MY LAWN

Posted in Rants on April 7th, 2016 by Ed

Regular readers who have also enjoyed the work of Bill Bryson likely have noticed that I am also a fan. The man is a very good writer, and I've learned more than a few things about putting sarcasm into print from his work over the years. You can imagine how disappointed I was, then, to read his latest. It's terrible.

Bryson, 64, mis-titled the book. It should have been called "Things were all better back in my day!" or "Old Man Bitches About Everything." I don't know what happened – perhaps it is a simple function of age – but there's no humor or no pleasure in this. It's a man touring England complaining about everything. Literally everything. All the shops in this town are closed! Everything costs too much! That sign has a grammatical error in it because everybody is stupid now! The kid at McDonald's asked me if I wanted fries, and if I wanted fries I would have fucking told him I wanted fries! This museum is just a big gift shop now! Who are these "celebrities" and why are they famous when they have no talent! Kids are so disrespectful these days!

I have no doubt that it is hard to age, to see things change, to wake up one day and realize that the world you live in is no longer the one you know best and with which you are most comfortable. Readers of any age can have some sympathy for it. There is little joy or interest in reading someone go through the process, though.

The thing I wish older people complaining about the state of the world would more often recognize is that choices made by the same generations currently complaining are largely responsible for all that now bothers them. Kids are stupid and don't know how to speak? Well, look what has happened to public education since the 1970s. Yeah, kids with no job prospects will probably just sit around and drink all day. All the cute little shops are gone, replaced by soulless chain stores? Well, changes to the economy and wage stagnation more than explain why people prioritize low prices and convenience/speed (got to make it to that second job on time!) above all else. Your favorite seaside or countryside town is a fraction of what it used to be? Well, all the sources of employment are gone. Why would anyone stay? People are less friendly now? Well, maybe that's because the world is shitty and there's little for them to be happy about.

And that's the part that kills me about When I Was Your Age rants – they're not wrong. I have no doubt that for the modal American, the country was a less shitty place in the past. This argument of course overlooks great advances that have been made in the rights and lives of women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and other people for whom The Good Old Days were not quite so Good. But in terms of the state of the country, I have no doubt that people were generally less miserable and our towns and cities looked less sad and run down Back in the Day. Back when our society was one of generally shared prosperity – again, not without exceptions – and people could get half-decently paying jobs without having to experience lightning-strike luck, I'm sure everyone smiled and said Hello more often. I'm sure people were happier back when the places they live did not look like setpieces for post-apocalypse action movies. Everything is dirty, falling apart, and empty. Boarded-up windows and empty Main Streets don't make people feel cheerful.

If Bill Bryson reads this (that was a joke, relax), yes, you're right. Everything sucks now. Believe me, we know. We get it. It seems like an intelligent person could readily identify the causes, though, and perhaps at least nod at them while cataloging all of one's gripes about the corporate- and gift shop-funded museum world in which we find ourselves. You personally may not bear direct responsibility for creating it, but it didn't happen by accident. Previous generations – your generation – made choices that led to it. I'm sorry you're unhappy with it, but trust me that the young man at McDonald's isn't exactly loving this world either.

WATER WET

Posted in Quick Hits on April 4th, 2016 by Ed

Despite getting little attention over the weekend, the Panama Papers document leak received a substantial amount of mainstream media attention on Monday (at least online). Fortune, the BBC, USA Today, NBC, the Washington Post, and any number of other Very Serious Media Outlets are running with it now, which is a victory by proxy for the kinds of non-mainstream outlets that began pushing hard on the story as early as Saturday evening. The story is unlikely to have much staying power in the U.S., though, and may even fade faster than expected in Europe and the rest of the world due to the nature of the underlying issue.

The first problem with getting U.S. media to cover this extensively is that no major American figures are (yet) involved. It's awfully difficult to get Americans to care about our own politics let alone elected officials in other countries. "Oh man, I can't believe Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugson did that!" is a phrase no American news consumer or media personality has ever used or will ever use. Another problem is the fact that outrage fatigue and general cynicism make it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for scandals that confirm what we already know (or very strongly suspect) about the world – in this case, namely that the rich and powerful live in a separate world that operates under its own exclusive rules and they squirrel their money away in proverbial Swiss Bank Accounts so they don't have to pay taxes like some nouveau riche suburban desk commando with an MBA. Is it fair? Of course not. Is anyone really surprised to learn that this is in fact what has been going on? I doubt it.

Clearly it's an important issue and one that validates a lot of what we already know to be part of the deep systemic social and economic inequality built into our system and our way of life. But therein lies the problem; if everyone is already assuming that water is wet, the headline announcing that discovery is going to fall flat. We openly allow corporations to get away with offshoring their money in this country, and if they're People anyway, why would we be surprised to learn that the elites who control them do exactly the same thing with their personal finances?

I'm not saying nobody should care. I'm saying it isn't entirely surprising that nobody seems too up-in-arms over the revelations. It's nice to learn that our suspicions are correct, but beyond that it fits seamlessly into the worldview most half-smart people have long since held.

HANDFUL OF POCKETS

Posted in Rants on April 3rd, 2016 by Ed

Statistically, I live in an extremely dangerous city. Yet I spend exactly none of my time worrying about being a victim of crime. Part of that is my attitude; generally I believe that if a lightning bolt is going to hit you there isn't much you can do about it. Sure, you wouldn't want to increase your chances of being struck by running around an open field waving a lightning rod during a thunderstorm. But there's only so much you can do. Either they've got your name on them or they don't.

Aside from taking reasonable precautions, the other reason never to worry about it is that crime in the city is heavily ghettoized. This calendar year promises to break all previous records for shootings and gun-related murders in Chicago, but it doesn't take complex geospatial analysis to see the patterns when they're mapped out.

shootings april1

This quote is telling: "Police said the disturbing rise in violence is driven by gangs and mostly contained to a handful of pockets on the city's South and West sides."

Oh, OK then. As long as the people shooting each other are all in the same place.

That quote is accurate but belies the fact that this is not a natural disaster. The police, and most Chicagoans, talk about it like it just happened this way or, among the Trump crowd, is an artifact of race in the most violent areas. The reality is that the police adopted a strategy of confinement, not crime prevention or community service. Just make sure that the borders of "Chiraq" don't extend east of Western Ave. or north of Pershing and everyone can call that a win. If the parts of the city with money are safe, or have what would be considered a normal level of crime for a major city, the police and city leaders don't much worry about the other parts. The CPD has for the last few years adopted a strategy in areas like Austin and South Shore of, "Just call us when we need to come pick up the bodies."

It's nearly impossible to construct an explanation that doesn't involve racism. There's no getting around the fact that the shitty neighborhoods are black and the white and Hispanic parts of the city are safer and more actively policed. The police cite "gang problems" as if white and Hispanic people don't have gangs or drugs. That's not to say that with just a little more effort the police could equalize crime rates everywhere in the city. The problem is that nobody's even trying.

To listen to the national news talk about Chicago you'd think it's Sarajevo in the 90s and we all have to run from building to building in a low, serpentine manner to arrive at the office alive. That isn't reality for most of us. But for some people it is, and we're all uncomfortably satisfied with that.

NPF: ZAHA HADID, 1950-2016

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 2nd, 2016 by Ed

Architects are not household names, especially not living ones. The average reader of Sunday newspapers can probably name Frank Gehry or recognize his derivative blobitechture by sight, but otherwise it's difficult to think of a living architect who might be recognizable to a non-enthusiast or professional in the field. The most important, decorated, and accomplished living one died on Thursday, and her death was no more than a Page 3 level headline.

Zaha Hadid was born in Iraq in 1950 to a wealthy family, which allowed her in 1972 to move to London to study architecture under, among others, Dutch giant Rem Koolhaas (who, like her, would win the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture). Today both are recognized as founders of the first identifiable successor to postmodern and modernist architecture, a heavily geometric yet smooth style that defies its mathematical origins by blending in place with its surroundings. It is a shame that neither figure is better known, but it is not uncommon in architecture for time to be a crucial ingredient in the growth of one's reputation.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center - Baku, Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center – Baku, Azerbaijan

In a professional world in which few women become prominent, Hadid won the Pritzker in 2010 (the only solo female recipient to date), two Stirling Prizes for individual works (Rome's MAXXI art museum – get it? XXI? – and London's Evelyn Grace Academy), and the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, of which she is also the only solo female recipient.

London Aquatic Centre for 2012 Olympics

London Aquatic Centre for 2012 Olympics

The word "visionary" should not be tossed around lightly. Hadid was one. Her architecture of multiple perspectives – buildings that present dramatically different impressions depending on the point at which one views them – is now a commonly imitated aspect of contemporary architecture and even interior design. The BMW Building and the aforementioned Evelyn Grace Academy are probably the most representative examples of this, as well as excellent examples of how geometric designs can be made to blend naturally with the landscape. Any architect can make a geometric design that stands out like a jagged shard from a flat landscape. It takes restraint and an eye for aesthetics that few have or ever will have to make it look natural.

Broad Art Museum - East Lansing, MI

Broad Art Museum – East Lansing, MI

It's sad to think someone so important could depart without attracting more attention. Maybe it is the lack of major projects in the United States. Maybe it is the absence of a loud, garish "Hey look at me" style to her work. While the name might not be familiar to you, she did as much as or more than anyone to shape the way the world around you looks today and the aesthetics of urbanism in the foreseeable future. Her influence will outlive her.