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« Discussing Environmentalism | Main | Gentrification: Good or Evil? »

September 24, 2004


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Because there can be no such thing as too many interviews with Jane Jacobs ...

* Alberto Vargas-Llosa thinks American conservatism has lost its roots.

* Gasp! Members of the House and Senate have voted themselves a pay raise.

* Will Duquette's software program Notebook enables you to create a kind of personal WorldWide Web for your desktop. It's a seriously nifty program: better than a word processor for organizing your personal info and stray thoughts, yet requiring no database-esque messing-around. I'm surprised Notebook hasn't established a whole new class of software.

* Here's a sweet appreciation of the architect Paolo Soleri, who has been building the visionary town of Arcosanti in the Arizona desert for decades. Although I'm rather fond of Whole Earth Catalog-style experiments, Arcosanti left me a little depressed when I visited it a few years back. It seemed like a progressive co-op left over from the '60s. But Soleri's a very gifted designer. The clay bells he makes and sells to fund Arcosanti are things of real beauty.

* James Glassman wonders why our government gives so much aid to Saudi Arabia.

* You can sure learn about all kinds of fascinating things on the web.

* Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau collaborated on the prescient semi-reality-TV series "Tanner '88" a few elections ago. I loved the series, and once interviewed Altman, who told me that he thought he'd done some of his best work in "Tanner." Now Trudeau and Altman have brought the characters back to life, with Michael Murphy and Cynthia Nixon returning as the presidential candidate and his daughter. Sundance broadcasts episode one of the new series on Tuesday, 10-5 at 8 pm. I notice that Criterion is releasing a DVD of "Tanner '88" that day too.

* People will apparently collect video clips about any old thing.

* John Mullan likes Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," here. I confess I'm not a fan; the book is yet another postwar American literary classic whose charm eludes me. But many people love the novel, which features a lot of Cheever/Updike-style suburban drinking, sex, and angst, as well as heaps of dazzling writin'.

* More Sundance: Olivier Assayas' alienated-cyberthriller "Demonlover" will screen this Sunday at midnight. Er, this Monday at midnight. Er, as the clock tolls midnight between Sunday and Monday. Phew. Anyway, I liked the film a lot despite its pretentiousness and its humorlessness, and blogged about it here. Of course, you could buy the film here, or Netflix it here.

* Pattie's got an opinion or three about beauty products.

* Has a new Desi cultural-confidence landmark been attained? Here's a collection of erotic writings by North American Desis, who are declaring themselves to be sexual creatures -- gangway! I've only spent a half hour with the book, but FWIW here's my impression of it: very creative-writing 101, very Canadian -- but also spicey, fragrant, and colorful.

* Downtown New York wants to know: which sexual act exactly is Calvin Klein selling in his new billboard? No, wait: downtown New York knows exactly which sexual act Calvin Klein is selling. Downtown New York would just like to hear Calvin Klein pronounce the word.

* Steve Sailer thinks Europe has gotta be nuts to be thinking about admitting Turkey to the EU, and Randall Parker suspects that Steve's got a point. Me, I wonder why our elites seem so eager to give away the keys to the civilization they're supposed to be looking out for.

* George Hunka is waxing eloquent about the the movies of John Cassavetes.

* Are Craig Stecyk and Glen Friedman the most influential photographers of the last quarter-century? That's what I was left wondering after watching Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta's documentary about what the SoCal skateboarding scene was like back in the 1970s. The film is fascinating cultural history, even if its attempts to create a skateboarding look in film terms grow tiresome. But, for all the virtuosic athleticism and attitudinizing on display, what struck me most was the style thing -- how big an impact skateboarding has had on photography and graphic design. Forget deconstruction and art school. What inspires a lot of today's young, hotshot photogs and designers is skateboarding style, which Stecyk and Friedman played a big role in creating.

* Bryce Zabel's meditation about the end of television as we know it should interest anyone curious about digital tech's impact on culture.

* John Massengale does a fab job of tackling a difficult question: how can beauty be achieved in the face of numbers? No, that didn't work. Let me try again: John's theme is quality vs. quantification. Sample passage:

Our land use policies support the idea that everyone will drive everywhere for everything, and our traffic policies funnel everyone to just a few roads ... We make roads that are too fast, and then we put speed bumps in them to slow people down. But the roads would be safer, and more beautiful, if we didn't over-engineer them to begin with ...

The planning of places [we love] began with the public realm, which is to say the streets, the greens and the placement of public buildings. The new places begin with the traffic engineer, whose primary concern is to keep the car happy.

* Scott Evans is watching the teardowns and McMansions get closer and closer.

* Want to know what makes an urban neighborhood alive rather than dead? Study and memorize David Sucher's Three Rules. David, who always puts the "sense" in "sensible," has generously made available a PDF of the pages of his book that concern the Three Rules; it's downloadable here. But buy the book too.

* James Kunstler tackles the dilemma so many are wrestling with this election season:

I'm 55 years old and I have never seen a more feckless Democratic candidate than John Kerry... In Bush the nation has that strange figure, the genuine fraud. Kerry is a mere secret fraud. I'm not at all sure which is worse.

* The rowdy, down-to-earth, and well-informed Book Babes are enthusiastic about the work of the litbloggers.

* I'm sure it's a whooshy engineering marvel, but Norman Foster's new bridge in Millau, France, looks like a terrifying thing to drive across. That's the Modernist thang, isn't it? Don't take something that's intrinsically scarey (ie., driving a long way across a very tall bridge) and make the experience less unpleasant. No, that would be too boringly humane. Instead, take the scariness ... and heighten it! Force us into a confrontation with the very nature of scariness itself! Brilliant!!!! And the architects and academics strut around triumphantly, let off war whoops, and award each other prizes. Meanwhile, we drivers are stuck fighting worse-than-necessary vertigo.

* Russell Roberts wonders how it can be that, even while union membership is declining (and it is), wages keep going up. Thanks to John Ray.

* Alan Little is my favorite yogablogger, but he also writes about doing photography as helpfully as anyone around.

* A gifted and generous explainer of economics, Arnold Kling blogs, writes columns for TCS, and has now pulled together an intro to the subject for the popular audience. I've placed my order already. I notice that Arnold has published his book himself -- good for him. More authors should show a little entrepreneurial oomph and bypass traditional publishing channels.

* Of all the people who have seen much of import in the blogworld's contributions to the CBS/forged-Bush-documents affair, Frederick Turner struck me as, by far, the most eloquent and stirring.

* Shannon Love, of the ChicagoBoyz, does a helpful compare and contrast between varieties of libertarianism.

* How very 21st-century: a Russian-immigrant cabbie/rapper-wannabe. Tatyana assures me that the guy who stars in this humorous rap parody-video isn't a real Russian -- darn. Still, whatever he is, he made me laugh a lot.

* A new issue of the Post-Autistic Economics Review is available. You know you want it.

* I've been enjoying Christopher Gray's elegant new book "New York Streetscapes" as much as any work of architectural-history since I finished ... well, since I finished my last Francis Morrone book.



posted by Michael at September 24, 2004


Thanks, Michael.

And it would be fabulous to hear some (constructive) criticism of this animated GIF which presents The Three Rules in a slightly different way.

(Destructive is also criticism welcome but I should confess at the outset that I will probably ignore it.)

Posted by: David Sucher on September 24, 2004 08:56 PM

Programs like Notebook have been around for years. They're known as wikis, but it's only relatively recently that you don't have to be a unix whiz to set one up on your home pc. Flying Meat Software's VoodooPad is, I think, the best of breed, but it's Mac only. Some interesting ones, like Instiki, you access through your browser. You can set those up so you or anyone can access them remotely.

You also might want to look into "outboard brain" programs-- meta-organizer and clippings stores--like Tinderbox.

I used to use a wiki to organize myself, and I still use one for some kinds of projects. But I've found that using flat text files that any program can read makes more sense for me, and I just any sites I need to remember.

Posted by: John on September 24, 2004 10:41 PM

John Massengale seems to think that the difference between the making of a beautiful place and the making of an ugly one is a matter of regulations: the regulations drawn up by "generalists" good; those drawn up by "specialists" bad.

Could it be that so many of the older places in America - urban, village/rural, suburban - that are beautiful are beautiful because their development was minimally regulated?
In other words, within some master plan all kinds of leeway was given to the individual builder or homeowner as to the particulars he chose for his own property. Of course some monstrosities were built. But overall isn't the invisible hand better than the control freak hand?

Posted by: ricpic on September 25, 2004 10:39 AM

David -- That's a helpful little GIF. Now let's show it to the mayors of all American cities.

John -- Thanks for the info. I was aware of Wikis, but I'd never run into one that was easy to use, and meant for personal, not Web, use. Interesting to learn that there's a good one for the Mac too. Time for me to upgrade the home Imac to OSX, I guess, but I've been saying that for a year already. It sounds like you found using a Wiki for your personal info etc finally not worth the trouble -- is that fair? Why was it you gave them up?

Ricpic - John will speak for himself, but you're pointing out something really interesting. To use Chris Alexander for an example -- oops, I notice that I think about him so much I've taken to thinking of him as "Chris." Good lord.

Anyway, the thing Alexander says that resembles what you're saying is that traditional practices (building and townmaking) embodied tons and tons of knowledge, skill, assumptions, convictions, etc. Because it was traditional, it wasn't something anyone really needed to think about. This is a great advantage -- you don't have to think in any picky way, you just do as has always been done, perhaps introducing a variation or an innovation here or there, which in turn gets folded back into the traditional practice. And, voila: a Greek or Spanish village. No one masterplanned those, and no architects in our sense "designed" any of those buildings. Yet we still adore these towns and buildings as some of the most beautiful and moving on earth.

With the 20th century in Euro-civs, all this got called into question. Rationalist approaches started being invented, turned to, relied on, and imposed --ie., the conscious and theoretical mind took over what had once been left to practice. Eventually traditional practices got swept entirely off the table, and all of us wound up meandering bewildered through the wasteland of the modernist grid.

Alexander wrote somewhere that his goal, early on in things like "Pattern Language," was to re-create the traditional knowledge that had been lost. And he was quite aware (ruefully so, it seemed to me) that recreating this knowledge would have to be a conscious project. What choice did anyone have? The making of satisfying places, which had once largely been left to practice, now had to be deliberately re-discovered.

My suspicion is that this is part of what the NewUrbs picked up from Alexander -- an acceptance that what had once been implicit now has to be, if we're to regain it, dealt with explicitly.

Actually, if I understand it right, the NewUrb codes tend to be less complex and top-heavy, and more open-ended, than today's standard thing. Given the codes and laws that are in place in most of the country, builders have no choice but to lay out neighborhoods and streets the way they do -- they're really locked into these models. So in fact the New Urbies aren't trying to tangle us all up in red tape; we're already tangled up in red tape. In fact, what the New Urbies are trying to do is get the market to open up to a new housing product (New Urbanism), and they're trying to put in place guidelines that (unlike current guidelines) would enable builders to make a greater variety of buildings and neighborhoods.

Weird that we're at a place in space/time where all this has to be done hyper-explictly if it's to be done at all, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2004 11:05 AM

"where all this has to be done hyper-explictly"

Right. New Urbanism is the most irritating term, akin to structuralism, deconstructionism, etc. and just as pompous. Just DO it, I say, don't blather about theory.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 25, 2004 02:12 PM

Now, Michael, about that cab ride; see what other people say?

Posted by: Tatyana on September 26, 2004 08:30 PM

Michael, I think I'll give notebook a try. You turned me on to Treepad a couple of years ago and I'm still happily using that. I even blogged about it on a post about my favorite freeware. Have you personally abandoned Treepad for Notebook, now?

Posted by: Nate on September 27, 2004 03:48 PM

Kunstler's confusion about the choice in this election is not well-reasoned. The fact that he can question which is worse just goes to show that intellectuals sometimes think far too much.

(And before anyone makes the rejoinder, I will say it myself: "That could never be said of David Sucher.")

Posted by: David Sucher on September 28, 2004 09:53 PM

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