Raphael Bostic @RaphaelBostic, Nicole Ezparza @nicolephd and I discuss Kafka’s The Castle for the Bedrosian Center @BedrosianCenter

So the Bedrosian Book Club did something a little off the beaten path this time out: we discussed Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. I started us off a little badly: I get nervous when recorded, but the discussion is worth listening to if you have an interest in bureaucracy, power, culture, and a bunch of things that come up during our discussion. You can find it here.

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To call philosophy down from the heavens…Scott Samuelson’s nice essay in CHE

Scott Samuelson contributed a nice essay to CHE today, but I think it’s behind a paywall. Like lots of CHE personal essays, this one has a little more personal stuff than is perhaps interesting, but Samuelson seems to be a young writer, and much about the essay is good-hearted and rings utterly true:

I never fully understood Kant until a student of mine, a mother who had to authorize a risky surgery for her son that led to his death, asked me in tears if Kant was right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth. I never fully understood Stoicism until a student of mine who’d been sexually abused as a child explained to me how she’d deduced the same principles as Epictetus to transcend her suffering and find happiness. John Locke always seemed a little boring to me until a Sudanese refugee asked me tremblingly if we could study his arguments for religious freedom.

Ideas have consequence, ideas fuel the soul, and all of us need them. I am looking forward to Samuelson’s book, which is out from UChicago this year, called the Deepest Human Life: An Introduction for Philosophy for Everyone.

Oh, and BTW, a subscription to the Chron is a nice gift for your local pointy-head academic. Not affiliated, just an idea.

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Spare me the ethics defenses of Harvard Proffie/Hanger-on Ben Edelman

Blech blech blech. Harvard has a lot of adjuncts, particularly in their professional schools, and plenty of people sign up for this because they get to put “Harvard professor” in their titles. It is the nomenclature of self-promotion, and when it works well, it works well for everybody involved. The university gets to say it hires people with their fingers on the pulse of the consulting world; the consultant gets to add an prestigious uni cred to their own self-promotion. Edelman seems to be one of these loosely affiliated faculty.

The internets erupted last week over Edelman’s going after a Chinese restaurant that was, in fact, charging higher prices than their website, and they overcharged Edelman by $4. He confronted them on it, and apparently they didn’t grovel or reimburse fast enough because he went on with further threats. The internet erupted in judgment. But according to his fellow Harvard blah-blah vendor in the New Republic, Nathan Robinson, this puts Edelman in the right, doing business ethics housecleaning, instead of a bully:

Fraudulent business practices are widespread in America and often have little remedy. People are frequently scammed but are unaware or too busy to do anything about it. Even those who seek a remedy often fail to find one, and businesses have an incentive to keep ripping other customers off because it’s easy to pay off the few, like Edelman, who complain.

Sichuan Garden owner Ran Duan’s initial reply to Edelman stated that the restaurant’s website was out of date and the menu prices had gone up—and made no offer to reimburse Edelman for the difference. That only changed once Edelman become more serious. As he points out, the restaurant had known for months it was showing people the wrong prices, but hadn’t updated the website. Perhaps this was an honest mistake, but changing the site takes all of five minutes. The restaurant had no incentive to do so, however, given that few consumers would notice the price difference. By not taking the simple steps necessary to follow the law, Sichuan Garden was essentially stealing people’s money every day, for months.

Perhaps if you yell about this loudly enough, you’ll convince some people, but 1) No, it does NOT take 5 minutes to update a website with prices. It takes longer than that. Not everybody has an army of people at hand to deal with the web crap (says the owner of a nonprofit who, unlike Harvard proffies and overpaid business consultants, has to do all that web shite herself, and yeah, sometimes months go by before I get to it,) and

2) bayotch, please. If Edelman and his chorus of business buddies cared about fraud, they wouldn’t be going after locally owned small businesses. Yeah, the Sichuan Garden is technically in the wrong here, but here’s the deal: if you use your platform and status as a Harvard -effing Proffie to go after the Sihuan Gardens instead of the Bank of Americas, the Bernie Madoffs, the payday loan industry, the people who go after collections that are 8 years-old, and their buddies on Wall Street, you are HELL TO THE YEAH part of the Establishment and you kind of suck. Even if, from a strict Kantian perspective, you are right and they are wrong. I’ll give you the $4 to shut up.

And you know what? Plenty of us are sick of Harvard-associated people using their platform to dance on the head of a pin about issues that don’t matter. The Freakonomicsification of EVERYTHING…if it’s cutesey and unexpected and marginal, well, it’ll make news and it won’t make any members of our fellow power elite unhappy or challenge any systems…but it’s awesome because we did it! And we’re Harvard! We just correlated the number of poodles with crime rates! Admire us because we are SUCH ICONOCLASTS. NOBUDS THINKS LIKE US RIGHTCHERE.

Now, there are *great* scholars at Harvard doing incredible work–incredible work–of real significance. I don’t know why they put up with this nonsense, but I suppose it’s like all of us who just want to do good work and help in the world: there’s no time to deal with every self-promotional blah-blah vendor who can find a media outlet.

So yeah, Edelman may technically be in the right, but don’t expect any slow claps.

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Sarah Goodyear opts for “You Kids, Get Off My Lawn” Urbanism in NextCity

I’m glad that NextCity actually has women write about the city, but this entry from Sarah Goodyear strikes me as ill-conceived: Against the Cutesifcation of Urban Design. She’s arguing against swings and pong games, based on the following points:

More broadly, the focus on expensive and often impractical “playful” solutions that can’t be scaled up diverts designers’ and planners’ attention from the real challenges at hand. City-dwellers don’t need garbage cans with sound effects, they need more garbage cans, and more frequent trash pickup. Regular bus commuters don’t need swings, they need shelter from the elements and reliable information about bus arrival time. Pedestrians don’t need to play games at the crosswalk, they need shorter crossing distances, longer walk signals, and better separation from cars.

She’s making a lot of assumptions here. First, that the cute solutions are expensive and can’t be scaled up. I’m not sure that assumption is warranted, and it’s presented without evidence. Hello, Kitty is cute and it’s delivered on scale.

But oh, boy! The latent modernism and its language of efficiency is rather front-and-center here. We need efficiency, not delight, damn you kids with your widdgety-bibbity toy urbanism! We’re serious grownups here!

Ok, but one on her list of problems (the last) has an extensive, existing body of urban design work (so it’s a matter of implementation, not necessarily design) and the first two problems have little to do urban design, not really. It’s possible that that the German city that installed the pong game at traffic lights doesn’t have enough trash cans….oh, no, wait, it’s not possible. If there is one thing German cities have, it’s way the heck enough trash cans.

But the point is that cities that do not have enough trash cans are cities who are not necessarily bad at urban design; they are probably suffering from either bad city management or a low tax base or both, and they may have bad design, too, but the root problem is not design. Ditto with the bus problems. Urban designers are in charge of keeping the buses on a timetable? Since when? Does Goodyear really think that the dollars a few swings at bus stops cost will move the dial on transit service or understanding service?

And actually, I think it’s wrong to get all sniffy about swings at bus stops. I could care less about them, but if they make the time pass faster for some kid waiting for the bus with his mom or dad, why not? I do wonder about how safe it is have something swinging on the sidewalk, I’m assuming people thought of that and the swing has limited range.

The cutesification of urban design may make for fun tourist attractions, but it infantilizes the very people who use a city most: residents and commuters. The parent walking a child home from day care on a rainy night, worrying if the cars will stop for them. The older person who needs a bit more time to cross the street. The construction worker waiting for a bus in the blazing sun.

Oh, I can just hear Fanfare for the Common Man playing in the background as she wrote this. I’m not sure NextCity writers get to appoint themselves the voice of the proletariat, for one. But for another, the parent walking the kid home might really like some things to serve as landmarks and diversions for his/her kid in an otherwise boring commute. Infantilization assumes that everybody in the city is an adult. Some urban residents are actually infants.

For another, the design solutions to the last two problems are important, but the reason we don’t have them is not because urban design suddenly got cute. It’s because cities don’t spend money on design (or anything else), cute or otherwise, in neighborhoods where people rely on buses. And while it’s good to point that out, Goodyear’s apparent inference tha this is, somehow, an urban design problem instead of a fiscal equalization problem or a justice problem strikes me as pretty tone-deaf in the usual urban design way: I care about design, and thus everything is design. Design and designers go where the money is (just like everybody else) and the reason why construction workers sit in the blazing sun is not that urban designers are too busy making swings. It’s that urban politics keeps the money for both the cute and majestic in particular spaces, and those spaces are not occupied by working-class urbanites.

Finally, tourists are important to cities. I get that it is a fine New York/East Coast tradition to kvetch about tourists, but for crying out loud. Their use of the city does not preclude residents’ use of the city. Tourist dollars are important to supplement local tax bases for all the things that Goodyear says urbanites really want and need. You want more money for transit? Encourage those tourists, and encourage them to eat at restaurants as much as humanly possible. Let them grow fat during their vacations, as that is sales tax revenue for the rest of us, while their little kids strain their home tax bases and not ours. It’s as close to taxing foreigners living abroad as you can get.

And ditto with her last line about the sinister corporate-ness of the cutesy design which means we should all be worried by the corporate takeover of urban space, but well, that horse is waaaaay out of the barn and has wandered down pretty far down the road. With tax bases where they are, and demands for service at the level Goodyear wants, tourist and corporate dollars are the urban reality, cutesy or otherwise.

If Goodyear wants to flat out say it: cities spend money on design when they should be spending the money on services, then that’s a fair point. But her argument seems to be that designers aren’t solving urban problems, and it strikes me that many of the problems she’s listed aren’t designers’ problems to solve, except insofar that designers are part of the democratic/deliberative world of urban problems in general.

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The Economist on Suburbs and how the back-to-the-city hype is a bit wrong

One of my wonderful students, Jeff Khau, sent around this long essay on Planet of Suburbs from the Economist, and while I have a love/hate relationship with the Economist and its ‘commenting’ rather than reporting on urbanism, this piece is really worth reading if you have any interest in urbanism and metropolitan regions. It’s a nice discussion of what we numbers-oriented types have maintained for some time: that while central cities and downtowns are growing (and that’s a good thing), it probably doesn’t warrant the triumphant tone it gets from various and sundry urbanists.

Even there however, we should cautious with our conclusions. Looking at relative growth percentages, particularly when you are dealing with a) differently sized population bases and b) different geographic areas. Sure, it’s possible that suburb X grew by 49 percent and downtown only grew by 3 percent, but if (a) is big in downtown and small in the suburb, the suburb could be adding much fewer people. As it happens, there are suburbs with quite a few people in them, so in some instances, the growth in absolute terms of a lower percentage may exceed the higher percentage. That’s a pretty straightforward problem in measuring urban growth.

And there are a fair numbers of both populous and urban suburbs out there, and many of those are flourishing, right along with traditional suburb-y suburbs that sit there behind gates. The numbers are the numbers to some degree.

One nice highlight is on Shlomo Angel’s terrific work on sprawl:

Just how powerful and widespread this centrifugal trend will be is suggested by the work of Shlomo Angel, a geographer at New York University. By using satellite images, old maps and population data, Mr Angel has run a ruler over some 3,600 metropolitan areas. He finds that, with few exceptions, they are less dense in wealthier countries (see map). Paris is less than one-third as densely populated as Cairo and barely one-seventh as dense as Mumbai. Even rich cities that seem packed are sparsely populated compared with poorer ones. Tokyo is only one-fifth as densely populated as Dhaka, for example.

As a link, Angel has two very nice books: Planet of Cities and The Atlas of Urban Expansion, both of which deal with these themes.

And I love to see this problem discussed even though it is terrifying:

Years of vote-winning giveaways to police officers and firemen, combined with unrealistic predictions of stockmarket returns, have left some cities with giant holes in their pension funds. Chicago’s unfunded liabilities work out to $18,596 per inhabitant, according to Morningstar Municipal Credit Research; New York’s amount to $9,842. To fill these holes, cities must either prune services or raise taxes. Both answers were likely to drive residents to nearby suburbs, making the problem worse. No number of trams, coffee shops or urban hipsters will save cities that slip into this whirlpool.


Oh boy.

And this last bit:

Elsewhere in America, too, suburbs are being given a dab of urbanity. Mountain View in Silicon Valley—home of Google—is trying to create a modest downtown. The highly successful Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is to build a small urban core, with cafés and small offices intended to entice startups. In southern California, the developer Rick Caruso builds open-air shopping centres that emulate old-world city centres, only with musical fountains.

This sort of thing might strike urbanites as laughably ersatz. But they might consider how their own neighbourhoods have changed. The inhabitants of Greenwich Village in New York or Islington in London live in places much less densely populated than a few decades ago, and containing fewer poor people. Old cities, like suburbs, are increasingly oriented around shopping centres. Leeds city centre has been transformed by a new mall; so has Stratford, in London’s East End. Croydon’s officials hope that a Westfield shopping centre in their borough will do the same.

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Patsy Healey’s Convivial City, Embodied by a Little Girl in a Wee Pink Peacoat

There is nothing about this video that isn’t cute. Apparently, this is a subway station at Williamsburg, and the players are a group called Coyote & Crow:

When I see things like this, I always think of one of my favorite theorists, Patsy Healey, and her concept of the Convivial City. It’s exactly what it sounds like: cities where good spirit and good will come together so that public places are a celebration of the good things in life. It’s such a good-hearted concept.

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The concept of disproportionality, justice, and police homicides

Ok, I haven’t been able to write much because I am both very busy and, frankly, heartbroken at the course of public events. Today we are discussing the Ferguson and New York decisions in my planning theory class, as it’s a good time to try to help people understand the idea of disproportionality. I worked up this fast little chart from Bureau of Justice Statistics data; the proportions are roughly the same for arrest-related homicide deaths from 2000 to 2010; the data year here is 2009 arrest-related deaths (homicide) and 2010 population percentages. I started fiddling with it after reading some really innumerate stuff that “white and black Americans have no difference in arrest-related homicide deaths” based on these data. I think that writer simply thought that, given the fact that the absolute number of whites killed is greater, there is no problem. No deaths are acceptable, but the fact that more whites die simply reflects their prevalence in the overall population.


In order to understand the problem, we need to look at the phenomenon proportionally. If we livd in a a color-blind world, we’d have a match, at least a rough one, between the proportion of those killed by the police as the general US population (as we do with Latinos and others). Instead, black Americans are disproportionately killed, and white Americans are disproportionately safe. This disproportionality is evidence of oppression. The numbers here for Hispanics and “Other” (Sorry, Asian friends to stick you all in “other”, but that’s how the BJS reports it) look roughly right. I don’t buy that there is no over-policing among Latinos, particularly in LA and other parts of the west and southwest, but it doesn’t show up in the police homicide numbers.

If you look at statistics for bad things: imprisonment, child death, disease mortality, dropping out of school, exposure to environmental stressors, etc, and if you find African Americans over-represented by proportion (and you will), it’s evidence of oppression.

When we talk about equality and justice, we are talking about roughly equal proportions across large populations. We’re not expecting one particular black person to have the same outcomes in life as one particular white person. We’re expecting statistical non significance in the race variable across large numbers…if we actually live in a post-racial world. (We obviously don’t.)

If oppression is not the causal factor, we’d need another believable explanation. And if you use rap music as an explanation, expect me to laugh at you.

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Former, grittier versions of New York

Reading How The Strand’s Stand: How It Keeps Going in the Age of Amazon over at Vulture, I came upon this description of a prior New York:

This tableau was left intact when the store was renovated in 2003. Until then, the Strand had been a beloved, indispensable, and physically grim place. Like a lot of businesses that had hung on through the FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD years, it looked broken-down and patched-up. The bathroom was even dirtier than the one in the Astor Place subway. You got the feeling that a lot of books had been on the shelves for years. The ceiling was dark with the exhalations from a million Chesterfields. There were mice. People arriving with review copies to sell received an escort to the basement after a guard’s bellow: “Books to go down!” It was an experience that, once you adjusted to its sourness, you might appreciate and even enjoy. Maybe.
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That New York is mostly gone, replaced by a cleaner and more efficient city—not to mention a cleaner and more efficient Strand.

and then another version:

The Basses have also tapped into New York’s great subsidizing resource: the global rich. If you’ve bought $15 million worth of living space on Park Avenue, it probably has a library, so what’s another $80,000 to fill those shelves? Make a call to the Strand with a few suggestions — “sports, business, art” — and a truckful of well-chosen, excellent-condition books will arrive. (Fred recalls that when Ron Perelman bought his estate on the East End from the late artist Alfonso Ossorio, the Strand had just cleared out Ossorio’s library; Perelman ordered a new selection of books, refilling the shelves.) In more than a few cases, the buyers request not subject matter but color. In the Hamptons, a wall of white books is a popular order, cheerfully fulfilled.


What will they look like if you spill coffee on them?

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Advertising between learning moments…well, sucks, actually

I am trying to learn more about music and the like in my free time, and I have a really nice beginner’s college text that, naturally, uses pieces of music to illustrate the concepts in play. Since this is a library book, I don’t have access to the cd-rom that is meant to accompany the text. However, I have been using YouTube to listen to the clips I am supposed to learn from, and it’s fine, to some degree. The MOOCers may have a point–all that stuff is online and free, and why not use it?

But…and this is proving to be a large objection for me…every time I fire up a clip to listen to, I have to sit through the advertising. Again and again. I never really minded YouTube advertising until I started to want to compare one piece to another…only to have to listen to HEY YOU, BUT THIS THING in the middle of the listening/learning/comparing experience.

Maybe I should do that in my classes. Yes, I know, we are taking about MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison, but hey, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors…


Anyway, I am trying to learn about changing meter from this bit here. Sorry for the stupid ad.

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Haiku Tunnel, the Artistic Temperament and Catching Up

Haiku Tunnel is one of my favorite movies about San Francisco, but it also has this rather wonderful scene in which a the rather neurotic, temp secretary, Josh,self-sabotages, screws something up (to Wagnerian levels of drama), goes in to quit with a boss he has framed in his mind, to be a terrible, evil guy…only to find out that said boss is a mild-mannered, pleasant sort of chap.

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