Local != local (or how not to position urban renewal projects)

April 22nd, 2014

eat local and by local we mean on the couch

earlier today on the A-train

Saturday morning we paid a brief and very disappointing visit to De Hallen, a new multi use space constructed in a former tram depot in Amsterdam west. The entire complex, which is still under construction, is nestled within a dense residential neighbourhood, next to a daily street market. Once fully operational it will contain restaurants, a food hall, shops and workspaces, a branch of the municipal library, a bike parking and yet another upscale hotel. The concept seems to place a particular focus on recycling and local sourcing.

While most of the complex is still under development the library and the central passage that extends from the street market though the entire complex are already open for use. Saturday and Sunday saw the first big event, a Local Goods Weekend Market organized by Pakhuis de Zwijger, platform Made in Amsterdam and Indie Brands.

The Local Goods Weekend Market drew quite a large crowd of hipsters and post-DINK families (we fall into this demographic) which is not that surprising considering that it brought together purveyors of goods that are much thought after in these circles: indie beer brewers (2x), sausage makers, things made from recycled bikes/bikeparts (1,2,3), hand made yoga mat bags, speciality coffee, all-natural handcrafted hot sauces and home made cup cakes. Combine this with a company that lets you 3D print your name as jewellery and an open design outfit that lets you make laser engraved wooden business cards and you have the perfect country fair for the university-educated post financial crisis city dweller.

I am not entirely sure why this hipster circus made me so mad this time (usually i have a fairly high tolerance in for things like this), but i suspect that it was a combination of two factors:

First of all there was really nothing useful to buy at the place. The laser cut wooden business cards and the 3D printed ‘jewellery’ were the icing on the cake in this regard, but even the two beer breweries would only sell you bottles of beer to take at home, and seemed to be content with people looking at the beer bottles with their fancy labels: a social gathering where you can look at beer bottles! Also there was no real food to be obtained, no pork buns, ramen, fish tacos or whatever else is currently fashionable (the only thing to eat were poffertjes from some silly cowboy themed vendor on a bike). Nothing to eat and nothing to drink, but lots of locally produced tit-tat to look at and maybe buy.

The second reason for being being mad is a bit more substantial and has to do with this (long) blog post by Adam Greenfield in which he outlines his current reserach focus on (in his own words) ‘land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an [urban] environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems’.

In this post he describes three sites of urban practice that he considers instructional. One of these places (if you are interested in the other ones read his full post, it is worth it) is the the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark:

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

Having read this description on friday morning, visiting De Hallen for the first time on saturday morning was a huge disappointment. One could vividly imagine (or at least hope for) De Hallen functioning on a similar basis (not least because they are also consisting of abandoned railway infrastructure) but it seems that the developers miss the understanding of social interaction that Adam asribes to the developers of the Godsbanen/Institute for (x) complex. Granted, De Hallen is not fully operational yet and it has some promising aspects (like the beautiful and spacious new public library branch), but the signs that this will end up as some sanitized development that does not communicate with its environment and that does not encourage experimentation are hard to miss.

Maybe the most visible indicator was how the Local Goods Weekend Market was completely unconnected to the Ten Kate street market that is situated on one of the streets connected by the main passageway through De Hallen: There seemed to to be next to no exchange between the two markets to the extent that most of the visitors to the Local Goods Weekend Market entered from the opposite side and then turned around at the end rather than exiting towards the street market. Never has an event that advertises itself as local felt so utterly alien to the locality that it is situated in. I have no idea if this can be fixed, but a good start would probably be to mix the two marktes next time around. That would – at the minimum – fix the absence-of-food problem and with a bit of luck the brewers will actually serve beer next time (i quite like the ones make by butchers tears).

on organisations stunning ability to absorb nonsensical claims about technology

April 20th, 2014

So i have finally managed to finish Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city (i had lapsed soon after this picture was taken). The book is well worth reading and contains a number valuable insights but there is one passage that stands out for me.

Towards the end of the book (or pamphlet as Adam refers to it) he explains why his method of examining the language of marketing and promotional copy of IT vendors is important even though the same vendors, when challenged on the claims contained in it are quick to dismiss its as mere marking language. This passage is one of the best explanations of how marketing language (and more particular: claims about technology) gets absorbed by organisations (in this case municipal governments):

But refusing to take this sort of language seriously means succumbing to a certain naïveté about the ways in which knowledge tends to be reproduced nowadays, and the processes through which it does its work in the world.

At the launch of any new corporate smart-city initiative, content promoting it and aligning it with the enterprise’s overarching brand proposition is generated by the marketing department, and released into the wild on the global website, where it will be indexed by Google in less than a minute. This initiative almost immediately comes to the attention of the planet’s several thousand technology bloggers, writing for outlets of various provenance, who generally have automated keyword searches set up to notify them whenever an item of interest is published. Because these bloggers are simultaneously under intense contractual pressure to post several times a day, are by definition enthusiastic about technology and are, by and large, unschooled in the arts of skeptical reportage, they tend to take the claims they are offered at face value. (This is true of bloggers writing for the Guardian or the New York Times every bit as much as it is of their less well-positioned peers.)

In a manner of minutes, talking points from the original press release are paraphrased in the blogger’s idiom of choice and bundled into a new post, and this may happen across dozens of competing sites in a very brief span of time. Links to these posts are, in turn, instantaneously produced by automated Twitter accounts, endlessly replicated both on Twitter itself and via other social-media channels linked to it through its API; these in turn spur a wave of response from a far larger number of people around the world who are equally excited at the prospect of living in the future, and within a few hours at most a rich loam of online commentary has been laid down. Very little of this commentary evaluates what is being claimed in any depth, or even compares the item at hand to previous assertions made by the same institution, but the volume of buzz is impressive. And due in no small part to the way Google itself works, this distributed colloquy creates an immediate impression that there is a there there. Over the space of a few hours, a framing or perspective originating in a deeply interested party has simply become an unquestioned part of the fabric of consensual knowledge.

What happens on the receiving end, inside the municipal bodies that constitute the primary presumptive audience for such a marketing campaign? Low-level bureaucrats, pressed for time and starved for insight, stumble onto this thicket of conversation via a cursory keyword search; they copy-and-paste a few lines from the first reasonably credible-looking search result into their PowerPoint slides, unmodified; and these slides then get submitted up the hierarchy. The language propagates across the institution — and, what’s more, it meshes with that found in the hurriedly-downloaded white papers on the subject that someone found on the website of a name-brand management consultancy. The savvier staffers start to feel confident using these terms: speaking in them, thinking in them. While misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so and passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved. (If, as the saying has it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s also the case that one may find oneself on shaky ground contradicting something printed straight from the IBM website.) When finally pressed to make a “recommendation as to how the city’s resources should be allocated, the easiest thing for a committee member to do is go with the flow, to at least outwardly agree with the person at the table who seems to know what they’re talking about, simply to bring the drawn-out process of decision-making to a close. 

This sort of thing, of course, happens across the entire range of issues a municipal agency may be asked to face. But it appears to be especially true where questions of information technology are concerned, given the unusual amount of mystification that shrouds even consumer-grade products and services, to say nothing of the degree of intimidation otherwise competent adults routinely feel in their presence. Where there is a decision to be made, a confident point of view being advanced and no party with the necessary bona fides stepping forward to challenge it, the natural, the human thing to do is defer. And so this body of ideas gets reproduced, just as surely as code libraries are when they are downloaded from open-source repositories like Github or SourceForge. And every time this happens, a very particular set of valuations and priorities is reproduced alongside them. What was once merely a sequence of words crafted by a marketing department for their euphony, service to a business model and alignment with a particular set of brand values becomes inscribed in, or as, a city’s official program. 

This, in broad outline, is how a premature and preemptive consensus formed around the desirability of something called the smart city. I should emphasize that the individuals

If you like this passage you almost certainly should read the entire pamphlet which can be obtained here.

How the Bitcoin Protocol Could Help Improve Copyright

April 15th, 2014

couple of weeks ago i posted the observation below on my tumblr. reposting this here since i have just come across an article in Slate (‘How the Bitcoin Protocol Could Help Improve Copyright‘) that makes the interesting argument that what i characterized as an ‘evil’ property might just as well be turned into something really useful.

have been thinking a lot about this short exchange from a planet money podcast on bitcoin from a few weeks back. Makes me suspect that the one bitcoin that i am keeping for my own amusement somewhere on my laptop is more evil than i initially thought it was (it is also worth much less then when i bought it but that is much less surprising)

David Kestenbaum: Ben why do you think that bitcoin does have a future? Ben Horowitz: So it’s a real computer science breakthrough. So this is a problem that we have been trying to solve in computer science since the early 80s, which is how do you prevent the double spending problem Ben Horowitz: How do you make sure that it is only in one place at one time Ben Horowitz: Right David Kestenbaum: One of the problems with trying to make digital money is that, like if you have a movie online everybody can copy it and it can be in a 100 different places at once, Money that cannot happen with, right you have to, it has to… Ben Horowitz: …that would be a bad problem, that would pretty much defeat the money. David Kestenbaum: So that was the break-through basically, someone figured out how to do that. Ben Horowitz: Exactly, exactly! David Kestenbaum: So that is one reason why Ben likes bitcoins: you cant make extra copies of them, there is no way to counterfeit them, no way for bad people to use the same bitcoin to buy two different things at once or 20 different things at once. It makes online cash possible.

Unsurprisingly there is a discussion on bitcointalk.org where people are hatching not so clever BC as DRM schemes.

eliminating the advantage of speed

April 1st, 2014

the NYT has this longish article on the story behind IEX, a ‘fair’ stack exchange explicitly designed to neutralize the advantages of high speed traders (at the core this involves the 38-mile coil of fiber optic cable in a box) depicted below. In this article an IEX employe lays out a theory of why there are so many Russians involved in high speed trading operations, which pretty much confirms my theory on the relation between high speed trading and soviet economics from 2012:

Sokoloff was Russian, born and raised in a city on the Volga River. He had an explanation for why so many of his countrymen wound up in high-frequency trading. The old Soviet educational system channeled people into math and science. And the Soviet-controlled economy was horrible and complicated but riddled with loopholes, an environment that left those who mastered it well prepared for Wall Street in the early 21st century. “We had this system for 70 years,” Sokoloff says. “The more you cultivate a class of people who know how to work around the system, the more people you will have who know how to do it well.”

coil of fiber optic cable in a server rack

This box kept at the facility in Secaucus, N.J., contains a 38-mile coil of fiber-optic cable that creates a slight delay in the processing of orders, which levels the playing field among traders. Credit Stefan Ruiz for The New York Times Photo by: Stefan Ruiz for The New York Times

How pushing for more copyright is harming the Internet

March 31st, 2014

over on his blog Mike Linksvayer has reviewed a new paper titled IP in a World Without Scarcity by Mark Lemley. Based on his review i will definitely read the paper (i am writing this just after take off on a 10 hour flight and i am cursing myself for not downloading the paper) and it seems that so should pretty much anyone who is working on IP (or as mike would prefer: commons) issues.

In hs review Mike takes a small detour in which he lists the ways of how the Internet has been damaged by the IP owners’ fight against the Internet:

  • Chilling effect on P2P research, result: more centralization;
    Services police user content; expensive, barrier to entry, result: more centralization, near monopoly platforms;
  • Services cut rare and unfavorable deals with IP owners, result: same;
  • Innovative services fail to cut deals, or sustainable deals, with IP owners, result:
  • less innovation, more Internet as TV;
  • Monopoly abets monopoly; creates opportunities for bundling monopolies, result: threat to net neutrality;
  • Copyright-based censorship provides cover for all kinds of political censorship, result: political censors have additional justification, doing what Hollywood does;
  • All of above centralization and monopoly makes dominant entities a target for compromise, result: mass surveillance and non-state cybercrime abetted;
  • Our imagination and expectation of what the Internet makes possible is diminished, re sult: DRM TV and radio and silos organized for spying are seen as the norm, information organized for public benefit such as Wikipedia, unusual; this flipping of democratic hopes for the Internet, a partial AOL scenario, is collateral damage from the IP owners’ war on the Internet.

All of the points that Mike lists here, but especially the last one do a great job in explaining why we are currently facing a situation wherein our policymakers are incapable of imagining the internet as something better than a pervasive content delivery platform. This is something that i had complained about a couple of weeks ago (in the context of European efforts to modernize copyright rules) and Mike does an excellent job at explaining how we ended up in this situation. thanks Mike! (also read the rest of Mike’s review, it is really worth it).

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis

December 29th, 2013

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis (1582) by Heinrich Bünting

found this in yesterdays newspaper, next to an article comparing the current state of the European Union to the state of the Habsburg Empire right before its collapse. Not sure about that comparison, but the map is amazing.

on self driving cars

November 17th, 2013

In his most recent deezen column Dan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:

Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.

[...] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.

The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:

Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.

In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:

[...] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.

[...] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.

For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.

I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.

So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:

[...] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?

Hamiltonian cathedrals and the the Jeffersonian bazaar

September 4th, 2013

Tumblr pointed me to a fascinating essay on the structure of our economic system. In ‘The American cloudVenkatesh Rao explores the economic system of the United States by applying the much hyped cloud metaphor to the production, flows and consumption of goods. While it is not without flaws (reading it one might be tempted to believe that the USA are a self sufficient economy without any connections to the rest of the world) the essay provides an interesting perspective on our times.

At the core of his essay is Rao’s analysis of the US as an assemblage of Hamiltonian cathedrals and a Jeffersonian bazaar[1]:

Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jefferson’s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover — I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals — are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.

The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of America’s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions. These constitute a theatre of pre-industrial community life primarily inspired, ironically enough, by Jefferson’s small-town visions. This theatre, which forms the backdrop of consumer lifestyles, can be found today inside every Whole Foods, Starbucks and mall in America. I call it the Jeffersonian bazaar.

Structurally then, the American cloud is an assemblage of interconnected Hamiltonian cathedrals, artfully concealed behind a Jeffersonian bazaar. The spatial structure of this American edifice is surprisingly simple: a bicoastal surface that is mostly human-habitable bazaar, and a heartland that is mostly highly automated infrastructure cathedrals. In this world, the bazaars are the interiors of cities, forming a user-interface layer over the complex tangle of pipes, cables, dumpsters and loading docks that engineers call the last mile — the part that actually reaches the customer. The cities themselves are cathedrals crafted for human habitation out of steel and concrete. The bazaar is merely a thin fiction lining it. Between the two worlds there is a veil of manufactured normalcy — a studiously maintained aura of the small-town Jeffersonian ideal.

Assuming that this is analysis is (at least partially) true for the US it would be extremely interesting to map his idea of a bicoastal cloud surface onto Europe. Europe has a much more complicated geography than the US. We have no bicoastal population centres and the notion of heartland is difficult to establish in terms of geography. It might very well be the case that the geography of the European cloud is the inverse of what Rao describes: the human-habitable bazaar is found in the very centre while the feeder infrastructure can be found at the edges. More likely the european cloud would look like a accumulation of smaller clouds that take very different shapes, which is very illustrative of the growing pains that Europe is experiencing in trying to establish an single digital market.

Still it is clear that the separation between population centres and production and distribution centres that Rao highlights also exists over here. Rao ends his essay with a recommendation to the inhabitants of the Jeffersonian bazaar to venture out and explore the inside of the cloud:

To the Jeffersonian sensibility, Hamiltonian cathedrals are often little more than infrastructure porn. But to establish a direct, appreciative relationship with these technologies, unmediated by instrumental metaphors and currencies of interaction, you have to walk among them yourself. You have to experience train yards, landfills, radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and other such backstage oddities in the flesh.

This is something I can indeed recommend. My last, rather unexpected, experience with Hamiltonian cathedrals was a family vacation during which the vacation farm that we were staying on turned out to be a (indeed well obscured) industrial production facility for organic produce and diary complete with the above mentioned radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and semiautonomous, GPS guided robot tractors.


  1. The terminology is obviously borrowed from Eric S. Raymond’s influential essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar‘ that referred to two competing software development models. In Rao’s essay the the two models are not competing. Instead the bazaar can only exist by virtue of the cathedral. ?

young and reckless / bye bye facebook

August 20th, 2013

so I finally killed (well deactivated) my Facebook account this morning after not using it for a month. in order to do so I had to log on one last time. Turns out that while I was away had tagged me in this picture taken at the 1st human powered rollecoaster in Vancouver in 1996:

Guess this is facebook’s farewell present to me: A picture where I am young, reckless & blond! If my memory serves me correctly this shot was taken after I had been eliminated in the semi (or quarter) finals of the main competition in Vancouver by crashing my bike so badly that i twisted my rear wheel. At that point I had been the last rider competing on a fixed gear bike after having edged out a victory from Riche Ditta (on the left with the white cap) in the previous round. Richie helped me finding a replacement rear wheel (with tubulars!) so that we could have another race in the fixed gear only competition, which he then won from me.

Bonus: probably also the earliest photographic evidence of me wearing the bicycle chain wristband which I am still wearing on this day about 17 years later.

paper maps as backup for when the network is down

June 10th, 2013

Stumbled across this picture of a helicopter crew surveying flooding along the Elbe while reading the news this morning:

helicopter cockpit with maps

As far as I am concerned this is a perfect illustration of the fact that paper maps have been relegated to being a backup solution for when the battery is empty or the cellular network is down (guess as a helicopter pilot you can’t really afford this). Also amazing how much the military (or paramilitary, not really clear from the picture if this a federal police or an army helicopter) seems to rely on of the shelf consumer technology these days.