20 September 2008

A Rush to Judgement?

The White House, reinforced by the cacophony of 24/7 news is shouting that the sky is falling and we must do something fast. Most important, we must do what they say. There is no time to think. There is no time to question. The smart guys have it all figured out. So gives us the rubber stamp so we can get down to serious business.

So excuse me, but the Brain is going to hit pause for a minute. Haven't we seen this movie before? Ah, yes that's right. The Iraq War. There was absolutely no doubt. Iraq was amassing WMD's. Iraq was in collusion with the masterminds of 9/11 and was determined to attack us and our allies. There was no time to wait. So how did that work out for us?

Now realistically I can't say this is exactly the same situation. We realistically do have a crisis. A good number of folks have pointed out that our economy was a house of cards and to some extent our way of life (personally and as a government). Some of those folks such as James Howard Kunstler, a noted commentator on the urban condition, might come off as a bit alarmist, but I'm guessing that they are sitting pretty now.

So we have a problem, a lot of problems actually. Wall Street is collapsing, capital is drying up, CEO's might not get their bonuses. Oh, and Americans are loosing their jobs and homes, tens of millions have no health care, families can't afford tuition for college, oh and the dollar is going south and oil is skyrocketing despite the economic downturns in the US.

Whatever Congress does this week, or next, they should not rush to judgment about the plan put forward by the Administration. Why should we trust the people that two weeks ago didn't believe there was a problem to fix it? Even Newt Gingrich doesn't think this is a good idea.

Further, we should seriously question buying out companies using public funds. Why should we pay for over-priced assets that no one else would buy? Shouldn't the American public get equity and and reward for taking such huge risks? Should CEO's be able to draw huge salaries at public expense when they can't keep their companies afloat?

Let's insist that Congress not write a blank check on this. We do need to act, but we should do so with the integrity of purpose worthy of the sacrifices of the American Public. We should act in a way that requires sacrifices not only of taxpayers but also the culprits of our crisis. Finally, we should not stop in addressing the immediate, but reforming the underpinnings of this crisis including our dependence on oil.

17 September 2008

Food in the City: finding soul (food) in Cambridge

Have an urge for fried chicken? Go to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ok, my Southern friends may think I'm crazy, but if you are in Greater Boston, there just may be no better place than Coast Cafe on River Street in Cambridge. This three seat (I'm not kidding there are just three seats) restaurant is perfect for lunchtime take out or an out of the way weekend culinary hunt or takeout picnic.

Since ambiance is not much of a question, focus on what you plan to order. All of the chicken is made to order; not pre-cooked and re-heated. Also to be had are side dishes such as homemade macaroni and cheese (no velveeta here!!!) and greens. Oh, and the corn bread is a buttery yummy treat that's not too sweet. I didn't have any room for desserts but I have heard rave reviews of the banana pudding, among others, and will certainly save room (or take some home next time).

08 September 2008

Ranking Schools in Greater Boston

While enjoying the ride back from a recent trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, the Brain had an opportunity to review Boston magazine's "The Best Schools 2008" issue featuring a ranking of the so-called top 50 schools of greater Boston. The cover-photo (seen right) is not the only questionable matter in this issue. Given some scrutiny, the top 50 list has some questionable results.

The simple methodology for the rankings states "Showy scores are no longer the enough. True standout schools also excel at stretching tax dollars." The ranking includes scores for "cost efficiency" and "academic performance." Listed in a table for the rankings is information such as per-pupil spending, MCAS scores, SAT scores, student to teacher ratios, AP courses offered, and athletic offerings.

So where do the schools rank? At the top of the list is Concord-Carlisle High School with an academic ranking of 12 and cost-efficiency of 1. A veritable who's who rounds out the top ten including Andover, Sharon, Brookline, and Wellesley (among others). Then, at number 11 comes Boston Latin with a supposed academic ranking of 4 and cost effificiency ranking of 11.

Let's look at the numbers on the academic performance side. Boston Latin has the best MCAS scores, SAT scores, and offers generous AP and athletic offerings. The student-teacher ratio is higher than any of the other schools, but the academic results seem pretty undeniable. So the Brain is a bit confused as to the 4th place rank for academic performance. According to Boston magazine's numbers Boston Latin has the best performance.

Setting that not-so minor discrepancy aside, the Brain would also like to point out that this ranking of schools based on so-called cost efficiency seems more than questionable. Most statisticians and researchers would point out that one can be incredibly efficient and yet produce terrible results. While I wouldn't say the high-ranked schools on this list are producing terrible results, but to a trained eye, the numbers just don't seem to add up as to why the cheapest schools should earn the highest rankings, despite academic performance to the contrary (class size at the high school level should not be consider "academic performance," results are. Further, why does the district average of per pupil spending factor so heavily? Were such factors balanced to include cost of living and salary difference between districts?

My guess is that in this particular instance the rankings are more concerned with selling magazines than understanding the state of education in Greater Boston. Sadly, truly great schools are seemingly being sold short for a poorly developed concept to sell magazines.

07 September 2008

The Joys of Acadia; an urbane retreat

This weekend provided an opportunity for the Brain to ditch the hustle and bustle post-Labor Day Boston for a retreat with friends (from near and far) on Mount Desert Island, home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. MDI (as it is commonly referred) is a wonderful place to get out and hike, bike, swim, boat, and enjoy nature and history. The island has amazing natural features such as mountains, lakes, wetlands, forests, beaches, and fjords. You can also find truly charming villages and towns such as Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor that provide a range of accomodations (i.e. camping, motels, inns, and (if you know the right people) multi-million dollar estates), shopping, entertainment, and every-day to fine dining (if 5 star restaurant's aren't good enough visit Martha Stewart's estate in Seal harbor).

Even with the remnants of Hurricane Hannah, a weekend on MDI is a truly joyful retreat providing for the wild to the urbane. The day after the storm the island was flush with impromptu waterfalls carving their way into the varied landscape. A ride along the island's carriage trail system (via the kind folks at Wildwood Stables) also reminds you of the sophistication and respect for nature of this unique environment. This 57 mile network of paths is not simply carved into the island's landscape, but is truly an integral design that is uncommon for any age. If, your in New England and looking for an urbane retreat, visit Acadia.

Thanks to Patrick Sullivan (author of the Local Spice Blog) for the fantastic vintage carriage photo from Wildwood Stables.

01 September 2008

The Candidates on Cities

Now that the Presidential Election is underway what what do we know about the candidates and their views on urban issues? Will the next President eliminate CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and HUD as has been long promised by the GOP, or will there be a new platform for urban issues in our domestic policies?

Stepping aside from the 24/7 media loop of personality politics I've tried to dig into the presidential candidate's views on "urban issues" or anything reasonably close in context.

So let's start with Barack Obama. The candidate addressed the US Conference of Mayors (speech excerpts here) back in June. The Obama campaign site also has a section on "Urban Policy." Items to note include support of CDBG, a constant target of the current administration, and perhaps catalytic, the idea of creating a White House Office on Urban Policy. The site does speak to the issue of Sustainable Development, though in terms so vague a real estate agent could have produced it. Other areas spoken to include the typical hodgepodge of "urban issues" ranging from education, to job creation, and sadly of course, crime.

Based on the available evidence (i.e. interviews, speeches, everything) John McCain's perspective on cities is liken to that of Ellworth Toohey; "but I don't think of you." The McCain website speaks about the economy, energy, national security, health care, Iraq, climate change, veterans, immigration, education, 2nd amendment, judicial philosophy, technology, fighting crime, natural heritage, agricultural policy, sanctity of life, space program, and ethics reform without using the words "cities" or "urban" once. From this we can only suppose that John McCain could careless (at best) about cities.

So the evidence of true interest in urban issues among the candidates for President is limited. One candidate has some recognition that there is a need for an urban agenda, while the other doesn't even seem to have the word in his vocabulary. No forum or debate has focused on issues of urban importance, but we might also consider empathy and a sort of urban osmosis. That is, Obama actually lives in a city (Chicago), and his running mate, Joe Biden, commutes using rail (Amtrak). On the GOP side we have McCain who owns more real estate than a fast food chain. It would seem that his running mate, a one-time mayor, is a bit confused about her view points on urban infrastructure though. Apparently she was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. She claims to be solidly against pork barrel now. Sadly, none of this informs us much, except to guess that the GOP ticket has no urban agenda?

For the moment, it seems urban issues are left wanting.