Saturday, December 29, 2007

methane hydrate

Perhaps I'm a neophobe, but to me this doesn't sound like a resource we should be rushing to exploit.

A couple of notable excerpts:
Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and Indonesia. Japanese engineers have found enough "flammable ice'' to meet its gas use demands for 14 years.
Impressive. But then:
"Methane hydrate was a key cause of the global warming that led to one of the largest extinctions in the earth's history,'' says Ryo Matsumoto, a University of Tokyo scientist who has studied frozen gas since 1987. "By making the best use of our wisdom, knowledge and technology, we should be able to utilize this wisely as a new energy.''
Hmm. These two sentences don't really go together so well, do they? He goes on:
"A mass release of methane into the sea and the atmosphere is a risk for global warming,'' he says. "Massive landslides at the ocean floor must be avoided when drilling at the Nankai Trough.''
It seems the best way to visualize this material is as a huge, iced fart. And Japan isn't the only place that has its fart reserve. They're in continental shelves all over the world. A couple of maps [1, 2] are available.

Methane hydrate is the gas produced from decay of dead things that have settled in the oceans. That's what we've come to. Graverobbing down 800 meters to slake the thirst for energy. For a resource we can subsist on for a few decades at best.

I could be wrong - maybe the farts can be extracted safely and odorlessly; maybe a big, sustained input to the global energy pool can be used economically and geopolitically to redirect energy policy in a clean, clever way. Maybe. It clearly has market attention now - capitalism does love a cheap meal.

But ... another fossil fuel? Maybe this methane hydrate bridge loan is not where we should be pinning our hopes just now.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

the antidote to greatness

Benazir Bhutto, killed by yet another Islamic body-bomb. Hard to believe Allah's happy about this, but who knows?

Assassination is mediocrity's antidote to greatness. I know this.

And since, by the laws of nature and statistics there's always going to be a lot more mediocrity, mobilizing the thugs against a public meritocracy tends to be a pretty potent drug to push. It's working swell, too:
A former Taliban intelligence official, Mullah Ehsanullah, told The Associated Press this year that there were more than 500 men training as suicide bombers in 50 sites across the region in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These camps he said, are run by al-Qaida and include Pakistani jihadists and Arab militants.
Meanwhile, we in the Empire are doing our little part to try to keep this in check:
With enactment of the FY2007 supplemental on May 25, 2007, Congress has approved a total of about $609 billion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Afghanistan and other counter terror operations; Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), providing enhanced security at military bases; and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
But do the math: our little effort has cost $1.5 million for every square mile in the combined area of Iraq, Afghanistan and that shadowy border region of southwestern Pakistan.

As a farm subsidy, that sort of outlay could re-fertilize the original fertile crescent for centuries. Or pay to litter the landscape with new schools. Or at least clean up the landmines poisoning Afghanistan's soil.

And if you chose to allocate it by individual suicide bombers that's more than a billion dollars each.

A whole lot of money. But somehow not enough to protect one woman from the barbarians.

kill some time with geography

Bone up on world geography with this simple yet engaging widget.

Monday, December 24, 2007

biggerer and biggerer

From the Architectural Record way back in 2004:
In scale and pace, the building boom currently sweeping over China has no precedent in human history. China is spending about $375 billion each year on construction, nearly 16% of its gross domestic product. In the process, it is using 54.7% of the world's production of concrete, 36.1% of the world's steel, and 30.4% of the world's coal.
Four hundred billion bucks buys a lot of cool architecture. Some of it would look great integrated into the Emerald Spine. Take a look at the CCTV Headquarters Building in Beijing:

And the wild flatscreen for the folks hanging out down in the garden underneath.

Hopefully they'll landscape in plenty of room for people to lie around under there, or there's gonna be a whole lot of neck strain in that neighborhood.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Oh Stephen L. Johnson, for shame, for shame.

California and seventeen other states want to tighten regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from cars. These states represent half of all cars sold in the US. They have been waiting two years for the EPA to grant the Clean Air Act waiver necessary to start this process. In California alone the cutbacks would keep 31 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the air over the next decade.

Johnson says:
The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules, to reduce America's climate footprint from vehicles.
But, but... this was not what the EPA technical and legal staff wanted. They all seemed to think it was a good thing - enlightened, forward thinking, and that, if denied, it would certainly be legally challenged by the states, and probably overturned in court. But no matter. EPA is the Decider in this matter. No waiver.

So now California and its merry band of followers will sue the federal government. I'm no expert, but it does sound like the EPA will get smacked down on this one. The Bush administration will look silly. Again. Some lawyers will make a bunch of money. And the only upside in the whole affair for the White House will be its ability to say "See big automakers? We really tried. We're really on your side here. So give us your votes."

Will Detroit go for this though? I mean, come on. Are they really dim enough to keep buying into this hapless dynamic, over and over again, year after year?

Yes, big business is the engine of our economy. Yes. But we're looking at the very crux of our leadership vacuum here: a rudderless government, directed only by the immediate whimsy of what feels good to the engine.

"Oh no," says the engine, "we don't want to head that way, not up into the wind. That's too hard. We'll just cruise along with the wind at our back. That's much more comfy, don't you think?"

"Anything you say," says Captain Bush, "anything that keeps us moving. As long as I'm up here on the bridge." And First Mate Johnson just lets the wheel roll into the direction of least resistance.

Except, er, there are big, sharp rocks over there, and, um, aren't we getting kind of close? And isn't the captain, the Decider, supposed to be the one who sees those things and steers around them? And wait - what's that smell on your breath? Have you guys been drinking?

It's interesting to look at the states involved here. Very blue. Very proactive. Just trying to work creatively, trying to move things in the right direction.

No one wants to cripple American automaking - completely the opposite. The point is to pressure those folks down in the engine room to re-tool things a bit, to get the machinery humming more efficiently, to make this old ship less of a gas guzzler. It's a tough love thing.

And just one other small item: This is the administration that wastes no opportunity to tell us that certain things, like reproductive rights legislation, belong not in the hands of the federal government but at the state level. Why again? Because when we're talking about health and medicine what we're really after is a confusing patchwork of state rules!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

gods in the garbage

Hosting the dead. Cute.

Here's the thing about reincarnation though: it is the most defining and sublime talent of our species. But for some reason it gets marginalized into a kind of a voodoo cartoon and dumbed down to a B-movie horror gimmick that only goth dolts are supposed to dabble in. Like if you say the right incantation you can make Aleister Crowley or HP Lovecraft inhabit your body.

This is so wrong. When it comes to transmitting information across time there is nature and there is culture. Nothing more. Nature carries the code using the genome. Culture is everything else, everything we've made, all of our artifacts. And if you study to comprehend the culture created by someone else - specifically someone who is dead - you are reincarnating him. Simple. And magical.

To the extent that I study the works and words of Margaret Fuller, she begins to inhabit me. Maybe this is a little spooky, I don't know. Considering that until development of written language 6,000 years ago no reincarnation of this sort had been possible anywhere in the known universe, and now everything and everyone is utterly dependent on it - it is kind of profoundly defining. But no one seems to give that much thought unless they're experiencing it as some science fiction or horror conceit.

Anyway, reincarnation is merely one example of vital and profound truths pulled down to blithering nonsense by association with fantasy dreck. Some others:
We take the sacrament that is the flesh of animals then factory farm and sanitize this into tasteless pucks to be gulped down thoughtlessly or tossed away uneaten.

We take the miraculous vessels that are children's minds and assault them with random noise and light until they clog and close and grow angry.

We take the beautiful and mysterious mechanics of evolution and through some absurd contortion trivialize these and position them in opposition to divinity and religion.

We take the magic of nature, technology and intellect that crackles and shimmers everywhere and blind ourselves to it, insisting that there is no magic.
We make trinkets of our sacred things, put our gods out with the garbage.

Am I missing something, or is this just incredibly lame?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

beg to host the dead

With the other band and concert propaganda pasted and scrawled on the walls of the Tag Alley in Central Square there was this today:
Search for meaning only makes you thirsty
Eat salt, drunk fucker

Beg to sacrifice, beg to serve
Beg to host the dead

They will laugh and haunt your shack

Monday, December 17, 2007

darkhovin and bushehr

Three Mile Island. Diablo Canyon. Millstone. Comanche Peak.

I don't know exactly what to call it, but there's frequently something about nuclear reactor names that strikes a discomforting, mildly sinister chord when you first hear them. Like a deja vu thing, like you've heard them before, or as if some weird premonition backblast is going on, where they're recognizable because we'll all be hearing so much about them in the future.

The enrichment and reactor site names coming out of Iran now sound especially ominous in this regard: Darkhovin and Bushehr. Darkhovin is right out of Lord of the Rings. And Bush-err? Seriously?

Call me superstitious, but you have to admit it's a touch unsettling that these names are so malign sounding and so easy to remember.

howe singer poe fuller

In 1846, about 200 feet from the bedroom where Margaret Fuller grew up, Elias Howe invented the sewing machine.

OK, he didn't invent it precisely, since like all good machines it was the product of much tinkering by many hands over time. But he had enough of the details worked out and patented that when Isaac Singer brought his version to market ten years later the courts made him pay Howe real cash for every unit sold. Very Microsoft. Very DOS. Very Bill Gates. Howe got very rich.

The same year Howe filed his patent, Margaret Fuller was examining the work of a strange poet named Edgar Allan Poe. Poe had a career trajectory like Kurt Cobain - he scored huge, immediate fame when The Raven was published in 1845 but had gone crazy and died (under mysterious circumstances) four years later. Oh yeah, but Poe didn't make any money.

Poe frustrated but fascinated Fuller, not least because of the literary powers he had exhibited as a child:
"The poems written in youth, indeed, in childhood, before the author was ten years old, are a great psychological curiosity. Is it the delirium of a prematurely excited brain that causes such a rapture of words? What is to be gathered from seeing the future so fully anticipated in the germ? The passions are not infrequently felt in their full shock, if not in their intensity, at eight or nine years old, but here they are reflected upon -
"Sweet was their death - with them to die was rife
With the last ecstasy of satiate life."

It is noteworthy that Poe and Fuller were born within a mile of each other and shared nearly identical, unnaturally short lifespans (1809-1849 vs 1810-1850). She clearly had a thing for prodigies and the fast burning, obsessive, kinda damaged types. Beethoven, Goethe, Shelley and Napoleon all fell into her focus in the mid-1840s.

palimpsest and pelham

A manuscript that has been used more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and partly legible - that's a palimpsest.

While the Margaret Fuller house maintains a strong similarity to its original appearance, the neighborhood does not. So much has changed that it is a challenge to even locate the present location on historical maps.

The Fuller house is in the little red circle. To the east is MIT, Kendall Square and the Charles River. If you want to orient yourself in the larger landscape, go here.

Before the original landscape had been erased, there was actually an island under this red circle. Pelham's island was the last solid land before the meadows, marshes, Charles River and Boston. Back during the Revolutionary War it looked something like this:

Pelham was a cartographer - the 1777 image is actually from his most famous American map - and also a Loyalist. He fled Boston for London a month after the Declaration of Independence in order to escape the attacks of thugs.

Anyway, by the time Fuller's house was built Pelham's Island was gone, absorbed into the body of Cambridge, and the lattice of roads was beginning to impose itself on newly made land:

And twenty five years later:

By this time the marshes had been pushed ten blocks to the east, the Grand Junction Railroad was built and running along what would become the boundary of the MIT campus, and Margaret Fuller was dead somewhere off the coast of Long Island.

Friday, December 14, 2007

urban defect: snowjam

It snowed hard in Boston yesterday - about 10 inches starting in the early afternoon - and it was fast falling and poorly predicted. By some unfortunate combination of bad timing and slack preparation a rush hour gridlock developed that crippled surface transportation throughout the city for six hours.

On roads all over eastern Massachusetts prisoner's dilemma scenarios played out with confounding consequences. As traffic thickened then stopped, cars waited through cycle after cycle of changing lights without forward movement. Frustration and impatience compelled some into the intersections. With the precedent set, many broke ranks, stopped ceding legal right of way, drove against one way traffic, piled into breakdown lanes and parking spaces. Exits and intersections clotted completely until the entire network seized. Cars continued to flow into the stagnating soup until the act of starting a trip - leaving parking lots, garages and side streets - became impossible.

  • Beyond a certain level of congestion the rules of the road dissolve. It doesn't take much to push the urban population into acts of immediate self interest, actively thwarting the interests of others
  • Civility evaporates, but not entirely. There wasn't a lot of shouting or blowing of horns. Police were nowhere to be seen, but a few people tried to jump into the breach and direct traffic. With the gridlock fully established though, this accomplished nothing
  • The machine can't save us. Once laws are ignored and the social contract has been broken, the inanimate mechanics of traffic control are entirely worthless. It wasn't possible to untangle the knot until pressure began to diminish from the extremities.
  • No leaders, no team. We have no social experience with or preparation for subordinating self interest (at least where transportation is concerned) to a greater whole. People are not trained to pull over and direct traffic. Motorists are not prepared to respect civilians who do.
The experience was not confidence inspiring. When competing individual urgencies get too numerous and intense the fragile nature of the Contract becomes frighteningly apparent. If the sudden need should arise for a mass evacuation of the city, none of us will be able to get out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

meat as murder

Maybe you've heard of the Qingping wet market in Guangzhou, China. This was the first market to be permitted by the Communist government in 1979 and until SARS in 2002 it was a notorious but completely legal and public free-for-all. There you could find anything that walked, slithered, swam or flew, pick it out of a cage or a box and have it slaughtered on the spot. Not just pigs, goats and chickens, but rabbits, kittens, dogs, monkeys, snakes, turtles, large insects, rare marsupials - everything and anything.

The thought of noisy market hucksters hacking the heads off kittens for a couple of coins is repugnant and naturally despicable. But don't tag the Chinese as uniquely cruel and villainous just yet.

In the 1880s things weren't so different in Boston. There was a resort then, Tafts, out in Winthrop where the Deer Island sewage treatment plant is now. You could get pretty much anything there too. Tafts would hold huge banquets where thousands of wild birds including owls, plovers, curlews and eagle chicks would be eaten in grotesque quantities. On one occasion Taft staked one thousand dollars on the spot to anyone present able to name an edible North American bird that he could not produce instantly, and had no takers. To top off the feast, he served hundreds of guests hummingbirds "cooked to delectation and tucked into walnut shells."

And this wasn't some haunt of savages. Boston's biggest literary names: Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Hawthorne and others, all dined repeatedly at Tafts.

Point is, this sounds absurd (to most of us) now, and that the Chinese are doing it renders them culturally retrogade. But the trend is so obvious. The civilized world will not continue to consume animal flesh at its current rate, with such shameless gusto, for very much longer. There is evil in it and we all know this despite our continued participation. And if the future belongs to the better angels, this systemic defect will be relegated to the furtive realm that sex shops or cock fights inhabit now, and only a small, remnant population of carnivores will continue to lurk among us.

twelve dollar gas

Because what we pay for energy is just way too little.

Most of us feel otherwise, since gas and oil are more expensive than ever and not much is changing to make us need less of them. And of course there's our collective optimism and faith in eternal economic growth and technology's impending miracle that will replace petroleum with some new clean fuel too cheap to meter.

But what's the probability of this really? How likely is it that we'll stumble into another societal energy feedstock that can provide the equivalent of 80 million barrels of oil per day at the cost of extraction? Coal, oil and natural gas were the three matches we were given to ignite a perpetual, clean energy future. These matches are burning down pretty close to our fingers (or we're coughing on their smoke) and we haven't done such a great job getting that fire lit.

Energy use is notoriously inelastic - we don't use less as the price goes up - but twelve dollar gas would cost the average driver in America a buck every two miles and it wouldn't be long before this giant sucking sound started to change our driving habits. And the way we heat and cool our homes. And perhaps it would sober us up to the fact that we've been tapping a trust fund for the past century that's stopped earning interest.

It will really hurt. Bad. The entire global economy will convulse and spasm through the detox. But maybe, though only maybe, if a significant slice of this massive capital reallocation can find its way into renewable energy investment, maybe we will get that fire going before those matches are just smoldering ash in our cold hands.

content and form

The Margaret Fuller House was built on the edge of Pelham's Island in 1807, midway between Boston and Harvard. This was a little more than a decade after the first Longfellow Bridge and causeway were built to halve the distance from the Beacon Hill to Harvard. The house is within the orbit of Central and Kendall Squares now, but then it was isolated and marginal, on the edge of a marsh.

This house exhibits extraordinary external fidelity to original design even though features have been added and removed, the landscape and surroundings have changed, and many original materials have been replaced. To those who built it two hundred years ago it would be very recognizable, at least from the outside, were they to see it now.

This exemplifies a seminal but seemingly paradoxical design principle: content is subordinate to form.

In architecture like biology, like computer science, like, well, everything, pattern persists throughout many deaths of constituent materials. If historic houses are incrementally maintained or restored to their original appearance and proportions, but with modern materials, their essence is hardly compromised. Centuries after its construction, wood in the beams of the house may be of trees planted long after the original structure was built, fitted into place by small corrections fixing rot or wear, year by year. This is unimportant to the building's architectural integrity. The design persists. Content perishes.

In fact, preservation of content is often overly precious, a type of perversion, and indicates a failure of the preservationist to adequately understand the form he serves. And this applies to culture in a more universal sense. How does one most accurately pass an idea forward for two hundred or two thousand years? Or for vastly longer periods than that?

Go ahead and build with granite - make a pyramid, carve a sphinx. You're doomed to dust if you favor the concrete over the abstract. The answer to eternity is in your form, your pattern, your proportions. The design is everything.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

urban defect: facebook

More of a social defect really, the current flap over facebook-beacon highlights our latest acceleration toward the Privacy Free Society. The convenience of digital communication has made us all complicit, but facebook really gets it out there in your, well, face.

facebook is kind of a digital equivalent of gay sex in the 1970s. There's a new freedom that's fun, exhibitionist and promiscuous, and "all of my friends are doing it, so where's the harm?"

The voyeurism and exhibitionism is pandered to so expertly in facebook that we can't help but gulp it down, browsing through those ever growing lists of friends and idling for endless hours in the shallowest sort of pseudo relationships.

But exposure increases vulnerability. Beacon broadcasts your purchases out to the facebook cohort you're a member of. Groovy if you're shopping at Dolce and Gabbana I guess, but if you're buying Viagra or adult diapers it's everybody's business too.

Really, do you want to see all that detail from everyone around you? Do you want all of them looking at yours?

It's like wireblight: sometimes it's just better to hide more of the plumbing behind nice, plain walls. The only folks it's really useful for are the ones trying to tap in and analyze or modify whatever it is you're spending you shekels on. I think it's safe to assume that most of these folks probably don't have your best interests in mind.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

let them be trimtab-captains

Jessica Lipnack writes:
Richard - I just read your intriguing post about the, uh, post cards. I have been a "Margaret person" for a long time and these stories seem to abound. I met a Swami about a year ago who ended up moving from London to Cambridge to live next door to MF House and join its board due to some sort of strange thing happening...
A swami now. Curiouser and curiouser, but somehow not so surprising. There's an uncanny aspect to this woman and her echoes in my neighborhood and elsewhere.

You don't have to dig far to learn that Margaret Fuller was actually the great aunt of Buckminster Fuller. Check the link. He was more than just the geodesic dome guy. He was tuned into the urban defects mindset throughout his life in a fairly profound and highly public way. He also seems to represent a technical incarnation of some core Trancendental beliefs - stuff like respect for truth through simplicity, disregard for convention and dogma and a holistic, universal attitude toward thinking and design.

Perhaps I was off base with my "nobody knows who Margaret Fuller is" bit a few days ago though. She seems to be sustaining a healthy audience, at least in some circles. This doesn't explain who's dropping the propaganda on my stoop but it does make me feel a bit late to the party. Except ... whose party?

Friday, December 7, 2007

a little religion, or what?

Something new from the Margaret Fuller folks. Turns out to be part of an essay by Emerson this time (thanks google). It's actually kind of nice if you take the time to read it, but it's unclear what they're trying to get by pushing it under my door.

The sentiment happens to work with what I like to blather about though, and I like the design, so I'm happy to post it.

urban defect: wire blight

The nervous system belongs underneath the skin.

The guys who climb the utility poles and all of the people who drive past these nests of linear clutter will tell you this is merely an aesthetic consideration, that keeping the communication, power, and entertainment infrastructure out in plain sight and easily accessible is just fine, thank you very much.


This was how things looked in Manhattan in 1888 during the worst blizzard of that century. It was back in the day, when Edison and Nikola Tesla were still duking out AC vs DC power distribution strategies. No question about the wireblight back then, friends.

That storm made big trouble and blew out much of the young network. When visiting NYC today you will note that the nervous system is entirely under the skin.

Extreme weather tends to expose our weaknesses. Probably a safe bet that freakish future weather (much amplified by our accumulated environmental misdeeds) will be the boot that kicks our ass into burying the current blight.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

evolution is not design churn

Q: Why in the Age of Dinosaurs was there never anything as large as a blue whale?
A: Because nature hadn't learned how to build a beast that big yet. Because it's a lot easier to scale up to a large flesh eating monster if you're starting as a small flesh eating monster than it is to fashion a giant plankton sieve on a hippo. Which is pretty much what happened evolutionarily with the whale, when you get right down to it.

Just a guess here, but I'm thinking that the finely tuned stuff, the grace at the extremities - quality of vision and articulation of digits - all the refinement that really lets God in - this gets progressively clumsier the further back you go. Which should be taken to mean that things are actually moving in a positive direction, at least as far as complexity goes.

Q: What is the greatest urban design crime?
A: Tearing down something solid to build something fashionable.

Design churn is the unholy duo of ignorance and arrogance tricking you into abandoning best practices of the past. Evolution is kaizen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

the sins of moses and boston's emerald spine

Even though the work that made him famous was pretty much local to New York City and its environs, we're all heirs to the legacy of Robert Moses. He set the bar for building highways through the older American cities, opened up circulation for the cars to get everywhere at high speeds (before the rush hour throngs put an end to that). And in the process he wrecked more housing stock and ruined more communities in this country than any war or natural disaster ever has.

Boston took some hard knocks with Moses-esque road building from the Second World War to the 1970s. There was the Central Artery of course, that has recently moved under the skin. A lot of resources have gone into healing those old scars. The worst wound still open is I-90 as it punches east from the tolls in Allston to the I-93 interchange at the edge of Chinatown.

So here's the promotional pitch:
The Emerald Spine will finally heal this slash across the face of the city. There's nothing like it anywhere in the world yet, not at this scale with fully harmonized engineering and design all the way through. When it is complete Boston will have a signature skyline, globally recognized and unmistakable. The Spine will run from Fenway Park to Fort Point Channel and integrate all of the neighborhoods in between.

Massively green not just in appearance but also in principle and practice, the Emerald Spine will exploit photovoltaic, wind and geothermal technologies to be fully zero-carbon.

And its miles of malls and walkways weaving through a graceful parabola of towers will signal the end of the automobile's dominance of America's cities.

Sure, it's a little megalomaniacal.  But you've got to admit that done right it would be awesome.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

laf-central buildout

OK, no one calls it this yet, but pretty soon the new Lafayette Square Park will be done and the Central Square Theater will be up and running and (especially if there's comedy there) Laf-Central will just seem like a natural name for it.

Anyway, this is precisely the area I was talking about in that post about the sloppy Central Square parking situation. Check out the unsightly rash of hideous blue parking lots in the top image looking down Main Street and Mass Ave toward MIT and Boston (these are the same polygons used in this map).

And then imagine it with about 2 million extra square feet of residential and commercial development, building on nothing but existing asphalt.

Yeah, I hear you. This is the kind of massing monstrosity that inspires rage in planners and local traditionalists, but it looks cool in google earth. And think about the energy this would introduce - not to mention continuity with Kendall - Portland Street and Prospect.

The Lafayette-Central Buildout should serve as the pilot project for creating Boston's Emerald Spine.

By the way, all of the little brown buildings are accessible via the good work of the Virtual City Collective and MassGIS. Thanks guys, for keeping mapping fun.

rattus margaret fullerus

Out in front of the Margaret Fuller House a rat gave me the once over before disappearing under a fence and into the cold night. He was a good looking one. Probably weighed a pound. It's true, you know, that rats navigate by a kind of muscle memory, and if you remove an obstruction they're used to they'll continue to avoid the spot as if the object is still there. Very insect like. Very mechanical.

And it's fairly unusual seeing a rat around Margaret Fuller. A lot of good stuff happens at that place and it's tightly run. They give out food, but I don't think there are a lot of opportunities for rodents to get any. It's been a charitable institution for more than a century, so there's been plenty of time for the rats to get used to it. It's named for Margaret Fuller who was born there in 1810.

You can ask 100 people even right around here who Margaret Fuller was and you'll be lucky if even one has anything to tell you about her. Which is more than a little lame, since she was a literary prodigy and a groundbreaking feminist and an editorial glass ceiling smasher and Transcendentalist, among other things. And she was hooked up: When she died in a shipwreck off Long Island in 1850 on her way back from Italy, Henry David Thoreau was actually sent down (by Ralph Waldo Emerson) to look for her body. Never found her though.

Anyway, it seems someone wants us to know more about Margaret Fuller. I've been getting a bunch of mostly cool looking, Margaret Fuller branded postcards hand delivered lately. This one was left in my mail slot a couple of days ago, though without any text or address identifying who dropped it off.

I don't know what Abe Lincoln, the bug or the little yin/yang deal are about, but the woman is definitely Margaret Fuller.

Has anyone else seen this stuff?

Monday, December 3, 2007

life with rattus norvegicus

Living in the city means sharing space with rats. I know this and don't have a big problem with it. If every once in a while I see a rat ambling along the curb or poking its pointy little nose out from behind a dumpster, oh well; small cost of dwelling in the urban context.

At some point though, the happy prospect of peaceful coexistence is no longer appropriate. In Cambridge, or at least my part of it, that point has been passed.

Look - I have a great deal of respect for the rat as a marvel of nature and one of evolution's great success stories. Urban rats are consummate generalists, experts at adaptation and making the most of meager resources, and they are tireless workers. But too much success frequently begets enmity, and in my neighborhood the rats are too successful.

I have seen them dance across Washington Street in pairs in the morning, I've watched them capering near uncovered trash cans in bright summer sun, and I have chased them from my small vegetable garden upon discovering their assaults on my tomatoes at dusk. On garbage night they are legion. It is a genuine problem and I am not the only one who has noticed it.

So: If we could just see a map of where they are, what they are doing and when they are doing it we'd be well on the way to controlling this problem. To that end I've posted a collaborative map that can be used to track sitings of these busy little devils and their handiwork. If you go here you'll be able to add your information and help grow this map into something genuinely useful for understanding the scope and specifics of this problem.

cambridge parking lots, again

Hey you wizards at the googleplex with your $200 billion market cap and all of the technical brain power and tweaking time that buys ... why is it that my first post to this blog, using two of your core products and a simple cut and paste - why is it that this humble little effort fails? Why can I not paste a nice, simple google map into my blog without the blogger editor choking on it? Why do I have to start a new entry because my original is dead to me now as an editable document?

Help? Tips? Suggestions?

.... crickets ...

Anyway, the point I was trying to make before I got hamstrung was not that there is necessarily too MUCH parking in Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. It's that the placement and distribution are needlessly diffuse. If you (can actually, without technical hiccups) look at the map inserted in the previous entry, you'll see that the east side of Mass Ave (essentially the whole Bishop Allen corridor) is a sloppy rash of parking on the Central Square landscape.

Back in the 1960s maybe this was appealing, back when folks thought mass transit was just some doomed artifact and the automobile was civilization's great, gleaming hope. In those deluded days you wouldn't get much argument when planners told you the commercial prospects of any urban downtown were hopeless if 80% of available land wasn't allocated for parking spaces. But that blockhead logic is pretty far behind us now, isn't it?

I know, I know - there's a large and vocal contingent out there twitching and squirming at the idea of vertical development in our lovely Republic of Cambridge, but wouldn't you prefer to see living and commerce and maybe even entertainment built a few stories up, perhaps with a bit of green space around it, instead of this bleak desert of asphalt?

a plague of parking

What's with the all of the parking lots in Central Square? I mean, look at this:

View Larger Map

All of the blue areas are bulk (more than 10 spaces) surface parking. Red areas are parking garages. Hit the Sat button to get confirmation of what's actually under these shapes.

It's a blight, really, and no one seems to notice it. Some of the lots have nice young trees planted at the curbs and medians to pretty things up a bit. Some of them are public lots. A bunch of them are owned and used by Quest Diagnostics - which is all well and good. But really now - what a ghastly waste of urban land.