January 26, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 26th 2015

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January 19, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 19th 2015

  • The Toxoplasma Of Rage. Divisiveness and trolling on the Internet is nobody's fault, it's just an emergent effect of the systems we've built. An illuminating angle on why social (and traditional) media can become so polarized. I wonder how we break the cycle?
  • Towards the sociocratic museum. What should our modern museums and cultural institutions look like? How should they work? What should we be preserving? Some interesting food for thought.
  • The Cathedral of Computation. Here’s an exercise: The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with “God” and ask yourself if the sense changes any.
  • The Data Sublime. Maybe the risk of our increasingly computer-directed future isn't that some big corporation will be in control, but rather that they will just look like they are.
  • Among the Disrupted "Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy."
  • A Basic Income Guarantee. I think this is a good idea. It would definitely let lots more people pursue their business ideas.
  • To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This "It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time."
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Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs is, rightly, regarded as a defining influence in human-centred urbanism or city planning. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic and so was required reading for someone like me, with an interest in how we look to affect our cities.

It's a bit of a behemoth - almost 600 pages in the edition I have - and took me a while to work through. I'm not sure how much of a feel you'll really get for it from these notes, but it's a really interesting and thought-provoking read. It's taken me quite some time to get my notes written up (I finished the book sometime in 2013!) but that's because of the sheer density of notes I made through the book.

I didn't agree with absolutely everything in it, but we could learn much about how to improve our towns and cities, and how to improve the way we go about "regenerating" them if more planners, politicians, and citizens had read this.

Page 24

The plan [Ebenezer Howard] proposed, in 1898, was to halt the growth of London and also repopulate the countryside where villages were declining, by building a new kind of town&em-dash;the Garden City [...] As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.

Page 60

The second mode [of coping with the risks of walking in dangerous areas] is to take refuge in vehicles. This is a technique practices in the big wild-animal reservations of Africa, where tourists are warned to leave their cars under no circumstances until they reach a lodge. It is also the technique practices in Los Angeles. Surprised visitors to that city are forever recounting how the police of Beverly Hills stopped them, made them prove their reasons for being afoot, and warned them of the danger.

Page 78

This reminded me of the way that our parcels in Italy were held by the woman in the little bread shop in our apartment block. It also brought to mind Kevin Harris' thoughts on the difference between knowing your neighbours, and knowing the names or being friends with your neighbours.

Perhaps I can best explain this subtle but all-important balance [in a good neighbourhood between residents' privacy and the help and contact they have with their neighbours] in terms of the stores where people leave keys for their friends, a common custom on New York [...]

Now why do I, and many others, select Joe [who runs the local deli] as a logical custodian for keys? Because we trust him, first, to be a responsible custodian, but equally important because we know that he combines a feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our personal affairs. Joe considers it no concern of his whom we choose to permit in our places and why.

Page 155

A city's very wholeness in bringing together people with communities of interest is one of its greatest assets, possibly the greatest. And, in turn, one of the assets a city district needs is people with access to the political, the administrative, and the special interest communities of the city as a whole.

Page 182

Over intervals of time, many people change their jobs and the locations of their jobs, shift or enlarge their outside friendships and interests, change their family sizes, change their incomes up or down, even change many of their tastes. In short they live, rather than just exist. If they live in diversified, rather than monotonous, districts - in districts, particularly, where many details of physical change can constantly be accommodated - and if they like the place, they can stay put despite changes in the locales or natures of their other pursuits or interests. Unlike the people who must move from a lower-middle to a middle-middle to an upper-middle suburb as their incomes and leisure activities change (or be very outre indeed) [...]

Page 187

[James] Boswell not only gave a good definition of cities, he put his finger on one of the chief troubles in dealing with them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of contemplating a city's uses one at a time, by categories. Indeed, just this - analysis of cities, use by use - has become a customary planning tactic.

Page 191

Wherever lively and popular parts of the city are found, the small [retail businesses] much outnumber the large.

Page 196

To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

3. The district much mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close grained.

4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. [...]

Page 211 (in a footnote)

The innate inefficiency of serving a single primary use is one reason (in combination with several others) why so few shopping centers are able to support any but standardized, high turnover enterprises.

Page 238

Long blocks also thwart the principle that if city mixtures of use are to be more than a fiction on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets.

Page 244

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation - although these make fine ingredients - but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

Page 245

Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings.


As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Page 258

Improvement must come by supplying the conditions for generating diversity that are missing, not by wiping out old buildings in great swathes.

Page 282

It is hardly possible to expect that many really different types of dwellings or their buildings can be added at any one time. To think they can be is wishful thinking.

Page 289

The task is to promote the city life of city people, housed, let us hope, in concentrations both dense enough and diverse enough to offer them a decent chance at developing city life.

Page 293

Genuine architectural variety, [Eugene] Raskin pointed out, does not consist in using different colors or textures.

Page 303

Indeed, the notion that reek or fumes are to be combated by zoning and land-sorting classifications at all is ridiculous. The air doesn't know about zoning boundaries. Regulations specifically aimed at the smoke or the reek itself are to the point.

Page 331

This means, often, constraints on too rapid a replacement of too many buildings. I think the specific scheme of diversity zoning, or the specific combination of schemes, that an outstandingly successful city locality requires is likely to differ with the locality and with the particular form of self-destruction that threatens it.

Page 333

In short, public and public-spirited bodies can do much to anchor diversity by standing staunch [in keeping their buildings] in the midst of different surrounding uses, while money rolls around them and begs to roll over them.

Page 348

Many such semicommercial or commercial uses [of space in public parks] belong on the city side of a park border, placed deliberately to dramatize and intensify cross-use (and cross-surveillance) to and fro. They ought generally to work in partnership with border uses on the park side: an example would be a park skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street, on the city side, a cafe where the skaters could get refreshments and where watchers could observe the skating across the way from enclosed or open raised terraces.

Page 349

[Kevin Lynch writes that "An edge] then becomes a seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together."

Page 350

Waterfront work uses, which are often interesting, should not be blocked off from ordinary view for interminable stretches, and the water itself thereby blocked off from city view too at ground level. Such stretches should be penetrated by small, and even casual, public openings calculated for glmpsing or watching work and water traffic.

Page 353

Our present urban renewal laws are an attempt to break this particular linkage in the vicious circles by forthrightly wiping away slums and their populations, and replacing them with projects intended to produce higher tax yields, or to lure back easier populations with less expensive public requirements. The method fails. At best, it merely shifts slums from here to there, adding its own tincture of extra hardship and disruption. At worst, it destroys neighborhoods where constructive and improving communities exist and where the situation calls for encouragement rather than destruction.

Page 356

Unslumming hinges, paradoxically, on the retention of a very considerable part of a slum population within a slum. It hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businessmen of a slum find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must virtually all move elsewhere.

Page 363

[Quoting from a Harrison Salisbury article about delinquency in low-income projects]
Segregation is imposed not by religion or color but by the sharp knife of income or lack of income. What this does to the social fabric of the community must be witnessed to be appreciated. The able, rising families are constantly driven out . . . At the intake end the economic and social levels tend to drop lower and lower . . . A human catch-pool is formed that breeds social ills and requires endless outside assistance.

Page 364

The foundation for unslumming is a slum lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety. The worst foundation is the dull kind of place that makes slums, instead of unmaking them.

Page 365

I do not mean to imply, however, that every slum which gets itself enough diversity and a sufficiently interesting and convenient life automatically unslums.

Page 369

Furthermore, although these people at the bottom are hardly successes by most standards, in their street neighborhoods most of them are successes. They make up a vital part of the web of casual public life. The amount of time they devote to street watching and street management makes some of the rest of us parasites upon them.

Page 373

Generation after generation, nonslum dwellers stick to the same foolish ideas about slums and slum dwellers. The pessimists always seem to feel that there is something inferior about the current crops of slum dwellers themselves, and can point out supposedly dire differences that distinguish them from previous immigrants. The optimists always seem to feel that there is nothing wrong with slums that could not be fixed by housing and land-use reform and enough social workers. It is hard to say which oversimplification is the sillier.

Page 376

An unslumming slum is peculiarly vulnerable in still another respect. Nobody is making a fortune out of it. The two great moneymakers in cities are, on the one hand, unsuccessful, perpetual slums [not necessarily moral or entirely legal moneymakers] and, on the other hand, high-rent or high-cost areas.

Page 381

[...] money is a powerful force both for city decline and for city regeneration. But it must be understood that it is not the mere availability of money but how it is available, and for what, that is all important.

Page 383

Unslumming - much as it should be speeded up from the glacial pace at which it now proceeds - is a process of steady but gradual change.

Page 395

All three kinds of cataclysmic money have been involved [...], as they often are in city decay. First the withdrawal of all conventional money; then ruination financed by shadow-world money; then selection of the area by the Planning Commission as a candidate for cataclysmic use of government money to finance renewal clearance. This last stage makes possible cataclysmic re-entry of conventional money for financing renewal-project construction and rehabilitation. So well do these three different kinds of money prepare the way for each other's cataclysms that one would be impelled to admire the process, as a highly developed form of order in its own right, were it not so destructive to every other form of city order. It does not represent a "conspiracy." It is a logical outcome of logical men guided by nonsensical but conventional city planning beliefs.

Page 401

Lack of money has hardly been the trouble in East Harlem. After the drought came fantastic floods. The money poured into East Harlem alone from the public housing treasuries is about as much as was lost on the Edsel. In the case of a mistake like the Edsel, a point is reached when the expenditure is reappraised and halted. But in East Harlem, citizens today have to fight off still more money for repetitions of mistakes that go unappraised by those who control the money floodgates. I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.

Page 410

Public housing money is employed cataclysmically instead of for gradual, steady street and district improvement, because we thought cataclysms would be good for our slum dwellers - and a demonstration to the rest of us of the good city life.

Page 414

It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work.

Page 429

The physical standards and regulations applying should be those embodied in a city's own codes and body of regulations, and should therefore be the same for guaranteed-rent dwellings as they would be for any unsubsidized building at the same place. If it is public policy to improve or to change dwelling standards for safety, sanitation, amenity or street design, then this public policy must be expressed for the public - not for an arbitrarily selected, guinea-pig part of the public.

Page 432

[By forcing developers to certain plots, and to choose tenants for those developments from the existing area] It would be possible, for instance, to stimulate new construction in currently blacklisted localities where the lack becomes crucial, and to do it by helping to retain, at the same time, people already within the neighborhood.

Page 435

Deliberate, periodic changes in tactics of subsidy would afford opportunity to meet new needs that become apparent over time, but that nobody can foresee in advance. This observation is, obliquely, a warning against the limitations of my own prescriptions in this book.

Page 442

Nowadays there is a myth that city streets, so patently inadequate for floods of automobiles, are antiquated vestiges of horse-and-buggy conditions, suitable to the traffic of their time, but...

Nothing could be less true. To be sure, the streets of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities were usually well adapted, as streets, to the uses of people afoot and to the mutual support of the mingled uses bordering them. But they were miserably adapted, as streets, to horse traffic, and this in turn made them poorly adapted in many ways to foot traffic too.

Page 447

Trucks, by and large, do accomplish much of what might have been hoped for from mechanical vehicles in cities. They do the work of much greater numbers of horse-drawn vehicles or of burden-laden men. But because passenger vehicles do not, this congestion, in turn, greatly cuts down the efficiency of the trucks.

Page 451

Except in the most intensively used central downtown areas, it hardly seems that the service complications accompanying thoroughgoing separation of pedestrians and vehicles are justified.

Page 453

[...] the main virtual of pedestrian streets is not that they completely lack cars, but rather that they are not overwhelmed and dominated by floods of cars, and that they are easy to cross.

Page 473

For just as there is no absolute, immutable number of public transportation riders in a city, so is there no absolute, immutable number of private automobile riders, rather, the numbers vary in response to current differentials in speed and convenience among ways of getting around.

Page 474

Tactics are suitable which give room to other necessary and desired city uses that happen to be in competition with automobile traffic needs.

Page 477

To achieve [greater efficiency of public transportation], the buses going into and through downtown must be speeded up. This can be done without doubt, says [traffic commissioner of New Haven, William] McGrath, by regulating the traffic light frequencies to short intervals and not staggering them.

Page 479

Trucks are vital to cities. They mean service. They mean jobs. At present, we already have, in reverse, truck selectivity traffic tactics on a few city streets. On Fifth and Park avenues in New York, for instance, trucks are forbidden, except for those making deliveries.

Page 481

Attrition of automobiles requires changes in habits and adjustments in usage too; just as in the case of erosion it should not disrupt too many habits at once.

Page 483

To concentrate on riddance as the primary purpose, negatively to put taboos and penalties on automobiles as children might say, "Cars, cars, go away," would be a policy not only doomed to defeat but rightly doomed to defeat. A city vacuum, we must remember, is not superior to redundant traffic, and people are rightly suspicious of programs that give them nothing for something.

Page 489

[...] modern city planning has been burdened from its beginnings with the unsuitable aim of converting cities into disciplined works of art.

Page 490

A city is not put together like a mammal or a steel frame building - or even like a honeycomb or a coral. A city's very structure consists of mixture of uses, and we get closest to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.

Page 493

The tactics needed are suggestions that help people make, for themselves, order and sense, instead of chaos, from what they see.

Page 498

Districts with many visual street interruptions do not, in real life, tend to intimidate or overwhelm people; they are more apt to be characterized as "friendly" and also to be comprehensible as districts.

Page 499

Actual physical cut-offs to foot traffic in particular are destructive in cities. There should always be a way around the visual interruption or through it, a way that is obvious as a person reaches it, and that then lays out before the eyes a new street scene. This seductive attribute of designed interruptions to the eye was summed up neatly by the late architect Eliel Saarinen, who is reported to have said, in explaining his own design premises, "There must always be an end in view, and the end must not be final."

Page 502

Sometimes attempts are made to give a building landmark quality simply by making it bigger than its neighbors, or by turning it out with stylistic differences. Usually, if the use of such a building is essentially the same as the uses of its neighbors, it is pallid - try as it might. [...] Except in very rare cases of real architectural masterpieces, this statement that style or size is everything gets from city users, who are not so dumb, about the affection and attention it deserves.

Page 515

The general aim should be to bring in uses different from residence, because lack of enough mixed uses is precisely one of the causes of deadness, danger and plain inconvenience.

Page 522

[...] the tie of residency to income price tags [in rules over who can live in public housing] must be abandoned altogether. So long as it remains, not only will all the most successful or lucky inexorably be drained away, but all the others must psychologically identify themselves with their homes either as transients or as "failures."

Page 530

The trouble is, [the board members at a public hearing] are trying to deal with the intimate details of a great metropolis with an organizational structure to back them up, advise them, inform them, guide them and pressure them, that has become anachronistic. There is no villainy responsible for this situation, not even the villainy of pass-the-buck; the villainy, if it can be called that, is a most understandable failure by our society to keep abreast of demanding historical changes.

The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities - for housing, for welfare, for health, for education, for regulatory planning - which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities.

Page 533

"A Region," somebody has wryly said, "is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution."

Page 535

Each of the many internal divisions of responsibility, vertical or horizontal [in a city administration], is rational in its own terms, which is to say rational in a vacuum. Put them all together in terms of a big city itself and the sum is chaos.

Page 538

Persons of hope, energy and initiative who enter into the service of these empires almost have to become uncaring and resigned, for the sake of their self-preservation (not for job preservation, as is so often thought, but for self-preservation).

Page 550

Citizens of big cities need fulcrum points where they can apply their pressures, and make their wills and their knowledge known and respected. Administrative districts would inevitably become such fulcrum points. Many of the conflicts that are today fought out in the labyrinths of vertical city government - or that are decided by default because the citizens never know what hit them - would be transferred to these [proposed more local] district arenas.

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January 12, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 12th 2015

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January 05, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 5th 2015

  • Governing through unhappiness. Audit, targets and managerialism as tools to control and emasculate. We need to start setting different parameters for success, ones that can't easily be quantified.
  • On Nerd Entitlement. Such a shame that the alternate response to the geeks inheriting the earth hasn't won out, that we remember what it's like and help those less powerful.
  • Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty and then Eric's follow-up post Well, That Escalated Quickly. A sobering warning that algorithms can easily go wrong. More diversity in our teams will help mitigate, although not eliminate, this sort of thing. "Move fast and break things" is just a fun quote until you realise the things being broken are people. (Like Eric, I don't think this is just a problem with Facebook, it's just unfortunate for them that their famous quote explains the problem so aptly).
  • City link, co-determination, and destiny. Interesting thoughts from Matt Webb about the new forms of firm that it turns out aren't quite so new (I don't know how long City Link have been going, but they pre-date Uber by quite some time...). It often feels like unions and the traditional left/right politics are fighting an old, long-gone battle, and this sort of thing shows that to be true. It's not about workers vs. bosses any more, but still about asymmetry of power, and finding ways to challenge that.
  • In 2015, we’ll need different words to talk about the future. Words are important.
  • How To Pay Attention: 20 Ways To Win The War Against Seeing. Some good exercises to do in that. It reminds me a bit of Noticings.
  • Really Bad Powerpoint. Good presentation tips from Seth Godin.
  • How My Mom Got Hacked. Welcome to the new normal. We need more geeks working out how to combat this.

And this week, an excellent video of Eric Rodenbeck talking about running his data-viz agency Stamen:

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