Le Phone Freak

I can’t believe how much easier my life has been since last year’s Western Electric/Apple merger and their introduction of a new card dialer. No more fumble-fingered spins of the dial! No more explaining rotary dialing to visiting young folks!

With the handy cards I can easily share all my contacts with friends instead of scribbling numbers on a napkin.

Of course, with all these handy dialing cards I’m beginning to forget my friend’s phone numbers when I need to use a pay phone. Maybe Western Electric/Apple will introduce a pay phone that accepts cards?

Okay, enough of the silliness. What caught my eye with this oddball piece of transitional phone technology is the punch card, invented in the early 19th century to control looms. I’m tackling Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow this spring after one failed attempt to read it in the 1990s. The book is full of loom metaphors such as this one, “While the great Loom of God works in darkness above,/And our trials here below are but threads of His Love.”

The loom represents for Pynchon a way to evoke the sinister command and control of the punch card operated looms of the industrial revolution and, ultimately, the semi-autonomous V2 rockets of the Nazis. As novelist and (superb) podcaster Michael S. Judge has pointed out, Pynchon’s book is eerily prescient, seeming to foresee an era when we’re all monitored and controlled by a enormous electronic loom in the form of the interwebs.

Not that I’m in favor of going backwards, but sometimes I can’t help but be nostalgic for my simpler, less mediated, 60s/70s childhood when Western Electric was still around making sturdy, oh-so-beige gadgets like this thing.

The Institute of the Present

Eric Garcetti at a Lyft party via Twitter.

I had planned an elaborate April Fools Day post for today involving the announcement of a new book entitled The Big Book of Anecdotes for Dentists. For, you know, those awkward times when the dentist has to do a monologue while your mouth is full of dental tools. But then I asked myself why am I making fun of people who work with their hands and minds for long hours in order to alleviate suffering? If anyone deserves good pay and days off to golf, it should be dentists.

Instead I thought I’d discuss what should be an April Fools Day joke but isn’t. And that is Los Angeles’ mayor Eric Garcetti’s appearance at a party last week with Lyft executives to celebrate their initial public offering on Friday. He tweeted, “L.A. is leading America’s transportation revolution, and @Lyft is a part of that promising future. Their spirit of corporate responsibility will guide the future of public-private partnerships that benefit residents first.” Keep in mind this tweet was sent out at the same time as Uber and Lyft drivers were on strike, asking for decent wages. He later tried to excuse his presence at this party saying that he was there to acknowledge an initiative of Lyft’s to donate $5 million towards transportation programs in Los Angeles.  Of course any sober economic analysis of Lyft’s impact on the city would, I’m certain, show that it costs us taxpayers way more than $5 million a year in terms of increased traffic and the cost of health care that the company doesn’t provide its “independent contractor” drivers.

Sadly, Eric Garcetti and many others in this city, instead of doing the unglamorous and often politically unpopular task of installing things like dedicated bus lanes and improvements to bike and pedestrian safety, are betting that somehow, someday technology will save us from the already unusable, congested streets of Los Angeles. This city made a bad bet back in the early 20th century on the automobile. Sadly, it’s making another bad bet now on a hoped for future of self driving cars which Lyft and Uber’s business models depend on. I had thought, ten years ago, that Los Angeles’ elected officials were beginning to imagine a future not dependent on cars but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions. Self driving cars won’t work unless they have dedicated lanes. Those dedicated lanes will quickly fill to capacity and we’ll be right back where we started. The artificial intelligence self driving cars depend on is a just a deceptive term for a branch of predictive statistics which may prove useful but should not be compared to human intelligence. The hoped for future that Eric Garcetti is is betting on will never arrive. Meanwhile the changes we need to make right now won’t happen and the city will continue to be congested, dysfunctional and corrupt.

Proposed Institute of the Present headquarters at the Silver Lake Reservoir.

Which leads me in this rambling post to suggest the need for the formation of an Institute of the Present. What if, instead of hoping for self-flying pie in the sky we focused on the things we could do now to make our cities more equitable, livable and, in the process, mitigate the damage of climate change? That’s where the Institute of the Present comes in. Consider the Institute of the Present as the think tank version of flossing your teeth: unpopular and unglamorous but eminently practical, preventative and forward thinking by, paradoxically, being grounded in the present moment. Think trees, affordable housing, bus lanes, trains and a lot of bikes. Our slogan? Be present!

Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.

Rain: A Journal of Appropriate Technology

To double down on the irony this morning, as soon as I announce computer problems I discover it to be just a loose power cord and shazam we’re back with a blog post–back to discuss an appropriate technology journal from the pre-internet days.

One hopeful node in the otherwise sewage clogged tubes of the interwebs, is the work of librarians who have thoughtfully digitized old periodicals. I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon reading the delightful Rain: A Journal of Appropriate Technology, which was published between 1974 and 1996. Here’s the description on the Portland State Library website:

RAIN began in October 1974 as a publication of ECO-NET, an environmental education network funded by the Hill Foundation and an Environmental Education grant. Its office was based in the Environmental Education Center at Portland State University. With a focus on the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon, RAIN originally described itself as a “bulletin board” with an “emphasis on environmental/energy related and communications kinds of information” and interested in “the evolutionary possibilities of inter-disciplinary connections.” RAIN is notable for its early engagement and promotion of appropriate technologies supporting sustainability, sound ecological practices, and decentralized community action.

RAIN is kind of like the Whole Earth Catalog but with a special focus on applying appropriate technology here in the developed world. As one article put it, “You can’t sell compost toilets to others if you won’t use them yourself.”

For me, reading RAIN was melancholic. It’s hard not to think about how much better off we’d all be, from a climate change perspective, if we’d heeded the warnings and solutions offered back in the 1970s. Or for that matter, John Ruskin and William Morris’ concerns about the “dark satanic mills” of the 19th century. Hell, we even made a stab at this when we wrote our books around the time of the 2008 economic meltdown. But somehow the allure of shiny consumer objects sends us all back into destructive spasms of consumption and waste and publications like RAIN get forgotten.

Rain featured a lot of articles by E. F. Schumacher, as well as covering such topics as energy efficiency, permaculture and alternative schools. One topic I’d never thought much about, the destructive influence of tourism, seemed to be the special concern of co-editor Tom Bender. Here’s an especially eloquent passage by Bender from the May 1976 issue:

Drinking wine one recent evening with Florian Winter, an Austrian visiting us on a global survey of renewable energy developments for the U.N., we got into talking about the destruction of European cathedrals by tourism.

Each person came, he said, and took away a little of the cathedrals–in their camera, in their mind, or in the conversation–and now nothing remains.

In that absurdity there is truth.

All places live though the reverence with which we hold them–without which they crumble to pieces, unloved, unmaintained, abandoned and destroyed. That reverence is the glue that in reality binds the stones and the blood that in truth sustains the life of a place.

For the life of a place lies in its relation to the people that share it. And it is that reverence first which is taken away, tour group by tour group. Without this reverence, a place has nothing to give to those whose lives it must sustain, and they in turn lose their nourishment and fall into the same dereliction as their cathedral. It need not be so, for the visit of a pilgrim differs from that of a tourist. A pilgrim brings love and reverence, and the visit of a pilgrim leaves behind a gift of their reverence for others to share.

. . . And we lessen the soul of all places to which we go, and ourselves as well when we take without giving and come to them without reverence to life and to land, to people and to place, to ourselves and to the creation of which we are part. That is the destruction of which tourism is part and from which tourism arises, and it is there that we again can find the healing power for our land and our lives.

It’s well past time that we consider the wisdom in the pages of RAIN again.

Water Harvesting Rock Star Brad Lancaster

Spend an hour with Brad at his Tucson compound circa 2016:

He calls the 1/8th of an acre site he shares with his brother’s family, his “living laboratory”. Here he plants around the greywater from his outdoor shower, bathtub and washing machine. He captures 100,000 gallons of rainwater per year on their property and surrounding public right-of-way. He cooks with a solar oven and heats his water using a 2 salvaged, conventional gas heaters stripped of insulation, painted black, and put in an insulated box with glass facing south to collect the sun’s rays.

Via Lloyd’s blog. Thanks to Dale Benson for the tip!