Is it Cake?

Could of read, watched something good or just taken a walk but no, had to waste a precious hour of my life on the new Netflix show Is it Cake? which turns the pandemic trend of similacrum cake art into yet another competitive, “reality” TV show.

Is it Cake? is hyperactive, annoying and unfunny while constantly reminding you that it’s hyperactive, annoying and unfunny. It could just be the show at the end of history that portends the imminent eclipse of civilization. Watch just one episode and you’re ready to return to the pre-dawn of human consciousness, foraging tubers with your bare hands, unaware of your own mortality.

And yet you’ll be tempted to skip to the last two episodes which will plunge you into the extremes of post-modern skepticism. In the penultimate show, you’ll find out that the final bake-off involves making a cake that is a simulation of cake, which leads the contestants in the show to question if everything is, in fact, made of cake, that we’re living in a vast cake simulation.

In the the last episode the losing contestants, angry at missing out on the $10,000 prize and driven mad with their epistemological cake crisis, set out to slice the meta-obnoxious host in half with a Katana sword to see if he is, in fact, cake. They then stumble out of the studio, armed with more swords, machetes and knives, to slice open everything and everyone in sight to test their thesis that reality itself is make of cake. We the viewers, caught up in the cake or not cake question smash up our smart TVs to find out if they are made of cake only to discover that they are not cake and the cycle ends.

But then, too distracted to read a book, we open our laptops to this very blog post which concludes with the revelation that someone paid, via Cameo, the famous for being famous (rappers? unususual hair dudes?) Island Boy twins to read a passage from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

And the cycle begins again.

Community Power! Elect Hugo Soto-Martinez!

I live in the most corrupt city in the United States, Los Angeles. A quarter of our city council is either in prison or under investigation. The way you get elected to the city council here is to take money from developers and real estate financiers. Once you get in office you serve those interests. Between elections you fix the occasional pothole and show up for photo ops when there’s a new star on the Walk of Fame. Meanwhile, income inequality, unafordable housing, homelessness, and traffic deaths have increased.

Nobody epitomizes this status quo and lack of vision more than my city current councilman Mitch O’Farrell. In the nine years he’s sat on the city council he’s failed to advocate for housing and services for the homeless and instead has pursued a discredited policy of criminalizing poverty. Instead of pushing for safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists he’s failed to implement even modest improvements and, as a result, our streets are grim, high speed traffic sewers. He and his staff fill their hours by serving the interests of a parasitic class of real estate investors, bloated non-profits and lobbyists who are his patrons.

Thankfully we have a chance to change things for the better by electing Hugo Soto-Martinez for council district 13. Hugo is the son of street vendors and has spent the last fifteen years as an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 11, a union of hotel, warehouse and food service workers. Once elected Hugo will represent the interests of ordinary working people. He supports building social housing, jobs programs and making our streets safer for everyone. You can read more about his platform on his website.

Electing Hugo is just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to do to turn this city around. Thankfully, more people are starting to pay attention to local elections. You can help out by going to my fundraising page for Hugo and chipping in a few dollars.

Wherever you are you can be a part of change at the local level. I believe that Hugo is a great model for community power. Let’s take Los Angeles back by electing Hugo in June!

Dystopia Report: The I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan

Fredric Jameson begins his essay “Utopia as Replication” (Valances of the Dialectic. New York, Verso, 2010) with the example of Los Angeles’ freeways, a kind of new order superimposed on an older kind of city. In the new Freeway city cars hover and over preexisting, denser, centralized spaces. In the collision of these two urbanities a new kind of city emerges, one that we’re all familiar with. The freeway builder’s utopian promise of speed and liberty delivers, instead, exurban sprawl, congestion and waves of urban decay and gentrification. That utopian vision of Freeway building is personified in mid-century figures like Robert Moses and the city fathers of early 20th century Los Angeles.

But Jameson goes on to question, “does anyone believe in progress any longer?  . . . are the architects and urbanists still passionately at work on Utopian cities?” An answer to Jameson’s question came this week in an astonishing and horrifying set of PowerPoint slides for the I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan released to the world via StreetsblogLA’s Twitter. The 710 freeway embodies the global, neoliberal economic order. It’s the main trucking route for all the crap from China that flows into the Port here and towards the massive distribution warehouses of Amazon and Wallmart. One of the many casualties of the global economy are the poorest residents of LA County who live in the pollution plume of the 710.

These PowerPoint slides prove that, yes, the engineers (architects?) are still designing stuff but they don’t believe in it anymore. It’s just a job. I suspect that at least some of them know that their work only makes things worse. At the end of the day these engineers and consultants get on the very same congested freeways they don’t believe in to commute to their exurban homes with the better schools. Gone is Moses’ utopian bluster, replaced with the most banal office PowerPoint slide pixel pushing, probably outsourced to some bored consultant.

This particular slide may be the best ever proof of the thesis of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book, that perhaps half of all people in Western countries are engaged in useless, soul-sucking office work. I mean, spend a moment appreciating the visual chaos that is this image. Ask yourself if it has any purpose whatsoever other than fulfilling some checkbox on a list of meaningless public engagement metrics. What possible purpose does this slide fulfill?

Then appreciate this bleak slide depicting a vista we’re all too familiar with.

Of this slide StreetsblogLA says in Twitter, “And, hey, @metrolosangeles @CaltransDist7 what’s this beige-clad blond businessman doing walking across the 710 Freeway in Southeast Los Angeles? Why not depict Latino families who depend on these bridges to get to school?” Indeed, that beige-clad business man has never seen the outside of his Tesla when out and about. Meanwhile the car-less in this city, largely Latino and African-American,  have faced a striking increase in pedestrian and bike fatalities in the past year.

The French have an expression for this one, “a bandage on a wooden leg.” Here in the U.S. we might say, “the cherry on the shit sundae.” Create a bleak, hostile landscape and put up some kind of bland mural that serves only to accumulate diesel particulate.

Jameson acknowledges something that the writer and philosopher Mark Fisher later built on, how stuck we are in the way things are, unable to imagine a different way of doing things. But that’s precisely what we have to do: imagine and tell stories about a better world. Jameson concludes the essay,

Utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, unused organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of perform- ing, even subliminally. Such a revival of futurity and of the positing of alternate futures is not itself a political program nor even a political practice: but it is hard to see how any durable or effective political action could come into being without it.

We lost Mark Fisher in 2017 to suicide. After his death his students painted a quote from his book Capitalist Realism. “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Freeways may seem inevitable and necessary but they’ve been torn down in many cities now. We can do the same here in Los Angeles. Let’s stop composing Powerpoint slides and break out the dynamite.

Wake Up and Fight

Woodie Guthrie’s New Years Resolutions, 1942.

I had a dream the other night that an acquaintance of mine who used to have a blog did a negative review of my innocuous New Years post. In the dream he went on about how putting up that picture of a pupusa just wasn’t “serious.”

This is, of course, a silly anxiety dream. There’s no way this person would ever have complained about any of my posts let alone that one. But this dream crystalized two writing fears of mine: offending people and going off-topic. These fears lead to writer’s block and timid writing. They can also cause you to lose contact with the muses entirely.

To regain some of that muse contact I lost over the pandemic I feel like I need to let go of these fears even if I lose a few readers in the process. Which is itself a ridiculous fear since, if I were chasing clicks, I would have given up long ago.

Almost all of the “urban homesteading” blogs like this one disappeared years ago. That’s the result of many factors. One is the rise of social media, as capital found a way to monetize posting and shift the fruits of that monetization away from creators and towards large companies like Meta (gag) and all the others: Twitter, TikTok, YouTube etc. I’m sorry to say that I bought into the optimism about the internet in the 90s, that we’d all have blogs and disrupt Big Media. That turned out to be a dystopian joke. Now all we have are uncle Bob’s Qanon rants.

Another change happened during the last few years. Concern over “fake news” caused Google to tweak their algorithm such that results from large institutional sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times etc. are favored over humble blogs like this one. In the golden age of blogging I could expect traffic from posts on niche topics. Now that search traffic has dried up.

And, yet, I still find this blog worthwhile even if traffic has greatly diminished. Root Simple functions both as a diary of sorts and as a way to explore new concepts and ideas. I hope that un-censoring myself will help me get back in touch with the muses. I think that the letting go of the fear of going off topic will actually be the biggest step. Wish me luck and I thank you all for sticking with us over the years.

Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level!

A Nobel prize winning biochemist explains protein synthesis via a dance and music psychedelic freak out session? Yes, that really happened in the 1971 educational cult film classic Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level!

The film is introduced by Paul Berg, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1980 for his work in recombinant DNA. A staff member with a sense of humor alerted me to this movie while I was a grad student at UCSD. I even got to meet one of Berg’s students who said that he was an amazing teacher always looking for creative ways to visualize science. The director and band leader, Robert Alan Weiss, later married Initiator Factor Two. You can read more background on the film here. And a special thanks goes out to the UCSD library for posting a high quality copy.

Obviously it’s well past time for a Covid-19 and/or vaccine remix of this film since both the virus and the mRNA vaccines work by hijacking the very same protein synthesis mechanism depicted by Berg, Weiss and company.