Axis Maps cartographer Zachary Forest Johnson wrote this loving essay-length biography of William Bunge, radical geographer. I loved this excerpt on frozen moments in time, and the necessity of choosing an instant when mapping:
Much of Bunge's cartographic theory is contained in the foreword to the book. Speaking of a historical farm map created for the book (portion above): Maps attempt to integrate over time, that is, maps assume an average span of time. This means that nothing that moves is mapped, and therefore property is inherently preferred over humans. In order to restore truth to the map it is necessary to achieve a fiction of accuracy through an assumption, namely that the map is drawn at an exact instant of time. In this case, the time is June 20, 1915 at 2 p.m. on a sunny day. This fiction freezes the men and horses on the roads, the strawberry pickers in the fields, as well as the crops in rotation and the animals in pasture. This restores life to the dead map of property.
And this, on the relationship between communication technique (old-school graphic design equipment!), choice of study area, and communcation efficacy:
Learning how to make a clean line, lay a rip-a-tone pattern, or design a map with the right Combination of point, area, and line symbols did not seem to be critical knowledge to members of a survival culture. But the school decentralization study made sense. The next three weeks both saved and came to define the potential of the Expedition. The decentralization report - rich in graphs and maps created by Bunge and the Expedition's students - was adopted by a community group and forced the Board of Education to respond to charges that its school districting plans were illegal.
Chris Heathcote blogged a lengthy passage of A.B. Austin's 1931 The Art Of Loitering. I especially enjoyed this pair of sentences about the then-new practice of working class pleasure-driving on weekends, and the new ownership of the roads by cars:
I had really no business to be meandering along their road. My creeping progress might spoil someone's new-found pleasure. For it was their road. It had been built, or rather adapted, for them. Without its glossy blue-black surface, its faultless camber, its generous width, its gentle curves, they could no more pursue their hobby, seize their thrill, than the railway train could run without its track.
Mark Rickerby writes about literacy in coding, and suggests that good programmers are good editors: "I started noticing a single quality shared by all the coders who were producing the most destructive output: they seemed to have a compulsive fear of changing code after it was written."
I have come to believe that the vocabulary of technology is not sufficient to understand situations like these. Primarily, spaghetti code is a literary failing. Through my observations of the developers responsible for these wrecks - they often turned out to be poor prose writers and some were very arrogant about their coding abilities. I believe the core skill that these cowboys lack is that of editing - an instinctive drive towards pruning and tweaking that all good writers know is one of the most important components of literary creation.
On several distinct forms of literacy:
In his further discussion of computer literacy, Kay outlines three core aspects derived from an understanding of English literacy: Access literacy (reading) Creation literacy (writing) Genre literacy (shaping context of style and form).
This was dense.
There is another constituency - self-employed men and women (often barely afloat) - who identify with the "haves," their present economic status notwithstanding. What they have is not so much current wealth, but a history of, or aspiration towards, status, authority, and autonomy. They are not willing to relinquish their past beliefs or their goals for the future. They conceive of themselves as self-reliant and as integral to what was once an undisputed notion of "American Exceptionalism." The number of the self-employed is expanding at a much faster pace than the population as a whole - to some extent out of necessity, as firms impose major cutbacks, forcing employees to go out on their own.
Thomas Frank's The Conquest Of Cool is about the rise of "hip consumerism", specifically as it's connected to advertising and menswear. There's quite a bit of Mad Men in here, and I'm especially interested in the idea that the culture and counterculture weren't quite so separate at the time, and that business culture was going through its own set of tumultuous changes mirroring those of the youth movement. Anyway I clipped a lot of passages here; maybe it means I need to buy the book.
First things first:
Conflicting though they may seem, the two stories of sixties culture agree on a number of basic points. Both assume quite naturally that the counterculture was what it said it was; that is, a fundamental opponent of the capitalist order. Both foes and partisans assume, further, that the counterculture is the appropriate symbol - if not the actual historical cause - for the big cultural shifts that transformed the United States and that permanently rearranged Americans' cultural priorities. They also agree that these changes constituted a radical break or rupture with existing American mores, that they were just as transgressive and as menacing and as revolutionary as countercultural participants believed them to be. More crucial for our purposes here, all sixties narratives place the stories of the groups that are believed to have been so transgressive and revolutionary at their center; American business culture is thought to have been peripheral, if it's mentioned at all. Other than the occasional purveyor of stereotype and conspiracy theory, virtually nobody has shown much interest in telling the story of the executives or suburbanites who awoke one day to find their authority challenged and paradigms problematized. And whether the narrators of the sixties story are conservatives or radicals, they tend to assume that business represented a static, unchanging body of faiths, goals, and practices, a background of muted, uniform gray against which the counterculture went through its colorful chapters. Postwar American capitalism was hardly the unchanging and soulless machine imagined by countercultural leaders; it was as dynamic a force in its own way as the revolutionary youth movements of the period.
The 1960s was the era of Vietnam, but it was also the high watermark of American prosperity and a time of fantastic ferment in managerial thought and corporate practice. Postwar American capitalism was hardly the unchanging and soulless machine imagined by countercultural leaders; it was as dynamic a force in its own way as the revolutionary youth movements of the period, undertaking dramatic transformations of both the way it operated and the way it imagined itself.
On the study of selling out:
It is more than a little odd that, in this age of nuance and negotiated readings, we lack a serious history of co-optation, one that understands corporate thought as something other than a cartoon. Co-optation remains something we vilify almost automatically; the historical particulars which permit or discourage co-optation - or even the obvious fact that some things are co-opted while others are not - are simply not addressed.
On Wired, pretty much:
The revolutions in menswear and advertising - as well as the larger revolution in corporate thought - ran out of steam when the great postwar prosperity collapsed in the early 1970s. In a larger sense, though, the corporate revolution of the 1960s never ended. In the early 1990s, while the nation was awakening to the realities of the hyperaccelerated global information economy, the language of the business revolution of the sixties (and even some of the individuals who led it) made a triumphant return.
On permanent revolution:
The counterculture has long since outlived the enthusiasm of its original participants and become a more or less permanent part of the American scene, a symbolic and musical language for the endless cycles of rebellion and transgression that make up so much of our mass culture.
I've felt for some time that the discipline of Geography is being shifted to the foreground:
Whatever aspect of geography it is that you start with threatens to segue into a discussion on the most polarising topic there is: climate change. Miss Prism would be quick to notice that geography is no longer a polite subject for meal time. Something similar has happened to atlases. They were once placid, unhurried publications with additional information on the colours of national flags. Now atlases are freighted with maps showing cities that are likely to be submerged if the Arctic melts, or projected population growth, or the relative size of countries in terms of CO2 emissions, or areas where water scarcity will be most intense and resource wars most likely to break out. An atlas is beginning to look like a long-term forecast - history before it happens.
Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker article on Paul Krugman's journey into lefty politics. There's some good stuff in here about the technical aspects of academic economics, its relationship to justice, and the progression of knowledge in a discipline:
"Keynesian economics, which was coming out of the model-based tradition, even if it was pretty loose-jointed by modern standards, basically said, 'Push this button.' " Push this button - print more money, spend more money - and the button-pushing worked. Push-button economics was not only satisfying to someone of Krugman's intellectual temperament; it was also, he realized later, politically important. Thinking about economic situations as infinitely complex, with any number of causes going back into the distant past, tended to induce a kind of fatalism: if the origins of a crisis were deeply entangled in a country's culture, then maybe the crisis was inevitable, perhaps insoluble - even deserved.
On the necessity of models:
Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. "I explained this basic idea" - of economic geography - "to a non-economist friend," Krugman wrote, "who replied in some dismay, 'Isn't that pretty obvious?' And of course it is." Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years. Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn't know what to do with it.
On the loss of knowledge, similar to the much longer and completely-worth-reading Scott And Scurvy by Maciej Ceglowski:
Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent's interior - the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn't meet those standards - secondhand travellers' reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants - was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off - by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again - but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.
Short but sweet and on a line with Thomas P.M. Barnett's idea of a SysAdmin force ("The 'second half' blended force that wages the peace after the Leviathan force has successfully waged war"):
Deploying small groups of soldiers into remote areas, Colonel Schweitzer's paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to resolve tribal disputes that have simmered for decades. Officers shrugged off questions about whether the military was comfortable with what David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist and an architect of the new strategy, calls "armed social work." "Who else is going to do it?" asked Lt. Col. David Woods, commander of the Fourth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "You have to evolve. Otherwise you're useless."
First they ignore you, etc.:
Open source just isn't a dirty word anymore. Go back to 2000, and there were a surprising number of managers that would literally shy away… there was still that "dirty hippy" aura around open source. But at this point they do surveys of Fortune 500 CEOs about whether they're using open source or have an open source strategy, and the responses have gone from 20 percent positive to 80 percent positive. The snide remark often made in the survey reviews is that the remaining 20 percent are using open source but their staff just hasn't told them. The thing that changes a conservative decision maker's mind isn't a great sales presentation, it's knowing that other conservative decision makers have already made the decision. Once that wave starts rolling, it's very difficult to stop.
Two unrelated articles, except that they are both about the importance of a story arc to the understanding of competition and controversy.
On the Oscars:
A good Oscar narrative makes voters feel that, by writing a name on a ballot, they're completing a satisfying plotline. Only a few of these stories are effective, and every campaign season, movies scramble to own them. The best are reused year after year: for example, The Little Movie That Could, the tale of a low-budget indie, a David among studio Goliaths, that often appeals to voters who hate Hollywood's bigger-is-better aesthetic.
On the news, Jay Rosen:
I was grateful, because up to that moment I had absorbed many hundreds of reports about the "subprime lenders in trouble" but had not understood a single one of them. It wasn't that these reports were uninformative. Rather I was not informable because I lacked the necessary background knowledge to grasp what was being sent to me as news.
Will Davies's reading of Mad Men, mostly interesting because I love the show and I'm pining for the next season:
Then there is the subtle questioning of liberation. The historical constant in Mad Men is libido, which empowers and dominates in equal measure. The shift from one epoch (of sexism, domesticity, formality) to a new one (of equality, self-fulfillment and informality) is not represented as progress in any way whatsoever, but simply what Foucault might call a reconfiguring of the economy of desire. In this respect Mad Men - and this is the genius - is a satire of both conservative and liberal America, showing the choice between the two as arbitrary.
Fred Scharmen (sevensixfive) is a friend and Baltimore architect. He's interested in the way that disciplines relate to one another, and this post is the first time I've seen gizmo defined as "a temporary, easily available, means of organizing an undifferentiated continuum ... to bring many models to bear on the problems we are presented with."
To be honest I have only a glancing understanding of the broader point here but there are a few moments that made this worth noticing:
The landscape is informational, the desert is networked. If it is all constructed, or at least made from parts of constructs, the ground can be mined for patterns. Even the navigational gizmos themselves are little else but temporary constellations within social, material, and informational networks. There is the persistent rumor that the skins of the Powerbook G4 and the Guggenheim Bilbao were only feasible to produce during a global dip in titanium prices, after Russia flooded the market in the late 90s. Tablet computers are nothing if not devices to sort through the tangle of text and publishing outlets available, and bring reading back under some kind of manageable control.
And, on the transferability of technique:
Techniques, when named, abstracted to their simplest form, and packaged up (Sears catalogue style), seem to want to travel. What can we learn about sustainability from the closed-loop space colony ecosystem diagrams of the the 1970s? How can we talk to civil engineers about the emerging trend of micropractices in stormwater management? A collection of gizmo metaheuristics enables a more fluid code-switching, and a more useful exchange of knowledge within and between disciplines.
Matt Jones took my old "blog all dog-eared pages" habit and adapted it for the Amazon Kindle, resulting in the less-than-satisfying name "blog all Kindle-clipped locations" after the Kindle's internal position marker. Even this is a problematic name, since much of my reading on the device is mediated through Instapaper, whose new delivery mechanism augments a single document collection with new reading material. position is discarded as new material arrives.
Still, I continue to be happy with the Kindle's place in my life, in a way that the iPad seemingly hasn't captured. Amazon's device is calm, thin, and light where Apple's is bright, fat, and heavy. It actually surprised me what a slug it was, even though I still remember seeing a 16 pound "Macintosh Portable" from the pre-Powerbook days of high school. I like its passive role as a simple reading tablet, and the way that not having a touch screen means not having a touched screen. Although Instapaper is probably available for iPad, I like that it's not a proper application for the Kindle, but rather just a way of shooting bookmarked articles to myself when I occasionally switch on the network for more articles to read.
The thing is that there have been a lot of articles - the clippings here are selections from almost four months of reading. That's too much to collect without archiving somehow, so what follows is a bit of a slag heap. I'm breaking it up into three separate blog posts (parts II and III).
First up are a few excerpts from George Kennan's 1946 The Sources Of Soviet Conduct, an adaptation of his famous Long Telegram. This essay was an influential, seminal work in the Cold War.
On aggressive intransigence:
It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.
On the core concept of antagonism and mistrust in Soviet ideology:
The first of these concepts is that of the innate antagonism between capitalism and Socialism. We have seen how deeply that concept has become imbedded in foundations of Soviet power. It has profound implications for Russia's conduct as a member of international society. It means that there can never be on Moscow's side an sincere assumption of a community of aims between the Soviet Union and powers which are regarded as capitalist. It must inevitably be assumed in Moscow that the aims of the capitalist world are antagonistic to the Soviet regime, and therefore to the interests of the peoples it controls. If the Soviet government occasionally sets it signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin's conduct of foreign policy: the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness, and the basic unfriendliness of purpose. These phenomena are there to stay, for the foreseeable future.
On the unending patience in Soviet tactics:
Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them. The main thing is that there should always be pressure, unceasing constant pressure, toward the desired goal. There is no trace of any feeling in Soviet psychology that that goal must be reached at any given time.
I've linked to the writings of K-Punk, a.k.a. Mark Fisher, many times in the past, mostly his writings on music and the "hardcore continuum". Mark is where I first heard of Zomby, who made it to my 2009 oft-played tracks (I'm not sure what it says that I get my cutting edge music from an academic). In an interview with Fisher about his book, Matthew Fuller asks about the division of responsibility between the state and the individual. I like Mark's idea of the "privatization of stress", which seems doubly relevant in the aftermath of a nationwide healthcare debate:
The privatization of stress is central to capitalist realism. If they are "stressed", workers in overloaded institutions are encouraged, not to complain about their workload, but to engage in the kind of performance auditing activities which contributed to their distress in the first place. The question is no longer, "how did work cause you to be unwell?", but "what about you made you unable to do your job properly?" An individual-therapeutic model of stress deflects any structural account of how the stress arose.
Just this sentence, really:
Mr. Saloner says Stanford wants its business students to develop "a lens that brings some kind of principled set of scales to the problem." In other words, he says, students need to learn to ask themselves, "In whose interest am I making the decision?"
Eyal Weizman's 2006 article about IDF urban warfare tactics turned on my full range of Greenfield/Slavin receptors. Mostly, though, it made me incredibly angry. On the one hand, the application of critical theory to warfare is superficially interesting. On the other, it's repulsive in its excuse-making for the forcible takedown of the public/private boundary, and insulting in its implication that an understanding of decostruction is necessary to hammer through walls. A lot of this is just basic reaction to facts-on-the-ground and convenient forgetting of the Geneva Conventions.
To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall and then, using explosives, drills or hammers, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are then sometimes thrown, or a few random shots fired into what is usually a private living-room occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms, where they are made to remain - sometimes for several days - until the operation is concluded, often without water, toilet, food or medicine. Civilians in Palestine, as in Iraq, have experienced the unexpected penetration of war into the private domain of the home as the most profound form of trauma and humiliation.
I still struggle a bit with this article. I'm fascinated by the idea that different professions see reality as a different set of affordances, but at some point this just devolves into a game of dressing up destruction and abuse.
I then asked him, why not Derrida and Deconstruction? He answered, "Derrida may be a little too opaque for our crowd. We share more with architects; we combine theory and practice. We can read, but we know as well how to build and destroy, and sometimes kill."
The conscription of Gordon Matta-Clark here is a bridge too far. "Un-walling", really?
Future military attacks on urban terrain will increasingly be dedicated to the use of technologies developed for the purpose of "un-walling the wall", to borrow a term from Gordon Matta-Clark. This is the new soldier/architect's response to the logic of "smart bombs". The latter have paradoxically resulted in higher numbers of civilian casualties simply because the illusion of precision gives the military-political complex the necessary justification to use explosives in civilian environments.
A sort of justification:
When the military talks theory to itself, it seems to be about changing its organizational structure and hierarchies. When it invokes theory in communications with the public - in lectures, broadcasts and publications - it seems to be about projecting an image of a civilized and sophisticated military. And when the military "talks" (as every military does) to the enemy, theory could be understood as a particularly intimidating weapon of "shock and awe", the message being: "You will never even understand that which kills you."