Archive for November, 2009

Better Than the Icing on the Cake

November 27th, 2009

There can be only one six.

pie table

The battle of the pies continues and as of this Thanksgiving, includes another generation.  Our youngest, at 16, joined in yesterday with his own. Isaac produced a blueberry pie — filling and crust, with the vents spelling PIE.

As always, our Southern-rooted guests and family brought a favorite pie, and Kay bought two. When we had two or three, they were sideboard material. We have moved to a separate pie table now.

From the left, yesterday’s desserts were pecan, cheesecake, sweet potato, cherry, blueberry and buttermilk.

Despite our best efforts and with everyone having small slices of this and that on a plate, there were leftovers. Some left with pie and others had it for breakfast.

All of us get to taste pies on Thanksgiving that we don’t make and generally don’t have in the rest of the year. We heartily recommend this custom to others.

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Call Me Squeaky

November 25th, 2009

Ribbon RackAt the West Roxbury YMCA today, one of the desk staff sought me to say excitedly that a Ribbon Rack® was on the way. He said the Y had applied to the city for a bike rack in the parking lot and had heard back that there’s one coming in the spring when the weather warms enough to make it practical to install.

I am, after all, the jerk (maybe squeaky wheel or crank) who had a fit about the old rack. Not only did it not suit bikes after the 1970s, but when they had the lot repaved, it ended up nearly useless against a brick wall.

My mom would be proud that I am carrying on her example. She had little patience with inefficiency or stupidity when it affects others. She’s dead several years now, but lives through me in this way at least.

The existing badly reinstalled bad rack actively discourages bikers. Setting aside the contradiction of driving a few miles to exercise to stay or get fit, I figure it can work the other way. The Y has two parking lots, often full, with spillover into adjacent residential streets. When cyclists discover a conveniently located, sensibly installed and easy to use rack, with my bike and a couple of others, they are likely to be inspired to spin 2 to 5 miles instead of driving.

I’ll report on the effects come spring.

Oh, yes, and the requisite praise should go to the city’s bike coordinator, Nicole Freedman, and Mayor Tom Menino to, if you pardon, driving this rack program.

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Circus on Your Computer

November 23rd, 2009

Lo and woe! Technologies insidiously let us be boorishly unaware.

WWI era circus posterInternet radio has joined blogs (I’m doubly guilt here) in shameless self-expression. The phenomenon surely goes back to movable type or perhaps beyond. Digital photography falls in the class, but is nowhere near as guilty as the introduction of desktop publishing (DTP) several decades ago. Make personal expression easier and we humans just can’t resist.

For good and ill, we have all seen and perhaps perpetrated this for as long as families left a communal space. This includes holiday and travel letters.

While she never yielded to the tourist version, my mother did produce annual Christmas letters. In fairness to her, we did move every couple of years and had friends and relatives about like so many prairie dogs in this hole or that. Back in the days of stencils and mimeographs, she’d create annual updates with little pictures of the three of us and some basic events of the year.

Being a mildly repressed WASPy sort, she never succumbed to either the bragging or whining varieties that are so easy to ridicule. Yet, given the limits of typewriters and copying technologies in the ’50 and ’60s, even the long and self-indulgent versions were not hard to look at.

My father did not raise my sister and me, instead remarrying and plying his paternal craft on two other sons. What he did share were ghastly travelogues of trips he and wife took. They were lifers, a.k.a. Army officers, which goes a long way to explaining the incredibly detailed, yet significance-free letters.

I recall one that I must have somewhere about a long Egyptian trip. It begins along the lines of “0820 Leave SEATAC” and continues in military lingo about the most trivial of non-events. They would travel almost exclusively to stay with families of other officers they had known over the years. The actual commentary invariably was like a Monty Python sketch.  Cairo in particular and Egyptians in general were dirty, dangerous and untrustworthy. Other than a good time in New Zealand, those letters didn’t indicate any fun had by anyone.

Typical of the WWII generation, they never made the switch to DTP when it popped out suddenly in the 1980s along with PCs.  Many, far too many, others did jump into it with 10 fingers though.

That hasn’t stopped. Now everyone is an editor, writer, art director and publisher. Cheap or free software along with the computers, digital cameras and color printers enables all our related fantasies.

We in journalism school in the 1960s got warnings from professors about the snares of technology. Ours was when the newspaper and magazines industries switched from hot metal to offset. The old lead in a frame metal system had lots of limits. Sure, you could vary type sizes and styles, within boundaries. With offset came a cornucopia of fonts and the ability to lay out a page with strips of paper with the type and images. It virtually guaranteed tacky personal expression. We suddenly were all art directors.

In j-school, the resulting pages of many contrasting fonts and sizes alone were cause for disdain. It was what the profs called circus layout, for its similarity to old traveling-show posters.

Offset and later DTP paid no attention to guidelines based on experience as well as what would come to be known a usability studies.  A few for example include:

  • Too many varied headline styles are distracting to the reader.
  • Tombstoned heads (in adjacent columns) confuse readers.
  • A mugshot in profile should direct the reader’s eye by looking into the text.
  • Put the article you want to be sure the reader sees in the upper right of a newspaper page and on the right page of a magazine spread

From the moment we first put 5 ¼ DTP software into our primitive PCs, we went mad with our options. Ivy-vine headlines? Sure. Heart dots on the i’s? Why not. If two headline fonts were adequate, surely a different one for each block of text would be better!

An amazing aspect of all this is that most of us are oblivious to why such docs are so damned hard to look at, much less read. A real answer is that we aren’t trained to see what’s right or wrong for our eyes/brains.

chocolatesThe wee irony here is that nearly all of us do see the same flaws elsewhere. For example, we just watched the sappy but well done Away We Go on DVD.  The male lead can be socially clumsy, even inept. A visual cue to this is showing him wearing various combinations of plaid clothing. That’s a fabric version of bad DTP that girls eventually tease their brothers and boyfriend out of wearing.

There likely is no similar cure for Facebook pages jammed with eye-shocking crap anymore than people stopping flinging every option at personal (or church) newsletters, blogs and web pages. Like a Wittman’s sampler of chocolates, you might start with the legend on the box and pick your one or two favorites. Suddenly you are stuffing everything into your mouth.

It’s too easy.

Rip ’em Up

November 20th, 2009

Tear ’em up. Cocks give ’em hell.

That was the common cheer when I was at University of South Carolina football games. I heard the cheer exhorting the team, the Gamecocks, many times. It wasn’t so much that I liked football. Rather the swim team, of which I was a member, had rights to sell programs and funnel the money to the underfunded sport.USC logo

As a journalism student, I was a reporter and editor on the newspaper. Of course it was The Gamecock. It is now a daily during the regular school year. My class expanded it from a weekly to three issues a week. When I arrived, the most popular feature was a Greek-society-oriented gossip column, Cock Tales. Yuk, yuk.

The  illegal cockfighting is apparently clandestine still occasionally happening and not just down South. This year, a bust in Connecticut was in the news. Just a few days ago, the more stereotypical version in rural South Carolina got the bad attention of state and federal police.

This goes back to the original European colonization in this hemisphere. The Spanish brought cockfighting to Mexico, New Mexico and California. While the Puritans banned it in New England as their like-minded chums did in England (but for the sin of gambling not animal cruelty), the other original colonies condoned or ignored it. Supposedly both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson bet on and otherwise participated in it, what was then considered a sport for gentlemen.

Not long after, in the first couple years of the 19th Century, South Carolina began and quickly adopted the gamecock as mascot and symbol. While the Confederate battle flag no longer flies officially there, the, well, cocky little bird remains ubiquitous. As well as on the university papers and anything of the sports teams, you can find that mascot on everything from beach towels to golf balls to cheese dip.

By law, cockfighting is illegal in this country except for the equivalent of colonies — Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Mariana Islands. However, the criminal nature varies widely, from felonies at the federal level and in 33 states to a misdemeanor likely to bring a fine…assuming a conviction. In Louisiana, the last state to outlaw it, cockfighting can bring $1,000 fine and six months in prison. In South Carolina, the maximum penalty for a first time is $100 and 30 days — not exactly a terrifying deterrent, rooster lovers.

Here in Massachusetts, cockfighting was outlawed in 1836, the first such formal ban n this country. Presently a detailed law (Chapter 272) lists such penalties as up to five years and $1,000 for owning fighting birds, a month in jail and a $250 fine for watching a cockfight, and loss of all birds and equipment of a fighting facility.

Gamecocks tee shirtAt least when I was there, locals and students had little interest in cockfighting. They did though enjoy the cheap related puns. Even now, I guess I never really got over it. I like wearing my tee shirt with eight-inch letters spelling COCKS.

Not everyone shares the humor of Carolina students. Consider PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), which eight years ago tried to get the two schools with gamecock mascots (Alabama’s Jacksonville State being the other) to get the colleges to pick a less blood-sport symbol.

According to a piece in the State (S.C.’s biggest newspaper) at the time, PETA’s Kristie Phelps said, “It’s a safe bet that officials at the University of South Carolina would never dream of calling their athletic teams the Dogfighters, the Wifebeaters, the Looters or the Road-Ragers.” Predictably, the administrations said there was no interest in the change. Phelps may not have bolstered PETA’s stance with her response for alternatives:

The Gym Socks or the Pet Rocks or anything that doesn’t perpetuate animal cruelty. The Gamecocks can score points for kindness; they can be champions of compassion.

That may not be quite as absurd and baseless as it seems coming from that source. We should note that the Carolina motto is from Ovid [a widely used selection from his Letters from the Black Sea (Epistulae ex Ponto)].  He wrote concerning a liberal education:

Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes
emollit mores nec sinit esse feros.

Many others, including Napoleon, used that as well. In South Carolina’s case, the literal translation, (liberal education) humanizes character and does not allow it to become fierce, has a vernacular definition — we make gentlemen out of roughnecks.The roughnecks, or rednecks as we Yankees are wont to call anyone south of New Jersey, aren’t much for cockfighting anymore. On the other hand, they aren’t much for being told from afar what’s proper for them.

I agree that any animal fighting for sport and gambling is cruel and should remain illegal. I don’t think that a legacy mascot will inspire a resurgence of it though.

It reminds me of my minor embarrassment of my high-school days at our mascot, a pretty but not very butch cardinal. A fighting rooster may also be just a bird, but it least it had an air of strength about it, an attitude that it could tackle more than a sunflower seed. As a member of the wrestling and swimming teams and sports editor, I rather envied the jungle cats and such mascots. …a cardinal?

For South Carolina, I’m pleased it turned its traditional sport into a crime. It should go all the way and make it a felony, but there’s time for that.

Thanksgiving Plus 2: Funny stuff for someone who cares little about football…Carolina did rip archrival Clemson today in their long-term T’day week battle (34-17).  The aggy school up in the hills was 15th in the nation, so it’s sort of too bad, but the folk in Columbia are likely callin’  “Give ’em hell!”

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Breasts, Docs and Perceived Reality

November 17th, 2009


Confusing Doctors Again

Not much funny about breast cancer, eh? However, the medical community is giving us a big yuk on mammogram schedules.

Like the ending of G.I. Joe cartoons, the moral of the episode invariably included, “And now we know…and knowing is half the battle.” In this case, the U.S. Preventive Health Task Force announced new guidelines for routine breast-cancer screenings. Fundamentally, instead of annual mammograms from 40, the new rule would be every other year from 50.

Alas for the medical community, this is only the latest care that exposes its frailty, its reliance on fungible vetting for diagnosis and care. Truth be told, most doctors have as much to do with medical science as pop journalists do. They wave the current perceived wisdom, call, “Aha!,” and congratulate themselves.

So in the media including talk shows, they find women to say this is putting their lives at risk. They find doctors who say they are confused. They find researchers who were behind the previous perceived wisdom implying that a massive die-off of U.S. women will follow. A few alarmists also say this is all insurance companies need to deny annual breast-cancer screens to women who want them anyway.

The joke here is that this is common, if less dramatic and less discussed, in the profession. With a herd instinct, nearly all non-specialist doctors have to rely on the best guesses from the most accepted reports and studies. That means they end up continually circling back pretending that each change of diagnostic or treatment protocol is a breakthrough and G.I. Joe style new knowledge.

I became aware of this first when I was in elementary school. My mother ran Red Cross chapter, putting her in charge of and teaching first aid, home nursing and such, with the accompanying textbooks. I remember her alternately laughing and complaining when the national organization revised those manuals every year or even less as the American Medical Association changed its mind.

One trigger was burn treatment. It was cover or leave exposed to air and use gooky medicine or let it form a scab on its own. Back and forth it went with one major reputable study after another.

With the imprecision of care and the reality that most primary care physicians — PCPs or what we used to call general practitioners or family practitioners (GPs or FPs) — are not particularly good diagnosticians. They reply on plugging symptoms into their experience or searching software or a book for the most likely fit. In all likelihood, they end up treating symptoms with drugs and never diagnose anything. That means 1) the body cures itself, 2) symptom relief is coincident with improvement, or 3) yet another patient on a long-term regimen of a drug which may or may not address the cause of the complaint.

We really can’t fairly call that medical science. Yet, we do cut docs some slack here. Much of the time they are pretty much the best health gamble around. We know they are not likely to discover or cure underlying causes, particularly of chronic problems. We also know that the system requires them to move a lot of patients through, so that they really don’t have time to muse or deeply investigate or even research beyond reading current medical journals. They aren’t scientists.

Moreover, they are easily misled by extrapolations from the research on which they rely. An obvious example is the silly reliance on body mass index (BMI) for individuals. While useful as a broad-brush measurement for big groups, it is often invalid per patient. Thin looking folk with little muscular development may have fine BMI but have organs swimming in their fat. Athletes with well developed muscles are often obese or overweight by BMI while being very healthy and having a great body fat level, much more meaningful than BMI.

It is easy to see how PCPs can fall back on the lazy solution of BMI though. Plug in a height and weight and there’s a number for comparison. Doctors worthy of their oaths would look at and palpate patients. They would take the same two measurements, but put them into a hand-held body-fat analyzer instead (those are very accurate and inexpensive at $25 to $50). Then nutrition and exercise recommendations would be meaningful. Oops, let’s not forget that most PCPs know little about diet or exercise.

So we are stuck with a system that hurries docs along, encouraging them to be reliant on easy ways out for diagnosis and treatment. We end up with increasingly unrealistic guidelines in many areas, while the population gets widely wide and heavy. Those guidelines have not resulted in greater longevity either, we struggle around 17th in the world, despite our disproportionate health-care cost and use of prescription drugs.

Treat Cause or Symptom?

A real solution would be a hard one, finding and treating underlying causes for conditions. As our system is now, that would happen only if considerable research was done asking such questions as is the mid-term and long-term outcome for patients better with treating symptoms pharmaceutically or changing the underlying cause of their problems. In a country where nearly all medical research is funded directly or secondarily by drug companies, you can imagine how likely it will be for such massive studies to occur.

In many areas, the research that our docs rely on seems misused as well. Consider for one, the famous Framingham Heart Study. It is a massive, on-going and very useful project, even though it has the limit of covering only men, only in a age range, and with rebutted results in the British Medical Journal among other places. Yet is is a hook to hang a medical hat on and as such used for various guidelines.

One such is that acceptable blood pressure has dropped from 140 to 130 to 120 to 115 upper number, for example. One effect is from the study that the recommendation is that over 90% of men should be on anti-hypertensive drugs by 60.

You needn’t be the worst cynic around to question the relationship between drug companies, doctors and that guideline. Think in contrast if PCPs worked with patients to reduce body fat, up potassium intake, reduce stress and such. would the patient be better off than a remaining lifetime of one or more drugs?

What would G.I. Joe say? Maybe, “Well, we’ll never know and not knowing leaves us unprepared for the battle.”

Cross-post note: I have other medical rants here. This one will also appear at Marry in Massachusetts.

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J-Hooked Today

November 16th, 2009

J-hook graphicClimbing stairs, of which my house has many, is less fun than it was a couple of hours ago. I have a dollar-bill sized bruise. A driver j-hooked me on my bike ride early this afternoon.

I had been cocky about my ability to outwit the witless and impatient. Numerous drivers in Boston and Cambridge have swerved to the right in front of me to make a turn, but I have always been too alert, too quick and too skilled to be hurt. This one got me.

She turned suddenly as she was passing me, starting her signal as she went from Rte. 138 south into the Suffolk Grille/Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. Like the old joke about Tarzan painting zebras, I’ll never know whether she was headed for a chocolate glazed or a double martini.

I had no way out and despite my good brakes and fast reflexes, I was probably still doing 15 mph when she hit me with her passenger side. I went down on my left hip and then elbow.

She stopped. I got off the pavement. We talked.

She first said she didn’t see me. I didn’t buy that. She was still in the process of passing me, all 185 pounds of me with a yellow Polartec pullover and shiny blue helmet, riding my very yellow bike.

Then she quickly came to the truth of the matter. “I thought you were back there…I had no idea bikes could move that fast.”

In all honesty, still recovering from my badly broken leg and being an old guy, I’m not all that fast. I bet coming down that hill, I never broke 25 mph and was able to slow before she clipped me. Yet, her point was well taken. Most drivers think of cyclists as going walking speed. That makes them think, if they consider it at all, that they can disregard any bike on their right. They would surely be long gone or turned before a human-powered vehicle approaches.

Wrong-o, sports fans.

She kept saying how sorry she was. I told her several times I was pretty sure I was just roughed up and bruised. My bike seems OK.

As she calmed, I got to my cyclist’s teaching moment. I did point out that she turned into and hit me; she was nowhere past the bike. There are specific laws forbidding what she had done.

(Mass Ch. 90-Sec. 14, including, No person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist at a speed that is reasonable and proper. It also covers: No person shall open a door on a motor vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so without interfering with the movement of other traffic, including bicyclists and pedestrians. It has fines and comes with civil liability, presumption of guilt, license points and insurance surcharges. There basically is no defense any more than rear ending another vehicle in traffic. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.)

However, I led her through that a slow cyclist is likely going 10 to 13 miles per hour and road cyclists 15 to 30. After this event, for all us cyclists, she said she’d be very careful and aware. She really hadn’t thought about it. She should allow space and time.

I believe she will and I believe she’ll tell family and friends, and in turn some of them will think of it. I think she is much more bike friendly and aware.

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Life and Death by Bike

November 16th, 2009

We people could used more RAM.  In common public activities — for this post, think walking, cycling and driving — there are a ton of data to analyze every second. Yet the human norm is to limit the input, to be overly selective in using our brains.

A fatal example occurred in Boston when an 84-year-old walked out into traffic on Friday. A cyclist knocked  him to the curb, where he hit his head. He died two days later in the hospital.

Like competing Greek choruses,  we immediately heard:

  • The large subset of bicyclists are all monsters! String ‘im up.
  • A very quiet repeating chant of make the roads safe for cars, walkers and pedalers.
  • A small subset of grumblers about crazy pedestrians.

I have a stake in all the races here, being a multi-modal guy (add the subway or T as we call it here). Moreover, I have been hit by car drivers four times. The first, at age 6, was my fault; I ran across the street in front of a car with a green light. The second and extremely serious, at 19, was when another of the six students in my Greek class (yes, a third of the class was involved) wasn’t paying attention and flung me up and through his VW’s windshield. Twice as an adult cyclist in Boston,  I was hit by drivers who simply did not pay attention to the road and plowed into me when I had the right of way and was looking.

Yesterday’s fatality, Henry Haley, was elderly and according to the Globe not too healthy. Yet that was an unnecessary death and he might have had another decade or more of enjoyment and participation coming. The cyclist, identified by the Herald as 22-year-old Julian Paul Cavarlez-Flores of Randolph (probably a 15 to 18 mile bike ride), apparently had no chance to stop when Haley stepped into traffic against the light and not in a crosswalk.

The cyclist’s being legally in the right doesn’t bring Haley back any more than it will keep Cavarlez-Flores from forever replaying the panic and impotence at the appearance and impact. By the bye, he remained, tried to help and cooperated with police. Witnesses said it was Haley’s doing.

Here, I’m huge on multi-modal transportation. Search the cycling posts on this spot and at Marry in Massachusetts to find posts on Boston’s cycling defects and advances, on the Moving Together and Rail-Volution conferences, and on efforts to make ped/car/bike transit safe and inviting for all. Some of the ideas we are finally copying from Europe (think NYC’s separated walker and cyclist lanes) will make big leaps in that direction, but they will be a long time coming.

Let’s leave aside the wild-eyed get-off-my-road attitude of overly aggressive and overly entitled drivers. Think instead of the attention factor. Through what appears to be a combination of dull wits, low process capacity or perhaps just laziness, most us don’t make the effort to keep others on the road safe.

Try any American beltway or interstate to see this in action. A long and wide cascade of red tail lights, often with spots of squealing brakes and tires, occurs regularly. That’s no act of God. Instead, most of us drive right in front of our cars’ hoods. Were we looking a little farther and wider, we could see this truck cutting of that car, a sudden slowing a few hundred yards away, a state-police car off in the right shoulder, or drivers blocked up behind some slowpoke in the far left lane.

Ideally, there’d be no tailgating and no mass surprises…if drivers took in the horizon and looked up from their hoods. Yet, doing that requires brain power, of the type nearly all of us can perform if we choose. There are many ocular messages and a few aural ones involved. We can’t be twisting the CD player dial or reaching for a map or watching the GPS display. We actually have to pay attention and use our processing power all the time.

Cyclists should do that too and in self-preservation, most are better at it than drivers. The potentially fatal hazards — almost entirely from inattentive or hostile drivers or from pedestrians — are constant in the city.

Consider tinted windows, which I consider hazardous both to the driver and to those around the car. Drivers lose some visibility in any darkened condition. Far worse is the elimination of field of vision for those beside or behind in the constant turning or lane changing conditions. Many of those tints are just too deep for safety and an annoyance to fellow drivers.

For a cyclist, tinted windows can be super-dangerous. On streets, even those with painted bike lanes, there is a constant risk from gormless drivers suddenly flinging doors open into traffic. If they knock a cyclist into traffic or if the pedaler hits the door, it means serious injury and even death. Dooring is a far greater cause of death and injury to cyclists than collisions between bikes and pedestrians.

The self-defensive solution is for cyclists to process constantly. It is not the option most drivers consider in their metal cages. Every parked car may contain a driver or passenger about to throw the door open without looking (violation of state law, by the bye). That processing does not mean cyclists can take their eye off the road ahead or to either side. Instead of slowing to pass as legally required, many drivers blow the horn as though that suddenly will make the bicycle disappear.

As I go by various transit methods, I am pretty sure that city cycling has a similar effect as hard crosswords. Both (particularly cryptics in the latter group) make the brain process more information, keeping it sharp. Ideally, everyone would regularly be a driver, walker and cyclist too. Dealing with the spatial realities of each could give us both insight and empathy to the others.

Pity that Mr. Haley died from the collision. Yet, this is such a rare event that it got and likely will continue to get media coverage locally. In contrast, cyclists injured by drivers are not news and those killed by a car or truck driver tend to hit the neighborhood weekly only.

It’s too glib to note that the common-sense prevention is to watch where we walk, rdrive or bike, as well as obey those pesky laws and regulations about traffic lights, crosswalks and turns. Instead, some of us are compelled to extreme caution by the abandon of others. I think of River Street in Hyde Park from Cleary to Logan Squares. On this always busy road, pedestrians of all ages, with and without their children, stride suddenly between parked cars and traffic, with no attention to the nearby crosswalks. As a dad who drilled it into my three sons never to assume drivers are looking out for you, I remain astonished that parents would risk their kids’ lives constantly. I bike and drive that stretch cautiously.

Our behavior in many cities and most the nation being what it is, we end up adjusting the mechanics to cope as best possible. That’s why we have sidewalks and here a few inconvenient bike paths and increasing mileage of bike lanes. We have to protect people from each other far more than civility and reason would otherwise demand.

I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the fully separated and pretty safe car/ped/bike lanes here. Yet that is more likely to happen than that other solutions — hard traffic enforcement. If word got around that Boston’s blue boys charged drivers with running red lights, cutting off or j-hooking cyclists, threatening pedestrians in crosswalk chicken and such,  we’d see a very different transit environment.

Forget that.

Instead, the crowds have competing calls of blame for bad walkers and bad pedalers. The real problems are streets not yet set up for multi-modal transit and drivers creating a wild-west-style roadway. Here’s betting that we patch the signs, paint the lanes and separate travel areas long before we force drivers to behave.

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Crank Returns

November 10th, 2009

My late mother does manifest through me. As in the tiny woman cowing the gigantic manager, I would shamelessly embarrass my children in pursuit of efficiency and clear thinking. Fortunately for them, none of my boys was at the Y yesterday to hear me.

non-sensical bike rack My mom may be dead, but the world is not missing a crank. I have replaced her.

At issue is the week-long parking-lot repaving that is into its third month. In fairness, we had some rain and other bad weather, but this is being done on contractor time.

The last piece was re-installing the bicycle rack. This is something I know a bit about, having spec’ed a rack for a church, having attended multiple Moving Together and other transportation conferences, having interviewed the bike coordinators of Cambridge and Boston, and being a very regular cyclist.

I had spoken with the Y’s staff, including the executive director. I said it would be a false economy not to replace the inadequate 1960s rack with a much more sensible Ribbon Rack. It holds more bikes and more types of bikes in less space.  I pointed them to one in the neighborhood at the public library. I noted that the city has an active program to place racks for free in likely places. I added that there were reimbursement programs that would require only paying for installation. Everyone responded with aggressive head nods and promises to follow up.

Horse feathers!

When the rack reappeared, not only was it the same lame old one whose upright members don’t accommodate any mountain bike or even modern road bikes, the solid-geometry deficient and cycling ignorant pavers had actually set it as in the above image (click for larger view). As the new placement is not even a wheel diameter away from the brick wall, the only way to lock a bike to it is is sideways, limiting it to three at best and more likely two bikes. Duh.

In other words, if the aim is to service the Y members or encourage visitors to leave cars at home, this fails. Cyclists I know and I would not ride a bike there if we knew that the racks would not be easy to use or in this case even possible to use.

Channeling my mother Wanda, I asked the staff to call the executive director. I led her to the rack and explained why it utterly failed at its aim. I discussed the options for free or reduced cost racks and insulted the intellect of the paving minions.

She alleged she would be interested in links to the rack programs.  Arriving home, I sent her links to:

  • Boston’s bike-rack request form
  • Boston’s Bike Coordinator Nicole Freedman
  • The MAPC rack-reimbursement program
  • Ribbon Rack

She replied quickly by return email that she was not aware of these and was delighted to have the information. Crank. Crank. Crank.

I shall watch eager to see whether and if so how long it will take to put a functional rack in the parking lot or in one of the two locations (Bellevue or Centre) I suggested for the free city ones that have to go in pubic spaces.

Like Wanda, I do not raise my voice. However, also like her, I am reasoned and relentless. It all seems to intensify with age.

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X Marks The Nice Spot

November 7th, 2009

wolverine, not necessarily Boston driverThe politest intersection is Boston is remarkable in several aspects. First of all, let’s consider that a four-way stop in the city, this city can honestly have the attribute of polite.

Not only in this era but in New England in general and Boston specifically, we are not known for our social graces. From the way we drive to how we respond to questions from distant tourists, outsiders would reasonably expect us to have been raised by wolverines or something in the weasel family.

Yet, in the wilds of Stony Brook at the bottom or Rozzie and HP, a small plat of mannered heaven hides. Where Enneking turns hard and meets the other parkways of Dedham and Turtle Pond, an Eden of consideration and kindness exists.

From any of the four directions, drivers stop, wait for each other, pay attention to the rule that first-come/first-go or even the law and courtesy that the driver on the right gets to go when cars arrive simultaneously.

Whether I bike or drive. no matter what time of day, whether it is rush hour with jammed Enneking traffic, or regardless of the weather, drivers are polite to each other. I have never heard a blaring horn nor seen anyone demand and take an out-of-turn shot.

polite Boston intersection

Could it be something in the oxygen from all the foliage? Might some nearby unknown native American burial ground be affecting Bostonians as they arrive at the intersection? Would the bucolic nature of the park all around calm the savages?

The cause is far less important than the mere existence of the magic intersection.

Go then when you despair of your pushy neighbors or aggressive bozos on the roads. There is a remarkably low JQ (jerk quotient) at Enneking and Enneking. Bless that X.

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Kind of Getting There from Here

November 5th, 2009

The charm quickly peels awayfrom Boston’s atavistic transit system. Like the crappy Pennsylvania Turnpike, we have the hemisphere’s oldest subway. It seems like it.

Series note: This is part of the Rail-Volution inspired post set.

At the weekend’s conference, I was surprised and pleased to learn about the Fairmount Corridor from two key players. Marvin Martin, who drove this city-train revolution as executive director of the Greater Four Corners Action! Coalition (no website) and Gail Latimore, who heads the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp., spoke.

I had sort of paid attention, but not enough, to the news over the years. This has been percolating for nearly two decades and is happening as we speak. I’ll post details in a few days. However, the key concept it that Martin led largely African-American Bostonians between lower Hyde Park and South Station in indignation. A perfectly good commuter-rail line zipped through their neighborhoods, making the trip in 8 minutes. Read carefully to be fully aware that it made two stops on the way (Morton Street and Uphams Corner). In fact, there were no other stations for it to stop at over 8 miles, by design, where most people lived.

The bus or bus/subway alternatives for this large swath inhabited largely by lower-middle, poor and middle class residents of color was different. It took an optimum 45 minutes and more likely 60 to 90 for the same trip from where people live to where they work. There are four stations (New
Market/ South Bay, Columbia Road, Four Corners, Talbot Avenue, and Cummins Highway) \in the works in an activists’ effort that started in 1987 and has continued relentlessly.

pigI must be a typical American. I paid attention when it meant something personal. Moving to Fairmount Hill in Hyde Park after 21 years in Jamaica Plain, I was pleased to hear from the previous owners here that the Fairmount line at the bottom had a commuter rail. In a pig’s eye it does.

Until the Indigo line is complete and the MBTA keeps its promise to increase trips, it is still a white commuters’ line. Specifically, inbound, four trains are scheduled for Fairmount between 6:38 and 8:28 a.m. Likewise, outbound, there are four from South Station from 5:10 to 6:30.

Throughout the day, a few may stop if the conductor notices anyone flagging the train from the platform. The last possible train from South Station leaves at 9:30 p.m. and will stop to discharge only if passengers ask the conductor and that conductor remembers to tell the driver.

Weekends? Forget about it!

Moreover, this in unlike a real city transit system for pricing. With a Charlie Card fair of $1.70 for subway and $1.50 for bus, the irregular and inconvenient Fairmount is $4.25 each way, with no provision for transfers, even to buses.

I figure to go to Mike Capuano’s function Monday at the Park Plaza from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. That should be a good time to see how to get from here to there and perhaps even back.

First, note that the MBTA trip planner truly stinks. On Universal Hub and numerous blogs, they have depressing examples of being routed absurd ways to go short distances. In this case, I also found the T doesn’t use fuzzy logic and requires silly specifics to find the most basic locations. For example, it can’t find Back Bay Station without its ZIP code added, and it knows Milton Ave., but not Milton Avenue, but again only with a ZIP and not just the neighborhood. Lame.

For giggles, I asked about getting to and from the event. By the bye, the number 24 bus through Mattapan Square and up to Ashmont stops a half block from my house. The T doesn’t seem to know that.

The T would have me spend $5.95 each way, with trip times from 63 to 97 minutes. Those using the commuter rail also indicate a flag stop for the train, which I don’t trust from previous experience seeing trains pass vigorously waving potential passengers.

future Indigo Line

I know from a son who commutes to Latin Academy that a shank’s mare version is quicker. A 10 or so minute walk to Cleary Square get a 32 bus in a minute or five, for $1.50. I gets to Forest Hills in 15 to 20 minutes. Then the Orange Line thumps to Back Bay Station in a similar time, for $1.70. So, for $3.20 and under an hour, I’d be done each way with a vastly more flexible schedule than any of the combinations the T suggests.

Were I still on crutches from my leg operation earlier this year, I’d do the 24 close by. I could take it from very close to Ashmont, then the Red Line subway to the Orange Line and get off by the hotel. That would be maybe 90 minutes, or T time.

In other words, it’s expensive and slow, practically mandating a car trip with a pocket of quarters and driving around Back Bay for an open meter. That would be when people are leaving so it wouldn’t take long.

That’s not as significant as the many thousands who live between the Orange and Red Lines with no viable commuter rail. It is inconvenient and unnecessarily expensive.

I think of the much larger, longer, wide and more stop-filled NYC subways. In Manhattan alone, you can travel the 14 miles from the Battery North to Washington Heights local or express and get damned close to where you want fast. The city fare is $2.25 and trains go from where people live to where they work and play. All lines run all the time, frequently and on weekends as well.

Back to Boston and down to earth, we’re never going to be a 24-hour city or have a fast and frequent subway system. However, we can do better.

Through the efforts of Martin and the CDCs, the Indigo Line is coming. I remain to be convinced that the schedule will be convenient. I’d love to be able to go into town day and night on a convenient line.

There’s no reason other than inertia or indifference by the T that we don’t have real urban transit. There’s also no reason other than arrogance why its zone system puts so many parts of the actual city of Boston in zone 1 at $4.25 for what should be the same as a $1.70 subway ride. Absurd and provincial.

Of course, for the upper middle and upper class commuters, these are not problems. The trains run at to- and from-work times. They buy commuter rail passes so they don’t feel the per-trip cost. All the rest of the riders subsidize them and make do with the few off-rush-hour trains.

I see a parallel here with computer software. Most of it requires that the users be programmed for the quirks of the applications. We had to learn absurd commands and procedures to do basics. Likewise, T riders are supposed to adapt to the T’s edicts and caprices.

We oldsters and early adopters recall illogical Ctrl-k sequences for Word Perfect and such. Here, we’re accustomed to transit that just stops at night, trolleys that can’t operate over fallen leaves, and commuter rail that doesn’t accommodate where people live or when they want to arrive.

That future post will discuss how a indefatigable set of activists changed that for the Fairmount Corridor. At Rail-Volution, attendants from around the country could not stop raving at how sophisticated and effective that effort has been. It gives a Bostonian hope

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