Friday, December 16, 2011

This is the end

Class has been completed, so this blog no longer serves an active purpose. I'll keep it up for archives, but all blogging will occur at my other blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just how public is Public Domain? and other thoughts about copyright

This piece came about in a roundabout way. I was searching for a conceptual topic for my next major post, as my current topics are mostly transit-oriented, photo-based posts of a historical rather than conceptual nature. I was then recently contacted by a fellow blogger, Tyler of I Ride The T, to write a guest post about my thoughts on public domain images, et voilà a conceptual topic was born.

Due to the differing copyright laws between the United States and other countries, I will focus on the laws of the former, because it is with them that I have familiarity.

Most intellectual property that you come across is copyrighted. The books you read, the television you watch, and the music you listen to are, with few exceptions, copyrighted by their creator. You cannot claim their work as your own, and you cannot make copies for your own profit. The originality of their work - not merely "sweat of the brow", but original intellectual or creative work - allows them to own it just as they can own a house or the deed to a plot of land. (For example, the Supreme Court ruled that a telephone directory, as simple information, could not be copyrighted.1)

But that is merely the legal situation. There is more to heav'n and earth than is dreamt of in that legal philosophy. Moral and ethical issues must factor into decisions about reuse as well. (I use "reuse" here to indicate "placing the image, in original or modified form, onto a personal site or a public site like Wikipedia").

Even if sweat of the brow is not sufficient to establish legal protection, it still can represent a substantial amount of work on the part of the person who created a work or made it available. Should there not be a "moral copyright" to recognize their work?

To properly address this question requires a more complete understanding of the legal situation in all its complications, including the various grades of copyright and lack thereof.

Limited use of copyrighted material is allowed in "fair use" situations, such as quoting a line or a paragraph from a book, or sampling a song. To qualify for fair use, a reuse must have certain value, use only part of the original, and fit certain criteria (like being for educational or personal entertainment use, and not substantially detracting from the commercial value of the original). For example, a teacher may show a video from Youtube that includes a useful lecture, or you may show a cat video to a few friends. There is no absolute standard on fair use; the United States Code only includes certain guidelines for judges to weigh in court cases.2

Additionally, some people (like myself) choose to release their work under so-called "copyleft" licenses, where a copyright still applies but reuse can be freely made under certain restrictions. A content producer can specify, for example, that they only allow noncommercial reuse; Wikipedia's license requires reusers to attribute content to Wikipedia and to release any derivatives under an identical license.3 Creative Commons, a nonprofit, is perhaps the most popular outlet for creating such free-use licenses.
The GNU Project was the first major online use of free licenses, but Creative Commons has been the most successful in bringing the idea to the public through such outlets as Wikipedia and Flickr.4

This brings up an important note: there are two types of freedom. There is gratis, where something is available for no charge. A copyrighted book, for example, can be read freely at your local library. With the exception of newspapers and porn sites (both of which often reside behind paywalls), almost everything on the internet is gratis. Libre is a much stricter meaning usage: available not only for no charge, but with no (or almost no) restriction on its use.

Some content, however, is not eligible for copyright. You can't copyright ordinary words (not that some people haven't tried), nor can you copyright a fundamental physical or mathematical equation, nor something as simple and functional as a fork or wheel. Such common, shared ideas are in the public domain; anyone is free to use them for any purpose. A person can also release their work into the public domain (in most countries), thus giving up all ownership of it forever. But the most interesting controversy is that of old works.

Under United States copyright law, almost anything published before the beginning of 1923 is now in the public domain. Thus, for example, I can take screenshots of photographs from my digital copy of an 1898 Boston Elevated Railway (BERy) publication and freely upload them to Wikimedia Commons.

1898 plan of Scollay Square Station (now the Green Line level of Government Center). Like all images on this page, this is linked from Wikimedia Commons.

That BERy annual report is completely public - it's available on Google Books as well as at the State Transportation Library. The work to make it available was done by a public agency and a corporation for the explicit purpose of making it available to all. Not only am I on solid legal ground in adding the century-old images to Wikimedia Commons, but no one is going to complain when I use the pictures. But what if an image, while in the public domain, was not published for that purpose?

Take, for example, the following picture: a 1916 map of the streetcar loop at Braves Field (now Nickerson Field here at BU):

Because the map was first published in 1916, it is in the public domain in the United States. Even though it was made available through the (presumably copyrighted) Brighton-Allston Historical Society web page, I am by law allowed to do anything I wish with it. In this case, I uploaded the image to Wikimedia Commons and added it to two relevant Wikipedia pages. But was it ethical to do so? Is it fair to take an image, one that somebody had to take the effort to scan and upload, without asking permission? Such ethical issues arise surprisingly often with public domain images.

Certain rights persist to a creator even if they have sold or transferred their copyright (with some exceptions for works released into the public domain). Authors retain such "moral rights", including the right to be attributed (or to use a pseudonym) and the right to control whether or not derivative works may be made. For example, the Monty Python troupe once successfully sued to prevent re-edits of their episodes on the grounds that they misrepresented the group's theatrical philosophy.5

In the United States, moral rights are relatively limited. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 established moral rights, but only artists who create visual artworks like paintings. Its protections also ends after the author's death, unlike copyright which persists for 75 years or longer afterwards.6 They are also forfeited if the author releases the work into the public domain, or if they waive their moral rights in a contract.6

Thus, for any image in the public domain - whether by age, release, or other reason - I have full legal right to do with it whatever I want. I can make a million copies on my hard drive or my blog. I can photoshop in Jesus, Hitler, or my goldfish. If I understand the relevant legalese correctly, I could even claim it as my own.

Clearly, the last two examples are not ethical behavior. But what if it's a generally ethical activity, like adding the image to Wikipedia? Say I come across this post on Tyler's blog. He has several images scanned in from public domain sources, including that 1898 Transit Commission report. What if I didn't have access to my own copy and wanted to reuse his pictures? By law, they're free for the taking. But he put them up on the internet; do I owe him anything?

As a regular contributor to Wikipedia, I believe that the best possible free information should be available to the most people. If the primary use of an image is for such educational use, than I will upload the image without asking permission from the image hoster. If they didn't understand public domain laws or had a grudge against Wikipedia, they might take their image down, preventing it from being used on Wikipedia. (Knowing Tyler already from a hobbyist forum, I might have asked him personally if he had a higher-resolution version I could upload; however, this is an exception.) Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons require image uploaders to specify both the author and the source, so proper credit would be given to the person who first placed it on the internet.

If the image is for my personal use, like on my blog, then I will sometimes ask permission first. Although my primary purpose is to educate, my blog does also draw attention to myself. If someone took the time to scan an old map or photograph a Da Vinci, then they deserve my respect. I certainly would not host the image myself unless they didn't want me inadvertently using their bandwidth. Instead, I would link the image so that clicking it would bring a visitor to the original host's site, and in the caption I would credit them alongside the original author. I feel that this solution combines a relative lack of difficulty for me with a tip of the hat towards the person who took the time to make the old image available.

I believe this is a moral choice to be made, and as such I am more inclined to ask permission from an individual than a group, than from a government agency. A single person is likely unaware of the concept of public domain, whereas a historical society may or may not be. The federal government, however, is perfectly aware that any document made by a federal employee during their duties is public domain unless a specific justification is given otherwise. A professional document rehoster, like a academic journal provider, will also be acutely aware of copyright law. Hence, I do not attempt to ask for any sort of permission when using a government-produced image, like this one that I took from an EPA document:

My view here is certainly not the only view. In the spectrum between the pro-copyright and anticopyright diehards, I fall in the middle, though towards the latter end. I respect an author's copyright and attempt to avoid violating it during their lifetime; however, I do not hesitate to take public domain images, and I believe that copyright should end at the author's death rather than persisting 75 years to benefit the corporate owners of their work. I strongly agree with the creator of Creative Commons and the Free Culture movement, Laurence Lessig, when he says that "This is a bastardization of the Constitution's requirement that copyright be for 'limited times,'" particularly when one considers that in 1791 the copyright lifespan was just 14 years.7

Those on the anticopyright side have a variety of views, but they center around the idea that copyright is designed to benefit publishers rather than creators and thus is fundamentally malevolent. Some, in the copyriot movement, pirate works not to save money but as conscious anticommercialism that they reasonably believe is moral.8 Their views are extreme, but certainly not unusual when considered in the context of the internet culture that, in the words of John Gilmore (GNU project co-founder and internet activist), " interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

The copyleft movement and Creative Commons, as I discussed above, have attempted to provide a balance between public domain and full copyright. They allow creators to allow reuse of their works in different forms, thus letting them retain full credit as well as certain optional controls. I personally use a CC-BY-SA license for my blogs and images; this way, anyone can make the best use of my work as long as they properly credit it and allow others to make similar use of their work that uses mine. A major moral victory for the free-use movement occurred a few years ago when Flickr started offering the option for Creative Commons licenses on all uploads. As of right now, 207 million images on Flickr have such licenses, of which 48.6 million have licenses without noncommercial or no-derivatives terms and are thus truly free-use images. Free-use Creative Commons licenses also solve my thorny conceptual problem for images that aren't in the public domain; by using such a license, an author is giving permission to reuse without asking.

Creative Commons has been criticized by the anticopyright movement because it utilizes traditional copyright rather than working against it.8 I believe that copyright is not inherently bad, but that in its current state it hinders creativity due to the excessively long posthumous copyright extension.

I also believe that an important step towards a reduction of the ridiculous 75-year after-death period would be the voluntary relaxation of that by creators. For example, a Creative Commons-style license could be made where the piece goes into the public domain after the creator's death. However, true copyright reform is unlikely, as it must come from Congress, which has a habit of pandering to corporate interests on the subject.

Like the rest of this blog, this post is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike-3.0 license.

Cited sources

Feist v. Rural. 499 U.S. 340. Supreme Court of the US. 1901. FindLaw. Accessed 17 November 2011.

"US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use". Cornell University Law School / Legal Information Institute. Accessed 17 November 2011.

User:Eloquence (Erik Möller) et al (15 May 2011). "Terms of use". Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed 17 November 2011.

MNQ (3 October 2011). "Creative Commons, Lolcats, and the New Copyleft". Yale Law and Technology Blog. Accessed 17 November 2011.

Monty Python, v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 538 F.2d 14 (2d Cir 1976). Harvard University School of Law. Accessed 18 November 2011.

"Waiver of Moral Rights in Visual Artworks". Library of Congress. 10 January 2003. Accessed 17 November 2011.

Lessig, Laurence (December 2001). "May the Source Be With You". Wired Magazine. Accessed 18 November 2011.

Joanne Richardson (Anne.Nimus), 2006. "Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons". Multitudes. Accessed 18 November 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Response to a Response

The following was the response to the previous post, written by two professors who reviewed it for my grade:

This student does an excellent job of acknowledging both the conceptual and
practical sides of this issue, though we think the blog itself skews toward the
practical side. The student narrates the history of Jamaica Plain in a
compelling, readable way, and his review of the options for revision to the
transportation system is levelheaded and philosophically interesting. Overall,
this is strong, engaging work -- it's strong enough that we would have liked to
see this student suggest something totally new for Jamaica Plain, which he seems
to approach doing with the penultimate paragraph about "leveling the cost" of
the subway system; however, he begins this paragraph with "It is suggested," and
the passive voice here makes it hard to tell if the student is suggesting this
as an original solution to the problem, or if this idea comes from research.
Overall, excellent!

This is my response to the critique:

I see three main criticisms of my essay, all valid: First, that I focused more on the practical problem rather than the former; second, that I did not offer my own alternative to Jamaica Plain's situation; and third, that I was passive and inexact with my discussion of leveling the subway fare.

Transit for Jamaica Plain is a conceptual problem made up of a series of practical problems. Many of the choices - including which mode of future service to implement and when - are merely judgement calls, with answers reachable by logic and study. And when such a decision is made, how to implement it will be merely an engineering problem how to run streetcar service in mixed traffic or to tunnel under a crowded neighborhood. However, all those practical problems must factor in the major conceptual element: what is, strictly speaking, best for the neighborhood may not always be the absolute best, because a major factor in the success or failure of Jamaica Plain's transportation system is public acceptance and willingness to use.

Unfortunately, this is an angle I cannot fully understand. I have never lived in Jamaica Plain, and only once have I even spent more than a few minutes there. As with any of the unique neighborhood of Boston, it has both a zeitgeist and a history that are only truly accessible to those who have become part of the place.

I would like to be able to look further into the conceptual framework of the problem, and I briefly considered it for my video for my Honors seminar before settling on a different transit-as-social-justice issue, the Green Line Extension.

I intended this as a short essay, rather than a full-blown research paper (although it's longer than all I've previously written save semester papers), and even the stripped-bare history took 900 words. Thus, I was not able to delve fully into all corners of the issue; in particular, I avoided going into too much detail of the various transit options so as to not focus too heavily on the practical angle. A huge amount of research has been done into what exactly is the best transit solution for Jamaica Plain; at the State Transportation Library downtown I found several linear feet of studies about the corridor. I only had a chance to briefly look through the most important of the batch: the 1987 study that recommended an immediate return of the previously terminated street-running service. I was uncomfortable with that conclusion for two reasons. First, it focused solely on practical issues and more or less ignored the sentiments of the group of residents who opposed the trolleys. Second, it recommended a return of service without correcting the issues that led to its cancellation (including double-parked cars blocking service, difficulty of maintaining track, and the nearby Orange Line judged to be siphoning ridership); thus, there was no suggestion of permanence. So I cannot make a truly fair judgement, and certainly without a deeper look into the literature. My personal feelings are for the return of streetcar service, but that is more a sensibility than a thoughtful judgement. I don’t believe I have a truly original solution to add merely to due the depth of the MBTA’s previous studies; however, I believe that I can add the idea that any discussion of the E branch and the 39 bus should take place in the frame of this broader conceptual view.

Discussions of the incoming fare increase are commonplace, and I have no specific source to cite for discussions of leveling the fare, although I have heard it multiple times in private discussion. I don't think that level fares would solve Jamaica Plain's situation and it fact they might make it worse by increasing the price of the #39 bus; the level fare discussion is more related to the general idea of transit equity, which certainly springs from an analysis of Jamaica Plain.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A conceptual problem: Transit for Jamaica Plain

Jamaica Plain is a practical problem. Packed into just 3.07 miles are 38,000 people, including 32,000 adults. Fully half of them work away from home, and just 1600 of them can walk or bicycle to work. This leaves 16,500 people who must leave the area in a relatively short time via a limited number of road and rail corridors.1 In practice, almost all who head into the downtown area leave by just 3 routes: Huntington Avenue in northwest side of the district, the Southwest Corridor on the east side, and Centre Street between them.

But Jamaica Plain is also a conceptual problem. What is the best way to get these 16,500 people to work? Is there a single best way? Should the goal be the quickest commute? The most environmentally friendly? Are some modes inherently better than others?

These questions have been inherent in Jamaica Plain since its inception. I believe a bit of history is in order. Starting with the coming of the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857, Jamaica Plain was designed as a "streetcar suburb" where the majority of residents would ride horse-drawn streetcars into the city.2 The first of many such lines was the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857.3 Workers could house their families 4 miles from the hustle-bustle of the Common, yet only have a forty-five-minute ride to their job. In an age without cars or even bicycles and where a horse was a major expense, this was an excellent deal for the middle class. The streetcars were electrified at the end of the century. In 1903, the last segment of the continuous line from Park Street to Arborway was completed.3

By the early 1900s, Jamaica Plain was well-connected. This 1925 Boston Electric Railway (BERy) map, drawn at the peak of the streetcar's dominance, shows numerous lines running through the area. North-south arterials to center Boston along Huntington Avenue-Centre Street-South Street (the #39 line) and Tremont Street-Columbus Avenue (#43) connected with east-west side routes like the #41 (Jamaica Plain to Dudley) which connected with the Washington Street Elevated on BERy's Main Line. From Forest Hills one could ride into Roxbury, Dorcester, or even out to Dedham, and the Huntington Avenue lines also sent cars across the Muddy River to Brookline.

(Click to go to the file page on Wikimedia Commons for a larger version)

But even though that 1925 map shows a glorious network of streetcars, it also hints at its own destruction. Already, then, downtown surface routes and outer suburban routes had begun the conversion to bus routes. Buses have certain advantages over streetcars, namely the flexibility in routes and the lack of a need to maintain track in the middle of busy streets. They also have disadvantages: they are less popular because it makes it much easier for an area to suddenly lose its service, and because they carry fewer people and get stuck in traffic where streetcars could enter the Tremont Street Subway downtown.

Gradually, Jamaica Plain lost its streetcar lines. This was not an isolated incident, but a wide nationwide trend. In places such as Los Angeles, automobile manufacturers secretly bought lines and promptly abandoned them, forcing commuters to chose between riding their buses or buying their cars. In Boston, the M.T.A. was formed in 1947 to protect the city's public transit. Some lines were saved, but not even the M.T.A. could stand against the might of the automobile. The #41 was bustituted in 1949; the #43 lasted until 1956 before being cut back.4 By 1953, the network had become this:

Even after the creation of the MBTA in 1964, the #39 survived because of high ridership. 2 After the "A" Branch of the Green Line (the Watertown Line) was "bustituted" in 1969, it looked like the cuts were at an end. Jamaica Plain still had the #39 running though its heart on Huntington Avenue, Centre Street, and South Street to Arborway (Forest Hills). Designated the "E" Branch, it joined the "B" and "C" branches and the Ashmont-Mattapan Line as the last remaining streetcar lines in Boston. (The "D" Branch runs along the Highland branch, once a commuter rail line. It did not become light rail until 1959, at which time it caused a trolley shortage that led to the end of the "A" Branch.)

But the "E" Branch was a ticking time bomb. When the Orange Line moved from the old Washington Street Elevated to the Southwest Corridor (nearer to the center of Jamaica Plain) in 1987, MBTA leaders decided that the end of the "E" Branch was redundant.2 It also happened to be the only remaining part of the system where streetcars ran in mixed traffic, rather than in a dedicated center median or private right-of-way.

A streetcar along the short remaining section of street running, here at Mission Park.

So in 1985, the "E" Branch was cut to Heath Street, leaving two miles of empty tracks through the heart of the neighborhood. That section was replaced by the #39 bus, the second-busiest bus route in the system.5 6 Jamaica Plain was devastated, and furious. The MBTA called it a "temporary suspension", but the "A" Branch had taught locals that euphemism meant "permanent".

As part of Big Dig mitigation, the MBTA was required to restore streetcar service along the Arborway Line. But public opinion was mixed; many of the area's residents are young professionals who do not miss the streetcars because they never saw them running down South Huntington Avenue. What were once poor, mostly black blocks now sport newish sedans lining the sidewalks. Studies were done and plans made; on a recent visit to the State Transportation Library I found several linear feet of materials regarding restoration.

After the MBTA failed to restore service, lawsuits were filed and quietly dismissed. The T is strongly against the return of trolley service; street running track is expensive to maintain and the T's debts are already high. The last lawsuit was dismissed in January 2011, but the local papers did not even find out until August.7

The MBTA maintained the platforms (which now serve the #39 bus) in case service did return. This sign at Forest Hills is brand new, even though no Green Line trolleys have stopped in 26 years.

So where does that 154 years of history now leave the esteemed JP? It is an area in transition, a shifting mix of black and white, rich and poor, young and old. The stub of the "E" Branch serves the northern third of the area, though only the last few stops are in residential area rather than the Longwood Medical Area. The 39 bus chugs down the middle. The Orange Line rumbles through the east side of town under grade. Rusting trolley poles still populate the two miles of the former Arboway Line. And at Forest Hills, the streetcar tracks lie silent facing the shiny new signs, the last vestige of hope for those who believe that Jamaica Plain depends on the streetcars.

South Huntington Avenue, with light poles and trolley poles

Streetcar loops at Forest Hills at night

As of the 2000 census, of the 16,500 commuting JPers, 9000 rode in cars - and 7500 (83%) drive their own car, with just 1600 carpooling.1 (Numbers are rounded.) Of the 7300 who commuted by public transportation, 2400 rode the #39 bus. 4200 walked to take the Orange Line, and 600 to the stub of the "E" Branch (almost all at Heath Street6). (Just 40 rode the commuter rail to outer areas or as an express option to South Station).1

At 38,000 people in 3.07 square miles (2000 acres)1, Jamaica Plain hosts 19 people per square acre, a figure higher than any full-sized North American city and twice that of Boston as a whole.8 Such a number is much in line with European cities, which typically cluster 20 to 30 people per acre (an acre is 200 feet on a side). However, in European cities, few people drive. Trams are more common and public transportation is generally better, and those who drive typically chose extremely small cars or mopeds.

Thus, Jamaica Plain has the worst of both words: a dense concentration of people and a large number of drivers, with one car for every 5 residents. These cars add pollution to the air - and the last thing Jamaica Plain needs is worse health. The general agreement, then, is that more commutes should be converted to public transit. But the #39 bus is at capacity, and the Orange can only add a certain capacity, especially considering that it is inconvenient for most residents in Jamaica Plain. (From Pond Street, for example, it is 1.3 miles to Green Street which is inconceivable in any bad weather, and just half that to the #39 corridor.)

Jamaica Plain, then, faces several options for its transportation future, none of which are entirely palatable. The simplest is to merely leave the transportation system as is. As the #39 gets even more crowded, some riders will choose the Orange Line instead. Although it is limited in capacity, an extra thousand riders a day from Jamaica plain would be manageable. But this plan does nothing to prepare Jamaica Plain for a sustainable, healthy, clean future.

One idea considered in some of the Arborway studies was to convert the #39 bus to electric trolleybuses. On the surface, it is an attractive option. Trolleybuses can climb hills easier, produce no pollution, and consume no costly diesel fuel. However, two problems arise. First, because of the limitations of the wires, they aren't any more flexible than a trolley car. Second, this would introduce a fleet of vehicles that don't share parts with many other buses on the MBTA system. The other two electric fleets are the four routes out of Harvard Square and the Silver Line buses. To reach either yard would require diesel running down city streets.

Trolleybus near Harvard Square

The option preferred by many but not all residents is the return of streetcar service. A two-car train (three-car trains are generally prohibited from street-running) can hold 200 people (400 at crush capacity), versus 55-70 on a regular bus or 70-90 on the longer buses used for the #39.6 (Streetcars and buses run at the same frequency)9. Streetcars have an air of (ironically) permanence that is perceived as being beneficial to neighborhood growth. Were the trolleys to return, they would be there to stay.

The nuclear option is to eliminate street-running entirely and dig a new tunnel under South Huntington Avenue. Such a tunnel would be an immense undertaking: 3 miles from Brigham Circle to Forest Hills to eliminate all street-running tracks. It would be monstrously expensive and would require either a tunnel-boring machine, or else ripping up 3 miles of Jamaica Plain's central artery. The benefit, though, would be permanent grade-separated light rail service to Jamaica Plain. If Jamaica Plain continues to grow, such a tunnel may be necessary in 50 or 70 years (unless cars are phased out and streetcar service returns to dominate the corridor), but for now it is highly unlikely.

The ultimate question, though, is not just about what type of transit is best for Jamaica Plain. It also is about what type of transit those 38,000 people want. Do they want trolleys to return even if they have to mix with traffic? Would they prefer such service to gradually return in sections, or in one fell swoop? Or would they prefer more modest upgrades to the current system? It will not be an easy decision to make.

The conceptual problem extends beyond modes to fares as well. No matter what type of transportation works for Jamaica Plain, it's costly for residents to ride. 5718 households, about 2500 of them families, live on less than $30,000 per year.1 For many of them, a $40 per month local bus pass or $59 subway/bus pass ($480 and $708 annually, respectively)10 represent a hefty barrier to transit use. These costs are only expected to rise when the MBTA implements a fare increase sometime in 2012.

The two-hundred-dollar per year difference also pushes lower-income workers to the #39 versus the Orange Line. Not only is this transit inequity unfair to the workers - as they require 26 minutes (plus traffic delays)) to reach Back Bay from Forest Hills versus 12 minutes on the Orange Line9, but it hurts the MBTA by overcrowding the bus while the Orange Line runs under capacity on most trains.

It is suggested that a leveling of the cost of the Subway and Local Bus passes would help this inequity, as would the return of the trolleys (which have more precedence over traffic than do buses). However, the root of the issue is the relatively high cost of the fares. My 1949 Boston Electric Railway fare map shows the streetcar (now local bus) fare at 5 cents and the subway fare as 10 cents. Adjusted for inflation, these equal 47 and 94 cents in 2011 dollars. At $235 and $470 per year in 2011 dollars 11 (assuming 2 trips per day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year), the former fares were significantly cheaper: a worker could ride the Washington Street Elevated, or a #39 streetcar into the subway, for the equivalent cost of a modern bus pass - and this on a streetcar network far superior to today's.

Especially if the fare jumps significantly (and I've seen estimates of up to 80 dollars for a monthly subway pass), transit will be moving out of the range of those Jamaica Plain residents who need it most: those who cannot afford a car. But the MBTA is significantly in debt, and the money must come from somewhere. That somewhere is a conceptual question all on its own: should those riding heavily-subsidized outer belt commuter rail pay more (and have more of them drive and pollute)? What about disabled persons who cost the system $40 per ride on The Ride's specialized vehicles? Or what about those who drive only to park in MBTA lots? Should the state pay more to benefit only the eastern third? There is no easy answer.

Works Cited

1. "JAMAICA PLAIN 2000 Census of Population and Housing". Boston Redevelopment Authority. 15 December 2003. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
2. "Jamaica Plain". City of Boston. 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
3. Greer, Michael (2002). "Streetcars in Jamaica Plain: A History". Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
4. Wikipedia contributors. "Boston-area streetcar lines". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 July 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
5. (Three bus routes are almost identical with about 14,500 riders per day: The #39, the #66, and the SL5).
6. "Ridership and Service Statistics". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2010. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
7. Ruch, John (26 August 2011). "Trolley comeback killed by court". Jamaica Plain Gazette. Retrieved 14 October 2011
8. Newman, Peter W. G. and Kenworthy, Jeffrey R. (1989). "Gasoline Consumption and Cities". Journal of the American Planning Association, 55:1, 24-3. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
9. "Route 39 Schedule". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
10. "Bus Fares & Passes". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
11. "CPI Inflation Calculator". United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 14 October 2011.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

MassDOT and image reuse

I recently added a link on my blogroll: "Commonwealth Conversations", the official transportation blog of MassDOT. As well as highway projects, MassDOT is in charge of projects like South Coast Rail that involve new passenger rail or transit service, so much of the content is about such projects. They also post about MBTA projects.

One such post is today's, which announces approvals for the new Assembly Square station on the Orange Line and the rebuild of Orient Heights on the Blue Line. I am very glad to see both projects advancing.

There is one image in the post: a shot of the front of Orient Heights station. I recognized it immediately, because I just moved it to Wikimedia Commons yesterday.

It is originally from Flickr, posted here. I moved it to Wikimedia Commons with using a web interface because the photo is available under a free-use Creative Commons licence. This means that it is eligible to be used freely on Wikipedia and other sites as long as the terms of the licence are met.

In this case, it's a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence. The BY term means that attribution is required: free reuse is only allowed if the author is properly credited. The SA term requires sharealike: any modification of the file must be licenced by the reuser under a similar free licence.

Use on Wikipedia meets those terms: clicking on the file takes you to a description page that credits the author, and Wikipedia itself is released under a free Creative Commons licence.

But MassDOT's use does not meet the terms. Both the Flickr version and the Wikimedia Commons reuse require attribution and sharealike. MassDOT's blog does not mention that the photograph was taken by Scott Lapierre, or provide a link to the Flickr or Wikimedia page, and it fails to release the resized version under a free licence.It's an easy and very common mistake to make, and one I've made myself in the past; I only personally became responsible about it after I started uploading files to Commons. Hopefully MassDOT, as a state agency, can set an example with correct attribution of free-use photos.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Well, maybe. A picture can be worth almost nothing; take a look at 100 random images on Flickr, and you'll see that very few of the site's 6 billion images are worth more than a sentence.

But, when properly applied, a single image can replace thousands of words. I probably read through several thousand words of blog posts, forum posts, and old newspapers to trace the former Green Line branch that once surfaced at what is now Eliot Norton Park in the Theater District. Descriptions of streetcar lines and that "...the right tracks went under the grade of the left tracks and split, with the left branch going to City Point outbound..." are simply insufficient to describe a complex, multilevel three-dimensional track crossover - particularly one that has not been seen in 4 decades and thus no good pictures exist.

If I may toot my own horn a moment, then take a look at this map that I created. I designed it to quickly show a viewer which tracks went where, and in what configuration. In this case, it tells the reader as much as those thousands of words of prose and even more than the few grainy photographs available. It does not replace them; it cannot entirely replace a picture, however poor quality, that shows the actual tunnel rather than simply a schematic. It is helpful, too, to know that the Orange Line connected to the portal between 1901 and 1908, or that the #43 streetcar to Lenox Street was the last route to use the portal. Even when included with the images (as I did with the Orange Line), it still requires text. But the map both elucidates and replaces text, and thus the old maxim holds in this case.

Of course, pictures can replace words without being merely informative. A picture of, perhaps, a lonely pond can show desperation and loneliness just as a poem or story could. Our vision is one of our most powerful senses; like taste and smell, it can have a strong correlation with memory. How else, for example, could my father recognize a cousin that he had not seen in decades? His brain could combine old images with its knowledge of aging and provide a plausible composite which it then compared with each passerby until it found a match.

The human face, in particular, is a subject where image is superior to the written word. One ran write about a person and get a reasonably accurate portrait of their body, their mind, their mannerisms and even their voice. But the face is a masterpiece of subtlety; tiny variations cause huge changes in the way it is perceived. A few millimeters in the symmetry of the features and the relative locations of nose, mouth, and eyes is much of the difference between average and beauty, or especially between merely beautiful and truly gorgeous. Emotion is written almost entirely in our faces: the way the eyes change direction, the separation of the lips, and the minor movement of the eyebrows can signal almost anything. The features are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to describe in a nonvisual medium; the mediocre artist will find themself able to produce a tolerable if slightly lopsided facsimile of the human body, but the face will be downright unrecognizable. Much artistic skill is required even for the most basic outline, and even more if that outline is via prose, yet even the grainiest photograph provides instant recognition.

So a picture can be worth one word, or a thousand, or more than any writing could ever produce. A poor graphic, perhaps on a Powerpoint slide, can do more harm than good: instead of saving words, it requires more to explain it that it would to simply leave it out. When dealing with something complex yet quantifiable an image can disambiguate text and render only a caption necessary - but only if the image is in fact superior to the text. Only when dealing with subtle subjects: the face, or an object of beauty, or simply something beyond the ability of human language to render it - does the printed word fail completely.

But what about something for which there is no equivalent in words? Some photographs are true art; they tell a message which is as clear as if it was spoken. They express ideas and feelings. But others simply exist. They are not high art, even if they are artistic in style. (And by 'artistic' I mean legitimately artistic, with attention paid to exposure, color, and framing - or developed by mere stroke of luck. The trend of 'tilt the camera, vignette the edges, and make it greyscale' is not nearly as artistically interesting as its practitioners would like to believe.)

Some would say that these are not worthy photographs, that they must either be useful or meaningful, and I do not deny that there may be merit in that statement. But I would like to believe that a picture can simply be.

I carry a camera everywhere and I take pictures because I find the subject interesting. The two following are from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, where a friend attends. The first was a spur-of-the-moment shot; the second I saw in an instant but it took a few moments to align.

This was from my walk on Tuesday, where I followed Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square. I will confess to taking a color image here and converting it to greyscale. I did so not because I think it of artistic value, but simply because I wanted the silhouette of the church. Frequently I will use such digital post-processing to improve or modify my photos; it is one of the joys of the digital age. In this case, I actually created several copies and experimented with fill brightness, contrast, and shadows to produce the effect I wanted: a blank church against a mottled background of the incoming storm.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Even after everyone else has gone to bed, the city is still awash with light. Long after midnight, one can walk out on the Harvard Bridge and be surrounded by 360 degrees of lights. The Financial District is lit twenty-four hours a day. Even in Brookline - where nary a soul stirs past the stroke of twelve - many storefronts keep the lights on for security.

But even when the city is lit, the people are still asleep. By midnight, most major streets are empty of sober folks, and the Mass Pike slows to just a few cars per minute. Away from bars and frat houses, the only people I pass on my walks are dog walkers and a few couples returning late. At a time when much of the city is at its most beautiful, with the stillness and the overlap of dark and light, almost no one is there to appreciate it.

Even when that stillness is interrupted, there are still wonderful things. Take, for example, that most piercing of disturbances: an ambulance speeding down Commonwealth Avenue, sirens blaring. It is noisy and bright, the symbol of injury and sickness - the antithesis of everything beautiful about the night.

But take a closer look as it speeds down the avenue at midnight. Although there are none of the traffic jams present during the day, there are still a few cars at each stoplight. Each time the ambulance driver approaches a red light, a device on the truck turns the light to green (a so-called green wave) to speed its passage.

Now, watch and listen. On each block, the ambulance starts to brake several hundred feet before the light. But as soon as the light is green and the cars ahead form a clear path, the motor begins to roar. The driver downshifts this laughably overpowered vehicle and it shoots forward, accelerating cleanly through the traffic light.

So what, you may say, that the driver operates in this manner. How could it matter?

But watch the speed of the ambulance. Because it only brakes for a moment in the middle of the block, and because the driver accelerates as soon as the way ahead is open, the vehicle never slows below 30 miles per hour, and with a few clear blocks it may reach highway speeds.

Even if it saves just fractions of a second per block, over the two miles from Kenmore Square to Packard's Corner that might mean ten or even fifteen seconds. To one patient that means nothing, but over dozens and hundreds of emergency runs, that few seconds might save a life.

That to me is the essence of professionalism, that that ambulance driver handles their vehicle in this unorthodox but efficient manner. That they might perform this tedious brake-gas maneuver five or ten or twenty thousand times so that a stranger might survive, and they do this not out of charity but because they are doing their job to the very best of their ability. It is not a skill than can be acquired in a classroom, but only by experience and by the passing down on institutional knowledge.

It is no less a credit to the engineers who designed the vehicle, too, because they showed remarkable foresight when they put an eight-hundred horsepower motor in a truck barely larger than a large pickup - because they knew that someday, that vehicle might need to accelerate quickly, over and over again.

It is a peculiar notion to call beauty. Efficiency, yes, but a roaring motor is rarely beautiful. But I will call it beauty, because what is beauty but a system in perfect harmony?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"It tolls for thee"

An early morning experiment in writing bad fiction, complete with the most overused and cliche 6-word opener of all time. Trigger warning for violence and suicide.

"It tolls for thee"

It was a dark and stormy noon as the distant bell tower finished its last stroke. He did not know where it was; it could be as far as Downtown or Needham, or perhaps the Mattapan church belt. It did not seem to matter which church it was anymore; after days of frustrating searching, he found that no bells within two miles could possibly play that pounding low song, haunted parody of a melody.

It was a deep sound channel, man, the hemp-soaked young man at the record store drawled to him. Like in the ocean, you know? Four years of “audio engineering” and he never learned to be professional. But the glorified roadie was all too correct. The tiny house at 38 Thorndike, it seemed, was just in the wrong place. Sound from that distant tower bounced off exactly from the wrong roofs and walls, combining at this improbable node and turning his modestly decorated living room into a hellish echo chamber fourteen times a day. On the hour, every hour, seven in the morning to eight at night, came that unearthly ringing. It stayed in his ears constantly, until he could barely tell whether it was real or imagined. Day or night, sun or rain, it was there.

Any sane man would have moved. Brought buyers in at half-past the hour and bought a house a few streets away. It was not that he was not physically strong enough; he was not yet a very old man. But this house was also the house where his wife had been. He was a practical man and did not believe in such things as ghosts, and yet he knew she was there. She was there in his head, in his memories. On at the threshold could he conjure the feeling of her tender lips; only in the cramped bedroom would her lusty smile surface in his brain. No, to leave this house would be to leave her – for the final time.

The ringing in his ears subsides for a moment, and he contemplates going outside for the first time in a week. If he could put her aside for an hour, then perhaps he could clear his head and-

And that that exact moment, the hedonistic thug on the other side of the thin clapboard wall chooses to power on his heavily distorted amplifier. His reaction is measured yet automatic, as if he has been mentally preparing for years. He reaches into an empty drawer and retrieves an ancient revolver. It is surprisingly heavy in his hands. He is unfamiliar with the heft; he has not touched except twice a year to blue the steel. From a yellowed cardboard box in the back of another drawer, he pulls out six small bullets a places them one at a time into their chambers. Click. Spin. Click. Spin. He knows exactly what will happen. In a few minutes, the hooligan will get bored of creating obnoxious screeches, and he will go to the corner store. He will walk down the sidewalk, directly in front of the man’s house. The man practices aiming, firing, turning the gun upwards. He spins the cylinder and stifles a laugh: he’s playing Russian Roulette with bullets in every chamber.

The low tones begin. It is one o’clock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Allston Depot

Two of the most thought-provoking books I've read are Freakonomics and its sequel. Although they focus mostly on economic ideas, they also explore some unintended effects of public policy. Besides my human appreciation of irony, I find it fascinating to see how one thing can cause a chain of events. As a future engineer, it's important for me to see how one decision I make can have effects down the line.

Over the last century, engineering standards for trains have increased in a similar manner to how those for cars have increased. Just as manufacturers can no longer make Pintos that blow up when they get hit from behind, they can no longer make wooden trams or railroad cars that cannot survive a collision with an automobile. Today's modern light rail vehicles (colloquially, trams and trolleys), for example, are significantly heavier than the PCC streetcars that dominated during the 30s to the 70s. (The PCCs weighed just 35,000 to 42,000 pounds; 70s-era Boeing cars weight 67,000, and modern Type 8 trams weigh 85,000 pounds empty - and 130 passengers can add 20,000 more on top of that.)

Although fuel usage is not an issue for electric trams, weight can still be an issue. Should Green Line cars ever use the Pleasant Street Incline in South Boston again, the flyover ramps would have to be rebuild for the heavier modern cars. It is for this reason that the PCCs are still used on the Ashmont-Mattapan Line: the three bridges on the route would have to be rebuilt from scratch to accommodate the newer trams, and they would not be able to get an exemption to use lighter European trams because the line has grade crossings where a tram could conceivably hit a car. There's also no sense in abandoning reliable old cars when there's still a shortage of new cars.

Engineering standards, particularly crashworthiness standards, also affect mainline rail operations. Speeds are limited on many lines because in order to run above 70 miles an hour though grade crossings, the first car must be a locomotive or unoccupied car. FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) rules require certain steel side beams for operation above 125 mph. These side beams are located right where fold-down stairs go, so the high-speed Acela has no stairs - and can only stop at high-level (4 feet high) platforms.

Heavy modern steel railroad cars also require more energy to slow down, and to speed up, than the light wooden cars of years past. Again, this poses little problem with electric locomotives (or self-propelled electric railcars), but only the Northeast Corridor plus (most of) the New York and all of the Philadelphia commuter lines are electrified. When, like Boston, all of your commuter lines are diesel locomotives hauling 4 to 8 cars, it is impractical to have stops less than about 2 miles apart. Although their are some exceptions (Melrose, Needham, and Dedham have 3 stops within 1.5 linear miles, and West Roxbury has a 4-stop cluster), the trend is for fewer, wider-spaced stops, particularly on the newer lines.

During the nadir of rail travel - from about 1950 to 1980 - many lines were abandoned, or service was reduced to starvation levels. To reduce maintenance costs and to save on fuel, many stations were closed even on active lines. The Worcester-Framingham Line, like others, saw a number of its stations closed, particularly in the inner belt. Stations at University (BU), Allston, Brighton, Faneuil, and Newton were closed, leaving the Allston-Brighton area devoid of good transit options and heavily car-dependent.

The Allston depot was built in 1887 by the Boston & Albany Railroad, replacing the 1868 "Cambridge Crossing" depot. Although it closed at an unknown date, it still stands where Cambridge Street crosses the Mass Pike. It was once Sports Depot restaurant; now it's Regina Pizzeria at the Depot. (It housed a steakhouse even when it was still operational.) I took a walk two weeks back, to explore Allston and to photograph the building. With permission from the manager, I took some shots. It's a fairly large building, and the first two are panoramas I stitched together.

Front view from Cambridge Street

Side view from Franklin Street

Side view from the pedestrian bridge over the tracks and Mass Pike. Note how the former platform area is now an enclosed dining area - a brilliant reuse.

The saga of Allston Depot is not yet over, though. CSX is leaving Beacon Park Yard (the large rail yard between BU and Harvard) and moving those operations to Worcester. This will permit the MBTA to run more trains on the Boston-Framingham segment with less freight interference. Harvard is calling for the establishment of a new stop in Allston, and money talks. If the MBTA can purchase the tracks in that area, then they may well remove or relocate one to make room for a platform. The favored site is under the Cambridge Street bridge - exactly where the stop was first located 143 years ago.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Walking through Somerville and the North End

On last Tuesday evening, I went to a public meeting in Somerville. It took me one trolley, two buses, and a lot of walking to get to Somerville High School. That's an indication of the poor state of public transit in the area (I missed a bus at Lechmere, so my options were waiting 30 minutes for the next bus, or a mile's walk), which I'll touch on more later with the Green Line Extension.

The meeting was about the upcoming Lowering McGrath study, which is a really cool thing. They're going to take an ugly concrete viaduct from the 1950s, which carries Route 28 but divides Somerville, and transform it into an at-grade boulevard. It will facilitate pedestrian and bicycle access and unite the two sides of the city.

The meeting got out just past 8. Rather than take a bus, I decided to walk back to Boston. I wasn't sure I wanted to walk four miles (or more) through the unfamiliar street grid of Cambridge, so I headed for the North End. This route took me along a mile of Route 28, including much of the viaduct. It's a monstrosity, and it wasn't the best walking. The sidewalks - where there were sidewalks - were narrow, unlit, and often flooded.

In Somerville, I passed a building with several arched doorways that I though might have once been a trolley barn. The pictures I took were, sadly, dramatically underexposed. It turns out, though, that it is related to the history of the first elevated railway in Boston, a short-lived monorail. I hope to return soon and take pictures.

My journey took me over the Route 28 bridge under the Green Line's Lechmere viaduct. The viaduct is closed for construction at Science Park, but it still provided a fascinating photographic subject. The viaduct, which turns 100 next June, still contains some original catenary (overhead wire) poles:

Any view west from the bridge is blocked by the Museum of Science, but the hundred-foot arches of the viaduct provide wonderful framing for the Bunker Hill Bridge. (The Spaulding Hospital is on the right side of the bridge.)
I played with saturation on the top image. I love the artistic manipulations that digital photography permits.

From the Charles, I walked east on Nashua Street. My camera was still on night setting when I took this shot of a shuttle bus. It's not the quality I was seeking for Wikipedia, but instead I find a little artistic merit:

From much of the North End, the Bunker Hill bridge is visible above trees and buildings. The Big Dig was in many ways a colossal waste, but I love the bridge. Bridges are frequently beautiful - the same curves that make them strong are often aesthetically pleasing - and this is among the best. It is clean and white, resembling a pair of sailboats more than a freeway.

I walked down Causeway Street, behind North Station and TD Garden. The street was for almost a century covered by the Causeway Street elevated, yet just seven years after its removal few traces remain. Its remains, too, are a future photographic target for me.

At Government Center, after 3.3 miles of wandering, I finally gave in and boarded the T. I hoped to photograph the Brattle Loop, once a busy streetcar turnaround for cars from as far as Medford and Chelsea. Now it's usually empty, with the former platform visible to the thousands who pass through the station despite a wall that hides much of it. However, that night, it was occupied by spare Green Line trams.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gender and Language

Three posts ago, remember how I wrote about feminism, from the perspective of me as a man? Okay, good. Now, two posts ago was about hyperfocus.

That essay about feminism was written in one of my hyperfocus ("Spark") moments. After sitting a few moments awake in bed, I climbed down the latter, booted up my laptop, and typed for twenty solid minutes without stopping for more than a few moments. It was as close to taking material directly from my brain and placing it onto a page as is possible, and the result was quite nice. It's rough and unpolished, but it's a direct statement of what I believe.

I didn't do a lot of editing. That's not necessarily out of pride, though I do have some in the finished work, but mainly because it didn't need very much. True grammatical polishing, in fact, would take away some of the impact. Last post, about precision, applies exactly here. Even when repetitive and sometimes in odd uses and forms, the words in the piece were exactly how I wanted them. I digest, over and over again, media where turns of phrase are perfected to the point of beauty. Firefly, where every line is a quotable sound bite, and Snow Crash, where every sentence is carefully constructed to make the characters a little more awesome, and two personal favorites. That shows in my best writing, where some of my best lines could stand alone.

I made almost no grammatical edits to the piece. I added a short paragraph to the middle, which I mostly composed during the rough draft but didn't type out then. But there was one part I edited over and over, and I am still unsatisfied with. It was the first paragraph, especially the fourth sentence. The final incarnation is "I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man." It makes my point: being male, unlike being a feminist, was not a conscious choice I made.

But it's problematic, because so many people do not fit into the gender binary of {{male and masculine}} versus {{female and feminine}}. It fact, even ridding ourselves of the stereotypes of masculine and feminine, the divide between {{male}} and {{female}} is not absolute. I first became aware of this on a prominent internet forum known for its inclusiveness. There are about a dozen openly transgender and genderqueer people on the forum, and I read what they have to say. There are people who start their lives as "normal" males and discover later in life that they feel that they are female, and vice versa. It is customary to refer to such transgender people by the pronouns they prefer, regardless of their appearance or genitalia. Other people are even further from this gender binary. There are people who feel they belong in neither male or female, or in both. Cultures from Native Americans to the Thai recognize the idea of a third sex. And there are countless situations where birth defects and genital anomalies cause a person to be improperly sorted by sex at birth, or make such sorting impossible. There are at least eleven different ways that a person with no conscious feelings outside the gender they grew up as, can in fact be sorted into a different gender, because no marker like external genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, or appearance can sort genders with 100% accuracy. (This also happens to be an argument against heterosexual-only marriage, because when defined by these tests a person's legal gender can differ from the gender they were raised as, and identified with, since birth).

So it's very difficult to pin down wording for that sentence that identifies me as immutably male without unreasonably marginalizing all of these people - which make up perhaps 1% of the population, and a highly invisible percent at that. I am not a male because I was born with a penis rather than a vagina. I am not male because it was on my birth certificate, or because my genotype is XY. I am not male specifically by birth. I am male because that is how I personally identify (and, lucky me, those physical characteristics happen to agree). But English, with its roots as a heavily gendered language, make it hard to express this. Like highways and suburbs designed before walking came back as a form of transportation, the language simply did not evolve with any real capacity for describing gender and sex other than {{male}} and {{female}}. I found it difficult to convey the idea that I am mentally male while avoiding implying that my physical characteristics differ. Precision suffers.

There's workarounds, and I try to use them. For the sentence in my essay, some ambiguity with "because that is who I am" works as a kludge, though not as an elegant solution. But one of the simplest situations is also the most frustrating and complex. If I have a person, who I am referring to in the third person singular, what can I use if "he" or "she" would be incorrect because I do not know their gender, or wish to hide it, or it doesn't fit simply into the binary?

Conventional formal English dictates that I default to "he", a sexist protocol that I find distasteful. Equally ugly is "it", which is at least neutral, but totally dehumanizes the person. "One" only works in rare situations. (S)he is so inelegant and so worthless for fiction that I refuse to consider it as a serious use. Certain workaround pronouns have been proposed, and I've even been known to use "hir" and "xe" at times. They're not pretty, but they're the least evil in a field that includes "thon", "per", "yt", "co", "en", "mer", "hy", "hu", and "e".

But the solution is obvious. "They". It works for multiple third persons of indiscriminate sex; why not for a single? The singular they has a controversial history. Shakespeare made frequent use, and it was more or less standard until grammatical standardization and reforms in the nineteenth century, when the stereotypical British prescriptivists outlawed it, along with other glories like the split infinitive and the ending of sentences with prepositions. With modern equality movements and linguistic changes it is beginning to make a comeback, but it is still considered inappropriate for any serious writing.

I consider this unacceptable. It is a long-used and elegant solution for a thorny problem that only will get more prominent as strict societal enforcement of the gender binary loosens. The singular they, I say, is here to stay!


Metaposting is either the lowest depths of writer's block, or a legitimate way to improve my writing, by thinking about how I write. In either case I'm not too shameless to do so, not even two posts in a row. I personally think that analyzing my writing, and the language that underlies it, I can improve how I write. A style requires a highly subjective mastery of tone, vocabulary, and how to manipulate words to create emotion, and I don't think that can be picked apart with any real positive result.

But good writing also requires precision. Exactness of grammar, wording, and pattern creates the most meaning when it is followed exactly - except when imprecision is necessary to create a style. With this I cannot help but to quote Raymond Chandler, the master of noir. His ability to mix perfect prose with idiosyncratic cant was necessary to his gritty style: "By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." Even in that meta-sentence, he juxtaposes turns of phrase like "convey my compliments" with "God damn it."

My writing is precise to the point where I cannot normally write fiction because I am too exact about it. My style is half the formalized prose of American secondary education and half the mixed-dialect measured neutral tone of the longtime Wikipedia editor - with word pairs and tidbits from all sorts of my readings thrown in. I have a tendency to sound like who I read. When I read Douglas Adams, I find triple-digit-word-count, half-paragraph run-on sentences to be the funniest thing since the banana peel. When I read William Gibson, my prose tightens. I read enough that my voice becomes an amalgam and mostly my own rather than near-plagiarism, but on occasion I find myself with a finely-crafted sentence, only to depressingly realize that I read the sentence last year in Richard Feynman's autobiography. Perhaps reading Ayn Rand (more on that later) is causing me to write 600 and thousand-word posts out of nothing.

This post started as a discussion of transgender issues in language. I began with few words on how my feminism post started as a single flowing document. That became 1100 words about hyperfocusing and the nature of genius. Then this post began as that same post... and with this doubly-meta, self-aware sentence it's pushing 500 words about precision in language. Thinking about the way I write causes me to write. I can only hope next post actually goes where I intend it to go.

Sparks Fly

That last post was created by my creative spark. I get it occasionally; the short (10 minutes to a few hours) burst of extreme focus and higher thinking. It's quite powerful; I've written entire thesis papers in a matter of hours when it gets turned on. My rhetoric develops a maturity that I can't normally conjure up, my prose gets tighter, and I frequently get my very best writing from this spark. Sometimes it's a nonfiction essay, like last post. On a few occasions, I've even written short fiction - and that's the only time I can write decent fiction.

I occasionally get it with other things besides writing. A few times, I have had an insight with a problem in a program I was creating, which led to a fury of work that solved the problem, often in elegant fashion. Similar things occasionally happen with problems or problems with designing a rocket.

(I use the term "spark" here in allusion to Girl Genius, a webcomic I'm very fond of, where The Spark is a state of hyperfocus that certain characters make use of. I'm not as skilled as they, but I recognize the description of the feeling.)

It's almost impossible to control. Thinking about a problem or essay for a length of time can sometimes trigger it; when I need it to make a thesis paper perfect, it may take a week or longer before I get to it. Sometimes it appears when I think on a problem for an hour or so with nothing else to entertain me; it was such boredom that produced my rant on feminism. Sometimes, it's triggered by a single idea: a thought in Marine Science last year about self-replicating nanobots quickly warped into a humorous monologue.

About llamas.

I've made it a point to analyze it when it does appear, which, fortunately, is more often than it used to. Being able to harness it, to call it at will, would be an extraordinarily powerful ability. I could write at my best any time I wanted to. That means thinking as fast as I can type (20-30wpm*) with almost no need to revise**. At my best, I come within spitting distance of 1000 words per hour.

I know that it comes most often at night. I am a loner by nature, and though I have an impressive ability to focus with distractions around, late night when everyone else is sleeping is still my best hour. Even though I am frequently extremely tired, the hyperfocus causes me to ignore sleepiness and hunger as well as less base things like other things that normally crowd my mind. The late-night nature is both a blessing and a curse; while it's saved a number of assignments (and at least one semester paper) at the eleventh hour, it also effectively prevents sleep for as long as it lasts, and more than once I've hit save with the first hints of dawn beginning to grace the eastern sky.

Besides the witching hours, the other contributing factor seems to be stress. As I've noted, on a number of occasions it's appeared when I have an essay due the next day (a habit I'm attempting to get out of for college). Even when it blesses me with a non-academic gift - like the aforementioned monologue, and last night's essay - it's a product of having too much on my mind. Which is not good when, say, I really ought to be working on differential equations instead.

So I'm trying to figure out how to trigger it in ways other than staying up late and procrastinating on my homework. Thinking a lot in the absence of other distractions (like books and the internet) may help, and it's why walking at night is something I'll be doing more. Certain music has an effect; it can't be catchy, but it has to be powerful. Ozzy's raw power distracts; Dio's melodic songs are better for trying to focus. Symphonic death metal - particularly with Norwegian lyrics that I don't listen to because they're not in English - and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's masterful guitar work seems to be best.

One thing that definitely helps is simply being good. I got this spark only a handful of times before 11th grade, when I had Ms. Park. We had our differences at times, but I respect her perhaps more than any other teacher I've had, because she made me develop my style. She gave assignments that didn't require trying to shoehorn myself into a literary style; they required creating arguments and backing them up with evidence. She allowed me my idiosyncrasies within the bounds of reason and focused on shoring up the weak parts of my writing. Very quickly, I was writing much further above my age than I usually had. Now that I can write at a level equal to my ability to think, it is much easier to produce when I do get the spark.

I don't know how it works for other people. Perhaps everyone gets hyperfocussed on occasion, and I'm simply overanalyzing a normal phenomenon. Perhaps I'm just lucky. My suspicion is that it is often correlated with high intelligence plus what are sometimes termed mild autism-spectrum disorders. Anecdotal evidence from a few other people seems to support this idea. I certainly fit the psychological and behavioral patterns for high-functioning Asberger's. Regardsless of the source, though, it is my opinion that true genius requires not only a high degree of skill, but also an ability to summon that hyperfocus almost at will. I can only wish I had that ability.

* I was taught to type in the standard style, but I never took to it. I'm possessed of a pair of abnormally large hands, which make it difficult to fit ten fingers in position on a standard keyboard. I also didn't have the patience to go through the absolutely demeaning exercises required to learn such a method. So, instead, I simply typed with what felt naturally - hunt-and-peck with just my index fingers - whenever my teacher wasn't looking. Since then, I've spent so much time typing that I can type 20 to 30 words per minute - and as high as 45 wpm on typing tests - with just two fingers. My only problem is a tendency to transpose certain two-letter patterns, particularly ng to gn.

** In tenth grade, I turned in a thesis paper that I didn't edit after the first draft. It was half act of juvenile defiance, half refusal to spend time editing something that was already just as perfect as I felt it should be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I am a Feminist

I am a feminist, and I am a man. I do not see this as a contradiction. I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man. I am a feminist because I chose to be a feminist, because I believe in the apparently radical idea that women are people. People, just people, exactly as men are people.

Some people tell me this is a contradiction. They say that a man cannot be a feminist, because feminism is about women, and I am not a woman. Or they say that it is silly to be a feminist, because I am not a woman, and giving women equality will not give me anything. I find this to be ridiculous: should I not believe in the equality of black people because I am not black, or not fight for gay people to marry simply because I am not gay?

I believe that equality is necessary on its own merits, that no person should be denied an equal chance because of something as trivial as because they happen to be female. I do not need to justify its benefit to me, because having a fair society is worth anything I can do. But even the silly arguments make me think. What does feminism bring to me? Can it be justified on a personal level, in addition to a global level? It maybe is not important that it can – but it can absolutely be justified on any level. I am a feminist because I think it is good, but I am also a feminist because it is good for me.

I am a feminist, because when I walk into my job, I will have the very best possible coworkers. They will have been chosen at every level for their ability and creativity, their rationality and brilliance. There will be women there, because maybe they will not have been told at five and ten and fifteen and eighteen and twenty-two that women don’t become engineers, that maybe they should become a nurse of a teacher instead, because that’s what women do. There will be women sitting in the fancy chairs, because we will have purged from our collective memory banks the idea that only men can make decisions.

I am a feminist, because I will have sex with a woman, and I will know that we are having sex because we want to have sex with each other. It will be good sex, because she will have been taught that her body is good and she can enjoy it, and that sex is good and she can enjoy it too. I will not worry that she would rather be having sex with a woman, or with no one, or with someone else entirely – because she will not feel a pressure to ignore her feelings and have sex with a man – and I will know that we are having sex because she happens to want sex. She will not feel shamed by society for having sex, even if she has sex with other people too, or if she gets birth control so that she does not have to have a baby.

I am a feminist, because I will watch movies, and I will watch television, and I will watch strong female characters. Except I will not even think of this, because strong female characters will be so normal I will not notice them, because they will not be an anomaly any more. I will watch these women have jobs and hobbies and talk to each other about things besides men, because that is how women act in real life. 

I am a feminist, because I will hold doors for people. I will not worry about being expected to open doors for women simply because they are women, and I will not worry about insulting a woman’s strength by opening a door for her. I will open doors for people because it is basic human kindness, and I will be able to open doors for all people.

A note: this was originally written about 2:30 in the morning a few nights back. It's an amalgam of several nights of thought. It's written in a bit of an idiosyncratic style, I realize, and I refuse to have it any other way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Walking Boston

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a smallish neighborhood in a smallish town in a smallish state. My particular subdivision was designed in the late 1950s, when car culture still reigned king. Although the immediate neighborhood is mostly walkable, venturing beyond requires a car. It is impossible to get to the town center by any mode but by vehicle; even to get to the nearer village area would require traveling in the narrow and sometimes absent breakdown lane of a major state road with fifty-five miles per hour traffic. In a town six miles square, there is less than a mile of sidewalk, because most of the faster two-lane roads were upgraded or built, of course, during the Fifties. On the two major roads, there are only two pedestrian crossings, and neither is protected by an adjacent traffic light nor routed onto a dedicated bridge. Even the sole walkable destination from my neighborhood – the junior high school – can only be accessed by crossing a state route less than 50 yards from a blind corner, after crossing (with permission) private property to avoid a section of road with no margin. It’s not a friendly place for alternative modes of transportation.

I like walking, though. If I was the sort to believe in the concept of a soul, I’d say walking is good for said soul. It certainly clears both lungs and brain. But my neighborhood, as mentioned, fits the general description of ‘smallish;’ the longest possible loop barely exceeds a mile. The paths behind my house through the woods are marginally better. Both are also heavily restricted to daytime use. Should I choose to venture outside after dusk, the neighborhood is filled with paranoid folks who would gladly call the police claiming that I’m a burglar (and I’ve gotten strange comments from using a telescope in the privacy of my own yard), and the local skunk population seems to be exhibiting ideal unrestricted exponential growth. In high school, the twin forces of homework and the internet combined their wiles to keep me inside in my easy chair.
Just as I was about to become permanently sedentary, along came college. Instead of a cowtown in Connecticut, I now find myself in Boston, Massachusetts. The BU campus is hardly a campus at all – just one and two rows of buildings lining Commonwealth Avenue (henceforth Comm Ave) and parts of Beacon Street. But I don’t find myself missing the insular grassy feel of similar institutions like Harvard and Northeastern. I like the urban experience, with crowds of students, cars, taxis, buses, and trams sharing the street. I’m now in a city where the locals were strolling around three centuries before Henry Ford.

With the exception of the interstate highways and a few other expressways, every road in the area has sidewalks. Some roads, like Comm Ave east of Kenmore Square, even have the wide, green pedestrian / bicycle dedicated center medians common in Europe (and which I loved in Lima). Boston also has its own quirks: the walk/don’t walk signals have no correlation on whether it’s actually safe to cross, and enough people crossing can bring traffic to a halt even on a green light. I started by just walking to campus events and classes, and I had no plans to walk any further than necessary. But then, on my first day of classes, I found myself done with classes by 12:30, with almost no homework. My realization then has shaped much of my activities since: the realization that I could walk anywhere I wanted, as far as I wanted, almost anytime I wanted. I can find myself in busy Kenmore square in just minutes from leaving my room. Twenty minutes will get me to the middle of the Charles (on Harvard Bridge), or to the peace of the Back Bay Fens.

College gives me a lot of stress, and this freedom to clear my mind and stretch my legs is my saving grace. I am a loner by nature; though I can enjoy social company, sometimes I just need to be alone. Normally such solitary escapism is nearly impossible in a city, but ironically I often find it in the middle of crowds. I can stroll up Mass Ave through Central Square in Cambridge and feel free and easy even with hundreds passing me by.
A few days ago, I found myself leaving West Campus at perhaps eleven at night. I turned right at the BU Bridge and wandered into Brookline, where I don’t know the street grid. A few blocks down the street, I realized that I was in a traditionally “bad” situation: alone in a city at night, on a dark and empty street, not entirely sure of my route, and without a single other sole knowing where I was. Yet, I did not feel the least unsafe. I feared no muggers appearing from behind the oak trees. Instead, I felt very much alive. After half an hour exploring Brookline, I reached familiar streets and made my way back to my dorm. I came back feeling very refreshed.

As much as it is a very modern city, Boston is also full of history. Some of it – Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall, Boston Common to Beacon Hill – is obvious to even the most inattentive onlooker. But much of it is gone or in ruins – and one must search for the ruins. My nerdy obsession is the T (the public transit system) and its predecessors the Boston Electric Railway (BERy), Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, and the M.T.A. (of Kingston Trio fame), and the city and its suburbs are full of remains just beyond the public consciousness. I make it my business to seek out and photograph these bits – like the concrete wall just east of Kenmore, which was once a busy streetcar portal. Until I have more literary remarks to make later in the semester, much of my blogging will focus on these ruins of the T.
But beyond the trains, there is much for me to walk for. It’s grand exercise – and now that I find myself walking four to six miles a day, I have the inclination to eat four full meals a day. I’m learning the geography and shape of the city from my excursions. But one that pulls me often is the mystery.

As an example, take this stone house. It’s not out of character for the city – except that it’s located in Charlesgate, surrounded by entrance ramps for Storrow Drive and Mass Ave. Why is it there? Is it a fancy maintenance building, or an older construction that never got torn down? I may never find out – but merely knowing the existence of the mystery is a satisfying result. For that, I will be walking Boston.