Beyond smart cities

Fascinating review. Made me think about Singapore, and what Amazon has done to Seattle, and Hudson Yards in New York, and the new smart neighborhoods planned for Chicago. Ordering the book.

Two interesting ideas from down a ways in the essay:

One: “At the turn of the 20th century, the twin infectious disease threats of tuberculosis and the Spanish flu combined with faddish ideas on wellness among people rich enough to afford their own architects, and led to something new. As the architectural historian Biatriz Colomina has written, that was Modernism, with its clean lines, honest materials, porous relationship between the indoors and outdoors, more sunlight, more ventilation, and solid surfaces that were easy to clean. It was more than an aesthetic. It was disease control.”

Two: “Humans build cities as fortresses against failure: economic collapse, natural catastrophe, human venality and cowardice. The city walls keep those things out, when they work. If houses are, as the architect Mies van de Rohe said, “machines for living,” then cities are places where those machines get daisy-chained into a society. Cities are machines for cooperation, and survival.”

[from Wired]

Also reminded of a companion piece about the work of an acquaintance from college, an architect who has turned to imaging what truly inclusive, pandemic-resistant buildings might look like.

“Through the front door, in a vestibule, one-way entry and exit routes were mediated by a planter. Each side had a hand-sanitizing station along the wall. A second, interior door separated this transition zone from the rest of the building. Once inside, a visitor encountered a wide lobby. Across it, directly ahead, an information desk was positioned back-to-back with a bank of lockers. Behind that partition were multigender restroom stalls; rooms, with showers, that could be used by caregivers, nursing mothers and even bike commuters; and prayer rooms and foot-washing stations for religious practices. Motion-activated sinks abutted the walkway. The space is more of a “wellness hub” now than a “bathroom,” Sanders said — so they decided to put it front and center rather than hide it.”

Sovereign American freedom as the freedom to enslave others

Astonishingly insightful essay. We have a real problem here.

“The defense of white freedom in U.S. history might more accurately be thought of as racialized anti-statism, in which the federal government is understood as a usurper of individual and states’ rights.”

Propaganda and misinformation don’t spread themselves

Excellent and powerful analysis of the digital world we’ve built over the last 20 years and the underlying, and perhaps catastrophic, problems that are at its foundation. Not only is the Internet we imagined in 1995 better than the Internet we have today, it wasn’t nearly as harmful.

Beyond disinformation: smokescreen trolling

Straight from the gamer trolling wars to the main line of American politics

Cruelty as a service

Absolutely spot on.

“In this environment, cruelty — in the form of demonizing religious and ethnic minorities as terroristscriminals and invaders — is an effective political tool for crushing one’s enemies as well as for cultivating a community that conceives of fellow citizens as a threat, resident foreigners attempting to supplant “real” Americans. For those who believe this, it is no violation of American or democratic principles to disenfranchise, marginalize and dispossess those who never should have had such rights to begin with, people you are convinced want to destroy you.”

 

 

The Fifth Crime

International lawyers, environmentalists and a growing number of world leaders say “ecocide”—widespread destruction of the environment—would serve as a “moral red line” for the planet.

 

 

The machined exoskeleton of legitimacy and validation in platform politics

The call is coming from inside the house, and the house next door, and the house down the street. Or maybe it’s the voices of the miniature parents in Mulholland Drive. Or maybe the only way to win against machine-enabled synchronized and synthesized human revolt, as in War Games, is not to play.

While online behavior is certainly shaped by platform mechanisms, the fear today is less of the mechanisms themselves than of whom they’re enticing. Prior emphasis on the machine threat warned of the unpredictability of automated behavior and the need for humans to develop policies to control it. Today’s emphasis on the social media terror inverts this, warning of the danger posed by unchecked digital mobs, who must be controlled. The risk comes not from the machines but from ourselves: our vulnerability to deception and manipulation, our need to band together with others to hunt down and accost our adversaries online, our tendency to incite and be incited by violent rhetoric to act out in the physical world, and our collective habit of spiraling down into correlated webs of delusion, insanity, and hatred.

While amenable in theory to fears of machine malevolence, there is no real mechanical equivalent in this picture to the central role played by the runaway machine of old. Actually, the roles of humans and machines have switched: The machines must now restrain the dangerous humans.

 

Related:

“We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other…The conflicts taking place over freedom, justice, and other noble ideas are captive performances in the most technologically advanced human cockfighting enterprise ever designed—one that has converted the essence of human struggle into a sure-win bet for the tech platforms who play the house.

 

Also related:

The heightened scrutiny of the political uses to which social media has been put is necessary and important. But it tends to miss a critical aspect of our situation. Much of the analysis tacitly assumes that our underlying political structures and values have remained relatively stable, that they will not fundamentally change — even if they must be defended against the usual illiberal suspects, who deploy digital media in their efforts to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. If only Zuck would take more aggressive measures to purge Facebook of fake news, and if only Jack would ban all the Nazis from Twitter, then all would be well and we could proceed with business as usual. Much like the proverbial generals who always fight the last war, however, we will be undone in our efforts to make sense of our moment and to respond productively if we don’t recognize that digital media is reconfiguring our politics at a more fundamental level.

 

Who will write the digital update to Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power? Where he excavated primal cultures and orthodox religions, the dynamics of our political world are enabled in a digital layer of meta-activities.

The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ Sung in the Indigenous Mi’kmaq Language

One of the nicer things you’ll see online today.

America as Attica, 2021

In Tom Wicker’s A Time to Die, his personal account from being an observer during the Attica prison uprising in 1971, he described the unfolding dynamic of the scene when he first arrived and had to pass through camps of heavily-armed State Troopers:

… so many guns must sooner or later become a force in themselves, an imperative acting upon the men who supposedly control them. If the weapons are in hand, the question of those who have them ultimately becomes, “Why not use them?”  The more weapons, the more insistent the question; and the burden of explaining why not to use them falls on those who have no guns. But those who have no guns have little credence with those who do. 

[p.32, Haymarket Books edition]

And in this, we have a description of the state of America today.

 

An elegy in advance for our shorelines

Just finished Elizabeth Rush’s amazing book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. A climate change book but not laden with scientific explanations—it’s more of an elegy for places we’ve lost and places we’re about to lose in this next Meltwater Pulse.

We’re already far down that road in Louisiana, in Florida, in the New York City area, in the San Francisco Bay area, and the human cost of the inevitable organized retreat the the will be not only inimpact the loss of property and the relocation of infrastructure, but in the mourning of those places we know and love and will not be able to take care of: beaches and wetlands, towns and cities, and for tens of millions of Americans, home.

We tend to think in human periods of the five generations we know (grandparents, parents, us, children, grandchildren) or in financial terms (30 years mortgages) or political cycles (4 year presidential terms, 6 years Senate terms); the earth has a different ebb and flow, and we’re about to be flooded out not with gradual rise over centuries as we’ve been telling ourselves, but in a short pulse of melting ice. The world has been here before and scientists know exactly what’s coming, and coming quickly. While we’re in the phase of desperately trying to buy some time, this book is well worth reading so we can start to make peace with the future we have cast for ourselves and our children. Highly recommended.

Suggested reading for Black History Month

More than suggestions, really. Highly recommended for every American, and for every white American, very necessary. Even the best-intentioned whites don’t know what they don’t know, about the history and foundations of the country;  about the institutionalized conventions of race and caste embedded throughout our society, our language, our behaviors; about what is still walking the streets and the halls of power trying to return to a dark time most of us thought was long past; about the sheer terror of that past, and how it still plays out and plagues us all today.

Reading does not and cannot replace experience, and understanding only goes so far, but we can start. Everyone in America lives in one house, whether we built it or not. Knowing how we are defined by our surroundings and our relationships, knowing that the truth is not always the one we have been taught or choose to hold on to, those are the first steps to being able to repair that house and to make the reality of our country after the vision which, in this century at least, so many of us claim we share.

These are my personal recommendations, non-fiction edition. (Next time I may address fiction and film.)

Nota bene: these are life-altering books. You will be challenged, especially if you are white. You will cry. You will come out different on the other side.

If I could name only two, I would start with these two masterpieces by Isabel Wilkerson. Absolutely magnificent. Neither are tremendously long, but they do require a commitment; both can be easily read within the month. The first tells the story of the Great Migration using a narrative non-fiction convention tracing the lives of three real people, one who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s, another from Florida to New York in the 1940s, and a third from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Absolutely riveting and illuminating, and one of the best books of any kind I have ever read. The second is an examination of America today, recent history through the pandemic, and why it became that way, calling out parallels to the Indian caste system and America’s contribution to the Nazis, who modeled the Jim Crow era to advance their own drive towards white supremacy.

  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010)
  • Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (2020)

These next are much shorter reads, and in their condensation, very intense personal accounts of what it is like to be a person of color within our lifetimes. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes his story as a letter to his teenage son. I was so moved by this book that I gave a copy to my own son, who will soon be a first-time father, as a reminder to him that fathers of one are fathers to all, and that we all have accountability and responsibility to a larger good. James Baldwin wrote several autobiographical books, none more powerful than The Fire Next Time, which is a great companion piece to Between the World and Me. Each can be read over a couple of nights, Baldwin in one sitting.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)
  • James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)

 

I read Taylor Branch‘s series America in the King Years over ten years ago, before the most recent wave of racial tension. These histories are what most white Americans think of when they think of Black History: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And this is an excellent and thorough accounting over thousands of pages. Well worth the time. The limitation is that it is written by a white man, and once you read Isabel Wilkerson’s books, you can easily see that this kind of reporting is only part of the story, and not necessarily the main part. Necessary and valuable but don’t stop here.

  • Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988)
  • Taylor Branch, Pillars of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (1998)
  • Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (2006)

 

What’s on my list for this February? I’m continuing to make peace with Toni Morrison after that unfortunate personal incident 40+ years ago (will write a separate post about that soon). Have been long overdue on Michelle Alexander‘s book, and have too wide of a knowledge gap on Malcolm X and his influence. 

  • Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others (2017) 
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010; new edition 2020)
  • Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
  • Les Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (2020)

 

Also, already purchased, and on the reading stack for later in the year:

  • W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction (1935)
  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
  • Chancellor Williams, Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (1992)
  • Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016)

    Obviously this list of recommendations is not complete, and there are so many others to add — certainly much more Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, Angela Davis’ Women Race & Class, Joshua Bloom’s Black Against Empire, many others. I can say with some confidence that none of the books I mentioned here should be left off. Good reading, and please let me know what you think.

Top 100 Movies (well, 95 at least)

 Supporting a discussion elsewhere on social media, here are my top 100 films of all time, highly subjective of course, arranged alphabetically.  Cut it at 95 to leave some room for films I’ve probably forgotten about or which are on a near-term watchlist that have a chance to make it. Admittedly there’s a fair amount of junk and pop culture on here as I’m a product of my time, and I wouldn’t change the channel on any one of these. Sorry, no Citizen Kane. Documentaries would be a separate list.

      • After Hours
      • Alien
      • All the Presidents Men
      • Animal House
      • Annie Hall
      • Amarcord
      • Amadeus
      • Apocalypse Now
      • Armageddon
      • Badlands
      • Bacurau
      • Belle de Jour
      • The Bicycle Thief
      • Blow Up
      • Body Heat
      • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
      • Breathless
      • Boondock Saints
      • Brokeback Mountain
      • Casablanca
      • Claire’s Knee
      • Cleo from 5 to 7
      • Close-up
      • Coco
      • La Collectionneuse
      • Contempt
      • The Dark Knight
      • Day for Night
      • Day of the Jackal
      • Dead Poets Society
      • The Deer Hunter
      • Deliverance
      • The Departed
      • Do the Right Thing
      • Die Hard
      • Dr. Strangelove
      • Dog Day Afternoon
      • Easy Rider
      • Fargo
      • Field of Dreams
      • Forrest Gump
      • Gladiator
      • The Godfather (Part 1)
      • The Godfather (Part 2)
      • Goodfellas
      • The Graduate
      • The Great Escape
      • Hiroshima Mon Amour
      • House of Games
      • In the Heat of the Night
      • Lion King
      • Local Hero
      • Jaws
      • Jules and Jim
      • Jurassic Park
      • Kill Bill 1 & 2
      • Last Year at Marienbad
      • A Man for All Seasons
      • A Married Woman
      • The Matrix
      • Mean Streets
      • Memento
      • Moneyball
      • Mulholland Drive
      • No Country for Old Men
      • Ocean’s 11
      • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
      • Pirates of the Caribbean
      • Platoon
      • Pretty Woman
      • The Professional
      • Psycho
      • Pulp Fiction
      • Raging Bull
      • Raiders of the Lost Ark
      • Ran
      • Renoir
      • The Right Stuff
      • Rio Bravo
      • Rome: Open City
      • Scarface (1983)
      • Se7en
      • Shakespeare in Love
      • Silence of the Lambs
      • Swept Away
      • Taxi Driver
      • The Taking of Pelham 123 (original)
      • Toy Story
      • True Romance
      • Variety
      • Viridiana
      • Vivre sa vie
      • Without Limits
      • Working Girl
      • Z

Whiteness vs. the common good

Outstanding new essay by Gregory Rodriguez on where the partisan divide in American is and has always been–race, of course, but with the added dimension of assimilated “whiteness”–with a nuanced discussion of how Puritanical religious themes, and not the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are used to reinforce white supremacy, deny not only race but ethnicity, and detour the abstract political idea of American patriotism into the fracture of self-interest we are experiencing today, manifested in the response to the pandemic. This is a serious and very worthwhile read.

“Once the glue to an imperfect type of social cohesion, whiteness now threatens to undermine the social contract altogether. The reluctance that we have witnessed over the past months of both millions of individuals to wear masks and for state and local governments to mandate it were just the most glaring examples of a trend that’s been building for decades. The massive loss of human life will do nothing to change this. The meaning of America, the role of race in it, and a peculiar brand of nation building have allowed the emptiness of whiteness to even pass as nationalism. And once again, as whites continue to shed any semblance of communal tradition, they grab onto patriotic symbols and ideology in an attempt to anchor themselves. But neither symbolism nor the constant attempt to reignite white cohesion by demonizing nonwhites both at home and abroad will make unhyphenated whites feel more secure in the world. The usual talismans will do nothing to keep them from falling through the latticework that is America. Meanwhile, they’re pushing the entire nation ever closer to the void.”

 

Rodriguez’ famous essay from 2003, Mongrel America, is still timely and also worth a re-read.

Before there is a final solution

Starting to make my peace with Toni Morrison after that unfortunate encounter in the ’70s, now best forgotten after her passing (about which, regrettably, I may have said some not nice things).

Picked up a release of her essays which included a portion of her speech on Racism and Fascism, delivered at Howard University in 1995. It’s the passage that famously starts…

“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”

…and builds to this magnificent peroration:

“It changes citizens into taxpayers…it changes neighbors into consumers…it changes parenting into panicking…we find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see through a screen darkly.”

Okay, I’m with her. Here’s the original video of the speech; she altered it slightly for publication (book below). After I’m done with that, may even have to pick up my copy of Song of Solomon again, which has been frozen in time since 1977 with a bookmark on page 109.

[from C-SPAN]

 

The book is currently widely available in paperback:

Our votes are not enough

Important essay. Our problems are huge and cannot be fixed with one vote.

“Viewing the solution to these problems as simply electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both underestimates the depth of the problems and trivializes the remedies necessary to undo the damage.”

[from The New Yorker]

Progress beyond politics

Very thoughtful piece by climate change activist Bill McKibben on how we can make progress the next few years.
First, take care of everyone during the shift: “Any plan needs to focus on making sure that workers currently building oil pipelines have something else to build instead.”

And second, realize that movements are stronger than politics, and with that strength politicians can be moved:
“The Sunrise Movement, in the wake of a tough primary loss for their guy Bernie Sanders, didn’t walk away. They partnered effectively with the Biden campaign, helping reach a shared policy platform and then delivering millions of phone-banking calls. They are, in other words, a power — probably the most important electoral force in the environmental movement at this point.”

[from YaleEnvironment360]

White supremacy, expanded and rebranded

“He also gave our unique brand of ugliness — rooted in racism, exceptionalism, recklessness, arrogance and a tendency to bully our way to power — a name. Trumpism is now rooted in the lexicon, and although white supremacy may be the better, more clinical term for what ails America, Trumpism is a useful, colloquial alternative. It encompasses an even wider category of people that includes not just avowed racists who have publicly supported the president but also those who downplay the problem, or align with it for personal gain, or are simply unwilling to acknowledge its history and persistence.”