Archive for the ‘Hall of Fame’ Category

Love Letter to a Dying Computer

Dearest Computer,
Well, here we are.  I know all this processing is a strain, but I’d like to say this while I still can.  If you need to turn off before I’m done, I’ll understand.
Gosh, how does one begin conversations like this?  I guess the best way is to start fondly at the beginning.  Remember when I brought you home that October evening in 2004?  Five years seems at once so long ago and so recent.  Whoever returned you to Best Buy didn’t know what they were missing with such a high-quality machine.  You were at the height of your game back then – 60GB hard drive!  24x CD burner (I had been limping along at 4x)!  17.1″ widescreen with DVD capability!  3 hours battery life!  And so portable!  I couldn’t wait to take you out to a coffee shop.
Sure, things were a bit awkward at first.  There was the issue of my desktop computer, which had been a good companion ever since we had wiped Windows ME from it and installed XP.  I spent more time and trouble than I should have, getting you two to talk to each other and transfer my files.  There were times when I thought I would just lose everything.  But from the first, Computer, you were supportive and patient as I installed new drivers and software.  I’m especially glad you got along with my printer – I know it hasn’t been all there either of late, but it’s going to miss you too, you know.
And then we took our first big trip abroad!  I admit I was worried about plugging you in the first time, hoping the foreign voltage wouldn’t overwhelm you.  But you adapted very well, and pretty soon (after adjusting my default paper size to A4) it was like you had been practically built in England.  I know I didn’t take you as many places as I could have – I tended to be possessive, not letting strangers try to pick you up while I wasn’t looking.  But we wrote some good papers together … and more than a few bad ones!  Remember when we stayed up practically all night writing that Tudor history response?
You were also good about keeping me connected to my friends back home … we spent more than a few hours E-mailing, chatting, talking on Skype.  And I’ll never forget how you helped me organize all my photos, especially after my purse (including camera) was stolen a month before we went home.  Thank goodness I had left you safely at home, Computer.  I don’t know what I would have done if you had been taken that day.
When we got back to the States, you re-acclimated faster than I did, and got right to work on that summer research project.  I’ll admit I wasn’t always the most motivated, but you were there whether we were watching those “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” clips for academic or purely entertainment purposes.  We barely pulled through before having to start the next project in the fall!
But oh, Computer, how many happy hours we spent in the library together, at our little hideaway on the 5th floor.  I even kept a second power cord there for you, remember?  You might have suffered a bit with all the book dust about, but even so, you never failed to have the right music to keep me going.  And I don’t think I ever told you how much appreciated you being faithful through those critical times.  More than once I heard the lament of someone whose computer had refused to work, had crashed at a critical moment, had failed to remember a really important paper.  Maybe it was luck, but I’d like to think our relationship was more stable that of the average student.  Here we are five years later, after all.
And like any college campus, disease was rampant.  I know, I know, we should have used better virus protection, but I guess I was just a young and reckless user.  Lately I’ve been feeling guilty about that … I should have given you access to Windows Update more often, I know, and maybe that mass-download was too little, too late.  And maybe what we’re going through now is somehow the first signs of an infection long ago … but I’d like to think that maybe what’s happening now is just the way of things, the natural lifespan of even the best technology.
(You’ve been doing well the last couple days, by the way.  I’ve really enjoyed being able to spend more time with you.)
Then – exciting times – we moved to Chicago!  I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with how you adapted to that ridiculous Comcast software, despite how difficult it was being.  And how you held your own against all those shiny new Dells and Macbooks and tiny only-good-for-notetaking machines with which people seemed enamored.  Sure, you weren’t really well-suited to the classroom, but I was able to get you up to speed once I got home.  <CRASH>
Are you okay?  Comfortable?
…. And you certainly put up with a lot from me that year!  French translations, Wikipedia page archives, not to mention pages and pages of semi-coherent notes about the Leaning Virgin of Albert… somtimes I’m surprised we made it through with a thesis and a half-hard-drive of free memory.  And still, you always pulled me through.
Remember when we sat out on the Midway and picked up a rogue wireless signal on that bench by the train tracks?  Your visual display probably wasn’t happy in the sunlight (not to mention your sensitivity to pollen), but sometimes a little risk is good for you, I suppose.
When I started working that summer, I realized that was really the longest we’d been separated on a daily basis.  I hope you didn’t resent it.  Sure, there was a computer at work, but it was strictly professional – I didn’t even have administrative access.  You still seem a little sore on this point, so I just want to say, all we did was read resumes, and occasionally browse sites like Politico.com.  And any pictures I saved were forwarded right home to you.  In any case, it was a Dell desktop with an insecure power cord, not my type at all.
And when I was home, we still spent some quality time together, watching the Daily Show online, ordering from the Something Store (BFF bracelet! haha), planning those weekend trips.  You kept me connected to the world, especially when the weather was bad or when I was feeling low.  You were so good at that.
I’ll admit – and maybe this coincided with returning to the more hectic pace of the city – I noticed you slowing down a few months ago.  Taking longer to load web pages.  Not quite able to handle too many tabs at a time.  Never enough to crash your whole system, but….  Was it Firefox?  Was I too pushy with open-source software?  I know Firefox is a new program and demanding on your resources.  If that’s what’s made you upset all these months, I’m sorry.  Yes, I’ll admit, occasionally I had thoughts about my next computer, what it would be and what we would do.  But as your browser history could attest, I never went further than idle thoughts.
Remembering the decline is still hard for me.  It seemed to come out of nowhere in March – I took you into the living room, it was like you were having an amnesia episode, perpetually restarting, unable to recognize where or what you were.  That’s when your mortality really hit me, Computer.  For a moment I was afraid you’d never wake up again.  Once you settled back on the desk, however, you were fine (for the time being).  I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with you – the unfortunate impatience the young have for the elderly.  After all, you were supposed to be portable!  I’d already resigned myself to dealing with your hyper-shortened battery life, since you stay plugged in most of the time anyway.  I tried to be careful where I set you down, how warm or cold you were, not fiddling with your wireless card button.  But once you started having those memory lapses, I couldn’t pretend anymore.
You seemed to go downhill so quickly in the past couple weeks.  It hurt that I couldn’t rely on you anymore, especially so soon before we would be heading to school again.  Is this what set you off, the thought of leaving the Midwest?  You haven’t traveled for a while.  Were you feeling as though you wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other east-coast computers?  I can understand where you’re coming from, I suppose.  I think you would have been fine.  But you always knew your own processor.
… I’m glad you’re not angry about the reformat.  I was really torn that day, whether to risk everything with a clean slate, or let you hobble along with all those programs intact.  Looking back, I know it was probably an unnecessary risk to put you through, and I’m sorry things didn’t turn out better.  I’m glad at least we were able to copy everything important before you forgot it all.  The worst part was the false hope we had as you finished reinstalling XP without a hitch – I can’t even describe the sinking feeling I had when I saw that awful blue screen in the middle of restoring one of your drivers.  Sure, we went through the motions and got you functional again (after all, aren’t you accessing the Internet right now?) but we both knew it was almost time.  You might have enjoyed running a few more of the old programs, but I thought it would be best for both of us if you just focused on the essentials.
I didn’t have the heart to shop online for a new computer with you, so I spared you that, at least.  If it makes you feel better, I’m getting another HP Pavilion … but for all its capability and trendy look, I still like your classy black-and-silver lines best.  I almost got a Dell that reminded me of you, but it wouldn’t have be the same.  Certainly it wouldn’t have the memories we have.  You know, in spite of everything, I still trust you.
I’ll be honest, Computer.  Dad thinks we might be able to fix you with another reformat and maybe a quick hardware replacement, but I can’t say I’m hopeful.  In any case, I care about you too much to put you through more trauma, with so little chance of real success.  Maybe it’s just your time.  I don’t need to have you calculate what Moore’s Law has to say about you.  Don’t listen to the hype about obselecense, Computer (oh! for one more moment with your spellcheck) – you can still hold your own against those cheaper, flashier models out there.  And you’ve been perfectly healthy until now.  That’s meant a lot to me.
Where do we go from here?  I don’t know.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could go out in a blaze of glory?  Flying off the roof of the Sears Tower – drifting slowly to the bottom of Lake Michigan – colliding with the brick wall of the Lozano school, chips and keys and LCD flying dazzling outward into the grass.  Part of me wants to give you that spectacular passing.  But the sentimental part can’t bring it to fruition.  I don’t know.
What I can promise, at least, is that I’ll try my best not to remember you this way, hobbling along semi-lucid in the mornings, sitting silent and closed all day.  You deserve better, Computer.  So let’s just savor our last times together online, and not worry about things you can’t process.  I know I’ve kept you awake a long time now … but do you think you have it in you for one last blog post, for old times’ sake?
<CRASH>
… Computer?
R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

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On Byrne and Colbert

David Byrne on the Colbert Report!!!  Amazing.  And he actually laughs multiple times … he must be mellowing out.

Watch Byrne and Colbert’s interview at Colbert Nation

I will post something legit soon, really!

Chicago Fail

I’m toying with the idea of turning this blog into specifically my thoughts on and first stabs at forming opinions on issues of urban planning – or I might just pollute the ‘net with another blog.  In any case, I thought this worth sharing:

I attended a couple lectures as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival which honored and discussed the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan of Chicago, the document by Daniel Burnham and others which laid out not only the physical plan of the city, but the principles behind which Chicago has developed over the past century.  Looking at the plan and a map of downtown Chicago currently, it’s interesting to see what has and has not come into being, but I think the most entertaining and tragic deviation is as follows.

In the Plan, Burnham envisioned a variety of public spaces which celebrated civic life, including museums, lakefront park space, etc.   The centerpiece west of the Loop would be a “center for civic, intellectual, and cultural life” accessible via a wide boulevard called Congress Parkway, and from which diagonal streets like Ogden would lead outward into the rest of the city. Illustrated below:

An illustration of the city according to the plan

An illustration of the city according to the plan

Here is the city now, with some labels, for reference – courtesy of Google Maps.

Downtown Chicago as it looks today (Google Maps)

Downtown Chicago as it looks today (Google Maps)

So, obviously we never got that civic center, although we did get some cool museums in the mix.  What we actually got was – in pretty much exactly that spot – a big circle of highway intersections, the interchange among 90/94 and 290 (with 55 somewhere close by).  I think that pretty much qualifies as an epic fail.

Highway interchange, and epic fail

Highway interchange, and epic fail

I think that says volumes about how much cars have polluted our cities and generally our quality of life.  This was the conclusion I came to while listening to the talk, although they only talked a little about transport in particular.  So here’s a way to think about it:  cars themselves, and not merely their emissions, are polluting our cities.

On NextFest

Finally got to check out NextFest, sponsored by Wired (and apparently Toyota, Citigroup, Xerox, and Acer) and located in Millennium Park through Sunday.  There wasn’t a great deal to see – don’t get me wrong, the stuff they had was pretty great, but in terms of billing itself as the foremost exhibition of future technology, it came up a bit short in quantity and complexity of exhibits.  Given that it’s Chicago, however, I guess I should be grateful for any glimmer of the future.

Even if I felt the specifics were somewhat lacking, however, what I took away from the whole spectacle was some renewal of hope in the future.  I don’t know that technology in itself can save us; whether having faith in and taking comfort in science is misguided; or whether it’s okay that companies like Toyota or Xerox are coming up with as many, if not more, ideas than the traditional research centers of the universities and NASA.  It’s been just long enough since I read Toffler’s book that I can’t quite remember whether I’d consider myself a futurist, but I’m sure new technologies must fit in there somewhere.  This is not to say that new technologies will be the best answer – sometimes going back to old technologies (see:  renewed interest in and use of cisterns in residential homes) is the best thing to do, especially if we can use the infrastructure that’s been lying around.  But I think the shift in thinking we need to make is, not to ask “how can technology make my life easier?” but “how can technology make my life more fulfilling?”  It seems that a lot of inventions are meant to do the work for us, leaving us with empty time and energy that we pour into inventions that ultimately just distract us.  I’m okay with still doing some work – I’m not okay with feeling like I’ve done nothing, and had more time to do it.

In other news, I’m warming up to the idea of podcasts – and luckily they are available as regular webcasts, as I’m still not that personally-wired as to carry my MP3 player everywhere.  These are worth checking out:

* Pretty much anything on NPR.  My station of choice is WBEZ Chicago, with podcasts of individual programs.

* Planetizen – the urban planners’ online network.  Includes weekly updates and interviews

* KunstlerCast – a series of interviews with James Howard Kunstler, the anti-suburbs writer (best-known book, “Geography of Nowhere,” haven’t gotten to it yet).  He’s acerbic and sometimes pompous, but has some great insights into “the tragicomedy of suburbia.”

* Brain Science Podcast – “For everyone who has a brain.”  Dr. Ginger Campbell talks about a variety of studies of the brain.  Thanks C for the recommendation!!

I’m a pretty big fan of the idea of “radio” – in the sense of learning through audio recordings and interviews – rather than video at this point.  Maybe because my eyes have been so tired for the past year, it’s nice to give another sense a chance to take over for a while.

In conclusion, podcasts are kind of great.  I need to explore for some more good ones, I highly recommend running a search of your own for something you like!

On Space Wars

Mike Moore’s new book, Twilight War:  the Folly of U.S. Space Dominance

I haven’t read this, but I was struck by an argument made by the author during a brief radio interview that I heard today, that a “space-based war” would take the form not of a Star-Wars style dogfight between small ships, but more likely a mutual launching and destruction of satellites meant to collect intelligence about the opposing side, and probably destruction occurring from land-based missiles.

The unintended consequence of this would be the creation of a great deal of floating and uncontrolled space debris, which would essentially make space unnavigable for any craft (as hitting the debris could compromise the hull or cause other problems).

So basically, yes – there is a way that we could actually screw up space.  Not in the sense that we ruin its substance, but we would render it polluted with junk and completely useless.

This was hilarious and sad to me.  Not only could we mess up the whole planet, but we could also mess up space.  Wow.

On Infrastructure

I could say a lot of things about Chicago here, but I’ll just leave you with this little postcard I made.

Chicago Infrastructure Postcard

On Changing Attitudes

So I’ve been thinking more about cities and urban planning lately (particularly when reading about the continuing CTA troubles or doing the afternoon commute past the Wal-Mart).  And so far I’ve come up with this:

Things would be better if people enjoyed being outside.

This isn’t to say that this alone would be sufficient to fix everything that needs to be fixed.  But I think it could go a long way.  Here are some possible consequences of a change in attitude.

* People would walk more!   This is a key part of city life (de Certeau’s essay, “Walking on the City,” elaborates on this idea) and ultimately the most efficient way for a person to get from one part of a neighborhood to another (it’s hard to be stuck in foot traffic unless you’re in a parade crowd heading for home).  People are more likely to walk when the weather is nice, but a great many choose to drive, take the bus, or take  a cab when they could just go the few extra blocks to their destination.   And if people enjoy the act itself – moving along on one’s own power,  observing the interesting buildings and shops and fellow walkers, feeling the sun or the mist or a cool breeze – they are more likely to repeat this act whenever possible.  Also, of course, walking is a health benefit for the walkers.

* And as all these new walkers hit the sidewalks, they would stop driving!  Fewer cars on the road means a smoother flow of traffic in now-congested areas, less air pollution (another health benefit for walkers), and fewer parked cars to contend with and find spaces on which to sit unused for several hours.  Less air pollution is also a health benefit for the city itself, particularly delicate old building edifices.

* As more people stopped driving, they would use public transportation!  Walking is the best way to spend time outside but still get to where you’re going, but if you’re going too far to just walk, you still won’t mind spending time waiting outside for the next bus or train.  Ideally, of course, public transportation would be 1) clean, 2) reliable, 3) unobtrusive on the landscape, 4) safe, 5) wide-reaching and flexible for many different itineraries, and 6) affordable, but regardless of its condition, the act of waiting at a bus stop or station would be a more enjoyable (and again, repeatable) experience if people didn’t mind doing it.

* And since people are already outside, they would make use of (and support the cultivation of) more green space!  In Chicago, you can definitely tell where the old money was by how much green space can be found in a given neighborhood, and the city’s long-time commitment to its parks can be seen in the shoreline from Jackson Park and the South Shore, through Grant and Millennium Parks downtown, and past Lincoln Park into Evanston.  While not all areas of the city have such dramatic green spaces, however, a neighborhood playground or grass-covered lot can do wonders for the aesthetic (and land) value of the neighborhood.  And nothing better supports such efforts than their use – a community garden, a dog park, a school field, or a patch of forest preserve (like that along the Des Plaines River in the aptly-named River Forest).  In order to enjoy being outside, people must have attractive places in which to frolic, and green space, while perhaps not being a strictly commercial asset in the way a parking lot or corporate headquarters might be, is vital to the health of a city.

* As people enjoy looking at pretty scenery, they will also demand beautification of their streets and homes and stores and neighborhoods!  This is important not only to save historic buildings and districts (Chicago’s myriad post-fire apartment buildings, shops, and building facades come to mind), but to encourage the proliferation of interesting and attractive new architecture in current and future construction projects.  If people spend more time outside their homes, naturally they will come to expect – and hopefully participate in maintaining – a higher standard of cleanliness, upkeep, and general aesthetic value of their neighborhood, from keeping streets litter-free to adding outdoor sculptures or murals to their parks, streets, and buildings.  Landscaping will be cultivated rather than the sad, scrubby weeds of abandoned lots; graffiti and acts of vandalism may give way to restored building fronts and frescoes whose content, but not presence, may be subversive; in short, neighborhoods will offer themselves as pleasures to look at and spend time in.

* As neighborhoods look better and people linger there, more businesses will cater to this interest in the outdoors!  Here I’m not talking about sporting-good stores, but local establishments that cater to the walking shopper – local cafes and restaurants, boutiques designed for window-shopping, promenades with places to eat, drink, sit, and watch the other pedestrians.  Although in some places, such as Chicago, these establishments would not always be able to offer an outdoor option due to the weather, during the pleasant months of the year outdoor patios would be the preferred seating, rather than “whatever’s closest to the air conditioning,” and residents and visitors could enjoy a leisurely meal in the open air.  Seasonal festivals, open-air markets, and other outdoor-oriented events would offer some variety to the normal fare, and such events, when successful, can have great drawing power for the surrounding area.  Public services, notably libraries, would also receive greater participation; if the pharmacy is next door to the library, why not stop and pick up a book on your walk home?

*  The effect of all these attractive local businesses and the healthy level of patronage would be keeping money in the neighborhood!  So often people drive a great distance to buy or experience things which may be found much closer to home – the classic story of Wal-mart taking the business of the local grocery.  While it is true that difference in cost (or availability of a local alternative) can make such movement outwards more rational, it becomes less of a good deal when one factors in driving time, fuel consumption to make the trip, and often the lower quality of the product(s) in question.  American cities are particularly ill-designed to cater to local needs (unless you happen to live within walking distance of the nearest strip mall), but nevertheless in areas of dense population it is not impossible.  Furthermore, keeping one’s income within the community benefits all those who live and work there – local restaurants stay in business and thrive, local shops can sustain reasonable prices and respond to the requests of their customers for whichever products are most needed or wanted, other businesses can move into an area which is seen to be growing and/or prospering, more people are able to find employment without having to drive several miles away (see above point), and the community can collect more commercial property tax which in turn can fund whatever other projects contribute to its overall health.

* And finally (though this list is not exhaustive!) the important and perhaps overlooked fact that being outside, and being out among many other people, is good for you.  Health and economic benefits aside, interacting with other human beings is generally a really good idea, particularly in a city where so many people live in such close proximity.  This is not to say that everyone needs to shake hands and spend an hour with everyone they pass on the street, but simply that we too easily close ourselves off in cars and homes and cubicles and impersonal supermarkets.   Many people don’t know their neighbors and make no effort to do so; they find themselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood whose streets look abandoned, and start to feel afraid; and they may have no experience and therefore no idea how to behave among those, however different from them, when they do find someone in that strange place.  We interact with people, inside and out, on a daily basis, but often it is one of mutual and tacit obliviousness, not because we are all misanthropes but often because we are so concerned with where we’re going and not enjoying our route or our destination.  It’s hard to strike up a conversation when both parties feel rushed and compelled elsewhere; but it’s hard not to take pleasure in being among others who are genuinely enjoying themselves in, for example, an outdoor public space.  We see dog and owner and smile as they enjoy a game of frisbee; we see children mingling on a playground and their chaperones comparing nearby parks; we see a small crowd around a street performer; and we see an unwieldy group of tourists marvelling at the same sites which we pass every day.  Surely this kind of positive human contact – even if it is as indirect as sharing the same bike path every Saturday afternoon – is a good thing.

Two places in Chicago where I see this spirit in action:  Millennium Park (in the Loop) and Promontory Point (in Hyde Park, just off 55th St.)  In both places, although they have very different characters, I see genuine evidence of community.  Promontory Point is mainly a locally-centered place, known as “the Point” to the many people who run, walk, bike, skate, swim, and simply meditate there.  It is not a large space, but it is a well-used one by many Hyde Park residents, not to mention a strongly-defended one against the possibility of restructuring.  Although you may not see the same faces on every visit (and may not recognize the faces in any case) there is nevertheless the feeling of a shared and loved space, a source of commonality for everyone who frequents it.  Millennium Park, in contrast, has no particular locality but offers a place to play in the middle of the city – finding your reflection in the Bean, walking through the flower garden in the spring or along the small canal, enjoying an outdoor concert at the amphitheatre, splashing in the wading pool with the giant spitting columns (the faces themselves a reflection of the park as a place of community), skating on the ice rink, or interacting with whatever art installations happen to be featured there that season.  It is a tourist attraction but not exclusively so – it costs nothing (ice rink excluded), does not advertise itself with the touristy kitsch that residents tend to shun, and most importantly makes no assumptions about the people who visit, throwing everyone together into the same space with no set rules or particular path that must be followed.  (And offers pretty nice views of the city).  In short, both the Point and Millennium Park are places in which you can enjoy being outside.

Why is this shift in attitude so important?  As I stated at the beginning, changing attitudes about enjoying the outdoors in itself is not sufficient to effect great change in American cities, but it seems to be a good part of what must be a larger plan.  While people may not support the restoration of a historic building for its own sake, they may be more supportive when they consider that they enjoy looking at it every day.  People may not be interested in growing their own vegetables, but they can appreciate the beauty of a green space in which their neighbor does.  And people may not think that buying local is a good way to save money, but it’s certainly a good way to save a neighborhood.  Perhaps it’s a stretch to consider all of these points as the cascade of consequences from making people go outside, but since a city is not only its buildings and roads but the spaces and environment around them, it seems to me that we should make an effort to get to know those spaces, and work to make them better.

New Comic

While I do have the best intentions to actually post things with thoughts and in paragraph form in the near future, for now I’m setting up a new site for my comic, “Stan & Ergo,” about the absurdity of life in the office.   The name is that of the two principal characters – Stan is the one (usually) standing, Ergo (for ergonomic) is the one (usually) slouching in his chair.  Much of the content reflects my own experiences at work – sometimes without any exaggeration (though I’ll leave you to figure out which ones are which).  I feel this comic has also been heavily influenced by the obvious office-humor pioneer, Dilbert, and the work of Drew in Toothpaste for Dinner, but I hope at least that there are at least some points of departure.

That said, the new comic can be seen at http://stanandergo.wordpress.com.  At least once I’ve sufficiently set it up.  I will also put a permanent link in this blog, somehow, for easy access.

Interlude

 Here’s a little thought I had … hopefully worth posting.  Lately I’d had the occasional blip of creativity, but without direction they just come and go … I should try to tie a few down at once and make something good.  For now, here’s something at any rate.

ATTN:
You well-meaning modern managers
Stop buying better chairs and brand-new screens
Don’t waste your money
Here’s the bottom line:
Desk jobs are not ergonomic

On the Highway and the City

Highway

The title from this post is taken from a book of essays by Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City (1963).

Rambling observations of Rotterdam and Frank Lloyd Wright aside, I very much enjoyed what Mumford had to say, particularly since from the very beginning he wanted to make clear that the highway was, in fact, killing the city as we know it:

“When these essays first appeared, many forces that were at once regimenting and disintegrating the city had not yet been challenged. The high-rise slab was looked upon as the very paragon of modern architectural form; the class curtain wall was still a pat symbol of modernity, and the words ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ were still used as an unqualified term of praise and edification. So, too, the preposterous plans of the highway engineers for gouging out the living cores of great cities with expressways, interchanges, and parking lots, whilst draining off the working population into scattered nondescript suburban housing, were widely regarded as the last word in urban progress.

“. . . .[these ideas] are as bankrupt as our nuclear policy of ‘survival’ by competitive mass extermination.” (Preface)

This last sentence in particular dates the work, of course, and one would like to think that some of the “high-rise slabs” built in the mid-century have again been looked on as more ugly than modern. His observations, however, are no less significant today: the mess of driving in Los Angeles and other American cities, the large-scale replacement of the pedestrian by the driver, lengthening commutes which require more time to travel the same distance, the utter waste of land and resources on highways cutting right through urban spaces. “In short, the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar” (235).

To Mumford’s ideas I can offer much support but little innovation – and the unfortunate observation that, although his observations were made almost fifty years ago, they have become only more true; and although he spends more time talking about Europe and Philadelphia than Chicago, the worst of his predictions can readily be seen here. CTA is in big trouble, structurally and financially; construction and “normal delays” do little to curb residents’ reliance on cars; gas prices are, on average, the highest in the country, and probably gas consumption the highest as well; the deceptive allure of saving money by long-distance commute rather than living and working in the same area – driving across the city, in from the suburbs, out to the suburbs, even from the neighboring states. In the brief time I commuted from the south of the city to the west, I spent 2.5-3 hours in the car each day, driving a total of 30 miles one way. I only put up with it because I knew it would be over soon, but then some people consider this a reasonable commute. So many cars on the roads wastes not only time, but space. Where to put all these cars when one isn’t driving from one place to another? Anyone who has tried to find parking in the city (free or paid) knows how much time and money it can cost. Certainly they’re a convenient and efficient way of getting from A to B, but they aren’t much use sitting at A or B, as more often than not they do. As Mumford himself pointed out – how many more pedestrians than cars can you fit along one city block, and how quickly can they get from one corner to the next?

And then, of course, there are the less measurable consequences of spending so much time in the car. Invocations of the modern alienation of man in society aside, we do in fact spend less time in the proximity of other people, even if in our respective cars we happen to share the same stretch of road. We walk less. We spend less time in open air. We spend more time breathing in substances that surely aren’t conducive to our respiratory health. We go out of our way to distract ourselves and to multi-task, trying (usually in vain) to really make use of the time we’re wasting shuttling ourselves around. And perhaps worst of all, city driving simply makes people angry – angry, impatient, prone to fits of recklessness and selfishness in our driving. Which, of course, does little for the collective mood (and safety) of the population on the road.

Highways alone are not the only problem that Chicago and other cities face, but they are certainly a major one. And of course, in making these criticisms I may seem a hypocrite, adding as I do to the general mess of city traffic by relying on my car to drive to and from work every day (and the fact that I drive out of, rather than into, the city is little better). I do not, and neither did Mumford, advocate completely abolishing cars (although if a better means of transportation came forward which could serve the same functions, all the better!) from America. But perhaps we should consider taking more steps toward abolishing them from our major cities. Mass transit, buses and trains, though woefully inadequate in Chicago, can serve many of the same shuttle-functions as cars going to and from their morning commute. Re-zoning some of the vast tracts of purely residential or purely commercial areas, particularly those surrounded by acres of parking lot, in favor of integrating the two might encourage residents to walk (or bike) to their destinations, leaving no great piece of machinery standing idly by. Controlling development of real estate and roads (another of Mumford’s insightful suggestions) may curb the “big box” shopping centers and “cookie-cutter” housing developments which give middle America its particularly deadened, homogeneous look. And perhaps most difficult of all, changing people’s attitudes about their city and their lifestyles. There is the stigma, in some areas at least, of “riding the bus” as a sign of one being a have-not, and the luxury of shutting oneself off in an SUV as the pinnacle of having “arrived.” The absurdity and waste of this idea is perhaps simply one manifestation of the general need to sort out society into categories of relative worth, but it would be a wonderful thing indeed if someday the reverse might be true. Or if more people would entertain, as a serious possibility, walking the half-mile to the pharmacy to pick up one bottle of pills, on a sunny 65-degree day.

As a better conclusion escapes me, I can only restate that although Mumford has said it much better, I put forward that even if we (particularly city planners) should have long ago given more thought to his arguments, they are no less significant even as the new system which he described in 1960 have become the poor system in which we operate today. Better trains and fewer cars would take time, of course, but we already waste so much of our time on the road, perhaps we can spend a few minutes of our daily commute thinking about how to make it not only shorter, but better.