Glazed Tile Madeleine

usa-001Marcel Proust took one of the most famous bites in the world, gnashing into a delectable madeleine, and thus triggered Remembrances of Things Past. Last night I experienced a similar deja vu, though, being an architect rather than a foodie, my memories were tripped by a glazed tile floor.

I was at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel to hear Nicolas Kristof speak about how to save the world. I knew such an undertaking would require an empty bladder, so I descended into the men’s room before hand. I pushed open the door and confronted a tile floor; white with small blue squares, in a distinctive pattern I had seen before. Actually, a pattern I had drawn before, and supervised its installation in a house renovation in 1990; the very first commission of my solo firm.

IMG_0957The project included much more than an eccentric tile floor. There was a new kitchen, family room addition, study addition, wine cellar and extensive landscaping. The building and landscaping were so well integrated the house was written up in The Boston Globe. When finished, the original 1942 cottage had almost doubled in size and the entertainment-minded couple who lived there could sit 24 for dinner.

But turning a gracious per-war house into a 90’s showcase couldn’t stave off the wrecking ball that swings through Boston’s upscale suburbs like a pendulum of economic privilege. The house was demolished in the early 2000’s to make way for a 7,700 square foot, five bedroom, seven bath manse that presses against its .57 acre lot with the same discomfort as a rich cookie that bloats one’s stomach after a sumptuous meal.

Everything I created is gone. All that remains are the fragments of memory triggered by other spaces, other rooms.

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Mindcrowd

vitruvian_man-001Once you get rolling with Internet tests, there seems to be no end of them. After joining Brain Health Registry, which takes about an hour, I was invited to join Mindcrowd, which takes only ten minutes.

Mindcrowd is in the process of developing a database of a million or more people who take two simple cognitive tests. Then, they will ask the same people to take the tests over time to map their cognitive changes.

First test, a two-minute piece of cake. A red ball pops on the screen, and you hit the return key. It is a test of eye/hand coordination.

imgres-3Second test, really tough. They display twelve word pairs in a sequence on your screen. Then, randomly display one of the first words and prompt you to type in the second word of the pair. Some, like garden & grass have a connection that makes sense. Others like under & life evoked an image I could recall, or at least stirred my criminal mind. Then there were word pairs, like public & hard, that seemed randomly connected  and defied any link in my head. The test repeated three times. I managed to recall four pairs on my first pass, then six and then eight. At least I got better.

After three iterations Mindcrowd revealed my total score of 61% and offered me comparative results. I landed right at the median of all men. I scored higher than others my age, lower than other single people, but higher than married people. (Why is there an 8% difference between the singles and marrieds? Do married people prefer to forget pairs?). I was in line with others holding post graduate degrees, but the most interesting aspect of the statistics is that there is virtually no difference between how people score on these tests and how much education they have obtained. In fact, the highest scores among educational levels are those with only some high school, who average 66%. Perhaps the less formal education you have, the more you have to depend on your memory to get through the day.

Join the database at www.mindcrowd.org.

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Uber Bargains

usa-001This essay was published in WBUR Cognoscenti as Driving a Hard Bargain: Calculating the Toll of Uber’s Reduced Fares on 9/23/2014.

A cab ride from my house in Cambridge, Mass., to Logan Airport, a distance of 10 miles, costs $60.00, including tip. It takes 20 minutes without traffic, 40 minutes during rush hour and up to an hour when there’s an accident or construction. For a mere $3.70, the bus and subway get me to the airport in the same time it takes a cab at rush hour. When I have an early morning departure or a late night return, however, the MBTA, which is closed at these times in provincial Boston, can’t get me there. That’s when I have no choice but to take a cab and open my wallet – 60 dollars wide.

Now there’s Uber, the Internet ride service available 24 hours a day. Although it has a variable pricing scheme that relates price to demand, the times I need it for airport runs are among its least expensive periods. The first time I used Uber was for a 1:00 a.m. return trip. A friendly fellow in a clean car picked me up at Logan and deposited me home within half an hour for $28. Less than half the price of a cab seemed like a good deal.

A few weeks later, my housemate was flying out early. Uber had been advertising price cuts, and he got a ride to Logan for $14.00. This seemed like a very good deal; so good that when I did the math, it seemed unsustainable, perhaps exploitative.

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Take $14.00. Deduct the $1.25 Mass Pike toll and Uber’s $2.80 (20 percent) fee. The driver received $9.95 for his effort. A fair assumption might be that an Uber driver has a passenger 50 percent (Slate) of the time. At 4:30 a.m., the trip takes only 20 minutes, so let’s assume this trip is equivalent to two-thirds of an hour’s effort. If so, the driver is making $14.93 an hour, just shy of the magic $15.00 minimum living wage many people clamor for these days.

But wait a minute: An Uber driver is not an employee. He is an independent contractor. He has to use and maintain his own car at an estimated rate of $5.60 in gas, maintenance and operating costs for a ten-mile trip. (IRS) He also has to pay for all of his own benefits. On this early morning trip, the driver is netting less than $10.00 per hour.

Every day, we encounter people who make this kind of paltry money — at fast food counters and big box stores, for example. We may wish these people made a living wage in a generalized way, but since our interactions with them are fleeting, we don’t feel individually responsible for their paltry earnings. Taking a private car to the airport before dawn is a personal experience. If the driver is not making a living wage, I feel a more direct responsibility

Uber reports that drivers can make $60,000, even $90,000, a year, but that math is hard to balance (Washington Post). Uber advertises that tipping is not required for their standard cars (Uber). When I offered a tip to one Uber driver, he declined. I had no way to provide a hard currency ‘thank you’ to a particularly good driver.

Uber’s price cuts hurt drivers more than they hurt the company’s bottom line. When lower prices increase demand and market share, Uber’s 20 percent share of reduced fares is offset by the increased number of fares, while each individual driver can only make a finite number of trips per shift.

Uber’s low fares are yet another example of disruptive technology driving market efficiency. By creating direct connections between customers and providers, rideshare services threaten to make taxi companies, with their costly medallions and jurisdictional restrictions designed to protect turf more than provide value, as quaint as bookstores and travel agencies. That may not be good news for taxi drivers, but the concept seems fair.

Unfortunately, we remain a few steps away from a perfect marketplace. Uber is still the middleman, albeit one with speedy apps rather than a dispatch office. Uber tries to increase demand for rideshare services and swell its market share with the same fervor that old-fashioned cab companies protect their designated territory. Uber’s cost for incremental riders is negligible, so cutting fares to the bone to grow demand makes sense.

At some point, there will be a limit to fare cutting. Either Uber will not be able to attract drivers, or the drivers will not maintain their cars, or the service will deteriorate, as cut-rate services tend to do. But when equilibrium is achieved, will an Uber driver’s ability to make a decent living factor into the equation, or will we wind up with more people without traditional employment supports – social security contributions, health benefits, sick time, vacation time – who must rely on our shrinking social safety net to get by?

I’ve had great experience using Uber, and I want the service to succeed. But I also want people to earn a living wage. I hope that Uber and its competitors structure fares to achieve that objective.

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I am an Interior Designer!

vitruvian_man-001Twenty years ago, a so-called friend came into my house and announced, “It is hard to believe an architect lives here. It is impossible to believe a gay architect lives here.” His comments stung, but only a little. I knew that my shabby Victorian with its plywood paneled walls and fluorescent fixtures would be featured in Architectural Disgust before they’d ever grace the pages of Architectural Digest.

Over time I made improvements. The paneling vanished, so too the wood stove and the wagon wheel chandelier. The old place has nice rooms now and a soothing, unified palette. The architect in me brought out its good bones. But as an integrated piece of design, it’s nothing special. I am too fond of found objects, from my dining room table to the rock I dislodged from our RV in the Grand Canyon, to create any sort of unified interior.

That’s all going to change.

This weIMG_0924ek, my long time housemate Paul is selling his house in Vermont and moving his belongings here. For six year’s he’s kept two Spartan rooms, but come Thursday his fine antiques, cut glass, claw-toothed tables, heirloom china, and wingback chairs will spill into the rest of the house. While he packs boxes up north, I have been strolling through my airy spaces imagining how different, and how elegant, our house will be. Many of my curbside finds will go back to where they came from to make room for his finer stuff. I can only hope their next keeper gets as much sturdy, silent service from them as I have.

My reverie has revealed something I never knew before; that there is a strong theme to my home’s interior. That I am in fact, an interior designer, with a style so straightforward it can be described in one word – toys.

IMG_0931Anyone who visits our house knows the obvious toys. My living room has only two furnishings – a pool table and a piano, sentinels to the full range of high-brow/low-brow adult play. But so many more toys have accumulated over the years: the shelves of games that decorate the den; the chinning bar in the back hall that fits between two jig-sawed moldings; the lead soldiers on the living room window sash, ever alert to the non-existent threats of passing Cantabridgians; the in-line skater bendee entwining the kitchen chandelier; and, of course, the wind-up nunzillas that I crank up when I’m stressed.IMG_0934

Over the years, the big, garish, plastic toys have fallen into the basement; Little Tykes has no claim on the living spaces any more. My children’s best art has moved off the refrigerator and into frames, while their lesser oeuvre has settled into flat files IMG_0928(Architects have things like flat files in their houses). The toys in my house have IMG_0929become more refined, but still the place is defined by toys.

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I am confident all of Paul’s beautiful objects will fit in our home, although – despite my being a lousy pool player – the pool table is definitely staying put. I’m hoping the other toys will be able to stay as well. With so many more actual treasures, my soldier guards will have to be more vigilant than ever.

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Long Island Wonder

usa-001Long Island is well known for its questionably proportioned architecture, derived from a thirst for consumerism and New York moxie.

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But on my first trip to Suffolk County I discovered the beauties of the North Shore in the charming village of Seatucket, which has some distinguished architecture.

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A post office that is both dignified and domestic.

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And Frank Melville Memorial Park – a tranquil private park in the village center.

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The park has beautiful expanses of paths, trees, and ponds

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A refreshing bamboo forest

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And sunning turtles

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The north shore’s beauty cannot be eradicated by the tacky houses, and it is enhanced by Frank Melville’s legacy.

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Brain Health Registry

vitruvian_man-001Please consider joining the Brain Health Registry. If you are interested in participating in Alzheimer’s research or just like to take online tests (as I do), it is a fun activity that helps create a data base to support ongoing research.

It takes about an hour to get set up for the Registry. Once you have filled in the usual passwords and personal history, there is a terrific Cognitive Performance Test that establishes your baseline cognition. It’s basically a bunch of card tricks.

There is deck of cards on your computer screen. When a card flips over, press the ‘K’ key to indicate the card has flipped. Easy. Then, press the ‘K’ key if the card is black and the ‘D’ key if it is red. Still easy. Next, the screen shows a card and you press ‘K’ if you have seen it before, and ‘D’ if you have not seen it before. Not so easy. Actually, very hard. After bruising my ego, and getting eight incorrect, the fourth segment is easier. Just hit ‘K’ if the card displayed is the same as the one just shown, or ‘D’ if it is different. No so difficult.

imagesThe point of the test is to establish a baseline performance. I will be prompted to take the test in six-month intervals to see how consistent I do over time. Think about doing it as well.

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Auxiliary Verbs

usa-001A husky Cambodian pulls his moto across traffic along Battambang Cambodia’s riverside promenade. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” It’s a ridiculous question to ask a tall American and his blond daughter. The man continues before we bother to answer. “I am a teacher and have a grammar question for you.” We step back, seeking escape, but the guy talks fast. “Can you tell me how many auxiliary verbs are contained in the English language?”

His question halts my retreat. I try to remember what auxiliary verbs are, but I cannot. I look to Abby; she shrugs. “Does he mean irregular verbs?”

The moto guy props his foot on the curb and peers up from under his thick hair. “No, auxiliary verbs, as in ‘Do you want to go to the store?”

Abby and I consider options on our fingers. “Could, should would? How, what, where, why?” Clearly, we have no idea.

“Do you have an email address, I’ll see if I can find out for you?” I’m putty in Mr. Moto’s hands, but also curious to refresh my grammar. The guy pulls a brochure from his satchel, The Slarkram English School, and formally introduces himself – Mr. Bunnarath Som – in rapid, florid English. His brochure includes web links, photos, and that oddly constructed English peculiar to Asia. Having visited the school, and if you like what we are trying to do, you may feel inclined to make a small donation to further our work there. Such convoluted sentences would annoy me back home; here they simply enhance the foreign wonder of our afternoon stroll.

Mr. Som pulls out a binder with color photos of him teaching students the world’s power language, distributing certificates, building houses for local farmers, and buying sewing machines for needy widows. His salesmanship drives the hard side of my brain to figure he’s a con artist. I pocket the brochure and we wave goodbye.

The following morning, on the other side of the river, Abby and I walk to breakfast. A guy pulls up on his moto and asks if we speak English. Oops, same guy pestering same tourists. This second encounter strengthens my doubts. I check him out online. If Internet presence confers legitimacy, Mr. Som is everything he claims.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 8.11.03 AMSince we are leaving town we cannot visit his school. Still, I make good on my promise and email him that, according to Reference.com, English has 23 auxiliary verbs: is, are, was, were, am, be, been, will, shall, have, has, had, would, could, should, do, does, did, can, may, might, must and seem.

I leave Battambang with a firmer grasp of English grammar and a healthy awe for this man’s clever way of soliciting aid for his efforts. I also find myself using more auxiliary verbs. They induce a lyric cadence to my mother language even as they obfuscate meaning. I am not sure that Mr. Som does teach exactly as he claims, but if he would operate the school as he seems to profess, his students should learn his strategy could help everyone. That awkward sentence contains six auxiliary verbs. It also has that ring of an Asian translation I’ve come to fancy.

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