Boston By Foot Tour of the Month: Historic Roxbury


For the penultimate Boston By Foot Tour of the Month of the 2007 season, and my last as co-chair, we visited Historic Roxbury. This is my favorite tour of all, because it’s full of surprises.

Photos from Boston By Foot Tour of the Month – Historic Roxbury

Roxbury was once an expansive city in it’s own right built literally as a borough on the rocks. Those rocks specifically are Roxbury Puddingstone, flung by angry Dorchester Giant children who were fussy eaters. The neighborhood has gone from pastoral retreat for the wealthy to urban ghetto for the poor. Today it is in revival due to local activists (who among other things stopped I-95 from plowing through the neighborhood) and gentrification. Despite the blight of previous decades, it still has it center Eliot Square which resembles the typical New England town green complete with the white clapboard First Church in Roxbury.

Relics of colonial times such as The Parting Stone and the Dillaway-Thomas House mix with modern structures such as the Islamic Society of Boston mosque and the Madison Park High School. Roxbury has been home to lithographer and social reformer Louis Prang, patriotic rider William Dawes, writer and theologian Edward Everett Hale and abolitionist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison. A walk up to Fort Hill takes you past diverse architecture and quiet natural nooks to one of the best panoramic views of Boston. That is if you can tear your eyes away from the Cochituate Standpipe and the park landscaped by Olmsted.

No wonder some residents want to keep this place a secret. Oops, I think I’ve let it out.

Agony of Defeat


Not a good week for spectator sports. Yesterday morning, the United States national team was crushed by Brazil 0-4 in the semifinal of the Women’s World Cup. Quite an upset in some senses, but Marta is an amazing player and Brazil really deserved their win. One of the things I’ve like about women’s soccer is that the top teams have come from countries with little or no success in men’s soccer such as the USA, China, and Norway. Now the WWC final has a couple of teams very familiar to the men’s World Cup finals, Germany and Brazil. Should be a good game, and I suppose the USA will be able to take third place as a consolation prize.

Meanwhile, at Shea Stadium…

hindenberg1.jpg

Image from the MetsGrrl blog, although I learned about it from my friend Sharon.

The Mets have continued losing in new and depressing ways that defy explanation. Now the Mets are in a tie for first place with the Phillies. The good news is that the magic number is still 4. The bad news is that the Phillies magic number to eliminate the Mets is also four. There are also wild card implications and the possibility of a 5 way tie (and the Imp of the Perverse makes me want to see that). The optimist in me cannot believe that the team has become this bad, and the law of probability suggests that the Mets just cannot keep losing like this. I mean they can turn things around, win the last three games and then storm into the playoffs? The 2000 Yankees, the 2005 White Sox, the 2006 Cardinals (and 2006 Tigers) all had lousy Septembers and did quite well in October. A boy can dream can’t he?

In the meantime, we Mets fans can take small solace in the fact that Moises Alou has the longest hitting streak of the season.

I heard this song today that will carry me through the weekend, until the Mets are in the playoffs or the season is over.

When the skies are brighter canary yellow
I forget ev’ry cloud I’ve ever seen,
So they called me a cockeyed optimist
Immature and incurably green.

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.

I hear the human race
Is fallin’ on its face
And hasn’t very far to go,
But ev’ry whippoorwill
Is sellin’ me a bill,
And tellin’ me it just ain’t so.

I could say life is just a bowl of Jello
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart…

Beer is good for memory…and other science news


As someone who is far too forgetful and loves to drink beer, the news from Scientific American that beer consumption is good for recall is a wonderful two-fer. Of course the whole story is not as good as it sounds, but it’s worth reading:

I don’t have much to add, but here are some other science stories of note from the past few weeks:

Wenceslaus


wenceslas.jpg

Like a lot of saints, I know Wenceslaus from just scraps of information in popular culture. In this case, a Christmas carol that was one of my favorites growing up. It tells a good story of a man of wealth and privilege providing a feast for a poor peasant. It’s a good story and a lesson worth sharing the complete lyrics:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.

 

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

 

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

 

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

 

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

I also know that Wenceslaus is the patron saint of Prague, a place I’d much like to visit. But who was the real Wenceslaus? Apparently, the carol is not factually accurate and the song writer Neale used the name as much for meter as for tribue the real man. But Wenceslaus was good, a Prince of Bohemia who ruled with principles at the time of political unrest. For his troubles he was murdered on the way to church by a rival younger brother.

More information:

Book Review: King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson (Book 2 of the Baroque Cycle)


King of the Vagabonds is the second book of the Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and the second book in the first volume Quicksilver (2003) (see previous review).  This book is very different from it predecessor.  In fact it has an entirely different cast of characters.  Gottfried Leibniz made a cameo in book 1 appears in this book as The Doctor, and of course the mysterious Enoch Root makes appearances in the way that he ties together all of these stories.

The king of the vagabonds is Jack Shaftoe, an adventurer slowly slipping into madness due to syphilis and known as “Half-Cocked Jack” due to a failed attempt to heal him of the disease that leaves him with a mutilated member. While illiterate and uneducated, he is very intelligent although he lacks impulse control and is drawn to do mad things by the imp of the perverse.

One of these acts is chasing after an ostrich at the Turkish siege of Vienna.  This leads him to the underground chamber of the Grand Turk’s harem.  Here he meets and rescues the enslaved Eliza.  They set off across Europe to sell the goods Jack looted.  It’s soon apparent however that Eliza is the brains behind the operation and rather than quickly selling and running she establishes complex investment schemes that could make them fabulously wealthy.  If Jack doesn’t screw everything up that is.

This book’s strength is the witty repartee between Jack and Eliza, and thus suffers when the two characters are split up near the end, although not too much.  The book also ends without much of climax which makes one realize that it is more a part of a larger work than something that can stand on its own.  It will be interesting to see how the story lines come together.  It’s like the stories of these individuals represent the birth of the modern world. If Daniel Waterhouse is a personification of the birth of modern science, then Eliza is the epitome of modern business and commerce.

Come Back to Jamaica Plain


Our new urban home! *

Thanks to the friendly, efficient and strong crew from Isaac’s Relocation, Susan and I are now officially citizens of Jamaica Plain in the city of Boston, MA!

Apart from owning property instead of paying rent, our new home has considerable advantages.

First is location, location, location! Within a short walk are three major green spaces – the Arnold Arboretum, Forest Hills Cemetery, and Franklin Park. And if that’s not enough there’s a playground/ballfield around the corner. Overall, JP is far greener than Somerville which is rather devoid of trees.

Second, there is a T stop just five minutes walk away. No more will I wait on street corners for capricious buses to come early so I just miss them, come late so I wait and wait and wait, but rarely come on time. I’ve already timed it and the all subway trip to Harvard Square takes about the same time as the two bus + subway trip from Somerville although it covers a much longer distance. And I’ll never have to look at a bus schedule again. On the down side, I still haven’t figured out a safe, easy route to work by bicycle.

Finally, I feel like we’re more in the heart of things. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and services within walking distance and there always seems to be something going on in JP. We’ve already met and talked with our neighbors who seem very friendly. A lot of them have children too, which is a good thing since this is the first home our child is going to know.

I added a whole new section to the blogroll of websites, resources, and blogs related to Jamaica Plain. If you’re the author of any of these sites and you drop by and read this, I say, “Hello neighbor!”

Anytime you move there are some mysteries and JP has presented a few posers:

  • .East of Forest Hills Station, Washington Street mysteriously ends and becomes Hyde Park Avenue. On a parallel road, South Street turns suddenly to the right, but if you go straight you’re on Washington Street. It’s as if a ghost road of Washington Street mystically passes through Forest Hills T-stop with no rhyme nor reason.
  • There are signs for the West Roxbury Courthouse, parking for the courthouse, lawyers and winking judges in Java Jo’s, but I can’t seem to figure out where the actual courthouse is. Perhaps it’s that cupola that hovers over the trees in the distance?
  • Where do JP’ers shop for food? It seems that if you need to buy groceries, you have to shop in <gasp> Brookline!

Well that’s it for now. I feel like I should change the name of this blog to Panorama of the Plain in tribute to my new residence, although as in Somerville we live on a hillside.

* If you don’t get the reference in the title and first line of this post, watch this classic commercial from the 1980’s sung to the tune of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over,” or is it “Stewball?”

So Long Somerville


 

Today is my last day as a citizen of the city of Somerville where “Municipal freedom gives national strength.” While in many ways I’m moving on to a brighter future, leaving Somerville is bittersweet. I’ve lived here just four days short of nine years, the longest period of time I have ever lived at one address. By contrast, from 1984-1998, I lived at 8 different addresses in three localities in two states, not counting moving in and out of college dorm rooms four times. My sister and I grew so adept at maneuvering cumbersome furniture up narrow staircases that we joked about starting our own moving company.

So my time in Somerville has been one of great stability. It has also been a time of change. I went from a disillusioned museum educator, working as a hapless temp to working in a library and earning a MLIS. Susan and I went from friends to housemates to dating to engagement to being happily married and preparing to have our first child.

Somerville was a great place to be in your late 20’s/early 30’s. Proximity to Davis Square, Union Square, Inman Square and Harvard Square was key for enjoying pubs, music, movies, restaurants and hipster lifestyle of the “Paris of the 90’s.” Our neighborhood is wonderfully diverse including an entire house of an extended Tibetan family next door. Winter Hill may be the only place in New England where you could hear a pin drop after the Patriots and Red Sox won championships, but exploded with festivity when Brazil won the World Cup.

There will be a lot of things I’ll miss about Somerville: the view from the top of Winter Hill at Paul Revere Park, SoundBites and Yaser, walking/biking up and down the seven hills, the Somerville Public Library, Somerville Theater, the path around the Mystic River, sharing my name with the nearest T stop. Of course, a lot of things I liked about Somerville are long gone, so maybe it is a good time to move on.

In preparation for moving, I took a series of photographs of some of the landmarks around Somerville that I pass each day that I will miss most.

 

Farewell fair city!

Book Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


Jesuits … In … Spaaaaaaaaaaace!!! That’s the basic plot of the science fiction novel The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell.

The novel proposes a future in which the exploration of new worlds, much like the age of discovery in the 1500’s & 1600’s, is led by a vanguard of missionaries. While this is a work of science fiction set in the future, it reads like a historical novel, perhaps because its story reads of historical experience such as that portrayed in The Mission.

The prologue of the novel sets the tone perfectly:

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God

They meant no harm. – p. 3

The chapters alternate between those set after the mission and those during the preparation for and the time spent on Rakhat. In one set of chapters the experience of the only survivor of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, his hands maimed, his psyche destroyed, and his faith lost must face intense scrutiny from the media and his fellow Jesuits. These alternate with Sandoz and his friends and colleagues discovering signals from a distant planet of singers, and his efforts to form a team to travel to Rakhat to meet and live among these people. The joy of collegiality of the earlier chapters contrasts starkly with the hollow shell of a man that Sandoz is presented as upon his return to Earth. Yet as the book proceeds, the stories come together. As things go to hell in a handbasket on Rakhat, Sandoz is able to come to terms with the horrors he faced.

This novel works well due to its competently executed and complex characters. There’s Sandoz, from a background of poverty in Puerto Rico who grows up to become a priest and a talented linguist. Sofia, a determined, reserved woman of Sephardic heritage who serves as computer specialist and general contractor. Jimmy Quinn, the large, affable but shy astronomer who discovered the singers. Finally, Anne and George Edwards, a doctor and an engineer who though atheists are devoted friends of Emilio’s and share with him sardonic wit. Even the beings of Rakhat are given unique perspective and backgrounds, and presented realistically as sentient beings who happen to be predators and prey.

Favorite Passages

 

“The poor you will always have wit you,” Jesus said. A warning, Emilio wondered, or an indictment. – p. 53

Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before… – p. 100

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.” – p. 203

Book Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (book 1 of the Baroque Cycle)


I’ve begun reading The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.  In quote I found on Wikipedia, Stephenson describes the Baroque Cycle thusly:

“Why Baroque? Because it is set in the Baroque, and it is baroque. Why Cycle? Because I am trying to avoid the T-word (“trilogy”). In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into three volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes. So to slap the word “trilogy” on it would be to saddle it with a designation that is essentially bogus. Having said that, I know everyone’s going to call it a trilogy anyway. “

I figure with the author’s intentions so clear that it will be okay for me to read and review each book individually rather than laboring through the entire volume at once.  Not that there’s much labor involved in Quicksilver (2003) which is a joy to read.  Ostensibly a science fiction novel, the first book of the first volume (which share the same name) is more of literary journey through the scientific and political thought of early modern Europe.  The protagonist of novel is the somewhat Forrest Gump-like character Daniel Waterhouse who seems to interact with all the great thinkers of the time (and at one point he even is responsible for naming the city of New York).  The son of the charismatic Dissenter Drake Waterhouse, Daniel grows conflicted as he’s drawn to natural philosophy especially due to his friendship with Isaac Newton at Cambridge University.

The book begins with the arrival of the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root (the one clear sci-fi/fantasy element) in Boston in 1713.  Enoch is there to convince Daniel to return to England to help resolve a controversy.  The chapters then alternate between Daniel’s voyage and flashbacks to his coming of age.  The trip home is rough as Daniel’s ship encounters Edward Teach and numerous pirate ships, and the captain of Daniel’s ship tries increasingly comical ways of evading them (such as disguising Daniel as the captain).

Daniel’s life growing up is tougher still.  From his studies at Cambridge where he meets the strange genius Isaac Newton and becomes his assistant.  Daniel survives the plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666 (which kills the obstinate Drake).  He joins the Royal Society and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Henry Oldenburg and Samuel Pepys and participates in many scientific experiments. As Daniel is increasingly drawn into the intrigue of English society constantly at war and ready to turn against itself.  He discovers that his heritage from a Dissenting family and his experience in natural philosophy put him in a unique position and as the book ends he is beginning to play that part.

That’s a short summary that does injustice to a lengthy book in a longer volume.  Quicksilver isn’t about the plot though as it deviates into the joy of discovery, political intrigue (gossip?), satire, and stories of historical events from a new perspective.  It’s a great book, and I look forward to reading the other 7.

Friday Sillies: Simulacraceae


Simulacraceae

I heard about this project on the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk“.  It is no less than exhaustive, six-year project in the taxonomy of artificial plants.  Be warned, the Ethnobotany Journal article (pdf) contains requires knowledge of Pig Latin.  The publication date is interesting as well.