September 13, 2010 at 9:13 pm | In authenticity, ideas, just_so | Comments Off on Doubt

There’s something uniquely web-world weird about typing in the name of a long-ago friend into a search box – say, Facebook’s? – and discovering his/her Doppelgaenger: the person who has the same name and could – just possibly could be the person you were searching for, but could also be a completely different person altogether.

In days of yore, you might have simply speculated on the similarities you discover. But now you might also have a photo – an image – to go with the facts you recall, and it makes you wonder: Is this the person I knew x-years ago? And you grab on to geography (let’s see, White Rock is close enough to Victoria, or, Mattapan is close enough to Cambridge) to make a “rational” case for why (or why not) this ghost may (or may not) be the old girlfriend or the old boyfriend.

What do you remember? That your friend was sent to a Federal penitentiary? How do you search that? (Probably not.) That s/he married a single dad/mom? (Try to recall the kid’s name – see if s/he is on Facebook!) That her family owned a car dealership or the father became a mayor?

You search – and come up with so many replicates! Who needs science fiction: your double – older, younger, and/or geographically displaced – is out there.

Barring a positive identification, you’re left with a ghost – and doubt.

Frustrating, yet thrilling: doubt.

You put it away – file it, knowing you can return to it at some later date. The web-found replicates carry on.


August 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm | In advertising, arts, authenticity, brutalism, fashionable_life, ideas, media, style | 1 Comment

Night thoughts about exigency (something I have no time for).

Exigency: An urgent situation …a situation requiring extreme effort or attention. Exigence: demand.

Think child-rearing, perhaps? Think about having hardly any time for yourself, as you prepare yourself to be on constant alert, inbetween the moments that punctuate perpetual vigilance with pure delight? Is it addictive, to live like that? As Perma-Mom or Perma-Dad?

Which brings me to disaster. Why is the idea of disaster so seductive? Is it because it’s over quickly – unlike real life…?

Toward the end of July, NPR’s film critic, Bob Mondello, had an excellent segment, Disasters In Reel Life: It’s About Time (And Suspense). He referred to the “realistic” popular cataclysms dished up by Hollywood, and wondered, “So how come when a real disaster strikes, it feels so different?” One obvious answer is time: in the movies, disaster is fleet of foot (or whatever it is that disasters have, if not exactly feet – legs, maybe?). In real life, on the other hand, there is no suspense to disaster. It’s a drag, not a wild ride.

Then there are the other banal and painful differences: “Disaster movies have characters; real disasters have casualties.” The fictional representations of disaster obey Aristotelian rules about build-ups to climactic events, while real-life disasters mix up that experience. And in disaster movies, you never have to deal with the clean-up…

This might speak to the infatuation with urban apocalypse: it’s a desire to hasten an “end with horror” (versus true – and impossible – reconciliation to the “horror without end”). Check out London After the Apocalypse on Flavorwire: a more nuanced, artistic vision of 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow…? Perhaps we’re to shrink from the oozing decrepitude of Norman Foster’s Gherkin, its normally plump erectitude punctured by what looks like a case of vegetal clap. Maybe we should be awed: when a mighty organ such as this is marred, then it surely is the end.

[An aside, possibly irrelevant: If I had ever met her, I would be able to hear my maternal grandmother’s voice say, Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende (“better an end with horror than a horror without end”), a sentiment I always found really alarming and frankly ideologically dangerous (and one my own mother embraced whenever she felt a) depressed or b) manic – like I said, a dangerous idea). But then I didn’t live (and die) my grandmother’s life.]

In this unholy mix of media manufactured fast-forwarding to The End, we see that ecological disaster also has a special role to play: As Bob Mondello put it, “If the Gulf oil spill were happening in a film, you’d see oil-covered polar bears within hours of the Deepwater Horizon’s demise.” Urban disasters are a long-standing trope that goes back to the early days of Industrialization: both the Romantics and Surrealists liked to imagine man-made forms overtaken once again by nature. There’s something satisfying about seeing chthonic nature assert itself against concrete and human-contrived geometries. It’s also nice to think that nature will win, whereby winning means making human squalor and folly seem irrelevant. Unfortunately, that scenario also means everything else human becomes irrelevant – and that’s not an idea I can endorse.

And so we come to fashion, which has to be one of the highest achievements of humanity. (I’m not being ironic, incidentally.) A recent approach (the oil spill shoot in Vogue Italia’s August 2010 issue by Kristen McMenamy, shot by Steven Meisel) has put the Gulf of Mexico/ Deepwater/ BP oil spill front and center in haute couture. But as wrote, regarding the August Vogue Italia photo spread featuring oil-slicked models on the Gulf:

As beautiful and provocative as they are, we can’t help but feel uneasy. Creating beauty and glamour out of tragedy seems quite fucked up to us, not to mention wasteful and hypocritical, seeing as thousands of dollars of luxury clothing was flown in, and then subsequently ruined for the shoot. Glamorizing this recent ecological and social disaster for the sake of “fashion” reduces the tragic event to nothing more than attention-grabbing newsstand fodder. But that’s just us. Do you think this is appropriate commentary, or just tasteless? (source)

Some of the images (very few) are beautiful – most are provocatively horrifying. They’re not easy to swallow, and you have to look long and hard (which is difficult, given the ugliness of the setting) to find the fashion (be sure to view the 11 images in the slideshow).

Horror without end – the models are posing in the thick of it. End with horror? Not practical. As long as humans are around, we’ll never be without fashion (and fashioning) – how could we be? It’s part of our art – we’ve been fashioning since we got kicked out of Eden. Perhaps the question is, if we can’t be without the horror (can’t stop it without ending), can we shake ourselves out of being used to it?

Arresting perspective: Johnson Street Bridge integral to Victoria’s Old Town

July 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm | In architecture, authenticity, heritage, johnson street bridge, victoria | 5 Comments

Victoria British Columbia residents and visitors may have seen the Johnson Street Bridge before from this perspective, looking west down Johnson Street toward the Harbour:


But the arresting perspective seen in Eric Porcher‘s photograph drives home a crucial point. Porcher‘s photo clearly shows that the bridge is absolutely integral to the distinctive fabric of Old Town. Consider how well the industrial structure of the bridge, with its girders, beams, and thousands of rivets, answers the density of architectural detail that Old Town’s street facades offer.

If the Johnson Street Bridge is removed and replaced with a generic new bridge, a significant piece of Victoria’s heritage – what makes it uniquely itself – will be excised and lost forever.

It’s obvious that a destruction of the Johnson Street Bridge equates to a mutilation of Old Town. It’s also obvious that our city council speaks with a forked tongue about heritage and has no shame about hypocrisy.

Criticism (File under “learn to”)

April 30, 2010 at 9:40 pm | In authenticity | 2 Comments

When I was little, I had a French professor (not a professor for French, but a professor from France) who was capable of driving graduate students in his seminars to tears.

French, but educated in the US, he was occasionally flummoxed by Canadian students who were used to getting polite kid glove treatment and gold stars just for showing up.

(I sometimes think that politeness has given Canadians an edge that allows them to be at the forefront of the self-esteem movement, …to the general detriment of social progress. Chronic politeness and an aversion for putting noses out of joint can result in stultification, mediocrity, and overall intellectual retardation. On Fantasy Island, where everyone is “special” by virtue of living here, the condition can become rampant.)

Anyway, toward the end of one particularly tense seminar, facing a student who was about to shatter into a 1000 pieces, the professor became very exasperated and burst out, “You have to learn to take criticism!”

I don’t know but that I don’t feel a similar exasperation these days.

Follow-up thoughts on Change vs Development

April 16, 2010 at 10:36 pm | In authenticity, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Follow-up thoughts on Change vs Development

Following up on my post from yesterday, Change vs Development: Is there a difference?, a couple of additional thoughts.

To me, change implies a change of state, a switch from one thing to another. I can change the template of this blog, for example. That’s a minor, inconsequential change, but still a change. Development is ongoing: staying with the blog example, I can continue to develop my blog through posts, the addition of links, the inclusion of photos, and by tending to comments. Those activities (done over time) imply developing a web presence.

By the same token, you can develop an ecology, or an economy, in different fields or areas.

Development can be guided, but it can’t be fully predicted. You’re never really sure what the outcome will be (which is why development falls into the high risk category). If I change my template, I know what the outcome will be. If I try to develop my web presence through my blog, …well, who knows whether anything will happen, but whatever it is, I can’t really predict it.

I can’t predict what sort of adult a baby develops into. I can’t predict what sort of economy will develop if I encourage this or stifle that. I can influence the development by increments, but I can’t write (i.e., pre-scribe) the outcomes ahead of time.

Development takes imagination, and nurturing. It’s risky business and needs smart attention.

Change vs Development: Is there a difference?

April 15, 2010 at 11:41 pm | In authenticity, heritage, jane_jacobs, land_use, urbanism, victoria | 3 Comments

Some remarkably outrageous statements by one of Victoria, BC’s leading heritage preservationists once again made it into the local paper, and it got me thinking about change and development.

Everyone seems to agree that Victoria is famously resistant to change. One old light-bulb joke, told by Joe Average back in the day when we were in high school together, goes like this: “Q: How many Victorians does it take to change a light bulb? A: None. They like the old one.”

This, in other words, is an old-old trope.

But the guff retailed by the heritage preservationist suggests to me a different way of thinking about change. The newspaper article, Heritage lost on the street by Vivian Moreau, begins as follows:

One heritage  home a week is being lost in Greater Victoria, says the head of the Hallmark Society.

Developers are snapping up large properties with small houses on them, demolishing the houses and putting up new structures that don’t fit with the neighbourhoods, said Nick Russell, president of the group dedicated to preserving heritage in Greater Victoria. (source, front page of Vic News, Oak Bay News, and Saanich News print versions)

When I read this, I wondered what, exactly, Mr. Russell is protesting. Is it change? Or development? I’ll explain in a sec why I think there may be a difference, but first consider the (to my mind) outrageous conflation produced by Mr. Russell in the article’s conclusion:

“The sense (in Victoria) was ‘there’s a lot of old houses here, let’s put up some nice new things and increase the density,'” he said. “They were whacking things all over James Bay [a neighborhood in the City of Victoria] and putting up 20-storey towers.”

That came to a halt when Victoria mayor Peter Pollen put a stop to it, Russell recalled.

“Oak Bay [a separate municipality to the east of the City of Victoria] hasn’t come to that point. There is a sense there that the supply of houses is endless.” (source)

Peter Pollen was Victoria mayor from 1971 to 1975, and again from 1981 to 1985: he’s hardly a recent memory. The strategy of building high-rises in James Bay died in the 1970s when Victorians decided that they didn’t want a Vancouver-style West End (meaning: a true urban peninsula) in that core neighborhood. And any heritage houses (actual or so-called) that are “whacked” in the mostly upscale Municipality of Oak Bay are meeting that fate because wealthy property owners want to upgrade their standard of living, not because of moves to increase density.

In other words, the outrageous conflation is Russell’s suggestion that Oak Bay is on the verge of high-rise development, which is complete BS. It’s even BS to suggest that Oak Bay is trying to densify, except perhaps around its village nodes (for example, Estevan Village) – and even then, it’s a tooth-and-claw battle with the anti-change crowd.

Or is it the anti-change crowd?

Maybe it’s the anti-development crowd.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Well, I’ve noticed that despite all the hand-wringing over change, change does come – even to Victoria. It’s inevitable.

What’s resisted is development, which is actually a much slower process that occurs over time.

In nature, we don’t flip a switch to “change” from winter to spring: the latter develops over time. A tree isn’t bare one day and fully leafed out the next: that happens over time. Development is what we undergo or experience over time. An exception is when what Jane Jacobs called “catastrophic money” comes flooding in (say, in the form of “urban renewal,” “slum” clearance, or the building of single-purpose street-block-sized “centers,” whether sports or entertainment or civic / government centers). Catastrophic money sweeps in like a tsunami and creates flip-a-switch change – but nowhere is Victoria in danger of that happening.

Unlike development, which happens over time, change is change: that is, sudden. And sometimes it’s a change into the opposite of what was intended. You can ignore all the factors leading to that flipping of the switch until suddenly you notice, “Oh, the light went on (or out).” Then you react to change, which means you’re in a position of weakness. Development is different: it happens in such a way as to allow you to participate in its changes (plural). Every gardener knows that you can direct development, and decent urbanists know this, too.

By pitting themselves resolutely against development, however, the status quo crowd (and I include Victoria’s Hallmark Foundation) are actually facilitating change. Instead of allowing us (and themselves) to undergo and experience development, they resist it until something happens anyway (change), except there was no way to undergo it, and it comes not as something planned, but as a surprise.

Change can mean a building that should have been taller and more splendidly finished ends up under-built, with the developer skimping on materials. Change can mean the economy tanking because all we ever do is resist development. Change can mean a good thing (as when, for example, a surface parking lot is developed and we get a great new building in our downtown core).

Change happens. That’s a variant of “shit happens.” It just does. There’s no stopping it, good or bad.

The way to make sure absolutely that all you ever get is utter crap change is to resist development at every turn: that’s almost guaranteed to deliver nasty surprises.

Instead of talking about change, try instead to work positively with development – like a good gardener, a good stakeholder, a good urbanist. Imagine a garden that’s not allowed to develop, an ecosystem that’s suppressed; a city whose economy is kept artificially restricted; an urban fabric that’s deliberately kept mono-cultural and thin. Then imagine the negative change that befalls that garden, that ecosystem, that city, that urban fabric.

Development is good, especially when it allows for planned change that’s beneficial; development is also much more encompassing, touching all the little and sometimes unseen changes that affect the ecosystem as a whole.

Victoria’s anti-change crowd really is a joke, just like that old light bulb pun. They might think they’re preserving something, but their relentless opposition to development just facilitates bad change.

Remember: shit happens. (And it always flows downhill.)

Millennials and public engagement

March 5, 2010 at 7:58 am | In authenticity, ideas, politics, social_critique, social_networking | 1 Comment

I posted a long comment on a Facebook friend’s status update: Naomi Devine, Whistler 2020 Sustainability Coordinator, wrote that she was “thinking about the design of public engagement for the Official Community Plan.”

Public engagement is a topic I’ve been mulling over, albeit on the “amateur” level: sadly, I don’t get paid to come up with this stuff. Sometimes I think I could do a pretty good job at it, though, especially when I see what passes for engagement in some places…

Naomi’s status update made me think about the so-called Millennial generation, in particular the Pew Research Foundation‘s recent How Millennial Are You? quiz.


According to the Pew quiz (which was down last night – probably too many boomers taking it to see how they’ll score), Millennials are ambitious. They also don’t read the paper (no mainstream media, thanks) and they don’t contact their local, regional, or national government officials.

So… Good luck to any and all government officials trying to design a public engagement strategy that doesn’t just engage all the usual suspects (i.e., the Boomers, who are always ready to jump up and down about something – maybe even jump up and down about their Millennial kidlets, whom they have to shepherd through life).

So what did I write on Naomi’s Facebook wall? First, I wanted to know where she was working on public engagement, and whether the “designing part [was] mostly for trying to get people to engage online, or everywhere (including face-2-face)?”

I’m curious because I wonder how web design usability tools such as user profiles, which figure strongly (and positively) in designing a good web experience, factor into “real life” engagement design (that is, the face-2-face kind).

Then I added, “I’m also curious in how to engage people who don’t vote and don’t want to, either. It’s easy to dismiss them and say they (we?) deserve the rotten governance that results, but that’s like thinking that cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a clever move, right? 😉 “

I mentioned the Pew Research Foundation’s quiz, and wrote that “When I looked that quiz over, I was reminded of the truism, ‘if the news are important, they’ll find me.'” It was someone’s young teenage son who said that – can’t recall for sure whether it was or was not Jeff Jarvis’s, but it may have been.

At any rate, that quote represents a Millennial stance, and it’s borne out by the Pew quiz: you lose points if you admit to having read the paper or contacted any government officials in recent memory – Millennials don’t give a shit about that sort of engagement.

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s excellent book, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, and I added that the book “has me wondering how you can design user profiles for people whose very identity depends on cool, ironic disengagement.”

Ok, not all Millennials are cool and ironically disengaged (remember the ambitious part?), but I think it’s a real challenge to design user profiles meant to represent Millennial citizen engagement – and then, using those profiles, to construct an engagement strategy.

Obviously, Millennial engagement exists – President Obama’s campaign certainly tapped into it. But it’s probably easier to design a Millennial user profile for the next Tweetie for iPhone application than for a Millennial going into a voting booth.

Or, horrors, filling out a questionnaire about the community plan… (I mean, does anybody actually still do questionnaires? …Unless, that is, it’s a questionnaire in the form of a quiz that lets you stroke your inner narcissist …like that “how millennial are you?” quiz …or some of the other quizzes out there?)

At the local level, if it’s about “doing good and saving the world, you can still engage the usual suspects in all the university social work and psychology programs,” as well as all the older Boomers who feel obliged to engage (and who can be such a turn-off, too). But (I added), “you’ll miss a whole bunch of people who really don’t want to read the news, follow up on the issues, go to rallies or protests, or engage their elected representatives. For one thing, they don’t vote anyway – see our low voter turnouts…”



Ah yes, the low voter turnouts… Victoria’s mayor was elected by 12% of the electorate, if I recall correctly. Fewer than 30% of eligible voters voted in our last municipal election… Most of the people who did vote were senior citizens. Look what we got…

And yet the people who don’t vote are smart citizens. (For one thing, their Boomer parents made sure of that.) How do you turn them on?

“Maybe you have to find out what they’re working on, what interests them, and engage them where they are,” I wrote, in answer to my own question.

“Go where they are, don’t expect to build a site or a ‘strategy’ that makes them come to you” – that should be the thing.

Easier said than done.

Thinking out loud on social media platforms

March 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm | In authenticity, comments, social_networking | 2 Comments

A month or so ago I posted something rather personal on LinkedIn, a social media platform that till then I treated as strictly “business,” meaning no personal details, please-and-thank-you.


Making Friends, on HubSpot

Making Friends, on HubSpot


My post landed on the University of British Columbia (UBC) Alumni page, where UBC Alumnus Harman Bajwa asked fellow alums to join and introduce themselves. And off I went, for half a dozen or so (short) paragraphs. Amidst the success stories posted on the board, as well as war stories generated by the present economy, it seemed ok to write about how lost I’ve been for the past two years:

I graduated from UBC with a BA Hons. (’83) and an MA (’86), both in Art & Architectural History. Subsequently, I went on to earn a PhD (’91) in Art & Architectural History at Harvard.

I have an additional connection to UBC now – more on that in a moment.

After teaching in several New England departments while simultaneously starting a family, I found myself in the peculiar situation of …well, not being able to reconcile myself or my kids to the traditional school system. We started homeschooling, actually, and radically compounded that lifestyle change in 2002 by leaving the US to move to Victoria.

My additional UBC connection is my 15-year-old daughter …, a National Entrance Scholarship winner who is currently in her first year in UBC’s Arts One program. So, while I was the first person in my family in my generation to go to university (or finish high school), it appears my daughter is the youngest person in Arts One. …

At present, I am out of a job (that is, I’m no longer homeschooling my kids, since they’re now both at university) and am looking to reinvent my life. I’m pretty well informed about distance/ distributed learning and gifted issues at the K-12 level; I’m a blogger (since 2003); I’m a seasoned magazine writer (spent ~3 years writing for FOCUS Magazine, a Victoria monthly) on topics relating to urban development, the built environment, social media, and local politics and governance; I have successfully co-led a grassroots political awareness campaign to oppose Victoria City Hall’s plans to borrow $42million to build a new bridge (see JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG); I co-founded a local Victoria-based news & blog aggregator (which could be franchised across Canada – see; and as a volunteer member of the Capital Regional District’s Arts Advisory Council, I help adjudicate Project and Operating Grant applications from arts organizations of regional (Greater Victoria) significance.

… I’m reinventing myself yet again, and am willing to relocate either to Vancouver or even back to the States (I’m a dual US-Canadian citizen). Would love to hear from others who have embarked on similar journeys: how did you do it, what did you do, and where?

Standing in the middle of what feels like a slow-motion molasses maelstrom means being unable to recognize the obvious. Not till I wrote it, did I see it: “At present, I am out of a job (that is, I’m no longer homeschooling my kids, since they’re now both at university) and am looking to reinvent my life.”

Subsequently, I connected with a couple of other alums who are also in transition, although none seem to have been as foolishly reckless as I (or else they’re not saying). It perhaps takes a special kind of craziness to “fail” with a Harvard PhD.

While I don’t plan to make a habit of using (misusing?) LinkedIn for my own true confessions, it made sense, however, to articulate just this once my current sense of creative frustration, even on a site geared to professional interests. Yes, I do need to reinvent myself, and yes, I would leave Victoria willingly to do so. If I can’t tell that to my professional contacts, whom would I tell?

Meanwhile, almost two weeks ago Raul Pacheco wrote a blog post where he questioned the value of LinkedIn for himself, and …well, I wrote this long comment about how useful LinkedIn is for professional purposes. And that’s all true, it is very useful. But I guess I wasn’t entirely accurate if I suggested that the personal never intrudes.

PS: I’m still working on that reinvention thing. It’s a tough nut to crack.

(The above illustration, Making Friends in Social Media, courtesy of HubSpot.)

The ugly reader

December 13, 2009 at 9:26 pm | In authenticity, writing | Comments Off on The ugly reader

If I type “troll” into my browser, I’m immediately taken to Wikipedia’s page on Troll (Internet). That’s appropriate, since it was internet trolls – those icky anonymous assassins – I was thinking of when I decided to write about “my” ugly reader.

Usually, when I post, I imagine a beautiful reader – someone like myself: open-minded, strong, analytical, capable of synthetic reasoning, etc. etc. However, from time to time, someone really ugly comes along, however: weak, anonymous, and …well, crazed.

Luckily, WordPress has spam filters and moderation queues, so I can shield you, Dear (Beautiful) Reader, from that Ugly Reader’s ugliness.

So consider this your lucky, beautiful day. No ugly trolls for you! 🙂

Fremont Troll

Fremont Troll

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