Glah I screwed up my ACSP round table

So I was asked to be part of a panel on smart cities and environmental justice. I normally do not love being part of any given panel; just let me do a research presentation (which I will also probably dislike doing, just because I hate talking in front of people), but whatever. The autism means I have bad social cue reading so I don’t know on a panel when I’ve annoyed people, talked too much, seemed surly rather than just uncomfortable, etc, and the whole time feels awful.  I should say no to these things. 

I brought what I think is the most important question about sensors and information, and that is: the future of work. Being unemployed in a world without social safety nets is a health issue,  and economic justice is, for me at the heart of environmental justice.   The audience was interested.  One person said that driverless tech, according to his mentor, was going to be good for truck drivers/bus drivers because there is always a shortage (I have trouble believing this; I really can’t think of many capital investments made that don’t in some way substitute for labor. You may make individual truckers better off and more productive, but as a group, I don’t see this, but I hope he’s right and I’m wrong.” The discussion seemed to be taking off, and then: 

Old White Dude (OWD) chimed in and did that thing they do: “well, let’s just get back to the topic at hand. The future of work, the macroeconomy.  This is a panel about Smart Cities. Planners are so ambitious  that we get too broad.” 

Now, I am sure OWD thought he was being kindly, but it was patronizing, and I just didn’t know how to respond right way.  I struggled, and continued on, and at one point just outright asked the question: “why did people want me on this panel if we *don’t* want to take on broad issues like justice?”  Yes, I can program and do math and did one of the first machine learning papers in planning. I’m technically competent. But that stuff? I feel the same way about that stuff as I do my pencils.  They are tools. And of course our tools are important, but they aren’t more important than the social constructs we make.  WE make. 

Here’s the bottom line.  Yeah, we could use environmental sensors to improve environmental justice but please let’s not act like measurements are the issue with environmental justice. 

It’s exactly this “let’s talk about the tech and nothing else” stuff that leads us into trouble with justice.  We have to start with justice and work outward, not the other way around.  Geographer Julian Agyemon refers to “joined up thinking” as being able to avoid that tendency to pretend like our actions in one domain *don’t* have consequences in another that allows injustices to propagate.

So I left the thing confused and annoyed with myself and the OWDs on the panel, and I’m not sure what to do about it.  I always say yes to the “planning and tech” anything because I want to keep fighting for space for women on that stage, but perhaps we have now reached a point where, unlike a few years ago, there are plenty of women with better social skills than I have can occupy that spot and deal with a) less angst and b) less disruption and c) less later self-recrimination than I cause or get. 

Because in the end, I’m just not sure anybody got anything out of that discussion with my disruptive presence there. Maybe OWD was right and I was wrong.  Things might have gone a bit better if OWD had tried “let’s focus more on these justice issues specifically on smart city censors, so we can go deeper.” But just like I don’t have all the answers, OWDs don’t, either. 

If people wanted to have a discussion about how you can use sensors to turn on street lights! Oh my! Then jeez Louise don’t ask me to be on the damn panel. Capitalism won’t be satisfied until we have technology for anything and everything—that ’s the benefits from the structure as well as the cost. 

HOWEVER I also feel like I have to a duty to point out that there are people out there marketing facial recognition software to identify if somebody “looks gay” or not.  How wonderful, say the marketers. We can target a demographic! How wonderful, say Russian surveillance officers. I wonder why.

Stupid autism.  I think I’m done doing these roundtables as I don’t know how to manage the flow of ideas. 


Planning epistemologies and Harry Potter: Trelawney versus Umbrage

I have a student in my planning theory class who is focussed on finding one, unifying theory for planning. He’s of the “If planning is everything, then it’s nothing” school, and it’s bugging him. I think the whole “if it’s everything” logic applies to any topic, and I’ve never needed a unified theory of anything, let alone planning.  But it’s important to him, and far be it from me to discourage somebody from trying something ambitious. You never know where they’ll get to, and it could be very interesting. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and re-watching the Harry Potter movies, and I have insights, y’all! Sybll Trelawney versus Dolores Umbridge pretty much captures the conflict.  Sybll is kinda useless—until she isn’t. She’s presented in a very clever way, and in the hands of a lesser actress than Emma Thompson, she wouldn’t have the charm along with all the irritating aspects of her personality. One of her most irritating traits is to force predictions that are utterly wrong. At the same time, she does make real predictions, but she has no control over when it happens, and she doesn’t remember doing it when she does it. 

Dumbledore has given her a job a Hogwarts not because he believes divination can be taught, but because he wants to protect her from the Death Eaters and Voldemort, as she has made predictions about him he would very much like to get out of her.  The result is a rather useless and boring class she teaches on divination.  But it’s clear Dumbledore wants her close, not just to protect her, but because he sees some value in her whitterings and full prophecies. 

I have a great deal of sympathy for Trelawney.  First of all, as Yoda tells us, “Always in motion, the future is.” Sybll’s tendency to fake predictions that turn out wrong happen, at least in part,  because the rest of the us demand the impossible of her: to be a vending machine of info about the future.  Modernist, instrumental approaches to knowledge want future states nailed down, and nailed down *now*.  Humans crave predictability.  If she were a stronger and more principled person, she could just say “Hey, it doesn’t work like that, goddamnit” but I get it: she’s afraid.  If she’s not a vending machine of knowledge about the future, she will get shoved aside, and it’s hard to make a living as an itinerant practitioner of an art that you can’t command and can’t teach. 

The series’ other big faker, Gilderoy Lockhart, is another commentary on fakery and self-promotion. Sybll is trying to stay alive; she has nowhere to go besides Hogwarts.  Lockhart, by contrast, is a celebrity via relentless self-promotion and the willingness to take credit for others’ accomplishments.  As bad a teacher as Trelawney is, she’s nowhere near his level of fakery. 

And she’s often *right* even when she’s wrong. The tea leaves exercise to me epitomizes so much. If you remember, she asks Ron to read Harry’s tea leaves. Ron says he sees a cross (Where??? Look at the picture below; there’s nothing even remotely cross-like). But there is a very clear image of a black dog.  Black dogs are all over lore as being harbingers of death, and so, Trelawney, in her usual, overly dramatic way, tells Harry that she sees….”The Grim!” 

The real story behind the black dog is coming, however, and it’s actually accurate. A black dog is coming into Harry’s life. And everything else about the black dog is unknowable from tea leaves. Our desire to *overknow*, *overinterpret* and *overthink* is apparent here.  These leaves are supposedly signs and portents rather than literal images, but instead, it’s a literal image: it’s a dog, it’s coming, it’s important, and that’s all you get to know right now. Anything else you say at this point is likely embellishment or projection. Period.  Our thirst for knowing more than we can know is what gets us into trouble as we fill in details we can’t possibly know. Sybll is very, very susceptible to this because it’s her trade to know what’s coming, and nobody is going to do backflips over “A dog is coming.” (And our world requires backflip-level revelations from professionals.) 


The grim Google Search

So the question becomes: are we better off with Sybll than we are without her? What’s the point of trying to divine the future if we can’t?  Dumbledore, who is pretty wise, thinks he’s better off with her; I don’t think he’s made space for her at Hogwarts merely to protect her. 

Perhaps the best way to see Trelawney’s value is in contrast with Dolores Umbridge when she arrives. Brilliantly embodied by actor Imelda Staunton,  Umbridge is a public manager of the very worst kind.  Now, in fairness, some of my best students over the years  have been public management students who honestly believe in good government. But for all of those, there are pettifogging little bureaucrats who, like Umbridge, never grew up from being the nasty little tattletales they were when they were little children and who, once they get a taste of power, become even nastier martinets taking power and control over other people wherever they can. 

And that’s the rub. For Umbridge, knowledge is only useful insofar as it is *controlled*.  Umbridge epitomizes the idea that “nobody will give you the education you need to overthrow them.” She simply refuses to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because doing so might empower students as individuals, thereby suggesting that the government doesn’t have all threats handled, and if all threats aren’t handled, what’s the point of the government?  And what’s the point of her power over others—the thing Umbridge cherishes most—then? 

There are two Hogwarts faculty members that Umbridge has her knives out for: Hagrid and Trelawney.  Part of the reason she hates Hagrid is that she’s a racist, but Hagrid and Trelawney have a lot in common.  In particular, Hagrid doesn’t understand his gifts the way Trelawney doesn’t really understand hers. In his case, Hagrid is such a simple, good soul, and so unusual, that he doesn’t realize his gifts are actual gifts that other people don’t have: Hagrid has a facility with animals and monsters that come naturally to him because of who he is.  Now, he’s a pretty good class instructor except for boneheads like Malfoy, but the truth is, most of what Hagrid knows is uncontrollable and thus, not sufficiently instrumental for the managerial mind. 

That is, you can’t wrap into neat little statements about course objectives: 

—handle a hippogriff without getting your face ripped off; 

—learn to fly with a hippogriff and have a fabulous time exploring Hogwarts from the air. 

Those are magical experiences that students can only dream of—transformative experiences. But they aren’t reproducible in the modernist, managerial sense.  And thus, Umbridge hates it. 

Just like Umbridge hates Trelawney, for the same reasons. Umbridge is the most obvious in her desire to treat Trelawney like a cosmic vending machine, obnoxiously so, and Trelawney tries, in vain, to satisfy the rapacious need that Umbridge has for instrumental knowledge.  She can’t, of course, and Umbridge knows that more than anybody. She never asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to (demonstrated in the brilliant scene between Umbridge and Snape. Umbridge:  “So you originally sought the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, but you were unsuccessful in this attempt.” Snape: “Obviously.”) She’s just interacting with Trelawney in order to get “the documentation she needs” to get rid of Trelawney. There is no room in Umbridge’s world for the unpredictable, the visionary, or the imperfect because those might emancipate instead of control, and Umbridge only wants knowledge insofar as it secures her control. 

So whither planning?  Umbridge-style: it’s good to make the trains run on time in a managerial way,  but not if it involves horrible treatment of workers or the environment, or other important things.  Trelawney style: the future is largely unknowable except through vision and imagination, and it’s important not to conflate imagination with knowledge. And it is also important not to demand knowledge where imagination, disciplined by context and the past, serves us better. Imagination requires humility that knowledge does not, and humility is not something professionalized activities accommodate well. 

But future vision might be, like the black dog, just what it is, with all the rest that has to be taken on faith.  




Dispatches from human rights conference and New York

I know it’s a train town, but so far on my visit to NYC, I’ve ridden the bus four times, and each time I’ve hit the “great trip” lottery button. Except for one, the buses haven’t been crowded at all, and I’ve been able to do what I like to do most: look out at street level and see what people are up to. 

My visit to the UN human rights consortium has been great; unsurprisingly, Yemen and Myanmar have been the topics of discussion, with climate refugees and South Sudan as well.  I have been learning quite a bit: one hopeful, impressive thought has been that unlike the US, Bangladesh has been willing to accept refugees from Myanmar, and they seem to be doing okay with relocation efforts. 

Otherwise, not much good news.  Lots of speculation about what US’s bilateralism means now.  Everybody here is willing to grant that post-WWII world order and multilateralism needed to be rethought, but…Trumpism is incoherent and ad hoc, and it’s accelerated an erosion in civic institutions that will take a very long time to rebuild. The one point of hope there seems to be that perhaps what we might rebuild could be better and most just than what we have had in the past. 

My favorite quote from yesterday, after a very good question from one of the student participants: “Yes, well, the UN Security Council is useless…until it isn’t.”  

After we were done with UN yesterday, I joined a small group of people yelling at the US for sending both doctors and bombs to Yemen. I know the people are really tiny, but the setting was too lovely to miss, and I never want to show people’s faces in protest photos because we have apparently decided to become a fascist nation. 


IMG 2579

Perhaps it is time to replace provosts with algorithms

And all their vice-provosts, too.  

USC has been in a tough time for a bit now,  and without a president, and after the president we did have, who was very hierarchical, we have entered a weird phase where everybody in administration is a bit adrift.  Certainly there is leadership, but mostly, I’m noticing a hardening of the bureaucracy—a frantic, sticking-to-the-handbook, I-didn’t-break-any-rules-so-don’t-purge-me mentality.  The default position—at least in my experience—at the university is always “no” anyway, and it’s just gotten worse. 

Recently, I was thinking about all this when the provost’s office overturned a departmental decision to admit a student into our degree program based on the student’s undergraduate GPA. I had written this student a glowing letter because I have tremendous faith in her; she has a ton of ideas, very creative, super insightful…and a student of color.  GPAs are one metric. When my beloved chair called over to the provost’s office to question the decision, we were told that the office has only granted waivers on the GPA twice in 10 years. 

What the actual …F? 

If you are going to have this decision come down to one number, then please let’s stop it with all the nonsense we put students and faculty through.  Submit a request via a short web form, have the algorthim check the GPA and deliver an instant decision. As it is, we’ve wasted this student’s time and energy, and we wasted *my* time writing a letter of recommendation that clearly means nothing to our provost’s office. 

Seriously, I write letter after letter after letter after letter, trying to help students get opportunities they want. Is anybody besides me reading these things? I write letters for junior faculty seeking tenure. I write letters for associate professors seeking promotion to full.

This sort of ranny-gazoo is all over the academy. The University of Michigan recently disciplined a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to do a study abroad in Israel. Now, I dunno what I think of that professor’s choice.  I am not paternalistic enough to decide what opportunities I’ll support my students in seeking, but that’s me.  But I do know these letters don’t mean a damn thing if university higher-ups are going to disregard them on the one hand and punish professors for saying “no” to writing them on the other. The fact this particular student made such an issue of the refusal to write the letter gives me an abundance of reasons for why a professor might have refused to do so, other than the reason he or she gave.

If students are entitled to study abroad in Israel regardless of what proffies think about the deal, then have the students submit their request through a web form and have an algorithm rubber-stamp it.

Our provost office, like many others, have launched one initiative after another to systematize tenure and promotion decisions, deriving rigid rankings of journals and setting up expectations for how many hits one is supposed to have in those journals. Google scholar cites, ISI rankings, Alymetrics, Bubbametrics, rah rah rah.

The impulse behind making the standards more transparent is not evil.  But I think the endgame, pursued as we seem to be doing, means that even tenure decisions could be made by an algorithm. Think of the lawsuits it would save. 

And provosts are expensive, universities. Plan accordingly.

Food-is-love advising

I had a “food is love” grandma,  whose sweetness was doled out in ice cream. I miss her quite a bit, even though I think she likely missed me more. I moved away, and I am hard to stay connected to due to the mandatory time I seem to need in my own world. 

I have a student who has had a rough half year, and we made a date for pancakes to catch up.  My idea. I take students to lunch, I take students to dinner, we go to coffee, we have snacks.

 Food is entirely wrapped up in my expressions of hospitality and care. I’m sure nutritionists would not approve of this, but it’s the way I am. 

I remember a friend coming to my house after she had taken the LSAT. And she was feeling demoralized, as one does after these awful tests. She said she was hungry. Andy and I made her an omelet and toast. 

I remember a student of color ordering one of his favorite ethnic foods and happily consuming it in front of me, his white advisor, and it made me happy he was so comfortable with me he knew I understood how food is more than just nutrition, that it has so many meanings, that with me had space to have what he wanted, not what maintained an image. 

I remember that terrible week of the shootings at Virginia Tech, the students who hadn’t gone home had little to do, we bought tons of candy and snacks at the Walmart in Christiansburg (where you can, in fact, find Christians) and used my old projector from when I was a consultant to show “Weird Science” on the side of a building whose name I can’t remember now.  We stayed up until 1 am talking together after we were done. 

I remember my grandma, with her cake. Do you want ice cream, too? You would be having ice cream, too.

New Bedrosian Podcast: Planning for AuthentiCITIES, edited by Laura Tate and Brettany Shannon

Hey y’all! Everything continues to melt around me (this is fine, says the dog with the coffee cup. Hey! Verisimilitude!  I do have a dog and a cup of coffee, so….) but USC Price does do cool things, too, and one of them is a series of podcasts under the book club banner! We are podcasting interviews with USC Price book writers The first one is with an edited volume from the brilliant Laura Tate and Brittany Shannon called Planning for AuthentiCITIES. 




There are 18 chapters and 16 authors involved in this effort, and it’s terrific. It’s got everything from how play and comics in the city helps contribute to the feelings of attachment and authenticity along with deeply theoretical chapters that hit the ball out of the park.  Our own Maria Francesca Piazzoni submitted a brilliant—and very readable—theoretical exploration. 

I love the book—I think it’s terrific—and I think it’s a real contribution to community development as well as planning/urban theory.  Of course, I’m crazy about one of the editors as all USC students are brilliant with extra brilliance on top, but I don’t think my affection is all bias. 

You can listen to my discussion with the two editors here!