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Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg sits in the modernist tradition of turning villains and minor characters into antiheros; sympathy for the devil goes back to Milton. Our demon is Baba Yaga, the hag witch of Slavic folklore, who eats small children for lunch and gives gifts of wisdom to wandering young heroes after an ordeal or two.

The book’s first two sections are narratives focusing on old women. In the first section, the protagonist is a writer caring for her elderly mother who strives to maintain dignity with dementia. Where Baba Yaga is an infamous slob, the writer’s mother is obsessively neat; cleaning serves as or substitutes for affection. Where Baba Yaga is demonically clever, the writer’s mother is losing words to a slowly growing brain tumor, and even when she had her faculties was partial to aphorisms and cliches. While she shows the horrors of age in inverse fashion to Baba Yaga, she gives her daughter a gift; cranky and cold in her prime, she enables her daughter to show love, in a stilted and inarticulate fashion, in her decline.

In the second half of the first section, the writer travels to her hometown in Bulgaria accompanied by a younger woman, a scholar of folklore who is an obsequious fangirl bordering on stalker. The writer is taking the trip as a surrogate for her mom, hoping to recapture some feeling, but the post-iron curtain seaside town is grim and tawdry.

I’m not sure what to make of the anomie of this section; something about the anti-romance of the past in post-Soviet Central Europe. Maybe something about the disconnect of generations imposed by history and politics; the writer’s mom dealt with cataclysm by being relentlessly ordinary; the writer character is somewhat embittered by her dissidence and exile; the younger academic is left with a pale simulacrum of nationalism and alienation from biological and adopted families.

The anti-romance of the past takes a comic and ribald turn in the second section of the book, which migrates the Weird Sisters to a postwar resort in the Czech Republic. To the hotel clerk, the three elderly unmarried ladies look alike; as the story progresses, the characters reveal individual personality and individual history, each with her own tragedies, losses and secrets. Far from controlling fate, the three women’s lives have been shaped by history’s events and their own mistakes.

In the Baba Yaga legend, an old female character is isolated and alien; these three women take care of each other. Baba Yaga eats small children with her iron teeth; these old women take care of children after lifetimes of parenting failures and misadventures. The stereotype of old age is of stasis and decline, but the tale in this chapter shows older people continuing to change while they can.

Where the Baba Yaga legend mocks female old age, this chapter ridicules older men, portraying a series of pompous, egoistic schemers. Baba Yaga is old and hideous; but modern society is obsessed with trying to preserve female youth and beauty. Dubravka Ugresic sees the spa as an emblem of the vapidity of post-Soviet Central Europe. “In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body.”

This chapter comes the closest to feminist antihero fan fictions about characters such as Lilith and Vashti, taking bit-character villains and turning them into main characters. But it doesn’t adopt the feminist cliche of turning the villain into a hero. Buba, the character whose consciousness the narrative follows, is ridiculous; she is not very bright or articulate, she has a good heart but is clumsy and insecure. Dubravka Ugresic inverts villains into characters that are ordinary and imperfect.

The third section of the book is in the voice of the fangirl academic who expatiates on Baba Yaga folklore at tedious length. This is postmodern conceptual art; it’s mocking the dry irrelevance of the academic cataloging species of premodern horrors and resisting the temptations of scholarly explication. At the same time, it is Ugresic’s sly chance to caption the photographs in case the reader missed the meanings; the hag as icon for female old age; as projection of mysogynist fears; as the degraded image of the Goddess defeated by Patriarchy (Here’s a writeup of a book group discussion focusing on these themes with Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, a publishing house for feminist science fiction.

The thing is, while Ugresic pre-emptively incorporates and mocks her interpreter, she also invokes her own interpretation in the narrative sections, repeating and self-consciously questioning figures of eggs, birds, and flowers; beauty and tawdriness; eloquence and dumbness, magic and prose. She’s warning us off of interpretation but herself can’t stay away.

In the age of the internet, the traditional form of the book review is dead; but people still haven’t gotten the memo. In Goodreads, there are 28 “reviews” of the book, taking the form of a brief outline and summary, perhaps a quote, and then the author’s declaration of opinion. The form assumes that the reader hasn’t read the book, needs an introduction, but wants to avoid spoilers. The obsolete form is particularly annoying with this book which invites and resists its own explication.

Competing on moderation

In Google+, internet celebrities are again competing based on the size of their follower count. But I wonder whether there’s going to be a different criterion by which posters compete for attention on G+ as people get used to the service.

Recently, Anil Dash wrote an excellent post about the responsibility of site owners to moderate the comments on their sites – If your website’s full of assholes , it’s your fault. Anil takes to task publishers of online news sites who allow their comments sections to fill with hostility and abuse. A year ago, Robert Niles made a similar point – sites need to take responsibility for their comments, and those that don’t want to invest in their comments should turn them off. The Tummelvision crew have been evangelizing the need and value of “tummelling, a word adapted from a Yiddish word for someone hired to MC a party, applied to facilitating conversation and engagement online.

In Google+, like blogs and unlike Twitter, each post becomes the anchor for a comment stream. A poster’s followers can chime in and discuss. Currently, G+ posters have a few basic tools to moderate their stream – they can remove comments, and report users who are adding spam or abuse.

Some high-profile posters have the hang of facilitating a conversation. They participate, interact with others, respond to points in the discussion, and to the tone of contributions. The participants in some threads are good conversationalists – they respond to each other. When they disagree, they’re polite. In other posters’ discussions, participants race to state their own opinion, and don’t interact with each other. Comments aren’t a conversation but a serial monolog. In some posters’ discussions, hostile comments such as personal attacks and sexist remarks are met with disapproval and warning, in other discussions they go by unremarked and continue.

Many have observed that one of the distinctive aspects of Google+ compared to other social media is engagement – participants share, +1, and comment more actively than on other sites. Will the quality of moderation and community become one of the factors that distinguishes posters to Google+? Will posters with better discussions gather more and better engagement over time?

The quality of engagement certainly makes a difference to my online choices. I love Ta Nehisi Coates blog partly because of his fantastic writing and engagement with the topics he takes on, and in part because he’s attracted maybe the best comments section I’ve seen on the internet. As a moderator, he is not shy about using the ban hammer, and also holds high standards for posters on the site to respond to each other, not to straw man arguments, and to interact with respect. On Google+, I make choices about which threads to enter because of the style of the community I expect from the poster.

Will the quality of discussion become a more important factor for posters in Google+?

GAFFTA Summer of Smart – transportation and sustainability hacks

Bring together a bunch of hackers, open government data, some government pros and the desire to improve sustainability and transportation, and what do you get? Last weekend, the Summer of Smart program at GAFFTA (Gray Area Foundation for the Arts) in San Francisco yielded seven cool hack projects. At the end of the hackathon, each team presented about their projects:

Two of the hacks used building data to visualize the green-ness commercial and residential buildings.

** Building tools that let prospective commercial tenants and brokers view the great features of the building to drive demand for eco-friendly buildings. Discover performance on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, walk/bike/transit, and occupant rating. They use data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star,, publicopenspaces. Much of the data is not available, so they build an API to get data by address. They build a widget that could be used on 3rd party websites, such as LoopNet, a tool to discover commercial properties for rent. One of the challenges is getting enough rating data available. Currently the solar data is closed, so they will ask to make that available. They also give buildings a transparency score to encourage buildings to provide more information.

*PermitThis* takes data from building permits on to create a picture of green building retrofit history. Over 65% of San Francisco housing stock was build in 1959 or earlier, and areas of the city vary greatly in how close they are to current code. There are 15 years worth of data – they scraped the last month for the weekend project. A lot of data is released in messy excel spreadsheets.

Two of the hacks were about transportation:

*Improved trouble ticket handling for Muni* Operators don’t want to use the current system because they feel they will get reprimanded for dealing with the problem. Muni has a plan to upgrade the radio system in 3-5 years, which is 1.27 billion boardings. The app shows a troubled train on a map and makes the information available to decision-makers. The app has automatically generated trouble tickets (for example, a train has long dwell time) and user-generated trouble tickets. The app also shows a dashboard view of all trouble tickets. This would be integrated into the NextMuni line manager laptop.

*Transanka* Event ridesharing for EventBrite events – parties, conferences, concerts. Choose an event, indicate your location, and show if you’re riding, driving, or either. Then click to contact someone traveling to the event.

Just that weekend, I had been looking into ridesharing apps for a local environmental nonprofit that wanted to facilitate ridesharing for its events. I hope this app gets built out and gets traction – there’s a need for it.

Two of the hacks were games:

** is a game to promote resilient communities by encouraging neighbors to meet each other. People can win points by giving a neighbor a high five, meeting a farmer at a farmers market, spot a solar panel, make street art with chalk, give a gift, learn some local history, or get someone to dance with them. They got prizes from local merchants and played the game in the NOPA neighborhood. And everybody wins by making friends in their neighborhood. They played the game this weekend, and people did every activity, including impromptu dance parties. People wanted to take the cards with them – they want to meet neighborhoods but need an excuse to do it.

*Going Green* is a board game that educates people about financial benefits of going green including financial rebates. Each player character is a San Francisco neighborhood, each with its own strength. Players can choose to take actions like adding solar panels and ride sharing programs. The winner is the player that has the most environmental impact.

And there was one advocacy app.

** _The Call Wall_ is an app to call a representative and record an mp3 of the call that is placed on the site. They use Sunlight and VoteSmart databases for representative contact info. They are looking to use SoundCloud as the audio sharing backend.

The promise of Google+ for organizing

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on the trouble with Facebook for organizing.

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is the place where activists and organizers have flocked to help their movements spread. Given the role that Facebook and Twitter played in actual revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this can’t be understated! Social media are powerful tools for organizing, proved. (Although social media didn’t cause the revolution, and techies can overstate the influence of technology in the organizing work that people do).

Yet there is still a key limitation in Facebook’s model that keeps it from being as powerful as it could be. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook. The Facebook model, where a friend needs to approve a friend request, is designed for people who already know each other. It’s awkward for people who don’t know each other to to talk to each other, and it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t know in real life.

Facebook groups overcome this limitation to some extent. In a topically focused group, it’s accepted to talk to others in the group you haven’t met yet; the invitation bridges the gap. But there is still a big barrier to getting to know new people.

Another problem with Facebook for organizers is that as an organizer, you don’t know who people are unless you friend them personally, which is uncool and impossible for large movements. With Google+, you can see people’s profiles. And as a participant, you can also choose what facets of your identity to share with whom. Powerful and ethical, the best of both worlds.

In Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without following them back. You can become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use gestures like retweet and reply to get their attention and make their acquaintance. But it Twitter back-and-forth conversation is painful and next-to-impossible. So Twitter is better for broadcast than conversation and meeting people.

Google+ design choices, by contrast, make it easy, appealing, and fun to make the acquaintance of new people. Unlike Twitter, conversation is easy to see.

A post is read by the people following the poster, so a conversation will typically have people you don’t know, and new people are quickly chatting amongst each other. It’s easy to take a quick peek at someone’s profile, and see something about them, and what else they contribute. G+ has an asymmetrical model like Twitter, so there’s no social obligation imposed by following. If you choose not to follow someone, their posts still appear in a special “incoming” stream unless you block them, so you can make the decision later.

So Google+ is not just for spreading the world within existing social networks (a la Facebook) and not just for broadcasting, it’s for creating new connections.

Why new connections are important

Malcolm Gladwell was roundly criticized for his ill-informed critique of online organizing as mere “slacktivism”, lightweight action among people with weak ties. In his view, real organizing only takes place among people who know each other well in the physical world. So, the civil rights movement, where organizing traversed the social networks in the African-American church, was an example of real, powerful organizing.

Of course, Tahrir Square showed that was wrong, but why? The principle to learn from the civil rights movement isn’t that movements travel through churches, but that they travel through existing social networks. Facebook traces real social networks and strengthens those networks according to a recent study by Pew Research. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s sociological analysis seemed to show that contemporary folk were more isolated and less organized than in the past. If so, Pew’s finding is showing that online connections these days are strengthening our actual social ties.

There are several flaws in Gladwell’s argument. First, as a strong critique in the Nation points out, connections in Facebook and Twitter include real world strong ties, not just weak ties.

Not only that, weak ties are what allow ideas (and protests) to spread among small groups of close contacts. In the civil rights movement, networks among church leaders and progressive leaders allowed ideas and plans to spread among churches and communities, and media coverage fuled the fire The weak tie connections in social media allow this spread to happen quickly.

The Nation article also critique’s Gladwell’s point that online groups can only “swarm”, they can’t do more complex organizing. It uses the example of the Obama campaign that was hyper-disciplined about managing volunteers and giving them specific actions to do.

Gladwell’s argument is wrong even in his core argument about how classic organizing worked. A key part of organizing is building the social network, not just traversing the existing network. Union organizers created songs, social halls, and workers schools to increase the social connections among workers, to help workers, of course, and to solidify those social connections that would help them organize. Google+, if it takes off, can help people to extend ties, not just to work within existing ties.

What’s missing, and what could be next

“If it takes off” is a crucial caveat. What makes Facebook so powerful is critical mass. In many parts of the developed world, everyone is there. In Egypt, a relatively small number of poeple were online, but people online were able to share tactics with each other and spread them to people who were not online. Google+ needs a large following among nongeeks in order to become effective. The rapid growth is promising, but it’s early.

Google+ is missing two critical features to make organizing really powerful. Google+ doesn’t yet have shared groups. Currently it only has “circles” which are set up by individuals to control what they read and what they share. The good thing about this is that I can have a “Circle” of people that are interested in local transit issues, and I don’t need to bore people who are out of town or uninterested.

But the bad thing is there isn’t a way for a set of people to mutually share about a topic or for others to easy discover and join. In Friendfeed you can search for public groups; in Yahoo groups, you can also browse a directory and find groups you’re interested in. It would be great if you could search or browse for public groups, and if you could choose to have public groups appear on your profile, if you want to let others know.

Another gap in the Google+ model for sharing is the lack of hashtags or topic filtering. With Google+, you can only control posting and listening by person, not by topic. Adding tag/topic filtering will make it much easier for people to choose what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. It will make it easier to have advocacy without spam.

Another major opportunity is for decentralized but coordinated action. The Nation article gives examples of the Obama campaign and MoveOn campaigns that centrally coordinate large amounts of local action. But Obama volunteers and MoveOn house parties don’t have very much autonomy, and there aren’t good ways today for groups to work separately but together. That’s hugely promising, and Google’s circles and upcoming APIs could make this easier. This is a rich topic for its own blog post, so I’ll stop here and pick that up in another post.

I’m excited by the potential Google+, as a social network, and as it matures, a potentially powerful platform for organizing.

My Mom craves Google+

On Google+ the other day, I was reading a long discussion thread about what “normal” people would think about Google and Facebook and privacy and circles, and my mom called.

My mom sells houses in the Philadelphia area, and she asked me for a Google+ invitation, because her real estate colleagues were discussing it at work. Most real estate business comes from referrals, so agents use Facebook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with former clients.

When I asked her about why she’d be interested in Google+ compared to Facebook, she said: “”They were thinking that Google would be better than Facebook because it would be easier to categorize people.” In particular, she is concerned about what she shared with whom. “People don’t have to know politically where I’m coming from, you have to be very cautious about what you say.” She doesn’t want to talk about politics with her potential customers looking on.

This is a counterexample to Robert Scoble’s hypothesis that “Mom and Dad” don’t care about choosing who you share with and are perfectly fine with Facebook as it is. Yishan Wong, formerly of Facebook, posted a sophisticated variant of this opinion on Quora, saying that on Facebook people assume they are talking to their friends, and if someone is not included in the conversation, they should have the social graces to stay out of it. But that’s not how my mom saw it, she didn’t assume that if she talked about Barack Obama, that everybody who didn’t happen to be her political buddies would stay out of it. She assumed controversial topics would start arguments, and people who weren’t in the conversation would make judgements, and that wasn’t a good thing.

My Mom is not in the tech world, has never heard of TechCrunch, has no idea who Robert Scoble is. Using “women” in general as a proxy for nongeeks is a bad idea, by my mom in specific is a nongeek. The Facebook sharing dilemma is part of her life, and she’s looking forward to Google+ to help solve it. Facebook’s List UI to control sharing would be too complicated for her to use, and it will be very interesting to see if she finds circles easy to handle.

The techie stereotype that people don’t care and won’t bother is condescending – it will be interesting to see how my mom and other nontechies react when they get hold of Google+.

Eager for Google+ API – circles for social applications

Yesterday I was meeting with the founder of startup building a new volunteer organizing tool. The tool itself is trying to provide a simple way for volunteers to get things done together, to do more substantial work than simple “clicktivism.” But the tool had very limited functionality for setting up circles of volunteers to hand out tasks.

Then, I started playing around with I wanted to start a channel and share with people who have some similar musical tastes.

The missing functionality, in both cases, wasn’t just finding and inviting individuals (which could be done by integrated with Facebook). It was the ability to share functionality and stuff with sets of people. For both of these very different tools, it would be a major drain to have to build this user and group management functionality. I think there is powerful potential for Google+ to provide an API that gives sharing and collaboration services access to Circles, and gives people the ability to share richer capabilities with people in their circles.

There are a few big risks to the realization of this vision. The first is – are large numbers of people going to understand it? Google Wave was a flop because nobody in their right mind understood conversations where you could easily go back and revise somebody else’s words in the past. It blended synchronous and async conversation in ways that nobody understood. It was a mindwarp.

Google Circles’ basic affordance is parceling people into groupings, which is straightforward. Those groupings can be used both for filtering a stream, and for targeted communication and sharing. Will this dual role make sense to people?

One key missing feature the lack of “symmetric” groups – groups that everyone can see who’s in. Google’s circles are currently only visible to their creator, which makes them helpful as filtering tools but awkward for sharing and collaboration where people want to know who they are talking to. But if Google had both asymmetric circles (where only the creator sees who’s in them) and symmetric circles (where everyone can see who’s in), would people understand the nuances or would it get too complicated?

Google definitely did the right thing by releasing the application before the platform. Another weakness of Wave is that it tried to be a platform before there were any working applications, and so there was no evolutionary pressure to create basic services that were known to be useful. By releasing G+ as an app, Google can evolve it based on participant feedback, and the resulting API services will be more useful.

In the first few hours of playing, I’m enjoying Google+. I think the social internet would benefit hugely from Circles as a service. And time will tell whether it gets the core traction it needs to get moving. If it does, a platform could really take off and be a major benefit for the social web.

Organizing lessons

Over the last year I’ve been doing a bit of grass roots organizing. Although organizers these days have some nifty new tools, I suspect that the basics of organizing are fundamentally the same as they’ve been for ages. Lately, I’ve been reading some books on the history of the US civil rights movement, for remedial education, and insights into principles of organizing.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken:

*Organizing traverses existing groups and social networks.* Aldon Morris’ book describes how the civil rights movement spread within African-American churches, protests were organized in church networks, and practices were shared across geographical areas through networks of ministers. Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander School, observed how movements spread across a wider variety of groups, such as union committees, coops, and community organizations.

Some social media fans believe that the age of groups is over and done with; from now on, movements will spread only through personal social networks. I find this hard to believe; personal networks are great for spreading ideas and attracting new people, but groups are still important for people to affiliate, for sharing culture, and for organizing complex practices. Individuals will invite their friends to a bike ride or share a link to call legislators to protect bike lane funding. But a bicycle group is helpful for holding parties, for providing city cycling lessons, for coordinated advocacy over time.

* Organizing is work.* There is a myth that the civil rights movement represented a spontaneous overflowing of emotion. But the day after Rosa Parks was arrested, organizers had 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go. The organizers had already created detailed plans for the protest, building on a previous bus boycott.

* Build local leadership, and a network of leaders* The philosophy of the Highlander School, and SNCC from Highlander, was to cultivate leadership among people, and train trainers. This helps the movement spread, and sets the stage for longer-lasting change.

The needs for capacity, leadership, and network building were notable in their short supply, in a set of events on Bay Area transit and land use planning that I’ve attended. The events, led by different organizations, provided professional-quality presentations, and gave attendees opportunity to discuss and express opinions. But there were no ways to attract interested, capable people into new organizing roles, nor were there good ways for people to initiate action based on the discussions. The events were top-down organized ways of soliciting public opinion, but did not catalyze new leaders and new action. When I asked someone who had reviewed the proposal for one of the events, she observed that “follow-up was not in the grant.”

* Methods depend on the situation.* This is a crucial lesson. Disciples of a movement or leader often seem to imitate the tactics of their heroes. But their heroes themselves chose tactics for the specific circumstances.

Writing about the influence of SNCC on SDS, the largely-white student radical group, Clayborne Carson says that in their idealization of civil rights protestors, the anti-war radicals didn’t realize that SNCC’s protest tactics were aimed specifically at sparking violent opposition from segregationists and triggering rescue intervention from the federal government.

Observing the success of the protest tactics of the civil rights movement, Aldon Morris concludes that direct action protests are more effective than NAACP’s efforts to work through legal channels. But even Stokely Carmichael favor of going through official channels when the petitioners have the power to do so. Once, in an region where black people had already gained influence, Carmichael was approached by a group wanting a road paved. He told them to go to the courthouse instead of holding a protest.

In order to teach African-American adults to pass the literacy tests required for voting, Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins didn’t hold a protest, and they didn’t petition the education system. Instead, they created their own “Citizenship Schools”, taught by literate adults, with curriculum materials designed for the interests of the students, who learned to fill out Sears Catalog order forms and job applications, and learned to read the state constitution.

A protest is warranted when when going through channels won’t work, when there are people in power who are in a position to grant the request, and when the demand is something that one needs to ask for and can’t create oneself.

Attention-getting media tactics work when the story is new and newsworthy, and when the mass media audience will be brought to sympathize with the protest. The 15th annual march for xyz cause isn’t news. And disruptive tactics that an audience will find repellent or annoying are unlikely to have desired results.

*Patience and impatience* The toughest issue to get a handle on is timing. When to be patient, and when to be impatient. In his autobiography, “The Long Haul”, Myles Horton wrote about pushing students at the Highlander school, but also not pushing people further than they could go. The decisions here are based on gut feeling and intuition, and only distant hindsight can say what was successful.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish

When I was a kid in the 70s, the family went car-camping to visit relatives across the country.  All across the country, there were signs by the highway for trout fishing and rainbow trout. Why were these trout found all over the country? Where did they come from? Why was recreational trout-fishing ubiquitous, like golden arches and HoJos?

Anders Halvorson tells the story in An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. Starting in the 1870s, an effort began to spread “superior fish” around the country and around the world.  Populations of brook trout on the East Coast were declining as industrial pollution destroyed habitat and warmed streams. Rainbow trout could tolerate higher temperatures and dirtier environments. Advocates of fish stocking argued that spreading hardier fish would solve the problem, since surely it was not feasible to cut the industrial pollution that inevitably accompanied progress.

The spread of fish around the US in the latter 1800s was part of a worldwide movement among colonizing societies to “acclimatize” species  from colonial territories to the old world, and from the old world to the new. Starlings were imported to the US by an eccentric New York drugs manufacturer who believed that US culture would be elevated by exposure to all of the species mentioned in Shakespeare; starlings were among his greatest successes. Halvorson connects the confident dissemination of species around the globe with broader ideologies:

As a philosophy, acclimatization fit well with American ideas of progress and manifest destiny. The white man would rightfully and inevitably replace the native people of the continent, civilization would supplant wilderness, and new plants and animals would ultimately oust their native counterparts. “Our only object can be to improve our fishing, and make our stock of sporting fish, if possible, the best in the world,” wrote one avid promoter of the idea.” Let the best fish, like the best man, win.”

Rainbow trout were considered elite among fish; they were seen as a noble adversary for sport fishing since they were easily attracted to fishing lures and tended to struggle aggressively on the fishing line.  The spread of rainbow trout across the US helped support the rapid growth of fishing as a sport. Fin de siecle promoters were concerned about the decline of white Anglo-Saxon manhood as the upper classes enaged in white collar work while immigrants and African-Americans took over physical labor. Hiking, camping, fishing and other outdoor sports would bolster white masculinity.

Starting in the late 1900s parks started to make money by charging for fishing permits; the trend escalated in the mid-20th century with the federalization of fishing licence fees. The fees from recreational fishing fed a massive rainbow trout hachery and stocking enterprise. After World War II, an enterprising former military pilot experimented and found that fish would survive being dropped from airplanes, and demobilized pilots made their living “planting” fish in lakes and rivers on a grand scale around the country. Fish stocking was extremely popular; fishing hobbyists would beg game services to stock their favorite fishing spot.  By 2004, the US government disseminated over 40 million pounds of fish per year, over half of which consisted of rainbow trout.

But the system started to slowly unravel starting in 1962, when fishing management agencies botched an effort to poison all of the fish in the Green River watershed, covering most of southeastern Wyoming and a chunk of Northwestern Utah. The practice of poisoning existing “inferior” species and replacing them with trout had become routine in the 1950s. The agencies had planned to introduce an antidote to stop the poisoning north of Dinosaur National Monument, a newly minted national park that had recently been saved from development by the rising Sierra Club. But the antidote failed; the fish in the national park were killed, the story made the news, and the seemingly sensible policy of replacing species wholesale never seemed quite so benign again.

Gradually, research into river ecosystems cast increasing doubt on the benefits of stocking lakes and rivers with rainbow trout. In the 1960s, government scientists inventoried fish and realized that restocking waters where trout were already acclimatized actually had a negative return. When new fish were stocked, the newcomers, raised in the crowded hatcheries, aggressively competed with existing fish but didn’t survive long in the wild; the net result was fewer fish, not more fish. Some fisheries started cutting back on fishing in areas where “wild” fish were already doing fine.

In the 1990s, research into the ecosystems of Sierra Lakes, which had no fish until the stocking program, revealed that the introduced fish devastated the populations of frogs, birds and bats. When fish were removed, the other species bounced back.  In many districts today, the fish and wildlife agencies are attempting to gradually reversing the stocking of rainbow trout, and seeking to  restore the balance of earlier species. The restoration can be difficult since Rainbow Trout have interbred with native species. It is difficult to determine which populations have enough of the native species to be worth special efforts to preserve.

“An Entirely Synthetic Fish” joins the short list of my favorite books of environmental history, for the way that reveals strange and changing trends in American society, while unravelling the history of seemingly ordinary fishing spots around the country. Yet the story Halvorson tells reveals that seemingly rational efforts to understand and deal with the natural world were intertwined with human ideologies about ethnicity, gender, and the relation between people and the rest of the natural world. Even contemporary focus on restoring native habitats reflects human-centerered attitude toward nature; in this case the pre-stocking native ecosystem is seen as better, although the continent has seen numerous turnovers of species resulting from introductions and extinctions not caused by people. Activities conducted under the auspices of science, government authority, and popular demand are vulnerable to the follies of their time, which is cause for humility and skepticism about conventional wisdom.

The claustrophobia of personalization

This past weekend I watched a couple of movies based on Netflix recommendations which dredged up films that I’d wanted to watch for ages. I liked the movies – Netflix had it right. But the process of trolling through Netflix recs leaves me with a feeling of claustrophobia. I page through screen after screen, recognizing the same attributes I find pleasing. One of the things that I like best is finding new esthetic experiences through the tastes of other people. There needs to be some commonality – I’m not going to like super-violent movies or really schmaltzy ones. But I can expand what I like by experiencing what someone else enjoys. Browsing the Netflix recs created a strange sense of ennui – being bored with my own esthetic.

John Battelle made a related point last fall, when he wrote about the limits of the spread of dependent identity on the web (you can call it “facebookification”). If your identity follows you around to different social contexts, this constrains your ability to approach new social contexts and engage yourself quietly and gradually. He gives the example of listening to a group of cyclists discuss bikes, and having his favorite model immediately shared, rather than disclosing the information gradually. The availability of immediate identity has the potential to make the online world less like an urban area, where there are new social contexts to engage with, and more like a small town, where everyone remembers what you did a decade or two ago.

Battelle suggests that social software patterns should add nuance – the ability to choose when to disclose one’s identity in a new site – to mitigate the chilling effect of premature disclosure The claustrophobia of personalization might be mitigated with different patterns, ways of adding in social influences.

In the early days of the internet, Nicholas Negroponte talked about the promise and the threat of the “daily me” – news services that support the interests and the prejudices of the viewer. Considering total and immediate personalization as the extreme of a continuum, there are interesting opportunities to add back flexibility and diversity to the experience.

The High Cost of Free Parking

Why did the US landscape become covered in sprawl in the second half of the 20th century? Why were retail stores located in strip malls and shopping centers where it was impossible to walk, while downtown districts languished? One key reason is that it wasn’t legal to build compact shopping areas, because postwar legal codes quickly added mandatory parking requirements for new buildings. And it wasn’t legal to rehab older buildings and convert them to new uses unless they could retroactively add as much parking as a suburban shopping center. Parking requirements institutionalized the designs we recognize as sprawl.

But, isn’t all that parking needed? In The High Cost of Free Parking UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup explains that the parking requirements used across the US are based on bad data and poor logic. The “bible” used by local planners to set parking requirements, the Parking Generation manual published by the Institute for Transportation Engineers, includes information about parking requirements for hundreds of uses, from fast food restaurants to funeral parlors. Many of the data points in the manual are based on one to four observations – not enough data to mean anything. The classic planners’ rule of thumb for the allocation of parking spaces is based on the square footage of the type of building. But studies show that there is no statistical correlation between the square footage and parking use.

And the logic behind the parking requirements is specious. For each new building, developers are required to build out the amount of parking needed for drivers to easily get a spot at close to the highest use of the year — assuming that parking is provided free to drivers. The prediction for the amount of parking consumed is based on a universal assumption that it is a good that should be free, and always available.

Now, if you ask drivers or merchants if they want free parking, the answer is going to be yes. Same as if you offer free chocolate or free beer. But society doesn’t provide free beer. The cost of “free” parking is built into housing, commercial building, and all other products and services. The High Cost of Free Parking totals up the cumulative value of the free off-street parking subsidy for drivers- it adds up to between 1.2 and 3.6 percent of GDP, larger than Medicare, and near to the amount spent on the US military.

A major contributing factor to sprawl is the assumption of free parking, and the mandatory requirement for developers to provide as much free parking to meet the maximum desire for free parking. This state of affairs isn’t the result of a national policy debate, like debates about whether society should provide health care or education. It just gradually accreted based on an assumption that parking ought to be free for drivers.

The consequence is a landscape covered in parking that is unused 99% of the time and development patterns that make alternatives to driving impractical and unsafe. And, as road planners eventually learned, it is impossible to build one’s way out of traffic. At busy times and places, most drivers aren’t going someplace, they are circling looking for free parking spots, even if there is offstreet parking not that far away.

After laying out the case for the cost and damage caused by ubiquitous free parking, Shoup presents a number of insightful and practical ways to gradually get us out of this jam. To reduce the number of parking spots, employers can offer employees transit passes, and options to take cash instead of a parking spot. Studies of initiatives in Silicon Valley found that transit passes reduced parking by about 20%, and allowing employees to “cash out” their parking allowance reduced parking by another 13%. These results occurred even though alternatives to driving in Silicon Valley are limited – people will use alternatives when it makes sense. Similar initiatives allow businesses and apartment buildings to replace some of their parking requirement by allocating space for car-sharing services, instead of a larger number of private cars.

Instead of requiring developers to build parking spots, some cities are allowing developers to pay cash instead – the money is used to build shared parking that can be more space-efficient than parking for each building, and allows businesses with different time needs for parking, like a bank and a nightclub, to share parking. There are further innovations in parking technology that make it easier to set prices. Digital meters can monitor the use of parking and be used to set a price that will maintain about 15 percent vacancy – a rate that ensure easy entry and exit, without traffic james caused by cruising for parking. San Francisco is experimenting with networked parking meters that charge based on availability. Similar systems have been in place in Aspen since 1995, and such systems are common in Europe.

But how to get around people’s preference and habit for free stuff? Shoup makes a case in favor of creating parking districts that sending the revenue from metered parking to the local neighborhood. This approach has been effective in Pasadena, where downtown renewal in the 80s and 90s was fostered by paid parking, with revenue used to pay for lighting, street furniture, trees, and other other improvements to the local business district.

My motivation to read this book was sparked by a controversy around a downtown redevelopment project in Menlo Park where I live. The proposals call for shorter time limits in the central district, and longer-term paid parking in lots that are a few minutes away, and for eventually replacing some street level parking lots behind the downtown main street with parking structures allowing longer-term paid parking. Local businesses protested vehemently, fearing that charging for parking, and encouraging drivers to park in lots for long visits would chase drivers to other areas. I wondered about the underlying assumptions behind the design, and wondered whether the fears of local merchants were justified.

It turns out that the dire outcomes feared by local businesses didn’t materialize in Pasadena – charging for parking didn’t chase visitors away, and the more attractive, walkable, and less congested downtown generated more business. According to Shoup’s argument, the Menlo Park plan does not go far enough. Instead of restricting parking time at popular locations on the main street, it would be better to charge for parking. For a quick stop the fee would be minimal, and the price would encourage employees and others staying for hours to park in the garage.

Defenders of suburban sprawl often contend that the American landscape has been created by “the free market.” This view ignores the web of policies and subsidies that created the current system. Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier describes the policies that favored highways and new construction over transit and refurbishing older buildings. Shoup’s book explains another important piece of the puzzle – parking requirements that result in overbuilding of parking and major subsidies favoring driving instead of alternatives. Shoup argues that if prices were used to allocate the provision of parking, there would be less oversupply of parking, and more parking available when people need it.

One of my favorite quotes is from biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” There’s a historical trajectory and structural reasons that resulted in things being the way they are. But just because there’s an explainable cause doesn’t mean that the system is easy to change. One of the strengths of the book is that it describes mechanisms to introduce change that could garner support, and brings evidence for many of these mechanisms working in practice.

The High Cost of Free Parking joins a short list of my favorite books that uncover the origins and mechanisms behind aspects of daily life we often take for granted. The book long, and makes its points exhaustively, sometimes repetitively. I’ve summarized the books argument in this post for readers who may not have the attention to get through 700 pages of data and evidence about parking policy. For those who are interested in urban design and environmental issues, the book is enlightening and highly recommended.