Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.


  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map


Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Should we subsidize good journalism?

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, has just been published. It makes a convincing case that journalism is a public good, with broad social benefits, including being necessary for democracy.

They also show how good journalism is under threat from a variety of forces. One is media consolidation, meaning that a few huge corporations control most of our media. Another is that our reliance on the Internet is radically changing business models, making it increasingly difficult to support investigative journalism. Moreover, whether the Internet can remain open, diverse, and democratic is very uncertain. Meanwhile, support for public media is waning, especially in the US, which spends only a tiny percentage of what other nations do for non-corporate media.

To address these problems, they propose what some might consider to be a radical proposal. But it’s actually quite in line with traditional government initiatives in areas such as defense, education, transportation, etc., which support vital services that the market can’t supply. Moreover, their proposal operates through free market mechanisms, without requiring, or even allowing government control over media content. It’s an innovative idea, one whose importance goes far beyond just saving the local newspaper.

Their proposal contains four key elements:

  1. free postage for any publication, with less than 20% of its pages in advertising
  2. up to $200 individual tax deduction for a newspaper subscription
  3. a viable school newspaper and radio station for every middle school, high school and college, so that young people not only read the news, but also produce it
  4. increased spending on public and community broadcasting

I might add other items, such as broadening the youth production aspect to include other sites in which that occurs, such as community centers and libraries, or find some way to support local book production as well.

The proposal could ensure a diversity of news sources, with support for those who produce the news. It would immediately move us beyond reliance on a handful of media conglomerates, while still allowing their operation, for those who so chose. The cost is no more than that supported by other nations with advanced economies. It’s well worth considering for anyone concerned with maintaining a modern democracy.

Nichols and McChesney, are co-founders, along with Josh Silver, of Free Press, which works for net neutrality and has launched a major campaign to save the news.


Nichols, John, & McChesney, Robert W. (2009, March 18). The death and life of great American newspapers. The Nation.

Keeping tabs

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey (1927) talked about the need for a vibrant Public as a necessary condition for a healthy democracy. This meant the development of what’s been called a “critical, socially-engaged intelligence,” for citizens who respect each others’ diverse viewpoints, who inquire about their society, and are actively engaged in improving it. Doing this requires open diaolgue, the ability to speak without reprisals, and, it should go without saying, the confidence that one is not being hounded by agencies who operate in secret with little check on their behavior.

A colleague of mine recently showed me her copy of Jane Addams’s FBI file. It’s 188 pages of prying into the life of one of the greatest Americans. Hull House, which she co-founded (1889), was a settlement home for thousands of immigrants in Chicago, providing food, shelter, education, arts, English classes, and an introduction to particpatory democracy. It was the beginning of sociology, social work, and public health. The first little theater in America, the first playgrounds in Chicago, and so much more, came out of Addams’s lifetime of dedication to building a better world for all.

It’s true, Addams protested against World War I. For that she won the Nobel Peace Prize (1931), but also the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thanks in part to the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. At least those files are finally public. You can judge for yourself whether our Nation was more secure because of that assault on personal liberty.

Another colleague pointed me to a court case in Canada related to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) file on Tommy Douglas. Douglas was premier of Saskatchewan from 1941 to 1960, and led in the development of a universal, publicly-funded single-payer health care system. The success there led eventually to the national Medicare plan in Canada. In part for that work, Douglas was selected as “The Greatest Canadian” of all time.

Now, CSIS argues in an affidavit filed in court last month that “Secrecy is intrinsic to security intelligence matters.” They say that full disclosure of Douglas’s file could endanger the lives of confidential informants.

Since the file is secret, we can’t know whether CSIS is correct in saying that it’s absolutely necessary to maintain secrecy on its operations. For that matter, how do we know that their reluctance isn’t based on covering up their own violations? Reading the file on Addams, I’d say that the only people who might want to hide it are those in the FBI. One thing we do know is that there’s no public basis for these security investigations–no violence, no plots, no attempts to undermine the government.

If the file on Douglas is anything like the one on Addams, we should all ask about the extent to which our security services really serve the public good. Why do we create dossiers on our great leaders, without any public evidence? Does security intelligence trump all other values? Does it help create a vibrant Public when secret agencies are given free rein to explore and document our lives, with little oversight on their own actions?


CSIS trying to block release Tommy Douglas’ file. Toronto Sun.

Dewey, John (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Holt.

Maloney, Steven Douglas. The public and Its problems.

The land of forms

form_1040_us_individual_income_tax_return_form_imageFar across the sea, there’s a certain land in which curious practices began to emerge some time ago. These practices began with the idea of documenting the work people were doing. Someone had the brilliant idea to ask each person to fill out a form to show how much they had done at such and such a time. It was never clear that the information so collected had any bearing on the work or the people involved, but the form was beautiful and quickly evolved from a few simple questions into a formidable document.

Soon, it was decided that forms would be useful in health care, asking all kinds of questions about the body, regardless of whether that information would be used. There were then forms for voting, for taxes, for getting a job, for running a business, for schools, for shopping, for clubs, for religion, for travel, for sports, for software, indeed for every aspect of the people’s lives. In the early stage, the typical form would fit on a sheet of paper. But that stage was short-lived. The forms began to grow, soon needing special, long sheets of paper, or multiple sheets. Then, online forms appeared, with checkboxes, open fields, Previous and Next buttons and all sorts of other helpful features.

prc-health-form-eAn especially useful feature was “Are you absolutely sure that the information you have entered is accurate and complete? Severe penalties for non-compliance will ensue.” This one was good because the forms were inevitably obscure and self-contradictory, making it a challenge to know what one had just filled out, much less whether it was accurate and complete.

A major advance in the practice of forms was to create forms to determine whether you were filling out other forms properly. Ethics compliance forms were established to check that other activities, inevitably themselves involving forms, were properly conducted. As with the other uses of forms, the genesis was quite understandable. For example, people had been incorrectly filling out forms to issue driving licenses, thus endangering the public. A new form arose to ensure more ethical behavior. The fact that ethical abuses escalated following the introduction of the new ethical form led to a now-familiar phenomenon: The form was expanded. Again, the link between ends and means was tenuous at best.

An especially interesting aspect of the forms culture was that some forms could not be completed without first doing another form. Completing the second form would lead to the production of a control number to be entered on the first, assuming of course that it, the second one, could be properly completed, submitted, and reviewed. This practice reached its zenith with the realization that form number two could itself require the completion of another form, and so on.

In this way, the forms began to come alive, each connected to the others though a complex, essentially unknowable rhizomatic network. Forms naturally spawned other forms in an ever-growing ecology of forms in multiple media.pro-job-application-form-thumb

As the forms ecology grew, some people began to raise questions about whether it was possible to complete a form if doing so entailed completing other forms in an endless succession. Fortunately, there were philosophers and mathematicians to weigh on on this question. One school of thought, the Infinitists, began to argue that the chains of forms were infinite, meaning that some forms were uncompleteable, a seeming tragedy in the forms world. Others claimed that the total number of forms had to be finite, but that there were circular chains such that a form could be completed only by being already completed.

This latter view is reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s demand on the reader in his The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer says that his book has but one idea. That idea is an organic whole that cannot be expressed by a book with “a first and a last line.” His compromise solution to this conundrum is to ask the reader to read the book twice or not at all. The Circularists,  as those who believed in the circular chains of forms came to be called, adopted a similar view: They argued that although the circular topology prevented the form from ever being completed, repeated revisitings could lead to a kind of oneness with the form akin to groking Schopenhauer’s one organic idea.

Pragmatists, of the Peircean variety were quick to see the ever-increasing complexity of the forms ecology, with its convoluted topologies and possible lack of finitude. But they emphasized an additional wrinkle that had passed by even some of the great connoisseuers of forms. The forms were not static; they could change in small and large ways at a moment’s notice. This meant, among other things, that having completed a form on one day was no assurance that one would not be required to complete it again the next.

autofill_formThere was also a curious aspect of the storage of forms data. I’ve remarked on the separation of the forms from the dally life and purposes they purported to address. But beyond that, they spoke to themselves in what some deemed to be a fractured dialect. Forms completed at a doctor’s office could not communicate with the apparently similar form at the physical therapy facility whose purpose was to implement the doctor’s prescription. And neither of those forms could speak to the pharmacy forms or those of the medical supply.  This occurred even when the facilities were all part of the same organization.

On the other hand, even though the forms were disconnected from daily life and each other, they had a remarkable ability to retain and communicate data in a dysfunctional fashion. For example, no matter how grudgingly and circumspectly people had revealed details of their lives or how many assurances had been made, these details were regularly transmitted throughout the land. The word for “privacy” disappeared from the language, as it no longer had a use.

Despite the massive accumulation and dissemination of data engendered by the forms, people seemed to know less and less about one another or the concrete problems they faced in their lives. The reason was clear: Police spent time on forms, not on preventing crime; health providers likewise became adept at forms, but not at ensuring health; teachers knew every line and checkbox, but had little time for details such as students.

Over time, the people learned that nothing was real in their lives unless it could fit on a form–their wealth, their citizenship, their job, their spouse, and so on. What could not be form-alized did not exist. The forms became the reality they originally sought only to document. They infiltrated every aspect of the people’s lives and slithered with ease across natural and political boundaries. While the forms ecology had a beginning in specific times and places, it warmed the hearts of forms afficianados to know that there was no way to stop their spread.

I welcome comments on this little story. There’s a form below for your convenience.

Your very own barcode

Tech-Ex talks about the Google doodle becoming a barcode, and then, how to make your own. That article also includes a little history of the barcode:

The first item scanned was a pack of chewing gum scanned at an Ohio supermarket in 1974. On June 26, 1974, Clyde Dawson pulled a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum out of his basket and it was scanned by Sharon Buchanan at 8:01 AM. The pack of gum and the receipt are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

Click here to create your own, and you too could be scanned!: the barcode printer: free barcode generator by Barcodes Inc


hear you are — [murmur]

murmur[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze…

All our stories are available on the [murmur] website, but their details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with places, and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices. The physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, and brings people closer to the real histories that make up their world.

Being cellphone-impaired, and far from Toronto, I’m reduced to listening to the stories on the website, but they still convey a sense of the city and its history. The site’s a well-designed example of integrating oral history, geographic information systems, and mobile phones.