future candidates?
Speaker 3: I know current and former coworkers who were especially proud of the fact that they did not own a car in Mass. (and all expenses required). One coworker never bothered to learn how to drive... !
Speaker 4: I have a friend who worked for a Natick-based company but offers a shuttle from certain Boston locations (South Station, Back Bay, etc.). Perhaps that's a middle ground?
Speaker 5: I worked at a company based in Lexington and the biggest complaint was the difficult of getting there. Via public transit you have to go to Alewife then take local buses which are slow and the schedules are inconsistent. 
Speaker 6The biggest difference you'll see is the age/developmental stage of the developers you get. People that live out in the burbs will be older, more established and more expensive. The younger, city-based devs won't want to ride a bus all the way out there.
Speaker 7: In the NY Times yesterday, coincidentally: Why Corporate America Is Leaving the Suburbs for the City“We are going through a change in our work force, and we wanted to be where we could attract millennials,” Mr. Vergnano said. “This is a group that likes to be in an urban setting, with access to public transportation. They don’t want to be confined to a building with a cafeteria or be next door to a shopping center.”
Speaker 8: That will of course change in about 10 years where these younger professionals are starting families and can't afford the same cities, but a headache for those firms that need to plan 10 years out or more to time lease signing, not getting too entrenched in locations they are in, etc.
Interestingly, I just visited a place that is trying to capture this genie in a bottle. Southfield, formerly Naval Air Station South Weymouth, looks like a land that humans forgot. Barren, vacant, unloved and unlived in, it's waiting for its second coming. It even has its own Road to Nowhere, the Bill Delahunt Parkway.

Southfield is trying to reinvent itself. After half a century as a military base, it wants to see all of these vacant parcels redeveloped for housing and for commercial activity. Subdivided between the three towns of Weymouth, Rockland and Abington, the 1,400 acre navy facility was finally closed under the Base Realignment and Closures Commission in 1997. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to get some something to take off, but with only limited success.

Still, necessity breeds invention and the abandoned landing strips have recently been repurposed as Hollywood backlot for a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing.

Will Southfield transform into something more than a bunch of old runways? Well, it depends. Of the many challenges it faces, having three towns involved doesn't portend good things. Inter-municipal cooperation is notoriously hard in Massachusetts and for all the efforts to get around that issue by creating a redevelopment authority, a history of past flops increases skepticism of any new plans.

There is, of course, the issue of its location. A short 20 miles as the crow flies from downtown Boston, it can be a solid 90 minutes one-way in traffic. That amounts to 15 hours a week. Given the millennial preference for urban environments in which to live, work and play, it's not clear that locating a business here makes a whole lot of sense, especially with no "there" there. Even if businesses do decide that Southfield works for them on the ledger sheet, workers may not choose to come and fill those jobs.

Earlier today, I re-read the original thread of the Workbar discussion. I realized that the person who made the initial post and had gotten this whole discussion started in the first place had posted a summary email of everything he'd seen, heard, read. This is what he wrote ...

First, I want to thank everyone who took the time to reply.  I believe I've replied to everyone who responded directly to me but not the list.  If not, I apologize and I hope you'll forgive the oversight.
Articles: There were are few articles that discussed a trend of tech business moving from the suburbs back into cites.  This one in the Boston Globe from June 2014, For tech job seekers, it’s all about the city and this one a few days ago from The New York Times, Why Corporate America Is Leaving the Suburbs for the City
Anecdotal: Someone replied directly to me with a personal story.  As I haven't received permission I won't share the details.  The short version, the company they worked for was having difficulty hiring tech people at their suburban office location.  They moved the tech crew to a "Project" office in Boston and saw an almost 100% acceptance rate when they made a job offer.  The only thing that changed was the location.
Recruiters: Someone from Hired sent me a very interesting presentation which I hope they will share with the list.   As part of their process, they ask candidates where they're interested in working.  Nearly every candidate, 97%, specified Boston.  Cambridge/Somerville was next with 60%.  The various suburbs were each down in the 40% range.   Another fact I found interesting is most of the candidates were much more interested in working at A or B round, funded startups rather than major corporations.
General thoughts: Commute Many people mentioned that they or people they new were turned off by the suburbs because they didn't like to drive or didn't own cars.  While some companies offer shuttles from locations like the Alewife MBTA station. most people didn't find this a convenient option.

Oh yes, and as of last month, Southfield is no longer called Southfield. It now has a new name, Union Point, undoubtedly in an effort to rebrand away a decade's worth of false starts under Starwood Land Ventures and before that under the LNR Development Corporation. Will the new name help? "Who knows if Union Point is going to stick anymore than Southfield did," said Eric Miller, president of the Southfield Neighborhood Association. Many people apparently still just refer to the land as "the base," which may be a good indicator of future trends.

All of this should serve as a wake up call to the Southfield, I mean Union Point, developers. Still, the oddness that suburban America can produce is a trip and a trip down there is a long strange one indeed. So, if you find yourself standing at the corner of Delahunt and Shea, well, you may ask yourself (just as David Byrne of the Talking Heads did over three decades ago) ... How did I get here?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Tutto Italiano at Larz Anderson Museum today, recap

The Italians were out in force on the lawns of Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA for the annual Tutto Italiano show that happens every year in August on the sprawling estate. Today's contestants included Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis and some luscious Alfa Romeos. There were the odd English entrants (a few McLarens were on display) and there even was a Dutch beauty that went by the name of Spyker. By way of telling a story with pictures, here is the 2016 Tutto Italiano, as seen through my eye and my lens ...

A Ferrari 458 Spyder drives out

1954 Maserati, a beauty

Pagani Zonda S, tailpipes and all

Pagani again, this time, front view

A lovely Alfa

Two more lovely Alfas, this time, 4Cs

Mid-'60s Ferrari sedan, fascinating, and expensive

Ferrari from the front

One more gem of an Alfa

The Dutch impress with their Spyker

Spyker interior - plush and lush

Fiat is out with their new two seater, the 124, built in conjunction with Mazda, Italian flair, Japanese reliability

A Ducati rolls by


Lamborghini Gallardo makes its way out

The English are here too, with their McLarens, perhaps as nice to drive as the Italians, but not as nice to behold

And one last Ferrari, a 458

Saturday, August 6, 2016

It was Princess Night at the ballpark

There are few better expressions of Americana than minor league baseball. It combines the best qualities that our national past time can offer - cheap beer and hotdogs, cheap tickets, warm weather, the lazy innings of the idle sport that never seems to begin or end, and the wonderful scenes of families whiling away their few hours next to a field of dreams.

The Lowell Spinners are just such a minor league team, and their stadium LeLacheur Park is just such a place. Last night the stands were filled with an assortment of types, perhaps the most unexpected of which were little girls. They weren't there for the baseball I don't expect, but were there to celebrate Princess Night. Never a dull night when it's a night at the ballpark.
My kingdom awaiteth before me

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

BREAKING NEWS ... The Donald unifies the country ... against himself!

As Donald Trump insists on setting another fuel tank on fire and pointing the nose of the Good Flying Ship Republican straight at mother earth, beckoning the fireball of electoral vaporization not only upon himself but also upon his (reputed) party, I pause this morning to consider the words above the main entrance to Langdell Hall at Harvard Law School. 

Non sub homine sed sub deo et lege

Since one of the law school's more distinguished graduates, a certain Barack Obama, has just called El Jefe unfit for the highest office in the land, we should reflect on why the architects bothered to etch those words in that lintel in the first place. 

Not under man but under God and the law

Temperament and lack of knowledge disqualify Mr. Trump. His authoritarian and anti-constitutional tendencies disqualify him even more. "I alone can fix it." Those are not the words of a man who understands himself to be bound by the law. 

It gives us the chance to once again reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our ancients. Here, quoting Wikipedia directly, 
In 1776, the notion that no one is above the law was popular during the founding of the United States. For example, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense that "in America, the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." In 1780, John Adams enshrined this principle in the Massachusetts Constitution by seeking to establish "a government of laws and not of men."