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Best of the new: People & Ideas

January 31, 2010

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Health Care Reform -- on the Quad Pity the bureaucrat who underestimates Aaron Marden. Fed up with skimpy health insurance plans sold to college students, the Tufts University senior had a hunch the insurers were also racking up abnormally large profits. So he formed a student coalition that dogged state regulators to investigate. Turns out, Marden, now a grad student at Tufts, was right. A state probe revealed that plans covering thousands of Massachusetts students are inferior, prompting vows from regulators and lawmakers to fix the problems.

Happy Beginnings It’s about time our bibliophilic city had a legit literary fest. The inaugural Boston Book Festival in October drew more than 12,000 attendees to locations around Copley Square and offered something for everyone: panel discussions with best-selling writers from Richard Russo to Anita Shreve, a poetry jam with Robert Pinsky, and (why not?) a “sexiest vegetarian alive” session with actress and author Alicia Silverstone. We can’t wait to see who shows up this year.

Thrills for Less The Boston Breakers didn’t make the playoffs, but they helped resurrect women’s pro soccer and were a welcome arrival in this recession-marred sports market. Hosting backyard barbecues, instructional clinics, and social hours at local bars, the Breakers launched a grassroots campaign for fans. Player salaries averaged $32,000 and tickets topped out at $25. The Breakers weren’t the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, or Bruins -- and that was the point.

We’re Hooked A simple, but revelatory, innovation: Take the concept of community-supported agriculture -- where subscribers pay in advance for a weekly supply of locally produced food -- and apply it to fishing. Cape Ann Fresh Catch, the first such effort in the Greater Boston area, was a hit with pescavores, who received cod, flounder, shrimp, and more. This type of cooperative not only helps the local fishing industry but also, organizers say, makes it easier to carry out sustainable fishing practices.

Ready to Feed After six years of planning, the Greater Boston Food Bank opened a gleaming new distribution center that’s impressive for what it can provide and how it was constructed. The $35 million building, with more than 117,000 square feet, is twice as large as the previous center and has the capacity to accommodate the distribution of 50 million pounds of food a year, about 21 million pounds more than the old building. It will also cut energy costs, thanks to environmentally friendly features, including a specially insulated roof and a solar wall.

Formidable Rookie For years, Boston radio’s sports-talk community was essentially a one-horse town, with no credible rival to WEEI. No more. The Sports Hub boasts a powerful FM signal (98.5) and instant credibility as the flagship station for Patriots and Bruins games, plus a roster of established local talent. The charge is led by the afternoon tandem of Mike Felger and (Boston.com contributor) Tony Massarotti, who aren’t afraid to offer actual objective analysis. Game on, sports fans.

The Frontier of Fat Fat may seem an unlikely ally in the battle against obesity, but Bruce Spiegelman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found a way to engineer a type of fat -- “brown fat” -- that burns calories instead of storing them. It exists in newborns but was long thought to disappear with age. Dr. C. Ronald Kahn at the Joslin Diabetes Center turned that notion on its head when he found brown fat in adults -- especially in leaner people. Both lines of research converge on an exciting possibility: Will brown fat one day help us slim down?

Direct Charity SmallCanBeBig.org takes a new approach to helping local families on the brink of homelessness: The focus is on small, direct donations. Created by Waltham-based ad agency Boathouse Group, the website works with a dozen charitable organizations to find cases where a one-time monetary donation can be pivotal (for example, $2,000 for mortgage or rent payments missed due to a job loss). The entire gift goes to the recipient, and donors decide how much to give and to whom. Since its launch, the site has saved about a hundred families from eviction or foreclosure.

Tender Debut Director Damien Chazelle appeared from out of nowhere -- all right, from Harvard’s undergraduate film program -- with the hit of last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is an unlikely labor of love: a black-and-white shoestring musical shot in the streets, apartments, and restaurants of Boston. The movie should finally hit local theaters this year, allowing audiences to sample a quieter, more romantic Hub than the one we’ve been getting from films like The Departed.

Chances Are . . . Ever wonder how likely it is that a baseball fan is pulling for the Red Sox? Or whether your next flight out of Logan will take off late? You probably figured there was no easy way to find out. But there is now, thanks to Boston entrepreneur Amram Shapiro. The veteran Arthur D. Little business consultant recently launched Book of Odds (bookofodds.com), a website that features 400,000 of life’s large and small probabilities -- from your chances of winning the lottery to dying of pancreatic cancer. Shapiro says the site’s already attracted 150,000 unique visitors.

Precision Commuting Soon you’ll wait in the rain no more! In November, the MBTA began releasing real-time GPS data on five bus routes to application developers. The first iPhone app, called Catch the Bus (catchthebusapp.com), arrived before Christmas, telling riders when the next bus would turn up. Others, like the T Tracker, followed. If successful, the pilot project could expand to all MBTA bus routes. Releasing the data is cheaper than the T creating its own system and “opens the door for quicker and better innovation,” says Catch the Bus developer Jared Egan.

Look to the Past There has never been a US college devoted exclusively to the study of history -- until now. The American College of History and Legal Studies, founded last year, is expected to open in Salem, New Hampshire, in August (pending approval by that state’s Legislature). Designed to be an affordable option (tuition is $10,000) for those who have an interest in history and might want to go on to law school, the no-frills college will offer only junior and senior coursework and cater to community college graduates and transfers from four-year schools. If enrolled students go on to meet certain criteria, acceptance at Massachusetts School of Law is guaranteed.

Re-Branding Boston Ballet The dance company revamped its image to engage a hip, younger audience without alienating its core subscribers, and the moves were striking. It overhauled its website (featuring blogs and Twitter feeds), adopted a sleek new logo, and presented its dancers at two more venues: local fashion runways, where they do occasional modeling, and a permanent performance space at the intimate Boston Opera House. Bravo!

Shoppers’ Hero Marcy Syms saved a piece of Boston shopping history when she bought bankrupt Filene’s Basement in June. Since then, the chief executive -- who also runs discounter Syms Corp., founded by her father -- has attempted to restore the glory to the Boston brand that claims to have invented the bargain. For Syms, an avid Basement shopper during her college days at Boston University, the next step is trying to bring Filene’s Basement back to Downtown Crossing.

Doctor in a Box Discarded shipping containers have been transformed into everything from houses and hotels to office buildings and shops. But Dover’s Elizabeth Sheehan might have come up with the most innovative idea yet. Her nonprofit, Containers to Clinics, is turning the metal boxes into modular heath clinics outfitted with everything needed to provide primary and preventive care to women and kids in underserved areas of the world. The first clinic -- displayed last fall at the ICA -- may be deployed to Central America this spring.

The Picture of Social Media Created by three classmates at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Pixable.com allows users to edit, store, and print photos -- yours and others’ -- from social media sites like Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook. Custom scrapbooks and calendars start at $7, and the company ultimately hopes to move into other print items, including holiday cards. Which means if you don’t want that “private” shot of you and your cat dressed as Sonny and Cher going viral next Halloween, keep it offline.

Most Valuable Hothead No NBA player rants at officials like Rasheed Wallace. And he has the technical fouls to prove it. But the 6-foot-11, emotionally combustible, 3-point-shooting forward is also a game changer. With more playoff experience than any of his new Celtics teammates, he can be the front-court addition who pushes the team toward another NBA title. While Wallace’s early-season numbers off the bench haven’t dazzled, his versatility and intensity will be in demand in the postseason.

Changing City Halls

After federal prosecutors charged longtime elected officeholders Dianne Wilkerson and Chuck Turner in an alleged bribery scheme, a call went out for new political leaders from the black community. Enter fresh faces Ayanna Pressley and Setti Warren. In November, Pressley became the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, and Warren (above) the first black man elected mayor of Newton. Both say race was not a factor in their campaigns but admit the victories benefit their race. “The strength and value of our diversity is that those perspectives be heard and represented,” Pressley says. “It’s important that people see themselves mirrored in government.”

Who Knew Boston Could Dance? From Aerosmith to the Pixies, we’ve typically liked our rock stars loud, fast, and furious in this town. Maybe that’s what made 2009’s breakout Boston band all that more exceptional. Passion Pit, an electro-rock quintet (below) whose members met while studying at Emerson and Berklee, sounded like no one in the local music scene: a collision of relentless dance beats and frontman Michael Angelakos’s gift for buoyant melodies. If the music wasn’t exactly revolutionary, Passion Pit at least ignited a contagious hometown pride that we haven’t seen since the Dresden Dolls a few years ago.

  • January 31, 2010 cover
  • january 31 globe magazine cover
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