Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: The collapse of the nation-state? The return of the city-state?

Today is a Friday, which means it's Grab Bag day.  Here are my two intriguing thoughts for today, thoughts that will remain here as questions in need of answers.  If you've got insights, feel free to chime in:

  1. Have we entered an era where we are witnessing the collapse of the nation-state and the return of the city-state? In the developed world, are New York, Boston, San Francisco, London, Paris, Shanghai more like each other and more like ancient Athens, fortified and yet isolated by economic, political, social and demographic pressures that in effect allow them to make their own foreign policies irrespective of their national political dialogues?  Perhaps it's not just that they are allowed to, but rather that they are forced to.  If these cities are not dependent on the nations that host them but need to interact with labor markets and capital flows from across this globe, where do we go from here?  What does it say about the political divide in the United States where red and blue states seem to be marching in two very different directions at the same time?  Does that rift heal or only grow more intense in this new condition?
  2. When did our sense of architecture include the notion of a disposable building?  Did an American 150 years ago have a very static sense of the future -- life for the next generation will be largely like life is for us now?  Did a European 500 years ago assume that they had reached the pinnacle of human existence?  And, if that notion ever truly existed, that the future would look very much like today, when did it change?  I think it's fair to say that in today's advanced industrialized economies, most would accede to the statement that their lives will be very different 10 years from now.  Technology alone ensures that.  But has this notion of change applied to our buildings as well?  In the 1880s, Cambridge City Hall was designed and built to look like it would be around for a long, long time.  Presumably, that design statement was no accident. Now, buildings go up with an outer skin of glass, conveying a very different feeling about permanence and the role that building will be playing in the future. What are we in fact saying with them?
Ah, random thoughts for a Friday.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keith Moon, we hardly knew ya

Keith Moon, the erstwhile drummer for the rock group The Who, was famous for flushing explosives down toilets.

Indeed, once in 1967 in Flint Michigan he tried to flush a stick of dynamite down a Holiday Inn bowl.  When the lit dynamite didn't flush, he had the good sense to jump out of the bathroom moments before shards of flying porcelain sprayed the room.

Disappointed that his toilet plan hadn't succeeded exactly as he had hoped, Moon allegedly went downstairs and drove a Cadillac (he later claimed it was a Lincoln Continental) into the hotel pool, causing him to break his tooth.  This account is disputed by others who claim that Moon broke his tooth not by driving a car into a full swimming pool but by diving into an empty one.

As a boy, Moon was sent to the Alperton Secondary Modern School after failing his eleven plus exam at his prior school.  At Alperton, a teacher assessed the future rock drummer this way: "Retarded artistically.  Idiotic in other respects."  I kid you not.

Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in London on September 7, 1978, having dined out earlier that evening with Paul and Linda McCartney.  He was 32 years old.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

This tragedy, the horrific violence

Looking in the mirror is a humbling thing this eve.  All 46 years of breathing self look back at me.  In light of all the very small children killed in two Connecticut classrooms on Friday, this is hard.

These little lives were on the road to life. 

Of the many photographs of the horror, I gravitated toward this one -- the boy, hands half-covering his face with shock in his eyes, his older sister caring and comforting him with her arm around him while she herself looks intently at the ground.  This was every younger brother and older sister.   See it in them, courage, care, concern, fear and shock.  Not comprehending the incomprehensible is not a sin.  But a child would not know this.  Obama is right.  Our hearts are broken.

The political points are as obvious to me as they are maddening.  To those who say "Guns don't kill people, people kill people", the correct response is "People with guns kill people."  And they continue to.  Even children.  To this day.  Many children.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Strange memories from 93rd Street

When I was a young boy, I lived with my mother and my sister on East 93rd Street in Manhattan.  We had a dog, a Gordon Setter.  Like many setters, he was wire thin when he was young.  Concentration camp thin. Gordons are black with brown spots and also like a lot of setters, he was nervous.  Some might call it alert, but others would certainly call it neurotic. 

That was, of course, before he ballooned out in later years.  Imagine a straight piece of uncooked spaghetti transforming into a basketball over the span of a decade.  And then there were the ticks.  But I'm losing the thread of my story. 

My mother once said to me that she'd wished she'd been a little more adventurous with his name.  She'd wanted to call him Glenraven Ballachulish, which is actually a place name in Scotland.  When I told a school friend about this years later, he just laughed.

The dog had a name: Nat.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Networks and proximity.

Did you ever think about how beguilingly simple LinkedIn is? It follows the basic rubric that every 4th grader knows -- we're friends, and he's a friend of yours, so in a sense your friend becomes my friend too.  Facebook isn't different in nature, in fact it even grabbed the word "friend" creating along the way the new English participle "friending".  But Facebook is less explicit in the value it assigns to the links that build the network of friends. With Facebook the goal is to have the platform to express yourself to an audience, whereas with LinkedIn, in some senses the goal is the network itself.

Now, look at your LinkedIn network.  How many of them are in the same city as you?  Indeed, going through your connections and mapping them spatially, would the greatest amount of activity, the greatest amount of connectivity, appear closest to where you physically are?  Why is that?  What role does proximity play in the creation of a social network? 

This question was being swatted back and forth by me and Quinton Zondervan like a ping pong ball over a net stretched across two coffee cups.  Its related question -- what role does proximity play in the capacity of a social network to expand? -- was the real object of our desire, the true set point we sought, but it seemed impossible to answer the second one without first getting a handle on the first. 

Suffice it to say that Quinton and I both assume that proximity in the relational tie increases the strength of the relational tie and that the strength of the connection diminishes as distance increases.  In other words, closer is stronger.

How and why this is relevant comes clearer in an example from the real-world of urban development.  There is much talk, presumably accurate and measurable, of the importance of MIT to the development of Kendall Square.  In my imagining, this means that social networks get created at the university and then expand into the neighboring area of Kendall Square, like little arms of energy shooting out from the main orb (for some reason, I can't help but think of this like some cartooney depiction of a solar flare - at least what my mind imagines a cartoon of a solar flare to look like).  These little explosions of energy seed an environment that is highly creative and highly innovative.  It is the Ur-situation, much like those Walt Disney cartoon movies from the 1940s where the lightening bolt strikes the muck and mire of a swampy marsh on prehistoric earth and a single-celled organism springs to life.

Now, let's fast forward this eco-experiment a generation (roughly equivalent to 30 years).  With innovation flourishing there exists a high degree of bio-diversity in this innovation ecosystem.  Unfortunately, it means that the bigger predators recognize a food source, and they start lumbering our way.  Say a Microsoft decides to locate in Kendall Square, to tap into the tremendous talent pool that exists here.  Or a Google.  Or a Novartis.  In these instances, they are trying to appropriate the entire network already developed at MIT, lock stock and barrel.  They are not interested in fostering innovation.  They are interested in capturing the entirety of it and they will use their gullet to digest it whole.  Innovation decreases as mono-cultures replace the highly complex and diverse environments that precede them.