Focus 40

I attended the Focus 40 event at Northeastern tonight. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, it was designed to focus on envisioning the state of transportation in the Greater Boston and 2040. Although a planning session for the T, the panel discussion actually said very little about the MBTA. It was more about what the role of government vs private enterprise should be, how climate change will potentially affect the transportation system, and potentially how new technologies such as Uber or Lyft, or self driving cars are the way of the future.

It was all very interesting, and there were a number of very well known people there. Transportation Secretary Pollack and another state Cabinet officer opened the talk, and I saw the new General Manager of the T there. Former Transportation secretary (and father of the Big Dig) Fred Salvucci spoke from the floor, and former Governor Dukakis was there.

For me though, it was a little too orientated toward transit advocates. A couple of panelists, when asked for a headline from 2040, announced the last of the private automobile. I’m not having it, at least not entirely. I don’t dispute the appeal of on-demand ride sharing programs like Uber, but I’m not as bullish on autonomous vehicles. For one thing, if everyone has their own self driving car, that’s still a ton of congestion on the road. More importantly, though, they overlook how enjoyable and empowering it is to drive oneself.

I like to drive, and I know my brother likes to drive even more than I do. They say things like you could read or relax while on the train or in a self driving car, but I’d much rather be the driver than a passenger.

I’ve been a rail fan since I discovered the subway commuting to BC. But we moved our office from Newton to downtown Boston in December, and I’ve been chafing at riding the commuter rail since. It’s a lot more expensive than driving to Newton, and a lot more inconvenient in many ways. Driving, I could be a few minutes late and not worry; taking the train, if I’m a couple of minutes late, I’ll miss the train, and have to take the next one — and the gaps between trains are long. I used to work late quite often; now I have to drop things in the middle in order to be sure of catching the train — after 6:15, the gaps between trains are even longer. The trains are too crowded to read easily*. And paradoxically, I’m riding my bicycle much less. I used to keep it in the back of the car and go for a ride after work; now, I don’t have the bike with me, and I don’t have the time to go someplace after getting back to the station.

Personally, I suspect transportation in 2040 will be much like transportation now. There will still be people driving themselves, either because they can afford to, or they like to, or are going someplace the system doesn’t easily serve. I think the rapid transit and commuter rail systems will still be vital, simply because of their capacity to move a lot of people at once. I do think ride sharing programs like Uber and Lyft will pick up a lot of the “last mile” traffic, and bleed some usage from the bus system. I suspect buses will be routed much more dynamically than they are now,  and possibly even on demand. I think a bus route could be managed by an autonomous vehicle, but I also believe that the unions will be able to block it from happening for a while. And hanging over all these trends is the risk of catastrophic weather caused by climate change causing heavy damage.

* On the reverse commute to Providence this was not the case.  

Hornblower

My new copy of The Hornblower Companion, by C. S. Forester, arrived last week. It’s a companion book to the Horatio Hornblower series of books about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic era. Besides containing a set of maps showing where each of Hornblower’s adventures took place, Forester describes his writing style, and explains how each of the books was written. It replaces my very well worn original copy.

When I think back, a quote from the Companion was among the first words I read about the series. I was eleven or twelve, and had found a Reader’s Digest volume of condensed books; among them was a condensed version of Beat To Quarters, the original volume in the series. The preface contained Forester’s comments from the Companion describing the setting. And then I dove into Beat To Quarters:

It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land, he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day, the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.

The book is about a British sea captain who has been sent on a mission to support a rebellion in Central America against Spain. To prevent the Spanish from finding out, he has orders to avoid sighting land until he arrives in the Gulf of Fonseca, to meet with the leader of the rebellion. He accomplishes his orders, and after seven months at sea, manages a perfect landfall, only to find the leader is a madman who has decreed himself to be El Supremo (the Almighty). Nonetheless, he carries out his orders, is able to capture a much larger Spanish ship, the Natividad by surprise, and turn her over the rebels. After the two ships part, Hornblower finds out that during the time he was out of communication with the Admiralty that a treaty has been signed with the Spanish, they are now allies, and he now has to fight the larger Natividad – in open waters, without the benefit of surprise. Complicating matters, he has provide passage back to England to an English lady, (the sister of the Duke of Wellington) who has been stranded in Panama.

I just lapped that book up. My father had passed down his love of nautical lore to me, and Forester has an admirably clear and easy to read style. There’s plenty of adventure, and Hornblower is very human too – he’s quite self conscious, and has no self confidence. For example, he would rather lead than drive, and then condemns himself for being too soft.

I finished the condensed book, but didn’t realize exactly what I was missing, or that what I’d just read was the first book in a series. Then, one day, about a year later, I was cleaning up downstairs and found a boxed set of Captain Horatio Hornblower: Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line and Flying Colors in one set. It’s easy for me to date the time I read them: Christmastime when I was in the 8th grade. I distinctly remember being buried in Ship of the Line during the week before Christmas; the rest of the class was making a lot of noise, and I was just absorbed by the adventures of HMS Sutherland. Sister Theresa Ann came in, and I was the only one who didn’t get in trouble, because I was too wrapped up in Hornblower to get into trouble.

After finishing those books, I went to the library and read the other books in the series. And much later, I bought my own copies of all eleven books, plus the Companion. I’ve reread them all dozens of times. For a while, it was a personal Christmas tradition to reread Ship of the Line at Christmas time.


I have a special fondness for the Companion. Forester and Isaac Asimov are my two favorite authors, and in the latter part of the Companion, Forester describes his writing process. First, he comes across something that he recognizes as the basis of an idea:

…It happens that…the initial stimulus is recognized for what it is. The causal phrase dropped by a friend in conversation, the paragraph in a book, the incident observed by the roadside, has some special quality and is accorded a special welcome. But having been welcomed, it is forgotten, or at least, ignored. It sinks into the horrid slime of my subconscious like a waterlogged timber into the slime at the bottom of a harbour… [At some point] the original idea reappears in my mind, and it has grown.

From there, he describes how the plot gradually comes together for him. Unlike Asimov, he did all his plotting ahead of time. Gradually the plot starts to demand more and more of his attention. And then it comes time to actually write. Unlike Asimov, who was incredibly prolific because he enjoyed the process of writing, Forester found writing to be painful and fatiguing:

The happy-go-lucky methods of the jellyfish have to be abandoned for the diligence of the ant and the endurance of the mule. For me, personally, the change of state occasioned by starting to write is abrupt and violent. It is the difference between standing at the top of the  toboggan slide and starting the descent. It is taking the plunge, swallowing the pill, walking through the door marked “Abandon All Hope.”

In I, Asimov, his (third) autobiography, Asimov described how he enjoyed reading his own writing:

A prolific writer… has to love his own writing.

I do. I can pick up one of my own books, start reading it anywhere, and immediately be lost in it and keep reading until I am shaken out of it by some external event.

By contrast, Forester was deeply self critical of his writing. In the Companion, he compares reviewing his own work to an “ugly woman” looking at her make-up in the mirror to see if anything can be done, and asks, “Can a finished book ever be as good as the book the writer dreamed of before he started writing it?”

And yet, as an adult, part of the reason I still enjoy the series is Forester’s command of the language. He clearly has a sense of the sound and the rhythm of his words.  I love this passage describing the tactics of composition:

The words must be chosen, the sentences devised, which most accurately and most economically – and most suitably – describe the scene I am witnessing…An awkward sentence may bring the reader back to reality, just as a breaking stick may alert the feeding deer.


Hornblower has served as the inspiration for a lot of writers, among them Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and Nicholas Meyer, the writer and director of Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk was modeled on Hornblower.

So if I’ve convinced you to read the series, where should you start?  There are two ways to do it. You can read them in the order in which they were written, as I did, starting with Beat To Quarters. Beat To Quarters was originally intended to be a standalone novel, so it’s more self-contained. It also means there are more inconsistencies with the rest of the series. As he filled out Hornblower’s life, Forester became more aware that he was writing a series and paid more attention to continuity. Or you could read them chronologically, starting with the beginning of his career as a seasick seventeen year old in Mr Midshipman Hornblower, continuing all the way to Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Whichever way you decide, you’re in for a treat.

iPad Pro, 9.7 inch

I picked up a new iPad Pro 9.7 inch a couple of weeks ago. I got the gold cellular model with 128 GB of storage, along with the Apple Pencil. Last night, I picked up the Smart Keyboard and silicone case to go with it. This post is literally the first thing I’ve used the keyboard for.

To be honest, I got it more because I wanted to upgrade my existing third generation iPad than because of the “pro” features. The old iPad had gotten very slow, and I’d been disappointed when Apple introduced the big iPad Pro rather than an iPad Air 3. I like the original iPad screen size. Continue reading

Dystopian Future

I spent the weekend at the Boston Sea Rovers 62nd Annual Clinic. Despite the fact that the  the talks were better this year than in the past, they’re not what stuck with me the most. There was a side room of undersea artwork done by middle and high school students on display there, winners of the Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Awards. The quality of the work was truly amazing. Even the works by the younger students showed a degree of control and mastery that I couldn’t have aspired to then. But the thing that was noticeable was that they all dealt with pollution, and the ways we’re mistreating the planet. It was so consistent I had to ask about it, and in fact, that was the theme of the contest. And it made me sad.

It is true that I have seen things that will disappear by the time they’re my age. It is true that they will have to deal with the consequences of a rising ocean. It is undeniable that humanity has not been a proper steward of the oceans.

And yet, I feel doom and gloom is the wrong thing to be teaching kids. There is so much that is awe inspiring about the oceans, even today. The whole show, especially the film festival last night, is a testament to the beauty and wonder of the seas, and I would rather have kids exposed to that first, before being weighted down with the threats to the planet. I want them to see the wonders first, because if they learn to love the ocean, the desire to conserve it will come naturally.

I Expect My Leaders to be Grownups

One of the things the media enables is bomb-tossing. It encourages extreme reactions on both sides. And so, it was disappointing, but not surprising, that within hours of the announcement of Justice Scalia’s death, the Senate Majority Leader was talking about not allowing a nomination for his replacement to come to a vote.

Just as parents expect good behavior from their children, I have certain expectations from my leaders. In neither case, is an expectation a guarantee. In both cases, when expectations are not met, there should be consequences. 

I expect my leaders to do their duty.

I expect them to fulfill the requirements of the jobs they chose to run for, and were elected to. If they want to grandstand or pontificate, they should get a job in the media. At the end of the day, I expect them to be grownups, to understand they can’t hold us hostage until they get exactly what they want. I expect them to come to an accommodation with each other.

It’s absurd to expect the Court to run with a vacancy for a full year. It would mean too many tie decisions, too many cases put over for re-argument, too much delay processing certiorari petitions.

It’s also absurd to say that there can’t be nominations made during an election year. Many justices have been confirmed in presidential election years, including Anthony Kennedy.

What I Expect From the President:

I expect the President to nominate someone Senate Republicans can live with. I’m not saying he should nominate someone they would whole-heartedly endorse, just someone they can accept. The President needs to accept the fact that the majority of the Senate is controlled by conservative Republicans. I’m not saying he needs to nominate another Scalia; I’m saying it’s not a time to nominate another Kagan (not to disparage Justice Kagan; I like her a lot).  He needs to find a middle of the road candidate. He should in fact, solicit the advice of both sides of the Senate. He would probably be better off if he did this privately.

What I Expect From the Senate:

I expect the Senate to give whomever the President nominates an honest consideration and an honest vote. I expect the Senators to recognize that he is the President, and that, according to the Constitution, it is his duty to make the final nomination. They need to recognize that whoever replaces Justice Scalia is not going to be as conservative as he was, just as liberals in 1975 had to accept that whoever President Ford appointed would not be as liberal as Justice Douglas.

If the President solicits their advice, they should give it. It would be more productive if they gave it to him directly rather than through the media.

I do not expect the Senate to rubber stamp a nomination. If the President were to send them a nomination that was clearly unsuitable, constitutionally, they do have the right to withhold their consent. But they need to recognize unpalatable is not the same as unsuitable. I do expect them to act on his nomination.

What I Expect from the President and the Senate:

I expect both sides to remember that the other party has prerogatives, and a Constitutional role in this process. I expect both sides to realize that the Court should not be expected to limp along for a year. I expect them all to be grownups, and realize that they are all not just members of political parties, but Officers of the United States of America, and (like any job), their office requires them to sometimes do things not exactly the way they want it. Realistically, I also would remind them that what comes around goes around, and at some point, their political fortunes will be reversed.

I expect them all to do their duty to the country I love.

You Can Learn To Write

An acquaintance emailed me a little while ago to tell me that she was following the blog off and on, and had been touched by my piece about my father, and ended with “You’re a good writer.” This would have been a shock to my teenaged self — I hated to write, and didn’t think spelling, grammar, and the mechanics should count towards my grade. Somewhere entombed in the floorboards of my room is still a report from my sophomore year in high school that I hid because I got a D on it.

I recognized that I needed to work on my writing skills, so in my junior year, I deliberately took an English elective called Research Reports, knowing that I would hate it, knowing that I would be putting myself under deadline pressure, but also knowing it was something I needed to do. From that course, I learned how to structure a report, how to write an outline, and the art of footnoting and citing sources. I got better.

I still wasn’t as good as I could be. I had a wonderful English professor at Boston College, Margaret Ferrari. She based her grades on a set of short papers of about 1000 words each. My first couple of papers weren’t great, but she worked with me during her office hours. She taught me that a report wasn’t a random collection of facts; you needed to have a point to what you were writing about, and needed to marshall your facts to support the point you were trying to make, or the story you’re trying to tell. She taught me to listen to my inner ear, and pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the words I was choosing. By the end of my two semesters with her, I was generally getting very good marks for my writing.

I don’t believe that you have to have an inborn talent to write. It’s something you can learn. I’m still learning.

There are a number of skills that go into learning to write well. The most basic ones are the mechanics — spelling, grammar, and usage. For example, when to use “there” and when to use “they’re”. The good thing is that it’s all mechanical, and once you learn the rules, you have them, and you don’t have to worry about them anymore.

At a somewhat higher level is learning to express yourself, and organize your thoughts. What’s the best way to say what you want to say? What facts do you need to cover to make the point you’re trying to make? Why is this fact important? What needs explanation? What’s doesn’t fit in and should be cut? Here’s where an outline can help.

Personally, I still have a tendency to ramble. Writing this blog, I’m learning to drop little asides that I might find interesting or amusing, but would bore the reader or don’t fit in with the rest of the post.

As you get more practice, you start to develop your voice. You learn to pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the words so they flow together. For example, in the second paragraph of this post, I repeated the word “knowing” three times, on purpose, setting up the contrast between the first two (unpleasant) things, and the third instance, “knowing it was something I needed to do”. And you learn to edit yourself, to learn to ask yourself what works, and how to fix what doesn’t work. This post went through twelve revisions before I published it (and one after).

It helps to be a “natural”, but it’s not necessary. I’m not, but I learned. You can too.

The Performance and the Score

This afternoon, I was thinking about something my sister said a couple of years back in connection with last night’s post. She’d been remarking on something my brother Tom had said. It was something to the effect that yes, my pictures were good, but of course, I adjusted them all after the fact. There was the implication that it was sort of cheating.

Poppycock. As Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”  It’s what you do with the negative that counts, and the same goes for the relationship between the camera’s RAW file and the final result. What you shoot in the camera is the starting point. It needn’t be the end point.

Continue reading

Hard to Believe,
and Not Hard to Believe

It’s hard to believe its been 35 years since the day my Dad died. I remember the summer of 1980 all too well. I remember going to see him at Carney, before his operation, when it was hoped that they would be able to remove the section of his esophagus with the tumor, and I remember coming home from finals to find out that it was inoperable. I didn’t realize then how bad the news was; I foolishly believed the optimistic stories of how effective chemotherapy could be, and wondered why he was getting radiation treatment instead. I didn’t learn until later how intractable esophageal cancer is.

I remember watching him waste away over that summer, in constant pain and fatigue. I remember sitting with my sister in the living room, and hearing him retching in the next room. Should we go try to help? Not much we could do. Would it embarrass him? Probably. We wound up doing nothing.

I remember my uncles and cousin coming to the house to insulate and finish it, and install a wood stove, to make things easier for my mother.

I remember having to explain to my college advisor, after a meeting about not missing any part of student teaching, that my father was very ill, and it was very likely that there would be a problem.

I remember taking the Riverside Line out to the host school the first day of school, and looking up at the distinctive parking garage of the Deaconess Hospital, and thinking that’s where Dad was. And I remember about an hour later, the principal of the school, who surely did not want this job, coming to tell me that my Dad was gone.

I remember the end of that week, after the funeral, walking through the empty house, and feeling how strange it was that he was gone and not coming back, and that this was the new normal.

And yet, it’s not hard at all to believe. Thirty-five years, after all, is a long time, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.

His children, who ranged from 21 down to almost 14, are now all grown, and three of them are married. I think he would have liked his sons and daughter in law.

There are now five grandchildren that he never knew, and never got to know him. He’s just a name and a fact and a set of pictures to them, the same way I never knew his father, which is a shame. Dad was great with kids. He would have played with them, and taught them how to do stuff and teased them and explained things to them. He loved having kids around. I remember, still, watching him paint when I was little, and the gentle tone he had as he explained how he created the shading on the sails he was painting.

I think he would have loved to have tagged along on the trip my brothers and my brother’s sons took out to Colorado.

Dad was a great photographer, and in his last couple of years, he was starting to let me use his cameras, and share his interest in photography. I’m not sure he would have gotten into digital photography, but he would have loved SLRs, and being able to compose through the viewfinder and switch lenses and meter automatically. I really wish we could have gone shooting together.

Dad loved the outdoors in general, and the Blue Hills in particular. I remember, about twenty years ago, renting a mountain bike, and riding through the network of paths there, and thinking he would have loved it. I think he would have enjoyed the company of his son-in-law Paul walking through the woods, and perhaps he would have even developed an interest in birding. And often, when I’m kayaking, I think, “Dad would have loved this.”

It’s hard to believe I’m now older than my Dad ever was.

It’s hard to believe my mother has been a widow longer than she’d been a wife.

Dad I am so grateful that we kids, out of ignorance, set up a twentieth anniversary party for them, because we thought that was the big number, rather than waiting for a twenty-fifth than never came.

It’s hard to believe that had he lived, he’d be 88 this year.

It’s hard to believe his brother has grown children who never knew him.

It’s hard to believe his son has a grown son who never knew him.

But it’s not hard to believe that we still miss him.

The Olympics

I’m very relieved to see that Boston’s Olympic bid is over. Personally, I’m not a sports fan, and have never cared about them, but I’ve also felt that it would be like the 2004 Democratic Convention – great for the money folks, but a huge inconvenience for anyone who actually has to live or work in or around the city. Lots of construction, lots of restrictive security, lots of disruption, lots of money spent on infrastructure with a very short active life.

Given the huge outlays needed to host modern day Olympic Games, I’ve long thought the idea of rotating cities needs to be re-examined. The Olympics need a permanent home. One where they can set up shop with all the facilities the Games need, in exactly the form they need them in. The expense of the infrastructure could be amortized over several sets of Games, and could be gradually grown and improved. Facilities could be custom built for the events they’re designed for, without worrying about winding up with an expensive white elephant that serves no purpose.

The permanent Olympic site would obviously be a draw during the Games, but I also think they would draw tourists during the off years, and facilities could host other events as well.

So where to put the permanent Olympic Games? To my mind, the obvious choice is Greece, their ancestral home, assuming the cost of building it was borne by the International Olympic Committee, and not the Greek government. It would have the added benefit of increasing Greek tourism, which would, hopefully, help the Greek economy dig out of the hole it’s in.