Our fair (biking) city

Cambridge was awarded Gold-Level Bicycle Friendly Community status by the League of American Bicyclists on Saturday, May 18. Just before the Cambridge Sweet Ride began in front of the Public Library, the Mayor was presented with the plaque, and we came to know that Cambridge is

  • the 260th community in the country to receive Bike Friendly status
  • the first city on the East Coast to receive Gold status.
  • the second city east of the Mississippi (after Wisconsin).

The ride itself consisted of two parts, thoughtfully organized on either side of a bathroom break at the Public Library. The first part, called the “Sweet” Route took us to places in Central and Kendall Squares and thence to East Cambridge. The second part, called the “Savory” Route went to Harvard and Porter Squares, returning to the library via Julia Child’s house on Irving Street.

I had attended a small community ride in Somerville last week – one of the many events commemorating bike week – and expected this to be a similar one, but that wasn’t the case at all. By my conservative estimate there were easily about 400 cyclists, including some people from Somerville and the neighboring cities. While last week’s ride in Somerville required only a small police escort, Saturday needed a massive operation, with several policemen shepherding the traffic. This being Cambridge, the police were on bicycles, complete with blue blinking lights. During the ride, as we went along Beacon Street, someone joked, “On a Cambridge Sweet Ride, you have to be careful, if you take a right turn you’ll find yourself in Somerville.”

It was an easy-paced, orderly, 12-mile affair, and the most interesting part of it, for me, was too look at the sheer variety of cycles. Here, unlike in most other parts of the country, cycling is a recognized as a way of life, rather than the province of awesome lycra-clad physical specimens who push their own bodies to incredible levels of stamina. There were a few of those too, and they gamely adapted to the 7 mph average speed, merging into the throng of bicycles: There were mountain bikes, and hybrids, and beach cruisers, and cross bikes repurposed into single-speeds, and dirty extra-cycles still carrying the mud from past touring expeditions, and children on little bikes enthusiastically climbing up the sloping roads, and children in little carriers behind their parents, and there was even a “bakfiets” which a lady pedaled vigorously from start to finish while her little one looked out at the world.

Everywhere, people would stop and watch – they had no choice but to do so, as the group was so large. On the sweet route, the hip crowd sipping their weekend coffee and pastries on outside-chairs waved as we passed. In East Cambridge, a little brother took his littler sister’s arm and exclaimed, “Look! there are so many of them!!”. My favorite part of the ride was also its most unexpected. We were passing a non-descript parking lot containing USPS vehicles, and some delivery-men-and-women were out and about. They saw us, and began to wave, and clap, and then someone in a van had the bright idea to play rhythmic beats on their truck horns. Before we knew it, the entire USPS lot was a delirious and endearing cacophony of vehicle horns and claps.

Having done a few of these rides, I see some familiar faces now. We don’t know each other by name, but conversation comes easy. There are men and women from the ages of 20 to 75, doing different kinds of jobs, and living very different lives, having in common a simple love for the practical bicycling way of life. If you heard their conversations about fenders and bike art and do-it-yourself mud flaps refashioned from linoleums, you might think that they’re a bit crazy or even  tiresome. But, I like being in their midst; they’re my kind of people.

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The Belmont Syndrome

On a recent business trip to Baltimore, I found myself unable to socialize with the other meeting attendees. These were people far more experienced than I at technology standardization, who seemed comfortable within the established cliques that are a fact of life at recurring meetings like these, who didn’t seem that interested in carrying out a conversation with me. Partially intimidated by my ignorance of the myriad intricacies of motions and ballots and voting rights and partially put off by their cliqueishness, I spent most of my meal-times alone with a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith‘s A Short History of Financial Euphoria, having failing to read it once before.

On the second reading, I was sustained by a growing interest in investing, which provided me with enough motivation to read about the phenomenon of market bubbles which constitute the primary subject matter of this book. In the short space of about a hundred pages, Galbraith treats the most important market bubbles in history, beginning with Tulipomania of the 17th century and ending with the stock market crash of 1987. It is a cautionary essay written for the general public and until the very end, it remains remarkably lucid, free of jargon, and punctuated by the writer’s mature, benevolent wit. It is the sort of writing that I quietly admired in the books of Bertrand Russell.

Because the book is so clear, it’s message can be easily distilled though Galbraith admits, it is hard to internalize. Firstly, financial instruments do not lend themselves to true innovation. As a consequence, each supposedly new financial innovation happens to be — at its root — a different method of leveraging debt. The public at large seems to have a short financial memory of a few decades at most, and when painful recollections of previous bubbles have faded, it becomes comfortable with incurring the risks of very high leverage, setting the next bubble into motion. For each successive bubble, Galbraith elaborates on which “new” financial innovation set the bubble in motion, how the bubble was sustained, who were the supposed financial geniuses of the era, how the bubble burst, who became the scapegoats, and how the question of what caused the public to speculate was repeatedly ignored. It is quite the eye-opener and I recommend it highly.

Having liked this book, I searched for other written work by Galbraith and interviews he gave at various points in a long and productive life in politics and academia. Preliminary exploration turned up this funny and insightful remark —proximately about the state of economics research, but applicable to other spheres of our lives as well — made in a 1986 interview with an unbelievably young Harry Kreisler:

… I do think that the last 20 years have brought a strong shift back to what I’ve called the “esoteric aspects” of economics — to mathematical expressions in economics, econometric niceties, and a tendency to leave the real world alone. It’s something that in Cambridge we call the “Belmont Syndrome.” Belmont is an extremely comfortable suburb adjoining Cambridge, and the “Belmont Syndrome” is a desire to move from a peaceful, happy life in Belmont to a peaceful, happy life at Harvard, from life to computer and back again, without any disturbance from Ronald Reagan.

[Conversations with History Archives.]

The Surprise on Pothole Avenue

Pothole Avenue runs straight as an arrow, coinciding with the border between Cambridge and Somerville. In recent months, this street has seen an increasing number of bicycles of all kinds – road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes, recumbent bikes and yes, even cargo bikes. The unsuspecting inhabitants refer to this street by its pseudonym – Beacon Street, its real name manifested only in the bone-jarring, sore-butt sensations that we experience while traveling up and down the gentle slopes bedecked with potholes and uneven tar patches.

I’ve been avoiding Beacon Street lately during my morning commute, trading off the straight pothole-punctuated ride for the more circuitous sedate paths that weave through Harvard, and then onward to Kendall. These last few evenings, my return commute has changed as well; after discovering that long-under-construction-Somerville Avenue is ready at last, smooth like a tennis court with a beautiful bike lane all the way up to Porter Square. Thus, Beacon Street has not been getting much mileage from me, and both bike and butt are grateful for that.

However, it so happened two weeks ago that a group of friends decided to ride from work to Lexington via the Minuteman Trail and as if by force of habit, all the cyclists made a beeline to Porter Square filing northward along Beacon Street. As I jangled miserably down the slope and past the Washington Street intersection, something unexpected came into view.

The Hubway has come to Cambridge and Somerville! People have already started using the bikes as evidenced by some empty stations. I have yet to ride one – even though they’ve been in Boston for the past year – and am eagerly awaiting the day when a similar bike station is set up at Porter Square. The bicycles themselves look sturdily made, painted in a somewhat understated gray color compared to their bright red cousins in Washington DC.

Many bicycling advocates say that the best way to make American cities safer for cycling is to have more cyclists on the road. In the years to come, Boston and its boroughs will get a chance to test that hypothesis. Whether due to the bad economy and gasoline prices, or owing to increased awareness of the benefits of cycling,  the number of people on bicycles has increased perceptibly in the last 5 years, and it is possible that the advent of the Hubway will continue to take more people out of their cars and onto the bikes. Maybe, increased awareness of the Hubway stations will cause car and truck drivers to become more mindful of sharing the road, and less prone to right-hooking or dooring an unfortunate cyclist.

In other bicycling-related happenings, Nicole Freedman recently left Boston to pursue a job with Maine Huts and Trails. As the city’s Bike Czar — appointed by the bicycle-friendly mayor Thomas Menino — Freedman was responsible for laying more than 50 miles of bike lanes in a very short time, and oversaw much of the feasibility studies, planning and deployment of the Hubway – generally transforming Boston from the worst bicycling city in the US to one of its best. Those are big shoes to fill, and one hopes that her replacement will be at least half as dedicated as she.

Mega, Giga and Tera

No, this is not a post about computer memories.

If you’ve read some of the previous posts on Mirkwood, you probably realized that mid-February through mid-April were my work weeks from hell. It sometimes felt as if I had worked more in those two months than I had in the past six, which is probably just my imagination. Certainly, the stress of work carried over into whatever little was left of those joyless days and much that was beautiful passed unnoticed. But fortunately for you, dear reader, this is not a post about my sob story either. This is a post about two wonderful birds.

Several times during early to mid-April, as I cycled or drove by 185 Alewife Brook Parkway in Cambridge, I would glance instinctively at the spot where Buzz and Ruby had first made a nest in 2010, returning in 2011. Nesting successfully in both years, the two hawks captured the imagination of several shoppers, who would chat with the local birdwatchers, and catch a glimpse of the parenting activity. In 2010, Lucy, Lucky and Larry all fledged in quick succession capping a wonderful two months for those of us who visited Fresh Pond Mall, and brought friends over to share the experience. In 2011, they returned to the same spot and over the Spring months, brought three new hawks into the world: Alpha, Beta and Whitey.

In 2012 however, the nest looked abandoned. I would look at the spot, find an empty bed of sticks and look away with a twinge of sadness, thinking: “Looks like they aren’t coming back,” or more morbidly “Perhaps they’re dead.” So, I cannot wait to share with readers of the blog that I was wrong! Buzz and Ruby are very much alive, and they are nesting at Fawcett Street in Cambridge, some distance behind Trader Joe’s with their nest obscured by a pine tree. Some searches led me to a series of superbly detailed notes taken by Paul Roberts, who has been following the birds keenly. According to Paul, the reselection of 185 Alewife as a nesting spot was thwarted by the arrival of a fierce territorial foe: A peregrine falcon. I urge you all to read Paul’s amazing account of the rivalry for food and territory between the young falcon and the returning redtails.

When the Peregrine found Buzz poaching in his territory, especially on the Fresh Pond Mall, he would strafe Buzz. He would come zooming in and shoot down at Buzz. I never saw him drop his talons, which would be akin to the “nuclear option,” but he would be like a teenage driver playing a game of chicken, coming as close as possible without striking. Buzz could feel the wind from the Peregrines wings. Usually, Buzz would rather calmly turnaround and proceed back to the shelter of Fresh Pond, or the west side of the parkway. Once or twice the falcon went at Ruby. She is larger, but younger and less experienced than Buzz, and several times she rocked in the air to avoid the world’s fastest, and maybe most audacious bird. [Paul Roberts].

However, things did take a turn for the better. In the new nest at Fawcett street, three hawklings have been born and are  developing into strong birds. Say hello to Mega, Giga and Tera!

Mega is living up to her name. Her wings now seem preternaturally long, and she uses them as crutches as she waddles across the nest. Yesterday she was slapping one wing into her mother’s face, exposing her entire body above the wall of the nest as she tried to literally circumvent Ruby. I was silently shouting “get back, get back” as she appeared perilously close to being on the very edge of the nest. [Paul Roberts]

People are again flocking to see the new family. Apparently, there have even been hawk viewing lunches, and one is being planned for June 3. And, more hawks have been observed nesting in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. This makes me smile, feel ridiculously optimistic, and thankful to Buzz and Ruby Redtail. And isn’t it capitally fantastic that there are people who care enough to document these goings-on in such fine detail !

So, which lovely car would YOU like to be doored by?

It happened again. I narrowly escaped being doored in Inman Square. I was on my daily bicycling commute going at a leisurely 8-9 miles per hour just past Cambridge Hospital (convenient, eh?) when suddenly: A woman abruptly strides into the lane 3 feet ahead of me, and in a split second flings open the door of her Mercedes straight into my path. I swerve, stop, and give her a shocked glare. She starts to apologize, “Oh, I didn’t …” and then, as if a switch flicks on in her mind, she suddenly changes tone. “I came here first, you should have seen me!”. And then, without bothering to listen, she repeats this twice. For emphasis. Then, she enters the car and shuts the door.

Sigh. I tried to control myself and explain. She had walked into the lane without looking left or right, on a busy street during morning rush hour. No effect. Apparently, I was at fault. I should have stopped when I saw her materialize in my path from behind a parked van. In that epiphanic moment when she switched gears from apology to defense, she must have calculated that at a speed of 8.5 mph, I had a full 0.25 seconds to react. See? If only I had lightning fast reflexes and good peripheral vision, I could have stopped and allowed Lady Mercedes to open her door and drive leisurely away.

She had medical scrubs on. When the buzzing in my ears stopped, I wondered if she was having a bad day or something. Or, maybe she had been on medical call the night before and was sleep-deprived. Who knows? I just don’t want to be doored, and after three close shaves so far, I wonder how much longer my luck will hold.