Sunday, October 30, 2016

Touring Cambridge's recycling facility

Have you ever wondered what really happens to that empty water bottle after you dump it in the blue recycling bin? Come on, admit it, you have.

Well, so have I and last week I had the chance to tour a recycling facility to see exactly where it goes. The Casella Waste Systems facility in Charlestown is where all of Cambridge's recycling goes, and as part of the city's contract with the company, Casella has to provide four tours a year, to school groups, or just to interested people like myself. How cool is that?!

The scenes are vaguely Dickensian, or out of 1984, but the sheer size of the operation is inspiring. I never realized that someone cares so much about trash.

Here are some facts I gathered about the process:
  • Cambridge trucks its own recycling to the facility, which is the exception. Most other communities hire Casella to do the pick-up as well
  • Cambridge sends about 700 tons of recycling there a month
  • There has to be a market for recycling. If no one is willing to buy the material, it will not get recycled
  • Newspaper is currently getting $70 a ton
  • Aluminum is currently getting around $1,200 a ton, but is a very rare commodity
  • Workers don't make a lot of money doing this job, between $12 and $20 an hour
  • The plant is open 364 days a year (Christmas is the only day Boston doesn't make them process recycling)
  • Between managing recycling and cleaning the equipment, the facility operates 24 hours a day
  • The company's founders are two brothers based out of Rutland, VT. They are the sons of the person who developed the Killington ski resort
  • For Cambridge, what doesn't go to recycling is considered waste, and of that, 50 percent goes to a landfill and the other 50 percent gets incinerated
I took some video and photos, and I share those down below. I highly recommend the tour, which is run through the city's Department of Public Works. For more information about taking the tour, you should email Paulie Kelsey at

Friday, October 28, 2016

Affordability and Housing in Cambridge - a forum

When the Cambridge Housing Authority recently opened the list to new applicants for Section 8 housing vouchers, they received 6,800 applications over a two week period. Few stories better illustrate the housing crisis in Cambridge so Jim Stockard pointed to this disturbing fact in his opening remarks at last night's forum on housing sponsored by the Cambridge Historical Society. Stockard, the former curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Design School, noted that basic housing economics explain some of the quandary locally, "In Cambridge, the reason for our outrageous prices for housing is not so much that the cost [to build] housing is outrageous, though it's quite high, it's because demand and supply are out of whack. There is a seemingly infinite demand for people who want to live in Cambridge and a very very restricted ability to increase supply."

The crowd is there to hear about housing in Cambridge

The loss of general affordability, the retreat of the federal government away from the business of housing people, and failure of policy makers to act on the mandate spelled out in the 1949 federal Housing Act all came up during the hour long panel moderated by Curt Nickisch of WBUR. Cambridge housing advocate Cheryl-Ann Pizza-Zeoli and Greg Russ, the head of the Cambridge Housing Authority, filled out the panel.

While Housing Authority chief Russ gave Cambridge high marks in its ability to fuse the regulatory power of the local government on issues such as zoning with the financial tools such as the Affordable Housing Trust, all the panelists shared their frustration of the city's inability to deal with the loss of of a huge portion of our population because of skyrocketing costs.

Since 1990, the city has lost half of the population who might be considered "poor," those earning 50 to 80 percent of Area Median Income, a fact that leads to the "dumb bell" distribution of wealth -- only the very poor and the very rich can afford to live here, Pizza-Zeoli noted.

Both Stockard and and Russ added that almost everybody receives a subsidy for housing. The greatest subsidy is not for poor people. It exists in the tax code, helping home owners through the mortgage interest deduction they can claim off their taxes. Congress is appropriating only enough money for existing vouchers so no new vouchers are being funded so there is no way to expand the program. On the public housing side, the money from the government has actually been reduced.

The politics behind housing is complicated, since collectively housing is not viewed as a fundamental right. Pizza-Zeoli asked "Do we have a housing movement?" The 1949 Housing Act called for "a decent home and suitable living environment for every American 'as soon as practical.'" Stockard said that after 65 years, the wait has been too long. "Affordable housing in America," he continued "is a lottery and we have provided about enough money and your chances of prevailing  in the lottery is about 1 in 4. Do we want to be a society where housing is a lottery or do we want to be a society where we believe that everybody is entitled to a decent place to live?"

One way to address these challenges is through housing supply and both Russ and Stockard noted that in the face of neighborhood opposition in Cambridge often called NIMBYism, it is important to look at the questions of height and density in appropriate locations around the city.

On the issue of density, moderator Nickisch phrased the inherent conundrum most succinctly when he asked -- In order to save the city, do we need to change the city?

The very enlightening and informed discussion was taped by CCTV and will be rebroadcast. It is worth watching.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

72 Hours of Eating in Austin

You know Austin, Texas because of its great music or the University of Texas Longhorns football team, but it's also home to some great food. Here's a brief recap of 72 hours of non-stop eating on my recent trip there with my dad to watch the Formula 1 race.

Cooper's Pit BBQ
217 Congress Ave.

Friday night. There's nothing like arriving in a place and immediately sitting down for a huge chunk of meat with a side of slaw and a beer, but that's exactly what we did on Friday night. The most famous place for barbecue in Austin is Franklin's, but that has insanely long lines and you have to show up early in the day and when they sell out of the delicious fare, you're just out of luck. (Nevermind that I was jealous when I saw that none other than celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was also in town for the F1 ate at Franklin's, declaring it worth flying 16 hours to eat.) Franklin's will have to wait for another trip. My father and I did a quick internet search and found a downtown spot called Cooper's. Tucked among the impersonal high-rise office buildings of the Texas's capital city, it nevertheless had a legit roadhouse Tex feel to it, slabs of meat waiting on a grill, a bar right in the center of the front room, and a deli counter filled with side dishes. We ate: brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs and sausage (2 types). We also ate: cole slaw, corn, potato salad and beans. We also ate: cobbler (2 types - blackberry and peach) and ice cream (vanilla). If that sounds like an insane amount of food, it was. As I say, there's nothing like sitting down to a hefty portion of meat when you're hungry. While I have no doubt that Franklin's is something worth another trip to Texas, you can't go wrong at Coopers, where you'll get a nice vibe, good eats, and plenty of it. High recommend.

Chupacabra Cantina y Taqueria
400 E. 6th Street

Saturday night. Austin knows music and it knows parties. (It also knows homeless people, but that's another story.) For F1 Saturday, it shut down a section of E. 6th Street to traffic. Blues and rock bands played in bars and people walked about. (I saw 4 Ford Focus RSs parked in a row, again a story for another day.) Having felt rather successful on our Friday venture, we wandered down to 6th Street to see what we could find for eats on Saturday night. The concierge at the hotel (the Omni, which was a glass ziggurat with shamefully high rates for race fans) recommended Chupacabra for something vaguely taqueria-like, so we went. My fabulous margarita was followed by El Super Queso dip as an appetizer and then for me a Hippy Taco, which was veggie and designed to offset too much meat and cheese already consumed. The star of the show, however, were the Borracho Beans, a delicious medley of flavors. Sitting on the outside porch patio, watching the world go by on a warm October night, there are few things more enjoyable. Watching the Chicago Cubs over my dad's shoulder as they made their way into the World Series for the first time since World War II was only a fitting addition.

1400 S. Congress Ave.

Sunday night. The only place we reserved a table was at our final restaurant, Perla's, and that seemed overdone. Us East Coasters are so hung up on formalities. Perla's was the opposite, with a broad patio out on the street and then a large open interior that was comfortable and yet intimate, Perla's immediately spoke of a casual sophistication. The bigger question was, would the food be any good. The answer was unequivocally, "Yes!" In fact, it was better than good, it was delicious! It's a seafood themed restaurant which for central Texas seems odd. There's no salt water anywhere near the flat plains around Austin. So I focused on fish that could be gotten from the Gulf of Mexico, which seemed to me the most local any fish would be. I started with crab cakes sitting on a bed of frise with something they call sauce gribiche. Delicious. Then I had Crispy Texas Gulf Snapper, sitting in a sauce of lemon spinach and sofrito. Again delicious. For dessert, a butterscotch pot de creme with sea salt. This was fine dining in a casual, cool, hip Texas flair. As good as advertised. No, better.

Round Rock Donuts
106 W. Liberty Ave.
Round Rock, TX

[Addendum] I would be remiss if I did not include a great Texas institution, Round Rock Donuts, about a 20 minute drive north of Austin in Round Rock, TX. First seen on the television show Man v. Food, I arrived there slightly before 7 am on Saturday morning and the parking lot was already full, and the drive thru lane was 10 cars deep. I got a famous Round Rock donut that melted in my mouth, and then for humor purposes only, I got one of the largest donuts I've ever seen, a Texas-sized special. When in Round Rock, do as the locals do.

All in all, Austin is a happening place. You knew that already. Just make sure food is a big part of the experience the next time you get down there. You won't regret it!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Formula 1, US Grand Prix comes to Texas, race day

Lewis Hamilton held off his rival and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to win yesterday's U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Hamilton drove crisply and his car performed flawlessly, avoiding the heartbreak of the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier this season, when his engine gave out leading with 15 laps to go.

Neither Red Bull's Max Verstappen nor Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen could say the same about their cars. Verstappen's lost power about halfway through the race, which he attributed to a gearbox issue. Raikkonen's was foiled not by mechanical error as much as by human error. He pitted for a routine tire change but drove off with a wheel gun still attached to his rear wheel and the wheel not fully attached to the car. He knew immediately something was up and stopped at the end of pit lane to wait for his pit crew to come and roll him back to his pit box where the problem could be fixed. He waited in vain. His pit crew never arrived. His race was done. His car slowly rolled backwards into pit lane all by itself with the help of gravity, and he exited in fury.

For my part, watching from the grandstand off the starting grid, the race was uneventful. Hamilton grabbed the lead from the earliest and never relinquished it. Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull once again had a fine performance and for a while was firmly positioned in second place between Hamilton and Rosberg but when his Red Bull teammate Verstappen's transmission gave out, Ricciardo was doomed to third. Verstappen's problems brought out the Virtual Safety Car, giving Mercedes' Rosberg a free pit stop to change to quicker tires. Ricciardo would not be able to catch him now.

There is a steady drumbeat to the 56 lap event with leaderboard changes happening rapidly and sub-battles taking place lower on the grid. McLaren Honda's Fernando Alonso had one such battle against Williams' driver Felipe Massa. Alonso and Massa bumped, but no penalties were awarded to either team. As for the other Ferrari driver, Sebastian Vettel had a perfectly fine race, finishing fourth, confirming that Mercedes and Red Bull are just faster.

The pre-race ceremony combined Texas pomp and circumstance with a performance by the University of Texas Marching Band and a visit from the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. There were also other races staged earlier in the morning, a Porsche Super Cup race and a Masters Historic race featuring very loud versions of F1 cars from the 1970s and '80s. As I say, it was a fun event all in all. Here are some photos.


The cars are on the starting grid

TV makes following the race easy

There's aways a crowd

With on a few laps to go, the cars make the final turn onto the home straight


Pre-race jumble as the Haas team gets ready

Burnt orange

Yup, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders


Now that's a camera

There are even some nice cars in the parking lot: McLaren 650S

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Formula 1 qualifying, Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas

It was an amazing day at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Qualifying for tomorrow's U.S. Grand Prix was on, and the fans came out in force in spectacular weather, a cloudless sky, warm sunshine.

I had the chance to walk pit lane in a pre-qualifying event as the teams worked on their cars before heading out on track to establish the starting grid for Sunday's race.

Yes, the Mercedes team is still dominant much to Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo's dismay. Ricciardo was leading until the real drama broke out between the Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Hamilton is trying to claw his way back into the season points lead against teammate Rosberg as the F1 season enters its final weeks. The two of them staged a 1, 2 finish today, with Hamilton besting Rosberg by only 0.2 seconds. (So good was today's driving in fact, the top four finishers -- Hamilton, Rosberg both of Mercedes, Ricciardo, Verstappen both of Red Bull -- were only separated by 0.7 seconds.)

But that wasn't it for me. The pleasure was just in being there, drinking it all in. I share my photos from today's qualifying at COTA for your enjoyment too ...

Pirelli knows, tires may look like rainbows but they are the whole story

Sebastian and Kimi

A nose without a tail



Pit row


The Haas Team makes its home debut

It's hard to imagine these cars are going about 200 m.p.h. 

Stay cool out there!