Reading in the archives

January 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm | In authenticity, creativity, ideas, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

I was rooting around in my Google documents just minutes ago and came across two 2006 blog post drafts I’d parked there. I published them to my blog at the time, but hadn’t re-viewed them since then: All Eyes (Oct.22, 2006) and Winter will come soon enough (Oct.25, 2006).

Both posts convince me of two things: 1) that I should be leveraging my own archive; and 2) that I’ve become stupider over the past couple of years.

When I started blogging in 2003, I paid attention to what was said about blogging – what it was “supposed” to be, and what it wasn’t supposed to be. I guess I wasn’t particularly good at following instructions, though, so I never rose anywhere near the ranks where the big A-listers hung out – and instead I usually wrote long, convoluted posts.

Why? Probably because I had enough belief in my own ability to analyze – and most importantly: to synthesize – ideas. I continued to pursue my “big” ideas, irrespective of my marginal status and my inability to be popular. So what if my texts were an acquired taste and had a readership of …a few? These few were my readers, and that’s what counted. And so I wrote what I wanted to write.

While it bothered me that popular bloggers insisted that one should write at a Grade 8 level or that one shouldn’t write large blocks of text and that one should always break text up with lots of images and bullet points and paragraph headings, I kept going along in my style. Why? Because it helped me think – and I happened to be thinking about important matters.

That changed.

Somehow, in the last few years I lost touch with my intellectual side, the side that kept me thinking about important things. And it wasn’t other bloggers or A-list pundits who convinced me to lose that touch. It was my local environment. Here, in this island city, I tried to be a local pundit, and lord, what a disaster that was. I wrote for a print publication, which garnered me even less feedback than my blog posts had. I tried writing simply, because I was made to understand that overly complex texts aren’t popular. But I still wasn’t getting any resonance, even if I tried to write at a Grade 8 level. Therefore, it must all be my fault, I concluded. In 2007 the local mainstream media ripped me off, which hammered home the insight that ideas count for nothing when there’s an old boys’ network and $$ at stake.

Things got worse: in 2009 I also got sucked into a very fraught local political issue, which nearly completely destroyed my sense of …being able to make sense. That disaster happened in the slipstream of another lowlight of 2008, the aftereffects of which have dragged on for over two years: a municipal election that swept into power an awful mayor and council, further alienating me from Victoria. The 2011 election promises no relief, incidentally.

Doubly alienated – from my academic self as well as my engaged civic self – I have spent the last many months floundering. I’ve thrown myself into other projects and subjects, but my output has gone to the lowest common denominator. I tried to make myself understood locally, and that was my personal Waterloo. So much time wasted… talking to …whom? The town closed ranks and shut me out.

And I have lost years of serious thinking. What an idiot I’ve been to waste my time like this.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 30, 2011 at 1:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Another Lincoln Institute publication, abstracted on this webpage. Interesting comment re. differences between infill policies in cities with little population growth (where I live, for example) vs. infill in cities with rapid population growth:
    Policies aimed at reducing fragmentation should be clearly distinguished from policies aimed at increasing the density of built-up areas. Encouraging infill in cities with little population growth is qualitatively different from encouraging infill in cities with rapidly growing populations. In the former, it can form the backbone of an effective ‘smart growth’ policy. In the latter, it is overshadowed by the urgent need to prepare vast areas for projected outward expansion.

    tags: lincoln_institute density cities infill growth sprawl

  • New publication from the Lincoln Institute, downloadable as PDF. Abstract on this webpage; excerpt:
    The key findings show that on average, densities in developing countries are double those in Europe and Japan, and densities in Europe and Japan are double those of the United States, Canada, and Australia; and that on average, the annual growth rate of urban land cover was twice that of the urban population between 1990 and 2000. Most of the cities studied expanded their built-up area more than 16-fold in the twentieth century. At present rates of density decline, the world’s urban population is expected to double in 43 years, while urban land cover will double in only 19 years. The urban population of the developing countries is expected to double between 2000 and 2030 while the built-up area of their cities can be expected to triple.

    The research suggests that preparation for the sustainable growth of cities in rapidly urbanizing countries should be grounded in four key components: the realistic projections of urban land needs; generous metropolitan limits; selective protection of open space; and an arterial grid of roads spaced one kilometer apart that can support transit.

    tags: lincoln_institute cities urbanization density

  • Some of this I’m inclined to disagree with, but the overall gist – that, if we care, we need to control our own “memory theaters” and not rely on outsourcing them to the cloud or to various “hamster cages” – I can’t disagree with.
    Until these companies take seriously the needs and, above all, the rights of readers (the human beings, not the machines), they deserve ruthless suspicion. Just because the Kindle and iPad might seem to work relatively reliably now, and because Google tells itself “don’t be evil,” we shouldn’t keep from entertaining darker, more paranoid, even Orwellian fantasies. Never before has the technology been so good for totalitarian urges, should they arise. Already, the agreements being hammered out between Google and the publishing industry are likely to allow Google to withhold as much as 15% of its scanned, copyrighted archive from the public. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother (or pay) to scan most of those books again. Whoever controls Google Books already controls the future of public knowledge to a very considerable degree.

    Far from its pleasantly chaotic salad days, the internet is now tending toward mass consolidation. Companies are less and less interested in helping us store information ourselves and more and more eager to do it for us. We’re not keeping our email and documents on our computers’ hard drives anymore; Gmail and Google Docs have them on distant servers. Apple wants to follow suit with its subscription-based MobileMe system, pulling more and more of our data into its so-called “cloud.” Facebook has already done so with no less than our friendships.


    tags: nathan_schneider memory_theater kindle e-books identity

  • Jan Gehl giving a talk at Cooper Hewitt. It’s long, but worth watching.
    Urban life is in many ways a matter of rhythms, and the rhythms of human movement and perception have found a gifted interpreter in Gehl. Every city that has implemented his ideas has revived some of its livelier qualities, or discovered them anew.

    tags: jan_gehl cities video cooper_hewitt urban_design

  • Jan Gehl on understanding humans, and thereby creating better cities:
    Ever since planning was professionalized around 1960, instead of adding new streets and new houses to existing cities, they switched to big scale stuff–big buildings, new districts, and handling the influx of automobiles. They were good at handling big blocks, but weren’t paying attention to people. In the book, I talk about three levels in city planning: the big story seen from above; the medium story–the site plans, and the little story–the people landscape seen at eye-level. Planners tended to the two bigger scales, but would not come down to eye-level and see the results. And architects became more and more interested in single buildings and in forms than in society. They were concerned with the skyline than the sidewalk. But the people scale is the most important scale, because that’s where the biggest attractions are–other people–and that is exactly the scale that has for years been forgotten and mishandled. Nobody has been commissioned to look after it in any systematic way.

    We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about cities at eye-level. It’s intriguing why so little research has been done on the urban habitat of homo sapiens in urban settings. Since Jane Jacobs, maybe 10 people have studied it seriously: Holly Whyte; Christopher Alexander; Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard among them. Ten years ago, we started our consultancy firm to put all of their theories to work. And we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work. It’s partly a cultural question and partly it’s a matter of biology and what kind of animal we are–how far we can move, and see. Why is it that shops are four or five meters apart on all the good shopping streets all over the world? Because if you’re walking past, there is a new experience every four or five seconds, which is ideal from a stimulus point of view.

    tags: cities jan_gehl urban_design

  • On cities built for people:
    In traditional cities – those places we instinctively love because they’re lovely and beautiful and make us want to sit and eat an ice cream or sip a coffee – the Godzilla factor doesn’t win. Great traditional places like the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, or cities like Barcelona, or Gehl’s own beloved Copenhagen which have grown on a foundation of progressive urbanism, and great new places like Curritiba in southern Brazil built on sustainability principles, all are full of small signals and eye-level details that can only be seen as you walk along a human-scale street at 5 km/hr. And Gehl Architecture’s extensive research in the public realm – which could be characterized as an anthropological study of the wild homo sapien in his natural urban environment – backs this up. We don’t just happen to love Venice because it has great food or because it’s romantic and old. We love places like this because they’re built in a way that works for an average human being just walking or biking around being human.

    tags: jan_gehl urban_design cities

  • Why is Wal-Mart taking on a negative externality that no one is really forcing the company to address or fix? It’s scale.
    In a recent article in HBR, Chris Meyer and I argued that we’ll see companies taking more and more ownership of externalities they could ignore because of changing sensibilities and better sensors (meaning detection and reporting of impacts by third parties). But we also identified a third driver: the scale of modern business. Whereas in the past, a single grocer could not have much impact on society, in today’s highly consolidated market, Wal-Mart touches a significant percentage of the nation’s food intake. Once you reach a scale where your decisions have ramifications for millions, it is hard to pretend that the impacts, even as distant ripples, are not your problem.

    tags: harvard_business walmart negative_externality scale health

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

Health is a virtuous circle

January 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm | In addiction, health, ideas | Comments Off on Health is a virtuous circle

Health is a virtuous circle – that thought came to me the other day, as I thought about how well I’m feeling lately.

…Knock on wood that I didn’t just jinx things… Shades of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition… 😉

Vicious circles are pretty familiar, right? You have an itch, you scratch it. It gets itchier, you scratch some more. Before you know it, you’ve got a rash or a raging case of scabies. Mental scabies, even.

Drink a little too much. Burn the candle at all six ends. Abuse those relationships. Drink (or toke) some more. Whatever. Sit on your ass all day. Pretty soon you’re an open wound, baby.

At which point you have more reasons to pour on the salt – ’cause then you can get even more deeply into the vicious circle. Scratch scratch scratch.

(Or bitch bitch bitch. Mind you, I’m a big fan of critique, which I think is necessary for mental acuity. But bitching is just debilitating. If exercising critique can get you into exciting realms of possibility, bitching just gives you a tighter grip on your walker…)

When you’re healthy, it’s easier to stop scratching the itch that’s making you crazy in the first place. After a while, it’s not so itchy at all.

Bingo. Virtuous circle.

Not so superstitious, either.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 23, 2011 at 1:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • TED talk video of Paula Scher’s presentation on design, play, and seriousness. Interesting distinction between seriousness and solemnity: quotes from Russell Baker, “Washington DC is solemn, New York is serious” (hint: serious is good, solemn is pedestrian/ boring/ conventional)… 😉
    Paula Scher looks back at a life in design (she’s done album covers, books, the Citibank logo …) and pinpoints the moment when she started really having fun.

    tags: paula_scher design video graphics ted_conference

  • Nice profile:
    Paula Scher is one of our favorite designers and arguably the most daring typographer in design history, whose work never ceases to surprise, delight and provoke, thriving on reinvention yet oozing Scher’s unmistakable style. In this excellent microdocumentary, part of Hillman Curtis’ artist series, Scher recounts her creative process on some of her best-known projects, including her famous Citi identity work the iconic New York Public Theater campaign, which evolved into a whole new style that eventually permeated the New York design aesthetic across multiple facets.

    tags: paula_scher design graphics video interview

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

Playing around

January 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm | In arts, authenticity, creativity, ideas, just_so | 2 Comments

Last week I put SketchBook MobileX (free app) on my iTouch. For the first time in a really long time, I had fun just doodling around, using my finger. Also for the first time, layers felt intuitively easy. Keep in mind, the screen on the iTouch is teeny-weeny, yet still it was fun to doodle around…

Ok, my images are crude enough – I haven’t made an effort to draw anything in a long long while, and boy, did I get flummoxed trying to get any kind of detail around mouths or eyes using just my finger – but the point is that I felt empowered by how easy it was to put something down via SketchBook MobileX.

Since using just my (relatively) big finger tip on the tiny iTouch screen did feel frustrating, I sprung for a Pogo Sketch stylus.

It’s less intuitive than using fingers, but on the limited real estate offered by the iTouch screen, it makes sense if you want more detail.

So, in that top sketch on the right ( –>), I first used the iTouch to take a photograph of Werner and me and imported it into SketchBook. (Don’t laugh – being able to put a photograph into an image manipulation interface was a major discovery for me; I never got the hang of the gimp, and my last foray into image editing was on a really basic/ cheap version of Photoshop half a dozen years ago…)

In this image, I used the stylus to doodle over the photograph in a second layer, just to fix the position of eyes/ noses/ mouths, etc. Once I had the outline, I continued working on that layer by adding some detail and coloring it a bit, and then I deleted the underlying photograph layer. Wow, that was fun!

(I know, I know! “How pathetic,” is what all the image manipulation nerds are thinking…)

The doodle below that is another free-from face, this time I was focusing on getting the eyes in about the right position, but mostly I was fixated on getting some architecture around the mouth. Incredibly, I used to know how to do this (hard to believe looking at the primitive scribbles here) – maybe, just maybe, this mobile-on-the-go sketching tool will get me to start re-learning this, and to look at how things (including faces) are built. And that would be amazing. I know I lost a big part of my ability to look – and to see – when I stopped drawing …when? three decades ago?

I can only imagine the pure joy of what it would feel like to draw on a bigger surface (like an iPad) – if I had that, I’d buy the upgrade (which has more features). 🙂 Yes, I could just get a big piece of paper, I know. But I’m so married to digital that paper presents a barrier. Putting a drawing directly into pixels, being able to send it via email or into my iPhoto collection – without scanner hassles – is just amazing to me.

Now, another interesting aspect is how this app lets me join several approaches to capturing an idea. The other day, while waiting for a coffee date and ruminating deeply about living in Victoria, I used the app to “write” a back-of-the-napkin thing – which is much looser than writing a “proper” text:


I felt loose enough to throw that out – and once I had that, I was able to make it “edgy,” as a longer-worded text. I’ll spare you my conclusions as formulated in the full text I ended up writing as there’s enough text here already, but basically, I need to get outta town… 😉

I’m looking forward to doodling around a lot more these days. Maybe I can eventually draw me a ticket.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 16, 2011 at 1:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

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

Apartment hallways: semi-public, communal spaces

January 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm | In architecture | 3 Comments

Can anyone recommend great sources (books, online or print articles, photo sites) that address the topic of apartment foyers and hallways? Or do you have personal insights and stories about apartment hallways you’ve loved or loathed?

I’m playing around with some ideas, possibly for a longer piece.

For example: the notion of public, communal space in private buildings; representational space (by that I mean space that’s given over to constructing a kind of public persona of the building, and by extension its inhabitants), which seemed more common in 19th century and also in early 20th century apartment buildings, but which became either extinct or chintzy after World War II …or at least by the sixties.

What drove those changes?


Lack of demand (the people who used to want to be represented all took off to the suburbs to strut in double-height entry foyers, eliminating the need for luxury lobbies in apartments – and shades of Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns…)?

And more: what about technology? Via this PDF, Looking Backward In Order to Move Forward: The Chicago Courtyard Apartment Building (by Richard Gnat), there’s a reference to Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (by Gail Cooper): clearly, technological advances are going to shape the built form.

A search on Amazon for Manhattan apartment history brings up wonderful books – I was searching here because I was looking for Elizabeth Hawes terrific book, New York, New York How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930), which I read some years ago. Hawes clearly delineated the history of how communal living was made acceptable to the middle / upper-middle classes in America. I find it funny that we’ve gotten “richer” in many ways since 1900, but our apartment buildings (and I include condos) have become worse when it comes to their semi-public communal spaces.

In a more recent NYT article, Hawes writes about Our Buildings, Ourselves, but doesn’t address the public hallway/ foyer question at all (she’s writing about moving from a traditional apartment with rooms to a loft). It’s been too many years for me to remember whether she talked about hallways in her book; will see if the library has it…

Other factors:

Economics? It’s obviously cheaper to chintz on hallways if you’re counting square footage and dealing with planning departments wary of too-high floorspace-to-footprint ratios. Maybe The Architecture of Affordable Housing offers insights into the form issue.

Style? The New American Apartment: Innovations in Residential Design and Construction: 30 Case Studies might be instructive.

A blog post that directly addressed the issue I’m asking about, Look! Hallways That Make Us Feel Frumpy, also included some terrific comments and a link to a flickr page about Gaytonia, a swank old apartment building – which I bet has gorgeous public / common areas.

This is the photo that Look! Hallways That Make Us Feel Frumpy used to make its point…


…and yet this isn’t even the worst kind of public/ communal space. This one makes the ones inflicted on people in the 60s and 70s seem grandiose (albeit frumpy and badly decorated for sure!).

Had the Virgin Mary no girl friends?

January 10, 2011 at 10:36 am | In arts, women | 1 Comment

Visiting an exhibit of Albrecht Dürer woodcuts at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) on Sunday, I was especially struck by one image in his series The Life of the Virgin: her death.

At this most intimate and final moment of her life, she is surrounded by a phalanx of ten solicitous and grieving men (the apostles).

How very odd, I thought.

In one of the earlier woodcuts – The Birth of the Virgin – we see Anne (Mary’s mother) surrounded by women. That seems appropriate enough, right?

Yet by the time the Virgin Mary is herself ready to give birth (to Christ) – a scene that’s not represented, replaced instead by The Adoration of the Shepherds – other women are missing in action. It wouldn’t be extraordinary if Joseph had acted as midwife (it wouldn’t be the first time that the husband fills that post, for midwives do get stuck in traffic or are otherwise late in arriving), yet we never hear about that. No agency is given to Joseph – no stories of how he heroically clamped or knotted the umbilical chord or wiped the mucus from the infant’s air passages. Nope, Jesus probably delivered himself, or else had help directly from the Holy Ghost.

In the interpretations given by scholars and artists centuries after the storied events occurred, women are very much on the sidelines.

You’d think that the Virgin Mary was much loved by women, wouldn’t you? Yet her death, in this all-men’s setting that seems more appropriate to Socrates’s suicide, leads one to believe that Mary only mattered when she was interpreted and understood and venerated by just one half of humanity.

I know that the iconography for Mary’s death is established by textual authority (how she was surrounded by the Apostles, etc.). But because Dürer in every other way captures a kind of stolid, bourgeois realism – his figures practically scream “Augsburg, here we come!” – it suddenly seems shocking to see that level of realism (in how the figures look) married to such a pig-headed level of abstraction (that the Virgin would be surrounded only by men at her death).

In most other ways, his realism (which includes an often insidious view of women, whom Dürer too often shows as vain or weak or selfish) wins out: The scene of Christ Taking Leave from His Mother presents another woman in a significant position – but she’s there to support Mary, who, in a moment of motherly weakness (wanting – selfishly [sic] – to preserve her son?), has collapsed in grief. In the earlier Presentation at the Temple (in which Mary is a girl-child), women are already diminished: there’s her mother Anne (looking smug), a couple of semi-obscured women in the claque of relatives, and two devious-looking female merchants. At Mary’s marriage to Joseph, we see a few females – relatives? Mere filler. The Sojourn in Egypt vignette seems to be men-only, which is downright weird. But overall, I don’t really have any problems with most of those scenes – Dürer was in many ways simply reflecting back what he imagined everyday and ceremonial life would have been like, and that meant no particularly significant roles for women, as well as a view of women that didn’t really highlight their virtues. But how idiotic to imagine that the death of beloved woman would take place without a single other woman around.

Below, two more images I snapped in situ (perhaps against the rules?) – for better images, go to this page.

Birth of the Virgin Mary: many women in attendance (no men, but appropriate to event)


Christ leaving home: Virgin Mary, weak, is supported by a woman, another stands and observes

Addendum: Compare Dürer’s Death of the Virgin to Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, where several of the apostles seem almost feminine in their overt grief, a display of emotion that in no way diminishes them, and which also features – front and center, right where she belongs – Mary Magdalene.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 9, 2011 at 1:30 am | In links | 2 Comments
    As behavioral economists—who use social, cognitive, and emotional factors to understand how people make choices—refine their understanding of what helps us stick to commitments, they are using this information to design new tools. Not surprisingly, money turns out to be a good motivator.

    Ian Ayres, a behavioral economist at Yale, developed a website called, on which users set a specific goal and then pledge a sum of money to forfeit should they fail to achieve it. Unlike other sites that track weight loss and fitness goals and offer support via social networking, StickK leverages another discovery from behavioral economics: our extreme dislike of losing money.

    “The specter of losing money is twice as motivating as the possibility of gaining the same amount of money,” says Rose.

    tags: mit_techreview behavioral_economics cognitive_function apps

    Cities face many challenges in the coming years: municipal debt, onerous taxes, the cost of living, and crumbling infrastructure, among others. But whatever the genuine threats to urban prosperity, human contact is more important than ever in the age of information technology, and people will continue to seek places where they can share ideas, make transactions, and pursue their dreams. There’s nowhere better to do these things than big cities.

    tags: urbanism city_journal mario_polese

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

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