Monday, April 30, 2012
Take The Skyway
by Misha Lepetic
There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway
Walking has been much in the news lately, or rather, how little Americans seem to be doing it. It’s obvious that walking is good for individual health, but what should perhaps be even more emphasized is the importance of walking for the overall health of the urban fabric. So, in addition to asking ourselves the question of how we can get people to walk more, we also ought to consider equally beneficial ways for designing the built environment, such that all this walking will bring about a result for society. Walking may be an end in itself, but if it is only considered as such, we forego the opportunity that it is a means as well.
The history of walking in American cities is one of the steady erosion of an activity that was so natural that its importance was almost entirely tacit. It is always amazing to realize how malleable our norms are: during the automobile’s first few decades, pedestrian fatalities were commonly greeted with criminal charges such as ‘technical manslaughter’. Drivers were viewed with mistrust, considered reckless and even represented class division. However, pedestrians became increasingly regarded as impediments to the velocity of modern life, and economic progress became increasingly associated with the automobile and the infrastructure that made its hegemony possible.
How did this change come about? As Sarah Goodyear writes in the Atlantic Cities blog,
One key turning point…came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.
Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed…The industry lobbied [for] the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.
This was the beginning of a long and effective campaign that saw walking legislated and planned almost out of existence. Even now, designers and planners are often hobbled by a perspective which continues to favour the automobile over pedestrian – most ironically, in the name of safety.
Regardless of the various prescriptions, guidelines and legislation meant to make streets more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, the tacit assumption that emphasizes automobile flow has proven stubborn: non-drivers are clearly second-class citizens. For example, Charles Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns, provides a very funny but devastating meta-commentary of a tour of a new traffic interchange. A “diverging diamond” may seem like the name of a new and exotic financial derivative, but it is in fact a design innovation meant to improve traffic flow. While it accomplishes this quite handily, pedestrians, cyclists and even the blind are accommodated in a way that can only be characterized as grudging, to put it mildly.
However, it’s not just the monopolization of the street by the car that merits careful thinking about walking. There have been many other innovations of the built environment that have – perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless successfully – torn apart the urban fabric and therefore contributed to the decline of the culture of walking. Historically, we can locate this disruption of the city fabric as one of the consequences of architectural modernism. As Stephen Marshall writes in Streets and Patterns,
Modernism not only broke [the] relationship between movement and urban place: it reversed it. It proposed an inverse relationship between movement and urban place. The movement would now be the movement of fast motor traffic; the urban places would become tranquil precincts.
Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the Athens Charter, a manifesto of – perhaps not unintentionally – 95 theses, conceived in 1933 and published by Le Corbusier in 1943: “Traffic flow and its design is the primary determinant of city form.” By conceptualizing traditional street patterns as dysfunctional and best swept away, the scene was set for planners to divorce the transportation network from the rest of the city. Furthermore, please consider another, intriguing passage in the Athens Charter:
Thesis 22: The suburbs are often mere aggregations of shacks hardly worth the trouble of maintaining.
Flimsily constructed little houses, boarded hovels, sheds thrown together out of the most incongruous materials, the domain of poor creatures tossed about in an undisciplined way of life — that is the suburb! Its bleak ugliness is a reproach to the city it surrounds. Its poverty, which necessitates the squandering of public funds without the compensation of adequate tax resources, is a crushing burden for the community. It is the squalid antechamber of the city; clinging to the major approach roads with its side streets and alleys, it endangers the traffic on them; seen from the air, it reveals the disorder and incoherence of its distribution to the least experienced eye; for the railroad traveler, excited by the thought of the city, it is a painful disillusion!
This passage allows us the insight that, speaking from the Jurassic of the pre-Levittown era, Le Corbusier could not imagine that the suburbs would take such rich advantage of the liberation of urban transit networks to decisively supplant the economic hegemony of the cities and thus starve them of their vitality. Depopulation of cities was not the only consequence of the flight to the suburbs. Equally devastating was the rise of suburban shopping malls, which, by successfully servicing nearby populations, obviated the traditional, commercial functions of “downtown”. Already by the 1950s, downtown districts saw their businesses failing. When added to the depopulated urban core, crime soared and city officials became desperate to find ways to bring people back to the heart of the metropolis.
Given the dismissal of the traditional urban street pattern as touched on above, designers were keen to pounce on brave new forms that would meet the demands of commerce and safety. One of these urban formations turned out to be the skywalk, the general term for any passageway that was meant for pedestrians but in fact was completely divorced from the street. The skywalk was seen as clean, easy to manage, and not in the least unpredictable or dangerous. It was, in a word, thoroughly modern.
Today, skywalks are most commonly thought of in terms of northern US cities, as an effective method by which pedestrians (that is, office workers) are protected from the elements. But seen through the historical lens, it is clear that the conception and implementation of skywalks was entirely keeping with modernist traditions. Thus it should be unsurprising to learn that skywalks are now generally considered to be failures of urban design, despite the fact that they manage to keep the lunch crowd warm on the chilliest February day.
Even by 1988, commentators such as Kurt Andersen were blasting the skywalk phenomenon:
In some fundamental ways skywalks are more perniciously anti-urban than the shopping malls they are intended to compete against. Good malls, like city streets, encourage lingering, serendipity; skywalks, however, are pedestrian freeways, streets distilled to the strictly utilitarian function of providing transit from Point X to Point Y, no detours allowed. In skywalks, there is none of the traditional city's invigorating mix of commerce and leisure, businesspeople and loiterers…Sam Bass Warner Jr., a Boston University urban historian, sees skywalks as a symbol of urban abandonment, not reinvigoration. They are, he says, "a sign that we've given up on the street. They treat the street as essentially an automobile place. That is going to make for a very poor downtown."
Andersen does note with some satisfaction that Hartford, CT was able to revitalize its downtown while rejecting the skywalk approach, and that “a 1982 Seattle ordinance prohibits any skybridge that blocks a vista or reduces street traffic – in effect, all skywalks.” In addition to their deracinating effects on the urban landscape, skywalks carry the additional risks of catastrophic engineering failures: in 1981, the collapse of a skywalk in the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel was, until 9/11, the country’s deadliest structural failure, with 114 lives lost (although some might claim that, at least in China, sidewalks carry their own risks).
It seems that today these lessons are being taken to heart, but, as with anything involving the built environment, what was done can be undone, if slowly and painfully. If we fast forward to recent times, a 2005 article in the New York Times documents the dissatisfaction of various mayors and city councils with these extensive infrastructures. While I hasten to add that correlation does not equal causation, the article notes that “Des Moines began building its three miles of skywalks in 1982, arguing at the time that the $10 million program would save the city. Twenty-three years later, city officials blame the skywalks for the ghostly still sidewalks and ground-floor vacancy rates of 60 percent.”
In some cases, a city is powerless to remove these structures, since “many were built with a mix of public and private money and are now owned, maintained and guarded by the office towers through which they run.” (This points to a further wrinkle: the hours skywalks are open, as well as access to the buildings that provide entry and exit to the skywalks themselves, are not determined by public officials.) In the case of Minneapolis, the issue of private ownership is impeding Mayor R.T. Rybak’s progressive vision of a return to integrated city streets. Since skywalks allow building owners to charge 5%-10% more rent, their refusal to go along with any dismantling may lead the city to compromise, for example, by connecting skywalks to the street via elevators.
Nevertheless, the expensive prospect of re-weaving the urban fabric is underway in certain places. In 2002 Cincinnati created a master plan to begin dismantling its skywalks, and that program is proceeding apace, albeit on a case-by-case basis. Cincinnati officials were prescient enough to conjoin this action with a thorough renovation of Fountain Square, which is now one of the city’s pre-eminent urban spaces. St. Louis demolished a 4-story skywalk that had held one of its great vistas hostage – and threw a party as the mayor took a first crack with the wrecking ball. Even perennially cash-strapped Baltimore has recently plumped for a $2m skywalk demolition. In every case, city officials maintained that the skywalks had become obstacles to the reinvigoration of their downtowns.
This checkered history commends itself to other cities looking to implement skywalks. While designers, planners and officials in the US have – one hopes – learned their lessons from the mid-century failures of modernism, the application of urban forms spawned by modernist approaches nevertheless continues apace in other parts of the world. This then gives us the opportunity to ask what, if anything, might be different this time around? In the case of skywalks in particular, designers must recognize that they are creating a total environment, one that is very much the antithesis of city streets that promote serendipity and dynamism. Assuming recognition of this knowledge, we hope that the advantages, in terms of connectivity, etc, created by the skywalk is a benefit that – somehow – manages to offset the cost of removing people from the street. Indeed, the same critical lens should be applied to any innovation of urban form.
In the second half of this article, to be published next month, I will look at skywalk projects in places such as Mumbai, Dubai and São Paulo, and examine whether they measure up to these standards. In the meantime, if anyone is familiar with other such projects, I would be glad to know about them and include them in the follow-up.
Another Piece of Eternity
I’m peeling back a page reading a new day
by the light of a new sun
mom died years ago, or was it yesterday?
I once read something similar by Camus
but was too new to understand that time bleeds
its dyes are not fast but run
between years and sometimes like old cloth
the colors of time become homogenous
but here’s this day blaring like a fanfare
from a new horn crisp as frost on glass
its brink sharp as the edge of a blade
slicing off another piece of eternity
by Jim Culleny
I support Quebec's student protesters
by Quinn O'Neill
For months now, the Canadian province of Quebec has been astir with student demonstrations. The students are protesting a 75% increase in tuition to take place over the next 5 years. As opponents of the protests are quick to point out, tuition is actually much lower in Quebec than in any other Canadian province and would still be the lowest after the increase.
Reaction to the protests has been mixed and probably reflects a difference of opinion on the main function of education. For people who see education as a private good, the student protesters may appear to have an outrageous sense of entitlement. After all, if students are the ones who’ll benefit from the education, why shouldn’t they be expected to pay for it?
Others see education as a public good that plays an important role in a healthy, democratic society. If we’re going to let everyone vote and participate in important decision making that affects all of us, maybe it would be helpful if the public were well educated. Perhaps education would help people to better evaluate different sources of information, to understand important issues, and to make better decisions. A better educated society is also healthier and more productive.
Neither perspective is entirely wrong. Education is both a private and a public good, with significant benefits for the individual and for society as a whole. It is wrong, however, to suppose that education is only a private good, and this, unfortunately, seems to be a pervasive misconception.So, what are the social benefits associated with higher education? Here’s a few:
Higher rates of employment, greater tax revenue, less poverty, and less reliance on social safety-net programs (Baum, Ma, and Payea, 2010).
- Greater democratic participation. In every age group, adults with higher levels of education are more likely to vote than their less educated counterparts (Baum, Ma, and Payea, 2010).
- Better health and less spending on health care. College graduates are more likely to report excellent or very good health and are less likely to smoke (Baum and Payea, 2004). According to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, an additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8%, reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.2% and the risk of diabetes by 1.3%. Cutler and Lleras-Muney, in a 2006 paper, discuss a number of studies that suggest that at least part of the relationship between education and health is causal. They suggest that higher education may lead to different thinking and decision-making patterns.
- Less crime and lower rates of incarceration. A wealth of research indicates a strong, negative relationship between education and crime. A recent Swedish study reported that one additional year of schooling decreased the likelihood of conviction by 7.5% for males and 11% for females. Canadian and American researchers have reported similar findings. According to Lochner and Moretti (2003) "a 1% increase in the high school completion rate of all men ages 20-60 would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society at large". The effect extends beyond high school. The rate of incarceration for adults with some college education is about a quarter of that for high school graduates (Baum and Payea, 2004).
It may be worth keeping in mind that the cost of incarcerating a male prisoner in Canada, as of 2009, was $109,699 per year. That would pay for a lot of schooling.
In short, a better educated society is safer, healthier, more productive, and more efficient, and it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that education is accessible to everyone. If we agree on this, the next question we ought to ask is, is it accessible to everyone?
If a person comes from a poor family and, for either geographic or personal reasons, can’t live at home while studying, he’ll have to cover his living expenses in addition to tuition, books, and supplies. Minimum wage in Quebec is about $10/hour, which would provide $1600 a month for full-time work. Assuming he works full-time during the four summer months and 20 hours per week while he’s studying, he can make about $12, 800 per year. It’s possible to live frugally on this amount, but what will be leftover for tuition and books? Nothing, really. So, is it possible for a poor person to pay for his own education? No, not even in Quebec, and the fact that education is even more expensive elsewhere doesn’t change that.
Loans are an option but they aren’t without their own issues. Is it fair that poor students should have to go in the hole for their studies? Students who have to borrow will, once everything has been repaid, end up spending more for their education than students who could pay out of pocket. Would we think it fair to have one fee for well-off students and a higher fee for poor students? This is effectively what happens when poor students have to go into debt.
Acquisition of debt may also carry an expectation of high remuneration after graduation and, depending on the program of studies, this can have consequences for all of us. Maybe a dentist wouldn’t need to charge more than a full month’s worth of minimum wages for a root canal treatment and a crown if he hadn’t graduated owing more than $200, 000. And maybe Canadian taxpayers wouldn’t need to fork out more than $200, 000 per year to keep medical specialists in the country if medical education were free in exchange for an agreement to practice in the country for, say, 15 years.
The banks are making a lot of money from professional students, in particular. During my first few weeks in dental school in Nova Scotia, various banks hosted barbecues for me and my classmates. At each event, a representative tried to persuade us to take out lines of credit with their institution. Many of my classmates did exactly this and sank further into debt, because even government student loans weren’t sufficient to cover the entire expense of dental school.
Some of my classmates graduated with more than $200, 000 of debt. I was fortunate enough to have academic scholarships for my undergraduate degrees and athletic funding which covered a full year of my dental school tuition, but I still ended up with more than $100, 000 of debt. In my first year following graduation, with a sparse patient load, I struggled just to make interest-only payments on my loan. By the end of the year, I’d spent well over $5000 and my level of debt hadn’t budged. That’s more than enough money to cover a year of undergraduate tuition in Quebec, but the universities didn’t get this money, the banks did. It paid for nothing more than the sheer privilege of my being in debt for a year.
Some have argued that tuition rates need to be raised to ensure the quality of education, but in some cases the reverse may be true. Some faculties, like dentistry, may have difficulty attracting qualified educators because their indebted graduates can’t afford to work for the relatively low salary offered by universities. Private practice offers much better pay and a better chance of paying off student debt in a timely fashion. According to a 2006 study, a third of Canadian dental students surveyed indicated that their anticipated debt level at graduation had influenced their career choice within dentistry. Three quarters of respondents were considering private practice in general dentistry, but only 12% said this would still be their preferred career path if debt weren't a factor. For the deeply indebted professional, an academic career may not be a reasonable option.
If we want to have access to affordable professional services, if we’d like to save money by spending less on incarceration, less on welfare handouts, and less on health care, or if we want to live in a safe, healthy, democratic society, then affordable public education is a solid investment. It’s in everyone’s interest that education be accessible to all, and it isn’t yet, not even in Quebec. This isn’t something that will be handed to us as a reward for apathy, it’s something that we need to demand. Kudos to Quebec’s students for leading the way.
photo credit: Robin Dumont; flickr
Steel, copper, walnut, tin.
"...boiled water is a benchmark of human achievement. Vessels utilized for this sanitizing state change have been available since before recorded history, yet with the exception of changing materials and aesthetic preference, very little has been done to improve the kettle. An early innovation, the “lid”, was developed to expedite the process to a certain degree and keep crap out of your water. More recently the steam whistle was invented and today, informs us of active boiling wile releasing pressurized steam. The Self-Regulating Tea Kettle is designed to offer a significant contribution to the evolution of this venerable instrument ..."
DESTRUCTION OF HOME: Destruction is woven into the tapestry of the universe. Entropy, omeleteer of structured things, wields its indefatigable spatula. This is Entropy’s world we are living in – a world where things fly apart. This is a world where a toppled vase disintegrates into shards upon a polished floor, and where carnage cannot be made whole. A world where neither the King’s horses nor his men, can reconstitute that incautious ovum, Humpty Dumpty; a world where tender reverential hearts break, where young flesh bruises, where desire detumesces in the embers of fulfillment, where love itself withers on the vine, where old age trellises the skin, where bright hopes atomize, and where the mortuary awaits us all, sepulchral door swinging wide – candles lit, lambent and serene, within.
HOME IN BORN IN MOTION: Leaving home is a violent act, because walking is a violent act. Walking violates a stationary calm and announces, "this place does not satisfy my needs anymore", or, "having served its purpose once, this place now bores me". Walking derives, anciently, phylogenetically, from motile carnivory. It is rooted in impatience – the primordial impatience with waiting for morsels to waft on by. Motility is an ancestral condition. Life was born on the move. Flagellated, ciliated – gliding, and lashing – permanently unsatisfied and desirous. Motility is the characteristic act of animality. In their evolutionary procession, animals squirmed, wriggled, pulsated, swam, slithered, and later, lurched, crawled, leapt, hopped, flapped, flew, swarmed, brachiated, knuckle-shuffled and then most recently arose and walked away. Not the chosen option: repose is abandoned. A singular spot is forsaken. Beasts leave home to prowl and stalk, to kill and dine. Pursuing other options, bathed in the sunlight, were animals enduring cousins in the kingdom of plants. Left behind also: sessile brothers, animals hedging their bets by fiercely equipping with lures and tackle and macerating jaws.
Animals depart with teeth set in hungry mouths and they nibble on the world as they encounter it. The engulfing stoma of the ambulator, first and center of its anatomical toolkit, is nestled among the cranial sense organs. The arms and legs that flail behind are mere propellers towards the cosmic dining table. The frenetic peristalsis of the torso squeezes out the ejecta in our wake and makes room for new cargo. Most movement is ecology, and most ecology is trophic ecology. Ingestion is a fundamental act.
Leaving home, then, like all motion, is born in violence, and even the tenderest departure – where lovers weep, say, and their fingers entwine like tendrils before they fall away – recapitulates one of life's fateful decisions. Walking away, besides, is irrevocable. Walking away is rejection, is abandonment. Leaving home is the act that annihilates the home. There is no returning – as surely as this world spins, there is no returning to the same place. A voyage home treads on a mutinous soil – the earth beneath each footfall bears the pliant step with a secret and glorious knowledge that it has not remained the same; it is not the crumb it was when it was forsaken: its clod is more compacted, is minutely shifted, is brought into a new relationship with the microbes that embrace it, the roots that penetrate deep within it. The very land where once one's feet were firmly, though fleetingly, planted has mutated. And the abandoned, they themselves, are changed. Even when embracing you, the land and the people sow murder in their hearts.
NEVER LEAVING HOME: This happened once: a childhood friend dropped her pet hamster on a tiled floor when it was a week old. It survived but as it matured it embarked upon its journeys in progressively enlarging circles. It would set out ambling from a center where it had been placed, and would get further (though never far) with each new expedition. It would then list off, gimping to the left, and circumscribe a circle, as if tethered to home. This centripetal Odysseus spent its voyaging hours within sight of a very close shore. It died only yards from the scene of its pediatric accident.
A few years before this, as a five year old, I had fallen haplessly from a low front wall outside the family home and crashed heavily headfirst upon the footpath. I had been painting the wall laboriously with water – a fool's task. The footpath, uneven, crenellated, home to tricycles in summer, a skating rink in winter, was an unkempt moss-encrusted flag of concrete beyond the pale of the garden. Later when I knew what such things were, I spotted a liverwort residing in a crack on this pavement. And once I saw a frog (one that I had raised from a tadpole taken from a ferric pond in the Dublin Mountains) emerge from the garden and leap from this path, into the street. It looked up at me, and we seemed to dialogue - a hazy amphibious thing this communion – before an oncoming car made short and just about audible work of it. At the time of my falling, my mother was attending to painting the garden gate – black at the margins, radiating spokes of white. She scooped up my little injured body and scurried with me into the neighbors' kitchen. The neighbor was a nurse. I see and hear this memory – a small boy delicately consumed by mother and nurse. They both use kitchen utensils – a forehead patiently prodded, the bruised flesh daintily lingered upon, the head detained for cleaning under a running tap, red streamers of very dilute blood draining, the forks chittering upon the bone, and tiny detonations of stone heard on the enamel of the sink as they fetched the earth out of me. Most pebbles were retrieved, but I retain the residuals, and I am a marvel, a carnival curiosity at large: the boy with rocks in his head.
Learning of the damaged hamster, which had survived and seemed unblemished in youth only to have his injury curtail the migrations of his adult life, cast a shadow upon my mind. Teaming with fears and inchoate apprehensions, home to the full roster of Catholic demons and bugaboos, my reason (one that could manufacture ghostly apparitions on the ceilings of a dim-lit church, and demons from garments placed at night upon the back of a chair) feared for myself a similar ontogeny. A member of a migratory species – the Irishman, I would be tethered to home – an excursion here and there perhaps but always close to shore.
DIFFICULT RETURNS: A thousand of miles away from Dublin, in a research station in Costa Rica, a Japanese anthropologist and I – an Irish ecologist – sat in the station's dining hall. It was shortly after the birth of my second son who had been encumbered with the name Oisín Odysseus, reflecting the migratory Irish and Greek tendencies of his parents. The caterwauling of howler monkey’s announced the onset of the afternoon rains, and we exchanged these folk stories.
I offered this one:
After being vanquished at the battle of Gabhra, several of the legendary warriors of the Fianna were hunting together along the shore of Lough Lena. The company saw a beautiful woman galloping upon the waves towards them. Niamh of the Golden Hair chooses Oisín, the bardic son of Finn, as a husband. Oisín, enchanted, mounts the horse and she carries him back across the waves to Tir na nÓg, the Land of Perpetual Youth. Oisín meets there with many adventures. Alas, there is no paradise conceivable that maintains our attention eternally, so after the passage of time he expresses a desire to visit home. Seeing his sorrow and pointing out that many centuries had passed since he came, Niamh relents and lends him her horse to return to Ireland. She instructs him that he must not dismount the horse and that he should return when he understands that what she tells him is true. He rides off across the foamy waves. He sees for himself the truth that everything is changed – his family and his friends are long dead. He turns the horse to return to his bride. As he does so he notices an elderly woman struggling with a cord of wood. Bending down from his saddle to assist her with this task he falls off the horse to the ground. Back on native soil he ages all of those years that he has magically evaded.
My colleague shares the following:
Urashima rescues a turtle from the taunting of children. The rescued turtle turns out to be Oto, the beautiful daughter of the God of the Sea. He marries her and they return to the palace beneath the waves. Time passes by and though Urashima loves his wife he dreams of his parents, and frets that they will die alone. The princess learns of his sadness and bids him return home. On parting she gives him a gift, wrapped in a beautiful lacquered box, though she instructs him that it is a gift better left uninspected. If he should open it he will never be able to return to her. Urashima returns home, and discovers that the three years spent beneath the waves were in fact three centuries, and that he has become a legend, and his people long dead. He has no instructions on how to return to his bride, and thinking that the gift may contain these vital instructions he unwraps the gift. A mist arises from the box and he hears the voice of his beloved receding. Urashima aged three centuries in an instant.
Are there lessons to be learned from the stories of Oisín and Urishima?
Two island nations, one clear message: returning home after a foreign sojourn is difficult. In both of these stories the young men are lured away by a princess – the thrall of tupping royalty must be universal. They return – no doubt the prospect of recounting their feats abroad is integral to home’s gravitational pull. However, nothing is as it was before. In the case of Oisín the people are of a diminished stature compared to former times, and alas for both travelers their families are now dead. Yes, you may leave, but do not expect home to remain unchanged. When the migrant returns it is not just he who instantaneously ages: he must witness the tumult of change in his native land telescoped into the moments of the return. In the earliest version of the Oisín story that had been narrated to us at National School we learned that after toppling from Niamh’s magical horse Oisín withered and was turned to dust. In this more emphatic version a return is thus precluded.
THE PRODIGAL RETURNS: The week after his return the Prodigal Son remembers why it was he left. His friends, those coarse bumpkins who so recently munched upon the sizzling flesh of a fatted calf, tell their same old jokes. They are as hopelessly myopic – as uncosmopolitan – as they were before. They nudge and wink in a way that irritates him who has now seen more of the world. What use have they for tales of his hardship in places they have barely heard of? They want to hear about the girls he's been with, for is it not for such exotic dalliances, such debaucheries that once he claimed he was leaving. But that is not what he wants to talk of now – he is different in a way he cannot seem to state. The father, all bearhugs and solicitude but days ago, is once again a sullen autocrat. He cannot resist reminding the Prodigal that an inheritance was squandered. He queries him on his skill with swine. And his brother, who has taken the week to cool off, now sees his own glory-days on the rise. The Prodigal Son, whose prodigious heart-swell and homesickness had him walking home, will soon leave again. Perhaps it is best that he does for the world has transformed and he has transformed, and he had no home to come back to. His father and his brother have a home, but it is a different one than he used to share with them. The Prodigal is homeless for walking away is the act of violence that annihilates the home.
Picture of Oisín Odysseus Pavlogianis Heneghan costumed as Oisín son of Fionn and Sadbh by Sarah Horwitz.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Earth to Ben Bernanke
Paul Krugman in the NYT Magazine:
Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.
Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.
The Bernanke Conundrum — the divergence between what Professor Bernanke advocated and what Chairman Bernanke has actually done — can be reconciled in a few possible ways. Maybe Professor Bernanke was wrong, and there’s nothing more a policy maker in this situation can do. Maybe politics are the impediment, and Chairman Bernanke has been forced to hide his inner professor. Or maybe the onetime academic has been assimilated by the Fed Borg and turned into a conventional central banker. Whichever account you prefer, however, the fact is that the Fed isn’t doing the job many economists expected it to do, and a result is mass suffering for American workers.
A Universe from Nothing?
Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
Some of you may have been following a tiny brouhaha (“kerfuffle” is so overused, don’t you think?) that has sprung up around the question of why the universe exists. You can’t say we think small around here.
First Lawrence Krauss came out with a new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (based in part on a popular YouTube lecture), which addresses this question from the point of view of a modern cosmologist. Then David Albert, speaking as a modern philosopher of science, came out with quite a negative review of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog(with interesting voices in the comments), a long interview with Krauss in the Atlantic, comments by Massimo Pigliucci, andanother response by Krauss on the Scientific American site.
I’ve been meaning to chime in, for personal as well as scientific reasons. I do work on the origin of the universe, after all, and both Lawrence and David are friends of the blog (and of me): Lawrence was our first guest-blogger, and David and I did Bloggingheads dialogues here and here.
This is going to be kind of long, so here’s the upshot. Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.
Culture, Not Biology, Shapes Language
Barbara King in NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture:
There's no language gene.
There's no innate language organ or module in the human brain dedicated to the production of grammatical language.
There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.
So goes the argument in Language: The Cultural Tool, the new book I'm reading by Daniel Everett. Next week, I'll have more to say about the book itself; this week, I want to explore how Everett's years of living among the Pirahã Indians of Amazonian Brazil helped shape his conclusions — and why those conclusions matter.
The Pirahã are hunter-gatherers who live along the Maici River in Brazil's Amazon region. They fish, gather manioc and hunt in the forest. As is true with any human society, Pirahã communities are socially complex.
Everett first showed up among the Pirahãs as a missionary associated with the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL), with the goal of converting the natives to Christianity by translating the Bible into the local language. He left many years later as an atheist, knowing that the Pirahãs "were not in the market for a new worldview."
In between, Everett found that the Pirahãs have no words for "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" or "I'm sorry." They have no color words, but instead deploy phrases such as "it is temporarily being immature" for green. They have a limited kinship term system, one that does not distinguish between parent and grandparent or brother and sister. And their sentences lack recursion. This means there are no embedded clauses, as in the English sentence "Bring me the fish that Mary caught."
The Harm of Hate Speech
Jeremy Waldron in Eurozine:
The message conveyed by a hateful pamphlet or poster, attacking someone on grounds of race, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity, is something like this:
"Don't be fooled into thinking you are welcome here. The society around you may seem hospitable and non-discriminatory, but the truth is that you are not wanted, and you and your families will be shunned, excluded, beaten, and driven out, whenever we can get away with it. We may have to keep a low profile right now. But don't get too comfortable. Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past. Be afraid."
That message is conveyed viciously and publicly. To the extent that they can, the purveyors of this hate will try to make it a visible and permanent feature of our social fabric. And members of the vulnerable groups targeted are expected to live their lives, conduct their business, raise their children, and allay their nightmares in a social atmosphere poisoned by this sort of speech.
And, for the opposing view, Ivan Hare:
[I]t is clear from Timothy Garton Ash's commentary andJeremy Waldron's response to it that we are taking about much more than a guide to behaviour. Some would advocate giving effect to this norm not just through legislation but also through criminal prohibition in the form of laws against hate speech. To do so would be an error, as the hate speech laws in existence in large parts of Europe and Canada are contrary to the free speech principle at a fundamental level.
The most convincing justification for free speech is that it is essential to our ability to engage in democratic self-governance. That is, our right to participate in the debates on issues of public importance that affect us all. Debates about race (such as immigration, accommodation, assimilation and so on) are central to public discourse in most modern democracies. To prohibit the expression of strongly worded and provocative views on the subject of race through hate speech laws deprives those speakers and their audience of their right to participate fully in that public discourse.
It is no answer to say that the speaker can re-phrase their contribution in more "civil" terms and avoid liability. The topics covered typically by hate speech laws (race, religion, homosexuality) engender strong emotions and speakers should be entitled (as in other areas of public debate) to express themselves forcefully. In any event, how can those misguided enough to assert the superiority of one race over another or the wickedness of homosexuality do so without inciting hatred against the criticised group?
Urban revolution is coming
Occupy may mark the beginning of a new era of city-based uprisings. An expert explains why -- and how.
Max Rivlin-Nadler in Salon:
From Paris in 1871 to Prague in 1968 to Cairo in 2011 and eventually the streets of New York City, cities have long been a hotbed of radical movements. Over the decades, urban protests have been spurred by everything from unemployment and food shortages to privatization and corruption. But were they also caused by the geography of the cities themselves? The question has particular resonance this week, as Occupy prepares for a series of large May 1 protests in cities around the country.
Geographer and social theorist David Harvey, the distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and one of the 20 most cited humanities scholars of all time, has spent his career exploring how cities organize themselves, and when they do, what their achievements are. His new book, “Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution,” dissects the effects of free-market financial policy on urban life, the crippling debt of middle- and low-income Americans and how runaway development has destroyed a common space for all city dwellers.
Beginning with the question, How do we organize a whole city? Harvey looks at how the current credit crisis had its root in urban development, and how this development has made any political organizing in American cities virtually impossible in the past 20 years. Harvey is at the forefront of the movement for “the right to the city,” the idea that citizens should have a say in how their cities are developed and organized. Drawing inspiration from the Paris Commune of 1871, where the entire city of Paris overthrew the aristocracy to seize power, Harvey outlines where cities have organized, or could or should organize, themselves in more sane, inclusive ways.
Marty and Nick Jr. Go to America
Martin Amis in The New York Times:
In 1967 my father took another teaching job in America — “at Vanderbilt University at Nashville, Tennessee,” according to his “Memoirs,” “an institution known, unironically I suppose to some, as the Athens of the South.” Princeton started admitting black students in the mid-1940s. Two decades later my father asked if there were any “colored” students at Vanderbilt. “Certainly,” came the unsmiling reply. “He’s called Mr. Moore.” Nor did the staff common room, in the department of the humanities, provide any kind of counterweight to the “values” of the surrounding society — i.e., the raw prejudices of the hog wallow and the gutter. The culprit in the following anecdote was a novelist and a teacher of literature called Prof. Walter Sullivan.
Whenever I tell this story, as I frequently do, I give him a Dixie chawbacon accent to make him sound even more horrible, but in fact he talked ordinary American-English with a rather attractive Southern lilt. Anyway, his words were (verbatim), “I can’t find it in my heart to give a Negro [pron. nigra] or a Jew an A.” The strong likelihood of hearing such unopposed — indeed, widely applauded — sentiments at each and every social gathering moved my father to write that he considered his period in Nashville to be “second only to my army service as the one in my life I would least soon relive.” All this happened a long time ago, and I can prove it. During that year in Princeton the Amis family — all six of us — went on a day trip to New York City. It was an episode of joy and wonder, and of such startling expense, that we talked about it, incredulously, for weeks, for months, for years. What with the train tickets, the taxi fares and ferry rides, the lavish lunch, the lavish dinner, and the innumerable snacks and treats, the Amises succeeded in spending no less than $100. When he got back to the U.K. in 1967 my father wrote a longish poem about Nashville, which ends:
But in the South, nothing now or ever.
For black and white, no future.
None. Not here.
His despair, it transpired, was premature. One of the most marked demographic trends in contemporary America is the exodus of black families from the Northern states to the Southern. Nevertheless, those of us who believe in civil equality are suddenly in need of reassurance. I refer of course to the case of Trayvon Martin. Leave aside, for now, that masterpiece of legislation, Stand Your Ground (which pits the word of a killer against that of his eternally wordless victim), and answer this question. Is it possible, in 2012, to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old without automatically getting arrested? Ease my troubled mind, and tell me yes.
The Most Charming Pagan
In the fifteenth century, the new culture of Renaissance humanism, with its sense of new possibilities inspired by the past, filled rulers throughout Italy with enthusiasm. Clever manipulators like Cosimo de’ Medici and ruthless soldiers of fortune like Federigo da Montefeltro appointed fluent Latinists to write propaganda for them, studied the ancients themselves, and collected as many classical texts as they could. Contemporary popes, scions of aristocratic Italian families and Renaissance princes in their own right, followed suit. Pope Nicholas V created, and Pope Sixtus IV expanded and institutionalized, the Vatican Library: a humanistic collection, stuffed with newly discovered Latin texts and newly translated Greek ones, which they made available to all the members of their large entourages who took an interest in antiquity. “The whole court of Rome” supposedly browsed there. Certainly Leon Battista Alberti did so when he collected from dozens of texts the vast amount of information about ancient buildings and cities that he compressed into his pioneering treatise The Art of Building.
It seems only natural that Sixtus’s handsome manuscript of Lucretius should have found its way into the Vatican Library. The work of a brilliant poet and ambitious philosopher, the text had earned the praise of the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil himself. Except for its title and opening line, the manuscript was written in the handsome, rounded script that the humanists of fifteenth-century Italy thought of as appropriate for ancient Latin texts—though they had derived it not from ancient books, which were written very differently, but from manuscripts of the classics written in Carolingian Europe, seven hundred years before their time.
Yet there is something troubling about the manuscript. Lucretius, as it proclaimed, was an “Epicurean” poet—a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Like his master, he believed that the universe consisted of invisible particles, or atoms, that fell through the endless void until one of them “swerved” and struck another one. The stars, the planets, and the animals and people that inhabited the earth had all come into being by chance, as particles collided, and would eventually fall apart again into nothingness. The gods formed a separate order of being, and took no interest in the fates of humans. Hence it was pointless to fear them or invoke their help.
Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry
Eliza Griswold in the New York Times Magazine:
In a private house in a quiet university neighborhood of Kabul, Ogai Amail waited for the phone to ring. Through a plate-glass window, she watched the sinking sun turn the courtyard the color of eggplant. The electricity wasn’t working and the room was unheated, a few floor cushions the only furnishings. Amail tucked her bare feet underneath her and pulled up the collar of her puffy black coat. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail, and her eyelids were coated in metallic blue powder. In the green glare of the mobile phone’s screen, her face looked wan and worried. When the phone finally bleeped, Amail shrieked with joy and put on the speakerphone. A teenage girl’s voice tumbled into the room. “I’m freezing,” the girl said. Her voice was husky with cold. To make this call, she’d sneaked out of her father’s mud house without her coat.
Like many of the rural members of Mirman Baheer, a women’s literary society based in Kabul, the girl calls whenever she can, typically in secret. She reads her poems aloud to Amail, who transcribes them line by line. To conceal her poetry writing from her family, the girl relies on a pen name, Meena Muska. (Meena means “love” in the Pashto language; muska means “smile.”)
Meena lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do.
Name of the Secret Service’s Infamously Cheap Agent Revealed
Andre Tartar in New York Magazine:
The federal agent who single-handedly sparked "the biggest scandal in Secret Service history" by being stingy with a Colombian escort was outed yesterday by CNN as 41-year-old Arthur Huntington, a father of two from Severna Park, Maryland, a suburb about an hour from Washington, D.C. His refusal to pay 24-year-old Dania Suarez's $800 or so fee — reportedly, he was only willing to cough up $30 — is what led to a confrontation with police and several other prostitutes in the Cartagena hotel and, eventually, to our nation's current obsession with the after-hours activities of the Secret Service. So far, at least nine agents have been culled as a result, including Huntington, although it remains unclear if he was sacked or resigned.
What else do we know about Arthur Huntington? Well, obviously, his wife runs a neighborhood Bible study and their two kids are home-schooled. A woman who knows the family told CNN: "I know him and his character. I would question the allegations." Their Maryland home has since been put up for sale.
Barack Obama plans victory in War on Christmas
delilah (for shuffy)
the house is black
the day of gifts
Mr. Amis's Planet
From The LA Review of Books:
MARTIN AMIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN a casualty of his own biography. Every new book comes swathed in literary gossip or literary scandal to do with his father, his teeth, his divorce, his politics, his agent or his friends. The recent publication in England of Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (a jangling heap of bad writing and factual inaccuracy) doesn't actually tell us anything new: we know it all already. Born in 1949, the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, handsome Martin with his furrowed brow and energized prose seized on the wheezing literary world of 1970s England and shocked it back to life. While writing some of the most entertaining literary criticism you'll ever come across for publications like the Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman, young Amis penned in quick succession a handful of early novels that heralded the arrival of a bright, brash new voice in English letters — a voice perfectly suited to mingle with the yobs and snobs alike, scathing in its hyperbolic charge, addicted to the dregs of British society. In one of those early novels — Success, published in 1978 — one of the characters pleadingly tells the reader, "Take me to America," and that's exactly what Martin Amis did. His sprawling, early-to-mid-career comedies — Money, London Fields, The Information — all pitched their voices "somewhere in the mid-Atlantic," as another character has it, revitalizing English prose with the freewheeling energies of its American cousin.
The ensuing four decades of novels, essays, stories and journalism make up one of the most electric and original bodies of work in modern literature. Whatever one says of Amis, however one feels about what Kingsley complained of as a "terrible compulsive vividness in his style," it takes serious effort to deny the overwhelming originality of Amis's voice, and seems to me quite a bit harder to resist the temptation to imitate it. Alas, Amis says somewhere that the great stylists are the ones you shouldn't be influenced by (easier said than done, mate); like Proust, he believes that style is a quality of vision, the revelation of an author's private universe. In his memoir Experience he claims that "style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified." Reading Amis, we learn to inhabit his voice, his vision, and the morality that is his private universe. We learn to see the world the way Amis sees it: the way, in the novel Money, an overheated tunnel's "throat swelled like emphysema with fags and fumes and foul mouths"; or the distant airplanes in Yellow Dog that "were like incandescent spermatozoa, sent out to fertilize the universe." We see, in The Rachel Papers, the narrator's mother's skin that "had shrunken over her skull, to accentuate her jaw and to provide commodious cellarage for the gloomy pools that were her eyes; her breasts had long forsaken their native home and now flanked her navel; and her buttocks, when she wore stretch-slacks, would dance behind her knees like punch-balls."
by Fay Zwicky
from Ask Me
University of Queensland Press, 1990
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Poetry in the Wild
Emily Grosholz reviews two books of poetry in American Scientist:
If you are a scientifically trained poetry lover who has always wanted to travel to the polar regions or the tropics, or a lover of poetry who would like to venture into the history of science, you can fly away to those distant reaches on the pages of these two books. Elizabeth Bradfield, author of the poetry collection Approaching Ice, has worked as a naturalist in Alaska and the Eastern Canadian Arctic. Ruth Padel, author of Darwin: A Life in Poems, has visited tiger forests in China and Russia, as well as tropical and subtropical forests in Brazil, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos and Sumatra. She is, moreover, the granddaughter of Darwin’s granddaughter Nora Barlow, from whom she first heard about the complexities of the marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin.
Bradfield’s Approaching Ice is a miscellany of poems and annotated texts that makes use of the writings of two dozen Arctic and Antarctic explorers. The book unfolds in roughly chronological order, from John Cleves Symmes and James Weddell, who went north around 1820, through Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and Richard E. Byrd in the early 20th century, to Lynne Cox, who, in the late 20th century, swam the Strait of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope.
Scattered throughout are definitions of ice formations from Nathaniel Bowditch’s The American Practical Navigator, poetically elaborated with the subtext of what seems like a love story.
Surge of the 'Second World'
Parag Khanna in The National Interest:
The Old Order no longer qualifies as an order. The term “world order” denotes a stable distribution of power across the world. But power concentration today is in a state of tremendous flux, characterized by rapid diffusion and entropy toward a broad set of emerging powers that now share the regional and global stage. Western-centered multilateralism represents at best a partial component of a world system that is increasingly fragmented.
Nostalgia for the post–World War II or post–Cold War periods will not affect this picture. At those junctures, America had an opportunity to fashion a new world order. After World War II, America capitalized on this moment; after the Cold War, it squandered it. The world has moved beyond even the assumptions embedded in President George H. W. Bush’s famous “new world order” speech to a joint session of Congress two decades ago in which he envisioned a unipolar order managed through a multilateral system. Instead, the world has quickly become multipolar, institutionally polycentric and even “multiactor,” meaning nonstate groups such as corporations and NGOs are commanding more and more influence on key issues. This trend seems irreversible, and it needs to be digested before any kind of new global-governance mechanism can be formulated, with or without American leadership.
Martin Wolf on The Failure of the Euro?
From a conference over at Brown's Watson Center on the future of the euro:
Bohemian Rhapsody On The Way To School
Mohsin Hamid in The New York Times:
At the end of Nell Freudenberger’s second novel, “The Newlyweds,” we encounter the following sentence: “I believe that it is only by sharing our stories that we truly become one community.” A worthy objective, surely. Nonetheless we’re on tricky ground here, and a little probing on our part is called for. The sentence quoted above is in fact part of a Starbucks “Reach for the Stars” writing competition entry attributed to the novel’s protagonist, Amina, a Bangladeshi woman who has immigrated to America. But Amina’s entry, it turns out, was not actually written by Amina. It was written, and submitted, by Kim, an American cousin of Amina’s American husband, George. Kim is a yoga instructor. She is a storyteller, a bit of a liar. Like Freudenberger herself, she has spent time in South Asia. And Kim is held up, at least partly, as a stand-in for the author: “ ‘But you always wear Indian clothes,’ Amina said. “Kim laughed. ‘I wear my own version. This kind of thing.’ She indicated the bulky sweater she was wearing over an unseasonable cotton dress and a pair of black tights. ‘But trust me — I look stupid in a sari.’ ”
Freudenberger is aware of the pitfalls she faces in telling us Amina’s tale, and she wants us to be aware of them too. If Kim has invented a competition-winning story as Amina, about Amina, without Amina’s permission, and with various inaccuracies, what, Freudenberger invites us to ask, has Freudenberger done? At stake here isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the question of authenticity, which is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not “own” the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices. Such a proposition, taken to its logical extreme, would reduce fiction to autobiography, and while fiction may well be alive and kicking in the belly of many an autobiography, to confine fiction solely to that domain would be madness. No, the more pressing issue is that of verisimilitude, truthlikeness, the illusion of being real, a quality without which fiction that adheres to the conventions of what is commonly called realism (a problematic term, but useful shorthand for the more cumbersome “let’s try not to draw attention to the fact that this is all made up”-ism) starts to feel to its audience like an ill-fitting and spasmodic sock puppet.
About Mohsin Hamid:
By THE EDITORS
This week, Mohsin Hamid reviews Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Newlyweds,” about an American man and a Bangladeshi woman who meet over the Internet and, despite the geographic and cultural gulfs between them, decide to marry. Hamid, the author of two novels, is himself a traverser of borders, having grown up mostly in Lahore, Pakistan, where he now lives, with stints in London and the United States. In addition to writing fiction, he is a prolific essayist on culture and politics for publications including The Guardian of London, Time magazine and The New York Review of Books. “I’m a political animal,” he told us via e-mail. “How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded — these things matter to me. So I write about them. Fiction and nonfiction are just two different ways of lying to try to get at truths. Fiction lies by fabricating what isn’t there. Nonfiction lies by omitting what is. Doing both is useful: it keeps me aware of sentences, a novelist’s obsession, and the power of the void that surrounds them, a preoccupation of journalists.” Hamid’s third novel, which he described as “a love story and a meditation on the nature of fiction” that “pretends to be a self-help book about how to get rich in 21st-century Asia,” is scheduled to be published next spring. At press time he was also preparing for the birth of his second child. How has fatherhood affected his writing life? “It’s been fantastic,” he said. “My 2-year-old daughter has started knocking on my door every day, coming in and sitting down in silence until I finally say, ‘What are you doing?’ And she answers, ‘I’m working, Baba. Working.’ She makes me laugh every time. To write, you have to deal with solitude. And to become a father, at least for me, is to have a powerful enchantment enter your solitude, a new smile you get to smile when you’re alone.”