January 4, 2009 at 1:21 am | In authenticity, Uncategorized, writing | 6 Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been commenting on a couple of other sites. As a result, I started mulling over the odd (to me) idea that having a PhD from Harvard and having taught at MIT and Brown is meaningful over and above the ideas I try to contribute when I write anywhere, whether here, in my articles, or on other blog posts or forums. Then I had an epiphany.

Here’s what happened: I had responded to a compliment regarding my past credentials in the comments board to this post by elaborating a bit on my background. It’s a device (narrative, personal history) I find myself interested in more and more, since I’m in a transition phase (again), without a clear path forward. (In a recent October blog post here I already broached this).

Then, some hours after leaving my comment, it hit me.

Even though I’m the first person in my family in my generation to go to university, to grad school, or to get post-graduate degrees (including that PhD in Art History from Harvard), I never found getting those credentials difficult. It was, if anything, easy to do research and to write and to think up new ideas. In fact, I earned my PhD in just five years, which in humanities is considered speedy – some of my fellow students were taking twice as long.

Why was it easy for me, why could I do it quickly? Because I was keen, sharp as a knife: I knew what I wanted. Cut right through the bullshit, barreled on, damn the torpedos.

It was a pleasure.

The difficult part wasn’t coming up with new insights, or synthesizing disparate pieces of information, finding patterns, developing a thesis, going where no grad student had gone before… The difficult part came later, once I started teaching and realized what academia was also about.

First, I have to admit one thing: massive stage fright. I had no idea that a big chunk of my job would entail performing in front of crowds. That threw me for a major loop – I wanted everything I did to be perfect, and I was so afraid of public speaking that I initially wrote out every single word of my lectures. It was Pure Agony. I told myself I didn’t have the “winning” personality – because I’m a critical bitch myself – to get my students to love me, and I was afraid, horribly afraid, that they would hate me instead. Besides, I had imposter syndrome, and I never wanted to be a teacher or a performer. I wanted to be a researcher, a writer, a synthesizer, a connector. An ideas person, but definitely someone who thinks stuff up behind the scenes, not out front like a show pony at the circus.

But here’s my epiphany: I really, really came to hate (yet mourn) academia when I understood that at some point you have to stop being an ideas person – at least for a good chunk of the time. Yes, you have to grind out your lecture courses; but once you have them “under your belt,” you can repeat them ad infinitum with minor tweaking for the next few decades. I saw many professors do this. The seminars were a different matter, but even these were often variations on a theme – and that’s what I now realize was so depressing.

My advisors and most of the humanities professors I knew were too often one-trick ponies, repeating the same things year after year after year. It mattered not whether it was their lectures, or their seminars, or the endless variations on their initial dissertation work – even their “new” research was somehow a variation of what they had already been doing for years. In fact, it was imperative that you milked your dissertation for all it was worth and for as long as you could. To me that prospect seemed frightful, phony – after successfully transforming my 1991 dissertation into a book four years later – published by Princeton University Press in 1995 – I didn’t really want to belabor the topic any longer. Big mistake. Exceptions aside, many academics go on to belabor the same topic, over and over again. If the material seems to run dry, the hacks among them just turn up the volume on the unintelligible language, on the verbiage and jargon that no normal human understands, until they can tell themselves that they’re so specialized that they’re an industry unto themselves.

What I couldn’t stand, truth be told, were the limitations of working for years on one idea, of having to take this one idea on a nation-wide road-show (to conferences, symposia, etc.) in an attempt to get as many additional gigs with which to pad the resume, and of then being branded as “that” guy or “that” girl.

Further, because of the sheer numbers of PhD candidates admitted annually, everyone tries to get as specialized as possible – but without taking full account of how they’re already a “product” of the advisor machine. Student X of Professor Z will work on Xz – or maybe it’s Zx. Student X still has to differentiate him- or herself from Prof. Z enough to have some sort of identity. And so, if Prof. Z was working on the signifiers of female clothing in pre-Revolutionary French painting, Student X might “specialize” by focusing on a niche subject – like undergarments, or the transference of petticoat signifiers to colonial revolutionary settings. I’m making this up of course, but only slightly.

In short, the stuff gets stale, stale, stale – like underwear that hasn’t been changed in a generation.

I mourned the loss of academia: it had seemed like an ideal world for a while, like some kind of “Annie Hall” fantasy, lah-dee-dah. I have beaten myself up repeatedly for losing it, but I only have to read a few paragraphs in my discipline’s trade journals to be reminded of its worst aspects: irrelevance, staleness.

And so, although I’m against New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps I should make a note to myself to craft a New Year’s Mantra: I want freshness to guide me.

That said, I now face the real problem of location and wonder whether Victoria is the right place for me.

LandFILL — or, I can’t stand it (warning: foul language)

October 2, 2008 at 10:06 pm | In Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Dave Winer pointed to a SoCal news video that another blogger has on their site. Twelve minutes of pain. Must see, click through. In response, I commented the following:

Just watched the “meltdown” news video you linked to, above. Oh my god. The waste, the waste of it all. Lives, land, stuff, potential. LAND! LandFILL.

Astonishing. (Like, literally. I’m a-stonied, rigid with gob-smackedness.)

“Inland Empire,” my pointy little ass. Highways, gasoline (cheap, then; not now), more subdivisions, super-duper square footage, more oil, more cars, on and on. And what’s left on those streets? People who themselves are on the financial edge, living (if you can call it that) in “communities” (fuck me – what a bunch of crap!) where almost every other house on the street is abandoned/ handed back to the lenders.

And some of those people thought that the bad ol’ city with its “crowding” (actually, density) was the enemy. Wow, were they wrong.

PS: can’t even walk to the grocery store in the “Inland Empire.” How sustainable was that to begin with?

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on Scripting News using Disqus.

After I wrote that, I wrote some more, but decided against cluttering up Scripting‘s comments board and instead took it to my own blog here.

Man, I haven’t cursed this much in text in ages

PS: My anger and sadness comes in part from feeling that these people who abandon their homes like this have no one to draw on, link to, connect with. No community, no nothing. There’s no one to draw close to — and how could there be, in *wastelands* such as “Inland Empire”? *Waste*-land.

It’s infuriating to see that atomizing people in this way, dis-encouraging them from some sort of organic relationship to place/ community, and telling them instead that *suburban isolation* and all this other bullshit of Stuff-hood (which lands in the dumpster) is the American Dream — that this has been sold as some kind of *goal*.

What the hell kind of community can you have in an Inland Empire? The “community” of new age religions or evangelical-isms? Same old, same old: no fucking history! And by the same token, actual neighbourhoods/ communities have been left in a trashed & destroyed state (see NOLA), so that political willpower and ability to move toward change also gets dis-focused and confused. Wipe out the history, wipe out the memory. Abandon ship, leave your crap, fill the landfill.

It’s enough to make one think there’s method to this madness.

Ok, I’ll leave your comments board now, enough ranting. But that video really riled me up. Usually don’t swear this much.

Pernicious. Inland Pernicious.

So, yeah — it’s a rant.  But you just have to watch this news clip to get it.

Ok, back to your regular programming.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Test post

September 30, 2008 at 11:33 pm | In Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Just a test, as something seems to be broken with my feed reader and I need to check whether it’s a one-off problem or something deeper.

Diigo Bookmarks 08/30/2008 (a.m.)

August 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm | In Uncategorized | Comments Off on Diigo Bookmarks 08/30/2008 (a.m.)
  • Found via …? Kazys Varnelis?, Geoff at BLDGBLOG? (can’t place it, but at some smart blog I read), an essay by Bernard Languillier about how the digital process is changing our relationship with printed images. It’s a to-read-later piece for me right now – haven’t had time to read it thoughtfully yet, but it promises some compelling insights (something a bit better than Emily Gould’s recent piece in MIT’s Technology Review, “It’s not a revolution if nobody loses,” which ostensibly bases itself on Walter Benjamin’s pivotal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”).

    tags: embodiment, disembodiment, photography, imagery, digital_pictures, printing, bernard_languillier

  • Intro page from the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB) to a report by a Dr. William Bird (ha!) called “Natural Thinking,” available as a PDF download. Bird’s report is an “investigating [of] the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health.”

    This could be a useful reference for urbanist writing, insofar as it underscores the importance of amenities as a necessary complement to density. You don’t want to have density while simultaneously “automating” everything (no more walking, driving only, no interaction with nature, etc.). Even small “hot spots” of natural interaction will work, or more walking with actual natural elements at hand.

    tags: health, mental_health, nature, amenities, stress, research, rspb

Diigo Bookmarks 08/29/2008 (a.m.)

August 28, 2008 at 5:31 pm | In Uncategorized | Comments Off on Diigo Bookmarks 08/29/2008 (a.m.)

Diigo Bookmarks 08/12/2008 (p.m.)

August 12, 2008 at 5:30 am | In Uncategorized | Comments Off on Diigo Bookmarks 08/12/2008 (p.m.)
  • Article that chronicles the role of blogging in the creation of new hyper local / local news eco-systems.
    For readers, the blogs are providing news in ways unseen in traditional local news media.
    Like other journalists who run news sites, Paul Bass, New Haven Independent’s editor, does not consider himself a blogger.

    “We’re a news site,” Mr. Bass said.

    To underscore the difference, Mr. Bass said the site has three full-time reporters and one part-time reporter, all paid for by $185,000 in grants, corporate sponsorships and private donations. The site’s coverage, he added, helped remove a city budget director, change city towing policies and shame board of education members into better attendance, after it publicized the fact that the board’s truancy dwarfed that of city students.

    “A lot of neighborhood boards weren’t covered until we came around, so we’re just showing up,” Mr. Bass said. “That’s the promise of hyperlocal journalism, as opposed to blogging.”

    tags: nyt, blogging, hyper_local, local_news, placeblogging

Daily Diigo Public Link 01/11/2008

January 10, 2008 at 5:40 pm | In Uncategorized | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 01/11/2008

In 2008, let us challenge the Politics of Apocalypse | spiked  Annotated

tags: apocalypse, criticalthinking, frank_furedi, opinion, political_correctness, public_opinion, spiked_online

The issues that Furedi raise have been bugging me for a couple of years now — ever since running into James Kunstler and his ueber-successful economic project of making a living off scaring the pants off people. I find refreshing Furedi’s spin on the matter — that we seem to be losing “humanism” (in what I feel is a medievalist world view), and I appreciate his lament that “Public figures appear to have lost the capacity to reassure or lead people.” Disaster sells, including at the polls/ in the voting booth.

Urban Mapping Gives Us Free Neighborhoods

tags: cities, mapping_apps, neighbourhoods, software, urbanplanning

The resurfacing (as in coming up, not getting paved over!) of neighbourhoods… Interesting comments thread, too, re. the “free” aspect.
All for the US at this point, Canada seems out of the loop.

Ubiquitous Place(s)

June 21, 2007 at 1:21 am | In education, futurismo, links, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read many interesting things about “the local,” a topos (literally!) that’s being mined in the wake of our lengthy infatuation / fascination with “the global.” I suppose it’s about time — maybe you can’t be general without being specific, and vice versa.

Trendwatching kicked things off in early June with its Still Made Here post. All urbanists who want vibrant communities, take note of what Trendwatching says here:

A third, ongoing driver behind (STILL) MADE HERE is the importance of community, especially because to many consumers, ‘global’ has come to represent faceless, rootless mega-corporations and supranational bodies, headed up by money grabbing executives whose golden parachutes seem to grow with the degree of incompetence they’ve let loose on employees and other stakeholders. Far from being chauvinistic nationalist movements, (STILL) MADE HERE and (STILL) SOLD HERE will increasingly be about supporting one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one’s region, to regain a sense of place and belonging and to safeguard future access to the special and original, vs. the bland, the global and the commoditized.

Trendwatching‘s entry was immediately picked up and commented on over at CEOs for Cities as well as by Brendan, who writes the Where blog. In fact, he spun that theme into several blog posts: (Still) Made Here: Eco and Ethics on June 5; (Still) Made Here: Story and Status on June 6; and (Still) Made Here: Support on June 11. As Brendan points out in his June 5 entry:

one of the great challenges that central cities face is how to market themselves. Die-hard urbanites and suburbanites aside, what can make the difference between city and suburb for many consumers looking to rent or buy a home in hyper-mobile metropolitan regions is the perceived “authenticity” of a neighborhood. This term means different things to different people, but in this case it usually refers to a high level of historic building stock, independent business, quality public space — factors that create that ephemeral phenomenon we call “a sense of place.”

It’s clear that one very important emerging theme in the quest to defne the local is the problem of authenticity, which is of course an ideologically loaded term. For someone like me, spoon-fed on Frankfurt School theory (ok, ok, so I was holding the spoon and feeding myself…), there’s a tendency to have a kneejerk reaction against authenticity. We know, you see, that there is no “real” thing, that authenticity is a construction. And this is literally true. Reality is highly debatable, whereas ideology is rock solid to the core.

But wait a moment, step back. Is it not “real,” after all, to have some sense of attachment to place? And are you a total moron if you don’t subscribe entirely to living the digital life, online, globally, 24/7, and instead persist in the “delusion” of place?

Well, no. You’re not. If you’re twenty years old, you can perhaps live globally, deny the local (and real). But at some point your cells catch up with the rest of you, …and let’s face it, even if you’re twenty right now, ten years from now you’ll be at least twenty-three. Maybe even older, if you haven’t made enough money.

(Facing up to place — and even authenticity — is something that people have to do when they grow up. It’s a quality that’s often lacking where I live, professional cynicism too often determining not just the order of the day, but hearts and minds, too. But that’s a local aside, not necessarily understood by readers not immersed in this local situation. Or perhaps they do…?)

The theme of authenticity feeds into what we tell ourselves about a place, or in other words, its stories. Again quoting from Brendan (June 6):

City neighborhoods are already status symbols in most places. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, you can identify yourself as being from The Valley, Hollywood, or Watts and get completely different reactions. By associating ourselves with a certain place, we are associating ourselves with the cultural story that has been created about that place, and that cultural story is the quality that will allow a place to overcome its challenges. To increase investment in a community, neighborhoods can focus on the most exceptional aspects of their local culture (which can be just about anything) in order to craft a favorable cultural story. And in a society where “individuality is the new religion” (credit TW) it seems that marketing a neighborhood’s most unconventional aspects would be the best way to go about promoting it.

The cynic raises her head: marketing? Telling stories in order to “brand” a place, because brand viability translates into place vibrancy?

Well, yes again, boys and girls. But before we go off in a sulk, let’s think about the alternatives. Who gets to tell the story? Do you want to remain silent, just because the marketers are coming in with their lubricants, penetrating all your holy of holies? Remember, we are grown-ups now and don’t need to pretend. If you don’t take control of the story, “they” will. “They” might not be local, but “you” are. So speak up.

Here’s an article from FastCompany, the May 2007 issue: Who Do You Love? The appeal — and risks — of authenticity. Its author, Bill Breen, writes:

In an increasingly shiny, fabricated world of spun messages and concocted experiences–where nearly everything we encounter is created for consumption–elevating a brand above the fray requires an uncommon mix of creativity and discipline. And nowhere do you see the challenge more starkly illustrated than in the quest for authenticity. “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged,” notes John Grant in The New Marketing Manifesto. Or as Seth Godin quips in Permission Marketing: “If you can fake authenticity, the rest will take care of itself.”

Overloaded by sales pitches, consumers are gravitating toward brands that they sense are true and genuine. Hunger for the authentic is all around us. You can see it in the way millions are drawn to mission-driven products like organic foods. It’s there in the sex-without-guilt way people respond to the footloose joy of BMW’s Mini. You see it in the tribes of “i-centered” buyers who value individuality and independence–and whom Apple has so cleverly cultivated through its iMacs and iPods.

What does it take to be authentic in marketing? According to Breen, 1.A sense of place; 2.A strong point of view; 3.Serving a larger purpose; and 4.Integrity. Re. number 1, he quotes Steve McCallion of Ziba, a Portland, OR design consultancy: “Authenticity comes from a place we can connect with… A place with a story.”

The theme is echoed in many other articles: Arlene Gould, Request for Proposal: Can designers save our cities? Building and landscape architects, along with industrial, interior, and graphic designers and artists can all play a pivotal role (Feb. 27, 2007), writes:

Most of our cities are led by utilitarian bureaucrats rather than design thinkers. We can also lay some of the blame at the feet of a design community whose members have failed to deliver a consolidated protest against the lack of representation of their profession at city hall, or the mean-spirited RFPs that don’t allow the scope, time or money designers need to deliver breakthrough results.

Design works on a grand scale, but its most profound benefits are experienced on a human level: beauty, accessibility, functionality and cohesiveness, to name a few. Our cities are missing design-led innovation in the public realm. A growing number of Canadian buildings are energy-efficient and environmentally designed. But when it comes to public space, we are still design-deprived. Most of our major cities lack the infrastructure and master plans that would inspire and enable design-led change at every level.

She has 5 suggestions for using design to enrich the fabric of our cities: 1. Use designers to work on sidewalks, which are the arteries of the urban space; 2. Use designers for graphic and visual communications, to tell our stories, “to create cognitive maps that would connect with various target audiences, and illustrate our cities’ unique personalities.” 3. Use designers to “mend a city’s severed connection with nature” (urban ecology).  4.Use design to improve accessibility; and 5. Use design for the arts: “Our arts communities could mine the talents of designers to energize their spaces and promote their work. Currently, artistic outfits often treat designers like second-class suppliers due to budget constraints, and designers end up offering their services pro bono or for a cut price due to budget constraints.”

The arts, local artists and designers, are asked to step up to the plate to infuse a place with local brand identity: a vibrant arts community gives a place a sense of …well, of place. (See this Ontario example as well as this Vancouver example.)

As fate — er, I mean markets — would have it, the local-tied-inextricably-to-the-authentic at some point becomes …ubiquitous (which is a problem not of real places, since they cannot yet be in two spots at the same time). Ubiquity is of course both Scylla and Charybdis for authenticity and branding. We’re describing the problem of the local outlet — a coffee shop, say — that grows popular and opens more stores. At first, the growth is in the community, then it’s regional, next national, and before you know it, bada-bing: global (eg. Starbucks), at which point it’s difficult to associate “authenticity” with the brand. Since the “lurch” toward ubiquity is usually quite slow, it takes a long long while for the authenticity glow to wear off, of course.

But consider that our technologies will make ubiquity occur much faster. Which might be where the play (if it can be called that) of markets and playing with shit and making money and all that gets overtaken by the seriousness of saving the planet, that decidedly singular local bugger we all live on. Before you know it, we’re talking about having a Workshop on Ubiquitous Sustainability: Technologies for Green Values, which will be held on September 16/07 in Innsbruck, Austria, in conjunction with the 9th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp 2007).

Say what??! Yes, it’s a strange world.

From the UbiComp website: “Ubiquitous Computing refers to the trend that we as humans interact no longer with one computer at a time, but rather with a dynamic set of small networked computers, often invisible and embodied in everyday objects in the environment.” This refers to RFIDs and GIS and mobile technologies which will enable references to the local even as they identify us utterly and totally globally.

The Ubiquitous Sustainability webpage describes that workshop’s overview as follows:

This workshop will explore how Ubicomp research can intersect with values and practices linked to environmental sustainability. Growing concerns about resource depletion, global warming, and environmental degradation have led increasing numbers of people to reconsider their actions and the impact they have on the planet. This upswing in public interest in making positive change for the environment has substantial implications for how the Ubicomp community frames and executes the design of technologies in realms as diverse as energy conservation, healthcare, home systems monitoring and automation, environmental monitoring, community planning, and social networking. The goals of the workshop are to gain an understanding of emerging practices in which technologies align with emerging environmental values, and to distill a set of challenges for the Ubicomp community that are synchronous with those developments.

I think what this means is that we will continue to engage in a balancing act between the local and “authentic” on the one hand, and global hypermarkets and technologies on the other. Being alive and creative in the spaces informed by those tensions is what will shape us and our societies.

Transfer complete, Missing in Action: 1; Last Update: 1

June 6, 2006 at 3:15 pm | In Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The entry I wrote the other day, when I briefly woke my old blog from months-long slumber, on which Melanie from way down under left a lovely comment, didn’t make the transition. For some reason it was …abbreviated. That’s ok: it was all about how I’m not blogging anymore, and won’t be in the future. But it was a blog entry, no? (*)


This is starting to sound like a logic puzzle!


(*) That June 4 entry, the first since February, was, first, a thank you to all of you who wrote to say that you missed my blog, followed by a brief explanation of why I stopped blogging, and somewhat convoluted explanation of why I woke the old blog up: basically that I learned that Harvard blogs was switching from Manila to WordPress, that one could keep one’s old blog on Manila, but that there’d be no guarantee that the Manila server would be maintained. Now, I have a lot of content on this blog, which I do have in various documents on various computers. But as a user of and other web-based applications, I do also like having my content accessible via a browser. So… I decided to “wake” the old blog, and attempt a transfer to WordPress.


Now the old blog is transferred, and I can keep it on the new server for future use. I might have to “lock” it again, though, since I can see all sorts of weird links in the new sidebar that shouldn’t be there: 2 “about” pages (the first is empty, the second used to appear on the sidebar in the old blog), links to stories that shouldn’t be linked to in the sidebar (can’t figure that one out), and I notice, too, that all my paragraph breaks are gone, making my texts look like Peter Weiss’s Aesthetic of Resistance (but not reading as finely!) … oh well. (*)

(*) I deleted the “empty” about page. But the other stuff is still there, inappropriately, and without paragraph breaks.


One last thing before I go (really…). (*)


(*) In the entry that didn’t make the transition to the new server, I noted that I was not re-starting blogging. This is just a weird …hiccup.


I have some invitations (free) to diigo — if you want one, leave me a comment (or send me email – yheibel AT post DOT harvard DOT edu). I highly recommend this service to anybody who does a lot of online research and needs to annotate the texts for future reference. You can also add your annotations (like “sticky” notes in flickr) to images, so it’s quite handy for visual research, too. You can keep your links entirely private (i.e., what you bookmark and annotate won’t be seen by anyone else), or you can make it public. You can also use diigo to blog annotations (i.e., highlighted bits and whatever comment you added), so…


I made a couple of my bookmarks public, just to give you an idea. They’re on this page. Note that the annotations can be expanded, so you can see at a glance what was signficant (in this case to me) in the article, and seeing your notes on it will jog your memory as to what you intended to use that particular text for. Incredibly useful, IMO.


Unlike this blog, which I just wasted ages on updating with links. What a time sink! Better to do online research.

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