Voices of MainStreet: Marc Levy

3 Changes for the Next City Council to Consider

Oct. 31, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) — With local elections Nov. 8, everything could change and probably very little will. Cambridge could see three new faces out of nine on the City Council and still find a majority keeping things much as they are, while even the brightest eager-beaver faces on the board will likely soon adapt to a glacial pace of minute changes, all filtered appropriately through the thick bureaucratic ooze of Robert’s Rules of Order.

I’m going to propose some changes for the next council anyway. In no particular order:

 

Create a committee to address national and world issues.
There are already 17 council committees, ranging from the crucial Ordinance Committee to the somewhat under-the-radar Veterans Committee, so the idea of creating an 18th certainly raises logistical questions. And since issues dealt with by committees start and end with the full council anyway, this may not be the ideal way to address the problem: policy orders and resolutions that address national and world issues over which Cambridge has little or no control.

The introduction of such orders — 128 this term, according to the invaluable Cambridge Civic Journal — makes the city vulnerable to ridicule and accusations that it wastes time and energy on issues best dealt with at the national level. One from 2009 opposing nuclear weapons is a good example of that, while others, such as this summer’s Wal-Mart order at least had a Cambridge-specific connection in a resident serving on the corporation’s board of directors.

But as a recent speaker pointed out during public comment, there is value in cities and towns expressing opinions on matters that can be cited in national debate, such as on issues of immigration or the Patriot Act. A resolution against buying World Bank bonds focused on investments made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one from 2007 asked the state not to give taxpayer money to an anti-democratic regime in Burma.

The latest of these issues arrives tonight, when councillors will discuss joining an amicus brief for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in lawsuits against the the federal Defense of Marriage Act. It would make sense for Cambridge, one of the most gay-friendly communities in the world and a leader in gay rights, to make a statement against the act, which “defends marriage” by stopping gays and lesbians from marrying — sort of like “defending skiing” by eradicating snowboards or any number of other silly analogies.

There’s appeal in the idea of creating a separate body that could express the will of a local majority in a way that keeps the main council focused on city issues in which they can play a major role. Those who care about specific national and world issues and Cambridge’s role in addressing them can direct their energy (and comment) to a venue other than council meetings, and those who don’t care would be less affected. The ideal leader for a national and world affairs committee, if she remains on the council, would be Marjorie Decker, whom the Civic Journal identifies as promoting 113 of these orders and resolutions so far this year, or 88 percent of them.

Again, a committee isn’t the ideal solution, in that the process still involves the full council, but it would be good to find a way to keep the full council’s debate and public comment focused on local issues — without losing the power to make a statement on cultural issues.

 

Have councillors vote at the same time.
For roll call votes, the city clerk calls each councillor’s name in order. I would prefer to see a system in which each councillor votes at the same time, ignorant of which way others are going, and the results are secret until revealed as a final tally.

I know this sounds like a solution in search of a problem. Are councillors swayed by hearing the votes that precede them? I have no idea. If so, wouldn’t this lead to collusion or at least more caucusing and politicking before a vote takes place? Yeah, maybe. Can’t councillors just change their votes after the fact anyway? Yes, they can, although too much of that would make a councillor look a little silly, eventually. Technically, moving to this system would even require a rewriting of the rules of the council (as I read them), making it seem like a lot of work for negligible results.

And no doubt councillors would dislike having to be at their desks for votes, since they can now rove the area and call out their votes from wherever they happen to be. But if there are councillors who vote based on how they hear others vote, this would be the fairer system for constituents — who vote this way themselves every Election Day and deserve councillors who think independently and pay enough attention to the issues to make up their own minds on them.

 

Stop making deals with developers on affordable housing.
Developers game the system on the rules for affordable housing, and our government officials let them. In Cambridge, 15 percent of a development for apartments or condominiums is supposed to be affordable, but it’s all too common to see numbers slip below (and then to see affordable units go bafflingly empty anyway, as though there’s a shortage of people looking for places to live below the city’s astronomical market rate).

Why screw around? Decide how much affordable housing is wanted and make it mandatory — eliminate the power of the parties to go lower. Tell developers: These are the rules for building in Cambridge. If you don’t want to follow these rules, don’t build here.

Many will be familiar with this approach from a little company called Apple, which charges users a premium and then, far from allowing them to do whatever they want with the product that just cost a mint, actually restricts them from doing much at all. Use an Apple product and you get your media through iTunes, your software through the App store and your phone service through authorized carriers. Apple gets sued over this, too, from private citizens and other companies that want in on the action. The lawsuits go nowhere.

I can already hear the wails of Community Development staff and property owners and developers claiming they need flexibility to ensure the best projects and to simply break even on a property. But industry whines constantly about the hobbling of their profits by regulation — on everything from protections for coal miners to seat belts, auto emissions, the Americans with Disabilities Act and elimination of certain food additives — and are just as constantly proven wrong. Developers being able to charge slightly less could mean a proportionate hit on land values, but Cambridge could use some of its $100.2 million in free cash to satisfy property owners taking a hit on a revised-value sale, which is kinder than what some might suffer when a local currency is revalued after hyperinflation.

When this was pitched to Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, he worried about court challenges from owners and developers who saw this as a land taking. “From a quick review, everything I saw suggested that there needed to be some compensation to a developer for a mandatory inclusionary program to pass muster,” he said.

True. But the resource he suggested might provide some answers fell resoundingly on the side of backing mandatory percentages. Court cases in California have backed a range of so-called inclusionary zoning laws to an astonishing degree, according to the National Housing Conference’s Affordable Housing Policy Review.

“Even local regulations that have diminished property values by as much as 87.5% have been upheld by the courts,” the review said in a piece about Avoiding Constitutional Challenges to Inclusionary Zoning.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Why Occupy Boston really made the move that drew arrests

Oct. 17, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) — There was the latest in a steady flow of tourists, the woman who said she comes every day during her lunch break and, on Friday, the seventh- and eighth-graders of Cambridge’s King Open School visiting Occupy Boston’s Camp Dewey to see, as they say, what democracy looks like.

The tour went smoothly amid tents packed nearly atop one another at the former and future Dewey Square, a half-acre midway along 16 acres of park — once roadway, now transformed and overseen by the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a privately run nonprofit using some public money. Since the entire greenway “is a public park and is available by law for the expression of free speech,” according to the conservancy, Occupy Boston’s use of the land between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily since Oct. 3 is allowed by law; its use of the land at all other hours is being allowed without permit as “an extraordinary situation … In addition to supporting free speech, we’re aware that asking the protesters to leave will create conflict and significant expense.”

This is inspiring on both sides, and it made sense that a Cambridge school, not to mention one named after the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would come to see firsthand the nearest, biggest and most dramatic example of social justice in action in decades. (School Committee member Alice Turkel was along as well.) The fact 141 people had been arrested only days earlier, some of them veterans and some with great force by police in riot gear, only added to the luster.

“They really attacked,’’ said Cambridge’s Urszula Masny-Latos to The Boston Globe. As executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s Northeast regional office, she was on hand as an observer and surprised to be among those arrested Tuesday. “They used force that was completely unnecessary … It was just brutal. I have no idea why they arrested us with such force.’’

By the time of the King Open visit, things were quiet again. The kids got to see everything from the welcome tent to the dishwashing operation and were around for lunch and a general assembly, where the Occupy Boston crowd addresses such issues as whether to raise money themselves to pay the conservancy back for wear and tear on greenway plantings.

One reason for the peace, despite the clear scorn of a handful of police officers paid to stand around and watch Occupy Boston go about its business, is that the Tuesday arrests were watched by thousands of people via webcast and read about instantaneously by thousands more via Twitter. Again as they say, the whole world is watching.

But the ability to see and read what happened on the greenway in those early morning hours just raises an obvious question the media didn’t raise, let alone answer, and the sheer need to know was what brought on my own Friday visit to Camp Dewey. The question stems from the reason given for the arrests, which were across the street from Dewey Square on a square plot the Occupiers were calling Camp Rose. The reason: Because of recent, delicate and expensive improvements, according to Elaine Driscoll, police spokeswoman. The recently planted shrubs cost the city $150,000, according to The Associated Press, and so the protesters had been asked to stay off.

The question: Given this, why didn’t Occupy Boston skip past the block of expensive shrubs to the even bigger Fort Point Channel Parks? It’s at least twice the size of Camp Dewey.

From the perspective of Occupy Boston, here’s what happened:

An Oct. 10 march estimated by an Occupy Boston spokesman as being upward of 10,000 people inspired people to join the campers, and Camp Dewey was going to overflow. “We’re all inclusive and we want people occupying here with us. We weren’t going to turn them away,” said the spokesman, Philip Anderson, in a Friday interview at Camp Dewey. “We reached out to Menino’s office and the [Boston Police Department] to see if there was a location where they would feel comfortable or safe having us. As far as I know, they didn’t get back to us in a reasonable amount of time.”

“So we made the logical decision to move in to the public park across the street,” Anderson said. “Our decision was just to expand outward so we were all connected to each other.”

Logical because as Anderson explains it, the conservancy made no distinction between the expense or delicacy of the landscaping either at Dewey Square — where the conservancy confirms the protesters clean daily and have roped off vulnerable plants — or elsewhere on the greenway, and even since the arrests has not really backed up the police version of why the rousting of Camp Rose was necessary.

“From the beginning, the conservancy and the Boston Police Department have made it clear to the protesters that they could not expand to areas of the Greenway beyond Dewey Square, out of concern for public safety and our belief in the importance of maintaining public access and enjoyment of the Greenway by all,” said its executive director, Nancy Brennan, on Tuesday.

That doesn’t leave much leeway if people continue to join Occupy Boston. People returning after the arrests moved their tents to the last unused portion of Dewey Square or into existing tents, Anderson said, something that is only possible because the camp operates 24/7 and people rotate sleeping assignments.

“We have absorbed a lot more people,” he said. “My tent got a little cozy. We expanded out of necessity. If it happens again, we’ll reach out again.”

In the meantime, the decision on raising money to replant and repair is pending — at Dewey Square, the conservancy says replanting is part of its regular park operations budget, 40% of which comes from taxpayers through the state — and Anderson hoped it would be approved.


“We don’t want to cause any damage, but when you have 200 people living and working here, some grass is bound to get it a little trampled,” he said. “But I found it odd they were protecting some grass over our free speech rights.”

 

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Apple iPhone 4s disappointing? Get real.

Oct. 10, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) — High-tech gadgets such as iPhones aren’t cheap and, although the way we use them is supposed to be feel simple, of course they’re extraordinarily complicated, reflecting millions of dollars and hours in research, design and manufacturing. What’s weird is when we get evidence that the more people know and care about this pricey complexity, the more childishly they behave about it.

If you were watching or taking part in the live blogs Tuesday about the launch of the Apple iPhone 4s, you might think the world was coming to an end, mainly because many people weren’t expecting an iPhone 4s, but an iPhone 5.

“I’M NOT BUYING THE IPHONE 4GS. WHAT A SCAM!!” said a participant in TheStreet’s live blog named bobs big boy, hitting the trifecta of Internet commenting: getting the details wrong (It’s not the 4gs, it’s the 4s); accusing everyone and everything of being a fraud (even though rumors of an iPhone 5 were conjecture and wishful thinking, not things Apple promised and failed to deliver); and delivering apocalyptic pronouncements in earth-shaking, world-shattering ALL CAPS.

“FAIL!!! I’m going to Verizon now and buying 4 droids with 4G and selling my apple stuff!” said Warhero1, ramping down the all-caps but adding an exclamation and more tantrum by not just refusing to buy an iPhone 4s but actually threatening to go to Verizon to buy four(!) competing phones. (I shouldn’t make fun. I was so disappointed that the latest Audi A8 didn’t give drivers the power of flight, although Audi never said it would, that I went to a local Ford dealer and bought four Fiestas. Take that, Audi!)

There were, of course, some reasonable voices, such as TheStreet commenter Gene Hancock, who said, “Call it what you will, it is a new phone!”

Indeed, the 4s improves the phone’s camera, adds video capabilities, institutes an operating system with some 200 new features and a file-sharing system called iCloud, brings a new, faster microchip that also adds battery life and better graphics, claims to enhance call quality by switching between antennae to send and receive signals, lets people use the same phone while traveling overseas and, most amazing of all, introduces a voice-activated system called Siri that seems to do just about anything you want by interpreting what you tell it. As Wired’s live blog put it:

You can ask Siri about stocks. Siri says, “Nasdaq composite is down right now.” Siri is also partnered with Yelp, so you can ask something like “Find me a great Greek restaurant in Palo Alto.” Siri responds, “I’ve found 14 Greek restaurants; five of them are in Palo Alto. I’ve sorted them by rating.” The ranked listing follows below … You can also ask Siri Maps-related questions, and it will read you the directions … If you get a message, and your phone is in your pocket, you can ask Siri to read it to you, hands free. You just have to say, “Read my message.” Siri reads the message, and asks if you want to “reply” or “read it again.” You can also ask it questions about your calendar … You can also set up meetings hands free … Web search is also integrated with Siri. So if you’re looking up info on the space program, you can tell Siri to “Search Wikipedia for Neil Armstrong.” The relevant Wikipedia page comes up in Safari almost instantly. Siri is also partnered with Wolfram Alpha … You can ask Siri to “define mitosis” and a definition comes up … Traveling abroad? Siri finds the current exchange rates, so you can see how many euros to a dollar, for instance … If you’re counting down to a special event, you can ask Siri. How many days until Christmas? 82 days (or 2 months, 21 days; 11 weeks, 5 days; 58 weekdays; .22 years) … Siri can also play any song you want, if it’s in iCloud or on the device …

Yes, I know, so dull and disappointing. TheStreet’s Robert Holmes wondered if “perhaps the company should have waited and saved new CEO Tim Cook from the embarrassment of trying to sell consumers on the underwhelming iPhone 4S … essentially the same phone they already have,” and at the announcement of a 4s instead of an iPhone 5, shares of Apple stock lurched down $20, to $355 a share, then ended the day down only $2.10 a share. Trading ended for the week with Apple down $7.57 a share, to $369.80.

Fast-forward to Sunday, as carriers announce that the staggeringly disappointing 4s, which is due Oct. 14, has sold out its pre-orders – although AT&T’s announcement alone puts the new iPhone on track to be the fastest-selling Apple device in history.

Trading opens today with that for investors to chew over, and for folks such as bobs big boy and Warhero1 to teethe with. Anyone that disappointed in the 4s rollout should get real, and learn to appreciate a reality that brings Siri to life in a gadget that fits in your pocket … no matter what that gadget is called.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Any character is a candidate for Mandyville

Oct. 3, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) — Like many communities, Cambridge has an election for City Council and School Committee in a little over a month, and it’s a little weird to contemplate ousting the incumbents – especially on the council, where more members have held their seats longer.

That’s partially because the office has a way of consuming the candidate. There are too many Robert’s Rules of Order, traditions and logistical necessities to follow for a firebrand to keep glowing red hot for too long after inauguration. But it’s also partially due to the way this council acts and interacts. After two or four years or longer, you get used to the quirks as though they were characters on television.

There’s Tim Toomey’s surliness and occasionally lacerating wit, or Marjorie Decker’s ability to unleash a (literally, depending on the topic) world-class rant, as though the long-running sitcom called City Council just turned into an Aaron Sorkin drama called City Council. There’s the tropes the characters return to seemingly every episode like Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!” that include Craig Kelley’s formal refusal to entertain late motions and resolutions or, when talk inevitably turns to development and redevelopment, the inevitability that Ken Reeves will mention the disaster that is University Park.

Careful watching also brings out some soap opera elements, including Toomey’s disdain for Kelley, Decker’s loathing of Kelley and Reeves’ valiant willingness to stand by Kelley, and his general tendency to thread the needle on issues and nudge the council toward public comity, even when the vote is symbolic. There are even things to watch for that don’t include Kelley, such as the unpredictable Sam Seidel vote, some of which have provoked audible groans from the audience and dismayed comments from his peers, such as the one against a sign law he’d shepherded through his own Ordinance Committee.

The most dramatic elements of our politics are shocking because the story arcs on “City Council” are usually so small in scale. Terry Ragon spending $400,000 to beat the sign law is totally out of whack in a place where the top vote-getter in 2009 won all of 1,858 first-place rankings, which is a really strong endorsement from 3.1% of all our registered voters.

(For newcomers: Instead of voting for a single candidate, Cambridge voters use a rare form of elections called proportional representation and must rank their interest in seeing each in office. Once a candidate wins enough votes to get in, excess votes are redistributed along with the few that went to the lowest-ranked candidates. The results go cascading down in a fashion complicated enough that it can look sort of arbitrary for those not smart enough to grasp fully what’s happening, by which I mean me.)

The personally motivated shenanigans also stand out in a city that – at least in the enchanted bubble I live in and see the world from – has all the placid charm of Oslo and extravagant courtesy of the Midwest, without making a big deal of it. Our politicians and citizen activists never waste as much time being gracious as when the stakes are highest, thanking each other and city staff to outlandish extents for going to such extremes as to do their jobs. It’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that if we all stopped thanking each other at the start of our speeches, and I’m not saying we should, our meetings and hearings might be up to a quarter shorter.

In the same way Cambridge has never been a hotbed of anti-incumbent fervor, although some “throw the bums out” passion might just get smothered beneath the data and rules of our voting system.

A flier appeared at the second City Council candidates forum, held Tuesday in East Cambridge, suggesting that to get any of the nine challengers into office and any of the nine incumbents out, voters cannot give any incumbent a No. 1 ranking on Election Day, Nov. 8. That, in fact, to get any challengers on the board, all of the top rankings would have to go to challengers. (There are also 11 candidates for six School Committee seats.)

That isn’t true – Leland Cheung won election two years ago, unseating Larry Ward – but makes more sense when you consider the advantage incumbents have during an election just in terms of name recognition. Two years ago, the incumbents got an average 1,410 first-place votes, with Seidel alone failing to break into the thousands; Cheung got on the council with almost half that, 756.

So it might be worthwhile to remember Mandy Hampton, the fiery political consultant played by Moira Kelly on the first season of Sorkin’s seven-season West Wing drama. She disappeared in season two without even a mention she’d ever existed, basically replaced with the fiery, smart but sometimes endearingly ditzy Republican Ainsley Hayes, played by Emily Procter. Now there’s a term for where characters go when they disappear from a series: “Mandyville.”

It’s a little weird to contemplate ousting the incumbents, sure, but it can be contemplated. And it is possible.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

4 Agonizing Customer Service Defeats (and 1 Nonthrilling Victory)

Sept. 26, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- It’s been an exciting couple of weeks in the customer service arena. Let’s take a look at the winners and losers.

Loser: Samsung
I have a Samsung device the size of a pack of cards that can give me wireless Internet anywhere I can also get a mobile phone signal. Too bad it has a tendency to randomly conk out. Not only does it take a while to get back online, and usually three tries to do so, but whatever I was doing in the meantime gets lost. Instant messaging. Uploads. Downloads.

I now know this is because when I got the device a couple of months ago, the “firmware” on it was out of date. I have to download new firmware.

But I own an Apple laptop, and Samsung doesn’t have a way for people with Apple computers to download firmware (that is, without access to a PC that’s not protected against such downloads, like, say, at a library).

Really, Samsung? Apple is estimated to have about 20% market share of the computing universe including iPads, 9.7% in the desktop market and 8.5% in laptops such as my own. That’s 12 million desktop and laptop computers shipped so far this year alone. We count for nothing?

It’s like Samsung is telling Apple users, “Welcome to 1983! We know you think you’re cool with your fancy Mac, but we’re going to drag you back to grubby reality. Go to the library and sign up to use the PC after that fourth-grader learning fractions.”

Loser: Verizon
It was Verizon who sold me that dysfunctional Samsung device with the old firmware. To fix the problem, a customer service rep told me he was sending a new one.

Instead the company sent me one that had been refurbished — a thing Verizon does because it doesn’t see the problem in saying, “Send us your broken item. We will send you a previously broken item that has passed our quality checks while taking your broken one and selling it to another customer after it, too, has passed our quality checks.”

It’s discouraging enough new things from Verizon fail so frequently. Being sent a refurbished one is asking for trouble.

In this case, the refurbished Samsung device sent by Verizon was as old as the first one and had the same expired firmware, a bitterness only compounded when the customer service rep told me that the latest firmware is more than two months old, meaning I could have been sold one that didn’t need fixing the instant I paid for it.

In my two-year history as a customer Verizon has sold me a phone that needed replacing twice, a Novatel wireless hotspot that needed replacing three times and a Samsung wireless hotspot that has been replaced once. For those fourth-graders keeping track, that’s a 7/8 failure rate.

A Verizon technical support guy disagreed with my description of the Samsung device as “broken,” by the way. But I’m not sure how else to describe a wireless hotspot that loses signal at random times (except as “a surprise paperweight”).

Loser: Best Buy
I did a lot of research and found the television I wanted for a good price — on sale! — at bestbuy.com. But the website was being oddly difficult about delivering it to my apartment or to any Best Buy store near me. So I went to the phone. After confirming the television I wanted was indeed in stock and asking me where I wanted it delivered, a customer service rep took my personal and credit card information and asked me to hold briefly while he got my confirmation number. Eighteen minutes of insanely bad hold music later, the line went dead. After two frantic phone calls, another Best Buy rep told me the television had been sold out for weeks.

If you can’t sell me the television at any price, is there a reason to keep it posted, let alone advertise it as being on sale?

Fedex
Federal Express was to pick up my broken Samsung device — that’s right; I was forced by Verizon to choose which broken wireless hotspot to return and take care of shipping it back — and deliver a television from Amazon. Sadly, the company has shattered my faith that paying insane amounts of money for a service actually gets you good service.

First, Fedex apparently but literally lost the television I ordered. I waited at home one recent Saturday for a television that left an Amazon warehouse at 1:07 p.m. Sept. 16, loaded onto a Fedex truck, and by 1:08 p.m. was gone forever. “They had a delivery scheduled,” said Sarah, an Amazon customer service rep, “but they didn’t have the TV.”

Fedex blamed Amazon, saying the company had filled out and handed over a form for the shipment, but never the product. (Yes, that makes total sense. Certainly no Fedex driver would find that odd.) Either way, that four-step thermometer Fedex has created so you can follow a tracking number never moved off Step 1, “Initiated,” to “Picked up,” “In transit” or “Delivered,” even though when the company tried to get me the thing after failing at the Saturday one-day delivery its people swore to me the thing was “in transit.”

After the disappearance of the first TV was confessed and Amazon sold me a replacement, I watched that thermometer like a hawk that was expecting a modest, sale-priced Sharp Aquos Quattron delivered to his one-bedroom nest. It didn’t move off “Initiated” all day, including at 10:15 p.m. or so as I worked at Diesel, a coffee shop some 15 minutes’ walk from my apartment.

At 10:58 p.m., as I packed up and took a final look to see if the television had at least moved to “Picked up,” the animated thermometer zoomed all the way from “Initiated” to “Delivered” — in fact, delivered at 1:43 p.m., or some nine hours earlier, to a tiny vestibule totally accessible to the 180,196 people of Cambridge and Somerville. It turns out that if you spend the time panicking and cursing Fedex, you can shorten a 15-minute distance to about seven minutes.

It took three attempts to deliver a television and two to pick up the Samsung. Immediately after the dispatcher swore a pickup would take place by 4:32 p.m. (so precise!) a driver called to say there were delays and beg for more time. At 5:05 p.m., five minutes after the driver was supposedly there, I got another call wondering if I’d left or if the buzzer was broken. No. And no. The 5:30 p.m. estimated pickup was also missed. After a while screaming at a rep to connect me with the drivers who kept calling but not showing up, a pickup was finally made.

Call me crazy, but if I had the phone number of the person who wasn’t coming to the door, I’d use it while I was there rather than five minutes later to ask if the person had been around.

Winner: Amazon
Amazon may actually have lost the first television, but its reps did what they could to make it right — first taking off shipping and handling fees, then selling me a new television for the price of the replacement used (“like new!”) one, also minus shipping and handling, when a giant blue line appeared down the left side of the screen no matter what DVD was inserted in the player.

On the final shipment, they’re going UPS instead of Fedex. Maybe that marks me as a second-class customer as a result of all the troubles, but at least it’s a company that hasn’t screwed up yet and suggests a time I can look forward to a vacation from the world of customer service and technical support. In that world I too usually come up a loser.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

5 Terrible Ways to Save the Post Office

Sept. 16, 2011

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The U.S. Postal Service is in trouble.

With more people sending email and texts instead of letters and cards, and more bills being paid electronically as well, there's been a 20% drop in the volume of mail between 2006's record (213 billion pieces of mail processed) and last year (177 billion, according to Dennis Tarmey, a service spokesman).

Expectations that delivery from online retailers such as Amazon would make up for the trend haven't been met, and Netflix didn't help things with its 60% price increase and subsequent loss of hundreds of thousands of subscribers this quarter, only 2% less among those who only stream video and a whopping 27% less of those getting discs delivered.

That's a lot fewer red envelopes being picked up and dropped off by mail carriers.

And those who think the whole economy suffers when there's "uncertainty" will find big cause for pessimism from the proposals that U.S. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe is making to right his agency's money troubles:

Closing up to 3,700 postal locations before 2015 as well as 252 mail-processing centers -- that's about half of all mail-processing centers; laying off up to 120,000 workers; and ending overnight delivery time for most first-class mail (which includes letters, magazines and postcards). It's usually called "snail mail" for laughs, but these changes could very well contribute to a death spiral. The slower and less reliable the delivery, after all, the less anyone will want to use the service, which will lead to further cuts, and raising prices for whatever users remain is a nonstarter for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, it'll be harder to find a post office. Tarmey says there were 71,000 of them back in 1900, when the population was less than 100 million, compared with only 32,000 post offices now that we're a population of more than 300 million. Losing another 12% of those in the next three years isn't going to help.

So looking into the far future, less and slower mail delivery could result in a bricks-and-mortar retail renaissance, since no one wants to wait very long for their Zappos to arrive or pay UPS- or FedEx-level rates to get their shoes as fast as we can now, essentially for free.

And what people are charged for mail by for-profit deliverers such as UPS and FedEx is only going to soar with the disappearance of the Postal Service, a government-owned corporation.

Looking at standard overnight costs among those three services, "the Postal Service was the least expensive by far for local and long-distance deliveries," Consumer Reports found. In its test of overnight delivery from one side of the country to the other, for instance, the Postal Service asked $16.50 for the same results as what testers got for $62.87 from UPS and $54.57 from FedEx.

How is that possible? "We have an infrastructure in place and letter carriers everywhere," spokeswoman Yvonne Yoerger told Consumer Reports. "We're simply adding package delivery to a network that already exists."

Well, that won't be the case soon.

But, hey! Why be so serious? The collapse of our national infrastructure is still months away.

While we wait, why not look at some ways the Postal Service can save itself, and us, from all the cutbacks and bad news? Here are some sure-fire money-raising ideas that, if adopted, will keep the mail flowing and prevent a whole nation from going postal:

1. The porn stamp

Why not finally do for mail's most graphic component what porn has already done for every other visual medium in the history of humankind? Put explicit imagery on the stamps that propel our envelopes and maybe we can stimulate some sales as well -- probably more so than the usual assortment of flowers, pinecones, butterflies, historical personages and American flags.

Imagine instead buying a sheet of pornographic stamps that tells a tale (perhaps the tale of a delivered pizza and the coeds who have no money with which to pay for it) in classic sequence but infinite variety, with rising action, climax and denouement. Generous mailers might send a letter a day; cruel ones might send a letter a day and then stop short of the story being, um, resolved. And that might even prompt people to issue a surprising plea: "Please send more letters."

As a nation, we already spent $13.6 billion on porn last year, according to Business Pundit, with Utah being the top market for the stuff. Some 20,000 adult movies are produced just in California's San Fernando Valley, and there are more than 800 million rentals of adult videos nationwide. Ugly porn star Ron Jeremy alone has more than 1,200 films to his credit. Why shouldn't this stuff be on stamps as well?

Especially since the subject matter would make the stamps eminently collectible, meaning a growing market segment of philatelists would be paying just to take them off the market, then having to buy more to actually mail things. The possibilities are endless.

But can we, just for a moment, please think of the children? What if an untarnished mind stumbles across daddy's private stash of postage?

First, let's be clear: We're trying to bring in some money here. The prospect of junior high school kids sneaking into the post office to flash their fake ID and buy some stamps is less horrific than, well, hilarious.

But mail is already an adult concern in the dullest sense of the word. Our techy kids don't understand mail, and they don't want to. And most aren't home when the mail arrives. If your kid is home when the utilities bill and Restoration Hardware catalog shoots through that slot on the front door for the couple who lived there four years ago, what kind of parent are you, anyway?

2. The lottery stamp

Scratch and win, or lift up a flap to peek at the number underneath, and the country wins also. It doesn't matter whose lottery it is -- whether the country opts to allow a sponsored game from a private enterprise, use current state or regional lotteries or even create a national version such as those other countries have, except printed on stamps -- so long as the Postal Service gets a cut of the sales.

This raises the possibility of people sending mail to themselves in quantity for the first time in history -- "myself" being a widely untapped market when surveys ask people to whom they most frequently send mail. But surely most of these lottery stamps will be the favored postage when sending a greeting card to a loved one during a gift-giving time such as the holidays or for a birthday or graduation. (That raises the question of whether it will be "Love, grandma and grandpa," "By opening this card you are legally obligated to share with me half your winnings" or "Good luck! This is the only way you can pay off your college debt!" that is the most common sign-off once this plan goes into effect.)

Obviously, the lottery stamp raises the risk of getting your mail stolen by people who just want the winnings.

But there's a dual solution to that, and the great thing is that part of the solution results in even more revenue for our ailing mailing. First, the numbers on the stamp and the winnings that follow can be valid only if a stamp is marked canceled. Second, to ensure the intended recipient gets your cute card, good wishes and potential millions, you'll have to pony-express up a few more bucks for delivery confirmation and maybe even insurance for your letter or package. How much insurance? I don't know. Since insurance sales will skyrocket as the prize money rises, how much do you think that lottery stamp might be worth?

3. Your post office, your Keno destination

While we're at it, why not just take lottery sales away from the mini marts and give them to the post office? People are always joking about how mailing a package is like gambling; why not give them some real gambling while they're at it?

Lottery sales are up from Arizona (closing out fiscal 2011 with a record $583.5 million in sales, up 5.8% over the previous fiscal year) to North Carolina ($1.5 billion -- that's billion with a "b" -- this fiscal year, up 2.8%, giving state schools an additional $1 billion in revenue for new chalkboards and gambling-addiction counseling). In fact, USA Today says 28 of our 41 state lotteries are up, with 17 at record highs.

Get these compulsives into the post offices, take a cut of the sales and the Postal Service will surely see an uptick in sales of stamps, mailers, bubble wrap (because it's convenient) and rental of post office boxes (because gamblers need to keep their smokes and snacks somewhere).

4. The stamp that stars you

Forget Stamps.com. That for-profit site gives you customized stamps, sure, so long as they're not of "celebrities or celebrity likenesses, regional, national or international leaders or politicians, current or former world leaders, convicted criminals, newsworthy, notorious or infamous images and individuals, or any material that is vintage in appearance or depicts images from an older era or obscene, offensive, blasphemous, pornographic, sexually suggestive, deceptive, threatening, menacing, abusive, harmful, an invasion of privacy, supportive of unlawful action, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, violent or otherwise objectionable."

But you can order only up to 10,000 stamps at a time. And the chances are that some 14-year-old from Maplewood, N.J., isn't going to get her acne-ridden face on 10,000 first-class stamps unless she has very indulgent parents with a very large holiday card list. Any order of this size is going to be some boring corporate affair -- and 10,000 stamps even among the more than 300 million in the United States just isn't that big a deal.

But what if that 14-year-old clarinetist could be on every Forever stamp sold in a given month, or if Herman, the guy next door, was on every Forever stamp for even just a week? (Yes, a week of Forever.)

Given that kind of weird ego trip in this age of reality TV and YouTube stardom, you bet there would be a million budding Jwowws (or for a different generation, Angelynes) who would embark on campaigns to get people to vote them onto those little adhesive squares at, say, $1 per vote for government coffers. The Postal Service could even run a "hot or not"-style voting website that could either run advertising, charge for votes or both.

5. The stamp that stars stars

Speaking of Jwoww, Snooki and the rest of their reality television ilk, the most likely, but least fun, option the Postal Service could pursue to raise revenue would be to forget the rule that "no living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage" and ease its somewhat reserved sensibilities to let in a wider variety of pop culture icons.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let them not be flowers (or flags, or doggies). Let them be sheets of Jersey Shore stars for fans of that show; the cast of Community for fans of that show; and commemorative stamps for The Sopranos and a million more. Let there be Beavis, Butt-head, Daria, Milton and the old King of the Hill clan for fans of Mike Judge (the Simpsons made it on, after all) and all the ranters of Fox News and MSNBC and the humorists of Comedy Central for fans of punditry, invective, spin and outright lies. Those who wouldn't buy a Bill O'Reilly stamp might buy a Rachel Maddow, and those who wouldn't buy either might yet buy a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

The Postal Service can double-dip here, of course. Since this is essentially advertising, it can reap dollars from media giants who want to get their stars' faces out there however they can, and at the same time get consumers' paychecks 44 cents at a time.

Or 48 cents at a time, or 50. Or 60. Or 75.

Or whatever the Postal Service will be charging us for stamps if we don't offer it some other revenue streams.

In Remembering 9/11, Keep Cool But Care

Sept. 9, 2011

The mayor offered an odd invitation to Cambridge’s Sept. 11 commemoration during the week’s School Committee meeting.

“This will be a very respectful service that will take place,” he said, describing the 8:30 a.m. Sunday event on the steps of City Hall as including songs from the Peabody School choir and high school students reciting poetry.

It is understood that marking a decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would be a time for solemnity, but I racked my brain for a solid day after that Tuesday announcement trying to remember the hijinks of last year’s 9/11 ceremony — the comedy sketches, the sack race, the wet T-shirt contest. What ended the exercise was overhearing a few minutes of the night rebroadcast of Wednesday’s On Point, the WBUR-FM public radio show, in which host Tom Ashbrook interviewed people whose lives had been irrevocably, dramatically altered by the attacks, including a woman whose husband was killed in them. It was Ashbrook’s voice: the almost unctuous tenderness and sensitivity in it, the gentleness and deference with which he thanked the woman for coming on and asked his questions.

The compassion in his voice made me edgy. And tired. Already tired of marking a decade since 9/11, with several days to go to the moment itself. Which is why I turned the radio off.

And not because I’m not compassionate, or because the attacks didn’t jolt and horrify me, then fill me with the utmost sorrow and outrage. But because there is something in me (or, I’m sure some would say, a lack of something inside me) that makes me wary of that tone and approach. That makes me suspect crocodile tears and a trick. That makes me fear the wild pendulum of emotion, which in my experience keeps swinging until it can — literally — lop off the head of people who wander too close. Yes, people lose their heads.

That widow might be allowed, but I’m not, and neither is most of America. Forgive me for not wanting to grieve so purely and fully that I never stop, but the most obvious examples of people for whom “9/11 changed everything” are those I’ve come to find most unreliable, arrogant and unhinged: people such as politician Rudy Giuliani, who never tires of exploiting tragedy for profit; essayist Christopher Hitchens, who prides himself on his intellect but can’t understand he has a blind spot precisely the size and shape of Iraq; Dennis Miller, who literally lost his wits and, with it, the comedian’s natural ability to identify and declare when the emperor has no clothes.

But jesting was also declared dead, trapped under the wreckage of the twin towers, remember? At least irony was. Roger Rosenblatt gave an angry elegy in Time magazine Sept. 24, 2001, saying the violence should mark the end for “the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life [who] have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”

No more, he said. (And, because the more wrong you are in America the more the media want to hear what you think, he said it again when Barack Obama was elected president. “After eight years of the Bush administration, where irony was almost a measure of desperation,” he told The New York Times in November 2008, “maybe now that people have seen something happen they never thought possible, their sarcasm processors have kind of gone into shock.”)

He had cause to think he was right. After all, for a while our gigglers and smirkers, led by David Letterman and Jon Stewart, were giving heartfelt, sincere monologues on TV instead of ironic patter. “Our show has changed,” Stewart said. “What it’s become, I don’t know.”

But it was only two days after Rosenblatt’s essay that the first New York-based issue of The Onion came out. The satirical newspaper had moved from Wisconsin a few months earlier and was to have published its first issue Sept. 11, 2001; instead the staff retreated and came up with a bitter but stirring and gently funny issue full of headlines such as “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” and “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell: ‘We Expected Eternal Paradise for This,’ Say Suicide Bombers.”

People loved it.

“It wasn’t an especially funny issue. In fact, I’d say it was the least funny issue we’ve ever done,” Onion writer John Krewson told Yahoo’s The Cutline. “But it was cathartic. … Not a week goes by I’m not asked about it.”

And it was five days after the Time essay that comedian Gilbert Gottfried (more recently fired as the voice of the Aflac duck for tweeting about disaster in Japan) joked during a Friar’s Club roast that “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The audience hated it, with one person calling out that it was “too soon” to be funny about 9/11. But Gottfried, credited with the first public joke about the disaster, won the crowd back by telling, of all things, an extended version of an infamous joke called “The Aristocrats” in which a family partakes in endless scatological variations on incest and bestiality.

Frank DiGiacomo, a writer for The New York Observer who covered the roast, used that word again: “The laughter was so deep and cathartic,” DiGiacomo said during an interview for a documentary about the significance — even outside 9/11 — of the joke Gottfried told. “It was as if he had united everybody in that moment.”

What I recognized as I turned off the pious voice on the radio: America is not a solemn or overly respectful country. We were better represented by the sunny libido of JFK and Clinton than the brooding paranoia of Nixon or Cheney, and we’re the nation that began marching to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” not Wagner. We can keep cool but care.

You can unite people in solemnity, sure, and in sincere song and poetry or wrenching grief. But when those “respectful” moments stretch too long, a grim and humorless America does dumb things such as profile and harass innocent people, synonymize dissent with sedition, invade countries without thought or need, kill and maim, clog lives with cumbersome and pointless security measures and institute and normalize a regime of fear. What 9/11 changed is that this is the new normal, and that’s how the terrorists won no matter how many we kill.

Maintaining a sense of irony helps us remember how things are supposed to be.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Everything's Getting More Expensive

Sept. 2, 2011

I’m about to generate a lot of hatred from anyone of my generation on down, with the hatred probably increasing exponentially by year: I graduated from college with no debt.

I can actually feel the wave of loathing coming toward me when I confess that my parents paid for my college, which wasn’t cheap, and I was able to focus fully on my studies (when I focused at all, which would be my other confession) and other professional development (meaning I spent most every waking hour at the school newspaper, and cut back on nonwaking hours to do so). I didn’t even have work study or a school-year job.

Yet my parents are not rich. We were a solidly middle-class family.

So take some of that loathing you’re feeling toward me and divert some toward what’s happened to America as a whole over the past few decades as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the working poor became just poor and the middle class began slipping increasingly toward replacing them. While we can’t seem to cope with the idea of returning to the merely horrific gap between rich and poor of the Clinton era, and idiots earning minimum wage at the multiple jobs they work fight against the estate tax for those with $5 million or more to pass onto their heirs, real wages have stagnated; middle-class families can no longer afford to send kids to college; and populist advocates fight against 20% down payments on home purchases because, according to the National Association of Realtors, “it would take 9.5 years for the typical American family to save enough money for a 10% down payment and closing costs, and fully 16 years to save for a 20% down payment and closing costs.”

Remember: The association isn’t talking about Cambridge, where the average listing price for homes for sale on Trulia was $616,151 for the week ending Aug. 24. (It’s still cheapest in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, with average homes at $371,600, according to Zillow calculations last month.) It’s talking about the typical American family, looking at land in Alaska, Hawaii and from the heartland to every corner of the continent. Sixteen years to earn a level of down payment that was once standard, leading a surprisingly broad coalition of organizations — from the American Bankers Association to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — to fight to keep down payments at 3% or 5%. In an age where top executives get nosebleed pay for avoiding taxes and slashing jobs, that’s near enough to subprime-crisis levels of incipient irresponsibility to make me nervous.

You have to ask: What has happened since the 1980s that even a 10% down payment requirement “means that even the most creditworthy and diligent first-time homebuyer cannot qualify for the lowest rates and safest [mortgage] products in the market," according to the National Association of Realtors? You can look to President Ronald Reagan and his Trojan horse of trickle-down economics, since his policies marked the widening of the chasm between rich and poor and crippling blows against organized labor, which had helped keep wages high for the middle class for decades.

Conservative dominance in government also holds some answers for what’s happened to college expenses. State schools may still be tremendous bargains when compared with private institutions, but look at what’s been going at on the University of California, for instance: This past July saw the seventh rise in tuition in five years, and it was a 9.8% hike. And it followed an 8% hike eight months earlier. All told, students would be paying double what they would have had to pay in 2004. But what choice did the university system have? State lawmakers, facing huge deficits, cut its budget by $650 million.

That’s happening everywhere. University of Iowa nursing students got hit with 40% increases this year, The Associated Press reported in March. But who needs nurses, right? It’s not like we have an aging population or anything. (Or maybe the idea is to keep charging patients more so nurses in Iowa can afford to pay off college debt from 40% tuition increases? Either way, it seems untenable.)

At private institutions, tuition keeps going up between 4% and 5% a year, and while officially aid keeps increasing as well, surely the average $27,293 per year for tuition and fees reported by the College Board is going to have any middle-class parent blinking a bit. That’s $109,172 for four years.

It’s impossible to describe how grateful I am toward my parents for my education, which seemed to work out in the end, or how lucky I feel to not have college debt hobbling me as I try to save for my eventual — or, I should say, possible — retirement.

Yup. No college debt.

Yet I cannot afford to make a 20% down payment on a home or do what my parents did: send my own kid, were I to have one, to a private college.

This post relied on the reporting of Joe Mont at TheStreet for information on the debate over 20% down payments.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Post-Traumatic Appreciation

Aug. 26, 2011

Right after 9/11 there were a couple of things that hit me pretty hard.

One was on the trip over the Charles River from Cambridge to my job at the Boston Herald. Every day I would stare hard at the Boston skyline as I approached, often until the T brought me among them — a set of buildings smaller and shorter and less impressive and meaningful than those of New York, which drew the misplaced zeal of madmen who used planes as bombs and office workers as targets.

I was being appreciative not just that my little skyline was intact, but for the life of my brother.

He’d woken me up Sept. 11. Since my workdays only started at 3 p.m., I slept disgracefully late, and it was his call that woke me up and his strange greeting that, well, really woke me up. He said something along the lines of: “I’m alive.”

See, he’d flown out of Boston that morning on the way to Las Vegas with of course a full tank of jet fuel at about the same time as the terrorists who hijacked airplanes with equally full tanks of jet fuel, the better to incinerate the innocent when their planes flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. What saved my brother was that the terrorists had trained to fly (but not land) on aircraft made by Boeing; he had flown out that morning on planes made by Airbus. His plane hadn’t been flown into a building or a field near Shanksville, Pa., but had landed as part of the national no-fly order and stranded him in Kansas City, which he made his way out of via an absurd road trip shared with a stranger who hadn't been on the same plane but was now in the same boat.

His call compelled me to the television in the house we shared, where I saw that notorious footage for the first time — the billowing smoke, the falling people — and then to bolt for my clothes, our front door, the T, a taxi when mass transit bogged down and finally by foot for my newsroom when street traffic also got clogged by panicked people in clumsy cars, everyone watching the skies and also, if you remember, seeing each other for real for probably the first time.

By the time I reached the Herald, those assembled had already put out an extra edition about the attack. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something. But in fact I sat around being useless until 3 p.m., when my work hours started pretty much as usual and I did what pretty much amounted to the typical workday.

At the end of it, I rode home on the T toward the Cambridge skyline, which is even lower and less significant than that of Boston, when compared with Manhattan, and slept. And went to work the next day, appreciating the Boston skyline, and did the same the next day and the next and the next.

I also went the opposite direction, walking up into Somerville (which has an even less significant skyline than Cambridge, in fact, barely a skyline at all), and found people gathering nightly in the heart of Davis Square around a giant concrete and metal compass planted in the center of a traffic circle in 1983 to mark the area’s hundred-year history. They came and cried and sang and left candles and cards and notes and posters (of poems and thoughts and pleas) and even the occasional inevitable American flag night after night until the compass was covered completely, and then surrounded by more posters and printouts and paintings, growing and growing and being replenished and renewed and replaced until it felt like the memorial would never end.

This is the other thing that hit me hard.

I understood that those people needed to do something, just like I’d raced to the Herald to do something. To help when you couldn’t help.

Over time I started forgetting to stare hard at the Boston skyline and appreciate it still having everything in it, and over time the Davis Square memorial ebbed and was cleaned away, and now there’s a concrete and metal addition to the compass — a memorial to the memorial, essentially, by way of recognizing what happened Sept. 11, 2001, in the form of flattened, stylized twin towers that, unfortunately, aren’t reminiscent of the twin towers at all and fail to capture in the least the power and beauty of the simple, homespun, heartfelt items they replaced, the things that showed people’s hearts broke alone and healed when put together.

That’s the nature of things: The very special comes to seem normal after a while, especially when you fail to notice what made things special in the first place.

But for a while, the gleaming, mirrored John Hancock Building jutting into the sky over Boston was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and so was the junk people left uselessly on the ground in the center of a traffic circle. The one thing that never got old or wore off? Living with my brother in Cambridge, which I got to do because he lived through 9/11.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

This Design Trend Has an Edge

Aug. 22, 2011

Whether they’re circles with corners or rounded squares, they’ve become strangely common in the past few months in advertising products from Toyota to Jamba Juice.

Let the sharp corner of the circle point up and the shape could be a tear; let it point down and it more resembles a leaf, a suggestion only enhanced when two opposite corners are sharp and the other two left rounded, as Toyota did in a January ad campaign touting its green technology (albeit in teal and gray, not green). The logo of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad news app, The Daily, serves up yet another variation, in which all the corners are almost-not-quite sharp corners but are actually rounded.

At Think Tank, the Kendall Square “bistrotheque” restaurant and club catering to the innovation crowd, managing partner Jay Leo said there was another shape in mind: “It’s supposed to be a thought bubble,” he explained in May, while a political fundraiser rich in tech types swirled around his bar.

Cantabrigians and Bostonians may be more used to the shape than the rest of the country; they began appearing in The Boston Phoenix alt-weekly in various forms in June 2005, called “sardine cans” by Barcelona-based designers Jardí+Utensil. (The design, as explained by Enric Jardí, also includes “lozenges.” The distinctions between the terms aren’t always clear; lozenges seem to more frequently have all rounded corners.)

If this design trend really began here, it likely spread to the rest of the country via the CVS/pharmacy. That’s because the pharmacy and convenience-store chain hired Boston-based Arnold Worldwide to create an entire campaign with the widget, which now shows up in websites created by Canada’s McAllister Media and in some 7,000 sets of window displays by Chase Design Group, of Los Angeles.

And CVS wasn’t thinking of thinking, either, unlike Leo and his partners at the Kendall Square eatery and bar. That much is clear when Chase’s windows have hundreds of the partly sharp, partly rounded shape overlapping in blood red.

What’s this shape all about?

“Rounded corners and softer edges are younger and more friendly,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Psychology at Golden Gate University’s Ageno School of Business, where she teaches marketing management, advertising strategy and consumer behavior. “If a company wanted to appear very professional, very solid, very secure, very corporate, they tended to use more blocky type and harder edges.  At one time that was actually comforting to consumers — that a company was solid and very corporate and businesslike. You wanted to feel like you were doing business with something solid.”

The rounded edges and asymmetry communicate the same message of youth and modernity, Yarrow said, telling consumers a company is not simply doing business as usual. The Daily’s almost-square logo speaks of a tradition of hard journalism delivered in a modern, softer way.

“Today disillusioned consumers are really wanting to see a more human element,” Yarrow said. “A more approachable, gentler, kinder company to do business with.”

That makes sense for a hybrid car, and maybe for Jamba Juice, but seems more calculated when applied to a decades-old pharmacy chain that’s not really changing anything about their business model — except that it’s using more self-checkout machines and thereby hiring fewer people to ring up sales, which makes the use of the sardine cans and lozenges seem (if they were given any thought at all) a bit cynical.

Arnold Worldwide didn’t respond to a request for information on the origins and meaning of its CVS design. One could make the argument there’s not much to say about a shape, especially since things such as this are as prone to trendiness as hemlines or heavy metal, and people can climb aboard without thinking much about what they’re doing.

And certainly consumers couldn’t be blamed for seeing the shapes without giving them much thought.

It begs the question of whether the trend really means anything.

“The more sophisticated companies are looking hard at how symbolism communicates the value and character of their company,” Yarrow said. “We’re increasingly using symbolism to communicate with consumers, because we’re just more visual than we are verbal today.”

Less verbal, eh? Doesn’t that mean we’re literally dumber?

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Foreclosure Tales Are Ripe With Ridiculousness

Aug. 12, 2011

Foreclosures have gotten so common that processes are clogging courts -- New York is the worst, with a 62-year backlog -- plaguing banks and credit unions with responsibility for upkeep and fruitless sales attempts and darkening institutional reputations that had long ago faded to black. Foreclosures, in fact, are so common that Bank of America and others are literally bulldozing or giving away homes to charity rather than keep them on the books.

So you'd think those banks and credit unions would stop racing toward foreclosure like one of the demented brats from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, fatally eager, nakedly selfish and simply too clumsy for their own good. If that were the case, though, Clackamas Community Federal Credit Union in Oregon City, Ore., wouldn't have hired movers to clear out a former homeowner's stuff five days before the move-out deadline while she was away with her daughters. Much of Myra Epping's stuff was trashed, reports Katu.com, while a lawyer for Clackamas Community "denied moving any items" and "said she'd look into it."

And those banks and credit unions wouldn't be trying to take Saji Mathews' gas station in St. Petersburg, Fla., after he sent his mortgage payment a day late, as TampaBay.com reports.

And they sure wouldn't be trying to take homes in Golden Gate, Fla., they don't even own.

And if a bank did lose in court, if there was a court order to pay the legal costs of the homeowners -- who paid cash for the house two years ago, meaning they never even had a mortgage, much less fell behind in paying it off -- that bank would do it, right? Especially when the Bank of America branch that tried to take the home owed only $2,534?

No, the bank would not pay.

It would be, as they say, delinquent on that debt.

The couple, retired police Sgt. Warren Nyerges and his wife Maureen, had to arrive at their local bank branch with a moving van, court order, sheriff's escort and lawyer to tell the manager, "I'm leaving the building with either cash, a check or a whole lot of furniture," according to News-Press.com.

We know Bank of America is hurting. Thanks to an $8.5 billion settlement with investors, it reported a loss of $9.1 billion in the second quarter. But since that settlement was based on selling investors on bad mortgage bonds, you'd think its executives would show a little sense in not trying to make it up by stiffing the Nyergeses. Especially since Wells Fargo (where second-quarter profit was up 30% on $3.7 billion in net income) just went through this with a Philadelphia man who pushed the bank's unpaid debt of a mere $1,078 in unpaid court costs all the way to an auction of its stuff inside the culpable branch. That guy, a hero on the Consumerist website named Patrick Rodgers, has been in USA Today and appeared on ABC and The Colbert Report.

Meanwhile, as the Clackamas Community Federal Credit Union lawyer looks into whether its movers might have jumped the gun a little, its customer's story is on the Consumerist website, which gets 1.2 million pageviews per day, as a follow-up to the local Katu.com, which on its own gets 190,000. And Clackamas Community can count on pretty much all of those coming from what might be, or might have been, customers.

Financial institutions so hell-bent on getting at that foreclosure would do well to remember that Augustus Gloop might be more memorable than Charlie Bucket, but mainly because he was written as having "fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his doughball of a head" and sung about as "Eating as much as an elephant eats." "What are you at, getting terribly fat?" was how the Oompa-Loompas eulogized the bank, uh, sorry, the boy. "What do you think will come of that?"

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Paying it Forward

July 29, 2011

Awful as it feels to be a stereotype, a demographic, a predictable part of a psychohistoric trend, there are a few ways in which I conform reluctantly to exactly what’s expected of me. I like just enough stuff from among all the Stuff White People Like to be convinced I’m white; sometimes it’s all too clear I’m a straight male; and there are ways I couldn’t be — ugh — more Generation X.

My Xness stands in contrast with the boomers who raised me. Mom was, for much of my life, a homemaker; dad was a workaholic in aerospace. And each had a spouse (each other) and three kids (including me), for a perfectly imperfect nuclear family. Together they went from 1950s traditional to a wee bit hippie to a wee bit swingy to a wee bit conservative and then, in that other bandwagon of the 1980s, totally downsized.

And, like so many other Generation Xers that it became the topic of studies, polls and earnest treatises about “Managing Generation X,” the downsizing of my father’s job and 43 million others between 1979 and 1995 had a huge impact on me. Because we grew up seeing our parents’ hard work and loyalty be rewarded with the betrayal of layoffs just as executive salaries began to hit the levels of truly obscene, sometimes just because a chief executive had been bold enough to lay everyone off, we Xers knew loyalty to a company was a fool’s game. It didn’t help that the love story of our age was Pretty Woman, in which a beautiful prostitute gains the perfect life by ways of immense wealth with a man who typifies the business ethic of the 1980s: He buys up companies, breaks them into pieces and sells off the pieces — as the prostitute says, “you don’t make anything and you don’t build anything … it’s sort of like stealing cars and selling them for the parts” — regardless of the effect on the people working at those companies.

True, everything works out delightfully for Julia Roberts’s improbable hooker and Richard Gere’s uncommonly conflicted tycoon, but we Xers were raised to be masters of cynicism, and we knew what we were seeing was Hollywood at its finest-slash-worst, something for us to enjoy before getting back to our ramen and McJobs. As usual, Hollywood was obsessed with wealth as entertainment for people who didn’t have it.

Our other great entertainment was hearing how we were flustering the boomers who retained their jobs — our bosses.

As Joann Muller wrote in The Boston Globe back in 1996, “Boomer bosses, born between 1946 and 1964, complain that workers in their 20s and at the beginning of the 30s have short attention spans and lack a strong work ethic or that they are rude, greedy and impatient.”

To which we would reply with a line from another classic movie of our era, 1985’s The Breakfast Club: “No, dad, what about you?”

Of course we acted this way! We’d be idiots to act any other way for the people who were about to lay us off no matter how hard we worked. Patience and politeness were fools’ games. Lesson learned.

Speaking as a member of my cynical, disloyal generation — one shaped, of course, by our parents’ generation — it’s hardly surprising we’re seeing more of our country’s implied promises (the kind you take to heart in elementary school before learning how things really work) taken away. Of course the richest among us are stripping the protections of Social Security and Medicare, just as they cast off 43 million jobs for starters with the assurance we’d ultimately be building a stronger, more competitive America.

During the exact period those jobs were disappearing, or being shipped overseas, we saw America’s rate of children in poverty rise by 37%, the highest in the developed world, as Ted Halstead noted in The Atlantic in 1999.

And even as we graduated from college and entered the work force between 1989-95, our earnings fell by nearly 10%. We were earning less than our parents had, although things cost more and we had more debt. Plenty of the politicians screwing America this time around are Gen Xers, of course, who learned disloyalty, saw the poverty, got mixed messages about wealth from Pretty Woman and were told to look up to our president, Ronald Reagan, a genial but elitist idiot with merciless and shortsighted policies for whom ignorant affection has metastasized into a cult.

Boomers figured out how to make money by breaking implied promises and fraying the social contract. Cynical, disloyal Generation X learned the lesson well. One can only imagine what the generation growing up now is learning from all this, but my fear is that “disloyal,” “cynical” and “selfish” aren’t going to even begin to describe how they’re learning to behave in coping with the world we’re leaving them.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

No Apologies for My Pen Fetish

July 22, 2011

Without kids, I miss out on back-to-school shopping, and memories of my own excursions to the stationery store are hazy at best. Possibly because I was such an indifferent student I don’t remember a single one, although I know some of the shopping trips taken with my mom must have by default fallen in the summer months, meaning whatever was bought then by default must have been used when I returned to school in the fall.

But if there were any trips to the store that were conducted with solemnity or celebration as formal, momentous back-to-school excursions, they might just as well have been for Newspaper Carrier Day (Sept. 4) or Make Your Bed Day (Sept. 11) for all the impact they had on me.

And this is odd, because oh boy do I love me some office supplies.

The loss of our hallowed local stationers, the three-store Bob Slate chain, is particularly sad for me because of the incredible variety of stuff they stocked. For relatively small spaces, the stores were astonishingly rich in selection. I could even wander in at crisis times, utterly depleted and desperate on my way to covering a meeting, and buy a single or 12-pack of reporter's notebooks, and that’s about as uncommon an item as you can expect to find without a special order.

(I think the only shopping experience that has impressed me more was stopping into the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics with two hours until a birthday celebration looking specifically and only for a CD of William S. Burroughs’s 13-year-old spoken word album “Dead City Radio.” That’s a ridiculously obscure recording to rely on, especially in what’s more or less a boutique space, not a megastore like they have in the suburbs. But Newbury Comics had it. A terrible lesson for procrastinators everywhere, as it certainly was for me.)

Wandering the aisles of Bob Slate made me want to buy everything. The art supplies beguiled me into thinking I would draw again — in fact, they regularly inspired plans to set up a home studio and commit myself to the craft — and the office supplies made images of entrepreneurialism and empire-building blossom in my brain. It’s been a while, but Staples, when I had to, was even worse in that regard, since the size of the stores in the big-box chain allows the stocking and sale of office furniture as well. In my mind, I would be stocking and outfitting entire floors with desks, rolling chairs, shelving and wastebaskets, as well as machines for copying, faxing and shredding. I could stand and debate storage systems with myself for hours for businesses that didn’t and would never exist. I had to restrain myself from buying gigantic packs of snacks for co-workers I didn’t and would never have. I probably wouldn’t have shared anyway.

It’s not clear to me why someone who cared so little about schoolwork came to care with such near-erotic intensity about office work. I suspect, though, that it may be better I don’t have kids needing my help for back-to-school shopping, since I would likely buy out the store to ensure they had enough pencils, erasers, pens, pads, binders, folders, lamps, desks, chairs and trashcans (and, um, clothes, right?) for an entire academy.

And I’d probably do it at the last possible minute.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Get That Rich Guy Off My Face

July 1, 2011

The health of the American Dream — which is impossible to talk about without either using cliches or mixing metaphors, as I have chosen to do here — is not good. The reason: It is being smothered.

And not with affection.

The American Dream is being smothered in its sedated sleep by an obese robber baron who is, in fact, sitting on its face. The American Dream (that we can make something of ourselves and live with dignity and possibly delight) is being smothered by the fatty rump of a robber baron in top hat and tails, and the robber baron is giggling distractedly over how much money he has and thinking only that he wishes the face of the American Dream, which is in fact our face, were a more comfortable place to sit.

But at least we’re not struggling!

This disgusting vision is brought to you by an increasingly rotten political system that thinks, for instance, corporations are people and should have unlimited “speech” in the form of campaign contributions but that people who aren’t corporations should more or less shut up — and that they have to, because they haven’t any money. What’s worse is that rhetoric such as this and the facts underpinning it are so common, so widely accepted, that it seems at once the most boring and maddening thing to repeat. Another example: Trickle-down economics were debunked before President Ronald Reagan even left office and yet we keep letting our politicians give tax breaks to the richest with the excuse that we’re going to see if maybe, maybe, maybe it’ll work this time.

Any screams of outrage merely cause the plutocrats to chortle, because they’re sitting on our face, smothering us to death, and when we squirm it feels like a massage.

I’m so bored by repeating facts outlining the death of the American Dream that I can’t even bring myself to rewrite them. I’ll just let Nicholas D. Kristof, the former New York Times columnist, run through the details in a piece he wrote in November (and he probably wrote a variation on this column at least annually, so here he might be quoting himself):

“The richest 1% of Americans now take home almost 24% of income, up from almost 9% in 1976. … C.E.O.s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1%.”

Boring, right? How many times must we keep repeating the same outrages when clearly we don’t actually care? How many times can you be told that our already terrible unemployment figures don’t even include people who are out of work but have given up on finding a job? How many times is it necessary to struggle to stay awake as we’re reminded that a full-time job paying the minimum wage doesn’t even put a worker above the poverty line? How many times does someone have to point out that, as Republican governors across the country try to crush labor unions, those unions are pretty much the only organizations fighting to keep the middle class and working poor dreaming the American Dream at all? Otherwise it’s all about winning the lottery or becoming a YouTube sensation.

If the American Dream is going to survive, the robber baron has to get off it, stop smothering it, let it breathe, get up and stretch itself back into fighting shape.

And if the robber baron doesn’t get up on its own, we’re going to have to develop a little political bite — a fierce, fast bite that’ll have it jumping up and finding another, slightly less comfortable, place to sit.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

How the Fourth Was Won

June 27, 2011

Normally it would be unimaginable for a U.S. city of 105,162 people to let the Fourth of July pass without recognition. And if not for a single, significant fact, that kind of oversight would certainly set up Cambridge, Mass., for a powerful charge of a lack of patriotism, if not outright communism (which happens anyway, although it’s less of an accusation than a wry assumption):

Cambridge happens to be across the Charles River from Boston, which — you may have heard — puts on a pretty good Fourth of July celebration.

How can it not? Boston is the cradle of liberty, while Cambridge has always been just that place across the river, or that place that could have been Boston if our governor in 1631, John Winthrop, hadn’t decided at the last minute Boston was really the place to be. After the last minute, in fact; he literally took down the frame of the house he was building to move south below the Charles. The spirit of Winthrop is alive today in Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which is relocating 1,300 workers to undeveloped Boston from Cambridge, and the spirit of all the people Winthrop left behind is alive in all the other innovation companies in Cambridge (including the dramatically expanding Novartis) mystified by the move and willing to watch it happen without being all too inspired to follow the example.

Regardless, a fluke of history has made it incumbent upon Boston to go all out on fireworks, music (courtesy of The Boston Pops and this year, Lionel Richie) and celebrity guests. This year, Lowell, Mass., native Michael Chiklis will be on hand to sing original songs and help launch his musical career. If you ever wondered what it would sound like if Detective Vic Mackey stopped beating and murdering people and instead belted out some middle-of-the-road rock, this is your year to cram yourself onto the Esplanade among just under 400,000 other people and squint with delight as your dreams are fulfilled. Last year the festivities cost $2.5 million, likely the second-most expensive gala in the country after New York and ahead of even Washington, D.C. (Not all Fourth budgets are shared so freely.)

Cost to Cambridge, even though it gets equal view of the 15,000 fireworks bursting overhead for, let’s face it, an increasingly tedious 20 minutes at the end of a two-hour, 10-minute buildup: almost nothing. We have sound towers, food carts and restrooms and a very long stretch of park along the Charles and can come and go with much more freedom than the powerfully congested combination of Esplanade and Storrow Drive on the other side of the river. As a result, many more people party at home, arrive just before the fireworks, get impatient anyway watching them and argue with themselves and each other whether it makes sense to leave before their climax with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Cambridge for the win. We’re not less patriotic; we’re just allowed to be a little more practical about it. Karmically, it’s payback for Winthrop’s real estate decision 380 years ago.

Several years ago friends flew in an au pair on the Fourth. Almost immediately after experiencing Logan International Airport this waifish French girl was wedged among hundreds of thousands of spectators along a darkened Memorial Drive, obliged to watch things explode overhead for 20 minutes and wrenched quickly away on a forced march back home. Along the way she got to see two large Somerville girls in a no-holds-barred physical fight and screaming match. (Somerville girls are tough, and some cultivate a townie-pride accent as gentle as chain saws dismantling an old tank.)

Karmically, the au pair must have been bewildered, thinking: This is what the French get for helping the Colonies win independence 200-plus years ago?

Yes, but for free.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

What's the Matter With Us?

June 17, 2011

The saga of Anthony Weiner is just the latest reason why we have to ask ourselves not just What’s the Matter With Kansas?, but “What’s the matter with us?”

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, and the 2009 movie that came out of it, looks at a state that votes conservative Republican candidates into office because of issues such as abortion, religion and gay rights (opposed, in favor and opposed, in that order, is the voting orthodoxy there), even though those are largely private matters — especially for a political party that prides itself on being in favor of “small government” — and keeps out of office issues that would be of more benefit on public matters such as infrastructure and earning power.

As a country, we tear down politicians who have transgressed in their personal lives and more often than not ignore actual scandals of governance.

There are real issues going on, after all: An economic crisis whose roots in government are deep and will be tough to dig up and eliminate. A Republican effort to kill Medicare and replace it with an entirely different program called Medicare. A nationwide effort to gut collective bargaining rights, which have done far more for the middle class than any dozen modern politicians of any party.

This is the stuff I care about. If you want me to care about a politician’s private life, you have to show me where that politician’s been a hypocrite or moralizer shown to be false. There’s been a slew of politicians caught in gay sex scandals that have me dancing jigs (and my friends will tell you I don’t dance) because they were the same guys voting against gay rights. To hell, shame and eventual obscurity with people who condemn others for their own behavior — especially in the party of “small government,” which these days wants to be just small enough to poke around in our private lives and do nothing truly productive.

Instead of paying attention to the issues, the country more or less shut down for two weeks to deal with a U.S. representative who sent pictures of himself to other adults, apparently all consenting. No laws have been broken, although you wouldn’t know that from the firestorm that erupted, giving the Democratic leadership either a need or cover to get rid of Weiner and keep on doing the weak, minimal job they’ve been doing all along. (This is not to say Weiner was a great legislator; he was more of a spokesman, and his record on the actual business of writing and passing legislation is weak. But while he may not have been producing much of substance, he certainly wasn’t the problem.)

The story from Democratic leaders right up to the White House was that Weiner’s indiscretions and the media coverage that followed were distractions from work that needed to get done, and that looked pretty accurate when the networks turned off their cameras and left a press conference being held by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when she said she wasn’t going to talk about Weiner. But Pelosi and many other prominent Democrats were so eager to have Weiner gone that the scandal just seemed like an excuse to get rid of him.

Josh Marshall, over at Talking Points Memo, was dead on in calling this “fundamentally a moronic story.” He was right again in a post Friday called “So get on with it”:

“If I'm understanding their plan, the House Dems felt they needed to get rid of Anthony Weiner because he was getting in their way of telling the public about the House Republicans’ plan to phase out Medicare and replace it with vouchers. Well, he’s gone. So I guess it’s back to making that case 24/7? Right?”

We’re going to be waiting awhile for that.

If it feels like we been here before — a media firestorm over a sex act between consenting adults that distracted us from the real business of running the country — sure, we’ve been here before. The difference is that Bill Clinton got impeached and still didn’t leave office. And we were all better for it, at least until George W. Bush took over and turned a surplus into a deficit.

What’s the matter with us?

A lot of things, really.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Resigned to Risk

June 10, 2011

It’s pretty simple: If you’re going to shop online — in fact, if you’re going to have a life online at all — your private information is at risk of being sold or stolen. You’re left hoping the business that got hacked warns you quickly so you can take appropriate steps before your Visa card starts racking up elaborate Alienware computer rig purchases and flights to Amsterdam.

I’m resigned to this. When I have to buy online, there’s almost always a flash of dread followed by an equally fleeting feeling of resignation as I click the button that sends my credit card number (and potentially embarrassing purchase) zooming over the Internet. I imagine it’s like living on the set of a reality television show: You feel so exposed that it becomes pointless to try to shield anything.

And there’s probably no way to eliminate the dangers entirely. Establishing an online presence in shopping and social media has a little too much in common with losing your virginity, including that whether it’s serious or frivolous, it can’t be undone. And the site you go all the way with will remember you always. And may tell others about you. And someone may go reading its little black book for your number and perhaps a revealing photo or two.

It only gets worse as you broaden your activities from an Amazon order here and a tweet there, but no good can come from carrying the analogy any further.

Provocative and slightly distasteful metaphors aside, there is a way to minimize the damage of exposing yourself to fraud online, and it’s one that will probably resonate here in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., where there are vigorous shop-local programs and you’d never know Apple computers have only a small share of the market.

The reason that’s pertinent is the canard that Apple computers are more secure than PCs. While there may be a legitimate argument that the Mac operating system is better guarded against worms, viruses and whatnot, its users have escaped evil hackers mainly by being too small to deal with. Fewer Apple users equals a proportionately fewer number of hackers using Apples and writing viruses and worms specifically for them, and fewer Apple users also equals fewer victims. If you intend to have a good night picking pockets, an arena full of drunken football fans is likely more profitable than the night of Afrikaans free verse at that little art gallery behind the free clinic.

So first: Can you buy something down the street before looking for it down the Information Superhighway? I don’t buy anything online if it’s available at a bricks-and-mortar store, although I recognize that rule is a breeze to follow if you’re in a city center and nearly impossible if you’re rural or even in the suburbs, but around here it’s as easy to stop by Newbury Comics, Million-Year Picnic, Black Ink and Cardullo’s as it is to go to Amazon. You can pay in cash, read your comics and eat your bacon chocolate immediately.

Second: If you must shop online, you can shop smaller sites. Buying books online, for instance, you could bypass the Amazon big box store for the Alibris.com specialty shop. You can even shop online at portersquarebooks.com instead of going to Porter Square Books.

By finding niche sellers online, you’re not only promoting Net equality and helping the little guy but buying yourself the tiniest bit of peace of mind. While hackers may be salivating over all the credit card and personal information flowing through Amazon or Facebook, they’ve undoubtedly never heard of Stellabella Toys and stellabellatoyscatalog.com. It’s not that they can’t hack the site; it’s that they don’t know it’s there and don’t care about the relatively paltry pickings in its customer database.

Of course, this is no solution for participating in social media, for which there is no cure, and all of this is irrelevant if all of these tiny online stores get their orders processed in a single, central set of servers that is hackable on its own.

You’re not really buying peace of mind, then, so much as the slightest bit of reasonable doubt.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Rent Is a Season Pass to This Amusement Park

June 3, 2011

Cambridge, Mass., doesn’t have amusement parks, of course, and there are none nearby. (There are rumors of a Six Flags in Western Massachusetts, and there’s always Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., which is mentioned so often but visited so little that it feels like mild eye damage — like something you keep sensing at the edge of your peripheral vision no matter how much you try to look at it. The difference is that Canobie Lake Park is “Just for fun,” while eye damage has no slogan.) Our tourism experts tell us, though, that 2 million people a year visit Cambridge.

What the hell for?

Don’t get me wrong: I love this city, so much so that I can’t bring myself to save money by living all of several meters away over the line in Somerville. But I’ve always considered Cambridge a great place to live and a slightly weird place to visit. Sensible to stop in if you’re dropping your kid off at Harvard, of course, or watching some other hypothetical kid graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While in town for those purposes, or having been flown up to interview for a job at one of our biotech companies, Google or Microsoft, of course you can walk those rustic brick sidewalks, do some shopping, check out an old church, walk through Harvard Yard and sample some really great food. Especially if you’re contemplating a move here, a night at one of the city’s 20-plus nightclubs would be rad.

But somehow this doesn’t add up to a tourist mecca for me, and a read through the city’s most urgent attempts at seduction on its tourism office website doesn’t add anything truly compelling. (Or anything that wouldn’t be compelling to the big nerds for which this is already nirvana, bless them.)

Introduction to Central Square: “Located equidistant between the academic powerhouses of Harvard and MIT, Central Square is the seat of city government.” Hmm.

Inman Square: “Listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its many architecturally significant buildings, this square is also home to countless restaurants offering cuisine of unparalleled excellence and diversity.” Countless?

The Porter Square entry is particularly notable: “Offering a multitude of one-of-a-kind antique shops, boutiques and sidewalk cafes, Porter Square also boasts the region's largest concentration of Japanese eateries and shops including a popular bookstore. The late Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, called this neighborhood home and his many good deeds proved that ‘all politics is local.’"

And it’s notable because tourism based on a long-dead speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives seems shaky at best and because Porter Square is not readily recognizable from this description. Saying there are antique shops in Porter is stretching the definition of “square” — into a radically elongated rectangle, at the very least — and our sidewalk cafe numbers are few and scattered enough that you can’t exactly say Porter is defined by its sidewalk cafe culture. And the Japanese bookstore? Gone. Since the summer of 2004.

To me, Cambridge really is one big amusement park, and I’m happy to keep paying the high price of admission (in the form of rent) to wander from ride to ride (admittedly escalators, mass transit and Zipcars) to The Middle East Upstairs for a show or Toscanini’s for ice cream. But it’s an amusement park I can’t imagine coming to if I didn’t already have the season pass, certainly not from across the country or even from the next state, just for the heck of it.

Which makes me wonder about our tourism office. Does Cambridge need it? (Or is it just a website last updated in early 2004?) Does Cambridge deserve it, when there’s an ad on the site for the World Flower Show coming this month — which is in Boston?

Cambridge does have its own flower show, of sorts. The “Boston Marriott Cambridge,” a name as irritating to me as “Manchester Boston Regional Airport” or the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,” has a special travel package for people who want to relax there “after spending the day at the Harvard Museum of Natural History viewing the Glass Flowers Exhibit.” In addition to tickets to peer at the 847 life-size glass flowers, you come away with a souvenir book about these antique marvels. This is undoubtedly well worth it for anyone who can stand to see glass flowers after traveling to Cambridge to stay in a $169-$419 hotel room to look at 847 of these things, but I can assure you the experience palls for most after the first 423 glass flowers.

Welcome, nerds!

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Keep it Simple

May 27, 2011

I’m not a sophisticate: I’ll gorge on Taco Bell and unironically enjoy PCU or Lake Placid. I love a big, loud, stupid movie done right and celebrate when they’re done so right I’m not even embarrassed if spotted coming out of a multiplex or buying it on DVD (because I’m also not embarrassed to still be buying DVDs). The X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean and Iron Man movies — including some of the sequels — were fun flicks I was unabashedly excited to watch.

But this summer’s movies haven’t really sold me.

The latest Pirates sinned first in encouraging the badmouthing of its predecessors’ complexity, when that’s exactly what made the series so much fun in the first place. Audiences paid for action and got pirate noir as well. Can there really be so many critics out there, as well as star Johnny Depp himself, complaining that the previous sequels were too thinky? Aren’t these the same people usually complaining about the inane and unchallenging movies foisted on the public these days? Isn’t it Depp who once called America “dumb … like a dumb puppy” and talked about “a drive in me that won’t allow me to do certain things that are easy. I can weigh all the options, but there’s always one thing that goes: ‘Johnny, this is the one.’ And it’s always the most difficult — it’s always the one that will cause the most trouble”? (Yes, it was.)

This Pirates sequel also succumbs to that weird 3-D mania gripping and boring America, like a really colorful-looking character you want to meet at a party who turns out to be a manic close-talker desperate to tell a three-hour story with lots of yelling and arm-waving. And later, once you think about it, there wasn’t really much to the tale. Like: Trip to the dentist. Cavity.

This is what Hollywood’s banking on, though, despite warning signs audiences are already tiring of 3-D, including a BTIG Research report released May 23 noting 38% of the $90 million in box office revenue for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on its opening weekend came from non-Imax 3-D screens, while last year the same kind of showings amounted to 54% of revenue for Shrek Forever After and 57% for How To Train Your Dragon. Tickets to 3-D movies cost more than regular tickets, Imax 3-D tickets cost even more and once you’re inside the velveteen ropes the popcorn is marked up 900%.

Here’s one way to spot a pointless gimmick: The last Harry Potter film, coming out July 15, is on 3-D, and it’s the first film made that way in the eight-part series, which started a decade ago and has brought in more than $2 billion just in U.S. box office receipts, never mind internationally or in DVD sales, rentals, streaming and merchandising. Did the filmmakers think audiences would tune out on Part II of the last Harry Potter movie ever, after a decade of buildup and a lead-in that ended on a cliffhanger?

In theory, I’ll see almost any kind of movie. I just need someone willing to go with me. But it’s kind of a turnoff when the Hollywood-endorsed buzz about the movie is that it’s literally, purposely dumber than the extraordinarily popular chapters that came before; spent less on special effects but will cost more to see because, thanks to a totally unnecessary gimmick, more things come flying at your face; and once you’re trapped inside the theater, any available food or drink is marked up like gold in Glenn Beck’s most fervid nighttime fantasies.

Oh, Hollywood, you had me at hello. And you lost me when Michael Bay rebooted Jerry Maguire as a 3-D franchise with Ashton Kutcher, Tara Reid and a script by the guys who did Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Blurred Lines

May 20, 2011

Americans have always been pretty mobile, and I suspect that now more than ever we get to choose where we want to be.

I choose to be in Cambridge in part because it’s a rush to be in the middle of where the future is being made. It’s the birthplace of the Zipcar and the cradle of a thousand pills and medical treatments, and significant numbers of our up-and-coming politicians, business leaders, engineers and designers are swabbing away at their acne in the dorms of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And it’s a good bet few of these people are preparing to change the world by clocking in at 9 and out at 5 to head off for a night of television.

This is why Tim Rowe of the Cambridge Innovation Center business incubator has been driving so doggedly toward a Venture Cafe “open early ’til very late, that is specifically designed to get members of the innovation and entrepreneurship communities collaborating” in Kendall Square, the intensely pounding square-mile heart of the city’s technological innovation.

It’s why the architect behind what is probably Cambridge’s most controversial (and most beautiful) house is touting a “reinvention of traditional worker housing for the new ‘creative class,’” that encapsulates every absurdly true Cambridge cliche in a single reworking of the classic triple-decker building on Bellis Circle: “If a community is to survive and thrive it must draw in a creative and educated class of worker. An architect was one of the first occupants. Two computer programmers were attracted from the Portland, Ore., area. A director of a ‘sustainable building investment’ firm, along with his wife, kids and big black dog now live here.”

It’s why Chestnut Hill Realty tried to sell its basement-apartments concept as “worker housing,” raising faint echoes of city councillor Leland Cheung talking about dorm-like accommodations for younger scientists and entrepreneurs, and why the talk of councillors shaping Central and Kendall squares for the next decades also somehow includes talk about how to raise the population of Cambridge. Not just back to the 1950 high of 120,740 but beyond — a hike of more than 15% of the current population, which is already up 4% from a decade ago.

The move is to get more and more housing – for seniors and families, yes, but for lower-end workers as well, all in the context of keeping the innovators at work for those high salaries of theirs. (Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But that’s the reality as presented by the city’s consultant on redevelopment, Goody Clancy.) That implicitly puts the scientists and policy wonks at the nexus of what matters to the city, tumbling into bed in tall towers only blocks from where they work long hours broken up by 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. meetings at the Venture Cafe.

It’s a sign of the intensity with which Cambridge sees work as a mission that the idea of running the T later in the night was raised without a scoff or a snicker. Cambridge has no control whatsoever over the region’s public transit, which is still run by rules devised by the Pilgrims shortly after setting foot on Plymouth Rock and thus stops running at about 12:45 a.m. (Before the bars close!)

I support all of this. I’ve made my share of 2 a.m. runs to Kinko’s and choose to live within stumbling distance of the city’s only accumulation of a 24-hour grocery store, pharmacy and eatery — and, until recently, 24-hour doughnut shop — and tend to stay at Diesel working among other coffee shop squatters until they kick me out at 11 p.m. Occupancy trails off toward the end, but walk in at the right time and the place looks like a modern office where the cubicles have been torn down in favor of “creative workspaces” and a significant portion of the light comes from Apple logos gleaming behind laptop screens.

On many days I do eight hours at the day job, switch to my own work (such as attending municipal meetings), log in remotely for another couple hours to ensure everything is set for the day job by the time anyone will care, log off and return to my own work again, then start it all over again the next day. Both sets of work carry over into the weekends.

And that would seem strange if not for the knowledge that it’s pretty much what’s going on in the college dorms, the coffee shops, the startup offices and the labs and lofts and libraries everywhere throughout the city.

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Cambridge is the city that sleeps only because the coffee shops kick us out, the Venture Cafe isn’t yet open and the T stops running.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Rude Awakening

May 13, 2011

My first job out of college taught me so many painful life lessons that thinking through the period is like watching all of Best Week Ever’s March Sadness bracket of the 64 saddest movies spliced together with the British The Office -- except on fast-forward, because the entire experience lasted only four months.

There is the occasional lesson that wasn’t superlatively sad and awkward, although the one about eating jalapenos naked is unfortunately unspeakable. On the whole my self-imposed sentence in some of Florida’s least interesting cities seemed almost crafted to do what four years in college could not: teach an arrogant, careless, emotionally void young man he couldn’t pull off any of the three.

I left Boston with a cat, an attitude and not much else in a top-of-the-line used luxury car and in the blink of an eye had lost my cat and attitude and was taken to the heights of helplessness and hysteria by what seemed continual tire blowouts. (Life lesson No. 1, I guess, would be that cheap tires are not worth it. At all. Don’t keep replacing cheap tires with other cheap tires.)

My very presence was a mistake, a very literal mistake. Upon graduating from journalism school in Boston, I decided I could get a job at a daily newspaper -- look it up, kids -- by playing the odds. The theory: If I applied to every daily in a specific place, surely one would come through and offer me a job. That’s pretty idiotic, but I figured out a way to make it even stupider by, I am not kidding, applying to every daily newspaper in Delaware. I didn’t want to be there, but it’s a very small state, and that meant less work applying.

It was an astonishingly whimsical notion for an era when it actually cost postage to send a resume, but it shows I was willing to go literally anywhere for a job, because starting my career was all that mattered.

When Delaware failed, somehow, I sent resumes to every daily newspaper in Broward County, Fla., which was especially appealing to me for its crime, corruption, sleaze and silliness. At the time, the rap group 2 Live Crew was not only banned there, but arrested on obscenity charges while performing there. Immediately afterward the county became known as, um, a flashpoint in the banning of thong bikinis from state beaches. For obvious reasons, I was thrilled to be hired by a newspaper near all the action and even more stoked to be the only one among the journalism grads to get a job at a daily right out of school, especially in such a bad economy. (Who knew? Every factor in this story is worse now.) I bought that car and drove down.

Much to my surprise, I learned while mapping my trip that the newspaper that hired me wasn’t in Broward County. It got added to my list, apparently, by mistake. And that’s why I was in such trouble there. I didn’t check my facts.

The reason the paper had to run so many corrections for my stories wasn’t just that I was arrogant. Mainly it was that I was shy. I couldn’t take notes quickly enough to keep up with what people were saying and I was embarrassed to ask them to slow down, repeat themselves or clarify later. It didn’t help that failure compounded failure and I went through each workday with a searing bubble of panic in my chest. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re scared and nauseated, and that made me even sloppier.

I am to blame for this. My lack of rigor resulted from sticking so close to my tiny college campus, the little life I knew so well, instead of fighting for internships and freelance jobs that would have revealed my weaknesses and forced me to deal with them. I could have apprenticed myself to professionals who wouldn’t risk the amateurishness, but instead I stuck to peers who knew no more than I did and teachers who gave me grades I could shrug off, not paychecks I needed to cash.

First the Florida paper told me I was in a trial period and technically didn’t have a job. Then I was told the trial was extended a month. Then I was told I wasn’t getting the job. I was happy to hear it because it meant I could run away, even though at the end -- feeling much less pressure -- I got over myself and did better in my work.

I had gone to Florida thinking I could leave behind my culture, friends, girlfriend and family to launch a brilliant career, but I failed at all of it. I fled back to Boston, to all those people and to start my career completely over, and strangely, much of that career has been as a copy editor obsessed with the most niggling details of reporting the news.

Lessons, kids? Well, first there’s that bit about cheap tires. But more important is that when you get that first job, the only thing that counts is doing it well. You may have to get over yourself, or your fears. And if you’re still in college, get off campus and start your career before you have to.

Also, family and friends count for more than you’d think, which is another lesson you’d learn from a lot of those movies I mentioned. My four months of failure has saved you 64 films' worth of weeping.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Right Response?

May 6, 2011

After the white-hot anger over the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 faded a bit, we still endure a painful slow burn over our own response to what Osama bin Laden wrought — by which I mean the maddening, silly and pointless approach to security the country adopted in response.

I believe, like many others, that we don’t have security in our airports or any number of other places where the same techniques are used; we have “security theater” that generates endless questions (why scan pilots for weapons when they’re the ones flying the plane?) and countless stories (a popular theme: harmless liquids and gels getting confiscated by Transportation Security Administration workers while potentially deadly weapons get through) without guaranteeing or even encouraging safety.

On a flight I took in April, I removed my jacket and shoes as usual to get through a security checkpoint and once through — I’m not dumb enough to antagonize TSA workers before I’m past them — asked why that was still necessary when Boston’s airport has backscatter imaging that sees through your clothes. The answer: Passengers still have to take off our shoes because they can cause an “error” in readouts from the machine.

Really? Which part of our shoes does that? The cloth? The rubber or the plastic? Do jackets cause the same errors? Why doesn’t the rest of our clothing cause the same error?

It was an absurd answer, which the guy probably made up on the spot. Perhaps there is no answer.

Many of us forget that the TSA said in 2009 that it was “confident” the restriction on gels and liquids would be gone by the end of the year. But a lot of people miss the fact that they’ve never been shown to work — not when there are so many workarounds. I recall a newspaper I worked for running an editorial about the restriction saying the “minor irritation is saving lives.” (I didn’t write it.)

“It’s working, that tiresome and time-consuming and seemingly silly airport security drill. Turns out the conventional (heck, almost universal) wisdom was wrong … Some Scope bottles might have something dangerous in them,” the editorial concludes. “A five-minute search is well worth saving hundreds of lives.”

Ann Davis, a Boston-based spokeswoman for the TSA, made the same logical leap when I spoke with her: When asked whether the restrictions worked, she pointed out they began with a terrorist plot in which a liquid explosive would be dyed to look like a soft drink and brought aboard planes in large bottles. A failed terrorist plot — in fact, a terrorist plot that was thwarted before the restrictions were in place. What caught the terrorists and foiled the plot was the work of intelligence agents investigating the scheme long before anyone headed for a security checkpoint. And that’s almost certainly what’s prevented every terrorist plot since. Not the 3-ounce rule.

“I’m not aware of anyone who has been charged in that regard,” Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI, told me when asked if the confiscating of containers violating the 3-ounce rule had resulted in the prosecution of terrorist plots, or even arrests. “Off the top of my head, I’m not aware of any,” he said.

Boston’s T has security checkpoints also, ones run on apparently random people at random subway stations. In the late summer last year I asked our transit security chiefs about them and was told there hadn’t been a single arrest or investigation resulting from the checkpoints since they began Oct. 10, 2006. That’s more than 1,420 checkpoints without an arrest or investigation, and by now far more. That makes sense for a couple of reasons:

All a terrorist has to do to evade being caught by one of these checkpoints is wait for a while until the police leave, or walk a few minutes to the next T stop down the road.

And because there haven’t been any terrorist attacks.

Terrorist attacks are stopped by police or intelligence agencies before they begin or by alert citizens who see them happening in front of them. Bin Laden gets credit for doing that, or couse. And he gets blame — burning blame — for it as well.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Save, But Indulge

April 29, 2011

The latest lesson about money I’ve learned from my mother: Maybe you’re not as retired as you think.

Mom raised a family, ran a restaurant and taught special-needs kids for a while and she and my dad retired comfortably on a nice pile of money generated during his adventures in suburban aerospace.

Then came the Great Recession.

A shocking amount of their retirement money disappeared, and mom, at 73, took on part-time work — running errands for, reading to and generally taking care of, well, the elderly.

She keeps this up even though the improving economy and a switch in financial advisers has returned much of the lost wealth to my parents’ financial statements. That suggests a lesson about, rather than from, my mother: namely that she’s as much of a workaholic as the rest of the family. There was nothing about their retirement lifestyle that really demanded that she worked; they could have continued on comfortably even without the income. But she works nonetheless, a contribution that ensures, even though she’s working, that she can also really relax.

Other lessons in money management came from both of my parents, which in retrospect is impressive. I don’t remember my parents arguing about money; in what might be another good lesson, they were aligned in their approach to credit, debt and spending: modesty. We didn’t have crazy vacations or the finest of things, at least until the Macintosh came out and I discovered The Thing We Spent Money On.

Every family has one of these, right? I grew up knowing the Beaumonts, who lived like the Manhattan Beach version of the Joads except for their bright, fashionable, seasonally appropriate and eternally renewed preppie wear. They always looked like they were coming from or going to the country club, but I think the dinners they dressed for were mainly crackers and water. (It kept them thin.) Other families might scrimp and save but still travel, get season tickets for the Dodgers or have the best cars.

Our family’s addiction clearly wasn’t nice cars: We were reminded daily that Nissan had been Datsun long after the rest of my hometown had forgotten. But dad didn’t skimp on computers, printers and software — an addiction my mom never complained about, maybe because it was one of the few splurges that could be justified by our future employability. When I went to college, no one knew desktop publishing and page design software like I did, and I retained the advantage up through last year. (Now no one cares. Thanks, Internet!)

Even when bringing home the latest laptop, though, the shopping was either done with cash or paid off immediately. Levys will be damned if they pay interest on their purchases, and while that may mean driving a somewhat pathetic and underpowered Datsun station wagon for more years than seems possible, it also means great credit that makes other, bigger things possible when those monthly payments become truly unavoidable.

I think my dad was finally forced at gunpoint to pay off the mortgage on our house, so much was he enjoying the tax advantages from it. The bank conned him into coming down — something about a cake — and ambushed him when he walked in.

More recently my parents have been talking bluntly about the best ways of passing on their assets when they die, which somehow they make come across as reasonable instead of morbid. It’s another way I recognize that, even though none of us wound up rich, my dad and mom have already passed on a wealth of the other kind of value.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Vacation Pricing

April 21, 2011

The prime piece of advice I got before going to Miami for a mid-April vacation was to forget about public transportation there. The guidebooks were skeptical, and humorist Dave Barry underlined that when he appeared on the NPR game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” early that month, saying simply, “I advise people not to take public transportation.”

“We have a thing — it's called Metrorail and [Metromover]. And we don't know how to get up on that thing. It goes by. I've never met a soul who's ridden on that thing,” said Barry, who admitted he had seen people using it. “You think, ‘I wonder who they are, and how they get there.’”

And then he told a story about how two guys brought a live, six-foot nurse shark onto the Metromover. With predictable results.

The message pained me a little, since I’m a big public transportation guy — well, not the bus, everyone hates the bus — and rely on it and Zipcar to get me from place to place when I’m at home in Massachusetts. But for the vacation lifestyle, including trips to Key West and the Everglades, it made more sense to get a rental car, and having our own parking space was even one of the reasons we rented a house instead of staying in a hotel. The one decision to use a car affected everything.

It was strange to drive everywhere, though, and strange to deal with having a car (a flat tire in the Everglades, a mysteriously falling rearview mirror), strange to be gaining weight even while going to the beach every day (as a result of overeating, surely, but also a confused metabolism) and curiously not strange enough to see gas prices heading aggressively for the $4 per gallon mark.

The Kia Forte the car rental agency gave us was something of a disaster, and on one of the seemingly constant visits back to the airport car-rental complex (literally a multistory building and parking garage bigger than some airport terminals I’ve visited) we debated getting the $3.68 per gallon pre-paid fuel option. We did, even though the only time I’ll accept gas prices at the pump without whining is on vacation, numbed as I am by the rarity of having to pay at all.

The agents behind the counter had pointed out that their price was far cheaper than what we’d find on the street, and I’d noted seeing a Shell station at $3.77 per gallon for regular unleaded, and that the next station on the same street charged only two cents more. The agents — Miami residents who, of course, drive everywhere because there are six-foot nurse sharks on their public transportation and nothing but 24-hour CVS and Walgreens to look at while riding the trains — nearly jumped over that counter to shake me by the lapels for the address of that Shell station.

Now, last week, the lowest regular gas price in Miami was $3.79, 5 cents higher than in Cambridge, Mass., and the average was $3.88 — again 5 cents higher than where I live. (Late Sunday, gas-price websites for Miami and the Boston area showed the price difference had disappeared.)

Make no mistake: My local public rail in Cambridge is aging badly, breaking down and growing generally less reliable by the day, and the government agency tasked with keeping it running is too broke to do much about it. But it’s good enough I don’t need to drive, and there’s no potentially deadly aquatic wildlife on it.

And we don’t have to worry about missing out on all those 24-hour CVS and Walgreens stores because, as everyone knows, things around here shut down when the sun goes down, just like our pilgrim forebears wanted it.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

After a Storm of Snow, a Flurry of Tickets

April 18, 2011

The idea of spring cleaning is clear enough, at least in those parts of the country that have seasons: Now that the snows have abated and people can venture out of their homes — go visiting and such — those homes have to be presentable to company. I’m spared this because it doesn’t matter how clean my apartment is; it still isn’t presentable. I don’t have stuff or want it, but I actually need new furniture and, really, to fit new furniture I’d need a different apartment.

Why don’t we go to your place instead?

No, really, not only does the whole idea of spring cleaning make no sense on sociological, anthropological or economic bases — because if you’re cooped up for the winter anyway, why not just clean? — but it fails on a biological basis as well. Spring doesn’t activate the cleaning genes in me, just the hormones that demand I breed. And that doesn’t happen either.

While I know there must be people out there whipping out their spray bottles of 409 and brooms as soon as the weather gets confusing, as opposed to simply appalling, the nature of the area doesn’t make it too obvious: The top times for sidewalk sales (or just dumping of household goods) remains whenever the most students are moving out, and the action at Goodwill never stops. Even this winter’s 70-plus inches of snow hasn’t changed that significantly.

The snow did change a couple of other things, though. It took a $332,000 removal budget and turned it into more than $1.2 million worth of frozen tears. And it resulted in what President George W. Bush might have called a “catastrophic success” in terms of parking tickets, a result of the piles of snow created by our city’s diligent Public Works plows.

As the winter went on, see, the piles grew and cars parking as close to curbs as possible weren’t parking close to the curbs at all, even when drivers rolled out of their seats because one side of their cars were parked on hills of ice. But leave a car more than three feet from a curb and that results in a ticket. Or, over this past winter in Cambridge, some 2,900 tickets, according to the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department director at an April 4 meeting of the City Council. As director Susan Clippinger described it, that resulted in another challenge for the city in the form of hearings demanded by people disputing the tickets.

“Eighty hearings in one day?” city councillor Tim Toomey asked Clippinger and the city manager, after hearing their report. “Is that even possible?” Sure it is, for a city motivated to clear away the waste of a winter. The city can make the tickets evaporate nearly as quickly as did the snow itself, which was astonishingly quickly. (While in past years patches of snow would linger well into the spring, brattily reminding people in shorts and flip-flops not to get too comfortable, this year gigantic mounds of the stuff seemed to vanish virtually overnight.)

Anyway, let’s move fast. Hurricane season is just about here.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

A Tip to Economists for a Study in Shame

April 11, 2011

I’m part of the problem in the workplace coffee shop, which for me means Diesel in Somerville’s Davis Square. Despite being a regular coffee shop with desserts, awkward Craigslist dates and pool tables, the place can all too often and easily look like study hall before finals (because it probably is). If the laptop is the most obvious indicator of seriousness, Diesel frequently hosts enough of them open on tables to suggest things have progressed beyond problematic into the apocalyptic.

I’ve plugged in at Diesel for entire days, walking there when I wake up and writing until they kick me out, and that means using their electricity as well as possibly removing from use one of the coveted cushioned booths — which I might feel worse about if their rarity and my occupancy weren’t actually tearing down social barriers. (Sure, it’s apples and oranges, but anyone concerned about a loss of civic engagement in the face of ceaseless computer use should check out how people meet and interact at Diesel. It’s a sociology major’s thesis waiting to happen.)

It was worse when I was unemployed, since I needed the workspace more than ever but certainly couldn’t afford an $8.25 sandwich, especially accompanied by a $3 drink. Sometimes I instead bought a bag of Diesel’s day-old bagels and ate those; sometimes I furtively ate granola bars from my backpack. Sometimes I literally ran down the street for cheaper food — a slice of pizza or Anna’s quesadilla. Guilt.

Worst of all was that in addition to taking up space and sucking up electricity, I wasn’t tipping. Every Thai iced tea was simultaneously delicious and shame inducing; every time I got 10 stamps on my card and a dollar off was a twist of the knife; and reusing a glass and saving another dime was the final insult.

The baristas, of course, probably knew none of this and cared not at all, but for me working at Diesel this way was like living through a particularly esoteric short story by Poe, like I had to keep myself from shrieking in remorse at the checkout, “I admit the deed! Here, here! It is the gleaming of that hideous tip jar!”

This isn’t just academic — get it? — or white, middle-class liberal guilt. I feel alarm because along with anthropological dissections of workplace coffee shops, The New York Times has covered the movement away from them and toward a more European model of coffee bar. (The model says you gulp your espresso and get the hell out.) And it’s disconcerting that one of the prime examples of the model is just up the street a ways in Arlington, at the well-regarded Barismo. The last thing I want is for Diesel to lose money because it’s inadvertently become a incubator for money-losing businesses run by the sneaky unemployed.

But I’m no longer unemployed, and I don’t have to be sneaky. Don’t get me wrong: I still can spend whole days there, taking up half a booth while distressed mothers circle helplessly with sobbing toddlers and uneaten brownies, but that usually means two meals bought there and at least two drinks, with a dollar dropped in the tip jar each time. Surely I’m still part of the problem, though, which makes me wonder if Diesel’s a better case study for economics than anthropology.

Maybe that’s what all these people are working on around me?

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 105,162-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Another Questionable Conflict

April 4, 2011

I confess that growing up in the age of Reagan and his weird wars might have totally and permanently burned up my outrage over presidential adventures in armed conflict.

First, remember that Reagan bombed Libya before Obama, killing the daughter of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 1983; and Lockerbie — when Libyan terrorists took down an airplane full of innocents over Lockerbie, Scotland — took place two years later. To a teenager with little knowledge of world affairs, that potential if pointless cause and effect was a pretty good introduction to the ambiguities of modern warfare.

There was also Operation Urgent Fury, in which we overran the tiny island of Grenada (population 100,000) to, um, rescue U.S. medical students from the dangers of seeing Communists try to govern. Maybe. Frankly, our goals were a little unclear to me (and the name of the operation is, frankly, very distracting; it sounds vaguely erotic, but in an Ayn Rand kind of a way). I know we won, though, creating a benchmark for minor military accomplishments — like graduating from “tadpole” in swim class — and a lifetime of political punch lines.

The invasion of Grenada also took place in 1983, a year after Britain’s war in the Falklands, in which U.K. forces overran some (U.K.-controlled) islands off the coast of Argentina (population 3,000 or so) that were invaded by Argentina and, um, rescued some livestock from becoming delicious asado, instead consigning them to become objectionable mutton.

And in 1986, we officially got the War on Drugs, and even as a kid I knew that “just say no” was no more a successful strategy than asking the Libyans to sing Kumbiyah (or bombing their country just a little). It also seemed like a domestic distraction from the absolute, No. 1 weirdest military intervention we had, in which Reagan sold weapons to the Iranians to pay for a war in Nicaragua that was illegal because Congress had said no to funding it.

Even as a kid I remembered that Reagan had ridden heroically into office vowing to never negotiate with terrorists such as the Iranians who took Americans hostages after deposing a leader we liked — pretty much the same reason we invaded Grenada and were fighting in Nicaragua. What was so weird was that no one seemed to care very much about the hypocrisy, which to a kid is a pretty big thing; we see stuff as black and white. There didn’t even seem to be much outrage about the fact a president was going behind Congress’s back, subverting the U.S. Constitution.

Reagan capped all this by claiming he beat the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War by forcing an arms race that broke its economy. Even as a kid I knew the Cold War and its arms buildup started in 1947, which was still four years before Reagan starred in Bedtime for Bonzo with a chimp and 33 years before he became president. Him getting credit is like awarding a runner for winning a marathon after he’s jumped in a couple blocks from the finish line.

The recent Iraq war did get me pretty riled up, because it was obvious we were going in just because we wanted to, but I think fighting in Afghanistan had moral justification. And now Libya again, which is pressing on nerves that haven’t felt anything for almost three decades, the last time we bombed the place.

Of course I feel far off from the fighting. President George W. Bush asked us to spend rather than sacrifice to support his wars, and President Barack Obama is asking nothing of us whatsoever, including to support his actions. It’s just, like, a thing he’s gonna do, even if we could all get behind the idea of backing rebels who want democracy — they do, right? — and freedom from the man who took down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 270 innocents, because that was just a thing he was gonna do. (I also can’t help remembering that it was the Brits, the heroes of the Falklands, who released Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for, according to Wikileaks documents cited by The Telegraph newspaper, CNN and others, access to Libyan oil.)

I feel far from the war and real sacrifice because I feel alienated from the way government decides its incursions, violent or otherwise, and our constantly shifting standards about what constitutes an outrage. Gadhafi’s a monster but the shah wasn’t? Low gas prices justify releasing a murderer? Reagan’s a great American for subverting the Constitution?

There are some in Cambridge upset over our actions in Libya, and that Obama more or less acted on his own, but the City Council also grandly, harmlessly and somewhat pointlessly voted Feb. 28 for international leaders to try to get Gadhafi to resign. We’re conflicted in every sense of the word.

But I watch the conflict mainly with a sense of remove. Eight years of Reagan, and the ever-growing burnishing of his place in history, has raised my sense of injustice to such a high level that not much fazes me anymore.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

My Calls, and the AT&T-T-Mobile Merger, Just Sound Bad

March 25, 2011

It has reached the point that I don’t want to talk to certain people on the phone because the voice quality is so bad: mushy, indistinct sound that reduces communication to being able to tell mood or tone, the audio equivalent of trying to read a letter written in ink after it’s been soaking in water for several hours.

Imagine the ink bleeding into a blur where it’s possible to tell the difference between long words, short words and punctuation, but not what those words are or whether what you’re seeing is a colon or semi-colon, a period or comma. But you probably don’t have to imagine the problem behind that metaphor. CTIA — the Wireless Association, whose annual show just wrapped up, says 91% of Americans are using mobile phones, while a March 3 report by J.D. Power and Associates says there’s been “a halt in overall call quality improvement” — and, in fact, while it’s users of smartphones who have the most problems making voice calls, “problem rates for traditional handsets have risen” since the previous annual study. Risen!

America is abandoning its landlines in favor of mobile phones that are actually getting worse!

If you think it’s bad trying to talk to your sister when you have no idea what she’s saying, and admitting the problem is so bad you probably shouldn’t communicate by phone, try that with the person you’re dating.

Pretty awkward, which is why I tried to fake it for a while, asking her to repeat things a few times. But that gets old, so sometimes I would just act as though I’d heard what she said — laughing when I thought it appropriate, speaking in generalizations and sometimes, until I realized how dangerous it could be, giving affirmations. (There is no good way to say, “I know I agreed to it, but it was only because I had no idea what you were asking.”)

I have Verizon, which I switched to because T-Mobile’s call quality was terrible, and that makes it not so encouraging that AT&T is trying to buy T-Mobile for $39 billion. The way I think of it, McDonald’s could buy a smaller fast-food competitor for the same amount, but that would just give it a larger “network” and take away $39 billion it could be using to actually improve what it does. I chose Verizon in part because J.D. Power ranks it as the best carrier in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and West and calls it a tie with AT&T in the Mid-Atlantic. As a result, my phone calls are only truly terrible with a couple of people and I get to believe it’s not me, it’s them (another awesome thing to tell someone you’re dating, even if she is a T-Mobile customer). Nothing about this information solves the problem, though, and it all leads back to the question of why things are so bad.

That’s actually pretty simple. Here’s what Mike Gikas, the senior electronics editor for Consumer Reports, told NPR this month: “We know that voice quality is not driving sales … When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a cellphone bragging about voice quality?”

But that is also not a real answer, since it just leads to the question of why we put up with it.

Another easy one to answer: Because Americans are easily distracted by shiny, fancy, impractical things that make them feel big and powerful when everything is working right, and Americans are aspirational and therefore sure things will work right once we have the shiny, fancy, impractical things that require them to. We have iPhones that play Angry Birds but drop calls, just like we bought Hummers in defiance of the notion gas would hit $4 a gallon and took out mortgages on McMansions without the salaries to pay them off. Somehow things are going to work out, right?

Well, no, because our mobile carriers can always count on our indolence and ignorance as they hold the line on terrible quality while increasing our bills to buy more companies to provide us with fewer options. While the voice quality on our phones hasn’t improved, we’ve been sending more and more text messages — a 2,433% increase from 2005 to last year, in fact, according to CTIA, with the phone companies charging more and more for them. The price of a text message doubled from 2005 to 2008 alone, to 20 cents from a dime, with that leap obscured by the sale of lump-sum texting plans most people will never use up. In January, the same AT&T that has $39 billion to spend on T-Mobile eliminated half of their text-messaging plans, leaving customers two to choose from: one costing $10 a month for 1,000 messages and another costing $20 for an unlimited number of messages. I text to avoid talking on the phone and still haven’t come anywhere near 1,000.

The actual cost of AT&T or other carriers transmitting a single text message? The mobile carriers don’t want to say, but according to expert testimony before the U.S. Senate, it's three-tenths of a penny.

It’s true voices on mobile phones can be unintelligible. But this text-messaging thing, and by extension the mobile phone business and especially AT&T’s elimination of another U.S. competitor, just sounds bad.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Wide World of Aid
March 18, 2011

The most affecting pleas for charity are also the most direct ones, and they’re the ones I fall for almost constantly. But it helps to learn how to weed out the scams, and it only took me what seems like several dozen lessons to develop a sense for them – maybe the last time was when I finally looked at the set of keys some guy had left me as security for “borrowing” $10 to do something that did something that let him get his wallet back so he could buy gas for his car so he could get back home … to his cancer-stricken wife … and polio-ridden kids … and put out the fire about to consume them. And the letter that had to be mailed before midnight so the bank wouldn’t repossess his house.

The key ring held the most random, absurd assortment of nonsense you could imagine: tiny keys to lockers or lockets, skeleton keys to houses that had probably been torn down decades ago.

This particular con man must have gotten some sort of charge out of gambling that no one would look at the keys until he was out of sight; they were totally implausible.

But that never held me back from handing out my spare change, quarters or dollars, whether for a copy of Spare Change, the local newspaper by the homeless, or if someone simply looked appropriately piteous (or charmed me enough). Even when I was unemployed I gave out too much money. Even when I was a student, living within a budget that dwindled dangerously low at the end of every semester.

In fact, once when I was a student I sat down and calculated how much money I was giving out, and it was high enough to startle me into vowing to cut back.

It’s simply difficult to walk past someone you can see, hear and even smell knowing you can make a difference in their lives that very day – possibly even that same, below-freezing night. Even when it twisted my gut knowing they were about to take my money into a grocery store with the intent of getting drunk on Listerine or vanilla extract, it is hard not to hand over a bit of change with the thought, “Well, what’s the alternative? Put him up at my place?”

The same set of calculations and rationalizations talks me out of contributing to larger causes such as natural disasters in Indonesia, Haiti or Japan. It’s the amount of money I have minus the amount I hand out on the street (donations to Goodwill, which cost me nothing in current income, don’t factor in), combined with the realization that there is always a huge natural disaster and that such huge expenses should be handled by foreign aid – to which I already contribute as a taxpayer – added to the fear that my direct donation will go to a charity CEO’s private jet versus the realization that there are always, and will always be, homeless people needing my spare change. And lately, the sheer number of people on the street has brought me back to that disturbing moment in college: Added up, that’s a lot of money I’m giving away.

Still, the more I spend on myself – an amount that’s picked up with my own employment, of course – the more guilt I feel for not handing some of it out.

So there’s no subtraction going on, and actually more addition: My pique over politics in Wisconsin actually inspired me to donate money to the cause, and because of a nonsensically stubborn belief that politics shouldn’t be about money (sort of like insisting chocolate shouldn’t be so fattening) I almost never donate money to such causes. I’m also intending to send pledges to the National Public Radio shows I’ve been freeloading on for years.

As bad as I am at math, I know the sum total of all this calculating is less money for me.

So I’m at least hoping that those earlier lessons have paid off. In other words, these days, I hope my scam detector is working better. And before handing over any money, I look at the keys.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

New Season, New Bracket
March 11, 2011


Tax day this year will be a new experience for me, since I’ll be in a bracket so unfamiliar that the best way to describe it is by saying I don’t expect a refund. I’m definitely eating a higher class of Ramen – a taste to savor after starting 2010 with Connecticut cutting my unemployment benefits. (My crime: Being unable to afford repairs on the car I was keeping only to get to a part-time job that was more than two hours away and unreachable by public transportation, or as you can guess, carpool. To the bureaucrats in the Nutmeg State, this proved I was lazy.)

By rights, I should stop shoveling caviar down my throat long enough to join the Republican Party, open an account in the Caymans and start rallying against the damned tax-and-spend liberals who want to take the money earned from many long hours of toil.

But instead I’m grateful for the opportunity to pay the taxes (at least until I see the actual hit), and when I think about tax day, I mainly think back to last year when the tea party descended on Boston Common – complete with Sarah Palin and Victoria Jackson – to rally courageously for louder arguments and less logic. And drilling babies, or whatever it is they want.

In classic Republican/tea party/What’s Wrong With Kansas fashion, these working-class guys were incensed by how unfairly the mega-rich were taxed and how Democrats wanted to tax the rich even more. When I mentioned how much better the working and middle classes did and the economy was when the rich had an even higher tax rate, one challenged me with: “So if you won the lottery, you’d be OK giving half of it away to taxes?”

Yeah, actually, I would. At the time, the Mega Millions prize was $105 million and, I don’t know, somehow I feel like I wouldn’t really have too much cause to complain if I got $52.5 million out of it, but I guess I’m weird like that.

Still, I didn’t grasp the real weirdness until I’d left the rally and was on the T headed back across the river to Cambridge. I noticed a tea partyer on the train with me and asked what he’d thought of the event. He was pretty pleased with it: Even his trip in on the train that morning from his park-and-ride lot had been fine.

Slowly it hit me that the tea partyers I’d spoken with had come from miles around, driving on roads paid for by taxes and riding government rail, to stand on a giant lawn maintained by our tax dollars to complain about how government was sucking the lifeblood out of our great country. Even if you can argue for the total privatization of rail and, somehow, our freeways and the entire rest of our transportation infrastructure, in what fantasy world do all the free market fans and Ayn Rand acolytes find profit motive in carving out a giant hole in the middle of downtown for carefully maintained, litter-free grass and trees that anyone can come and enjoy for free?

This year I’m happy to pay taxes for that: so people can have a pleasant experience coming here to froth at the mouth against taxes and about how collective efforts such as paying for roads and parks are anti-American.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?
March 4, 2011


The danger of staying in town for spring break is learning too much about your town. It’s the week you’re not supposed to learn anything, and the risk is learning that you should have left.

I’ve never traveled for spring break, partly because of money and partly because during the four prime spring break years of college I was entranced by the city I was in: Boston, which by the end of those four years seemed about as big and appealing as the inside of a coffin.

To some degree I blame myself for essentially never leaving Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Chinatown and the North End, a world so small you could walk it in an hour. But there was a contributing, external factor to my desperate need to escape after college — racial problems there and across the country that made the black/white divide seem like, well, black and white.

There was white Charles Stuart, blaming a black man for killing his pregnant wife, which led to police publicly strip searching innocent people before Stuart himself was revealed as the killer. And there was O.J. Simpson, and the divide that followed between blacks who blamed Office Mark Fuhrman for framing him and whites who saw him as obviously guilty. And of course there was Rodney King, and the subsequent rioting when the police officers who beat him were let off.

As a stringer for The Associated Press, I went into Southie to interview people who swore they weren’t racist but surprised me by going on talking until they proved they were.

Back then, if you walked across a certain street, you were in black Boston and walk back across the street and you were in white Boston. The lines were invisible, but that well-marked.

Things are better now and, while far they're from perfect, they're still better yet across the river in Cambridge, where black families came in the 1880s because Boston schools were segregated and Cambridge schools were not.

Both cities are also packed solid with colleges and college students, of course, except during holidays, summers and spring breaks. And just because the area has a reputation for smarts doesn’t mean the most common and cliched spring break destinations aren’t packed solid with those same students as winters wear tediously on. It just means students are smart enough to get away when things are the worst — me excepted, obviously — and that there are surely some extremely well-educated student bodies showing up in Girls Gone Wild videos.

The alternative, which is staying right here instead of getting sun, warmth, drunk and a pregnancy/STD scare, does not seem attractive when looking at the obvious lies and rationalizations of Yahoo Travel, which offers such “Things to do” as the Boston Public Library (for spring break?) and Boston Common and the Public Gardens, which not only are really one thing, but are parks, you know, the outdoor kind. But the alarm bells really start to go off when lured to sites such as 617area.com, where an uninformed algorithm has decided to include Blue Man Group three times on a list of “Upcoming events during spring break.” Seems a little desperate. And expensive.

But be careful where you go: After college I fled Boston for Florida, which is the eternal spring break, and only four months later came running back to Massachusetts with a renewed appreciation, if not a passion, for what I’d tried to escape, problems and all.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.
Rising Above the Fiercest Budget Battles

Feb. 25, 2011

Over the past couple of weeks it’s felt a little like I’m in a high tower — maybe an ivory one from the leftovers of Harvard, Lesley and MIT construction — and I’m looking out over a smoking landscape of budget battlefields.

Just below are the suffering cities and towns of Massachusetts, and looking west is Wisconsin, where Republicans are claiming budget problems as a pretext to take down unions and decrease Democratic power.

Looking south is Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama’s $3.7 trillion budget favors reduction of a $1.6 trillion deficit over job creation, even though unemployment is still at 9 percent. And the only stuff on the table in Obama’s national budget-cutting is nonsecurity discretionary spending, which accounts for 12 percent of those trillions.

Polls show not many regular folks care about the deficit, and plenty care about jobs, but for some reasons he’s going to do the deficit anyway, apparently because the right says he should.

The right says lots of crazy things, including stuff about Kenyan communists, birth certificates, breast-feeding, Sharia law, death panels, the first lady’s weight and the end times.

Also that the government will save money and help the economy by spending less, including through massive layoffs of government workers — as though having even fewer people working and spending will somehow result in recovery. Since cutting taxes to shrink the deficit and cutting jobs to help the economy makes absolutely no sense, and have never been shown to work, and since it’s hard to believe the entire right is actually crazy, there’s no choice but to see these efforts as equal in disingenuousness to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting as a solution to a budget problem he created.

The unions there have already agreed to steps that will help the state’s budget, but Walker insists on getting rid of collective-bargaining rights, which won’t. As a result, there’s been day after day of screaming protests at the capital, schools have shut down, Walker’s been exposed as willing to stoop to dirty tricks and the state senate is at a stand-still.

All to pursue a false solution to a self-induced, artificial crisis.

But as we’ve learned, even wars begun under false pretense result in casualties, and that’s why it’s such a good thing we’re up in this tower, above all the madness.

Cambridge went into this fiscal year with an operating budget of $459.7 million, a 3.1 percent increase over the previous year. And that’s despite getting $27 million less in two key areas of state aid. We’re in the midst of forming another budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that looks like, once again, we’ll face fiscal pain astonishingly minor compared with what’s going on in neighboring towns. Our schools, for instance, are projected to get a 2.6 percent rise in funding from the current year, putting the district in need of making up only $600,000, and the city plans to put its excellent credit ratings to work on a plan to renovate and reconfigure four schools over the next decade.

While Cambridge was adding $13.9 million to its budget, neighboring Somerville was cutting $8 million, and its mayor has warned of another budget crunch this year. Another neighbor, Arlington, expects to be short $3.8 million.

We’re not going to be at war here.

We’re spared it for a few reasons. First, we’re overwhelmingly Democratic and even liberal, so if there are political delusions they’re at least widely shared. And while the City Council sets goals for Cambridge, including such things as shoring up affordable housing and planting trees, it’s the city manager who oversees finances to ensure there’s money for such things. And he’s good at it.

Without politics wrenching us apart and resulting in budgetary pretexts such as we see nationally and in Wisconsin, attention and money ideally are spent on the things that matter.

The results are relative peace — and ivory towers that might not get scrubbed as frequently.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Good, The Awful and The Inflated

Feb. 18, 2011

My friends look at my taste in movies and say I can’t tell good from awful, but they’re wrong: I know when a movie’s awful and enjoy it anyway. The truth is that I have a hard time distinguishing good from great, and part of the reason for that is that I never get tired of the good.

So from about July 2000 to at least August 2006 you can believe that I went to Anna’s Taqueria at least five times a week for a bean and rice quesadilla with salsa, hot sauce, lettuce and jalapenos. I’m not crazy — I rotated between refried, pinto and black beans to keep things interesting. (And if you still think I’m crazy, I’ll point out that in late 2001, New York Times travel writer Alice DuBois hopped on a bus from Manhattan to Boston, met a friend and drove across the river to Porter Square, Cambridge, to my local Anna’s Taqueria, got a super burrito, went back to Boston and got back on a bus to Manhattan. Then she wrote about it for the Times and became a legend.)

But that's not the point.

The point is that from July 2000 to June 21, 2005, my quesadilla cost only $3.10 a day, with tax, and on that date the cost rose a dime, or 3.2%, which would likely cost me another $36.50 a year (because by that point I had upped my intake to about one a day).

The price rose again not much more than a year later in August to $3.52 with tax, a 10% increase that could have cost me an additional $116.80 a year if I were still doing this quesadilla-a-day thing. I’m not sure I was at that point — I mean, come on, that would be crazy — and it probably started to seem like real money by that point since, by my way of thinking I was still eating $3.10 worth of food. (In fact, Anna’s was being generous; $3.10 in 2000 was worth $3.63 six years later.)

I can’t remember the last time I had a quesadilla, but the same calculations showing the kindness of Anna’s in 2006 hints at something quite different now: $3.10 would be worth $3.96 today, but an Anna’s quesadilla is instead $4.50 without tax, a bargain that has probably fallen victim to the rising cost of dairy and possibly Porter Square’s increasing desirability as real estate, despite being surrounded by storefronts left gaping by bankruptcy filings: Blockbuster, Pizzeria Uno, Jennifer Convertibles.

My new fixation is the iced Thai tea at Diesel in Davis Square, Somerville. I probably have at least five a week, and for at least two years they've cost $3.01 with tax.

A few days ago, though, the price went up to $3.35 with tax, or an 11.3% hike.

“We are sad to have to do this,” the Diesel staff said in a flier posted around the coffee shop. “We have not increased our prices in two years, during which time the cost of doing business in this economy has increased exponentially. We have absorbed that costs without passing it along to our customers but are no longer in a position where we can continue to do so and stay viable.”

This sudden reminder of the power of inflation does not faze me. I have a job but don’t drive, so I don’t pay for gas, and my spending habits in general are so arbitrary and inconsistent that if it weren’t for Anna’s quesadillas and Diesel’s iced Thai tea I might have no point of comparison at all.

But comparison is not the point, either.

The point is that I can tell good from awful and I seem to know when to opt out. I’m not tired of the iced Thai tea, and that I work and can still afford it is a good thing. My life isn’t awful, despite inflation.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Oscar Factor Is Minor

Feb. 10, 2011

My assiduously — and, I might say, pointlessly — maintained records show I went to only 13 movies last year, but by luck four were Oscar contenders for Best Picture, which means my filmgoing looks 31% classy and only 23% guilty pleasure (a run early in the year I can 67% blame on Robert Downey Jr., because I would see him in pretty much anything and he chose to make Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2). On a family vacation, I rented Winter’s Bone on DVD, meaning I’ve seen half the Best Picture nominees, probably a personal best or near it.

It’s unclear whether the academy is diminishing or enabling my accomplishment with its doubling of the Best Picture field a couple years back, since I saw Inception, The Social Network, 127 Hours and Black Swan in the theaters not because I sensed they would be up for Oscars but through a torturous series of mistakes and tests made up of equal parts logistics, pride, interest and favoritism that is more art than science, and then only if you call alchemy a science.

For instance: I saw Black Swan because Natalie Portman. (If you can’t parse that sentence, you’re probably over the age of 40 and not getting enough irony in your diet. I prescribe reading whatever websites you can find on the web that end in “ist” or are Gawker or The Onion’s A.V. Club) But I saw 127 Hours before that because there was a miscommunication resulting in me being at the Kendall Square Cinemas with two friends being told by a third, via text, “Don't watch Black Swan.”

That’s easy enough to accommodate when you have five cinemas in town, and another right over the border, and all are more or less likely to show Oscar-worthy films — some even more likely to show films that’ll wind up nominated for best Foreign Language Film. While watching The Social Network I ruminated that, since I was seeing it in Harvard Square, Mark Zuckerberg might have used the very same seat seven years earlier to watch and have angry, condescending thoughts about a movie. (Just kidding. I know Zuckerberg isn’t really as Jesse Eisenberg as portrayed him in Social Network. Zuckerberg probably wouldn’t even pay attention to whatever was onscreen at the front of the room; he was probably just sitting there thinking how to invade the privacy of everyone around him.)

I’m not going to mess with my finely tuned system of anarchy by introducing Oscar nominations, or even Oscar wins, as a variable, and certainly not as a determinant. Not when the nominations themselves seem so arbitrary. (And not when I don’t even watch the ceremony.) Last year’s nominations were particularly discordant, and it feels kind of unlikely the same viewer digging Avatar would also get off on A Serious Man, or would leave during the end credits of The Blind Side to sneak into The Hurt Locker or An Education.

I mean, I would. I’ve proposed such things. But if it worked, my records would show it.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Celebrating Un-Valentine’s Day
Feb. 4, 2011

Every holiday is the same: A time to focus on the things you should be focusing on throughout the year. Your dad, mom, secretary, significant other, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington. Valentine’s Day, though, is at the forefront of a subset that brings bad feeling to whoever lacks whatever’s being celebrated, like Christmas when you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, or Father’s Day when your mom raised you alone. We share Christopher Columbus, but when it comes to Valentine’s Day, we can’t share partners. Can we? We’d better not.

But America is an aspirational country, where an army of increasingly poor people race to defend the right of America’s plutocrats to bequeath multibillion-dollar estates to their children more or less tax free. We embrace Valentine’s Day the same way: Because by Feb. 14 we might have a date — in fact, I had a Valentine’s Day date at the Legal Sea Foods in Kendall Square once that I suspect took place solely because the girl wanted to have a date that night, even if it meant nothing to her — or, if we’re in a relationship, a perfect night.

Also, we usually get chocolate out of it, even if we have to wait until the holiday is over. Anyone looking for absurdly inexpensive candy might want to haunt their local CVS in the weeks after Valentine’s Day (and again after Easter). Last year the Porter Square branch had a ragged display of sweets at liquidation rates, having likely failed to sell from consumer exhaustion at the ubiquitous, unending candy sales everywhere from grocers to gourmet shops such as Harvard Square’s Cardullo’s. (The two-day chocolate festival in Harvard Square may also be ill-placed at the end of January.) It’s possible there’s also more leftover candy in Cambridge because it’s a city of geeks and wonks smart enough to disdain cheap, Hallmark-generated sentiment and so nerdy and busy they don’t have a partner, anyway.

That crowd can celebrate the “UnValentine’s Day” event at the Lizard Lounge bar, billed as “songs and stories of love lost, heartbreak, breakups and the wreck love can leave you in” told via surf, go-go and “anti-folk” music, poetry and story-telling.

“Don’t have a date this Valentine’s Day? Sickened by the corporatization of this ill-fated emotion? Break two hearts with one poison-tipped arrow and celebrate an UnValentine’s Day this year,” the organizers say in an invitation e-mail. “Bring your broken heart. Bring a broken-hearted friend.”

There are clearly plenty of residents whose hearts aren’t broken; Cambridge is also a city of great restaurants, and they’re being used to the utmost for the days around Valentine’s Day. Two weeks ago, for instance, you could still get a table at Central Square’s Craigie on Main for the weekend, but you found a reservation only by picking through an odd lot of times and spots: a high table at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the dining room, a booth in the bar at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, a regular table on the sidewalk at 7 p.m. Saturday. Dress warm! Just kidding.

Harvard Square has an entire Valentine’s weekend planned, and there are events branded for the holiday at the Regattabar jazz club A.R.T. — a benefit for the theater at which celebrities are to perform a a loved-themed poem, song or scene of their choice. But this is all about putting a Valentine’s Day brand on things that exist anyway, adding a focus to a jazz club, theater, candy or restaurant that are always there, just without so much pink and red. In a way, so is the “UnValentine’s Day” event, since there are always people with broken hearts. They’re just forced to focus more on it because of the holiday. and at the

I don’t think Cantabrigians love or even like Valentine’s Day the way they do Halloween or even Christmas. But as a city, there’s no way we’re going to be caught without a date.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Big Banks Means Big Bullies

Jan. 28, 2011

In the distant past, as a college student in Boston, I barely had the time to be a customer of BayBank before it merged with Bank of Boston and become BankBoston. Only three years later it was bought by Fleet Bank and became FleetBoston. Six years later it was consumed by Bank of America.

I’d abandoned it even before Fleet sailed in, switching to the small, locally run Cambridge Savings Bank and watching with pity as my friends who stayed squirmed under increasingly onerous and irritating rules, mistakes and restrictions. And for those who thought they had it bad under Fleet, well, it wasn’t long before that institution was remembered with something like nostalgia. Bank of America’s reputation is of a company fond of its corporate clients but rather dismissive of the folks whose checking-account figures aren’t in the six, seven or eight figures. And there are many of those: Bank of America is the largest bank in the United States, with some 57 million individual and small-business accounts.

Like all big banks, B of A's fees are most punishing of the people who can least afford it, and it has been known to do things like drop customers or double their rates for no good reason. The bank also owned Countrywide Financial and has settled claims over selling bad mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, all of which puts the bank at the center of the financial crisis still festering in this country.

Noting the bank’s importance to its millions of customers, it and the Merrill Lynch subsidiary were happy to be rescued by the government to the tune of $45 billion in taxpayer funds and $188 million in taxpayer-funded insurance, then pay out bonuses of about $6.9 billion to the executives who caused the problems in the first place. No apology was forthcoming.

It’s for this reason there are websites such as bankofamericasucks.com and, very likely, why the bank is feeling a bit panicked that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, says he is going to release information early this year that he presumes will “give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms.”

In a bit of preemptive damage control, the bank has bought up hundreds or perhaps thousands of URLs that could be used against it, including the awfully specific BrianTMoynihanBlows.com and a dozen variations thereof (Brian Moynihan is the chief executive of Bank of America Corp.). Good luck with that.

Even if it could come up with, and take off the registries, every possible offensive URL, I’m still guessing the bank’s board isn’t up to tackling a little group named 4chan, let alone the press coverage that would accompany Assange’s release of leaked data. But this bank would rather fight than change, and it’s fighting even before Assange has named his target.

Cambridge Savings Bank may not be perfect — it’s doubtful there’s such a bank out there — but there’s no cambridgesavingsbanksucks.com and undoubtedly no revelations forthcoming of reprehensible behavior. It’s why Arianna Huffington and others urge people to move to local banks and have provided a way to find highly rated ones. In banking, small is beautiful. Or at least not dangerous, and at this point that’s good enough for me.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Love Is for People, Not Football

Jan. 21, 2011

I am sports averse and and always dumbfounded at how deeply Bostonians love their players, teams and sports. I can indulge myself, though, because it’s OK to stare; people who are that much in love never notice and wouldn’t mind anyway. They want to share their love with the world. They want to display it. They want to boast of it. (They do not, apparently, know 1st Corinthians 13.)

Occasionally they even get drunk and find people who love others and fight about who is more in love and whose objects of devotion are better — a perverse show of dedication you’re not likely to find in human relationships.

You may hear about some of our gross public displays of affection when local teams win: The fans whoop and holler and, seeking some way to display their fondness and passion, litter, set things on fire and vomit in the streets, seizing a chance to show the world that despite the area’s abundance of institutions of higher learning and reputation as the cradle of governance and innovation, they can also aspire to de-individuation and dangerous hooliganism. The worst of it was after a Red Sox win in 2004 when a 21-year-old Emerson College student was killed partying in Kenmore Square, shot in the eye by a police pepper spray projectile. It’s a pretty bitter joke that she shouldn’t have been there at all; I went to Emerson, and it’s a lousy sports school.

Usually, big games mean just a lot of traffic, hordes of people wearing and carrying merchandise from whatever franchise is playing that day — and there’s always, always, always, always, always someone playing something somewhere. There's also the inescapable glow of a game from a television set or two - or two dozen - installed above a bar, dining room or urinal. The number of restaurants without televisions dwindles in inverse proportion to the number of games played and channels available, so it already feels like Big Brother is not only watching, but watching in the jersey of his favorite player eagerly showing you that first down again, this time in slow motion. And now a beer commercial.

The number and kind of establishments joining in are astounding and appalling. Locke-Ober, for instance, is a hidden, opulent world of private rooms for the rich, a lounge of dark, carved wood and red velvet and a glittering, gleaming cafe that truly transports diners back into an idealized 1850s, when it first started serving French and classic New England cuisine in its elegant brick alley off Boston’s Downtown Crossing. And, oh yeah, the game is on a flat-screen TV stuck over the bar.

Then there’s Cambridge 1, the Harvard Square restaurant of solid, muted, modern design, with its spare, carefully chosen menu of pizzas and salads. Couldn’t be more different from Locke-Ober, except of course for the TV stuck over the bar.

Cambridge 1’s managers are convinced business would suffer if they removed their sports television, or so a server told me, as though the careful, clever menu might as well be chicken fingers and curly fries and the place just as successfully built of plastic and formica and lit like a Burger King.

These establishments are so unsure of their appeal that they’re selling themselves cheap, but the TV they offer is exactly the same as what’s offered at countless other bars and restaurants across the region. Owners could think instead about what sets them apart, since the generic sports fixation is so at odds with the atmosphere of their properties, but instead they essentially give in to peer pressure in a bid to be loved. Or at least used.

As we come up to Super Bowl Sunday, then — one of the half-dozen or so Valentine’s Days sports lovers celebrate here over the course of a year — it’ll take some thought pinning down where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. Alone, probably. Because, you know, I’m not in that kind of relationship.

 

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Pragmatist

Jan. 14, 2011

If it were possible — and it’s probably better that it’s not — I might indulge my unfortunate taste for luxury by buying an Audi A8L. By “unfortunate” I mean “unaffordable.” And by “might” I mean that I like the idea of the car, but I suspect there’s a lot about it I actually wouldn’t enjoy much. The MMI Navigation Plus panel sounds overwhelming, for instance, with its two 3-D displays and handwriting recognition, and I wonder if the wood in the interiors is really to my taste.

I even wonder if the exterior has become too glitzy.

Something I’ve always praised about Audis was their designers’ abilities to tread the line between flashiness and subtlety, which is reflected in the line’s simultaneous ubiquity and anonymity: Audis are common in Eastern Massachusetts, but the automaker sold only 101,629 vehicles in the United States last year, from the smallest TT or A3 to the biggest Q7 and, well, A8L. Ford sold 1.9 million. Even Hyundai sold 540,000, and Hyundai and Audi both set sales records.

Another problem is the car’s insistence on premium gas and gas mileage that might induce guilt in me every time I drive it — in this year’s model, 17 in the city and 27 on the highway. So what I’ve been saying is that with that pending lottery win, I’d have to buy a Prius to balance out the crimes against the environment.

Actually, that’s not what I’ve been saying. What I’ve been saying is that I would have to get a Prius to drive while the Audi was in the shop.

Audis spend a lot of time in the shop, in my experience, although I’ve always bought used cars and have usually been forced into cheaper-than-ideal repairs — which doesn’t mean much in Audis, which seem to have been built in such a clever way that the smallest fix requires a complete dismantling (and day’s worth of labor). “I can change that light bulb for you,” a mechanic might say, “but I’ll have to take out the engine to get to it. And we might as well replace the transmission while we’re in there. It’s gonna go soon, and we should get to it before it destroys the sunroof; they’re connected.”

Tragically, cars’ troubles are connected in another way nearly unique to modern technology. In computers, for instance, a logic chip, battery or hard disk can fail without ruining the part next to it or reliant on it. In a car, when the timing belt goes, so does the engine. If your tire blows out, your alignment goes. And that just leads to other troubles.

At the last, and I think, best garage I used before ditching my car, the Cambridgeport Good New Garage famous for its connection with NPR’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a mechanic simply advised me to stop buying Audis.

Why do I do it? Because I got hooked in 1993, when I could get a used Audi 5000 CS Turbo — synonymous with a pretentious farewell in the 1994 film , Reality Bites — for $4,500, which is still only $6,842 in today’s dollars. Because I slid into its leather seats and looked up at its sunroof and thought, “This is a sweet car for little money.”

Because the value of the car plunged as soon as the original buyer drove it off the lot.

Because the 5000 was reputed to suffer a little problem with unintended acceleration, thanks to a later discredited <I>60 Minutes report.

Thirteen years later, when I needed a car and bought my third Audi, I couldn’t afford the top of the line. Even a lowly used A4 cost me $8,000, which is $8,718 in today’s dollars.

I ride the T now. The exteriors are anything but flashy, and there’s no wood in the interior. And renting a Prius by the hour from Zipcar has become my luxury.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Jan. 7, 2010

As the keeper of my family photos and videos, calendar, address book, music, tax records, correspondence and writing; as my primary DVD player and news source; as the way I keep in touch and how I do my work, my laptop is more or less my life in 5.6 pounds of aluminum, glass and plastic.

I’m aware of what a first-world thing this is to say, but the combination of personal meaning, professional significance and investment makes it literally the most valuable object in my life.

And since I lug the thing around with me pretty much everywhere, and use it almost constantly, I’m reminded of this nearly every day. No iPad or iPhone can do what my laptop does — yet — and I can’t reconcile spending money on other stuff, from the tiniest e-reader to the biggest flat-screen television, when my laptop more or less does it all already.

It’s simultaneously a wonder and the logical culmination of the path I shared with my brother in the early 1990s, when he gave me a 16-pound Apple Portable. (It had a 10-inch screen in a bulky body shaped like a late-model electric typewriter, making it technically portable. The Environmental Protection Agency has also deemed the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe a compact car.) It was the same path my father set me on on 1984, when he brought home one of the first Macintosh computers. Before that we’d had Apples. And before that other computers — cobbled-together things with names lost to a history so shrouded in geekiness I can barely bring myself to look in its direction.

But permit me to share three remembered artifacts of technology that will seem absurd, or like the fake answers on a “Bluff the Listener” segment of NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.

  • The storage medium for programs or files on those ancient, nameless, pre-Apple II computers? It was audio cassette, the same magnetic audiotape cassettes on which one might record some Melanie or Harry Chapin from a vinyl LP, 30 minutes per side, except in this case the ubiquitous portable Panasonic tape recorder was plugged in — somehow — to a kit-built computer. Inevitably, the tape recorder misbehaved and the tapes unspooled. Really.
  • My first watch was a digital Star Wars model, probably a 1977 version by Texas Instruments with a readout of red LEDs surrounded by a metallic oval. The watch came with a sheet of stickers showing several different scenes from the movie that could be applied atop that oval. I remember excitedly applying the first one — poorly — and promptly losing the rest. It is astonishing to me that this can still be bought, used but working, for only $50. But no stickers. Maybe everyone lost them?
  • We had video game systems in the 1970s too, which we connected to the television. Nothing too astonishing there. But our Pong or Tank games on the system I remember my siblings and I using were just white blocks of light on a black background, with the white blocks of light behaving differently depending which game we selected. The colorful graphics of tennis courts or battlefields, and I swear I am not making this up, were printed on sheets of acetate you stuck to your television screen with tape.

Have I blown your mind? Are you, um, ROFLing? Or are you just kissing your sleek 15-inch laptop, with its speakers, DVD burner, backlit keyboard and massive memory and storage, as I might, in appreciation of how far technology has come in three decades?

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Excuses for Winter Laziness Abound

Dec. 31, 2010

Oh, being snowed in. Shivers of delight in my saunalike apartment.

Horrible weather is a wonderful excuse for all sorts of retrograde behavior — making one of those great, cream soup mixes and eating it with hunks of baguette, huddling on the couch wrapped in a comforter and watching all three extended-edition DVDs of The Lord of the Rings while the sky outside darkens again, then simply returning to bed after a day utterly wasted.

It’s a perfect day to clean the apartment, which I won’t. It’s a fine time to catch up on correspondence, and I don’t. In all but truly bad weather, it’s probably possible for me to act like an adult and go for a run — it doesn’t have to be long, right? — and there’s no way I will even consider it.

When it comes time to finding excuses for winter laziness, the area abets me.

The city is tasked with plowing the roads and does so with more dependability than I could muster, and it’s the property owners rather than us renters responsible for clearing a path through the snow on sidewalks. There are at least three fact sheets and how-to pages online for property owners, all reminding that shoveling has to be done within 12 hours after a storm and two going on to say ice has to be cleared, sanded or salted within six hours of forming.

This year also brings a second annual “best shoveled block” contest. Last year’s was in February, with an entry deadline of March 5, as though the organizers were fed up at the end of repeated meteorological affronts handled with decreasing vigor by an exhausted citizenry. (Last winter was actually fairly mild here.) This year the contest kicked off Nov. 26, when most people adhered to a willful optimism, encouraged by an early and persistently pleasant spring and summer, that this winter would pass as only a minor annoyance — requiring a jacket, some gloves and a rental for a ski weekend in Vermont. Done. The early contest announcement hinted that wouldn’t be the case and made what the PR people like to call a “proactive” move to encourage best behavior.

But that message is buried under the snow somewhere. When the plows have come through to make it safe on the roads and the landlords have cleared the sidewalks for pedestrians, the flaw in the system becomes clear: These things run parallel forever, resulting in giant barriers of snow bordering each block, and the city’s injunction to “make openings in snow banks” applies to too few people (corner property owners) and appears on only one of the city’s three snow checklists.

The result is a citywide battlefield of unbroken knee- or waist-high berms of snow through which arbitrarily placed footwide paths eventually form — and by this I mean the width of a human foot, not the length — only to be unmatched by a path to the sidewalk across the street. Then comes the reshuffling of parked cars along the street, which inevitably blocks the paths anyway.

You can walk around your block, but you can’t leave.

You can forge a path, but you might find yourself stranded in the road as a car swerves your direction.

Or you can just stay indoors, toasty, gluttonous and slothful.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Cambridge, Don't Ever Change

Dec. 23, 2010

Announcing New Year’s resolutions is always a bit embarrassing, thrusting failures and flaws into the spotlight as it does, and the whole undertaking moves into dangerously humiliating territory if you make the same resolution two years in a row in front of people who can catch you at it. Vow to lose the same 10 pounds you couldn’t in the past dozen months and you might sense a little skepticism, if not outright scorn.

That can lead to cheating by resolving trivial things, like “do one pushup a day” or “plan to think about considering sweeping the hallway once a week.” The result can be either unimpressive success or guiltless surrender, but either way it’s worth resolving not to do it anymore.

Making resolutions for others has dangers of its own. There’s a risk of pettiness, of course (“Why don’t you resolve not to snack from my box of Wheat Thins?”), and insult (“Why don’t you resolve to lose about 10 pounds?”), but the real risk is that you wind up revealing more about yourself than you do the resolvee.

It also sounds like a script idea that didn’t make it to a table read at Seinfeld because someone realized it had been done on Laverne & Shirley.

But, in the spirit of the season — a cultural perpetual motion machine designed by M.C. Escher that is powered by us because we’re trapped inside it — I will bow to inevitability resolve some things for myself and my community.

First, one for my community: Don’t ever change. I love living in a place that loves learning and creativity and difference and rewards the weird and challenging. I love that our burlesque version of The Nutcracker (the real title's a bit too edgy for MainStreet) packs in audiences week after week, that my coffee shop has Bible readers and professors of porn sharing booths, that the ice cream shop has more networking and deal-making going on than the average Manhattan club. I love that here the homophobes and racists are outnumbered to a ludicrous degree, and even that Christmas decorations are handled with taste and dignity.

Second, one for the nitpickers: I offer a preemptive resolution to knock it off. I get that nothing I can write is 100% true for everyone. In fact, everyone gets it. So don’t waste time finding holes in arguments that are nakedly subjective.

Third, one for myself: Think more about timing things for maximum impact. You don’t want to, oh, write about something before it’s time.

Fourth, one for the elected officials of Cambridge: Think more about what people might write about your performance as November comes closer, and what voters might think as they prepare to color in those little ovals on the ballot.

Fifth, another one for me: You’ve been out of college for almost two decades, and you should plan to think about considering living more like an adult. Should you still be sleeping on a mattress on the ground? Should you give up the shower caddy and actually move your toothbrush and stuff into the bathroom instead of carrying it in and out every morning? I mean, what’s that all about? You live alone. You might also want to think about finally putting something — anything — up on your walls.

Hunh! Interesting. I made that same resolution last year.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

No Travel Means No Hassle

Dec. 20, 2010

Since I’ve no traveling to do in the next few weeks, I’m going to miss out on Boston’s Logan International Airport during the holidays, as well as on Manchester Boston Regional Airport, the Boston airport that’s 54 miles from Boston.

I know that in many areas people have to drive for hours to get to the nearest airport, so I shouldn’t be snarky. Manchester Boston Regional is a good alternative for those willing to drive up to New Hampshire for a flight. But in these parts, being willing to make the drive and being able to are different. To get to Manchester Boston Regional you’d need a taxi, limousine, charter or Greyhound bus, a rental car or shared van. The vans can cost up to $175 per trip, even if you drive up with other passengers.

Logan, though, is fairly easily reached by public transit. The blue line shuttle or silver line bus will get you there for $2 or less, and in less time.

It was always nice taking the T to the airport, even though living on the red line meant switching lines twice to get to the blue, then transferring to the final shuttle bus that circled the terminals. Things got even better with the silver line, since that meant skipping those middle two switches.

But you know what would be great? Taking the T straight to the airport — an underground rail line with stops in each terminal, free from worries of traffic or weather. Plenty of U.S. and international airports do it. Not Boston, though.

The city and its transportation officials have a tendency to prioritizes buses instead of rail, and for years they’ve been doing it in ways that leave commuters and communities feeling burned. They took away Jamaica Plain’s green line trolley service but didn’t put it back, for instance, and still proclaim ignorance as to how anyone could possibly have thought the silver line was to be rail, just because it’s named just like the city’s red, orange, blue and green lines and appears on maps with those lines on every T car. Technically those maps show the city’s “rapid transit,” not subway lines, but the silver line is not really bus rapid transit. While MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera cites the silver line’s stretches of “exclusive” and “dedicated” transit lanes, they account for just a portion of the buses’ trips. They’re vulnerable to bad traffic just like any other city bus.

The silver line also has “branding, transit features such as stations, shelters, larger vehicles, etc. that are more typically found on rail transit services,” she says, but none of these features add to travel speed. And they should be standard on all buses, not artificially restricted to a single line to make it seem so special that it’s, well, almost like taking the T.

So why did the city create a bus line that went to the airport instead of bringing rail there?

The decision was based on cost and difficulty, she says, but that's an odd thought for the home of the Big Dig. Touted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation as “the largest, most complex and technologically challenging highway project in the history of the United States,” the project to move Boston’s traffic underground (where subways go) dragged on for more than two decades and cost $15 billion. It’s the most expensive public works project in U.S. history.

I’m still pleased to have the airport transit options I do. But I’m also pleased I don’t have to use them, or Logan, anytime soon.

— Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

The Trojan Horse of Tax Cuts

Dec. 13, 2010

As the second-richest man in America, and by getting there using old-fashioned common sense in his investment strategy and lifestyle, Warren Buffett has become known as the Oracle of Omaha. Meaning when he talks, people listen. On the Bush tax cuts, though — even as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and 17 more of the nation’s richest 2% stepped forward Thursday to follow Buffett’s example of giving away half their wealth — America’s conservatives have stopped listening.

“Quit speaking for all those 2 percenters,” said Neil Cavuto of Fox News on Nov. 22, leading a networkwide charge against Buffett’s Giving Pledge. “And while you’re at it, quit speaking for even millionaires now. Maybe they’re against paying more now, not because they can’t afford to, but because they simply don’t want to.”

Conservatives in Congress don’t want to hear it either. They won an agreement to extend tax cuts for the nation’s richest, grudgingly doing the same for benefits for the long-term unemployed in return. As The New York Times noted, at least a quarter of the tax savings will go to the wealthiest 1% of the population, when U.S. Census data released last week showed the gap between our richest and poorest is already the widest in history.

Even though congressional conservatives cite out-of-control deficits for their eagerness to hack away at government spending, the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 per year will help add $900 billion to a $1.3 trillion federal deficit. They insist on keeping those top-rate tax cuts because the people getting them are the ones creating jobs. I’ve never seen the facts to back that up.

When George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton as president in January 2000, there was an unemployment rate of 4.2%, a 29-year low. When President Barack Obama replaced Bush in January 2009 long after tax cuts in 2001, 2002 and 2003, the unemployment rate was 7.6%. There was a net gain of 22.7 million jobs during Clinton’s years in office, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and only 1.08 million during Bush’s two terms, despite those three rounds of tax cuts. Bush-era job growth generally lagged behind population growth, with economics writer Dave Manuel http://www.davemanuel.com/2010/12/01/non-farm-payroll-job-growth-vs-popu... " target="_blank">breaking it down as 10 jobs added for every 100 new members of the population versus Clinton’s record of 98 jobs per every 100 new members.

Those tax cuts — and two wars, with the arguably unnecessary one in Iraq costing $751 billion as of September, according to a http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf " target="_blank">Congressional Research Service report — also helped Bush take $5.6 trillion in federal debt at the start of his presidency and turn it into $10 trillion at the end.

It’s kind of astonishing that despite these figures, and three decades after David Stockman revealed President Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics as “always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate” of taxation, conservatives are still pushing, and getting traction, on tax cuts for the wealthy.

Bush started pushing for tax cuts on the campaign trail, during our country’s good times. “If there is a recession, it’s important to cut the taxes to make sure our economy grows. It’s also important to cut the taxes when there’s apparent times of plenty as an insurance policy against an economic slowdown,” Bush said on Jan. 6, 2000, during a New Hampshire debate.

His opponent, John McCain, called Bush’s tax cut plan “fiscally irresponsible.” Illinois Republican Ray LaHood, now Secretary of Transportation but at the time a member of the House of Representatives, http://articles.sfgate.com/2000-01-11/opinion/17634128_1_big-tax-large-t... " target="_blank">was also a skeptic. "The polls showed the American people weren't interested in that big huge bill," he said at the time of the Bush proposal, based on a suddenly quaint reading of the electorate. "They were interested in a balanced budget and paying down the debt. We were just getting pulverized on this 'tax cut for the rich' stuff."

Given that, the lack of facts backing up claims of tax cut-based job growth and supply-side economics in general and conservatives’ claimed interest in cutting the deficit, you’d think there would be general applause when Buffett acknowledges the very rich “have it better than we’ve ever had it … I think people at the high end, people like myself, should be paying a lot more in taxes.”

Nope. Certainly not in Congress.

And the response from Fox News?

“Quit lecturing,” Cavuto said.

—Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

“Plaid Friday” in Cambridge

Dec. 3, 2010

Last year, only my niece got gifts. This year I have the luxury of spending again, and I have – buying for everyone in my immediate family and even, while visiting with everyone during Thanksgiving, springing for a meal. (I know that doesn’t sound like much, but we didn’t eat out much, either.)

With all that gift buying out of the way already, the family skipped Black Friday. The only sign it had come and gone was the mass of coupon supplements that arrived with the newspaper, which took some work to separate but wound up stacking significantly higher than the stuff we actually read over lunch. (Sidenote: Good for the newspaper! Someone wasn't laid off that day.)

But while I was lazing around in California, that biggest shopping day of the year still happened in Cambridge. This year, American Express and some others promoted a “Small-Business Saturday” for the first time, but the coalition of local businesses called Cambridge Local First instead went with “Plaid Friday” -- it keeps the focus on Friday but tries to take it off the malls. Local business leaders heard about the national movement only a couple of weeks ago.

“Response was very good despite a late start,” said Frank Kramer, for years the proprietor of the Harvard Book Store, and now the head of Cambridge Local First. “A few stores were really able to pick it up and promote it, like Cambridge Naturals, and did see a response.”

He didn’t have figures, but Black Friday had never changed things dramatically for the owners and managers of most nonchain stores in Cambridge. As always, the closer to Christmas, the better their sales figures.

None of my holiday purchases came from the mall. (Apple Store be damned!) As usual my time was split between Harvard and Porter squares, in the bookshops, the Newbury Comics music and DVD sections, at unique places such as Joie de Vivre and, reluctantly, online.

I’m an outlier. The mall had its usual throngs, although I know some CambridgeSide Galleria stores always benefit more than others. The Cambridge Chronicle confirmed that phenomenon this year, as well as spotting a new one: the influx of cash by travelers from other countries, where the currency is stronger. In Cambridge, it was the Irish making up for the area's unemployed.

Unfortunately, the increase in spending touted from a National Retail Federation survey doesn’t look quite as good when accounting for inflation. It didn’t even look that great to start. It may be true the average shopper spent $365.34, better than the $343.31 a year ago, but plug that amount into a Fed consumer price index calculator and you’ll find that the $343.31 of a year ago is the $351.63 of today. So the average shopper didn’t spend $22.03 more than a year ago, but $8.32 more. The Federation also says more Black Friday shoppers this year were buying for themselves – suggesting the bargains meant staples for the buyer, not luxury for their loved ones.

—Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

'Tis the Season (Sort of)

Nov. 29, 2010

A few years back, I noticed something peculiar about Cambridge — or at least Porter Square and the rest of North Cambridge: There are no garish, over-the-top Christmas displays, no one-upping the neighbors with lights and inflatable objects, or endless recorded Christmas carols. Where there are signs of Christmas observances, it’s most commonly the classic look of a candle in a window that can be seen from the street.

The homes are radiant in their holiday calm, with most displaying no decorations at all, and many others choosing just one thing to mark the occasion: Here a wreath, there lights dangling like icicles from the top of a porch. And in the most garish display, green and red Christmas tree balls hover between porch top and railing with what appears to be fishing line. Still, it’s all pretty subtle.

Just to get all intellectual about it, I remember wondering whether this modesty resulted from what Ivan Pavlov seemed to call “the law of transition” or “reciprocal induction.” Pavlov famously taught dogs to salivate just by hearing a bell, but only because the dogs had grown conditioned to being given food immediately after hearing the sound. But Pavlov found that sometimes stimuli, such as the bell, produced the opposite effect after a period of reliable results — that the result “passes into a state of inhibition.”

In this case, the growing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated — the sales at big-box stores starting as early as summer, larger number of all-Christmas music stations on the radio, increasingly aggressive war by confused Christians on the use of the phrase “happy holidays” — seems to have created at least one pocket of humanity that withdraws from the hype to move instead toward a more restrained and private observance.

Where has the energy gone? Into Halloween, possibly. There are several houses in the area where residents go all out, draping giant webs in the trees (occupied by giant spiders), ramming witches into trees and even, in a move that might go a little too far, putting rubber rats atop trash cans. In the Dudley Street area, neighbors have held Halloween parties drawing up to 800 people a night. The annual parties have been held for about a decade, and now even have their theme song.

Writer Fran Cronin surveyed the parties in October, quoting resident Susan Dillard in a line that might easily be mistaken for a Christmas sentiment: “If it weren’t for Halloween, I would not know my neighbors as well as I do,” Dillard says. “Our Halloween spirit lasts all year.”

—Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Cambridge Takes Black Friday in Stride

Nov. 22, 2010

I don’t do Black Friday. Part of this is because my family and I work on a different schedule that combines Thanksgiving, Giftmas and at least two birthdays, so my buying for the family should be done before Black Friday dawns. And, since my friends and I long ago agreed we would buy only birthday gifts for each other and not contribute to the finance or time pressures of the holidays, that’s pretty much that. I get to relax while others build and rally their mall teams and sleep during their assault.

That also makes Cyber Monday pointless, and even Small Business Saturday. It’s true I could use the days’ bargains for myself, but I usually only buy things as needed. And it’s true I could buy for next year’s holidays, but, well, that doesn’t really work for me. The presents I buy are usually personal and current. I’m not buying a fruitcake for Uncle Leon every year, and I don’t want to wait a year to give my niece the fifth Wimpy Kid book.

It’s probably not a rare attitude in Cambridge, where the Cambridge Local First alliance of locally owned businesses has more than 250 members, the presence of Abercrombie & Fitch in Harvard Square was considered a stain (it eventually went out of business) and Inman Square thrives in part by ensuring the national chain stores don’t get a foothold. (A block or two away you can gas up at Hess, buy a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and indulge in guilty pleasures at a Taco Bell/KFC, but the toy store is Stellabella – which offers a 20% off coupon for Black Friday this year -- not Toys R Us; there’s a 1369 Coffeehouse, not a Starbucks; and the sandwiches come from All Star Sandwich Bar, not Panera Bread.)

Cambridge does have a mall, though – CambridgeSide – and I know from a past expedition it gets downright claustrophobic on Black Friday, with retailers such as Sears and KB Toys choking aisles with gift card giveaways and doorbuster sales just like every other indoor shopping mecca in the country.

The independent stores don’t try to compete. Black Friday is acknowledged by their owners and managers to be a mall phenomenon. So smaller stores might offer the same 15% to 25% bargains you could find on any other random Friday throughout the year, while the squares tend to be no more empty or busy because chains are desperate to lure shoppers. For any loss of customers to the malls, there’s probably a gain from others who want to look for presents while staying far away from the worst of the season’s craziness.

I remember what Crate & Barrel manager Mike Zetlan told me years ago, before the store left Harvard Square -- that he was “pleasantly surprised” by his Black Friday turnout, but that it fell far short of a mall frenzy. “Harvard Square is definitely more laid back. At every other store, you’re pushing people back, [but] this is nice and relaxed, the way Cambridge is supposed to be,” he told me.

—Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

Classes Settle for Complacency in Cambridge

Nov. 15, 2010

Cambridge is a wealthy community with a liberal bias, and it spends a fair amount of money on services for the poor – housing and heat, and so on – while the middle class complains about being squeezed out. (The city took some jabs in 2006 when it declared itself a sanctuary community for undocumented immigrants fearing deportation. “I wasn’t sure where these folks were going to live, given that none of my friends with jobs can afford to live in Cambridge anymore,” went a typical reaction, this one from Harvard blogger Philip Greenspun.) So the Great Recession hasn’t had any really obvious effect here. The rich are still rich and the poor are still poor, and the middle class is still complaining.

The very nature of the city obscures recessionary behavior: It’s more or less grown up around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and Lesley universities, and for each high-profile professor earning possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, there are dozens or hundreds of students living cheaply to afford to learn from them. Add to this the people who make the environmental or political choice to live sustainably and you have effectively obliterated the most obvious signifiers of the newly poor.

Craigslist is huge here, and you can fill an apartment with furniture, cookware and other needs just from what departing residents put out at the curb at the end of semesters or leases. Even when employed, I find some of that stuff tempting. (Although the threat of bedbugs is a good temptation killer.)

You can also go to the CambridgeSide Galleria for clothes, but plenty of people go to Goodwill, whether there’s a recession or not. There’s plenty of cheap entertainment, starting with MIT’s free calendar of events and the fact Cambridge has roughly one library branch per each of its 6.4 square miles of land.

In Harvard Square, you can spend $30 on a lobster at Legal Sea Foods, or $5 on a turnip sandwich – no kidding – at Clover. My favorite coffee shop, Diesel, which is technically over the line in Somerville’s Davis Square, sells a Thai iced tea for $3.01, but also regularly puts out enormous bags of day-old bread or bagels for a penny less. Similarly, whatever bread isn’t used to make gourmet sandwiches is put outside daily on a bench by workers at The Oxford Spa.

I also bypass the Shaw’s and Star supermarkets within five minutes’ walk of my apartment in favor of a 20-minute trudge to the Market Basket in Somerville, and find the aisles crammed. Shopping here is a habit I picked up when I was unemployed, but I stick to it because the higher prices at the bigger chain stores simply anger me. I also have a significant amount of job paranoia that keeps me from switching back (or buying new furniture, for that matter). Others may have made the same choices.

In short, there are two Cambridges, and those affected by the recession simply ignore the Cambridge they can’t afford.

—Marc Levy has been working as a journalist in New England for 15 years, and as a Cambridge journalist whenever possible – he even returned to Cambridge on weekends during editing stints in Connecticut. His writing on Cambridge, a 101,355-population city that hosts a thriving cultural scene and three major universities, can be found at cambridgeday.com.

 

 

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