Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs has become a classic in urban planning since its publication in 1961. I had long wanted to read it, especially since Jacobs lived in Toronto for over forty years. Although Jacobs was an American, I as well as many Torontonians considered her one of our own. Our library system chose Cities as one of its highlighted Raves & Faves several years ago and when new titles were introduced to this ongoing series, I picked up one of our withdrawn copies.

It took me five weeks to finish Cities. During my first two days I was spellbound by the lengthy introduction; so much so that I read it through twice. All I could talk about was how visionary Jacobs was. That is no exaggeration; I did in fact rave about the introduction to several people, including to my partner who has a degree in urban planning. I could see Jacobs's genius in the introduction alone, and after I finished reading it the first time, I felt I had to read it over again. It was so full of valuable insights, that had I been given a highlighter to mark the key points, I would have given every sentence a golden hue.

For good reason Cities has earned its reputation as a groundbreaking work on city planning. Jacobs was not afraid to turn the prevailing orthodoxy on urban planning upside down by calling some of its prevailing attitudes foolish. Her views which shook the 1960's are now on university curricula. Some of her theories seem so basic now, that even one like myself who is not schooled in urban design can see the sense in them. How could her ideas have been so controversial over fifty years ago? I feel that her outright challenge of the orthodoxy really threw her urban colleagues. Jacobs rocked the boat, which had been idly floating by for decades. It's as if your mother, fed up with your messy bedroom, had finally had enough: she tore her way in there and started cleaning up and reorganizing. She grabbed your head, focussed your attention on what she was saying and made you listen. And then no one could deny that she was right.

I cannot state enough how mesmerized I was by this book. At the beginning I was nodding in agreement with her views on sidewalks and the whole idea of using them to create vibrant, well-used and most importantly, safe urban spaces:

"When people say that a city, or a part of it, is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they do not feel safe on the sidewalks."

How true. When children play outside they often stay close to home, and use the sidewalk adjacent to their home. Jacobs was not swayed by the prevailing view that sidewalks were places to be avoided. Clearly, sidewalks were the lifeblood of the city and where children, as well as all inhabitants, should find the greatest sense of security:

"Some city sidewalks are undoubtedly evil places for rearing children. They are evil for anybody. In such neighborhoods we need to foster the qualities and facilities that make for safety, vitality and stability in city streets. This is a complex problem; it is a central problem of planning for cities. In defective city neighborhoods, shooing the children into parks and playgrounds is worse than useless, either as a solution to the streets' problems or as a solution for the children.
"The whole idea of doing away with city streets, insofar as that is possible, and downgrading and minimizing their social and their economic part in city life is the most mischievous and destructive idea in orthodox city planning. That it is so often done in the name of vaporous fantasies about city child care is as bitter as irony can get."

Instead, one should develop the urban landscape of the sidewalk as a safe environment for all city citizens, not just children. Jacobs dismisses the zoning of urban play spaces, and goes to great length to reveal how these artificial playgrounds, often situated far away from residences, are often vacant even during the summertime:

"It is futile to try to evade the issue of unsafe city streets by attempting to make some other features of a locality, say interior courtyards, or sheltered play spaces, safe instead. By definition again, the streets of a city must do most of the job of handling strangers for this is where strangers come and go. The streets must not only defend the city against predatory strangers, they must protect the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers who use them, insuring their safety too as they pass through. Moreover, no normal person can spend his life in some artificial haven, and this includes children. Everyone must use the streets."

Jacobs grabbed your attention and forced you to confront reality. Open spaces and fields of grass within urban settings may look good on paper and on designers' cutesy mock-ups but they were dead zones in real life:
"But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they could."

Jacobs herself visited these spaces in New York City, where she then lived, and also visited urban green spaces in other American cities, and noted how few visitors they received. She saw more children at play on the streets surrounding their homes, either on the sidewalk or in the alleys or rear parking lots. Planners cannot expect people to visit their green spaces just because they are there:

"You can neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it. 'Artist's conceptions' and persuasive renderings can put pictures of life into proposed neighborhood parks or park malls, and verbal rationalizations can conjure up users who ought to appreciate them, but in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use. Superficial architectural variety may look like diversity, but only a genuine content of economic and social diversity, resulting in people with different schedules, has meaning to the park and the power to confer the boon of life upon it."

Integration of work and play is essential in vital city planning. Jacobs was no fan of creating these special parklands. She crushed the prevailing belief that urban centres needed to be dispersed over fields of verdant lawns, as if grass was the all-encompassing solution to relieving planners' needs. People who were living in such high concentrations were considered to be a danger to themselves. Open grassy spaces to the rescue!:

"American downtowns are not declining mysteriously, because they are anachronisms, nor because their users have been drained away by automobiles. They are being witlessly murdered, in good part by deliberate policies of sorting out leisure uses from work uses, under the misapprehension that this is orderly city planning."


"The development of modern city planning and housing reform has been emotionally based on a glum reluctance to accept city concentrations of people as desirable, and this negative emotion about city concentrations of people has helped deaden planning intellectually."

While the first three chapters of Cities, all devoted to sidewalks, captivated my attention, I was less interested when Jacobs discussed districts versus neighbourhoods within cities. I could not grasp the differences between the two. Nor was I moved by the chapters on the slumming and unslumming of cities or "gradual money" and "cataclysmic money". These were the rare chapters where I just couldn't wait to turn the last page. However Jacobs covered topics--perhaps never addressed before 1961--about border vacuums, mixed uses and diversity of city businesses and facilities, and even the schedules of urban citizens. I could see how these subjects revolutionized the then current world of city planning. Later chapters covered such topics as subsized dwellings, erosion of cities and salvaging projects. All of these topics were in can't-put-down chapters. Jacobs was able to make such topics read as page-turners and not just for a readership of urban planners.   

Cities was at times a laborious read, yet for the most part its 448 pages of jam-packed text sped along. If this book was reprinted, it would be three times as long owing to today's trend of fleshing out pages with wide margins and gaping spaces between lines. Don't let the formatting--black slabs of solid text--dissuade you from reading this classic.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Information Doesn't Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age

Anyone who has an interest in the role the Internet plays in our lives is highly encouraged to read this book. It is relatively short, while covering the often complex world of Internet technology, the issues of copyright, the ease of transmitting and downloading copies, the attempts to regulate, surveil, and prosecute infringers, as well as happily, to use it to generate revenue.

Cory Doctorow is a dedicated fighter for copyright reform, a technology advocate, a science fiction/technology author, as well as being a prolific blogger (see www.boingboing.net). He uses his prodigious writing skills to deftly sift through all the above issues to present a clear argument to demonstrate that even though copies can easily be accessed through the Internet, content creators and publishers can still earn money.

He cuts to the chase - content creators and publishers want to make money from their works. People want to be able to access the Internet (including free copies) without interference. These ideas don't have to be mutually exclusive. He criticizes arguments that call for control and surveillance of the Internet, and he is highly critical of the relentless pursuit by media companies and their political lobbyists to legislate against Internet copying. These efforts just do not work to achieve the desired goals, and have a detrimental effect on the Internet as a whole. He sums up this point in these words:

Here are some other things that don't make money:

  • Complaining about piracy.
  • Calling your customers thieves.
  • Treating your customers like thieves.

It was interesting that I chose to read this book just before a big story broke here in Canada - it turns out that one third of Canadian Netflix subscribers have figured out ways to access content only available in the American Netflix service.  Full disclosure - I am one of these people that has figured out how to do this. It is very easy. If I were to take advantage of this and watch a TV show through American Netflix while subscribing to Canadian Netflix (for which I have no other option - and I believe the cost is pretty much the same), does that make me a thief? Am I a dread pirate?  I assume that Netflix operates on a model that if someone watches a movie through Netflix, then Netflix pays the content owner. In any case, Netflix somehow compensates the content owner in order to make the movie available in the first place. So everyone is getting paid, so what care I about the arbitrary licensing contracts made between corporations? Doctorow talks about this issue in some detail in the book - if a product is available somewhere in the world, why would you not also make it available elsewhere at the same time, especially if a paying audience is champing at the bit to acquire it? Another example - if someone is really keen to buy the new season of Downton Abbey in North America, why restrict its first broadcast to the U.K.? Many people in North America will then turn to illegal downloads by necessity (because they seriously want to watch this show, and talk to others about this show, before getting hit by spoilers) - forced into a life of crime that could have been prevented AND profited from.

Doctorow has plenty of advice for content creators and publishers, and presents them as three laws (he was told he needed three):

  1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit.

    This law deals with digital rights management (DRM), which theoretically restricts copying of documents (books, audio, video, etc.), but is easily circumvented.

    Somewhat ironically, I read this book via an eBook that I borrowed from my library's Overdrive eBook collection.  These eBooks contain DRM that governs the length of loan period and prevents copying and sharing. Knowing Doctorow's views on this, and that he routinely stipulates that his eBooks contain no DRM, I'm curious about how much DRM is actually on this eBook (I haven't tested my eBook file though).
  2. Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it.

    This law refers to the advantages of proliferating free copies of an artistic work - you only have the potential to be paid if people learn that your work exists.

    "When copying gets easier, it behooves us to adopt strategies that thrive on cheap copying. There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way - the more places your work can find itself, the greater likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers..."
  3. Information doesn't want to be free, people do.

    This law describes how the Internet has become an integral part of our lives, beyond a vehicle for entertainment.

    "The stakes for getting copyright right have never been higher. There has never been a fight over entertainment-related technology where the consequences for everyone outside the entertainment industry were potentially more disastrous than they are now."

So when the entertainment industry says "It's us or the Internet," it's getting to a point where the majority will choose the Internet. Doctorow believes that it doesn't need to come to that choice though - "...old media will continue to find a home in the new world," once they come to the realization that they'll have to invent new ways of making money, just like they have adapted many times through history already.

Doctorow nicely sums up his book with the following three ideas:

  1. If you're a publisher, don't let your retailers usurp your relationship with your customers by using DRM.
  2. If you're a creator, don't let your publishers use your copyright as an excuse for rules that let it corner the market on delivering your art to your audience.
  3. And no matter who you are, remember that this Internet thing is bigger than the arts, bigger than the entertainment business - it's the nervous system of the twenty-first century, and, depending on how we use it, it can set us free, or it can enslave us.

Book Club Discussion Questions
  1. How has the Internet affected how you use entertainment media (books, music, movies, TV shows, etc.)?  Do you still purchase/borrow physical products (DVDs, CDs, books, etc.)?  What else do you buy online?
  2. How else do you use the Internet?  How important is it to your life?
  3. Had you ever come across the term "Net Neutrality" before reading this book?  Does Doctorow's discussion (on this or any other topic presented in the book) spur you to take any action to champion an affordable, neutral, spy-free Internet?
  4. Many of the issues discussed in this book revolve around the issue of readily being able to copy things, or being able to obtain copies without paying anything.  Do you use computers to copy things, or acquire free copies?
  5. What do you think of the position Doctorow takes regarding copying?
  6.  Do you think it is possible for content creators and any publishers/music labels/studios etc. to still make a profit in an environment without digital locks and with copyright law that allows for personal use copies?
  7. Would you want to be an artist (or other content creator) in today's Internet reality?
  8. Discuss the style in which Doctorow has written this book.  The subject has the potentiality to be quite dense given the technical nature of the subject matter, plus all the international treaties, laws, and legislative history that one needs to wade through.  How clear were his arguments?
  9. As you were reading this book, did you wish the author would have spent more time on any particular areas?
  10. If you could ask Cory Doctorow any questions, what would you ask him? 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair

The Beard.

Scholarly if not scraggly, foppish if not virile, it is “the growth of hair on the face of an adult man” (dictionary.com), but it is no mere biochemical symptom of gender. According to Allan Peterkin's book, One Thousand Beards: a Cultural History of Facial Hair, the beard has symbolized many things, from fashion-pariah to flag of allegiance to political traitor.

It is said that condemned Sir Thomas More, on the block about to be beheaded, pushed his beard aside and said: “My beard has not been guilty of treason. It were an injustice to punish it.”

It was true that More was a man of both great composure and wit, but this is what he says at his death?

I remember reading Shakespeare and wondering what all the fuss was about.  Hamlet complains in his play (Hamlet II.ii.544-5): “Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?” and so does King Lear’s Gloucester (King Lear III.vii. 36): “By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done To pluck me by the beard.” 

Such references even show up in nursery rhymes! “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin” is the oath of each of the Three Little Pigs.

Swear on your facial hair? What is that worth? Well!

Peterkin enlightens us.

Beards have been taxed (100 rubles per year during Russia’s Peter the Great’s reign), waxed, beaded, dyed, metallized, plucked, pumiced, and scraped. They are even named—ever heard of the “Saucer Beard” ? The “Sugar Loaf”? The “Swallowtail”?  One’s political, military or religious status all had power over one’s whiskers. 

Peterkin covers historical beards, political beards (essentially who told whom to shave or grow, depending) and contemporary beards, including the beard in psychology (Peterkin, who is a U of T professor of psychiatry, enjoyed critiquing the various Freudian ideas) and in 20th-century popular culture, especially North American gay culture and American celebrity culture. Peterkin also tells us how to shave to achieve each particular fuzzy look and how it was done over the past couple thousand years.

I learned new words, too: “deracinated” (“to pull up by the roots” according to dictionary.com) and “pogonotrophy” (“the act of cultivating, or growing and grooming, a mustachebeardsideburns or other facial hair” according to wiktionary.org). Who knew hirsuteness could sprout wordiness?

The best story from this book is the one that claims cause for hundreds of years of war between France and England.

“In the mid-1150s, Louis [VII of France] reputedly felt guilty for having burned alive several hundred refugees in a church in Vitry. For spiritual guidance, he consulted Peter Combard, the Bishop of Paris at the time, who told him to shave as penance. Unfortunately, his wife and queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was so aghast at his bare face that she had the marriage annulled. Not only that, she promptly married the much-whiskered Henry II, King of England. When her dowry, including Aquitaine itself, was ceded to England, some 300 years of war ensued. Now we know: the chronic French-English tensions long ascribed to everything from language to fashion-sense are actually the result of a beard.”

Notwithstanding the earlier 1066 invasion of England by William of Normandy (and the messy re-marrying done earlier still) and the Napoleonic defeat in 1813, the loss of that French beard must have helped along almost 1000 years of strife between France and England.  

Who knew the fearsome power of the Beard? But isn't it real proof that vanity is the downfall of us all?

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

Here is the briefest description I can provide for the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle: Plato is other-worldly, Aristotle is this-worldly. Plato walks with head upturned desiring to describe the timeless, perfect realm of Ideas. Aristotle crawls in the grass and mud eyeing all the unique details and wanting to place everything in its proper category.

In describing the history of the human endeavour to make sense of the world, of our desire to know what the world is and who we are and how these two fit together, one could do much worse than submit the names of Plato and Aristotle as perennial options. Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and The Light accomplishes something I value—in fact it is something I look for in all good non-fiction—to make the reader conscious of a perspective that is always present but remains unarticulated or unilluminated the way shadows are all around us but never attended to by our thoughts until we focus on them. Plato and Aristotle are the permanent shadows of our thinking.

Herman’s argument is that the philosophies respectively propounded by these two great fathers of the Western tradition are more than just the creative musings of two talented thinkers grappling with our ignorance. More fundamentally Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies represent two facets of the way we can make sense of the world. That is to say, our brains are unavoidably Platonic and Aristotelian in nature. If the brain were a coin each philosopher would claim one side. This is deep DNA level stuff. That Plato and Aristotle are influential goes without saying. Alfred North Whitehead, a notable British philosopher, had famously claimed that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Herman suggests that same claim can be made of Aristotle’s writings. But to suggest that Plato and Aristotle somehow represent fundamentally how we can understand the world is an argument I have not heard before.

The book examines the intricate dance between these two great ways of thinking about the world. Herman submits that any time one philosophy should dominate over the other you’ve got problems. Too much Plato brings with it rigid dogmatism and elitist arrogance. For example, the Neo-Platonists, like Porphyry, thought they were the only ones in possession of the true path to fleeing the tomb of the body. Too much Aristotle and you have narrow-minded sterility and not seeing the forest for the trees; just read even a smidgen of late medieval scholastic philosophy, which was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and you’ll get the idea. To the Yin-Yang concept of the Eastern world which its devotees say one must keep in balance to have a harmonious existence, the West offers up the necessity of a proper equilibrium between Plato and Aristotle. Interesting.

I have to admit I like the argument. I have studied a little philosophy and the book presented a new opportunity for me to think back to all those books, treatises and essays I have read. After some reflection I believe Herman is correct. Where a philosophy seems to falter or demonstrate a less than rigorous logical and experiential line of reasoning can be profitably attributed to a failure to adequately deal with the tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian strands within the philosophy. Take your pick: Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hume, St. Augustine, Locke. All of them can be read with an eye for this defect. 

While reading the book I imagined myself a Philosophy-Doctor treating philosophy-patients who showed signs of too much love for Plato with an antidote of Aristotle and vice versa.  What’s the cure for a too high esteem of Plato’s Republic, simple, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If you enjoy philosophy this book is a must read. If you are interested in the history of ideas and in western culture generally you will also enjoy this book.