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In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

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I want to point to three great posts.

First is Larry Lessig‘s Podcasting and the Slow Democracy Movement. A pull quote:

The architecture of the podcast is the precise antidote for the flaws of the present. It is deep where now is shallow. It is insulated from ads where now is completely vulnerable. It is a chance for thinking and reflection; it has an attention span an order of magnitude greater than the Tweet. It is an opportunity for serious (and playful) engagement. It is healthy eating for a brain-scape that now gorges on fast food.

If 2016 was the Twitter election — fast food, empty calorie content driving blood pressure but little thinking — then 2020 must be the podcast election — nutrient-rich, from every political perspective. Not sound bites driven by algorithms, but reflective and engaged humans doing what humans still do best: thinking with empathy about ideals that could make us better — as humans, not ad-generating machines.

There is hope here. We need to feed it.

I found that through a Radio Open Source email pointing to the show’s latest podcast, The New Normal. I haven’t heard that one yet; but I am eager to, because I suspect the “new normal” may be neither. And, as I might not with Twitter, I am foregoing judgement until I do hear it. The host is also Chris Lydon, a friend whose podcast pionering owes to collaboration with Dave Winer, who invented the form of RSS used by nearly all the world’s podcasters, and who wrote my third recommended post, Working Together, in 2019. That one is addressed to Chris and everyone else bringing tools and material to the barns we’re raising together. The title says it all, but read it anyway.

Work is how we feed the hope Larry talks about.

 

2017-03-27_subwayphones

shot this picture with my phone on the subway last night, while no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.

I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.

We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s was and remains Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is both singular and plural. We get shaped, and so do our infrastructures, societies, governments and the rest of what we do in the civilized world. (Here’s an example of all four of those happening at once: People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground. From Quartz.)

Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, telcos and the other feudal overlords* that sell us our rectangles and connect to the world? (*A metaphor we owe to Bruce Schneier.)

The deeper question is whether we’ll finish becoming dependent serfs to sovereigns with silos or start becoming self-sovereign as free-range human beings in truly open societies.

The answer will probably be some combination of both. In the meantime, however, one clear need is for greater independence and agency, at least at the individual level. (There are similar needs at the social, political and economic spheres as well, but let’s keep this personal.)

Obsolescence will help.

Within the next two years (just like the last two and the two before that), most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony, text, audio and video, and much more cool (and perhaps scary) new shit (VR, AI, IA, CX and other two-letter acronyms, to name a few off the top of my head and my screen).

Just as surely they’ll also give us new ways to shape what we do and be shaped as well. Perhaps by then mass media will finish turning into the mess media it actually is already, though we don’t call it that yet.

One big Hmm is What comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles)?

Everything gets obsolesced, one way or another, eventually. But that doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsolesced tech still hangs around in a subordinated, subsumed or specialized state. Print did that to scribing, Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, subsuming them all and stretching their effects to the absolute limit by eliminating the distances between everything while pushing costs toward zero. (See The Giant Zero for more on that.)

Thus, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity and no distance. Since progress is the process by which the miraculous becomes mundane, we already experience these two states non-ironically and all at once. And een this isn’t new. Here’s what I wrote about it in The Intention Economy, published in 2012:

Story #1. It’s 2002, and the kid is seven. As always, he’s full of questions. As sometimes happens, I don’t have an answer. But this time he comes back with a simple demand:

“Look it up,” he says.

“I can’t. I’m driving.”

“Look it up anyway.”

“I need a computer for that.”

“Why?”

Story #2. It’s 2007, and we are staying overnight in the house of an old family friend. In a guest bedroom is a small portable 1970’s-vintage black-and-white TV. On the front of the TV are a volume control and two tuning dials: one for channels 2-13, the other for 14-83. The kid examines the device for a minute or two and says, “What is this?” I say it’s a TV. He points at the two dials and asks, “Then what are these for?”

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. The beauty of stars would be legend, Emerson said, if they only showed through the clouds but once every thousand years. What would he have made of commercial aviation, a system by which millions of people fly all over the globe, every day, leaping continents and oceans in just a few hours, while complaining of bad food and slow service, and shutting their windows to block light from the clouds below so they can watch a third-rate movie with bad sound on a tiny screen?

The Internet is a sky of stars we’ve made for ourselves (and of ourselves), all just a few clicks away.

McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:

250px-mediatetrad-svg

Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

These are posed as a heuristic: an approach to help us understand what’s going on, rather than a way to come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.

So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound, invisible, unnoticed. We all smell something. Is it our human frogs boiling? The primordial ooze out of which we are evolving into creatures other than human? What is that?

Here’s a hmm: what will obsolesce smartphones?

I don’t have answers; I’m just sure there will be some—and that we’ll have passed Peak Phone when they come.

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Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, better known as Francesco Franceschi (1843-1924), was an Italian horticulturist responsible for vastly increasing the botanical variety of Santa Barbara (introducing more than 900 species). He was also for awhile the primary landowner on the Riviera, a loaf-shaped hill overlooking the city’s downtown. Most of that hill is now covered with houses, but a large part that isn’t is what remains of the Franceschi estate: 18 acres called Franceschi Park, featuring a crumbling mansion and the bust above, carved into the top of a boulder on the property.

The city doesn’t have much to say about Franceschi, with a website devoted to the park that goes one paragraph deep. This makes sense, because the state of neglect in the park is extreme. I won’t go into details, because they’re well presented all these stories:

Wikipedia, at the top link above, goes deep too. So does this 2002 Pacific Horticulture story, which suggests with this photo—

2002_jas-chamberlin-001-660x896

—that the bust above isn’t a bad likeness.

But that boulder and Franceschi’s head are going to be shards on the road soon if the city, or somebody, doesn’t save it. Simply put, the ground under it is giving way. Take a look. Here’s the bust, on its boulder, a few feet above the ground that has fallen down to Mission Ridge Road below:

fail1

And here you can see the failing slope, and the rubble that has fallen from within it onto the road:

fail2

I shot that a couple days ago, in a break between this winter’s record breaking rainstorms. And here’s a closer look at the slo-mo landslide happening immediately below the sculpture:

fail3Saving Franceschi’s bust is surely an easier job than saving his house. What I’m hoping here is that publishing this blog post will stir up some interest.

 

amsterdam-streetImagine you’re on a busy city street where everybody who disagrees with you disappears.

We have that city now. It’s called media—especially the social kind.

You can see how this works on Wall Street Journal‘s Blue Feed, Red Feed page. Here’s a screen shot of the feed for “Hillary Clinton” (one among eight polarized topics):

blue-red-wsj

Both invisible to the other.

We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.)

But we have it in digital media.

Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now:

fakenews

Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on.

Those ads are aimed by tracking beacons planted in your phones and browsers, feeding data about your interests, likes and dislikes to robot brains that work as hard as they can to know you and keep feeding you more stuff that stokes your prejudices. Fake or not, what you’ll see is stuff you are likely to share with others who do the same. This business that pays for this is called “adtech,” also known as “interest based” or “interactive” advertising. But those are euphemisms. Its science is all about stalking. They can plausibly deny it’s personal. But it is.

The “social” idea is “markets as conversations” (a personal nightmare for me, gotta say). The business idea is to drag as many eyeballs as possible across ads that are aimed by the same kinds of creepy systems. The latter funds the former.

Rather than unpack that, I’ll leave that up to the rest of ya’ll, with a few links:

 

I want all the help I can get unpacking this, because I’m writing about it in a longer form than I’m indulging in here. Thanks.

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thIn The American Dream, Quantified at Last, David Leonhardt in The New York Times makes a despairing case for a perfect Onion headline: American Dream Ends When Nation Wakes Up.

Like so much else the Times correctly tries to do, the piece issues a wake-up call. It is also typical of the Times’ tendency to look at every big social issue through the lenses of industrial age norms, giving us lots of stats and opinions from Serious Sources, and offering policy-based remedies (e.g. “help more middle- and low-income children acquire the skills that lead to good-paying jobs”).

It should help to remember that the ancestors who gave us surnames like Tanner, Smith, Farmer and Cooper didn’t have “jobs.” As a word, “jobs” acquired its current meaning after industry won the industrial revolution—and began to wane in usage after personal computing and the Internet showed up, giving us countless new ways to work on our own and with each other. You can see that in the rate at which the word “jobs” showed up in books:

jobsI’m not even sure “work” was all the Tanners and Smiths of the world did. Maybe it was what we now call “a living,” in an almost literal sense.

Whatever it was, it involved technologies: tools they shaped, and which also shaped them. (Source.) Yet for all the ways those ancestors were confined and defined by the kind of work they did, they were also very ingenious in coping with and plying those same technologies. Anyone who has spent much time on a farm, or in any kind of hardscrabble existence, knows how inventive people can be with the few means they have to operate in the world.

This is one reason why I have trouble with all the predictions of, for example, robot and AI take-overs of most or all work. For all the degrees to which humans are defined and limited by the tools that make them, humans are also highly ingenious. They find new ways to make new work for themselves and others. This is why I’d like to see more thought given to how ingenuity shows up and plays out. And not just more hand-wringing over awful futures that seem to be linear progressions out of industrial age (or dawn-of-digital age) framings and norms.

Note: the spear point above is one I found in a tilled field north of Chapel Hill, NC. It is now at the Alamance County Historical Museum.

 

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We all know what this symbol means:

usedhead

Two people are not allowed to share an iPad.

Just kidding. It means the lavatory in the airplane is occupied. Also that it can be used by persons of either gender.

Which gender you are is of no concern to the airline. Or to the lavatory. Because it doesn’t matter.

The fact that lavatories outside airplanes generally sort visitors by gender is also not a big deal. They’ve done that for a long time. To my knowledge this is a matter of custom more than of law.

But for some damn fool reason, “conservative” legislators (you know, the kind that supposedly don’t like new laws and bigger government) in North Carolina, which was my home state for two decades, decided to pass the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which was meant to overturn a piece of local legislation in Charlotte prohibiting operators of public facilities from discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Much freaking out has ensued since then. All of it could have been avoided if conservative sympathies actually applied. Meaning, leave well enough alone.

Or just don’t be stupid and pigheaded, which North Carolina’s legislature and governor are clearly being right now.

 

 

A photo readers find among the most interesting among the 13,000+ aerial photos I've put on Flickr

This photo of the San Juan River in Utah is among dozens of thousands I’ve put on Flickr. it might be collateral damage if Yahoo dies or fails to sell the service to a worthy buyer.

Flickr is far from perfect, but it is also by far the best online service for serious photographers. At a time when the center of photographic gravity is drifting form arts & archives to selfies & social, Flickr remains both retro and contemporary in the best possible ways: a museum-grade treasure it would hurt terribly to lose.

Alas, it is owned by Yahoo, which is, despite Marissa Mayer’s best efforts, circling the drain.

Flickr was created and lovingly nurtured by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, from its creation in 2004 through its acquisition by Yahoo in 2005 and until their departure in 2008. Since then it’s had ups and downs. The latest down was the departure of Bernardo Hernandez in 2015.

I don’t even know who, if anybody, runs it now. It’s sinking in the ratings. According to Petapixel, it’s probably up for sale. Writes Michael Zhang, “In the hands of a good owner, Flickr could thrive and live on as a dominant photo sharing option. In the hands of a bad one, it could go the way of MySpace and other once-powerful Internet services that have withered away from neglect and lack of innovation.”

Naturally, the natives are restless. (Me too. I currently have 62,527 photos parked and curated there. They’ve had over ten million views and run about 5,000 views per day. I suppose it’s possible that nobody is more exposed in this thing than I am.)

So I’m hoping a big and successful photography-loving company will pick it up. I volunteer Adobe. It has the photo editing tools most used by Flickr contributors, and I expect it would do a better job of taking care of both the service and its customers than would Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or other possible candidates.

Less likely, but more desirable, is some kind of community ownership. Anybody up for a kickstarter?

[Later…] I’m trying out 500px. Seems better than Flickr in some respects so far. Hmm… Is it possible to suck every one of my photos, including metadata, out of Flickr by its API and bring it over to 500px?

I also like Thomas Hawk‘s excellent defense of Flickr, here.

 

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4-1-06 detroit & ccs 005 web

Once, in the early ’80s, on a trip from Durham to some beach in North Carolina, we stopped to use the toilets at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. In the stall where I sat was a long conversation, in writing, between two squatters debating some major issue of the time. Think of the best back-and-forth you’ve ever read in a comment thread and you’ll get a rough picture of what this was like.

So I sat there, becoming engrossed and amazed at the high quality of the dialog — and the unlikelihood of it happening where it was.

Until I got to the bottom. There, ending the conversation, were the penultimate and ultimate summaries, posed as a question and answer:

Q: Why do people feel compelled to settle their differences on bathroom walls?

A. Because you suck my dick.

That story became legendary in our family and social network, to such a degree that my then-teenage daughter and her girlfriends developed a convention of saying “Because you suck my dick” whenever an argument went on too long and wasn’t going anywhere. This was roughly the same as dropping a cow: a way to end a conversation with an absurdity.

The whole thing came back to me when I read Pro-Trump Chalk Messages Cause Conflicts on College Campuses in the NYTimes today. The story it suggests is that this kind of thing regresses toward a mean that is simply mean. Or stupid. For example,

Wesleyan University issued a moratorium in 2003, after members of the faculty complained that they were being written about in sexually explicit chalk messages.

So I’m thinking we need a name for this, or at least an initialism. So I suggest BYSMD.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

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