Friday, May 3
The Boston area has a terrible reputation for bad driving compared with other cities. In my opinion. strongly backed up by statistics, this reflects cultural differences rather than reality. There is somewhat of a chip-on-the-shoulder, butt-into-line attitude among many Boston drivers. It probably goes back as far as the Blueblood vs. Irish struggles for political power of a century and more ago. Some drivers feel a sense of entitlement and an emotional need for self-assertion. But the rudeness also at times reflects the practical need to get going. A Boston driver more often has blindly to inch out into the path of a vehicle which has the legal right of way, simply to get into the stream of traffic, than in most other American cities. A cyclist who doesn’t understand this will feel continually abused and endangered; a cyclist who understands the need to assert lane position and right of way finds Boston a very easy and safe place to ride.

This suggests that bicycling in Boston is safe because the drivers are rude, because they need to be attentive. It sounds about right to me.

The accompanying video is somehow totally captivating.

Tuesday, April 16

There are some who remind me that many more people elsewhere in the world died yesterday from bombings. Yet… well, yes, I naturally care more for the city in which I live, but… a marathon! An attack on runners. (Technically, gruesomely, an attack focussed on spectactors. But we spectactors are here for the runner, we are moved by the runner — we are all runners.) Such a terrible thing.

I am in awe of marathoners, always have been. They have always seemed to me athletes apart — a strange mixture of frailty and strength, when I watch them pass, qualities interwoven and fundamental to the runner, qualities that are just human, essentially human. There is will, and there is a giving up of will to instinct — I see it in their faces. (A few runners near the explosions continued on toward the finish, unable to process what was happening, unable to remove their focus.)

  Your fragility is also your strength.
    — Pina Bausch, to her dancers.

A chill as the first runner passes. Waves of elation. I am nearly brought to tears. Such strength in our weaknesses. More runners pass. Many have spit, hanging off their faces, eyes closes, tense muscles pulling skin in odd folds, strained expressions. There are not many cool, calm, collected, sleek-looking athletes. They are merely human, struggling, suffering, a temporary combination of carbohydrates and muscle tissue, and yet with a trace of the eternal in them. I click away my photographs.

Because muscles are connected to the bones by fixed attachments, our limbs can only move by oscillation and not through complete revolution, as the wheels of a steam engine do.

Any movement we execute intentionally is a problem to be resolved: there is a goal to reach, and it must be reached in the simplest way possible.

The principle of least effort…belongs to the instinct rather than to the will. The less we are conscious of it, the more it manifests itself. Mechanical movements will therefore be simpler than the others: any sign of elegance or embellishment is inevitably eliminated. (Compare, for instance, ordinary handwriting to penmanship.)

Tuesday, April 2

March books:

  • John McPhee, Uncommon Carriers. Truckers who drive tractor-trailers don’t call anything with less than 18 wheels, “trucks.”

  • John McPhee, Coming into the Country. This book still resonates strongly with me, a vivid look at nature, culture, Alaska. May reread soon.

  • John McPhee, The Pine Barrens. Partly an argument to protect a largely undeveloped area in New Jersey, it is mostly a story about the interesting people living there. McPhee, even when he is writing about nature — grizzly bears, blueberries, pitch pines, the Taconic orogeny — really writes about people.

  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run. About justice.

  • Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. Had me laughing too much in public transport.

  • Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Also about justice.

Monday, April 1


(A paper read at the Wellesley Club, Dec 16, 1899)

The early economic details in the settlement of the territory, comprising our town, would afford a text for George, or Bellamy, or Adams Smith, or the German or French economists, but I will not take farther time than to say that lands were divided by the first settlers of Dedham from whom all the old families of our town are descended, so that each should have a house lot of twelve acres (the house not necessarily upon it), second, certain amount of pasture rights (not ownership), and third, certain interest in arable land and later on in woodland. These interests were apportioned equally as regards the house lot, the more cows a man owned the more pasture he had, the more servants he employed, the more acres he had to till.


With these privlieges of ownership and occupation came also duties each freeman owed to the community. He was obliged to live within the radius of a certain center, not over half a mile away, for his own and the general protection. He was obliged to clean a certain amount of land each year so that there might be less protection afforded to the noxious animals, and more arable land for cultivation and pasture; to clear the streams and rivers of brush, so that there might be less overflow; to assist in building roads and bridges, and to be prepared for military duties. Many matters of public concern, which are now done by delegated authority, and paid for out of the public funds raised by taxation, were, in our early history, and indeed within the memory of many now living, done by the individual or by an especially assigned tax. The road tax was a general thing worked out by the inhabitants even within my memory, and even our old ministers appeared in working clothes doing a good and effective day’s work. An unwritten law required cooperation in all work of importance of all the neighborhood, as for instance in a “raising” everybody turned out, and the house, barn or church, with their heavy timbers, went up in a day, and the jollification of the working together, the provisions, the liquors, perhaps paid for the time given. If a bridge was built and heavy stones were hauled the ox teams turned out by the score, and there was great rivalry to see who could make the best display. The fact, too, that all were actively enrolled in the militia and had training days and muster, brought people into close contact and acquaintance. The semi-business gatherings, with the Sunday meetings which all attended, when in the intermission a great deal of visiting was done, a great deal of news exchanged, a great deal of sympathy shown, afforded a relief to what otherwise wuld have been unendurable hardship and unrelenting labor.

— from the History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph Emery Fiske.

Outside of the city, on certain roads (“WATCH FOR BICYCLISTS”), on certain days, they are out, en masse. First I notice the trapezoidal form, efficient, taut, flexible, suggesting lenticular truss in motion. The rider’s back is perfectly curved, hunched over the handlebars, knees coming up to the chest, bending inward to aid in aerodynamics. The bike sways slightly from side to side under the power of massive, churning legs that are secured in clips to the pedals. They wear alarming colors of spandex. In packs they travel, 5, 10, or more. I pass on the other side and wave, and only one in the group will smile and wave back (perhaps being appointed this duty so the rest may stay focused). The sprinting troop forms a pace line, meaning one or two bikes lead while the others follow in sequence so closely that they are unable to see anything except the rear wheel of the bike ahead of them. In order to avoid riders being catapulted into the road by unseen debris, the front man must flick his hand out and shake it vigorously to point out potholes, roadkill, slower bicyclists, etc. A rider who leads another in the line cannot slow down without causing an accident. The lead sprints while the others rest, pulled along in the slipstream, and pops off to the back when tired. In this way the group moves much faster than the one. They ride to move, to consume mileage, to battle.

My uncle is such a rider. When we take rides, I in my jeans and running shoes, my clunky Nishiki catching wind and, next to his sleek, carbon fiber machine, seeming more like an oil tanker, he demands a rigid paceline, instructing me not to “be shy” if I permit a gap of more than two inches between our wheels, observing that wind resistance is proportional to the square of the distance, and, when I take the lead, crying “don’t be a hero” when I have kept it for more than a minute (my pace clearly annoys him). Such is the bonding of uncle and nephew. After twenty miles of hilly central Maine roads, I am ready to fall over against the nearest tree and take a nap, and my uncle is happily planning tomorrow’s ride. He is sixty; I am twenty-seven.

Friday, March 29

Flanders Road, my introduction to Westborough, is littered with big warehouses and hi-tech industrial parks. Microchem. Ameridose. SYGMA Network, who not only wants to be your distributor of choice, but a partner who adds value to your restaurants. GE Osmonics Micron Separations Inc., with a name carrying the battle scars of aquisitions. Reflectance Medical, announcing in December that it “has received 510(k) clearance from the FDA for its 2nd generation product, the Mobile CareGuide™ 2100 Oximeter,” and adding cryptically that “Reflectance Medical and Sotera Wireless also announced a non-exclusive distribution agreement.”

In this land of flat, long, beige buildings Yvonne Chern, a self-esteemed “Badminton Mom,” opened Boston Badminton, an eight-court club whose sign causes a double-take in the bicyclist riding past. When Wicked Local questioned Chern as to the location, she explained, “I wanted a place to run tournaments, and in order to do that, I needed a place with at least a 30-foot ceiling.” There is also, I notice, a hospital within 2000 feet. To bring an injured badminton player to the emergency room (perhaps with a bad sprain), you would drive underneath I495. 6 or 7 cars are parked outside. It is 9 in the morning. Premier members are given a key and offered 24-hour access to the courts. I continue on down Flanders Road.

Soon I am at a Dunkin Donuts in Westborough. The woman taking my coffee order eyes me suspiciously when I ask for tap water, sighs and tells me it’ll cost me for the cup. I happily hand her my water bottle. More eyeing, and she relents, another sigh escaping, as though she can do nothing against this hooliganism, and who is this sweaty kid with long hair and a strange pack to come to my town, my work? I am prepared for this provincial defensiveness and meet her with a smile. I sit and read a little, and make an important decision not to visit the Westborough library, as I’d rather get through this town quickly. The cars outside orbit and spin in the rotary; I meet them on the way south and west, headed to Grafton.

I will not make it to Grafton. I turn at Adams Street, when I should have turned at Adams Road, a mile ahead. Is one named after Sam, the other John? I am delivered to North Street, but it is not the North Street I think I am on, which is near the other Adams. I am lost. I am at Westboro Road rather than Worcester Street. This is not so bad as Farm Street intersecting Farm Road, outside of Sherborn. There are streets here that, within a few miles, will change names as often as they change cardinal direction: Whitney becomes Eliot, Prospect, Main; Chestnut becomes Ash, Prentice, Hollis; Fiske becomes Mill, West Goulding, East Goulding. Cordaville Road becomes Southville Road in Cordaville, which then confusingly intersects with Cordaville Road, Rt. 85, from Southborough (which in turn becomes Marlborough Rd, Maple St, Bolton St, Washington St, Licoln St, Hudson Rd, and so on). I have heard apocryphal accounts of Washington Street intersecting with Washington Street among the Boston suburbs.

I wave over a bicyclist, a man tightly dressed in professional gear, perhaps in his sixties, riding a bike that is likely worth above $3,000. I am so confused in my direction that he can’t quite help me get bearings, but offers to lead me in the direction of Grafton. I find soon that I have taken somewhat of a shortcut past Grafton on my route, and am on my way.

Sunday, March 3

I just saw an article recently, … somebody’s trying to classify grieving as a form of depression [in the DSM]. Grieving. If you’re sad and you lose your appetite and you’re upset and you see the world darkly and you can’t get out of bed because your wife or husband dies — a week later you feel like that, you actually have a form of depression. It’s not grieving.

It’s madness! It’s madness driven by the pharmaceutical industry. So here’s what I say to those fuckers who want philosophy to be in the service of science. Why don’t you go figure out who’s funding all of that horseshit, and then come back to me and show me where the virtue is. Because it’s completely naive and ridiculous to believe that science pursues the truth. At this point, I don’t believe there’s one researcher out there who’s not touched by the hand of money, and that money is driven by giant corporations, or by the government, or by the military, or whatever. In a certain sense the fact that we can’t create anything other than good opinions about how you should act as human beings actually makes us immune to the pernicious influence.

Seth’s rant in PEL, episode 69.
Saturday, March 2

Several libraries existed in Needham, Massachusetts, prior to 1888 — small affairs, school libraries, agricultural, religious. Some were grouped under the Needham Library Association, to which many books were moved under a central repository. A fire destroyed most of the collection.

In 1888 the town voted to create a new entity, the Free Public Library — an event whose 125th anniversary is coming in the next few weeks. But today (March 2) is another anniversary, 110 years to the day that a $10,000 gift was officially accepted from Andrew Carnegie for a new library building. Before Carnegie, the new library was housed variously in the high school and town hall.

Ground was broken for the new building on June 5, 1903, with “appropriate exercises, including addresses by several officials, and singing.” The first librarian was a Mrs. Francis Dunn. The total cost of the building was about $14,000, not including the donated land.

The architect was Albert Randolph Ross, who lived his later years in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Over his career he designed 12 libraries.

I enter the building not having intended to be here — it is a fortuitous stop on my bike ride to Westborough. (I don’t make it to Westborough.) I am confronted with what feels like hundreds of old ladies milling and chatting, apparently transported here by the busload, slowly ascending and descending stairs, greeting me as a Needham high schooler (I assure them I am not). There is an art show on display. Art by Neeham high school students has been paired with floral arrangement interpretations.

I pick out a collection of Thomas Wolfe short stories and read part of “No Door.” I like the phrase, as the narrator looks out onto Manhattan, a “curtain of star-flung towers.”

Back in the 1700s, Needham maintained its roads by electing Highway Surveyors — any male over 16 was eligible. Neglect of duty meant a fine of £5, “the failure to send a cart and team was punished with a fine of six shillings per day.”

As I bike the windy pavement in the old towns of MetroWest, I think of the epitaph I read on a gravestone:

In Memory of Mr. Samuel Coggine,
who was suddenly killed beneath 
the wheel of his waggon,
Oct 14, 1831.

Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what
a day may bring forth.
Wednesday, February 27
Prostitution flourished in medieval London, centred on the maze of streets around Cock’s Lane, Maiden Lane and the intriguingly named ‘Groupecunt Lane’.
From The Sexual History of London. “Gropecunt Lane” later became Grub Street. The “See Also” part of the Wikipedia entry leads one to Tickle Cock Bridge.

From (where else?):

On first glance, medieval cities look remarkably similar to patterns of veins in leaves…

The contiguous patches of non-veined leaf could easily be city blocks, with the leaf veins being roads in the city itself. With this in mind, I went hunting for an algorithm to simulate leaf growth. As it turns out, substantial progress in this has been made by a group in the University of Calgary. In fact, I adapted this algorithm to simulate city growth:

The paper cited is here and has interesting examples of algorithms to generate venation patterns.

Tuesday, September 4
John Cage and Alan Hovhaness have caught and handed over to us a whole forest and desert mountain full of these fine things that would be looked down on or looked over in bashful weakness by ninety nine out of a hundred second raters in every window.
Tuesday, June 26

I’m about to take a long-ish lonely bicycle tour, through Vermont and Massachusetts.

I predict it will be a sounding of sorts.

I wonder: with what should I occupy my mind? What books, what ideas, what problems or practices? One idea: reading phenomenologists. Another: working through SICP. Another: studying, identifying, and drawing flora.

More soon.

Monday, June 25
The Existentialist insight, in part, is that meaning is something we give to life. We do not find meaning so much as throw ourselves at it. The Zen insight, in part, is that worrying about meaning may itself make life less meaningful than it might have been. Part of the virtue of the Zen attitude lies in learning to not need to be busy: learning there is joy and meaning and peace in simply being mindful, not needing to change or be changed. Let the moment mean what it will.

From David Schmidtz’s paper The Meanings of Life [PDF].

Also recommended, a recent EconTalk interview with him.

‘But there are more things in heaven and earth too than truth,’ he thinks, paraphrases, quietly, not quizzical, not humorous; not unquizzical and not humorless too. Sitting in the failing dusk, his head in its white bandage looming bigger and more ghostly than ever, he thinks, ‘More things indeed’, thinking how ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth.
William Faulkner, Light in August