April 28, 2008

Ignacio

Getting coffee this morning I (almost literally) stumble into local Oakland council legend (and my council member), Ignacio de la Fuente. He's sitting in a corner, out of the way, with a rather dark "don't bother me now" scowl on his face while he reads a bunch of papers, so I don't bother him. But it's definitely kind of funny (or maybe just odd) seeing this very high profile and famously-controversial political animal utterly ignored in the corner of an obscure local coffee shop (and it's not like there'd be too many people within five miles who wouldn't immediately know who he was). If I didn't know better I'd say he was actually just out getting breakfast….

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April 25, 2008

Rumsfeld Was Right

Well, not really (and not at all where it matters, which would be on the ground in Iraq). But watching the first part of PBS's excellent Frontline series "Bush's War", he comes across as almost sympathetic, one of the few people in power in Washington or London at the time who wasn't completely mendacious or mealy-mouthed or stupid or self-pitying or willfully ignorant or who hadn't lost his or her moral nerve (he had no moral nerve to lose), a person who was often enough almost right (or right enough) about tactics and short-term strategy (but who was woefully wrong, or at least blind, about the overall direction and long-term picture); a good lieutenant in need of a smart moral captain. He was no Cheney, in other words (or a Powell, surely a good example of a general in need of a spine-stiffening lieutenant).

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April 20, 2008

Come To Your Happy Place

The wildlife of West Oakland


Local wildlife, West Oakland.

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April 17, 2008

In The Flesh

I finally got to see a typical selection of Lee Friedlander prints at an SFMOMA retrospective the other day, and in many ways I wish I hadn't. It wasn't that the images were bad or disappointing, it's just that the best of them seem to work so much better in his books than hanging there isolated on the gallery walls. They're icons that want to be lovingly pawed over or casually flipped through in dense thickets or looked at in real-life contexts much more than they want to be respectfully gazed at framed on nice white walls in a nice little cultural castle like SFMOMA.

They'd work much better as book or magazine prints torn out and tacked to those same walls.

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April 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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April 07, 2008

Reach Out



UC Berkeley's administration has put up a bunch of those irritating self-congratulatory inspirational marketing slogan flags along the pleasant little pathway next to the bluegums and the Campest Sculpture on Campus that I walk along several times a week on my way up to Moe's and the Milano.

They're (presumably real) quotes from (presumably real) students (and obviously picked with an eye to visual diversity). One of them says: "Berkeley has taught me that the world is mine: all I have to do is reach out and take it." I'd sort of hope that Berkeley might teach exactly the opposite, but never mind; California's always been the Promised Land for the self-entitled.

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April 05, 2008

Precious

"Blasting the Iraqi political leadership for not doing its part, Clinton said: 'We have given them the precious gift of freedom. We cannot win their civil war.'" — Hillary Clinton on the stump, quoted recently in the LA Times.

And no doubt those ungrateful Iraqis can't win our War On (some) Terrorism, either, despite having been invaded and then ruled with deep incompetence by a foreign government itself ruled by incompetents.

(Not especially trying to pick on Clinton here, but it seems hard to go beyond this quote for a succinct expression of the clueless arrogance and belligerent self-pity on Iraq affecting even (or, perhaps, especially) the Democratic front-runners. The strategy evolving here is obvious: blame the Iraqis for victimizing a blameless US by not rising to the occasion, and pull out in a self-righteous huff. It's a deeply hypocritical and destructive strategy, but it's likely to work wonderfully for those who espouse it, at least for the next year or so. There's been a lot of pointed talk lately here about the cost of the war, but it's the Iraqis who've paid the highest price by far, and endless talk about forcing the Iraqis to shoulder their fair share of the cost only shows that it's much easier to monetize the US costs than the Iraqi losses).

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April 02, 2008

Brooklyn West

Last Sunday's NYT had a typically lightweight and slightly twee piece on the cultural and social parallels between Brooklyn and the East Bay (especially, funnily enough, Lovely Industrial East Oakland), and even the personal connections between the two. I've long claimed that Oakland plays Newark to San Francisco's Manhattan, but Brooklyn's a more positive role model, no? The truth is, pretty much only rich kids or Boomer Grownups who got in early can afford to live productively in either Manhattan or San Francisco now (with the emphasis on "productively"), and while people looked at me a little strangely all those years ago when I first started rabbiting on about Oakland being the new art centre of the Bay Area, no one seems to think it's odd now. I don't so much feel vindicated as apprehensive: when your neighbourhood gets mentioned favourably in an NYT Styles section article, and the phrase "Arts District" gets bandied around unironically, you just know you won't be able to afford the rent in a few years' time, and you'll join the long (and already started) exodus of artists in search of new pastures further afield.

San Leandro, here I come….

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