Archive for the ‘Ramble’ 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  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?
… Computer?
R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

On Too Much Information

I read this in today’s New York Times and was both impressed and disturbed by this use of people’s penchant for online quizzes (particularly about themselves):  RealAge is giving people’s health information to drug companies, to be used for targeted Email marketing.

I’m pretty strongly against this idea, although I suppose if the site does not have a “we won’t sell your information” policy posted, it’s legal.  On the other hand, it is amazing how much personal information people will volunteer online, so maybe it is fair game if you’re okay with posting your heart-health history and income and so on.  Certainly Google has already made some steps in the direction of hyper-targeted marketing, scanning keywords in your Gmail messages to determine which ads you’ll see on the side of the screen.

Unrelated:  marketing companies are always coming up with new (sometimes intrusive) ways to show off products.  This one was amusing at least (last photo in the post):

Also notable are the graphic memento mori bus decorations.

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 Where I’m Going

I need to get better at staying awake.

I mean this in a figurative as well as physiological sense.  Over the past several months I think I’ve slipped into a false sense of security, a not-grudging-enough acceptance of the day-to-day routine which dictates my thoughts and actions and moods and bedtime.  And the further you settle into this subconscious subroutine, the more mental effort is required to pull yourself back into the realm of real, meaningful, or maybe not so meaningful but at least engaging and original, thought.  Mental inactivity breeds laziness breeds inertia breeds that feeling of dread that you’ve lost whatever you had and that it’s easier to just not get it back.

Perhaps this is the bad economy speaking, but I also feel grossly overeducated and underutilized – doesn’t anyone want to hire a person who can think about things?  I guess an innate propensity towards (admittedly, sometimes melancholy) reflection isn’t a marketable skill per se, and cannot readily be leveraged in today’s ever-changing flattening no-holds-barred global marketplace of ideas and future-oriented business solutions.  Too bad.  Apparently a master’s in the social sciences can get you the following:  1) a vague understanding of what “the social sciences” means, 2) another graduation robe, 3) a different box to check on “Education Level” survey items, 4) a crash course in contemporary academia and why it’s probably going to be in a crisis in the near future, and of course 5) the occasional reminder that you probably should have just gotten a job a year sooner.  On the plus side, it gives you a broader epistemological framework to which you can make obscure references in mental and verbal discussions with yourself and others.  Example:  can Weber’s Protestant ethic explain why I keep going to work every day?

Maybe I just need to write more.  No editing yet.  This isn’t a writing sample.

Sometimes I ask myself:  “If I’m so highly qualified, why I am still here doing this?”

Or “Is it worth it?”

Or “Would drudge work be easier if I was working toward a clear and significant goal?  Is this how other people justify their drudge work?”

Or one that particularly bothers me, “How does everyone else make it through the day?   What do they know that I don’t?”

I need to find a place where I can be excited about things.  That doesn’t have to be a workplace, but it needs to be a source of energy – one that increases my interest in the big questions and the little questions, not one that saps physical and mental energy to the point that it becomes difficult to get excited about anything.

More thoughts to come eventually.  For me, the blog represents a conflict of interests – the desire for self-expression (and the long-shot chance for human feedback for your ideas) which drives me to want to have a blog; the realization that this is becoming a professional tool as well as personal hobby for many people, and it’s worth being able to navigate this world in a social and technical sense; etc.  But at the same time, writing a blog rather than reading those of others produces, rather than processes, content.  Not that the two (being reader and writer) are mutually exclusive, but in terms of time commitment it’s more difficult to be well-read on blogs and write a great deal yourself.  My inclination to want to organize and make sense of existing information, rather than creating more of it, should compel me to think about others’ thoughts and not write down my own.

There must be a middle ground here – it might have to do with RSS feeds.  I should look into this.

The goal for future posts:  explore one thought concisely, and stop using parentheses.

On Remembering the Dead

A friend and I were out in Scoville Park this afternoon, sitting in the sun on the First World War memorial in the middle of the hill.  For a while we sat on the bronze plaques of the names themselves (eventually feeling this was probably not the most respectful thing we’ve ever done, and moving), then mused a while on memorials, on memory, and other topics somewhat ill-fitted to the first warm spring weekend of the year.

The Tribune’s headline for today was tragedy in a similar vein, not of a foreign war but of teen violence in our city, specifically in Chicago Public Schools.  In this century it seems no longer appropriate to erect granite obelisks and idealized bronze figures to the dead, but who’s to say what is?  “Honor rolls” of the fallen?  Makeshift shrines with plastic flowers and snapshots of childhood?  A running tally in the corner of CNN’s Headline ticker?

Number of Chicago P.S. students killed so far this school year:  22

Number of US soldiers lost in Iraq so far (confirmed):  4013

Number of Iraqi civilians lost so far (estimated):  82,682-90,207

On the Rhetoric of Change

I want to write a brief response to the argument regarding political change in America, namely that (specifically Barack Obama, but more generally anyone currently running for the presidency) may use the rhetoric of “change” as the basis of their campaign, but in fact will not be able to single-handedly effect that change, and are therefore not a good choice for president.

My response: … that’s not the point! Since when is the president the sole political actor in a democracy?

[And a note: while in this election I’m certainly more in favor of a Democratic president and have slight leanings toward Obama, please do not consider this post an official endorsement and/or pledge for him over any other candidate. This post is meant only as a kind of “hey, wait a minute–” response to the above argument itself. And for the record, I was sad when Bill Richardson dropped out.]

The rhetoric of change is not, or at least should not, just be about what the would-be president is going to do by themselves. While certainly the president is generally the single most visible person in American domestic and foreign political activity, they do not – and should not – act alone. Setting aside their formal support structure of advisers, staff, and other contacts, as well as elected officials in Congress and state governments, mayors and local politicians, and leaders and members of federal and other agencies and departments, we must not forget the theoretically most important political body of the nation, the people of that nation. The populace has a different role than that of policymakers, but a politically interested, informed, and involved citizenry is critical in ensuring that these policymakers reflect the will of those they represent.

This should include, but should not be limited to, voting. In Illinois, many districts saw record numbers for primary voters this year at 40% (usually 20-25%). Impressive record? This statistic seems both heartening and disheartening at the same time, setting aside the fact that most voters are at most only partially informed about the choices they are making (and unfortunately I rank among those ill-informed, despite my efforts to find good information about the local candidates and positions at stake this year). While certainly 100% turnout would be a difficult goal to achieve, and compulsory voting a system difficult to implement and probably impossible to ratify, getting at least more than half to show up would hopefully not be out of our reach.

Furthermore, political participation is not limited to voting, and indeed should be more than just picking someone else to make our decisions for us.  Joining interest groups or volunteer organizations, attending town hall meetings in local communities, petitioning for causes which currently aren’t given enough voice, engaging others in honest and civil political discussion, making informed consumer choices (and consuming sparingly!), and – on the more dramatic end of the spectrum – marches, boycotts, strikes, protests, and challenging what we believe is wrong.  Political apathy is a right in a democracy, but it becomes a threat to it when the general population allows particular groups to become disproportionately powerful and dictate policy.

(Here I should clarify what I mean by “particular groups,” as this could be read either on the side of those like the tobacco lobby, or those like the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  While it is a mistake to assume that there is an identifiable majority of any kind in America, and that rather it is a collection of overlapping demographics and interests, it is not enough to simply say “minority interest.”  All groups naturally act at least in part in their self-interest; I would distinguish, in a very general way, between those who seek their own ends which would improve the quality of life for all, or at least not detract from others’ quality of life, and those whose ends are purely self-serving and potentially harmful or at best indifferent to everyone else.  Thus, for example, the so-called “homosexual agenda” could be distinguished from “big tobacco” in that the former seeks rights without taking rights from others (although this point, like all points, is probably debatable) and the latter seeks to protect itself without regard to the health of the consumers to which it caters.)

Anyway, back to the point.

Change may be spearheaded by the political leader(s) of the nation, but it should not be their exclusive responsibility.  The degree of political interest and participation in America surrounding the 2008 primary – including greater numbers of voters in various demographics which have not been previously active to such a degree – may be at times over-analyzed and over-hyped, but it is a good thing.  And the degree of enthusiasm and inspiration which candidates like Barack Obama (and yes, Hillary Clinton) foster in their supporters is the actual key to this rhetoric of change:  that we need a leader who can cause change, but who needs the American people to help them do it.  Regardless of years of experience, number of high-profile contacts in the rolodex (does anyone actually use those, except figuratively?), or already-formulated domestic or foreign policy plans, the candidate who can inspire positive action in the populace and an enthusiasm for the change they espouse is a valuable political leader.

This is not to say that those other aspects of the presidency are not important, and certainly criticisms of Obama’s lack of experience may be justified.  To say simply that the rhetoric of change is empty and useless, however, is to underestimate the importance of all citizens’ political participation to effect that change.  The president must have good advisers to help make decisions, good institutions to carry out and/or critique those decisions, and the support of the population that these decisions reflect the will of the people.  They do not have to have all the answers alone, nor do they have to come into office and make sweeping changes alone.  They have to recognize that change happens when many people work for it on many levels, particularly change which improves the situation of many, or at least some, without being narrowly focused or detrimental to all but a very few.

To conclude:  having concerns about a candidate’s lack of experience is legitimate, as is being wary of what seems to be rhetoric without substance.  To criticize on the basis that the candidate alone will not be able to effect all the change they promise, however, is absurd, and seems to miss the point of democratic political life.  I don’t trust the candidate who already has all the answers, but I want to believe in the candidate who relies on many other intelligent and benevolent people to pursue their policies, who works on behalf of improving the quality of life for the nation they wish to represent, and who can rally behind them not just a voting bloc, but a diverse and informed and outspoken and at times boisterous population.

Whether or not such a candidate actually exists on any ticket in the ’08 election, of course, is still open to debate.

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.

On the New Year

So it’s 2008.  The year of the rat, an election year, and (for me) the year of age 24, which is apparently a semiperfect number (this year was prime, of course).  Being the rather non-committal and sporadic blogger that I am, I decided to record a few miscellaneous thoughts, what’s on my mind at the moment.  Which, of course, seems to me the point of blogging in the first place:  to air one’s thoughts.  So with a brief and likely hollow promise to expand further on these topics at a later date, I’ll mention a few notables.

Today I was thinking about the extremely popular (and in many ways apt) metaphor of the brain as a computer.  They share memory (perfectly or imperfectly accessible), rational calculation (in theory anyway), reliance on electrical impulses, and links between physical damage and ability to function.  Other metaphors exist, of course, more or less popular than that of the computer:  the brain as a storage-cabinet or personal library (a long-standing representation that shares much with the current digital incarnation), as a mechanical assortment of gears, as a vat of various chemical solutions and reactions, and in Kurt Vonnegut’s estimation, “three and a half pounds of sponge and fluid, like a dog’s breakfast.”  And there are others.  Vonnegut’s aside, these metaphors seem to be more of a logical-functional kind, an input-output relationship between sensation and resulting thought, action, or feeling.  Chemicals combine; emotions result.  Neurons fire; thought occurs.  A smell or sound or sight evokes a memory.  Cause and effect.  I had more trouble, however, in thinking of more emotional metaphors, other than that of the chemical reactions.  I supposed that was because more often the “heart” is evoked (not in its physical sense, itself a much more mechanical organ than the brain) for such things, and in an utterly nonscientific way.  Because the brain is indeed the center of consciousness and our irrational as well as rational thought, I wonder what other metaphors we might find for it, that are not quite so strictly rational?  Vonnegut’s is definitely a good one, but chiefly useful in thinking about the inexplicable divide between the physical object and the abstract entities and ideas it can produce.

The kitchen is a place for many of our personal investments – not only do we place a great deal of money in convenient or time-saving or useful or whimsical tools and appliances to prepare our food, but we make small investments in foods themselves.  Spices got me thinking about this.  Unlike produce and sometimes meats and to a lesser extent dairy, which are bought to be consumed soon after their purchase, we “invest” in things like spices (or raw ingredients like flour, or canned goods, or bulk of anything) with the intention of using them at a later, often much later, date.  I’ve had my nutmeg and parsley and salt for more than a year now, and of course depending on the spice (and the brand) you can pay a great deal for those little herbs and powders, but with the intention of meting out the flavorful return on your investment among whatever meals you feel will be enhanced by them.  Spices generally aren’t as rare or costly as they once were, but we do still keep them in our kitchen’s coffers, waiting for the next time they’ll pay out.

I think I need a job with a little more power.  Substantial power, not simply some nominal and logistical independence.

Although it makes the snow an interesting color, I’m not a fan of the widespread use of orange (sodium, I believe?) bulbs in our street lights and porch lights and other forms of nocturnal illumination.  From the little I remember they are a cost-effective lighting solution, but they do very little for the attractiveness of city light pollution.  100 years ago (or more like 150, by now) anyone looking up at an orange-brown-purple sky would likely have been at best a bit worried about some natural disaster on its way, or a nearby large fire, or something.  Seriously – how messed up is that?  I miss actually dark night skies.  The black.  And the stars.  Then I started thinking about which color I might prefer to orange, if light pollution is (and it is) an inevitability.  A simple white seemed best, as it might imitate moonlight, an actually attractive night glow.  Green might be interesting, if bizarre – it is difficult to produce an artifical green that looks comparable to any natural green (in pigments, at least).  It might look like green traffic light everywhere, which could be worse but might be too bright.  The worst, I decided, would either be red (some kind of weird end-of-the-world or “masque of the red death” scenario comes to mind … or the red light district) or a bright ultraviolet type purple … it would be like living under a blacklight all the time, and would certainly give me even more migraines.  No, something white or grey seemed better … grey would be depressing, of course, but really most things look grey under insufficient light (see more on vision) so not much would be different.  Best of all, though, would be the closest approximation to sunlight … that kind of warm white, leaning toward pale yellow, that makes everything look so lovely in sunshine.  I think I’d be okay with that.

I forgot how much I enjoy the show “Scrubs.”  Season 2 is a good one.

And in conclusion, the day was too short, in part because I slept too long, but clean laundry, the old-timey radio station (WMKV), and lavender tea made it better.

On the Highway and the City


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.