November 14, 2006

Boston IQ

Heidi and I are considering a move to the Boston area because of a job offer she has at MGH. We visited last weekend to try to get a feel for life in the area.

According to Mark Twain, in New York they ask, "How much is he worth;" in Philadelphia, "Who were his parents;" and in Boston, "How much does he know?" After spending a few days back in Boston, I can see why knowledge is so important in that city. You can't get anywhere without an advanced degree....

Computers will Never Beat Humans at Go, or Boston

Heidi and I spent some time going between MGH and the town of Lincoln, where we might live.

But while our computer had no trouble finding a quick route from Philadelphia, through the NYC metropolitan area, and into Boston, it totally failed at finding a good commuter route from MGH to Lincoln. The computer directed us in a straight line along Beacon Street through Cambridge, which was a huge mistake at rush hour. Walking would have been faster.

Some problems are just too hard for computers.

So after our rush-hour experience, Heidi and I asked every native we met for the best way to get between Lincoln and MGH.

Learning The Best Way

Everybody was very quick to tell us the best route.

"Never drive through Cambridge. You can go around it on Memorial Drive."

"Storrow Drive is faster. Take Route 2 to Storrow Drive."

"Don't bother with Route 2. Take the Mass Pike and 128."

"The commuter rail to Lincoln is a real timesaver. North Station is walkable to MGH."

"The trick is to sneak down Trapelo, and take Fresh Pond expressway."

"Forget driving in the city. Just drive to Alewife and take the T."

No two people agreed. Everybody else's route was the slow way.


So I asked, "Does that mean it's a pain to get into Boston from Lincoln?"

Here there was agreement: "Oh, no. Lincoln is a pretty easy commute."

This is why you need a Harvard education to make it in Boston.

Posted by David at November 14, 2006 10:36 AM

Does Google have an engineering office in Boston?

Posted by: anonymouse at November 14, 2006 11:47 AM

Yes, there is a small engineering office getting started at Kendall square.

Posted by: David at November 14, 2006 12:28 PM

> Some problems are just too hard for computers.

That's defeatist.
A mapping service. A GPS device. A link back to the mapping service and some data storage of your regular routes and you can figure out rush hour bottlenecks very easily.
This is a very Googly problem. I'm surprised you discounted it.

Posted by: richb at November 14, 2006 06:58 PM

The comment was tongue-in-cheek. Routefinding shouldn't be as hard as solving Go, nor should it require an advanced degree.

But in Boston, it's not easy. I am almost certain that Boston street planners have figured out a way of arranging the roads in an NP-hard pattern. Be thankful that the road system is finite, or else I bet they would have figured out a way to build roads that test Church's thesis itself. Someday computers will do better at routefinding, even if solving Boston requires a quantum computer.

Route-finding is a very Google-flavored problem. Come work at Google if you're interested in this sort of thing!

Posted by: David at November 14, 2006 07:27 PM

But would Heidi really be driving to/from MGH during rush hour?

Posted by: Olga at November 16, 2006 05:58 PM

Hi Olga!

She doesn't really have a rush hour kind of job, does she? Actually she sometimes fights rush hour on the way-back-home if there are no transplants in the evening....

Posted by: David at November 17, 2006 05:08 AM

Yeah, I moved to Massachusetts from Florida and it yes, it does take a genius to navigate through Boston. It's full of uncertainty; there can be an exit off I-93 one week and then the next, it's been demolished!! It's a whacked world up there.

Posted by: Spencer at November 19, 2006 12:47 AM


You're thinking about the roads the wrong way. Remember, it's a walking city like Philadelphia is and that many of the roads are just wandering cowpaths. Think like a cow and you'll be all set!

Take a deep breath and expect every new drive there to be an adventure/learning experience. I had to return a rental car in Cambridge in September. I got flummoxed in Harvard Square because of the one way streets, but since I am not unfamiliar with traffic circles, i.e. rotaries, I just took another spin around to figure it out and try my exit street once more. (Of course I knew my way around on foot like a native because my mental map of Harvard Sq was still set after 15 years.)

Lots of people panic at traffic circles, which I always think is funny because driving around Eakins Oval in Philly, you learn to just take another trip around and safely get into the correct lane. (The one traffic circle that irritates me is Dupont Circle where they have medians on the circle that force you out. Thus you can't take the extra trip around to orient yourself. You're already out of the circle and it's too late.)

Of course I think, why are you and Heidi driving instead of taking the T? (ok, maybe for her hours she should drive.)

And avoid the Big Dig tunnels. Falling concrete slabs and all.

Posted by: mapgirl at November 29, 2006 10:34 AM

Have you heard the news of the death of James Kim, the tech editor of SF's Cnet? It happened when he took a wrong turn and lost in the forest of southwest Orgon, all under the direction of an internet mapping service. The sad fact is that a digitial map presented on the web is still very far from the reality of the physical world. Moreover, these "directions" have no context information that are really relevant to a traveler, besides just drawing a line from point A to point B on a "map."

Posted by: ben at January 9, 2007 10:42 AM

I have to be Boston for a test on Tuesday morning at 7:30am. Is traffic usually backed up coming from the north on I-93 at that time? When should I plan to leave if I am coming from Winchester?



Posted by: Nika at February 24, 2008 08:40 PM
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