A unified hypothesis of urban living.

If only I had the ability to fly. Not superhero flight. Just the common ability to fly. I want the proverbial bird’s eye view. It’s difficult to escape the compact, dynamic, and textured urban environment to find a new perspective on how one is living and how it may have changed. The environment is never completely static. It slowly evolves. Stores close and new ones open. Neighborhoods are gentrified or begin to erode. There are people whose jobs are to watch for the signs of community life; growth and decline. Those people are typically outsiders. As someone who lives in a particular neighborhood, it’s desirable to get a different perspective. Most people would call it a vacation; a time when you leave your home to visit another place. But that kind of vacation is often a reprieve from the people and work that one does. I wonder how many of us understand and accept the classification of our neighborhood.

There are thoughts, words, pictures, documentaries; all intended to reveal and illuminate both the aspirations and contradictions of suburban living.The outcome of several long-term studies were recently interpreted and packaged.

Cul-de-Sacs. Suburban Dream or Dead End

Custom Bikes

So far I really like my Trek Soho. But I just read an article in American Craft that got me thinking about a tailor-made bike.

I love the idea of a custom-built bike, but the practicalities of using one in the city have always made the price too high. I want a bike that’s easy to ride. It should accommodate the way I peddle & ride and I shouldn’t be sore after a long journey. Climbing the occasional hill shouldn’t be difficult.

The bike should be worry-free. I don’t want to worry about parts rusting, gears getting bent, peddles coming loose, handlebars slipping, and bags falling off their racks. A bike gets beaten up in the city. Especially in Boston. If I could go one day without hitting at least a dozen hard edges, pot holes, and tire puncturing foreign objects, I’d consider myself touched by God. I’ve had two bikes stolen in Boston. If someone can’t steal your bike, they’ll steal the parts; seats, bells, fenders. Anything that’s not locked down. Even if I could afford to buy a fleet of custom-built bikes, I think I’d be worried every time I took the bike out on the road or left it out of my sight. I’d be concerned that something would happen to it. On the other hand, if I knew that the wear and tear on the bike would make the bike more my own (like a baseball glove), I’d clean out a cookie jar and start saving.

Fast Boy Insignia DetailThere are a couple custom bike builders that interest me. This morning I found Fast Boy Cycles. Ezra Caldwell‘s the owner and I noticed that he has an interesting policy about his custom bikes. A custom bike starts at 2k. He offers the “right to micro-manage the project” for an additional $500. Very clever. I wonder if we could do that at work.

You pay for the custom-fit frame and the attention to detail. But the coolest features on these bikes are the wooden handlebars and accessories: fenders and racks. You also pay for an experience. American Craft has an article on Fast Boy Cycles. In it they talk about why people buy a custom-built bike – “His clients include people like the London-based equity manager who first admired a Fast Boy bike on a Manhattan street and promptly ordered on for his office commute. ‘he can afford a driver,’ says Caldwell, ‘but he sits at a computer all day, crunching numbers. At the end of that day, he wants a real experience.’” I completely get that – riding my mass-production bike to and from work is often the highlight of the day. I can see how a custom-fit bike would make it easy to keep peddling past work. If I had 2 or 3k to blow on something, I could see spending it here.

Alternative Needs Transportation (A.N.T.) in Holliston, MA is another custom bike builder. I’ve wanted one of these bikes for a couple years. There’s a long wait list to get one, though. What I like about them is that they’re really focused on developing commuter bikes and promoting the bike-dependence lifestyle.

Officially Green or Transportationally Challenged. Do I have to choose?

On Tuesday afternoon we crossed a major threshold. We sold our one and only car and we’re now completely reliant on public transportation, bikes, walking shoes, and a subscription to ZipCar (Come to think of it – ZipCar should reward customers that get rid of their car in favor of dependence on ZipCar).

The arrangement has actually made us some money. Before I got the car out of our parking space our superintendent asked me if we want to rent our parking space. It’s an unexpected benefit. That should cover our use of ZipCar each month.

So it’s only been a couple days without a car and so far things are going well. Selling the car was more of a challenge than going without. We stopped using the car about 3 months ago to see how it would go. We discovered that we were able to get by on public transportation and the occasional ZipCar. Once we were comfortable that we could go without a car we put the car up for sale on Craig’s List. 5 days later we had a buyer. The challenge was that we had to get the car started and drive it to New Hampshire to sell it. In the process of getting it started we discovered the battery was completely dead. So we had to get the car jumped, then let it run for several hours, fill some drained fluids, and re-attach the hard top. Once that was done  we rented a ZipCar and drove an hour north to deliver the Miata. 30 minutes later we were back in the ZipCar and headed home.

I thought I’d be upset about losing the car. We’d had it for 9 years and it carried us through some important events in our life. But I’ve concluded that I’m pretty fickle. My sensitivity to our environmental impact, my desire to have a more connected relationship with city-life, and my re-invigorated health-consciousness overwhelmed my sentimentality. I felt relieved of the car. I found closure because we sold the car to someone whose life is all about racing Miata’s. Someone who will appreciate the car and felt he was paying a fair price for the car.

I wonder if others jump to the conclusion that we’re anti-establishment fanatics. I get some strange reactions from relatives when they discover that we don’t have a TV. Not having a car is actually less surprising than not having a TV. Life without a TV or a Car is a choice for us. We don’t have these things because we found that they make it too easy to isolate. I wrestle with the use of my smartphone for that same reason. That said – I can’t live without the internet and a computer. Two-way communication and expressive devices are imperative. When interactive television completely matures I’ll jump back in.

Dial M For Murder… in 3D

3D Glasses on Doug’s Face

Last night Kim and I went to the Coolidge to see Dial M For Murder. It was shown as part of their 3D film festival. The Creature From The Black Lagoon is playing later this week. I’d never watch a full-length 3D film before. The box office handed out polarized 3D glasses at the door. I’d read that they used polarized glasses for a number of years during the 50′s but found that it was difficult to retain projectionists who could handle the required challenge of projecting two films at once. So the industry switched to Red and Blue versions of the films – like the ones they showed on TV during the 70′s and 80′s. The problem with that approach was that viewers frequently developed headaches and their eyes went cross-eyed. It makes me wonder if that’s where the gimmick for The Jerk cam from.

Anyway – Dial M For Murder was great in 3D. Grace Kelly looked gorgeous and Hitchcock’s use of the medium actually helped move the story. The whole film, more or less, takes place in one room. The 3D quality gave the room more dimension. Cigarette smoke seemed to fill the space and provide more than just atmosphere. Bottles of booze looked like you could reach out and grab them. Grace Kelly and her red dress had more texture and volume. The only really gimmicky thing Hitchcock did was position a character so that a key seemed to be handed to the audience for inspection. It was pretty cool.

While I liked the 3D effect, I don’t want to see all movies in 3d – especially not with the glasses on. I’d be up for a high-definition holographic movie. I can see why the 3D movie craze only lasted a couple years. All those pictures of bespectacled audiences looking into the light is pretty iconic. At least I can say I know what they saw.

My Fixed-Gear Death Machine

I am recently enamored of the my Trek SOHO S fixed-gear bicycle. I bought the bike because it’s bad-ass; at least as much as a bike can be bad-ass. It seems to weigh about 5 lbs., it’s relatively inconspicuous and not theft-worthy, and the fixed-gear turns everyday riding into an experience.

So I’ve been riding this bike for about a month now and I love the way it works. The first week was tough because it required me to rethink how I ride a bike. No longer could I just coast to a stop or quickly squeeze through a tight space by coasting and tucking my legs into the frame. The pedals just keep turning. I also learned that my ride to and from work goes much faster. I don’t know that it actually takes me less time to get to and from work, but constantly peddling makes it seem like I’m moving much faster.

I haven’t taught myself to do Track Stands. You see the messengers doing this at traffic lights. I thought they had some secret messenger power that allowed them to pull this off, but it’s because of the fixed-gear. It’s as if I’ve been given a magician’s hat.

My relationship to the bike recently grew much stronger. We were in a minor accident this past Thursday. It was a crisp and clear morning and I was biking to work. I crossed the BU Bridge from Boston to Cambridge. I cold see ahead that a row of cars was stopped at the end of the bridge. As a good fixed-gear cyclist I slowed momentum by applying some resistance to the forward motion of the pedals. As I got closer I saw an opening between a car and the curb. It was narrow, but I thought I could get through.

I started moving in between the cars. I reverted to an amateur maneuver to avoid hitting the car’s mirror. I leaned slightly to my right, turned my leg inward and stopped peddling. The bike had enough momentum that the pedals kept turning. The turning motion dislocated my knee and pushed me and the bike to the ground. F&!*# that hurt! My knee popped back int0 place as I fell to the ground. The car sped away unaware of what happened. A student stopped to make sure I wasn’t hurt and concluded, “tough commute,” before walking on to class.

Walking on the knee hurt more than riding the bike. So I made it to work that morning and I was fortunate that I didn’t damage anything in my leg. Just some bruising and pulled muscles. So I should be ready to bike again on Monday.

BOB Yak Plus

The whole experience made me love my bike more. Kim and I decided about 2 months ago to not use our car any longer. In fact, we’re looking to donate it now. So far, we’ve gotten by on Zip Cars, public transportation, and bikes. We recently purchased a B.O.B. Yak Bicycle Trailer to help us get things to and from our community garden, the grocery store, and pick up any other large items. It’s pretty sweet even though it greatly or completely diminishes the bad-ass nature of the bike. I think Kim likes the flag the most.

Today I installed the Yak on the back of my fixed-gear death machine and rode it to the garden. It’s only 3 or 4 miles away

Did someone say it’s April?

There’s no denying it. The weather, the climate, and the general zeitgeist in Boston has been pretty dour for the last 6 months. Lot’s of cold weather, grey skies, snow, and rain are typical in New England winters. This year the winter won’t let go. It’s down right crappy. Kim and I are trapped in the house day in and day out. You wonder who is going to break first from the pressure.

So I’m looking forward to some warmer weather, but I can’t quite tell when it’s coming. So we’re trying to find other activities.We went to the Coolidge at least once a week this winter. That was great at first. We saw Taxi Driver, The Diving Bell, The Counterfeiters, Body Heat, No Country for Old Men (3x), Juno (2x), There Will be Blood (x3), Billy The Kid, Paranoid Park, Persepolis, and many others. All the movies, save Juno and Persepolis, we’re really depressing. Why does the Coolidge choose to show such distressing movies during the winter. A big part of going to the movies is so you can escape. Lately it’s felt like going into the belly of the beast.

I love the Coolidge theater and we love our weekly outing to the theater. I can’t wait for the programming to get mixed up a bit.We’ve also found other minor diversions like going out to eat once in a while.

More importantly we discovered Chez Vous in Dorchester. We’ve been once and we tried to go a second time. The first visit was exciting and fun. Rollerskating, I shun my shame, is fun. Fun in more than just a nostalgic way. It’s less like chewing a cube of Hubba Bubba and more like picking up the guitar you took for granted in high school; “this could be fun.”

Work’s infinitely challenging and I was reminded this week that I’ve got a pair of fantastic producers working on my team. I don’t think they know how much I depend on them to keep the wheels on the bus turning. I could be a better boss in many respects and they’re the kind of employees that aren’t afraid to tell me to straighten up. So – when we have challenging weeks like this past one, it’s great to remember that you’re not alone. The sun and some spring-like weather would also help lift everyone’s spirits.

Blackberry – you’re keeping me up at night.

I recently got a Blackberry. It’s my first smart phone and it would be easy to say that I should have bought an iPhone. Maybe I enjoy the challenge of a less intuitive device. Or maybe I just got it because that’s what most business-people use (the primary audience for the work I do is BtoB). I’ve had the Blackberry Curve for about 6 weeks. The first 4 weeks were hell. I hated the device. I couldn’t figure out any of the features and the documentation was over-simplified. It seems that the marketers felt they could fool people into thinking the device is really easy to use by mimicking Apple’s design aesthetic.

The device has begun to grow on me. Even as I watch Apple make its move for the enterprise I’m going to stay with the Blackberry a little longer. Well – at least until my contract expires in 2010 or the device breaks – whichever comes first.

To make my life with Blackberry more amicable I went hunting for some applications that would help me do my work. First up: a tool to help me read all those email attachments. Cerience makes a nice application for reading PDFs, Word Docs, RTFs, and other common formats. But it’s about $80 for a one year subscription. Handango gave it a thumbs up. They also reviewed DocHawk and it looks pretty good for the price: About $60. There are a lot of options – a bit overwhelming.

Maybe I should start by looking at what I don’t like about this Blackberry. Improving our life together is going to take some work. What I want Blackberry to do for me:

  • Maintain better synchronization between my email applications. I currently collect email from three separate accounts and they don’t all synchronize exactly as I’d like. Ideally, my email would disappear off my Blackberry as soon as it’s deleted from the mail server. I don’t want to permanently store all these emails on Blackberry. I guess that would require Blackberry to check the mail server and reconcile itself with the mail server every time it checked for new email. Still – carrying around 600 email messages on my blackberry is kind of irritating and makes me feel like I’m way behind. Maybe I wouldn’t be up at 5am writing this if I didn’t have to worry about all the information I haven’t consumed.
  • Easier notification about text messages – I still haven’t figured out two aspects of SMS messaging on this phone. 1) How to change the setting that notifies me of a new SMS message. and 2) Where to read my SMS messages. Sometimes they seem to appear with my email. Other times I have no idea where they are. My wife sent an MMS to my phone and I still can’t find the photo she sent me.
  • Ability to read attachments – that’s where I starte. The need is pretty obvious. I get a lot of attachments. I wish people didn’t send so many attachments. They do and I’m not going to fight it anymore.
  • Better feedback when the browser isn’t working. There are times when I’m told that there are “insufficient resources” to connect me to a web page. I’ve discovered a work around for this message – I power cycle the phone and then, suddenly, I seem to have enough resources to go to a web page.
  • Flash – I’d like to be able to view web pages with Flash on them. Speed up the integration of Flashlite. That would be nice.
  • Integration with BaseCamp. I’m a big fan of the Project Management tool and I’d like to get it more integrated with my phone so I don’t have to crack open my laptop to check a date or view the status of a task.

That’s it for now. There’s more, but I’m feeling some relief from information overload and now I can go back to sleep.

The 66

I’m certain there are more exciting things to write about than the 66 Bus. But it’s become a big part of my life. I spend a good hour a day waiting for and riding it to and from work. The morning commute is shared with High School students traveling across town from Roxbury and Mission Hill, Harvard Business School students, Harvard Professors, Barristas, the guy who slings burritos at Felipes, some other recognizable faces from Harvard Square, and a whole bunch of variations on me. The bus travels just under 6 miles and touches two cities and one town. A ride, end-to-end, could take as little as 30 minutes or something closer to eternity.

In the evenings the bus riders are different. They’re tired, some are drunk, some talking about buying pot on their phones. in Allston a few college kids get on; drunk, a cloud of cigarettes trailing them, and ready to argue for their fare to Brookline. Others get on the bus to travel 3 bus stops. I don’t understand that – Bus stops are sometimes 200 yards apart. Why not walk it? I worry about the seniors that get on the bus. With their push carts, canes, and walkers. The city and the complexity of moving around must limit their adventures. Perhaps they get out only once a day.

When I started riding the bus again I’d forgotten how people just get used to things that don’t work. Within the first week the bus was stopped by a state trooper for running a red light. We were stopped for about 30 minutes while the trooper took the driver’s license and wrote him a ticket. I was surprised by how long the whole exchange was taking and didn’t like knowing that my ride home was now completely out of my control. I wanted to get off and start walking, but I noticed that few other people were even phased by it. Then I heard people talking and it was as if this kind of inconvenience happens all the time. So I stayed – in part because I knew that once I got off the bus it would start moving again and I’d feel like an impatient fool. But I’m interested by how much inconvenience people will tolerate when most everything is free. The strange thing is that the bus is expensive and is only marginally reliable and convenient.

I can’t wait for it to get warm so I can ride my bike to work again. I may still ride the bus from time-to-time just to remember the world doesn’t revolve around me.