October 2015

  • Halloween

    “[T]he Raven, never flitting, still is sitting:”

    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
    “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door-
    Only this, and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
    And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;- vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow- sorrow for the lost Lenore-
    For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
    Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
    Thrilled me- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
    “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
    Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
    This it is, and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
    “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
    That I scarce was sure I heard you”- here I opened wide the door;-
    Darkness there, and nothing more.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
    Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
    This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”-
    Merely this, and nothing more.

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
    Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
    Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore-
    Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;-
    ‘Tis the wind and nothing more!”

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
    In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door-
    Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-
    Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

    Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
    By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
    “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
    Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
    Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
    Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door-
    Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
    With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
    That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered-
    Till I scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before-
    On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
    Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
    “Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore-
    Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
    Of ‘Never- nevermore’.”

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
    Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore-
    What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
    Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
    To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
    But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
    She shall press, ah, nevermore!

    Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
    Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee- by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!
    Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
    Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted-
    On this home by Horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore-
    Is there- is there balm in Gilead?- tell me- tell me, I implore!”
    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
    By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore-
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
    Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    “Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting-
    “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
    Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
    On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
    And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
    Shall be lifted- nevermore!

  • Ave Maria

    Ave Maria

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Ave Maria over the past few years. It’s also been a long time since I’ve visited; about a year. It’s a wonderful, fascinating community, located in some Southwest Florida pioneer territory. Ave Maria University has something like 1,100 students now; small but growing. It’s a traditional Catholic university, and I hope it maintains its character as it grows.

    Ave Maria as a town is growing faster; I’ve heard something like a few hundred new homes since my last visit about a year ago. From my drive through town, that seems to hold up. Where before there were dead-end streets and rocky fields left over from the 2008 housing bubble, today there are paved streets and rows upon rows of large, beautiful homes.

    Whether the community itself is developing its own character, I’m not sure. In many ways, that’s not something a visitor is really equipped to answer. In other ways, an outsider is uniquely positioned to notice. In any event, every time I visit here (and anywhere) I try to look for clues that might answer that question about a place.

    While I’m here, in between meetings, I’ll try to take note.

  • City of Firsts

    Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City addresses Philadelphia in the early 1990s at a time when America’s big cities were in a period of uncertainty. Specifically, it’s about Philadelphia and Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor. I loved this passage detailing Philadelphia’s legacy:

    It was still occasionally called the City of Firsts, and it was more than mere promotional gimmick, even though so many of the firsts had occurred so long ago that few who lived in the city were aware of them—the first public school in the colonies, the first American paper mill, the first stone bridge, the first botanical garden, the first volunteer fire company, the first American magazine, the first American hospital, the first American insurance company, the first American stock exchange, the first American theater, the first production of an American play, the first carpet woven in America, the first piano made in America, the first American corporate bank, the first daily American newspaper, the first circus, the first balloon flight, the first public building lit by gas, the first American-made lager beer, the first screw-propeller steamship, the first American minstrel show, the first Republican National Convention, the first American zoological society, the first American merry-go-round, the first women’s suffrage demonstrations, the first telephone book, the first Salvation Army in America, the first black newspaper, the first revolving door, the first Automat, the first Girl Scout cookie sale, the first city wage tax.

    The book notes that the last of these firsts occurred in 1938. We’re nearly 75 years away from any of these being meaningful beyond simply being historical curiosities.

    At the time of the Revolution Philadelphia’s biggest-city status and central location meant it would play financial and political host to the rebellion. Even as it lost its financial and political status in the ensuing decades, its ports and manufacturing kept it strong well into the 20th century. I think the Philadelphia of 2014 is largely fortunate to be located along the Northeast’s Boston-to-DC economic corridor. It’s historical legacy combined with the reforms of the Rendell administration positioned the city to weather the recent recession, but it’s not clear the city’s momentum will continue without political vision.

    Guiliani and Rendell both stabilized their cities at critical moments in their history. New York’s stabilization was followed by Bloomberg’s culture of systemic transformation. Philadelphia is still waiting for its Bloomberg, but in the meantime it’s changing incrementally—which is half the battle.

  • Zack Kanter wrote earlier this year on “How Uber’s Autonomous Cars Will Destroy 10 Million Jobs and Reshape the Economy by 2025:”

    Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the time, which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year. … It is now more economical to use a ride sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year.

     A full 60% of US adults surveyed stated that they would ride in an autonomous car, and nearly 32% said they would not continue to drive once an autonomous car was available instead. But no one is more excited than Uber – drivers take home at least 75% of every fare. It came as no surprise when CEO Travis Kalanick recently stated that Uber will eventually replace all of its drivers with self-driving cars.

    A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis – the ‘transportation cloud’ – will quickly become dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well. With their $41 billion valuation, replacing all 171,000 taxis in the United States is well within the realm of feasibility – at a cost of $25,000 per car, the rollout would cost a mere $4.3 billion.

    I’m highlighting this in light of my reflecting on public transportation recently. I wrote that “cars are just privately managed public transportation.” In shifting to autonomous vehicles, maybe they’ll come to be seen as that way.

  • Moral knowledge

    I’ve been reading Pope Benedict XVI’s “On Christian Hope” lately:

    “…what may we hope? And what may we not hope? First of all, we must acknowledge that incremental progress is possible only in the material sphere. Here, amid our growing knowledge of the structure of matter and in the light of ever more advanced inventions, we clearly see continuous progress towards an ever greater mastery of nature. Yet in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning. Naturally, new generations can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions. The moral treasury of humanity is not readily at hand like tools that we use; it is present as an appeal to freedom and a possibility for it.”

  • “A lot of the recent religious freedom debate has taken place in terms of conscience. … That’s important, but it’s also important to maintain the social and institutional space within which Christians can be formed,” he continued. “Conscientious believers aren’t hatched; they’re formed. They’re formed in communities, and we’ve got to get religious freedom protections so those communities won’t be homogenized by the state.”

    How do nondiscrimination laws threaten institutions? The best known example is the possibility raised by some liberal commenters that the government could take away the federal tax exemption from churches. Experts said, however, that is not likely to be politically possible. The greater risk is a cutoff of federal funding, both direct and indirect—student loans, vouchers, etc.—to schools that violate federal antidiscrimination law. And if an educational institution loses its accreditation, the value of its diplomas plummets. Graduates of these religious colleges could be barred from law schools and medical schools.

    “Most people don’t understand that the government has at its disposal the incredible power of licensing and accreditation rules and public-funding conditions,” the Lawyer said. “The government is able to compel compliance with its norms not only by making you comply with them but by making you an offer that you can’t refuse.”

    One reason we grant tax exemptions is because we understand that “the power to tax is also the power to destroy.” What Rod Dreher’s speaking to here isn’t just the value of protecting the cultural space (or cultural nests) that tax exemption helps make possible, but also the ways that state power has developed to coerce and incentivize its own values through its accreditation and regulatory powers.

    We might be nearing the point where we need “state exemptions” for corporations, rather than simply “tax exemptions.” In other words, exemptions from the state’s ability to do anything other than recognize the existence of an organization.

    I’m hopeful that technology will strip the state of its role in accreditation in terms of both work and school places.

  • A way of seeing

    One abstract for a chapter in a book on “Seeing the Past: Augmented Reality and Computer Vision in History,” premised on the idea that “history is a way of seeing:”

    “‘History is all around us. The voices of the past thicken the air, calling out for your attention. When it all gets too much, pull the ear-buds out, stop, and look at where you are with fresh eyes, in the new silence…’ Augmented reality, as currently instantiated, for the most part focuses on the visual through clumsy interfaces with mobile devices. This paper suggests that that a better way to ‘visualize’ history is to focus on augmenting ambient sound, tying the annotated geography of Wikipedia to physical location through earbuds. A prototype will be presented, allowing us to hear the thickness, the discords, of history. The presentation will explore the cognitive loads of various kinds of augmented reality, and the psychology of immersion, and the findings of user interface design to suggest that, for history at least, aural augmented reality is a more effective way of writing history in physical space than the visual.” — Historical Friction: Using Auditory Augmented Reality for Creating Sense of Place

    Think about how much “thicker” our experience of everything from museums to graveyards could be. Imagine taking a walking tour of an historic part of New York with noise-canceling headphones and hearing 1840s sounds. Or walking Confederate battlefields and hearing a rebel yell. Or driving through the New Mexico desert and seeing smoke rising from a Pueblo Indian campsite through augmented glasses.

    This is the sort of stuff that could transform the social utility of conservancies and historical societies in the years to come. It could help them become some of the most fascinating and just plain fun cultural organizations.

  • Twitter Moments

    Twitter Moments has been great in my first few weeks with it. It feels like a natural evolution of the service, and I hope it is developed faster and expanded into more categories. It feels like the most natural “what’s happening”/news source I’ve seen on social platforms so far, and Moments often clues me in to something that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere.

    In casual usage, I’ve unfortunately found myself often forgetting its there. The blue dot over that tab, meant to signal the equivalent of “unread messages,” immediately became a fixture in the app for me. It’s just here, and it doesn’t often cause me to take action there.

    Despite that, I’d be comfortable with Moments becoming the new main screen within the app, a sort of parallel of Facebook’s News Feed. Move the home stream into the center, let me create multiple streams to swipe between like I can swipe between Moments categories, and then eliminates Lists.

    That’s my ideal Twitter at this point.

  • Looking away

    What if the most valuable thing we could teach our children is how to look away? What if the most vital skill to teach ourselves in a desires-trained culture is to avoid the voices that exist to exploit our attention and prey on our insecurities? To learn to not see that which is designed to be inescapable.

    We allow our mobile devices, our cell phones and tablets, to chirp and buzz and alert us to the point of eliminating our ability to sustain focus. I walk into a bar with even one flat screen on the wall and I see all eyes on the screen. I get into a cab and find myself instinctively looking at the perpetually-on-loop screen—and I hate myself for that instinct. These things are not cultural inevitabilities. They’re learned habits. They’re choices.

    We’ve chosen to let our mobile devices vibrant when we receive an email or a text message. We’ve chosen to put televisions on every empty wall space. We give ourselves the devices that are eliminating our leisure time. We can also choose to intentionally and systematically structure our interaction with devices and the media they convey.

    Our devices have dramatically improved our lives by enabling information access on an unprecedented scale and at a profound ease. But there have been obvious and serious tradeoffs that we don’t seem to be addressing with as much enthusiasm.

    “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture, said Paul Mazur almost a century ago. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. … Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” If we measure time as money, Mazur’s words ring in our ears. What most of our screens want when they call our attention is both of these things—they want our attention as a means to our time and money.

    Where are we preserving the space for deep or uninterrupted thinking? For contemplation? For family? For leisure? For retreat? These aren’t simply important public goods. They’re also important personal goods.

    We build communities so we can enjoy one another—not so we can merely transact with one another. The market, which screens often serve as access points to, is only one of the forms of important human exchange:

    When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
    Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
    What will you answer? “We all dwell together
    To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

    Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger. —T.S. Eliot

    Creating spaces free of screens will be one of the most important civic contributions of leaders in the coming decades. We can start with our homes, which should always be a refuge from the frenzy of the outside world.

    The response to this call in the future might seem radical, but if it turns out to be radical, it will be a radicalism concerned with tradition—that is, the tradition of authentically free spaces.

  • On New York’s Monuments to Famous or Forgotten that dot its parks:

    There are about 800 monuments on city parkland in the five boroughs, scattered along rambling paths, grassy triangles and slender medians. They loom over passing pedestrians and cast a weary eye on gridlocked traffic — often somber, sometimes whimsical, frequently ignored, as the household names of past decades and centuries slip into obscurity. …

    So many monuments were erected on city parkland over the years that a half-dozen parks, starting in the 1970s, have had unofficial moratoriums on commemorative sculptures. …

    Some number of these historical markers, from busts and benches to fountains and figures in neo-Classical style, are not only fetching objects in themselves, but fascinating for the ways in which they illuminate dimly remembered parts of the city’s multilayered history.

    I’m a huge fan of the effect of these monuments in creating what I think of as haunted landscapes. Museums and historical societies create exhibits and arrange things of the past for the sake of historical memory. I don’t think public parks or even public/private land should be curated or managed like museum exhibits. Exhibits curate things of the past, but monuments can be very public forms of art that benefit the living on a more regular basis. They’re like proclamations about not only specific personalities in bronze, but also about the people who are placing them. I think this more egalitarian approach to honoring people and events leaves a bit more electricity in the air.

    In a certain way I think of this like Encyclopedia Britannica v. Wikipedia—the former is highly authoritative and respected, but it’s also less inclusive. The latter is highly diversified, and allows even fringe-historical figures a space to be remembered. The result is that Wikipedia is often a more fascinating place to spend time. I think the same goes for communities.