Thinking about highways. by Sameer Vasta

One factor that often gets ignored in any discussion about public transit investment is the already-existing investment in automobile travel. While debates around rapid transit infrastructure talk about ridership and cost and disruption, they rarely address the real culprit: it's too cheap and easy to drive.

Our highway infrastructure is a large reason why automobile travel has primacy over other kinds of transportation. What I didn't realize is that the history of highways is fraught with special interests, racism, and a failure of urban design.

The short Vox video on how highways wrecked American cities is enlightening and packs a lot of information into four minutes. Of note:

There was once a time when most Americans took streetcars to work every day. Nowadays, 85 percent of workers drive.
And although a few different factors fueled this transition, the biggest one may have been a $425 billion investment over half a century in the world's most advanced network of highways: the Interstate Highway System.
The 48,000 miles of interstate highway that would be paved across the country during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s were a godsend for many rural communities. But those highways also gutted many cities, with whole neighborhoods torn down or isolated by huge interchanges and wide ribbons of asphalt. Wealthier residents fled to the suburbs, using the highways to commute back in by car. That drained the cities' tax bases and hastened their decline.
So why did cities help build the expressways that would so profoundly decimate them? The answer involves a mix of self-interested industry groups, design choices made by people far away, a lack of municipal foresight, and outright institutional racism.

I’ve long heard that the best way to reduce automobile reliance and increase use of public transit, bicycles, or simple pedestrianism is to make the cost of driving (parking, gas, travel time, etc.) too high to be sustainable.

What if we repurposed our highways to accomodate non-automobile transportation? That would definitely increase the cost (especially with regards to travel time and congestion) of driving, and hopefully provide much-needed infrastructure to other, more collective and sustainable, forms of transportation.

Sunday Diversions: May, Part Two by Sameer Vasta

I had my first overt experience with racism here, in London, just over a week ago. The subtle, systemic racism exists, as it does anywhere else, but I did not anticipate a blatant, direct slur to be thrown at me so quickly, just two months since moving here.

The boy on the sidewalk, surrounded by four of his friends, who uttered the racist slur at me, couldn't have been more than 17 years old. His racism was probably one that was borne through his upbringing: his claim that "no matter how dressed up you are, you'll never belong here in my city, you light-skinned n***er" was uttered with a vitriol that felt years in the making. It was a not a slight utterance, but one that came with depth; he spit it at me as though he had said it before, and was emboldened by the power of those words every time they came out of his mouth.

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps I will never belong. I have been a minority all my life, but here, in London, my cultural differences are not just visible, but glaring; I stand out in the crowd, no matter how much I may try to blend in. I will, however, not shirk away after his heartless, vitriolic words, but instead forge my own sense of belonging, among people who want me to be here, and who understand that difference and diversity is strength.

I hope, one day, that young boy is able to understand that as well.

Here are some of the pieces that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past few weeks:

So, you don’t think you directly benefit from nonprofits? The work of nonprofit organizations touches upon every facet of our lives. — Vu Le

The challenge is that nonprofit work is often like air: people take it for granted because we do not see it and we don’t take much time to think about it until it is no longer there. You don’t think you’ll lose your job and your home, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that provide employment services, or that build low-income housing, or that run food banks. You don’t think your parents will ever age and feel lonely, so you don’t appreciate the senior centers. You don’t think you’ll end up with a disability, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that work tirelessly to make sure buildings are accessible. You don’t think your kids will ever get bullied, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to end bullying. You don’t think you’ll lose a loved one, and so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that do grief counseling. You don’t think you’ll be wrongly convicted of a crime and jailed, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to prove people’s innocence.
It is human nature to take things for granted. Nonprofit work is like air, and for-profit stuff seems more like food: You can touch food, and smell it, and taste it. It’s in your face. There are “foodies,” but no one ever claims to be an “airie.” But guess what, you benefit plenty from air, just as you benefit from the work that we nonprofits do each day, and you may not even realize it. Yes, not all of us are perfect; there are irresponsible nonprofits, just like there are irresponsible for-profits. If you look down on nonprofits, think about what kind of society we would have if we didn’t have nonprofits taking care of the above challenges, and ask yourself if you want you or your kids to live in that world.

 

Basic income: a solution to which challenge? — Brenton Caffin and Indy Johar

So, what if we started by reframing basic income as citizen equity ? A collective investment by all of us, in you and every citizen.
What if we understood it as a new architecture of sovereignty and freedom? Economic sovereignty was a fundamental cornerstone of participation in democracy of the 19th century. We now have an opportunity to reframe this economic sovereignty and with it democratic participation fit for the 21st century. The impact of this sovereignty can significantly empower massive labour market liquidity. An unlocking of latent potential and innovation which is currently locked up by a lack of opportunity. Democratising the purpose-rich economy where everyone can pursue their vision for a better world, thereby supporting the economy to better align capability and need with value creation.
What if we understood citizen equity as a massive extension of the Californian start-up economic model ? A new model to unleash innovation capacity and with it a new typology of innovation. Beyond innovation for basic subsistence and survival (or ostentatious luxury to publicly prove independence from poverty); instead focusing our innovative capacities beyond the bottom half of Maslow’s pyramid toward a fuller sense of self actualisation and all the benefits that come when citizens are achieving as Maslow put it "What a (wo)man can be, (s)he must be."

 

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative? — George Monbiot

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

 

If we’re only going to have journalism jobs in expensive cities, then that means only rich kids get to become journalists. — Adam Ragusea

Ask yourself if you’ve ever texted or messaged someone who was in the next room, rather than walk five steps to talk to them in person. I’ll bet the answer is yes. If communication over the Internet is so easy that you would use it to talk to your spouse or roommate, then it’s certainly easy enough to facilitate seamless collaboration between colleagues across time zones.
And yet, most of the new digital-first news organizations — Gawker and BuzzFeed, or the podcasting start-ups where I might want to work, like Gimlet and Panoply — have headquarters in New York where most of their employees live, work and spend a ridiculous percentage of their salaries on rent.
All of these people work in New York despite the fact that, for the first time in human history, they could theoretically do their jobs from anywhere. Again, why?

 

Donald Trump and the Authoritarian Temptation: The candidate has exposed the tension between democracy and liberal values—just like the Arab Spring did. — Shadi Hamid

America hasn’t faced a large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland since September 11, 2001. Democratic systems produce self-perpetuating norms, because they are accountable to a voting public. It’s this very responsiveness, though, that can be a source of vulnerability, if enough citizens, in the grip of fear, decide to prioritize “security” over liberty. As the legal scholar Christopher Kutz writes in the suggestively titled article “How Norms Die,” democracy can be “at the same time both fertile and toxic: fertile as a source of humanitarian values and institutions, but toxic to the very institutions it cultivates.”
This is something we can measure. As Daniel Bush observed, after analyzing Pew survey data from 2002 to 2014: “During each campaign season, respondents reported having a higher negative impression of Muslim Americans than in non-election years.” This is a bit more mild than the link between elections and religious riots in India. As the historian of religions Michael Cook notes, “There is no doubt that Hindu nationalist politicians believe that communal riots can get out the Hindu vote for them. ... Under the right conditions the communal riot is a winning [electoral] strategy.”

 

Plato isn’t that great, he was just born first: In the canon of Western philosophy, those regarded as the “greatest” philosophers tend to live far in the past. — Gregory Lewis

Even though Plato may not have been as “naturally” able as the best philosophers today, and labored under several disadvantages for developing his philosophical ability, being born in the distant past gave him several advantages for his posthumous reputation.
First is low-hanging fruit. In fields like science and mathematics, one may suggest it is easier to make earlier breakthroughs versus subsequent ones: with a high school education I can solve some basic problems in Newtonian mechanics—I can’t do any “basic” problems in general relativity without many more years of study, and I may not be clever enough even then. Whether philosophy makes “progress” in a similar way is controversial, but insofar as it does, being born early—with more (and relatively easier) “great breakthroughs” yet to be made—is an advantage.

 

Fancy Starbucks Drinks and the Special Snowflakes Who Order Them: Food customization is more than a craze in America—it's a reflection of identity. — Julie Beck

American culture is also notoriously individualist. We tend to define our personal identities as separate from our communities, which sociological research contrasts with the collectivism seen in other cultures, such as in East Asia or Kenya, where people tend to think of the groups they belong to as equal to or more important than their personal characteristics.
This craze of “mass customization,” Egan says, makes people feel both unique and catered to when they are able to have it their way.  It’s a “desire within our hyper industrialized food system to have something that feels like it meets my personal taste profile. We have access to customized and personalized food experiences at the restaurant level, at the fast casual level, and at the packaged food level and it has only increased.” People can personalize their order at Starbucks or wherever else, and they can also purchase whatever weirdly precise flavor of chips they prefer. (For example, Barbecue, Honey Barbecue, Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue, Hot n’ Spicy Barbecue, and Mesquite Barbecue are all available from Lay’s.) Some fast-food chains have “secret menus” which offer both more options and a supercharged opportunity to signal how special you are for knowing about them.

 

In the soon-to-open extension of London’s Tate Modern, a majority of the ten new levels won’t contain art at all. — Tom Rachman

Those who advocate a more traditional, contemplative museum sound outmoded, élitist, and narrow-minded—precisely the attitude that museums are running from. In Britain, the matter bumps into class consciousness, because many museums were founded in part to elevate the citizenry, regardless of station in life (that is, very mindfully indeed, with the particular goal of raising the lower orders). A museum leader like the Tate organization’s chief, Sir Nicholas Serota, would be condemned were he not punctilious about creating spaces where all are ostentatiously welcomed, encouraged to hang out, act up, chillax.
The critic Hal Foster, the author of “The Art-Architecture Complex,” among other works, has raised concerns about the ongoing museum boom. For one, all this giddiness about stylish new buildings can overshadow the art inside. “The logic seems to be to build a container and then leave it to artists to deal with it, but the result on the art side is likely to be a default form of installation work,” he writes, in a piece published last year in the London Review of Books. Foster also cites a tendency to patronize audiences. “Another reason for this embrace of performance events is that they are thought to activate the viewer, who is thereby assumed, wrongly, to be passive to begin with,” he writes. “Museums today can’t seem to leave us alone; they prompt and prod us as many of us do our children.”

 

What Donald Trump Actually Wants: It's not to make America great. — Jill Filipovic

Trump wants to draw crowds and get applause. He does not actually want to manage a vast democratic and bureaucratic government with multiple branches that serve as checks on each other. That requires doing boring stuff like constructing complex, intelligent policy. That requires recognizing that even executive power has its limits.
Trump wants to be seen as a leader without doing the work of leading and serving. Which is why it doesn't matter to him that the crowds he draws come from, and whip into a frenzy, some of the foulest people in the United States. He just wants the whoops and the cheers. He wants to win again — not to make America great, but to make Donald Trump feel great.

 

They can break up the monotony of the grid, provide the backdrop for social protest and change, spook you and mystify you—hard to define, city squares are indispensable. — Catie Marron

A city square is a physical pause in the urban landscape. It’s a deliberate gap that interrupts the mass and clamor of buildings and streets, breaking up the flow of daily business and creating a space where people can come together, by design or happenstance. City squares are planned absences—they’re defined, first of all, by what they’re not. A city park already has a definition (grass, trees, paths) that tells you how it’s to be used: for leisure, for recreation, as a withdrawal from the city, with the illusion of being in nature and often alone. Squares, unlike parks, don’t take you out of the city. As an extension of urban life, neither natural nor solitary, they’re of the city as well as in it, but with a function that alters through history. Because of their very emptiness, they are full of possibility.
Their essential feature is open space, and their essential function is sociability. Where much in the modern city is private and inaccessible, squares are for the public. People gravitate to them in order to yak, kibitz, palaver, gossip, argue, show off, watch, eavesdrop, play, protest, hustle, con, love, fight. In the case of Italian piazze, French places, and Spanish plazas, the restaurants, cafés, and shops that line the perimeters encourage the ease of human encounters.

 

The Lobster understands the haunting misery of modern dating. — Chandler Levack

Love, in the world of The Lobster, is when two people with corresponding unique characteristics find each other. And the mechanics of the process are not so different from the multitude of algorithms and clickable interests that dating apps employ to pair us all off.6 It’s about proving your lovability on a mainstage. Winning The Lobster means meeting a mate with a corresponding trait and graduating to a shared hotel room for a further trial period of compatibility (i.e. terrible sex from behind). Being in a couple means that you may return to society again, unencumbered of your loneliness. When you are no longer single, you are free.
How often do we twist and punish each other just to make ourselves more like the other person in a relationship? What is the price we pay just so we don’t have to be alone? I have so much empathy for animals. My favourite images in The Lobster are when a character waits in isolation in the forest as a majestic peacock, camel or flamingo passes by. Flat light and wide compositions lend these scenes an air of complete banality. It gives me comfort to think that all the birds in the sky and all the fish in the sea might be the souls of people who sucked at Tinder. Swipe left, swipe right. Turn me into a platypus already.

 

How Typography Can Save Your Life: What words look like matters — in some cases, a whole lot. — Lena Groeger

U.S. road signs have been set in a typeface called Highway Gothic since the 1950’s, and it was the dominant typeface in use until the early 2000’s. But it had problems. Whether people noticed it or not, it was hard to read in rainy weather, from a distance, and at night. When light hit the words, they appeared to blend together in a glowing, blurry mess, something known as halation. This may be annoying to an average person, but if you’re an elderly person driving at 70 miles an hour with bad vision, it can be deadly.
So highway engineers struggled to find a solution. They thought maybe making the letters 20 percent bigger would solve it, but bigger letters would require bigger signs and end up costing billions of dollars. So they turned to two designers: an environmental graphic designer and a type designer. Those designers created Clearview, a new typeface that was designed to take up the same space as Highway Gothic but be much easier to read.

 

Against the Crowdfunding Economy: Crowdfunding websites marketize goodwill. — Keith A. Spencer

Perhaps it’s fitting then that Patreon describes its affiliates as “creators” making “content,” rather than “artists” making “art.”
Art and content are not the same. Content is produced with a specific, marketable goal in mind. Patreon turns artists into content-makers whose creativity is moderated by their patrons. Patrons with more money have more clout, and the ability to withhold funding shapes what creators make.
In this sense, Patreon reproduces key elements of the old patronage model, in which the power to commission and influence artists rests in the hands of those who can pay.

 

Known for her fine art underwater photography, Mallory Morrison captures poetic images of dancers in water:

Sunday Diversions: May, Part One by Sameer Vasta

The idea of retirement has always felt so foreign to me. First, because men in my family have a history of dying young, so we don't plan for many "retired" years. Second, financial security has always been a source of stress, and thinking of a time when I don't have to work to pay the bills feels implausible. And finally, because I get antsy; what would I do, when I have no work, nothing to do?

These past few weeks have been illuminating on that final front: I have been unemployed and not aggressively looking for work. It has felt, a bit, like retirement, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I have taken the time to be domestic, meet new people, do some exploration. I've learned, in the past few weeks, that I am capable of "doing nothing," that I can keep myself mentally and physically engaged even without an office to go to every day. It makes me think, perhaps, that when the time comes, retirement might just suit me well.

Here are some of the pieces that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past few weeks:

Anxiety is a liar: When it says you’re incapable of doing scary things, don’t believe it. — Anne T. Donahue

Anxiety feels absolute when you’re stuck in the thick of it. It’s a windowless room, it’s a line you’re stuck waiting in, it’s an event you can’t get out of. It traps you and tricks you and tells you it’s forever. In the midst of an anxiety attack—whether it happens at a party or when you’re out with a friend—you sit frozen, hoping you don’t seem like you’re freaking out as much as you are. You fake your way through conversations and jokes and normalcy, and you try to remind yourself that these feelings will pass and that they don’t define you. (Even if at the time you don’t believe it.)
My anxiety has always gotten worse when I’ve chosen to listen to that voice that says, “Forever.” When I’m too tired or too hungry or too stressed, my ability to rationalize and think logically all but disappears, so instead of reminding myself that I can go home or order some tea and take a few breaths, my internal monologue goes from zero to 100, and I convince myself—in a matter of seconds—that I should probably avoid making plans for the foreseeable future or avoid having fun or avoid doing anything tied to anything that has ever made me feel anxious. 
Which of course is how anxiety works. You don’t think rationally or logically, so even when somebody like a therapist promises it’s something you can eventually overcome by taking a few breaths or rooting yourself in reality, it still jumps when you begin to feel better and says, “Surprise!” It’s the worst.

 

This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It: In much of Europe, walking wherever you want is perfectly legal. Not in America. — Ken Ilgunas

Might we be better off if we could, like a Scot or a Swede, legally amble over our rolling fields and through our shady woods, rather than have to walk alongside unscenic, noisy and dangerous roads? The organization Smart Growth America reported that from 2003 to 2012 over 47,000 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 676,000 were injured walking along roads. Our lack of safe and peaceful walking places may also contribute to the nation’s status as one of the more sedentary countries in the world. According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, over 40 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of exercise per week.
If we want to create more safe and scenic walking spaces, we should look to Europe’s roaming laws for ideas on opening up our countryside. But would a European “right to roam” law work in the United States?

 

Is staying in the new going out? — Molly Young

Going out, on the other hand, is closer to prospecting. The upside is huge: You could have a life-altering adventure, meet your soul mate, find your new best friend. The potential downside is equally monumental. You could run into an ex, lose your wallet, suffer a grope, be rejected. The scope of experience at a party or a bar is, as the hedge funders might put it, high beta. We do it for the possibility of encountering the spectacular. This rarely happens.
There are opportunity costs associated with chronic staying in, too. A year’s worth of weekends spent at home is a bit like never moving out of your parents’ house: At some point you have to leave the nest. Leaving the nest, even just to get outside, is how we grow, challenge ourselves and discover things that have not been tailored to our relevant interests by an algorithm. As with Keynes’s paradox of thrift, the indisputable smart play for the individual is to spend nights and weekends snuggled under the duvet with an iPhone. But what’s the point of living in a city if you treat it like a suburb?

 

David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. — John Jeremiah Sullivan

“Tennis” is a wonderful word in the sense that it never really existed. That is, although the game is French to the core—not one but two of France’s early kings died at the tennis courts, and the Republic was born on one, with the Tennis Court Oath—the French never called it that, tennis. They called it jeu de paume, the “game of the palm,” or “handball,” if we want to be less awkwardly literal about it. (Originally they had played it with the bare hand, then came gloves, then paddles, then rackets.) When the French would go to serve, they often said, Tenez!, the French word for “take it,” meaning “coming at you, heads up.” We preserve this custom of warning the opponent in our less lyrical way by stating the score just before we toss up the ball. It was the Italians who, having overheard the French make these sounds, began calling the game “ten-ez” by association. A lovely detail in that it suggests a scene, a Florentine ear at the fence or the entryway, listening. They often built those early courts in the forest, in clearings. The call in the air. Easy to think of Benjy in “The Sound and the Fury,” hearing the golfers shout “Caddy!” and assuming they mean his sister, only here the word moves between languages, out of France via the transnational culture of the aristocratic court and into Italy. There it enters European literature around the thirteen-fifties, the time of Petrarch’s “Phisicke Against Fortune.” In considering the anxiety that consumes so much of human experience, he writes, “And what is the cause hereof, but only our own lightness & daintiness: for we seem to be good for nothing else, but to be tossed hither & thither like a Tennise bal, being creatures of very short life, of infinite carefulness, & yet ignorant unto what shore to sail with our ship.”

 

Nas, the Narrator: On publishing & hip-hop storytelling. — Mensah Demary

If presented with a choice, I’d rather discuss classic hip-hop albums than short story collections: the former evokes warmth, my need to consecrate my life to a certain fidelity and pure aural bliss channeled into nighttime sessions in the bedroom, lights off, completely enveloped by sound, while the latter invokes the image of a bottomless pit. Nevertheless, my fascination with and general uneasiness toward Nas connects directly to Illmatic, specifically to its perfection, its infallibility. Nas is an artist, a well-read, old-school recluse in a world which demands bombast, a gaudiness he aspired to at one point in his career. Ostentatiousness bogged down his art. Accordingly, he provides for me a cautionary tale as I revisit his sixth album God’s Son (Ill Will/Columbia, 2002), released with a bit of fanfare. Nas defeated Jay-Z—hyphenated at the time—and reestablished himself as the so-called King of New York, a triumph for the former Queensbridge Houses resident who ventured into the world no older than twenty, armed with a work of art in his backpack, and achieved outsized popularity, fame, wealth, and status, returning home to New York older, perhaps wiser, but nonetheless weary. God’s Son was a victory lap, but ultimately a mediocre one, yet I love the lyrics.
Nas is a world-class storyteller and practitioner of the narrative form. I don’t understand why there isn’t more discussion around hip-hop’s literary value among today’s millennial-and-boomer intelligentsia. The new New York literary salon is a twenty-something black woman whispering conspiratorially with a fifty-something white woman with regards to the diversity question: The optics alone leave me wobbly in the corner of the room, the bourbon’s Gaussian blur fogging my eyes. The house party—somewhere in SoHo, let’s say—is packed, and while I might hear the DJ play Future and/or Drake from Spotify, and the crowd is locked in, and not necessarily dancing—more like swaying—but definitely enjoying themselves, I wonder if this music is truly understood for all of its artistic value. I make a note on my phone to later write an essay about hip-hop and literature, but in what hopes? Sometimes, an essay is designed to convince; others ramble, but at least this isn’t a thinkpiece on culture from a writer too young to rent a car.

 

What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money? — Andrew Flowers

Werner posed a pair of simple questions to the crowd: What do you really want to do with your life? Are you doing what you really want to do? Whatever the answers, he suggested basic income was the means to achieve those goals. The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.
Straub had studied business, international policy and psychology at school and spent years working for IBM, the International Red Cross and a Montessori school. Basic income “struck a nerve,” he said. “People are burned out more than ever. You come to Switzerland and talk to people, they aren’t happy. They fear for their jobs. There is a gap between the economic possibility in this country and the quality of life.”

 

A current pet peeve: the “sharing economy”. It seems to me that two quite different things are being lumped together under this label, and it muddies the debate. — Neville Park

Slick words like “app”, “sharing economy”, “disruptive”, “innovation”, etc., obscure what’s really at stake. This isn’t about stuffy “conventional” industries failing to adapt to a new era. It’s about the growing number of (whiter, tech-savvy, middle-class) people relying on precarious and illegal side work. Are these really the best jobs our economy can create? Are we just going to give up on job security and worker protections? Before we toss away those cumbersome regulations, it’s worth remembering why we implemented them in the first place.

 

We are consuming ever bigger portions on ever larger dinner plates. Food manufacturers keep pushing us to eat more. Can we learn to control our helpings? — Jay Rayner

My approach to portion control is, like my sizable thighs, entirely hereditary. I got it from my parents. They were both raised in meagre surroundings during the second world war, with food in short supply and so, when they became parents, they went the other way. They made sure the table was always full. This was combined with the Jewish tendency – even among those Jews with no interest in God or his weird picky dietary laws – to overcater. Somewhere deep in the DNA is imprinted the message that tomorrow the Cossacks might be coming and so now you must eat, and who knows whether the Rosenbaums might be coming round needing to be fed, too.
Certainly, my late mother regarded enough food just for the members of the family as not quite enough, and I can’t help feeling the same way. I freely admit to having no idea what reasonable portion control is. When dinner involves individual items – a pork chop each, say, or a fillet of fish – I end up feeling edgy, for there is no excuse to cook more of them than the number of people eating. I am happier when it’s a one-pot dish, a stew or a ragu for pasta, where volume is allowable and leftovers an absolute certainty, even if as a family we do it justice. I did not get to where I am today by being blessed lavishly with self-control. What kind of restaurant critic would that be?

 

Bots: The Amazon Echo is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future. — Mandy Brown

Notably, Amazon’s Alexa, x.ai’s Amy, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have something else in common: they are all explicitly gendered as female. It’s possible to choose from a range of voices for Siri—either male or female, with American, British, or Australian accents—but the female voice is the default, and defaults being what they are, most people probably never even consider that the voice can be changed. Nadella’s casual adoption of the generic he (“it’s about man with machines”) reveals the expectation that a generation of woman-gendered bots are being created to serve the needs of men. In every case, these AIs are designed to seamlessly take care of things for you: to answer questions, schedule meetings, provide directions, refill the milk in the fridge, and so on. So in addition to frightening ramifications for privacy and information discovery, they also reinforce gendered stereotypes about women as servants. The neutral politeness that infects them all furthers that convention: women should be utilitarian, performing their duties on command without fuss or flourish. This is a vile, harmful, and dreadfully boring fantasy; not the least because there is so much extraordinary art around AI that both deconstructs and subverts these stereotypes. It takes a massive failure of imagination to commit yourself to building an artificial intelligence and then name it “Amy.”

 

A quadrivial apologia and tribute to the public library. — James Shelley

Someone in a suit, presumably a corporate executive-type on their lunch break, is skimming a newspaper. Someone who may have spent the night in a nearby shelter is reclining in a chair with a magazine. Others quietly walk past my desk, in the direction of a language class. Small groups of students are scattered around the building, hunched over their homework. A private tutor floats between the desks of their pupils. A young parent, toddler in tow, selects some new bedtime reading materials. A traveler with a suitcase — perhaps an out-of-town visitor just recently arrived via the nearby train-station — makes a brisk inquiry at a librarian’s desk.
This is only an anecdotal observation, but I suspect that the library is one of the most heterogeneous places in the city. Just look at the age demographics for start: everyone, from very young children and their caregivers, to adolescents and older adults alike, all have meaningful reasons to be here. Concurrently, it is a remarkable intersection of cultural diversity: longtime local residents look up old city archival records alongside new immigrants taking a tour of the facility for the first time.

 

Are we putting public servants in an impossible situation? Sometimes we send the strangest signals to the people who work in the public service. — Steve Paikin

In the best of all worlds, here’s what we want from them: We want them to be brilliant. We want them to be much less bureaucratic and much more creative. We want them to serve us better, find solutions to our problems, and explore new ideas that could help save us money.
But woe betide a single one of them if they ever experiment with a new idea that goes south, then costs the taxpayers money. In that case, we’ll be the first to string them up in the town square and shame them from here to eternity.
This is the conundrum Canada’s public servants live every day.

 

Captain America, Aaron Burr, And The Politics Of Killing Your Friends — Linda Holmes

Civil War finds itself in theaters in the same week that Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit Hamilton is nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards. Hamilton, too, concerns itself with the problem of life-devouring bitterness between people who largely agree with each other. (Given that Hamilton has been mashed up with absolutely everything, it's not surprising that the potential for this parallel was spotted at least as far back as the trailer.) How did Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (the fictional versions, that is) wind up in a duel when Hamilton began the show seeking Burr's counsel and they agreed about so much of what they wanted to accomplish for the country? How do you end up shooting a man you admire at a time when you mostly still admire him?
The easier answers are pride, custom, or, as some reads of the show would have it, Burr's obstinacy. The harder answer, and the one the show supports, is that both felt they were in the right, both were flawed, and neither could find a way to stop. In fact, there's a sequence in the Civil War book where a failed plan of Iron Man's to avoid fighting Cap may remind you eerily of a line from the show explaining that proper dueling always involves a final effort at peacemaking, and it's only in disastrous cases that it's abandoned: "Most disputes die and no one shoots."

 

Sadiq Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he — Chimene Suleyman

Where it should not have mattered that Khan is Muslim now very much matters. Had Khan not won it would have been likely that every parallel drawn between him, extremism, and terrorist-apologism had been believed. This is the all too real narrative attached to Muslims, where many outside the community in the last decade have not been able to accept it as fabrication. It has mattered that London has stepped away from the trap, distanced itself from believing the racism that has plagued Muslim communities across Europe and America for so many years.
Of course there are immigrants, Muslims, people of colour, who are not by default socialists, Labour supporters, or fans of Khan. The beauty of being allowed to exist as fully dimensional means there is no one way of thinking that transcends a community. Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he. It is reductive to give one person a status that has simply nothing to do with their (yet to be seen) capabilities.

 

Rhythms of Fear: Women instinctively read the danger written upon the city. — Laura Maw

I read the text of this city and exist in a space that will never be my own. I cannot re-write, overwrite or erase. I can only obey its syntax, the structure of the streets designed to induce fear in me, the formulation of patriarchal language of spatial domination, occupation, violence; a linguistics I will never build or share. The rhythm of this street after midnight is slow. It is deadly silent, broken by vibrating engines and the sudden shouts of men from their cars. It is punctuated by men walking down the road, toward me, in large groups, refusing to let me pass. It is a curation of implicit violence.
Elizabeth Wilson states that flânerie, the act of leisurely urban wandering, is a masculine freedom and she is right: walking the city after midnight, as these men show me, is no woman’s realm. If I am frightened I should not be outside at this time; if I am hurt I should not have been wearing this dress; I should not have been walking this way alone; I should not have left my friend’s house. The responsibility is on me. I work around men’s rhythms and rules; I must learn them to keep myself safe. I am reader, not writer.

 

Peter D. Harris has some stunning paintings of Toronto streetscapes, including gas stations, restaurants, and streetcars:

Aspirational urbanism. by Sameer Vasta

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, recently. It’s normal, I think, to think about the future when you’re in a period of transition: when you’re caught in the in-between, you try and figure out the present by dreaming about the future.

The idea of planning for the future is not just an individual pursuit; inherent to the success of any organizations, public or private, is the ability to see what’s ahead and plan for that eventuality. Government, at its core, is about making sure needs are met in the present while making sure the foundation is solid for whatever the future may bring.

That’s why I’ve found the discussion over rapid transit in London so fascinating. The Shift London project posits that London needs rapid transit to accommodate growth—that, in itself, is good future thinking—but recent developments have left questions over what that rapid transit should look like.

The discussion has come down to a simple question: do we make plans for the kind of city we are, or for the kind of city that we want to be?

It’s a deeply personal question, too: as I’ve been navigating this period of life transition (new city, new home, in-between employment), I’ve been grappling with decisions that have made me wonder what kind of Sameer Vasta I want to be, and not just who Sameer Vasta is, right now.

Tonight, I attended a Pints and Politics session where we discussed the future of rapid transit in London, and there, I shared a little story that I’d like to share here. The details of the story are fuzzy, so I apologize in advance if I get some of the smaller facts wrong, but overall, it’s an important tale about thinking about the future and thinking about aspirational urbanism.

In 1910, R.C Harris designed and presented plans for a viaduct connecting the west side and east side of Toronto, across the Don River, along Bloor Street. The plans included not only a bridge deck to accommodate trams, buggies, and cars, but also a lower deck for rail transport, something that was non-existent at the time and added significant cost to the project.

Harris’ vision for adding a rail deck to the viaduct wasn’t about the Toronto he saw around him in 1910, but instead for the Toronto he hoped to be building for the future. He saw a future where Toronto would grow, and where rail transport could connect the currently-divided city, encouraging human and economic mobility. His plans reflected the Toronto we wanted to create, the city he wanted to be.

Unsurprisingly, the plans for the viaduct were rejected by referenda, every year until 1913. Even then, when the project was approved, the lower deck was controversial, and actual costs ended up being higher than the projected ones.

In 1966, when the Toronto Transit Commission finished the Bloor-Danforth Subway line connecting the city from west end to east end, they saved millions of dollars because of the existence of the lower deck of the Prince Edward Viaduct. Harris’ vision for the city he wanted Toronto to be had come to pass: the Don River no longer separated the city, and his massive infrastructure project, fifty years earlier, had paved the way for that vision to become reality.


I have no idea whether bus rapid transit or light rail is a better decision for London in the current fiscal reality, but I do know that the new business case that advocates for BRT instead of the hybrid model is missing something important: it has no recognition that building transportation infrastructure needs to be aspirational.

The new business case is grounded in building transit that reflects the city that we are, the London of 2016. It may be the best option for London’s future—while I have an inherent bias for LRT or the hybrid model, I’m not an expert on infrastructure or London’s fiscal reality—but it needs to do a better job of saying why it is.

At the moment, the new business case for rapid transit in London would disappoint R.C Harris; the business case talks about the London that we are now, and creates plans for today, instead of talking about the London we want to be, and taking action to get us to that vision. Whether or not that action requires BRT or LRT is beyond my expertise, but I do know that in order for this city to grow, to build upon the great potential that it has, we need to stop thinking about who are, and start asking who we want to be.

I’m asking myself the same questions, in my personal life, every day. Who do I want to be? What am I doing now to make that vision a possibility? It’s time that our city leaders start asking those questions, too.