All posts by mallagher

The Lady Who Bulldozed Robert Moses … and more!

Robert Moses is one of those figures who are bound to stir up controversy. In the mid-20th century, Moses re-shaped Manhattan and the other boroughs with grand projects. Those grand projects were based on the idea of “city as machine”. Moses wanted to use modern technology to make the machine work better. That meant bulldozing neighborhoods for freeways. Stuff like that. People just had to adjust to the new realities. That was progress, as far as Moses saw it. And he saw himself as a visionary.

These days, this style of urban renewal has gone out of fashion. Instead of Moses as hero, we get his nemesis, Jane Jacobs as hero. And we will soon see this in a film to be released called “”Citizen Jane: Battle for the City“.

The new way of thinking is that people make the city. And treating the city like a big machine damages the human side of city life. We take James Baldwin’s comment, “Urban renewal means negro removal”. a tad more seriously.

I find it a bit odd that we embrace this as doctrine at the same time that we are awash in corporate money in our politics and elect a dude like Donald Trump to be president.  Could it be, as Elizabeth Warren argues, that we need to wake up to the way our political system has become “rigged” so that it cannot and will not deliver for the people?

Clearly, corporate power is at a high point. We want the efficiencies that cost reduction through market exploitation offers and that big corporations deliver. By and large, we are satisfied when we buy a car or shop at a supermarket. As Steve Jobs said in a different context, “it just works”.

At the same time, we may be just beginning to sense that Ayn Rand was full of baloney. Her vision of the rational and selfish heroics — a vision that captivated Alan Greenspan and led him to champion deregulating the financial system — is starting to look out of date. Contrary to Rand’s ideal, humans are not strictly rational. Research confirms that by and large, we are emotional creatures who use reason from time to time. Or as Dan Kahneman put it, we like to think fast (and act on pre-existing beliefs) rather than think slow (and question whether we know what the hell we are doing). Rand’s rational hero is not a slow thinker.

So where will this take us? Good question. It is too early to tell how the 21st century will move on from 20th-century silliness, just as the 20th century moved on from 19th-century silliness and the 19th century moved on from 18th-century silliness and the 18th century moved on from 17th-century silliness. But move on, we will.

Stay tuned.

The Omelet à La Tampopo

Did you know how to make a perfect omelet back in 1988?

Back then, I was still a bit wet behind the ears when it came to kitchen lore. I had the desire, but not the finesse to please.

I would have done well to watch Tampopo, where the Jacques Pepin omelet making technique takes center stage. Adam Rapaport did. I wonder why I did not: Hmmm … I will have to think about that.

Meanwhile, check out the link for a very fun short video of that movie sequence. Brilliant!

Partying with Charlotte Bronté

We start off this brief story with a word about William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in 1811.

In his early adulthood, Thackeray was a bit of a ne’er do well who squandered his family fortune. After he married (in 1836), he began to write satirical works for magazines (most famously Punch) because he needed the money to support his growing family. This lifestyle suited him. and he grew famous by satirizing society figures, especially in his serialized novel, Vanity Fair (begun in 1846).  A victorian Truman Capote? Well, not quite. But you get the idea. BTW; he coined the modern use of the word “snob”. and he loathed Irish Catholics. And BTW, Thackeray was tall for his day (standing around 6 foot 3 inches).

Enter Charlotte Bronté. Ms Bronté was an outlier. As a child, she did not thrive in the real world. Indeed, if she and her siblings thrived at all, it was through their sharing stories of fantasy worlds that they created. None of them would enjoy a long life.

As an adult, Charlotte Bronté did the unthinkable. She published poetry and novels (albeit under the curious pseudonym Currer Bell). Worse still, the novels revealed an amazing amount of female passion.  Women had passions?  Who knew? Jane Eyre, Bronté’s most famous work, was her second effort and was published in1847.  BTW, Charlotte Bronté was tiny (under five foot tall).

Both Thackeray and Bronté became well-known literary figures. And they were acquainted. But what an odd pair! Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabelle (who would later become a literary figure in her own right), describes a visit to Thackeray by Brontê this way.

… two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. … The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. … Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess … the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all … after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him … long afterwards … Mrs Procter asked me if I knew what had happened. … It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life … the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club

Which of the two was more eccentric? I would not hazard a guess. And yet, Bronté was the more controversial, especially (as you can see from the above) because of her lack of social graces.  In victorian times women were expected to please. Men were given more leeway.  Borish as men might be, they could return to their clubs to act out their inner silliness.

And here the story takes another turn. Another victorian lady, Elizabeth Gaskell also knew Charlotte Bronté. Like Bronté, Gaskell was a writer.  Gaskell, however, played the victorian game of being female like a pro. She knew how far she could go and she went just that far and no farther.  From the Guardian

Above all, Gaskell understood the value of domesticity, or at least the appearance of it, to the female writer: for all that it was suffocating and demeaning, it was also a shield.

In other words, unlike Bronté, Gaskell was full of “enjoyments”. Despite their differences, Gaskell was enamored of Bronté. Not in a sexual way, but in a conversational way. The two

… walked together for hours, and “like the moors”, Mrs Gaskell felt, “our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject”.

How different than Brontê’s ill-fated visit to Thackeray!

It is not a huge surprise that upon her untimely death at the age of  38, Bronté would be slighted in the press. Gaskell would have none of it and immediately wrote a highly flattering biography. Unfortunately, there were a few problems. From the above Guardian article

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

Strong words! In this light, it is easy to dismiss Gaskell as lightweight. Not to be taken seriously. And yet, thee is something to praise here. Gaskell and Bronté dared to live as themselves – women writers – at a time when women were expected to assume and play out a  much more restricted and highly artificial role. .One can understand why Gaskell would use all of her wiles, even if she would distort the facts, to defend her dear friend, with whom she shared such deep affections.  Even in our more enlightened times, women sticking up for one another against a male dominated society remains controversial in some circles. The courage to speak out deserves at least some respect.

And if you think about it, of course, Bronté would have been leery of Thackeray.  He was interested in society more than the individual. Perhaps that is why we think him as being hopelessly old-fashioned.

That Damned Constitution Again!

A few days ago, Donald Trump admitted that he has no idea what he is talking about. It is a startling admission from a man who leads the free world. But there you have it.

Am I exaggerating? I think not. Who can forget when candidate Trump was asked what his views on NATO were. Without hesitating, he said it was “obsolete”. He recently admitted had no idea how to answer the question. Now he knows better.  Errr … let’s set aside for a moment that a sane individual might have said that  I will be taking a close look at NATO or something like that. But without any idea what he was talking about, Trump just said, “Burn the house down.”  And now errr … “belay that –  Don’t burn the house down.”

The Marx brothers could not do better.

Which leads us to our current Trump created crisis – whether the Trump Administration can withhold funding from cities that hold themselves out as “sanctuaries”, protecting immigrants from Trump immigration policies. A Federal judge said that doing so would likely violate the constitution.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick issued a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking the order’s enforcement, effectively preventing the administration from pulling federal funds from the sanctuary jurisdictions that sued and others that may likewise feel their federal funding is at risk if they don’t go along with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

Trump went on a tweet storm lashing the 9th circuit for this. Errr … except of course that the decision did not come from the 9th circuit.  Again, see what I mean? Why do we even bother listening to this guy?

But here is the weird thing. The judicial order in question actually applies a principle laid down a few years ago by Justice Roberts in the Obamacare case. Roberts articulated a conservative principle that limits federal power to “hold a gun” to local government heads to force them to do the bidding of the feds. And that is exactly what Trump wants to do here.

So here is the question. Assuming Trump appeals to the 9th circuit and then the Supreme Court. What will Roberts day now? And what about our buddy sitting in the stolen seat?

Stay tuned!

BTW, I just heard about the legal argument of the justice department in the district court. The argument was that the president’s order was so vague, it could not be determined if it affected San Fransisco or the other jurisdiction that sued.  Defending on the basis of poor drafting?  That is indeed a new low.


Building a Creative Ecology

Let’s say that you want to do more creative stuff. And let’s assume for now that you have the time, financial resources and inspiration.

What more do you need?  I would label that “what more do I need” stuff as supplies. Supplies could include space to do your work, physical things like paint or pens and paper, as well as the supplies that enable you to upgrade your skills. Finally, it includes a community of persons with whom you can share what you do.

I lump these all together because that is how a person who is inspired to do new stuff feels the experience. And it helps that person if all of these supplies are available through a single space.

As far as I know, we don’t have very many spaces like that now. But we are moving in that direction. Etsy made it easier for creative folks to connect with audiences. And Etsy is taking another step by launching “Etsy Studio”. Fred Wilson writes about Etsy Studio today.

Think of it as one more step towards a tight-knit creative ecology. We need lots more in all of our communities, virtual and real.

Very cool!

Ipad as desktop computer

Over the last year, I have been slowly — you might say, ever so slowly — upgrading my house. The problem was that the second floor had never really been renovated from the time that I bought the place back in 1997. It still had lots of Soviet era fixtures and problems. In short, it was a mess.

During renovations, I moved my office to the dining room and posted from there. Well, the work is finally nearing completion. Hooray! And it is time to move my office into new space on the second floor. For the time being, this means using my IPad as my desk computer, connected through a Bluetooth keyboard.

I thought I would write this quick post just to check it out. So far, so good!




Lincoln was into Federal Spending on Infrastructure

As you might know, good old Abe was the first republican president. He is most known for keeping the union together in the civil war. And the reason why Lincoln wanted to do that is largely forgotten.

Lincoln was above all a pragmatic guy. He had practical reasons why the union needed to be kept together. He understood that the only way forward was to enlarge the pool of people who could build and share in the growing prosperity of the nation. Slavery — and the plantation style that nurtured it — held this back. Developing better infrastructure pushed it forward.

After Lincoln, the idea of public spending to secure public goods was largely accepted by both major parties. And that is why America is so rich in public goods.

But that is under threat. Marina Whitman makes the argument that we should get beyond the current privatization craze and think big again!