When There’s Nothing Left To Burn…

August 17, 2016


quietly submitted by Cityslikr

Dear John*

August 15, 2016

Look, it’s not you. It’s me. Something’s just not clicking right now, and trying to get that spark back is so tiring and too much effort.

I thought spending a few months apart, earlier this year, putting some distance between us might give me a healthier perspective. dearjohnAbsence making the heart grow fonder and all that. Things wouldn’t look so dim and depressing with the long winter gone.

Summer’s only exacerbated the troubles, however. Made me more lethargic during the times when I wasn’t just full on angry. Angrily lethargic. That’s no way to live.

No. There’s no one else. This is only about you and me. Yes, I’ve been to other places, taken in the sights, rode other people’s public transit. You and I have never been that exclusive.

The thing is, I used to go away and return energized, full of appreciation for what we had here and excited about the possibilities of how we could make things even better. Fresh ideas. Different approaches. A new way of seeing things.

But that didn’t seem to hold much interest for you. “This isn’t there,” you’d respond whenever I made any sort of suggestion for trying something new or to improve on something that wasn’t working. We’re different. We’ve always done that this way. Change is hard. What we don’t know might be worse than what we already know.

I understand that.

It isn’t like everything’s terrible. That’s not what I’m saying. There’s lots to be happy about, plenty of examples to point to and say, Yeah, we’re doing that right. Maybe I’m just too demanding or dearjohn1(Maybe I’m just like my father too bold… HaHa. We’ll always have Prince. Oh, wait. No, we won’t.)

I just don’t think wanting to do things better should be seen as a challenge, viewed with such suspicion. We can learn from others. We need to learn from others. I’m not perfect. Are you?

I know you don’t think that you are. It’s just, you seem awfully satisfied living inside this bubble we’ve created together. The future you foresee now is exactly like the future you imagined in the past. This makes any deviation from that impossible for you to conceive.

This kind of resistant view, an unwillingness to adapt when evolving circumstances warrant, only succeeds in digging a deeper rut. You exhibit a tenacity of suspicion toward anything that does not conform to your prevailing view, demand a vigorous examination or assessment to look at all angles, consider every option. What you already believe to be true? Well, that’s just a given, and given an uncritical pass. As it was, so shall it be.

But you’ve also heard that bit about putting new wine into old wineskins, yes? Something’s got to give, is how I think Jesus put it. What once seemed to be fixes have turned out to be the source of many of our problems. Finding solutions is never easy. Realizing we need to do so should be pretty obvious.

Stop me if you’ve heard all of this before. HaHa! Zzzzzzzzzzz… Of course you have. No doubt you’re as tired of hearing me say these words as I am saying them. What we have here, I fear, is a failure to communicate. You’re not listening and I’m not explaining myself clearly enough.

In the end, that’s all on me. If I’m the unhappy one in this relationship, it is up to me to explain why that is and what we can do to try and patch things up. writingaloneI have not been able to do that over the course of our 6 and-a-half years together. My tone has become hectoring, annoyed badgering, counter-productive. It’s doing neither of us any good, contributing little, impacting even less. It is difficult to imagine anything positive coming from continuing on this way. Bitterness doesn’t become either of us. That’s just not how I want to see this story end.

(* a literary trop, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental albeit highly appropriate in this case)

sadly but clear-eyedly submitted by Cityslikr

Wine (Myth) Making

August 5, 2016

(A little change of pace today, for all you oenophiles out there who thought the California wine industry started with Ernest and Julio Gallo. From our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, Executive Director of Plant The Vine, an urban landscape history and public memory project intending to create a greater awareness of L.A.’s wine-making past through the establishment of small community vineyards. Viticulture?! Everybody knows L.A. has no culture.)

* * *



I had been researching a public-history project about Los Angeles’ first truly dominant industry, that of winegrowing and winemaking, when I realized that I’d been running across quite a lot of what I can only describe as an open and obvious bias against Los Angeles terroir. This bias, which I’ve encountered in conversation as well as in what I’ve read, appears to come from what I’ll call, with a shout-out to Norman Klein (The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory), a Northern California wine imaginary that views Los Angeles, it’s past as well as its present, through the smoggy lens of its post-war, car-first history. According to this imaginary – you could also call it a construct or myth — the wine industry left Los Angeles, where it had been ensconced since the days of the Spanish missions, because it had found superior terroir in Sonoma and Napa Valley.

But if the terroir – a French term coming from the word ‘terre’, meaning earth, but more inclusive of climate conditions – was of such inferior quality, how then could Los Angeles have become the center of wine production in California for much of the 19th Century? Yes, the padres at the missions certainly had the benefit of lots of “free” Native American labor. But this wasn’t unique to Los Angeles. The padres in San Francisco had peons too. But no matter how many they had, they still couldn’t get the grapes to mature around the chilly, fog-bound mission by the bay.

In fact, and contrary to the myth, what made Los Angeles a wine-growing Mecca was that it had the perfect terroir for the heat-seeking Spanish varieties brought by the padres from home. firstcitysealOne can imagine how filled with hope these early settlers must have been when they first came upon the hot, dry growing conditions of Los Angeles, so similar to those of places like La Mancha, home of the drought-tolerant Airen grape, which is used for Brandy de Jerez (a version of which was made in copious quantities at L.A. missions); or the sherry-producing areas of Montilla-Moriles, which grows the Pedro Ximenez grape; Xeres, where Palomino Fino thrives, and Malaga, whose Muscat of Alexandria grows to this day at the San Gabriel Mission near the L.A. suburb of Alhambra.

No, there was no problem growing grapes in Los Angeles, and of the finest quality, from what we read in accounts of the time. And yet the myth of inferior terroir persists. Why? One possible explanation is that it is part of a larger story, one that goes back centuries, to the struggle for empire and cultural supremacy between Spain and England. In her book, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America, Erica Hannickel points out that viticulture has always been a means of establishing cultural as well as political hegemony over populations and over place. Contemporary examples of this abound. A walk through the vineyards of Sicily reveals a succession of differing viticultural inclinations, each of them tied to a different period of foreign rule. LAseal In the former Soviet-Bloc countries, Russian grapes are now being replaced with indigenous varieties. And in drought-plagued areas of California, including L.A. County and Napa and Sonoma, thought is now being given as to the culturally driven wisdom of having planted the thirsty varieties of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhine, when the drought-resistant varieties of southern Spain would certainly have been a more sustainable choice.

So, if it wasn’t the inferiority of the growing conditions that caused the wine industry to abandon Los Angeles, then what was it? A related myth suggests it was because of vineyard blights such as philloxera or Pierce’s disease. But these afflicted Sonoma and Napa as much as any other part of the state. No, the main reason the industry left L.A. was quite simply the city’s growing hunger for land. With the expansion of its port at San Pedro and the arrival of the intercontinental railroad in 1874, Los Angeles was increasingly integrated into the global economy. The vineyards, which occupied choice real estate between the river and the center of town, were sold off for housing and industrial subdivisions. donquixoteBut In the process, a centuries-old, site-specific Spanish viticulture, one that had flourished along the L.A. River for over a hundred years, was destroyed. With the strategic use of the Northern California wine imaginary, it did not take long for it to be erased from memory as well.

The other day, I was down by the river, participating in one of the frequent clean-ups organized by FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River). As we pulled plastic bottles and other detritus from the caked mud and plant life, a refreshing breeze from the San Gabriel Mountains kicked up, passing through the Glendale Narrows and brushing by us on the way to the sea. I sat down under a willow, took off my hat and wiped the sweat from the back of my neck. A red-winged blackbird called out from a nearby cottonwood, and as I tried to decipher its song, the sound of passing cars faded into the background. I looked down-river, toward the city, and let the heat ripples play with my imagination. I thought of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, that unlikely duo of La Mancha, and became convinced that if they had happened upon Los Angeles in the late 1700s, they might well have felt right at home, pitching their tienda along the river bank and drinking the local version of Brandy de Jerez.

connoisseurly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum

How About A Selfless-Driving Car?

August 3, 2016

About 100 years ago, when interests in the new-fangled motor coaches began pushing for their proper place on the roads and streets of cities, one line of argument they used was the future, modernity. beholdthefutureYou can’t fight progress, you horse-and-buggy rubes. Get out of the way (literally), a new world is dawning! Only cavemen wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of this shiny new mode of transport, the automobile!!

(Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic is a fantastic primer in how hearts and minds were won over to the car’s cause by expert p.r. and lobbying).

Now, pretty much a century later, a similar line of argument is being made hailing the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles, the self-driving car. They are the future, and only stick in the mud luddites would fight the future. Because of this, because autonomous vehicles will transform the way we get around our urban environment, will cure the ills that the previous automobile age inflicted upon us, who in their right mind could possibly object? Resistance is futile. fightingtrafficJust sit back, load up Netflix on your laptop, and let the computer drive you to where you need to go.

There’s no question autonomous vehicles will improve certain aspects of urban transportation. By eliminating driver error, misjudgement, distraction, it’s conceivable that traffic flow will improve, fatalities will drop significantly. That’s all to the good, no argument from me there.

What autonomous vehicles won’t solve is the sticky point of induced demand. We do know for a fact, after decades and decades of observation, that whenever we endeavour to make driving easier or more attractive – like increasing road space – more people take advantage of it and rush out to fill up that space. Congestion is never alleviated, at least not for very long. Self-driving may make being stuck in traffic less unpleasant but they will not solve what is essentially a ‘geometry’ problem, as Jarrett Walker wrote ten days ago in Human Transit.

An equally intriguing aspect of the self-driving car among us is what’s being called the moral or ethical algorithm behind its programming. squarepeg1While autonomous vehicles will certainly reduce our current road carnage, there’s no reason to believe collisions will be eliminated entirely. If not, what should our expectations be in terms of outcomes?

The ‘utilitarian’ autonomous vehicle, as it’s being called, might be programmed for the greater good. That is, when faced with a situation where a collision is inevitable, an autonomous vehicle responds by inflicting the least damage possible including ‘sacrificing’, let’s call it, its own passengers if that keeps the harm inflicted to a minimum. Essentially, if forced to choose between the prospect of swerving into a crowd of 10 pedestrians standing on the sidewalk to avoid an object straight ahead of it or crashing into that object, the utilitarian autonomous vehicle will crash into the obstacle, endangering the lives of the <10 passengers inside of it.

If it happens, of course, and if proponents of self-driving cars are to be believed, it won’t happen very often if at all, because, you know, technology rarely comes with bugs or glitches, but if collisions do occur, as infrequently as they might, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the greater good will be served. Done, and done. prisonersdilemmaWe’re good here, right?

Apparently, it’s not going to be as clear cut and simple as all that. The future, when it comes, seldom is.

In a study published in the journal Science back in June, Our driverless dilemma, researchers found in a series of online surveys conducted, most people were all for the ‘utilitarian’ approach to self-driving cars, the greater, collective good, in theory. But when it came to driving one themselves? Public safety for others, self-preservation for me. This double standard hardened even further when questions of driving with family members arose. My child or some stranger standing on a street corner? I’ll take Ridiculous Questions for $500, Alex.

This should hardly come as a surprise. Traffic is other people, right? After the freedom of the open road with the wind blowing back your hair angle that car manufacturers use to advertise their product, the 2nd approach is always about safety, especially safety for the children riding, buckled up in the backseat. Bigger, bulkier vehicles not only promise to deliver an elevated status on their owners but also bestow a sense of security on all those riding within. trafficcongestion1Damage control on the inside with a big, fat fuck you to everything and everyone on the outside.

Rather than some theoretical undergrad philosophy exam question, this presents a much fuzzier future for self-driving cars. As the study’s researchers suggest, if people will be less inclined to buy or ride in autonomous vehicles that don’t put their safety first, who’s going to manufacture them? Will governments then bend to the will of those who’ve invested mightily in a driverless future, and maintain the status quo of acceptable losses on our roads, fingers crossed that they will be radically less than the numbers we’ve learned to live with? Is that the kind of future we should be building toward, Just like now, only less?

“Before we can put our values into machines,” Joshua Greene writes in Science, “we have to figure out how to make our values clear and consistent.”

mansbestfriendWhen it comes to prioritizing transportation choices, our values have been very clear and consistent. The safety, comfort, convenience of car drivers has been the number one value for the better part of a century now. That’s the reason for the sprawling, congested mess cities currently find themselves in. If we don’t take the opportunity this new technology offers us to challenge and change that single-minded approach to urban mobility, it will hardly matter who or what is behind the wheel. The future on our roads won’t look a whole lot different than the present.

skeptically submitted by Cityslikr