Inside the Internet Archive: A Meat World Tour

Living, as we all do, in a fog bank of texts, emails, social media updates and more it can seem as Marx put it, that “all that is solid melts into thin air.” Thus, visiting the physical headquarters of the Internet Archive, is somewhat contradictory. Yes, in fact, you can ride the #38r Geary bus to see a website. We forget that the “virtual” things in our lives exist in the real world of servers, cables and cooling systems.

The Internet Archive, founded in 1996, is a “non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” I’ve used it many times for research and even built a fence based on images in one of the books contained in their Building Technology Heritage Library. In addition to digitizing books, records and other media they maintain the Wayback Machine which archives a searchable selection of websites.

In 2009 they purchased a massive Christian Science church building at the corner of  Funston and Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco. The paradoxical physical presence of the Archive is as much a story about the virtual as it is about the decline and repurposing of old-school religious institutions but that story will need to be told in another blog post.

The building houses the servers that host the Internet Archive and use the always cool air of this westerly part of San Francisco to chill the electronics without AC. The building also serves as a research and development facility for figuring out ways to digitize books, records and other types of physical media.

The Internet Archive has always been at the controversial, bleeding edge of copyright law and has landed in the news recently due to their ongoing legal troubles. In addition to the public domain material on their website they also host copyrighted books that you can check out for a period of several hours. They maintain physical copies of this material and when you check out the digital copy they temporarily withdraw the physical book.

A group of publishers did not agree with this arrangement and sued. The judge agreed and the injunction will remove a significant number of the books they currently lend online. Concurrently, a group of record labels have sued to stop the Internet Archive’s efforts to digitize and make available recordings on 78rpm records. Parsing the dialectical relationship between the value of public domain material and the rights of creators and publishers is beyond my pay grade. Let’s just say it’s complicated and made more so by technology and the huge data models gestating in the, perhaps over-hyped, world of AI.

If you come by the archive at 1pm on Friday you’ll get a tour, often led by the founder Brewster Kahle. Kahle was on vacation so our tour was capably led by gentleman whose name I failed to get, unfortunately. After explaining the history of the building, our tour guide showed us the contraption they use to digitize books. He noted that the majority of the books they digitize are sent to the Philippines and digitized with cheaper labor.

You can donate books and other materials to the Archive. They have an app that will tell you if they need a particular item and will sometimes pay for shipping.

The Internet Archive is a throwback to the heady, more optimistic days of the Internet familiar to those of us older than 50 who can remember things like Mondo 2000 and rave fueled techno-optimism. Everything will be free! Undeniably useful, the Internet Archive contains many, entertaining quirks such as Ted Nelson’s collection of vintage junk mail and their annual celebration of Public Domain Day when materials lapse into free use.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

If you’re in San Francisco the free tour is well worth it if just to meet the celebrity tech tour guides and the rotating art installations. And you can have lunch afterwards on Clement Street, sometimes known as “the other Chinatown” (I’d add less touristy Chinatown) and then go buy a book at Green Apple if you have lingering copyright guilt.

Autonomous Vehicles: Hype and Resistance

I’m in San Francisco this week hanging out with a relative and everywhere I go I see driverless Cruise and Waymo cars inching about the streets. Based on my years in transportation advocacy and my highly uniformed opinion, I have two prognostications about these things:

1. Autonomous cars will mostly, kinda work in some places but will require significant alterations to the built environment to function fully. They will bump up against that conceptual horizon at which it becomes impossible quantize the unquantizable. Human beings and the environments we create, combined with the complexity of the weather result in unknowable unknowns that no computer algorithm can anticipate. I can maybe see these things bumbling about the calmer parts of San Francisco but good luck in Los Angeles where there’s a culture of speeding and sociopathic driving, or snow, ice, fog and all the other variables of Mother Nature.

As Paris Marx points out in his book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, accommodating self driving vehicles will replay what happened in the early 20th century when the automobile and oil industries pushed for significant changes to our roads and cities to make cars work. For instance, these powerful economic and political industries turned the simple act of crossing the street into “jaywalking”. Then there’s all the parking lots, highways, gas stations and other infrastructure that worsened the quality of our built environment. As Marx points out, autonomous vehicle advocates have already speculated about gates for pedestrians at intersections as well as requiring all pedestrians and cyclists to wear beacons.

2. Politicians of both parities will be seduced by Silicon Valley’s hype and money instead of doing the boring and tedious work of building out and improving existing public transportation. This will prolong the failed embrace of the automobile and their effect on our cities and climate. Improvements that could happen right now, like better bus service and new rail lines, will be postponed indefinitely.

But autonomous vehicles are not popular and the reaction to them reflects a growing uneasiness with Silicon Valley’s products. Activists in San Francisco have discovered that if you put a cone on the hood these things it will stop them, an echo of the early 20th century when mobs would swarm and beat up wealthy automobile owners. I’ve noticed that the Cruise cars have a phrase stenciled on their sensor apparatus warning, “Records audio and video,” as if the company knows they are hated. San Franciscans seem both horrified and delighted that one got stuck in wet concrete this week and a bunch bricked themselves due to “connectivity” issues relating to a large music festival. Despite these concerns, the California Public Utilities commission voted to let these companies start charging for rides.

I see some hope in my own Los Angeles neighborhood. The councilman I volunteered for during the election, Hugo Soto-Martinez, is about to begin a process of bus and bike improvements in his district. Unlike his corporate predecessor, Soto-Martinez plans on enlisting volunteers to engage in door-to door conversations with residents and business owners about these improvements, listening to people’s concerns and carefully explaining the benefits of the changes he wants to make. This is the hard work of politics, something our tech overlords try avoid and subvert.

The changes we need to make are a matter of hands-on politics, not waiting around for some grand technological fix. While technology can definitely contribute to improving mass transit, I think we’re going to need to lean more on rhetoric to shift us all away from the car-centric errors of the 20th century. I have some notions about the type of arguments to make but that will have to wait for another blog post. I’ll just say that I think autonomous cars are a distraction from this vital work.

Wait there’s more . . .

I can’t help but point out that one of the best documents of what cities looked like in America before “jaywalking” became a thing is this film of Market Street in San Francisco in 1906, shot just four days before the devastating earthquake and fire. To modern eyes this street scene seems chaotic but I would argue that we should see it as more democratic since no one type of transportation, horses, cars, trains, pedestrians or cyclists have priority. In our present time if you can afford to own a car you get priority over everyone else. Autonomous vehicles are just a continuation of this bias.

At the end of Market Street in this film you can see the Ferry Building which was obscured by a double decked highway built in 1959. When this ugly concrete mass collapsed in the 1989 earthquake it was, thankfully, demolished and not replaced. Hopefully similar wisdom will prevail and we’ll stop building infrastructure for private transportation.

Hobnobbing With Home-Baked Hobnobs

I have a lazy and ridiculous fantasy of picking up cookbooks at the library and handing them off to a personal chef to cook from. That will not and should never happen. That doesn’t stop me from impulse checkouts when I’m near the Central Library’s exit. Such was the case when I picked up Milk Bar All About Cookies by Christina Tosi when I really should have check out something more healthy.

Using the excuse of having a friend over for drinks, I baked Tosi’s Chocolate Toffee Hobnobs, an improved version of the popular UK biscuit. I screwed up the toffee topping but substituted a chopped up Heath Bar. If I had to quibble I’d say the toffee making instructions could have been a bit more detailed. That said, this book will make you very popular around the holidays if not sooner. Most of the recipes, including the one for these Hobnobs, seem doable and a step above the usual cookie. A lot involve ironic takes on commercial products or make use of things like Ritz crackers and Cookie Crisp cereal.

You can find Tosi’s hobnob recipe online here. Now off to find a salad cookbook and take off a few pounds.

Flushed with Criticism: Four Stalls of Bathroom Tech

Toilet seat with handle

Handle It
Does this handle thingy do anything in terms of cleanliness? I’m gonna take a bold guess and say no. Seems like the dreaded “fecal plume” triggered by flushing would grace both the underside of the lid and this handle. But does it spark joy? You decide.

The Slammer
Thou shalt not have “soft-close” (a.k.a. “slow-close” or “no-slam”) and regular toilet seats in the same household. Why? You will forget and slam the trad seats in the rest of the house. In general I’m not in favor of the slow-close seat as why would I want to introduce a point of failure in a simple device that might otherwise last decades all for just a minor, lazy convenience?

Ghosts in the Machine
Motion activated faucets, towel dispensers and hand dryers in public restrooms don’t work half the time in my experience. When, despite waving my hands back and forth, I fail to activate these things I feel like the main character in the 1962 cult film Carnival of Souls who wanders Salt Lake City before we all realize she’s a ghost. But maybe ghosts would more easily trigger these damn things?

Fecal Plume: Electric Boogaloo
Hot air hand dryers are bullshit. There, I said it.