Los Angeles: Chicago by the Sea

Ray Chan Photo: LA Department of Building and Safety

The TV in the waiting room in the Kaiser ophthalmology department yesterday blared nonstop coverage of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ legal troubles (in between ads for Kaiser, ironically). You wouldn’t know that a far more important legal situation was taking place in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John F. Walker, where former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan was on trial for a bribery scandal involving former Councilman José Huizar.

I was in Judge Walker’s courtroom on Monday to hear the last of the prosecution’s witnesses, FBI Special Agent Andrew Civetti testify about the financial details of the scandal as well as some 4,500 missing, and presumed deleted, text messages between Chan, Huizar and real estate consultant George Chiang. Both sides rested and closing arguments took place yesterday.

Chan was on trial for aiding Councilman Huizar’s pay-to-play relationship with a number of billionaire developers as well as, allegedly, benefiting financial from these deals. What made Chan’s trial significant is that Judge Walker made public a full range of salacious details about the scandal that, because Huizar pled guilty, we didn’t get to know about until now. Those details included the Councilman’s Vegas trips, dalliances with prostitutes and many envelopes of cash. To be clear Chan was not part of those Vegas trips but he was alleged to have been a part of Huizar’s financial entanglements with developers. Developers bribed their way into favorable zoning and building arrangements as well as having Huizar grease the wheels with trade unions. For more details on this scandal I’d suggest reading Esotouric LA’s substack (2nd article here).

Unfortunately, the LA Times has been gutted and very few people are paying attention to what’s going on at the local and state levels leaving amateurs like me and a few other activists to go to meetings and attend the occasional court proceeding. The spectator gallery on the day I attended Chan’s trial was mostly empty except for a few FBI agents. You can bet that Diddy’s trial will be standing room only.

I’m hoping to do more writing about LA’s rampant corruption in the months ahead including the upcoming trial of yet another Councilman, Curren Price. If you’re wondering why infrastructure projects are so expensive in the country, why we don’t have more affordable housing, why efforts to deal with homelessness seem to stall, one of the first things I’d look at is rampant corruption at the local level in most cities in America. This corruption cuts across both political parties, by the way, and makes what little money we spend on services outside of the military and police so expensive when compared to other industrialized countries. It’s well past time to turn our attention away from has-been rappers.

UPDATE: Chan was found guilty today according to the Los Angeles Times:

Former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan was found guilty Wednesday of racketeering, bribery, fraud and giving false statements to investigators in a sprawling corruption case targeting pay-to-play schemes involving developers with business at City Hall.

The federal jury reached the verdict in a matter of hours, finding Chan guilty on 12 of 12 counts. Lawyers for both sides finished their closing arguments on Tuesday afternoon.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 10.

Our Butlerian Jihad

If you haven’t seen Dune parts one or two yet, I can summarize it for you: it’s about a family that moves from Portland to Los Angeles and gets involved in our local politics. The visuals are stunning as one would expect from any movie by David Lynch.

Just kidding. You should go see the new Dune movies if just because they break with the tired tropes of so many other science fiction films. Fans of brutalist architecture will especially dig the sets and spaceships.

One of the plot points of the books, de-emphasized in the movies, is Frank Herbert’s notion of a “Butlerian Jihad” a war against “thinking machines”. The lack of blinking and chirping computers differentiates the Dune universe from most other science fiction and I think it resonates with our current struggle against the siren lure of our “smart” phones. The movies tend to overplay what I think is Herbert’s less interesting and overly reductive view of religion.

For a further exploration of the present day implications of a Butlerian Jihad and neo-Luddism the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast had a freewheeling discussion about the recent Dune movies.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s an ongoing Butlerian Jihad happening in my woodshop. I’ve been thinking of expanding the jihad to other areas of my life and will blog if and when these efforts prove successful.

We Went to Japan

We spent the past two weeks visiting a college friend of Kelly’s who moved to Japan thirty years ago and raised a family there.

What follows is a touristy slide show because I don’t want to be one of those people that drops into a place and has opinions after just a short stay. Most of our time we were in Tokyo but took a day trip to Kamakura and a three night trip to Kanazawa.

We met a few Buddhist temple cats.

Our hosts took us to the Jindaiji Temple’s Yakuyoke (Ward Off Misfortune) Ganzan Daishi Festival during which you can have a priest write a character on one eye of a Daruma doll to bring good fortune.

Daruma dolls for sale at the festival.

Our time in Japan was just before Sakura (cherry blossom season). A few trees were blooming early and the stores were full of Sakura themed goods and foods.

There’s even a Sakura themed Domino’s pizza meal.

Tokyo was immensely fun to wander at night and I kept thinking of the class I took on Frederic Jameson’s book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In that book Jameson links the particular stage of global capitalism we live in with the confusing “hyperspacial” non-hierarchical architectural spaces we navigate. Tokyo’s huge, meandering shopping malls, train stations and packed boulevards overwhelm, disorient and perfectly exemplify what Jameson describes in that book.

We took a day trip to Kamakura to see the many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as our hosts warned us that Kyoto has become, sadly, over-visited with crowds of misbehaving Westerners.

The bamboo forest of the Houkokuji Temple in Kamakura.

Buddhas at the Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura. This temple also has a stunning 30 foot wooden Buddha.

We took the sleek Shinkansen bullet train to Kanazawa. The train covers roughly the same distance I regularly travel on Amtrak to get to San Francisco. Of course the Shinkansen does so in a fraction of the time, with no waiting for passing freight trains and with clean bathrooms. Unfortunately, we can’t even aspire to this kind of basic social democracy in the U.S., i.e. things like healthcare for all and decent public transportation.

In Kanazawa we had a guide to show us around and one of the stops was at a gold leaf workshop. Gold leaf is one of the crafts Kanazawa is known for.

We stayed at an inn and enjoyed a fancy Japanese breakfast.

We visited the reconstructed Kanazawa castle to nerd out on the joinery.

During our brief two weeks in Japan we visited three architectural museums and the Reversible Destiny Lofts (more on that visit in another post).

At one of the museums they still burn fires in the old buildings to keep the termites at bay and demonstrate the old ways.

There was more nerding out over woodworking to be done at one of the architectural museums. You pull rather than push Japanese saws and planes and they were traditionally used from a seated position.

There were a lot of warnings while we were there predicting a possible large earthquake in the Tokyo area and our visit coincided with the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster.

Near our hotel was the headquarters of the Japanese Communist Party which is more of a progressive party not a Stalinist type org. These two posters say Yes to higher wages and No to military expansion.

On the other end of the political spectrum we also got to watch a bizarre and loud caravan of Japanese Qanon enthusiasts, their loudspeakers echoing through a fashionable neighborhood of ceramics shops, popup doughnut purveyors and soba restaurants.

Once the jet lag subsides I’ll attempt a blog post about the Reversible Destiny Lofts. In the meantime many thanks to our hosts for their hospitality.

Local Election Endorsements

I want to highlight one candidate and one initiative on the most complex and confusing ballot I’ve ever filled out:

First I strongly support a vote for Karla Griego for District 5. This article goes into why this race is so important but I’ll just summarize by saying that Griego will stop the privatization and degradation of our schools here in Los Angeles.

Secondly, pedestrian and cycling deaths have skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic and the majority of our city council and the mayor, unfortunately, simply don’t care. It especially makes me very angry to hear the heartbreaking stories of moms who have lost children to our deadly streets. This is why you should vote yes on measure HLA.

Lastly let me say that most people have no idea what’s going on at the local level here in Los Angeles. The news mostly covers the drama at the national level and the lack of focus on the local is only going to get worse with the layoffs at the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps I’ll write more about this at a later date but I’ll just say that the level of corruption and grifting going on in this city is truly astonishing. Almost a quarter of the city council is in prison or on the way. We live in what some call “Chicago by the Sea.”

For the rest of the ballot here’s the DSA-LA voter’s guide.

Escaping the AI Vampire Castle

While I’m not a huge fan of ebooks, I read them out of convenience. I like that I can download free ebooks from the library as well as pick up older books for free online through websites such as Archive.org and Project Gutenberg. My Kindle displays ads in sleep mode (unless you pay Amazon $20 to remove them), and, lately, these ads are almost exclusively for what I’m nearly certain are AI generated children’s stories. This is just part of  a flood of scammy AI books on Amazon.

The AI children’s books advertised on my Kindle combine titles that have an English-as-a-second-language vibe, vaguely Manga style cover illustrations and author names such as “Leanor Varelade” that either yield no search results or are close to the names of real people (Leonor Varela is a Chilean actress). In short these books are what you would get if you took a statistical average of the entirety of the internet and barfed it out as a book. This is, of course what “artificial intelligence” actually is. We don’t and likely never will understand what human “intelligence” is let alone come up with a model of it. What we call AI is just a enormous statistical modeling game not “intelligence” whatever that is. AI is part of yet another hype cycle out of Silicon Valley giving us things that move fast and suddenly break leaving the world a worse place. We’ve seen this with self driving cars, cryptocurrency, social media, and Elon Musk’s tunnels to nowhere and failed Hyperloop.

There’s certainly useful things we can do with these large statistical models. Writing children’s books, however, is not one of them. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of language, how humans gain experience and how creativity works. I met a translator recently who does English subtitles for Japanese movies and TV shows. Her work is beginning to be replaced with computer based translations. She expressed her frustration that the studio bosses don’t understand that the Japanese language is not in some kind of one to one relationship with English, that it carries cultural associations and subtleties that no computer will ever be able to parse. In short, that translation is interpretation and that human beings need to be involved in that process.

What I got when I asked Google’s AI, Gemini, to create a Thomas Kinkade painting with brutalist buildings.

Part of me admires these AI children’s book hustlers. There’s a long and creative history to be told about the long arc of scammers, from the card sharks of earlier centuries to the crypto bros of the present. If I taught creative writing I’d suggest to my students that you should go ahead and try these tools and see what happens. Maybe there’s a great post-modern novel in this technology, a true “death of the author.” And the early, wonky, days of AI images produced some hilarious results. But I suspect that the real scam is likely selling people on the hustle of  selling AI books, not actually creating and selling the books. I’ve been unable to figure out if these titles are the result of an individual or some kind of foreign scam farm. I suspect the latter since someone has the capital to buy a lot of Kindle ads.

What AI text tools like ChatGPT really excel at is filling out is bureaucratic forms, those documents nobody actually reads. An admission: I once used ChatGPT for this purpose and got complimented for my writing skills. Maybe we can replace the bosses with AI bots who will simultaneously generate and read this textual nonsense leaving us all more time to garden, handcraft chairs and go for long walks. But that’s not, of course, the way things will work out. AI will likely just put already vulnerable people out of work.

As for predictions of an AI apocalypse, what I fear more is a grinding idiocy. I’m really getting fatigued with seeing AI generated images that are just a kind of summary of the most uninteresting “illustration” type artwork. Not surprising as this kind of boring art is likely the majority of the visual content of the internet. I especially hate that moment when you spot it and have to spend precious brain time discerning if its AI or not. AI reminds me of the vampires and daemons joked about by both Marx and St. Paul. As Zizek puts it,

A dead person loses the predicates of a living being, yet he or she remains the same person; an undead, on the contrary, retains all the predicates of a living being without being one — as in the above-quoted Marxian joke, what we get with the vampire is “the ordinary manner of speaking and thinking purely and simply — without the individual.”