Monday, July 28, 2008


I got caught out in a downpour last week - one of dozens that passed through Boston over a few days. I'd been observing cell towers on building roofs, looking up, trying to get to high places where I could see the equipment clearly. Details would bore you - it was a mapping thing.

The storm came in fast with a lot of rain, and I took cover under an awning in University Park. The lightning quickly became constant, and the thunder was ominous and unusual - not bangs and cracks but more of a sustained hissing, like something enormous and angry struggling to form its first words.

Before long the lightning struck this...

...which was no surpise. Just look at it. The Tech-Gothic prow of the Meridien Hotel just sits there like a kind of invitation to electrical storms. And here I was tampering with RF antennas and beacons on the tops of buildings, tempting fate. That's what I thought while I stood there under that awning, getting a creepy kind of Nikola Tesla, stealing-secrets-from-God vibe.

After some particularly menacing hisses the lightning reached across the sky laterally like fingers on a witch's hand in a kind of confirmation of the storm's strangeness. The noise was outrageous. There was no sign of another human being - not even a moving car - anywhere in the Park or along Sidney Street.

The worst of the rain ended and I hopped on my bike and rode the three blocks home. When I got there I found a maple limb - 6" wide at the base, maybe 20 feet long - split from its tree high above the street and smashed through the windshield of my car.

It had pushed straight through the glass and impaled the driver's seat. The car was parked precisely where I had seen her back in February.

That was July 19, which is the day Margaret Fuller drowned in 1850.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

urbanDefect: the great unpositioned

The transportation swarm needs to know where all of its individual participants are.

I'm not talking about some great centralized scheme here. But in cities, in neighborhoods, the machines that are moving people and stuff around the roads want to know, with some urgency, where they are relative to all of the other machines participating in this crowded, fast-moving local relationship.

And it's sort of silly that so much of the great mobile mass remains positionally unaware, that so little has happened yet. Hence the defect. Because just about all the necessary technology is available now for cheap or free. Lots of interesting companies are converging into this meshy, swarmy, flocky future. Inrix. Dash. Zipcar. TeleAtlas - er - TomTom. Navteq - er - Nokia. Garmin. SiRF. Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah. Blah.

Before very long the machines will be positioning themselves without human interference, of course. Satellite and RF signals provide location. Cruise and Lane Control handle the easy driving. We need to help with intersections and special situations, but mostly we won't be so involved with the driving details any more. Because the cars know where they are, where they're going, how to get there.

Because this is how it looks when the machines start waking up, silly passenger.

Monday, June 30, 2008

the red line is an urban defect

Come on. 2011? The final fix on the Longfellow Bridge won't begin until 2011?

I hadn't been a daily red line user in five years, but now that I'm moving regularly between Cambridge and South Station this two mile stretch of track is essential to me.

And it sucks. It's not just that the Longfellow Bridge is broken and the trains are required to creep over it at 5mph. Not just that you can expect multi minute waits at multiple stations on most rides. Or the uncanny frequency of "electrical problems" or "switching issues" causing thousands of frustrated, sweating riders to squirm uncomfortably in intimate proximity as they waste their mornings and evenings trapped underground. Again.

Nope. It's that this is happening on a vital piece of urban technology running through one of the densest populations of big brains on the planet (amazingly, less than 200m from the Volpe Transportation Center). And no one can manage to plan and execute a solution that will, in the most optimistic of circumstances, take less than five years and $250 million to deliver. In the midst of an incipient energy crisis. Where dependence on efficient and dependable mass transit can only grow.

So very lame.

Monday, February 18, 2008

american teleocracy

tel·e·oc·ra·cy (tยตl-¼k"r…-s, t¶"l-) n., pl. tel·e·oc·ra·cies. 1. Philosophy, Political Science. Design or purpose in government or society; goal directed rule. 2. The use of ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining government or social dynamics. 3. Purposeful development, as in the trajectory of a state or civilization, toward a final end; a government of objectives. [Greek teleios, teleos, perfect, complete (from telos, end, result) + -cracy.] --tel"e·o·crat"ic (-¹k) adj. --tel"e·o·crat"i·cal·ly adv.

but, other than just ever greater consumption, is there really any american purpose?

pavor nocturnus + thundersnow

Some of the worst dreams of my life have occurred during thunderstorms. Often this has happened in unfamiliar places or when the storms happen unexpectedly in cold seasons. There was an opportunity for one of these the other night, a rare winter snow-and-lightning combination, but I woke up when I heard my 3-year old daughter's voice from downstairs, not from dreams of my own.

I didn't even know there was thunder when I went down to calm her. She was having night terrors, which means she wasn't actually awake, but was moaning and yelling from a submerged state of deep slow-wave-sleep. When I sat on her bed I saw the lighting and heard the thunder for the first time. It sounded so close. I pushed the shades aside and peered out into the street. Heavy snow was falling. Two or three inches was on the ground and no plow had been by yet. There was another flash and for its terrifying duration I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk across the street, looking up at our house. Her clothing seemed soaking wet. Without the flash she was invisible. I quickly closed the shade.

I lay down with my daughter for a few minutes until she settled back to quiet sleep. There were some fading thunderclaps, but no more lightning after that. When I left her room and looked out to the street there was only untracked snow in the dim streetlights. I went from window to window to look for footprints, for any sign of that woman, half expecting a face to pop into view from the darkness as I leaned toward the glass. Nothing though. No footprints. Just the snow.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

us residential real estate plunge

Case Shiller maintains a really nice index for tracking the value of single family homes in the US. It's a broad index, and is actually specific to only 20 US urban markets, but it contains lots of carefully vetted data points and is very dependable as a national metric. It's released the last Tuesday of every month.

The story it is telling right now is kinda bleak. If you look at the year over year change back to the late 1980's, the last year and a half are a precipice:

And if look at individual performance of the 20 individual markets over the same 20 year period you get this thing:

Click it into its own page if you want to read it, but that's not really necessary. The trend is the trick. A dozen of these cities (note especially LA, Miami, San Diego and DC at the top of the bubble) have peaked so completely out of line with their historic curves that there's no hope of getting them moving back upward any time soon. Since many of these markets are still at more than 200% of their January 2000 index value they'll probably fall for another year at least - without even considering energy or currency crisis possibilities.

If the lines settle back down somewhere near the 2000-2001 baseline and make nice, neat bellcurves of themselves, well, oops. There's something like 5 trillion dollars of value under that curve. With that gone (and the equity markets flat or falling, which seems sort of inevitable) it doesn't look like we'll be feeling so flush over the coming years.

I think it's safe to say that this sort of residential value inflation, while natural and common as a local phenomenon, is a very bad sign when it happens across the entire national economy. And perhaps we should rethink the policy of making credit so readily accessible for residential real estate speculation (like for the millions of houses that were bought not to be owner-occupied but purely to make money riding the wave up). Because it is one thing to watch your stock portfolio crash - it's a very different thing to lose your home.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

the assassination of barack obama

As his symbolic potency increases, so does his potential utility as a target. "We can throw the whole house into chaos. All we've got to do is knock over this tower." This is what the vandals say.

(that we don't care what madness motivates the vandals doesn't diminish their danger)

Barack Obama, already, has shown strong heroic stuff. He knows the creeping, mediocre beasts are watching him grow and he persists, thrives, in spite of this. But the risk is real and he can't leave his legacy to chance. He must not make the terrible mistake of dying without a will.

He must, in fact, acknowledge and embrace his affinity with the great martyrs who have come before him. He must be buoyed and inflated by this association. And he must be explicit, must tell his potential successors how to behave if the terrible thing happens (as his spiritual progenitors have passed it down to him):

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

mccain, obama + the great healing

Slate talks about the curious similarity of these two guys, how they are both anti-politicians focused on addressing partisan flaws in the American political process, how they are more authentic than their rivals.

Behold my electoral fantasy: Democrats nominate Obama without a running mate on August 28. Republicans nominate McCain without a running mate on September 4. On September 11, 2008 the RNC and DNC simultaneously announce their tickets. Republican: McCain and Obama; Democrat: Obama and McCain.

Over the next two months, America fights hard to determine who sits in which chair, but regardless of outcome, bipartisianship is internalized into the White House and we can all breathe a sigh of relief as a composite agenda begins moving forward at respectable speed.

I know, this is so far beyond the realm of the imaginable that it hardly rates a chuckle. Because in America it's more fun to be about the ride than the destination. And easier to define ourselves against the other guy rather than against the sharp claws of the real enemy.

But a lot of us could be inspired by a government that went all the way to the bottom of the well to find its center, to weave its opposite ends together, to capture the collective national sentiment and slingshot America into its destined role. Pity that this concept sounds so foreign and foolish.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

energy myopia

For your consideration, a simple graph...

...depicting global, commercial energy production since 1800. Despite a few small hiccups, all of the lines, and especially all of them taken together, move in only one direction. Up.

And it's pretty easy to interpret the big story from this little picture: the entire viability of the Developed World, since industrialization's first meek stirrings in the 1840's, has been premised on an ever increasing consumption of energy.

What with oil over $100 a barrel now and all the talk about clean and sustainable energy development, you'd hope this picture was familiar to the people who stand to do most with it (like maybe the head of government of the world's largest economy). Let's see what America's presidential candidates would do about our looming energy predicament.

First, the Democrats:
Clinton would: decrease US foreign oil consumption by 50% by 2025; develop 20% renewable energy standard for power companies; make federal buildings carbon neutral;

Edwards would: reduce fossil fuel dependence through $13B "New Energy Economic Fund"; develop 25% renewable energy standard for power companies; allocate $1B for automakers to apply latest technology; raise fuel economy standard to 40 mpg by 2016; promote ethanol use

Obama would: decrease US foreign oil consumption 50% by 2025; support ethanol and blended fuel initiatives; support coal to liquid fuel legislation

Richardson would: "make the US the Saudi Arabia of wind, solar and biomass"; move vehicles toward 100 mpg; push for 20% improvement in US energy productivity; reduce foreign oil to 10% of total
Hmm. Richardson actually seems to have a sense of the magnitude and urgency of the situation (though you'd hope so since he used to be the Energy Secretary). Too bad he's not sufficiently "presidential" (read: slightly chubby) to have any shot at the nomination.

And the Republicans:
Giuliani would: support increased use of nuclear power and probably lean heavily on the advice of the fossil fuel-oriented energy companies he's consulted for or represented legally

Huckabee would: support increased use of nuclear power, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and "promote alternative fuel technologies"

McCain would: promote a system of greenhouse gas tradeable allowances and greatly increase the use of nuclear power

Romney would support drilling in the ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf, increase energy efficiency in government buildings and vehicles, promote biofuel development, increase the use of nuclear power and "work to make the US energy self-sufficient in the next couple of decades"
The collective dedication to nuclear by the Republicans should raise a red flag. I'll be the first to agree that fission has its role to play, but blurting this out to the exclusion of a truly considered policy suggests magical thinking of the "salvation by technology" variety.

Yes, the Democrats come off as somewhat more enlightened, but that's not the point here. My point (which none of these good folks cares to address) is that for 200 years the core assumption of our stability and affluence is sustained growth through ever greater energy gulps. Yet all anyone wants to talk about is use reduction and source swapping. Which makes no sense, since if you're basing forecasts on current use you're bucking every trend of the last two centuries, so what you should be talking about is how we're going to manage the seismic consequences of bucking every trend of the past two centuries.

There's such an opportunity here to frame this energy/environment/growth plateau issue and make a stand. Real hinge of history stuff. Yet no one even hints at it.

And I wish someone would get this issue, this do we really think we're gonna grow forever issue, out in public. Because the time is coming when the climate vs. comfort question has to get answered - when some combination of economic and political pressures forces a decision about whether we backslide to dirty energy or suck it up and do the hard work it takes to transcend the carbon lifestyle for real. And when that day comes it would be nice to have a president with the backbone to make the hard choice.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

the coming age of waterwalls

All vast, massive systems trace ultimately to a central emptiness. Some center cannot hold, a small thing shifts, motion starts.  The turning speeds up and strengthens, limited only by the depth of emptiness at the core.   It is the same for a crowd, a storm, a galaxy or water spiraling down a drain.

The vortex is a hungry and dangerous beast. And whenever the basic act of maintaining balance starts requiring greater and greater effort we have to wonder: has one of these beasts begun the spin that will consume us?

The deteriorating global climate situation (and technology's relationship to it) has this feel. Since most of us live in cities close to the ocean now there is cause for worry. As sea level rises, our only practical, local option will be to build walls against the water. Significant triage will be necessary; entire continents cannot be walled off against the sea.

In America it will mostly be big cities that get the walls. These are some of the likely candidates:

As things fall apart, waterwalls will be erected quickly using enormous resources and a good deal of technology. These represent the first serious battle of the Nature Wars, where construction and innovation are directed urgently and aggressively not to advance civilization but to patch holes and reclaim basic equilibrium against a deteriorating ecological foundation.

We don't win this one. Innocence is lost and the hour of inundation comes at last.  Treating the symptoms will not make us whole. And listen: do you hear that hissing sound? We are already inside the tightening gyre. The future we have committed ourselves to is wet and dizzying.