Engineering, Podcasts, Transportation

The Big Dig and the Nature of Large Engineering Projects

I was fortunate to sit down for a rare interview with Fred Salvucci on the final episode of this season of the What’s New podcast. Fred is now at MIT, but he is well-known in the Boston area for conceiving and being the champion of a massive engineering project which came to be known as the Big Dig, and which completely transformed the city of Boston for the twenty-first century.

For most of its postwar existence, downtown Boston was split by a giant elevated highway called the Central Artery. The Artery was an artifact common to many cities in twentieth-century America, a terrible byproduct of the car-centric culture and suburbanization that flourished in the 1950s. Elevated roadways were aggressively cut through small-scale livable neighborhoods so that people could get into the city from the suburbs, and so that others could drive through a city without entering its local roadways on their way to distant destinations. Homes were often taken from people to make way for these elevated highways, and the walkability and attractiveness of cities suffered.

The Big Dig not only put the Central Artery underground, but added a massive linear park in the center of Boston, a marquee bridge that aptly reflected the famous Bunker Hill Monument, and another tunnel to Logan Airport. It thus completely reshaped the city and improved not only its transportation, but Boston’s skyline and its ground-level fabric and beauty. It reconnected neighborhoods and people.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Fred spoke to me about how the Big Dig was engineered—it was one of the biggest engineering projects in history, at a cost of $15 billion, through a 400-year-old city ($1 billion just to relocate ancient pipes and wires)—but also how he was able to get so many people on board for such a gigantic project. Indeed, as you’ll hear, Fred saw it more as a political and socio-economic project than a transportation initiative.

Moreover, Fred provides some good thoughts about the future of transportation, including the impact (likely negative, in his view) of self-driving cars, and whether we can ever find the will—and the funds—to do something like the Big Dig again. Do tune in.


Launching the Boston Research Center

Boston Bridges

Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

I’m delighted that the news is now out about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation‘s grant to Northeastern University Library to launch the Boston Research Center. The BRC will seek to unify major archival collections related to Boston, hundreds of data sets about the city, digital modes of scholarship, and a wide array of researchers and visualization specialists to offer a seamless environment for studying and displaying Boston’s history and culture. It will be great to work with my colleagues at Northeastern and regional partners to develop this center over the coming years. Having grown up in Boston, and now having returned as an adult, it has a personal significance for me as well.

I’m also excited that the BRC will build upon, and combine, some of the signature strengths of Northeastern that drew me to the university last year. For decades, the library has been assembling and working with local communities to preserve materials and stories related to the city. We now have the archives of a number of local and regional newspapers, and the library has been active in the gathering of oral and documentary histories of nearby communities such as the Lower Roxbury Black History Project. We also have strong connections with other important regional collections and institutions, such the Boston Public Library, the Boston Library Consortium, and data sets produced by Boston’s municipal government and other sources, through our campus’s leadership in BARI.

My friends in digital humanities will know that Northeastern has a world-class array of faculty and researchers doing cutting-edge, interdisciplinary computational analysis. We have the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the Network Science Institute, numerous faculty in our College of Arts, Media, and Design who work on digital storytelling and information design, and the library has its own terrific Digital Scholarship Group and dedicated specialists in GIS and data visualization. We will all be working together, and with many others from beyond the university, to imagine and develop large-scale projects that examine major trends and elements of Boston, such as immigration, neighborhood transformations, economic growth, and environmental changes. There will also be an opportunity for smaller-scale stories to be documented, and of course the BRC itself will be open to anyone who would like to research the city or specific communities. As a place with a long and richly documented history, with a coastal location and educational, scientific, and commercial institutions that have long involved global relationships, the study of Boston also means the study of themes that are broadly important and applicable.

My thanks to the Mellon Foundation for their generous support. It should be fascinating to watch all of this come together—stay tuned.


Help Snell Library Help Others

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library, an institution that is designed to help others and to share knowledge, resources, and expertise. Snell Library is a very busy library. Every year, we have two million visits. On some weekdays we receive well over 10,000 visitors, with thousands of them in the building at one time. It’s great to see a library so fully used and appreciated.

Just as important, Snell Library fosters projects that help others in our Boston community and well beyond. Our staff has worked alongside members of the Lower Roxbury community to record, preserve, and curate oral histories of their neighborhood; with other libraries and archives to aggregate and make accessible thousands of documents related to school desegregation in Boston; and with other institutions and people to save the personal stories and images of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

Our library is the home of the archives of a number of Boston newspapers, including the The Boston Phoenix, the Gay Community News, and the East Boston Community News, with more to come. The Digital Scholarship Group housed in the library supports many innovative projects, including the Women Writers Project and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. We have a podcast that explores new ideas and discoveries, and tries to help our audience understand the past, present, and future of our world better.

It’s National Library Week, and today is Northeastern’s Giving Day. So I have a small request of those who read my blog and might appreciate the activities of such a library as Snell: please consider a modest donation to my library to help us help others. And if at least 50 students, parents, or friends donate today—and I’d really love that to be 100, even at $10—I’ll match that with $1,000 of my own. Thank you. 

>> NU Giving Day – Give to the Library <<


What’s New, Episode 14: Privacy in the Facebook Age

On the latest What’s New Podcast from Northeastern University Library, I interview Woody Hartzog, who has a new book just out this week from Harvard University Press entitled Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies. We had a wide-ranging discussion over a half-hour, including whether (and if so, how) Facebook should be regulated by the government, how new listening devices like the Amazon Echo should be designed (and regulated), and how new European laws that go into effect in May 2018 may (or may not) affect the online landscape and privacy in the U.S.

Woody provides a plainspoken introduction to all of these complicated issues, with some truly helpful parallels to ethical and legal frameworks in other fields (such as accounting, medicine, and legal practice), and so I strongly recommend a listen to the episode if you would like to get up to speed on this important aspect of our contemporary digital lives. Given Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony today in front of Congress, it’s especially timely.

[Subscribe to What’s New on iTunes or Google Play]

Communication, Emoji, Writing

Authority and Usage and Emoji

Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wallace.1 Despite the seeming topical randomness of his essays—John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, the tennis player Tracy Austin, a Maine lobster fest—there is a thematic consistency in DFW’s work, which revolves around the tension between authority and democracy, high culture intellectualism and overthinking and low culture entertainment and lack of self-reflection. That is, his essays are about America and Americans.2

Nowhere is this truer than in “Authority and American Usage,” his monumental review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.3 DFW uses this review of a single book to recount and assess the much longer debate between prescriptive language mavens who sternly offer correct English usage, and the more permissive, descriptive scholars who eschew hard usage rules for the lived experience of language. That is, authority and democracy.

The genius of Garner, in DFW’s view, is that he is an authority on American English who recognizes and even applauds regional and communal variations, without wagging his finger, but also without becoming all loosey-goosey and anything goes. Garner manages to have his cake and eat it too: he recognizes, with the democrats, that English (and language in general) is fluid and evolves and simply can’t be fixed in some calcified Edwardian form, but that it is also helpful to have rules and some knowledge of those rules so that you can express yourself with precision and persuade others. Even democratic descriptivists should want some regularity and authoritative usage because we all speak and write in a social context, and those we speak with and write to, whether we like it or not, pick up on subtle cues in usage to interpret and judge your intent and status within the community. Garner’s fusion of democracy and authority is immensely appealing to DFW; it’s like he’s figured out how to square the circle.

But Garner’s synthesis only works if the actual communication of your well-chosen words is true to what you had mentally decided to use, and here is where the seemingly odd inclusion of emoji in the title of this post comes into play.4 Emoji upset Garner’s delicate balance and upend DFW’s intense desire to communicate precisely because they are rendered very differently on digital platforms. Emoji entail losing control of the very important human capability to choose the exact form and meaning of our words. (The variation in emoji glyphs also contributes to the difficulty of archiving current human expression, but that is the subject of another post.) See, for example, the astonishing variety of the “astonished face” emoji across multiple platforms:


This is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, an artifact of the legal status of emoji, which, unlike regular old English words, apparently (or potentially) can be copyrighted in specific renderings. So lawsuit-averse giant tech companies have resorted to their own artistic execution of each emoji concept, and these renderings can have substantially different meanings, often rather distant from authorial intent. As legal and emoji scholar Eric Goldman summarizes, “Senders and recipients on different platforms are likely to see different implementations and decode the symbols differently in ways that lead to misunderstandings.” Think about someone selecting the fairly faithful second emoji from the left, above (from Apple), and texting it to someone who sees it rendered as the X-eyed middle glyph (from Facebook; Goldman, deadpan: “a depiction typically associated with death”), or the third from the left (from Google, who knows).

In short, emoji are a portent of a day when the old debate about authority vs. democracy in English usage is a quaint artifact of the twentieth century, because our digital communications have another layer of abstraction that makes it even more difficult to express ourselves clearly. There is no doubt that David Foster Wallace would dropped many foul-mouthed emoji at that possibility.

  1. Since this post is, in part, about the subtleties and importance of word choice, we might quibble here with the term “essays” for DFW’s nonfiction work. Although it is indeed the term stenciled on the cover of his nonfiction books, what is contained therein is more like a menagerie of what might be best, albeit simplistically, called writing, including steroidal book reviews, random journalistic junkets, and non-random literary slam-downs.
  2. Were DFW still with us and reading blogs, which is, let’s admit it, a laugh-out-loud impossibility, he would likely object to this simplification of his essays that in many cases present themselves more like thick description married with extended—Stretch-Armstrong-level extended—philosophical tangents. He would be doubly annoyed with my needling of this point in a footnote, which is a crass and transparent and frankly lame mimicry of DFW himself, although I hope he would have awarded consolation points for the mobius-strip referentiality here. And objectively, the style of DFW’s writing, both his fiction and nonfiction, combined snoot-grade polysyllabic dictionary-grabbers with unexpected but also well-timed f-bombs, and this fusion has always been something of a tell.
  3. The original title of DFW’s Garner review was “Tense Present: Democracy, English and Wars over Usage,” which is, let’s face it, more clever.
  4. N.B. I use emoji as both the singular and plural form, à la sushi, although this is debated and is a perfect case study in authoritarian vs. democratic English usage. Robinson Meyer talks to the prescriptive language experts and Googles the democratic use of emoji vs. emojis in a remarkably DFW-esque piece in The Atlantic.

The Post-Coding Generation?

When I was in sixth grade our class got an Apple ][ and I fell in love for the first time. The green phosphorescence of the screen and the way text commands would lead to other text instantly appearing was magical. The true occult realm could be evoked by moving beyond the command line and into assembly language, with mysterious hexidecimal pairs producing swirling lines and shapes on the screen. It was enthralling, and led to my interest in programming at an early age. I now have an almost identical Apple ][ in the corner of my office as a totem from that time.


Of course, very few people learn assembly language anymore, and for good reason. The history of computing is the history of successive generations of coders moving up the technical stack, from low-level languages like assembly to higher languages that put all of the rudimentary calculations behind a curtain.

I’ve been thinking about this coding escalator recently because of my kids and the still-vibrant “learn to code” movement. My kids are in their early teens and I can say as a proud parent that they are very good at all of the skills needed to be great programmers. They also go to a public school that was the archrival of the public school I went to—in the Boston-area math league. The school is filled with similar kids, sons and daughters of highly educated people, many of whom work in technical and scientific fields, or at one of Boston’s many universities.

Yet I would characterize the general interest of my kids’ generation in coding as being lukewarm. They get it, they see the power of programming, and yet they are much more interested in the creativity that can occur on top of the technical stack. I suppose we should not be surprised. They are the first generation whose interactions with computers were with devices that do not have a command line—that is, with smartphones and tablets. So naturally they are drawn to the higher-level aspects of computing, which doesn’t seem like computing at all to my generation. While some may roll their eyes at Apple adding an “Everyone Can Create” initiative this week as a counterpart to “Everyone Can Code,” my kids thought this was a truly interesting development.

To be sure, those who know how to code, and code well, will always be able to shape computer platforms and apps in powerful ways, just as those who understand what’s under the hood of their car can maximize its performance. The skills one learns in programming are broadly applicable, and under the right circumstances coding can stir the imagination about what is possible in the digital realm. But most of us just want to drive, even in a suboptimal automobile, and get somewhere for some other reason, and many “learn to code” programs are frankly not especially imaginative.

In Digital History, Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote that although they are both noble professions, “historians planning a digital project should think like architects, not like plumbers.” I suspect my kids’ generation may see coding as plumbing, and would prefer to work on the design of the overall house. I’m not sure that we have fully accounted for this next generation’s shift yet, or have even come to realize that at some point the coding escalator would reach the top, and those on it would step off.

Cities, Design, History, Podcasts, Transportation

Activism, Community Input, and the Evolution of Cities: My Interview with Ted Landsmark

I’ve had a dozen great guests on the What’s New podcast, but this week’s episode features a true legend: Ted Landsmark. He is probably best known as the subject of a shocking Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph showing a gang of white teens at a rally against school desegregation attacking him with an American flag. The image became a symbol of tense race relations in the 1970s, not only in Boston but nationwide.


(photo credits: Stanley Forman/Brian Fluharty)

He should be better known, however, for his decades of work shaping the city of Boston and the greater Boston area, and for his leadership in education, transportation planning, architecture, and other critical aspects of the fabric of the city. The assault on him on City Hall Plaza in Boston only intensified his activism, and set him on a path to be at the center of how the city would be developed over the last 40 years. It’s a remarkable story.

On the podcast Ted Landsmark recounts not only this personal history, but the history of a Boston in general, and he provides a 360-degree view of how cities are designed, managed, and are responsive (or unresponsive) to community needs and desires. His sense of how urban feedback systems work, from local politics to technology like the 311 phone number many cities have implemented to hear from their citizens, is especially smart and helpful.

I hope you’ll tune in.