Earthy laughter

July 28, 2009 at 10:36 pm | In just_so | 2 Comments

…something about the voice and the image

They’re at odds, in a way.

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt
Und das ist meine Welt, sonst keine…

Marlene Dietrich …very young

Bridging obsessions

July 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm | In johnson street bridge, victoria | Comments Off on Bridging obsessions

Given my recent obsession with a local bridge – Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge, a bascule bridge designed by Joseph Strauss (see my article, Blue Bridge blues) – it makes sense that I’d be enthralled by manager‘s article on Hamburg’s storied bridges.

Granted, Victoria has nothing on Hamburg in the bridge department: the latter is, as the magazine puts it, Europe’s most “bridge-rich” city, boasting a total of 2500 bridges. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century alone, 1000 new bridges got built (and presumably nearly as many destroyed by 1945, which is conflated to “mid-20th century” by the magazine article…)

One might also add that, given Victoria’s relative bridge-paucity as compared to a city like Hamburg’s bridge-richness, it seems all the more relevant to preserve the storied bridge we have, right? Our civic leaders, however, apparently don’t feel that way and say, “bombs away!” and “buh-bye Blue Bridge.”

Anyway, the magazine article provides illustrations from an exhibition now on view in Hamburg at the Museum der Arbeit, Hamburg und seine Bruecken – Baukunst, Technik, Geschichte bis 1945. The exhibition documents some amazing bridges. Here are a couple of them:
Nordelbbruecke Hamburg
This amazing structure (from 1872) combines rail and automotive transport. According to manager, the photo was taken in 1950, but I’m not clear if the bridge still exists.

Here’s another one:
Elbbruecke Hamburg

This photo is from 1915 and it looks as though this bridge is having some work done to it. Again, no idea if it’s still extant.

Finally, this one:
Portal of the Strassenbruecke Hamburg

It shows a Portal (1884-87) to what looks like the same bridge we see in the previous photo, except that the portal is a delirious Victorian-Gothic work of imperialist architecture, behind which a sort of Rapunzel-like stream of riveted steel flows abundantly …and meets another foreboding portal on the other side.

It makes Post-modernism look like a walk in the park – and us moderns like unimaginative Dilberts.

New site: Johnson Street Bridge DOT org

July 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm | In johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | 2 Comments

I’m involved with Mat Wright and Ross Crockford in a new website, Johnson Street Bridge. Please check it out.

And please take a look at my first blog post there, Bad Reason, 1, subtitled “Bad reasons to spend money on JSB replacement.” I worked up some steam about what I consider bad civic leadership around here, too.

Bottom line regarding my argument in Bad Reason, 1: Whether ugly (“a brute”) or beautiful, the Johnson Street Bridge is interesting – and that’s the most important thing for a creative, urban economy. Just take a look at the amazing photos on Flickr, tagged with johnsonstreetbridge, for an inkling of the bridge’s ability to offer up interestingness.

Nothing is worse than boring – that’s what the suburbs are for. Whatever will replace the Johnson Street Bridge will be massively and blightingly boring, and therefore an affront to Victoria’s urban character.

One wonders why our civic leaders are so intent on suburbanizing this city.

Below, a photo by Victoria flickreena ngawangchodron (hope she doesn’t mind being referenced by me like this, but it’s such an evocative shot):
Photo of Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria BC

It’s all in the mind

July 24, 2009 at 10:16 am | In health, housekeeping | 3 Comments

Either I’m becoming what I’ve always dreaded – namely, a candidate for one of those [flaky?] “self-realization” weekend retreats where you uncover, explore, and finally vanquish whatever subconscious “blocks” have you stuck in old patterns (…hey, didn’t someone make a sci-fi “religion” out of that?) – or I’m in the beginning grip of a sinusitis, accompanied by Lugu (the old Black Dog).

The absence of regular blog posts is not an indication of being happily employed elsewhere. It’s merely me stopping myself from writing posts like this one.

I’m stuck in every which way, and every time I think of a way forward, the hole gets deeper. Now my body is tuning in to my mindset, hence the weird days-long headache and slow bricking-up of skull cavities originally designed to, …um, lighten the load of this, my re-presentations.

Melencolia by Albrecht Duerer

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

July 19, 2009 at 2:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Another hat: curator

July 16, 2009 at 9:15 pm | In housekeeping, victoria, web | Comments Off on Another hat: curator

As some of my readers know, I’m a co-founder of a Victoria-based venture called MetroCascade, which aims to evolve into a go-to site for news, events, and information about Victoria BC. We’re doing this by first of all providing a platform for blogs and news sources (and events). That’s only the start, but it’s already proving quite interesting.

Why? Well, the blogs and news sources have grown quite rapidly. We have over 200 sources (see the Authors page) and for now several bucket Categories (which aren’t fine-tuned enough and therefore not really satisfactory).

It seems clear to me that, if we want to add value to all this stuff we’re aggregating (and we do), there has to be some level of curation. Hence, my new hat.

I’m still testing this out – right now via our blog (which isn’t currently hosted on MetroCascade, but I hope soon will be). To date, I’ve posted five “curations”: the first one (called A First Curation!) was really long, the second (Highlights from the firehose) shorter, and the third (The Uncategory…), fourth (Lifestyle is a many-splendored thing), and fifth (The Parenting Environment) I wrote tonight, one after the other, with a kind of resignation in the face of content onslaught: there were 15 pages of archives to mull through since the last curation 2 days ago.

I’ll let readers know how this continues to work out. Right now it seems a bit daunting, but maybe I’ll develop a system.

Jumping Malthus’s shadow

July 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm | In ideas, innovation, writing | 2 Comments

Although I had planned some longer blog posts about the interaction of the natural and the social worlds, how they collide and also drain away from one another specifically here in Victoria BC, I need to blog first about an intriguing book I’m currently reading: A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark.
Book cover of A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
I was initially annoyed by Clark’s focus on what he calls the Malthusian regime, the entire pre-Industrial Revolution period in which people all over the world had more or less existed at subsistence levels – a condition not to be confused with starvation, but more with stasis …I think. That is, under the Malthusian regime, a society can’t jump over its own shadow, and it somehow always lands again in the same place.

Admittedly, I skimmed a lot of the book’s first third because I’m not an economist and the detailed data on death rates, birth rates, interest rates, medieval wills, and whatnot went over my head. Right over my head went most of Clark’s to-me-incomprehensible formulae that combine the driest of economic theory with the Greek-est of mathematical symbols. Parts of the book are literally in a language I don’t know how to understand.

But…! But now I’m on Part II, The Industrial Revolution (pp.193 ff.), and now Clark explains how the shadow was jumped.

Last night, on p.197, I read the passage that explains, for Clark, the factor that drives post-Industrial Revolution growth:

Growth is generated overwhelmingly by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

The statement looks simple, but it is somewhat complex, and brilliant. Let’s examine it. (Note: apologies to Clark if I’m getting this completely wrong, but here’s my take.)

  • Production knowledge refers to knowledge about how goods and services are produced, whether it’s manufacturing or medicine or food production or ideas. In the pre-Industrial Revolution period, the ecosystem of knowledge around production didn’t expand all that much – people didn’t do things in new ways, they did most things the way their parents and grandparents or tribal elders taught them to.
  • The stock of production knowledge refers to the whole ecosystem built on, around, and through the various production knowledges (plural – for you can break them down).
  • Investment in the stock of production knowledge means putting the spur to innovation, so that production knowledge actually gets better, deeper, more efficient. Innovation also implies (to my mind) being in it for the long haul, versus getting quick satisfaction and buzzing off to go lie on the beach.
  • Innovators plan and are capable of delayed gratification, for innovation doesn’t just happen, magically. Pre-Industrial Revolution societies, while often having a more “brutish” existence, nonetheless score low on the “capable of delaying gratification” scale. The ability to plan for the future and to delay gratification also goes hand in hand with literacy (knowledge transmission, creating wills to pass on wealth) and numeracy (being able to count beyond one-two-many, and therefore being able to estimate accurately and, again, plan).

So, to repeat: Overall growth – to benefit societies, to extricate them from the Malthusian regime of subsistence – is generated by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

Right after that sentence, Clark writes: “To understand the Industrial Revolution is to understand why such activity was not present or was unsuccessful before 1800, and why it became omnipresent after 1800.”

I’m definitely looking forward to reading (and trying to understand) the rest of this book. My interest is already piqued by his references to the benefits of density and urban agglomerations, and I see his ideas in the context of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, too.

Here’s a link to a NYTimes review of the Clark’s book, by Nicholas Wade: In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence.

A side note…

Clark has been criticized for emphasizing a genetic component to economic growth – he argues that values such as the ability to delay gratification as well as skills like literacy are almost genetically passed down through a society, often literally passed down, since in the period that led to the Industrial Revolution, the offspring of the very wealthy were most likely to step down in society. The rich had more surviving children, while the poor had fewer. But the rich under the Malthusian regime couldn’t ensure that their surviving offspring would have the wealth they enjoyed, and thus, the sons of large landholders became small landholders, sons of important merchants became small-time traders, and so forth. While that looks like a downward spiral, Clark argues that it actually helped spread the values of the rich into society overall. The offspring of the poor were less likely to survive, therefore there were fewer of them to propagate their values.

Sounds brutal and not very politically correct (or perhaps confirms the worst fears of revolutionaries), but it sure reminded me of some of the research featured recently in Seed Magazine on the Hive Mind and the eusociality of some insects, which indicates that behaviors, not just genes, are passed along by evolution.

Here’s a rather long extract from Seed Magazine’s article on the Hive Mind:

Amy Toth, a post-doc in genomic biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that many of the morphological differences among eusocial insects don’t arise from genes coding for body plan, but from differential nutrition. “For a long time,” she says, “people have known that nutritional differences are important in social insect societies. Queens are better nourished than other workers, and that’s very well established for many different species.” What Toth’s and others’ research is showing now is that there are nutritional differences among workers as well: “Skinny ones are foragers, and fat ones tend to do tasks in the nest, such as brood care,” she says. What’s more, they are able to trace the mechanisms behind those differences down to interactions on the genetic level.

Her work, along with that of Gene Robinson, also at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and Jim Hunt, shows that it’s not merely differential nutrition that leads to caste differences, but the fact that differential nutrition affects gene expression. A poorly fed larva’s gene that codes for, say, vision will be expressed at a different intensity and at different times from one who is well fed. So the individual with more acute vision will, as an adult, undertake tasks for which vision is important. The two insects share a genotype, but because their genes are switched on or off at different times, their life cycles and even appearance would seem to be those of unrelated individuals. In ants, which are more sophisticated, differential gene expression leads to radical morphological differences, such as wide divergence in head and mandible size, and even the presence or absence of wings, all macroscopic differences that one would usually ascribe to genotype.


The life cycle of a paper wasp colony begins with a foundress, a female wasp who, at the end of the previous autumn, mated with a single male and managed to survive the winter in hibernation. In spring, with the male’s sperm still living inside her, she begins to construct her nest, into which she deposits fertilized eggs that will become the first generation of female workers. As the larvae develop, the foundress feeds and cares for them, though not very well.

Hunt says the ones that are fed only by the foundress are poorly fed, and though they are destined not to reproduce, they are, surprisingly, not born sterile. “When they emerge,” he says, “they are reproductively ready to go. They have the physiology of a noneusocial, solitary wasp. They have their reproductive physiology switched on.”

But because they were poorly fed, they are not fully developed. Their bodies are soft, and they cannot fly for the first day or so, so they stay in the nest. This is something, Hunt says, that a solitary, noneusocial wasp would never do, and it has nothing to do with a mutation. Because their reproductive system is ginned up, this first generation is primed for maternal behavior; what they find while hanging around the nest is that there is a second generation of larvae already present and in need of nourishment. So because they cannot fly away and seek the food they need to develop their ovaries, they instead rear their mother’s young, their brothers and sisters. The energetic cost of mothering eventually causes their reproductive systems to shut down entirely, and they will remain sterile the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, the females of this second generation, which are called gynes, emerge from the larval state fat and healthy, but with their reproductive systems not yet active. They stay in the nest and continue to accept the attention and food provided by the workers. Toward the end of the summer, when the food sources start to dry up and the workers return to the colony with less and less to share with their siblings, the gynes will leave the nest and, if they are lucky, be inseminated. They will then hibernate, and, if they survive the winter, attempt to found their own colonies. Meanwhile, the worker will have died at home. Their life cycles could not be more different, though their genotypes are the same.

While humans aren’t insects, the emphasis on nutrition and how it affects genetic expression, which in turn determines social behavior, seems resonant with the kind of situations that economists study: how well are people doing? How nurtured or well-fed are they? What can they afford?

Clark has been a busy worker bee, gathering a ton of data. Even if non-economists don’t understand it all, his book is well worth reading.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

July 12, 2009 at 2:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Ourossoff raises some important question regarding heritage and preservation – who gets to decide (and why) that something should be preserved, and why is 20th century modernism still neglected?
    How old does a building have to be before we appreciate its value? And when does its cultural importance trump practical considerations?

    tags: tokyo, architecture, modernism, kisho_kurokawa, nicolai_ouroussoff, metabolism, capsule_tower

  • David Merrill, inventor of Siftables, interactive electronic building blocks, demonstrates his technology at the 2009 TED conference.

    Amazing technology; when he started the demo, I was immediately reminded of what art historians used to do when we still used slides: we used “slide tables” (basically light boxes) and moved the slides around to create and edit our lectures, really almost on the fly, as it were. It was a very creative way to put together a presentation and make connections between ideas, in a tactile and spatial way, that you can’t do in the same way anymore using only digital media. So it’s kind of nice to see some of that spatial aspect coming back into how we (literally) manipulate information to make new connections.

    tags: ted_conference, mit_techreview, video, siftables

  • Theories on why our brains periodically “lurch into a blizzard of noise” or chaos.
    Some believe that near-chaotic states may be crucial to memory, and could explain why some people are smarter than others.

    In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of “self-organised criticality”. These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour – such as a swinging pendulum – and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence.

    tags: neuroscience, brain, new_scientist, david_robinson, chaos

  • Timely.
    Immelt exhorted Americans to give up the notion that the U.S. can make it as a services-led, consumption-based economy, where “a mortgage broker is pulling down $5 million a year while a Ph.D. chemist is earning $100,000.”

    The country must refocus on manufacturing and R&D and must strive to be a leading exporter, he said. He announced that GE was opening an advanced manufacturing and software technology center outside of Detroit near the headquarters of Visteon, the auto parts maker that recently sought bankruptcy protection.

    Coincidentally, “Restoring American Competitiveness,” an article in the July-August special issue of the Harvard Business Review makes the same case about the importance of manufacturing. It warns that the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base is seriously undermining the country’s ability to innovate. (So much for the idea that we can succeed by letting other countries manufacture the products we invent!)

    In his speech, Immelt offered a vision for how the business and government together can revive the economy and solve grand challenges such as clean energy and affordable health care. “We should welcome the government as a catalyst for leadership and change,” he said, calling for a “real public-private partnership.” (This from a self-described “Republican and free market guy.”)

    This article fits nicely with Konrad Yakabuski Globe & Mail article, Canada’s Innovation Gap (below).

    tags: harvard_business, steve_prokesch, america, economy, renewal, innovation, manufacturing, video

  • Insightful (and often cutting) article on the status of innovation in Canada. Stephen Downes responded on his blog here, basically agreeing, saying that we need a bit of free market and a bit of government direction as well, and that we (Canadians) need to wean ourselves from our corporate overlords. The latter are almost like a third force here, rooted historically as the controllers of resource extraction. In an aside, G&M journalist Konrad Yakabuski notes that Canadians already log more work hours than Americans and are workaholics compared to Europeans – who innovate more and therefore, because they work smarter, don’t need to work harder.

  • tags: innovation, canada, globeandmail, productivity, technology, resources, economic_development, konrad_yakabuski

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Guerrilla Sharrows in the mist

July 10, 2009 at 11:10 am | In cities, victoria | 11 Comments

A few days ago, Victoria, BC activists related to O.U.R.S. (Other Urban Repair Squad, eg.) painted sharrows (Shared Lane Markings) on several streets in the city. The local paper ran an article (City crews obliterate guerrilla road marks) and Victoria Indymedia published OURS’s press release, Cycling Activists Take to Streets Over Slow Expansion of Bike Lanes. One of the City of Victoria’s councilors (recently elected John Luton) is supposed to be a cycling advocate, but was quoted in the local paper (the Times-Colonist) as follows:

“I question whether these are bike advocates or just anarchists who ride bikes,” he said.

“More responsible bike advocates work with municipalities to advance their cause. This sort of thing creates more problems than it solves.” (source)

The Times-Colonist has started publishing letters to the editor on the topic. I have to say I really agree with the first part of this one, Bike-lane painters are doing a good deed. The author (Marty Hykin) writes:

I am thinking about the midnight bike lane painters whose work was destroyed by city crews the next day. It is reported that the cycling group “followed Canadian guidelines for road marking to a T” and that their admirable motivations were entirely concerned with promoting road safety.

City councillor John Luton, a cycling advocate, dismisses the actions of these civic-minded volunteers, calling them “anarchists.” He states that the work must be done “within the city budget and priorities.”

Yet the city appears to have plenty of money in its budget to shift priorities in the blink of an eye, sending crews out to paint over the markings. Where did that money suddenly come from?

There are a variety of problems in this city that are handled in part or in whole by volunteers. Volunteers work as school crossing guards, feed the hungry, house the homeless and guide tourists. People put up road signs warning drivers to slow down in residential streets where children might be playing. I don’t hear the city harrumphing that those worthy people are “anarchists.”

Why can we not accept the cycling group’s generous gift of free paint and free labour? Perhaps the city might even reciprocate by providing a few road safety cones or a person to direct traffic around the activity.

While I’m not sure I want volunteers to take over too many duties, I think Hykin nails it when he points out that the city never ceases to remind taxpayers and residents that it has no money to address pressing problems, yet somehow managed, in the blink of an eye, to find the crews, the paint, the funds to obliterate the sharrows – which had been painted in part as protest over the delays in implementing cycling infrastructure improvements, delays supposedly stemming from lack of funds.

I live near one of the intersections (Cook and Fort Streets): even though I’m really familiar with those streets, I had no idea there were itty-bitty signs on Cook Street between Fort and Yates that indicate to drivers and cyclists that the latter are allowed, encouraged, even obliged, to take the center of the lane.

So, are we waiting for some cyclist to get knocked over by a car driver who thinks he’s “in the right” in not sharing the road, or do we continue to put up with cyclists on the sidewalk endangering pedestrians?

Before anyone flames me for not wanting cyclists on sidewalks: I don’t know about your municipality, but it’s illegal here for anyone over 12. I feel about cyclists on sidewalks the way cyclists feel about being on roads that drivers don’t want to share: it’s not a good mix. From the pedestrian’s point of view, a cyclist is heavier, has much greater velocity, and can really do some damage to the person on foot …just as a car (heavier, greater velocity) does damage – will do more damage, but damage is damage – to anyone on a bike …or on foot.

The main point, however, is money: how come the City has no money to paint sharrows, yet has the funds to paint them over, lickety-split? Is this part of the bureaucracy malaise (silo thinking), and have new councilors bought into it already?


(Photo source: Follow the Sharrows on Urban Photo)

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