March 28th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

I just finished reading a book called A New Theory of Urban Design, written by the architect Christopher Alexander and several of his students. After they describe their theory, Alexander and his co-authors document an experiment in which a group of students used the theory to redesign a small part of San Francisco. The students paid no attention to zoning laws or bank lending policies. They even ignored the issue of property ownership; they simply grabbed chunks of land as they needed to and proposed things to build on them. The authors acknowledge that existing laws and institutions would prevent anyone from replicating their experiment in real life. Their proposed solution is to develop new institutions, but they admit that they have no idea what sort of institutions might be needed.

I also read Jonathan Schell’s recent articles in Harper’s, in which he argues that many wars could be prevented, if the United States and other democratic countries were willing, by creating a new set of international institutions—not the United Nations, but other institutions with a different character. Again, though, he isn’t sure what sort of institutions are required.

Finally, while I was in Cambridge in October, I bought a book called The Ingenuity Gap, which argues that our ability to create social and environmental problems is outstripping our ability to find ways of solving them. The book touched briefly on the point that our existing institutions (regulatory bodies, resource management agencies, and so on) are inadequate to solve the problems we face. Once again, I don’t think the author said much about what sort of institutions we need, just that we need different ones.

So there are interesting questions underlying all of these problems. How are institutions created? How do novel types of institutions develop—do they tend to emerge fully formed, or do they evolve from existing institutions? Once an institution is created, how does it adapt to changing circumstances?

I’m sure there are raftloads of books and journals that attempt to answer these questions; do you have any recommendations?

Pox Americana

March 18th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

Empire, the embodiment of force, is the antithesis of democracy and self-determination. It violates equity on a global scale. No lover of freedom can give it support. It is especially contrary to the revolutionary tradition and founding principles of the United States. Can a nation that began in rebellion against the greatest empire of its time end by turning itself into a still greater empire? Perhaps it can, but not if it wishes to remain a republic.

From Jonathan Schell’s article “No More Unto the Breach, Part Two: The Unconquerable World,” in the April 2003 issue of Harper’s.

Bad timing

March 16th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Had I known that a mysterious respiratory illness was spreading across several continents, I probably would have been less eager to watch 12 Monkeys last night.


March 10th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

August Strindberg & helium. Utter genius. This is why Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

No two are alike

March 3rd, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

Nature is remarkable.

No daddies, apparently

March 2nd, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

Anyone who cares about libraries, newspapers, or history—and I care about all three—would be disturbed by Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold, which describes how libraries around the world came to replace thousands of pristine volumes of newspapers with inferior microfilm.

What’s more, I’ve experienced one of the worst problems of microfilm—the occasional missing page, section, or entire issue of a publication—more times than I can remember. Several months ago, I went looking for a New York Times article from September 1959 describing the previous decade’s problem with juvenile gang violence; Jane Jacobs cited the article in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I was quite curious to read it. After some searching, I found it in the Times‘ subject index for that year. When I looked at the microfilm, though, the section it appeared in was missing entirely. Most daily newspapers no longer keep a print run of their own papers, so it’s quite possible that the article no longer exists anywhere at all.

But none of that disturbed me half as much as this passage:

The railroad from Cairo to Alexandria, imposed on the Abbas Pasha by the English in the early 1850s, runs through several bustling necropolises; Egypt had no indigenous coal and very little wood. A small item in the September 27, 1859, edition of the Syracuse Daily Standard reads: “Egypt has 300 miles of railroad. On the first locomotive run, mummies were used for fuel, making a hot fire. The supply of mummies is said to be almost inexhaustible, and are used by the cord.” Dard Hunter’s Papermaking cites an informant’s report that “during a ten-year period the locomotives of Egypt made use of no other fuel than that furnished by the well-wrapped, compact mummies.”

A geologist by the name of Isaiah Deck decided it would be better to remove the mummies’ linen shrouds and use them to make rag paper. There is evidence that American paper manufacturers took his advice.

The mind reels.

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