...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
about me || email me || RSS feed || give me a present || A blog about urban planning, if that interests you

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June 30, 2005 || 11:31 pm
T-shirts are here!

My wonderful and fantastically talented band (!), the Kudzu String Band, now have very attractive t-shirts for sale! They come in all sorts of colours and feature our beautifully designed logo alongside a witty little catchphrase. They are a bargain at $15 a pop. Get yours now before we run out!! I particularly recommend the blue, pink and dusty brown versions.


10:07 pm
On Maps

The whole Google Maps/Google Earth thing is really fascinating to me from an urban planning point of view. How amazing to be able to make hacks of these to show everything from real-time bus routes in Seattle, census data down to individual house level, crime, Iraq war casualties>, geo-linked photos, situationist-ish observations, housing for sale/rent etc....

So why not add layers of tree species, brownfield sites, derelict buildings, housing density, day/night activity levels, etc? let alone the more basic stuff like water, roads, houses or parks that could be on separate GIS layers linked in with the super-userfriendly Google interface - I'm sure there would be geeks queuing up to do the work.

All the GIS data already exists in various federal government departments, both in the US and the UK. The UK already has MAGIC a useful GIS interactive resource for planning geeks like me. It's unheard of among the general public and certainly not terribly user-friendly, but it is kept pretty up-to-date and does cross-cut between different government departments. New York has the hugely impressive OASIS project which has been doing a truly fantastic (and quite politically radical) job of involving community groups to both map their neighbourhoods and also input into how the interface works and what they want to be able to use it for. OASIS combines all the government data about NYC with the input from the community groups and it's pretty easy to use (although slow-loading at times). If OASIS linked up with Google Maps (and I'm sure they are thinking about it), it would be an awesomely powerful tool.

But on a national or international level, the amount of potential geo-linked data is quite scary. Again, like on the rest of the web, filtering is going to be key. I remember working on the Thames Gateway doing really the first map survey of it (I was shocked to find out that no-one else had bothered). I got all the GIS stuff, the census data and so forth, and mapped it all in Illustrator (can you believe!). And then whenever I presented it to the (quite high-powered) people I was working for, they would always say 'Well, we want to see it all at once - we want to see how all these different maps overlap'. And I'd try to politely explain that, well, I could print that map out for you, but it just looks like an unintelligible mess. Graphically, it's just too hard to show everything you ever want to know about a place, all at once. And of course, the mapping I was doing wasn't anything near the complexity of what the geek world is now doing to Google Maps/Earth.

Then, a few months later, we were holding charrettes as part of Thurrock: A Visionary Brief and one of the big issues that came up was around the qualitative mapping of land - how to start creating new mapping paradigms that aren't the planners' standard categories but that start to express the more local, sensitive and unexpected sides of land use and quality and crucially, time as a dimension, and that could be used as the starting point for a more creative way of planning. Again, it was ferociously difficult to express this concept graphically, although we all felt like we knew what we meant.

So I'm really interested and almost impatient to see what people manage to do with the Google tools, and perhaps the 'collective brain' of the web will be able to come up with an elegant and integrated way of depicting this - and being able to go from the personal (geo-tagged photos, memories, tips and walks) to the objective (data-based) layers. And somehow, we've got to find a strategy to stop our brains exploding with the density of data that we are expected to absorb - at least, those of us who work in land use, architecture and planning. Because sometimes the best thing is to know nothing: to visit a place for the first time completely fresh, sniff the air and allow your gut instinct, unfettered by any background information, to lead you.


June 29, 2005 || 11:08 pm
An expanded post on 'social networks'

For me the internet is a tool. I appreciate its ability to link me up with people but my primary interest is not in making new best friends - it's in staying abreast with developments in areas that I'm interested in, and finding out stuff I want to know for work or play. I don't care about the online popularity contests. Now in MyWeb, if I save a link, I can't see if anyone outside my contacts has also saved it and therefore, whether they might be potential good new contacts of mine. It relies on finding people through the friendship-based 'degrees of separation' not the shared-interest based 'we share links' like in delicious, where I regularly link-hop to find people whose bookmarks might be worth raiding. And for my internet, the 'degrees of separation' through shared links/interests is way more interesting and useful than going through my buddies.

Friendster, Orkut, etc seem to me to have really failed to stay popular with 'online' types. Once factor is the amount of time it takes to make sure your profile is up to date vs the amount of people you get trying to link up with you who you don't care about. Whereas if you have a blog, you are updating it because you want to talk about a topic you find interesting, then you attract comments via technorati etc, and then you make new connections with true shared interests. A blog is a more creative way of expressing yourself in than a Friendster profile. A lot of people over here use Friendster but they are mostly people I'm pretty disparaging about...and there's obviously a certain class of blogger who falls into the same category ("today I went to the beach and hooked up with this reeeaally cute guy. It was so much fun!!!!!!!! ; ) ")

So, probably what I am trying to say is that there is a network for everyone. If you use the internet to make friends, great to share your social bookmarks via Yahoo, and they can replace those annoying round robin emails of 'urban legends' or 'funny' photos. But for a more 'sophisticated' community I'm really not sure how much use it is going to be. We need to be streamlined with our time and it's easier for me to get a RSS feed from an interesting someone's delicious links, blog or whatever, then if I want to, make a comment on their site, and if they feel like pursuing the correspondence further we can link up. Those emails that say "X wants you to be their friend!" really bug me and clog up my inbox.

Of course, like everyone, if MyWeb really takes off and suddenly everyone who I'm interested in is using it, I will be forced to make the move. Especially if it takes off in a work arena, so as 'everybody who's anybody' is doing it. But judging by my friends, I don't think they are going to be seen dead near the crass graphic design and cheesy friendster-ish air of MyWeb...


10:13 pm
Miss Phillips has moved in

I just went down to see our little house, because I heard that Miss Phillips, our wonderful client, had moved in! Very exciting for us to see her finally in the house. So I got there and she was sitting out on the porch looking beautiful as ever. And she really has moved in. Everything's there, looking spotlessly clean (of course) and incredibly touching. Her family photos, her ragdolls, her dining room set which looks just the same as it did before (see here for a picture.) I was so happy to see her inhabiting the space and seemingly pretty happy with it. She's an extraordinary lady and sitting on her porch just listening to her talk was a wonderful break from my computer-addled day. It's hard to describe the presence that she has and the way she arranges all her belongings with such serenity and personality.

It's really interesting (or depressing) to see that she absolutely does not open her windows at all, despite the fact that she always has the doors open and there is no air conditioning in the house. I didn't have a chance to ask her about it today but I know from talking to many other people here that they just don't do that. Design-wise this presents a real challenge because we want to naturally ventilate the house, both for eco reasons and, more importantly, to keep the bills down. But we can't afford to put in so many doors to the house (a door is 2 times as much as a window) and also, in the winter when doors are shut, you don't get any light in (unless you get a glazed door that is 4 times as expensive as a window.) I wish it was possible to teach her to open windows, but sadly I think, given the amount of time and effort we put into explaining about the relative durability of floor coverings to no avail, it would be utterly futile...


3:41 pm
On MyWeb vs. Google Personalized vs. Del.icio.us

OK, so as everyone blog-related and probably no-one not blog-related knows, Yahoo has launched the public beta of it's answer to the huge social bookmarking thing, and Google now has Google Personalized. I just did a half-hour test-out of them both, and will keep testing them as I go. This is very much a lay-person's view of these services - I am not one of the many bloggers who has been secretly beta-testing for weeks. But I think, as an amateur enthusiast, it's useful to see how these work for the majority of web users who are even less tech-savvy than me. [And I've also not been paid by either company to say nice things about them.]

First, Yahoo: I until now had no Yahoo account. It was irritating that I had to sign up, tell them my Zip code and the name of my favorite sports team, etc, just to access enhanced search. Sign up to del.icio.us and all you need is a username and password. Plus, once I'd done all the signing-up, there was no immediate evidence of what I had signed up to get. I typed in a random search term to my new MyWeb page, and got...no results. This is obviously because I haven't bookmarked any pages yet. Basically, Yahoo was saying to me that I had to devote hours of my life to bookmarking stuff before I get anything worth using. And I have to spend hours inviting people to become my contacts. There's really, to my eyes, nothing particularly user-friendly about that yet. Yes, I can start searching and tagging as I go but it's going to be an age before I actually click on that 'Search MyWeb' button - if I ever actually do it.

Second thing: Although I know I have friends who use Yahoo for their email, I doubt very much whether they have started to use MyWeb. So I have no community and can't see an easy (ie within my half-hour attention span) way to change this. I can't be bothered to start asking random strangers 'oh, I like your bookmarks, will you be my friend because I hate looking so lonely?'. Whereas in del.icio.us you don't even bother with the whole friend thing. So much easier - you can subscribe to the feed of some random stranger who you have realised is into the same stuff as you without them ever knowing. I don't care whether I look popular or not - I just want to know what interesting people are looking at. [I see from the MyWeb blog that they are thinking about incorporating one-way contacts, so maybe this will change.]

I really hate the whole 'are you my friend' aspect of the social web - if I find someone I think might be interesting online, I don't need to boast about it by adding them to some little contacts clique. I also don't know how useful it is, really - see Eszter's comment to this post about how she recently tried to invite her friends to become Yahoo 360 contacts and basically, no-one was interested. Now, if the MyWeb search allowed me to search 'Everyone's Pages' then that would be useful - I would know in advance (at least till the spammers get to it) that the pages I would get referred to would have been humanly reviewed and thus more relevant. All I really want is a human filter on my search, and the ability to subscribe to tag and user feeds so I keep up to date.

On to Google Personalized: well, they didn't ask me for my zip code or the name of my pet, and the fewer people out ther who have my personal info, the better. It is less obtrusive than MyWeb (better design, no popups) and may well make Google, which I already consult about 150 times a day, work better for me. I guess this function (which I could loosely describe as a better web search) might be fulfilled by MyWeb if I just switched all my searching to Yahoo and kept clicking on 'save' and getting that annoying pop-up to save stuff to MyWeb. But I don't always want to search through pages that I already know I like - I want and need to find the new stuff out there.

So in this sense GP wins out as it just gently nudges items up to the top without missing out all the other stuff. (Yahoo could do this by having three search result fields come up when you hit 'search' - MyWeb, Everyone's Pages, and the generic Yahoo search. But again, this seems cumbersome and annoying.) Google's approach seems a bit like the way a lot of other apps now learn from what you do (I've just got into QuickSilver and it's learning is pretty great.) I would rather work with a combination of Google and del.icio.us - two clean user interfaces with minimal hold on my personal info, for two different purposes. My use of the two would be the opposite of what Matt Haughey forsees - I'll use Google to build up a filtered, but loose version of the net and the millions of pages I visit every week, and I'll use del.icio.us to store a small amount of carefully edited stuff that I think is useful longterm and that I want to share with colleagues, co-professionals and others. I would like GP to have some of the functions of MyWeb (maybe save and block functions with no popup or tags) and I might like it to use other people's filtering to impact on my search results (ie get rid of the spam.)

The big issue is, as pointed out here, how all these new services will work together -
The risk is the pull of a major enterprise's portfolio when misguided group think starts to think they can own the social web. Maybe I want to leverage the tagging activity I do in del.icio.us, EVDB, Twaggle and my blog/Technorati, or my graph in LinkedIn or Tribe, or annotations in Socialtext or Typepad -- Flickr isn't the only service made of people. Not just import/export but synching across services.

It also brings to prominence again the two competing views of how we want to run our online lives - a multitude of simple, highly targeted apps that talk to each other or an all-encompassing 'we can do everything' approach which is the MyYahoo feel. Instinctively I feel like the latter is bound to fail in the face of the complexity of the web and the fact that we all want slightly different ways to run our lives rather than be shoehorned into a 'one size fits all'. And as long as there is a minority community out there who are using the alternate model of lots of baby apps/services, I feel like the Yahoo behemoth is never going to really be able to get the best of the web to those who want it.

From a business model point as well, it seems difficult. Competition is never going to go away - Google and Yahoo are always going to have to be able to 'talk' to services that are not owned by them. Thinking you can catalogue the world is that huge 19th century fallacy - catalogues are always going to be incomplete, overlapping and relative. And that 'long tail' cliche is true - money can be made out of not being Yahoo just as much as being Yahoo.

Apologies for the long post. The problem is that I still haven't had time to blog about several things that are on my mind so it all gets squeezed into an issue like this...


June 28, 2005 || 8:21 pm
Fame at last

I've never been so proud...I just got an email read out on the absolute pinnacle of English culture, Test Match Special. If anyone was listening, I was the girl from Alabama.


6:03 am
Myths of social capital

Something I've just read that makes me want to rant and rave, rather...this post speculating about the future of American society after the oil starts to run out.

Will the citizenry not attempt to return to some kind of social structure from the past? If so, what will that social structure look like? 1960? 1920? Does it depend on the pace of the economic and cultural decline?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the shape of 'communities' or 'neighbourhoods' or 'cities' in the present and the future - how people relate to each other and what this nice word 'community' really means. I write as someone who has always been wary of whatever community I found myself in, who relishes the anonymity of a big city like London but who now finds themselves happily ensconced in small-town America and with all the community acquaintances and network that the steroetype demands (auto mechanic, gas station attendant, lawyer, judge)

The Oil Drum's posting mainly refers to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Basically the title says it all - we don't know our neighbours and have, apparently, a tattered social fabric. The Oil Drum goes on to the obvious speculation of 'well, when we run out of oil, are we going to get our nice community spirit back again?' [I paraphrase.]

I really hate those kind of comments. In defence of myself, I'm going to refer you to a really good article in the CS Monitor [the irony that actually, a Christian-run paper is really one of the most balanced and thought-provoking news feeds in the US] on why marriages are better, although more difficult now. Isn't it the same with our 'community'? The nostalgia for the 60s, or the 20s, or whenever, is like harking back to the days when no-one got divorced. That doesn't mean that everyone was happy. Those close-knit, incestuous communities were responsible for the stifling of independence and eccentricity, for the ostracism of anyone who dared follow unorthodox passions, and for much worse crimes too - Emmett Till, for example. That 'social fabric' was also the fabric of knowing your place, of being judged on who your family was and which side of the tracks you lived on.

The point, to me, about 'community' is that yes, we need to have social structures that support those who need it, that notice when someone is lonely or unhappy, and where people do things for others as a matter of course. But we also need to be able to opt out on whatever level you choose. I'm incredibly lucky in small-town Alabama because I have no past. No-one knows what my family are like in England, or how I'm meant to behave, so I can pretty much do anything. But this town is gossip central, and it's only the unthinking [and the New Urbanists, aka the net-curtain-twitchers] that suggest we really want to return to those kind of neighbourhoods, or that we should be perversely grateful for a lack of oil because it will force us to leave our suburbs and get to know each other.

The double irony is really that, if you believe the hype, a situation where there is not enough oil will mean that big cities will get bigger because you will have to live in a big city to live near enough to your workplace for public transit or walking. And big cities are more anonymous, less about social fabric in this nostalgic sense, than the suburbs. I can walk down my street in London and 95% of the people I pass don't know who I am.

The other scenario is that we will all have to become self-sufficient farmers living on the land. In which case we will also be deeply anti-social because we won't have enough gas to drive to visit each other. So once a week we might walk the 2 or 3 miles to the neighbour but I bet, mostly we won't bother. [The next stage would obviously be highly incestuous communal living where a few families bond together to farm. Arrgh, this conjecturing gets worse.]

Anyway, all these scenarios are extreme. But the main point is, who says we don't have a sense of community any more? We have extraordinarily broad and wide-ranging networks of contacts, friends and family that span the globe. I remember reading a while back about Hispanic communities that lead a dual life, one half in some American city and one half back in the home country, and how the American half vote, stand for public office, sponsor charity work and in all sorts of ways lead in the community back home without physically being there. The poorest families here have ties all over the country who find jobs for their school-leavers, house homeless relatives and pay for new curtains for people like my client. Isn't this a fantastic and innovative redefinition of community and how we can use the globalisation process to create new and rich social fabrics?

And yes, we have the internet which means that I can sit in deepest Alabama and earn my keep without driving anywhere, and I can keep in contact with my friends without having to burn a hole in the ozone layer zooming around to physically see them. We should be excited about these new processes and how they co-exist and mesh with the old ones which will never go away (in London I will always know the guy in the corner shop and the local greasy cafe) and not get all nostalgic about the 'good old days' of social repression and claustrophobic misery.

[This is the partner post to another unwritten ramble on 'How Jane Jacobs has been co-opted and all the meaning lost from her wonderful perceptive work, if I was her I would be fuming'...]


June 27, 2005 || 4:00 am
A little country in the city

Yes!! I found it...Conveniently located in Islington, when I'm back I think I will find a little Alabama at the Hillbilly Hop [scroll down, it's the second review) where I can wear my cowgirl boots and John Deere hat with pride.

Oh...and I just found this site. Lordy. And bluegrass in Leytonstone? Wonders will never cease. I sense a new mission coming on...


12:15 am
Good American things

There are some things in America that really need to become common in England.

1. Huggers [things to keep your beer cold]
2. Coolers [also things to keep your beer cold]
3. Lawn chairs [folding lightweight aluminium/canvas ones with a little bag and strap]
4. Boiled peanuts
5. Post-hole diggers [how do we manage without these?]

All of the above are non-invasive ways to make your life so much more pleasant.


June 26, 2005 || 11:52 pm
Scribbling in books

Among other things at the Mockbees, I picked up a copy of Joseph Brodsky's autobiographical essays which had been Sambo's and which he had heavily annotated. I somehow always stop myself from writing in my books, somehow believing it is a bad thing and spoils them, but it was so fascinating and wonderful to read Brodsky with Sambo's commentary. It was an extraordinary glimpse into seeing his mind at work on so many levels - comments like 'R.S.' [Rural Studio] attached to little snippets of sentences, or 'and architecture' next to a comment about art. You could sense his train of thought and his preoccupations in the words he had underlined, and reading it with his notes felt like reading with him, in real-time - a strange sort of time-travel, being with a man I never could meet. The book felt so alive in my hands.

I'm not sure I can break my habit and start scrawling in my books. Somehow I always treat them as though they are slightly 'not mine' - that I am merely their steward for a while before they are lent to a friend, handed down or returned to someone else. (Though that doesn't stop me worrying the edges of the pages or destroying the binding...some Hanification is inevitable!) But I hope that many other people scribble in the margins of their books so I can have more little wormholes in which to eavesdrop on someone else's thoughts...


10:39 pm
A weekend in Mississippi

Oh, what a lovely weekend chez the Mockettes. As you would expect, everything at their family home is beautiful. Amazing Sambo-designed house, lots of collaborative Butch-Jay-Carol artworks and installations in place from Sarah-Ann's wedding, perfectly mown lawn, etc.

It was a really fun party too - lots of family and old friends. It's always so interesting and revealing to see where someone grew up and who their hometown friends are. I kept trying to imagine Sambo amongst all these (much more conventional) people and realised what a fantastic job they had done of on the one hand being completely individual, creative and crazy while on the other hand not becoming the neighbourhood freaks but being solid, normal members of Canton, Miss. society. They really had half the town there - the kids' high school friends and former sweethearts, the parents' friends, their old babysitter, and so on.

It made me slightly wistful that I really don't have any such local community in England. Where I grew up, I have virtually no friends, and in London, I have plenty of friends but scattered all over the city. There's something so lovely about the local small-town community, where you haven't (like me) chosen your friends on the basis of a shared interest but you just know people because they live there and go to school with you. That's one of the things I will really miss about Alabama - knowing and hanging out with everyone in the town with no real selection process or snobbishness going on. It's amazing how here, within a few months I can know everyone, yet in the nearest village to where I grew up, I don't know a single soul after sixteen years of childhood there. Well, I guess I used to know a couple of people, but they've died now.

So, we all ate, chatted, cooed over people's new babies, caught up on the news, drank a lot of beer, went to a local bar, came back and sat in the garden until 4am. [Canton actually has a bar on its main square. And a Subway crammed into one of the old storefronts. Real life in the downtown - unheard of!] Then this morning it was up rather uncomfortably early and off to church! The Mockbees are, of course, Episcopalian, which is pretty much like Anglican in England. It was fun to go to church and hear those familiar hymn tunes and the wonderful Biblical words.

Although I'm not at all Christian, the Bible is so very moving and thought-provoking. The language (I'm a stickler for the King James, anything newer is heresy) and the complex web of meaning and reference is endlessly fascinating and mysterious. I always travel on long trips with the Bible - I even took it to Iran - and even though I don't read it much, somehow having it around is comforting - just knowing that you've got a source of moral and cultural sustenance there whenever you might need it. A bit like having a really good bottle of wine stashed away for a rainy day when you really need it.

The sermon today started off as a commentary on one of the Lessons, that really difficult bit of Matthew where Jesus says 'I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household.' The priest gave a curiously historiographical interpretation of that passage, hinging on the difference in the Hebrew use of language and our modern one, as a way to reassure the congregation that Jesus did not really mean that he wanted strife in the world. Then he moved on somewhat loosely, via the last part of that passage ('He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.') to the ideas behind having to die, in a metaphorical way, to find enlightenment. This became politicised when he started to talk about desegregation, and the conviction last week of Edgar Ray Killen, as an example of society undergoing a 'little death' in order to emerge more cognizant and pure. I'm not sure he knew what the phrase 'little death' often refers to in classical literature...and my mind wandered somewhat to the visions of Saint Theresa and her, um, ecstasy...

But seriously, I had forgotten how enjoyable it can be to go to church, even as (maybe especially as?) an atheist. I might start going more often when I'm back in London - hiding out in Westminster Abbey listening to the organ, or the Brompton Oratory. Its quite a good way to get over a hangover, too.


June 25, 2005 || 6:34 pm
It's hot

It's hot. Right now it's 90F (32C) and the town is drowsy. You just can't move too fast in this heat, so everyone saunters, driving slowly down Main Street with the windows down. But thunderstorms are due tomorrow and the sky is clouding over. I've done my Saturday chores (pay phone bill, oil change, etc) and now I'm off to Mississippi to Carol Mockbee's brother's high school graduation.


June 24, 2005 || 10:29 pm

I've booked my flights back to England for two weeks in July. I will be around and hoping to see y'all from the 9th to the 25th July! For those of you who send me letters, it's probably a good idea not to send me anything more as it most likely won't arrive before I leave and I'm giving up my tenancy of Beacon Street when I come back home.


6:10 am

To those who think like my father

I'm staying up late tonight as I've got to be online when the UK gets to work so we can finish off this bid document. So in the mean time I'm catching up on some reading and blogging. I thought maybe both the geek and non-geek community might be interested in reading a little of the debate that I had with my father, who questioned why I had started to write more about technology (tagging etc) and why I was now including what he saw as nerdy and boring links.

Well, maybe I'm nerdy and boring. But as my friends know, there's nothing like a little provocation to get me on a rant. So, some excerpts from my email rant/reply to my father:

Whether you like it or not the internet is a really powerful tool and I think we need a broader debate and a better informed general public about what it can be used for [...] As I wrote in one post, the UK isn't very aware about the potential uses of blogs and various related new tools. And if you did start to delve in a little further [into the links] you might find a whole lot of things that could make your life easier, more engaged, more stimulating and more creative. There are new ways of keeping in touch with developments in the world and whatever your passions might be, and new ways of starting to set the agenda and engage directly with your public.

Shouldn't you all start to read up on these things? Its a realm in which an amateur (in the true sense) can become a powerful force - where you can make new connections and go beyond the email/website models to create interactivity and collaboration on a totally different level [...] That's why I'm trying to point people like you (because I know who my readers are and they are mostly unaware of these things) in the direction of a few bits of reading material that might stimulate your thoughts, and share my growing interest and curiosity about the broader implications of it all.

For me, the fantastic thing about the internet as it is developing is that it is absolutely the opposite of all the apathetic, TV-watching, passive behaviour that we deplore. It give you the easiest ways to express an opinion, engage in a debate, and actually change things. Because I'm interested in how we can create new participatory methodologies that really mean people can engage directly with the things that affect their lives, I think these models are really important. It's not fully developed yet but the explosion is happening (60 million blogs? that is amazing!) and the sooner we use these structures to engage people who otherwise would never find their voice, the better. And business can find better ways to work, and new opportunities arise constantly.

East London estate kids are on web forums writing passionately and inventively about music. They are writing - that skill that we are being told is on the decline - and reading what others write, and critiquing and analysing. Community groups in New York have mapped every single tree in the city and now know how much carbon dioxide they sequester from the atmosphere, and how that will change if a new road 'improvement' scheme goes through in their neighbourhood. CEOs of companies in the US blog and thus speak directly to their customers and shareholders. English MPs blog and allow comments to be posted to them on their sites. Isn't that something to celebrate and something that people should know about?

In brief: take the initiative. The adventure is only just beginning. And it doesn't mean that no-one will ever go down the pub and converse again - it just means that this tool will enable those conversations, and the possibilities of collaborative action, to become so much more rich in impact and meaning. And if you have any opinion on all this, tell me in the comments.


3:58 am

Interesting reporting of a MORI poll on liveability. Its assumptions regarding blocks of flats taller than five stories and terraced houses ("both viewed negatively") made my antennae twitch. High-rise apartment blocks are a usual target, but terraced houses? I thought Georgian terraces were everyone's ideal. The report is going to be launched tomorrow (I assume the Guardian got a sneak preview) so I can't check the basis on which they decided that terraced houses were bad. But the inbuilt bias against urban areas by this yardstick says everything about the misguided nature of such 'surveys'. Yes, in a rural area high-rises, or even terraces, may be out of place and residents may find they make their area less attractive. But in a city different aspects come through and the survey did in no way ask public opinion on whether, as the Guardian says, "the English vision of an ideal local environment still leans towards a bucolic idyll of green pastures dotted with detached houses".

The other measures - graffitti, litter, neglected open space - are more applicable to both rural and urban environments. But (although it is hard to tell without reading the report) the Guardian seems to really misinterpret the report as a survey of public opinion. It suggests that because its 'physical capital index' (based on "'visual quality' of an area as assessed by chartered surveyors...the proportion of householders living above the fifth storey, and the proportion of local housing stock that is terraced (latter two negative features)" correlates closely to the findings of a separate poll on "satisfaction with their area for residents in each [local] authority" means that the one is the resultant of the other - a classic statistical misinterpretation of cause and effect.

In fact, if you look at MORI's report on its regular tracking survey of residents satisfaction with their local authority, tellingly entitled 'Be Happy', it says that public concern with liveability is now falling. "When we first noticed this trend, we scratched our heads but now having reviewed the evidence, and recorded an upturn in repeated surveys over the last 18 months, it is definitely happening." MORI places credit for this with the government, central and local, for taking more care of liveability through its task forces.

"Exactly the same pattern is clear in local studies - in MORI's surveys for the Mayor of London, and the Greater London Authority, we have seen year on year decline in concern about litter, noise and pollution in London."

The Guardian turns this around to make it sound like the public are still highly concerned about liveability - and it is true that liveability concerns are still top of the list of areas residents would like to see tackled. But the trend is for decreasing concern, not increasing. And whether a decreasing number of high-rise apartment buildings or terrace houses have anything at all to do with this, I doubt. I haven't seen that many Georgian terraces get knocked down in London over the last few years.


12:22 am

Click here for more of my flickr photos.
This is really an excuse to test my renewed flickr account which I had let expire...and so you get a picture of the firestation in Newbern which is looking pretty sexy these days as it nears completion. Can you believe that four (now reduced to three) people built this with their own bare hands and almost no outside help? Pretty awe-inspiring.


June 23, 2005 || 3:21 pm


Fallen Fruit is a lovely idea about mapping fruit trees and campaigning for the planting of public fruit trees. They need to get GIS, though - the scanned-in maps look sweet but kinda ineffective when you think they could have a Google Maps hack shwoing where you could pick oranges in your neighbourhood.

I love this! League of Musical Urban Robots - a group of crazy inventors and musicians who have a former deli full of weird and wonderful musical robots that they make and put on performances with. the documentary on their site is really worth watching. (via Boing Boing)

Some nameless member of my family (paternal side) has been expressing some scepticism about all these netbased things. If you feel like him , you need to read How to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet.


2:56 pm

Midnight welding and daytime teleworking

I've been a bit underslept the last few days due to staying up for midnight welding with Carol and Butch on the Subrosa Pantheon on Monday and Tuesday nights. The Subrosa - a project designed by Sambo Mockbee as a memorial space for two friends of his, which is now being completed by Carol - involves much of Sambo's complex cosmology and symbolism, the side of his work that few think of when they think about his work housing the poor. So it has long steel rods that poke out of the top like beaver sticks, and that have circles welded to them to align with certain stars and planets and as it has been the solstice, this has been the time to weld them in the middle of the night to make sure they align. It all sounds very hippy, I know, but the result is actually fantastic and not hippy at all - much more deeply rooted in this place and the Southern landscape.

Welding at night is great fun - up on a tall manlift, casting huge shadows over the grass. And in the daytime, tracing the shadow of the sun at midday on the floor of the Subrosa, then going swimming in the creek...

But as they say, that was then and this is now - for the last few days I've been working hard on getting a bid document in for an exciting new project with GPA in London, only to have one of our bid partners pull out at the last minute due to a conflict of interest, cueing a frantic rush to find a replacement...


June 21, 2005 || 12:33 am

Ebooks and more

I read my first ever ebook yesterday, after long putting it off due to my old-fashioned love of paper and libraries, and my equally old-fashioned love of sticking to old-fashioned ideas like that. But yesterday I dived in, appropriately enough, with Boing Boing coeditor Cory Doctorow's new novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. First a quick lowdown on the content of the book - in short, it was really good. Angela Carter/Margaret Atwood/Kate Atkinson-ish blend (why did I think of all female authors? that's strange) with, I felt, nods to many other authors working in the realm of parable and some sort of real/unreal world juxtapositions. I found it was funny, enthralling, and not at all what I would consider sci-fi which is how at least the geek community pigeonholed it. It is a literary fable, populated with characters who are half escapees from Edward Lear's nonsense verse and half punks, well-crafted and certainly good for anyone wanting an unputdownable read where you might also learn something new. And the Toronto it mostly takes place in reminded me of Beacon Street, somehow - the combination of super-hitech with super grungy. I wonder if Cory also knows about the Cybermohalla project by Sarai and the Raqs Media Collective...

The ebook thing was also pretty good. I read the whole book at one three-hour sitting and the way you just kept scrolling down the page was certainly condusive to that. The text was laid out in a fairly eye-friendly way and certainly, for a novel, it was pretty good to be able to just open it on screen and start to read, especially as there are no bookshops here and anyway I'm too broke to buy books when I don't know how good they are. I really like books on the shelf but I think, sadly, that I am definitely a convert to the whole ebook deal, at least for books that are purely about text (not Tristram Shandy or beautiful glossy art books).

Apart from that, I gave my last fiddle lesson today to my pupil, who goes off to summer camp this week. She's made great progress - I don't know if that's more of a compliment to her or self-congratulation on my part!


I posted about Google's proposed new 3D mapping of San Francisco a few days ago - and here's how it might look. This is a completely unrelated Berkeley mapping projects and I was amazed to see that the data acquisition time (i.e. time that the truck had to spend on the road) was only 25 minutes for 12 city blocks.

The Japanese are so superb. They come up with urban farms under office buildings.

Another fantastic googlemaps hack - gCensus. Google Maps is really, from my point of view, one of the most interesting urban design and planning tools ever - but again, more in another post when I get the time.

Urban Exploration Resource" is another rather amazing mapping thing. Not GIS-linked (yet?) but it's so fantastic that someone has made such a methodical and detailed database of places that you basically aren't meant to go.


June 20, 2005 || 4:25 am

Some stats

Gordon asked in the comments to this post about how we know that the USA has proportionally more bloggers than the UK. I didn't have time to share it just then, but I did actually look up some stats before I wrote that post. Obviously, no-one has done a proper survey of bloggers, so we're relying on totally incomplete info. Even the blog hosting services don't have stats by country. But the best reference I found was here at BlogHerald, and also here at Blogcount, a blog on, erm, counting blogs.

But, lets just look proportionally. On Blogwise today the USA has 27,310 blogs to the UK's 4,062.

On Livejournal today the USA has 3,608,675 to the UK's 199,598

Here a poll found that around 2% of Americans had a blog. That would be around 4.4 million blogs - and that was a few months ago. Technorati says that the blogosphere (arrgh, horrid word) is doubling every five months.

That would mean 4% of the American population blogging. Even if Blogherald's anecdotal 700,000 British bloggers is only half of the real number, that is still only 2.3% of our population. That is fairly consistent with the Blogwise stats of 0.012% of Americans vs 0.006% of Brits. The Livejournal stats of 1.6% of Americans vs. 0.33% of Brits show a much dimmer picture of UK blogging.

So we have at most half the number of bloggers, proportionally, that the USA does. And that's not even going into Blogherald's countup that there are really 36.2 million bloggers in the Anglosphere - even if you take out very generous numbers for Canada, the UK, Australia and the many non-Anglophonic bloggers who use US-based hosting services as well as spam blogs and inactive blogs - lets say we even take out half that number - well, the USA by that count would have 8% of its population blogging.

But yes, we need better stats. (and I'm really geeky for having spent this much time looking up this stuff!)


June 19, 2005 || 10:50 pm

On taxes....

I just read this interesting post about Denver's new light rail system. There much be lessons for London in this one - why do we find it impossible to get our schemes for trams/dedicated bus routes built when they have managed to with such success? One reason is obviously in the way that London raises money as opposed to over here, where the electorate can vote on whether they want an extra tax that goes into a dedicated, ringfenced pot for transport. Who wouldn't vote for this in London? Well, we might argue that we are already being taxed enough already and why can't the government fund it without an extra tax.

But I would like to see Ken stick two fingers up to Westminster, tell Londoners that this is his only option because central government has wrecked his chances with the Tube, and and propose a tax for above-ground transport which we can vote on as a London referendum. Denver (pop. 2.1 million) voted to raise $4.7 billion - what could London's 7 million inhabitants vote through? Then Ken could invest the money with his own stringent performance indicators for whichever construction companies get the contract, and we can watch the Tube get mired in its PPP mess while we take the tram to work. (Or something.)

But really, I do think that we could learn from the US style approach to taxation. I remember talking about this with my friend Peter a while back, on the subject of how you manage garbage collection and recycling. In the US you see a direct relationship between the tax you pay and the service you get. This ends up being unfair, for example in relation to education, because a poor county like this one can't raise enough tax revenue to manage its schools properly and the rich ones resent paying for the education of the poor (as they send their kids to private schools) so vote against any proposed tax increase.

But the power to raise a special tax for something like transport, which is put to a popular vote and therefore validated, seems to me to be a powerful way of educating voters about where their tax dollars go and what demands they make of the government as a result. If, to take the garbage example, you paid per kilo for the removal of your rubbish, and you got a rebate per kilo that you recycled, then clearly you would recycle more. Similarly, if the government allowed you to vote on whether you should pay an extra tax so that a new housing masterplan would be built, we would really find out some interesting things about urban renewal, and the level of public engagement with these debates would be forced to become higher. There might also be a higher expectation for delivery and less tolerance for waste - going over budget would mean you had to get a new tax voted through, so that would be real pressure on the authorities and contractors to get the job done.

Of course, here it doesn't always work that smoothly. Projects do go over budget and worthwhile initatives are not always voted through. But I like to know where my money goes and I like the idea that the electorate gets to validate these decisions separately and in a direct way, rather than as a policy package at each election. I think we could make it work to show consumers the true cost of their lifestyle choices because the level of public subsidy for each thing we do would be made clear. You want Heathrow Terminal 5? Here's a way you can vote for it. You want to lock up petty thieves for longer? Well, vote for the tax money that will pay for it.


10:14 pm

More river adventures, and today's links

Yesterday was spent down at the Cahaba with the affluent young scions of the local old families. It's rather amazing and English in some ways - the same kind of boarding-school youngsters hanging out, drinking beer, flirting with each other and later descending on the local pub to mix with their social inferiors, who look on with faint amusement; but I feel really different about going to the Shack with the son of the local judge than I do when I'm with Chip.

The judge's son is exactly like the best kind of English gentleman - slightly eccentric, one of those classic faces which looks older than his age, courteous and generous in a bluff patriarchal style, a good sport. But many of the other kids are fine enough but not more than that - the same kind of people that I get more uncomfortable around at home. But here I am more detached and able to play the role of the observer better than I can in England, where I get twitchy and feel self-conscious about the judgements that are constantly being made about me.


A Tom Coates post from a couple of months ago regarding the whole tagging/web semantics thing - really well written and I love the Gullivers Travels reference. For me this really encapsulates the interesting side of the web's semantic structures and how they are currently so underdeveloped compared to our instinctive use of 'real' languages. But more in another post...

More stuff on the structure of tags, search, email and filing systems. Basically I just want to be able to tag every single thing on my computer like in delicious, give it a ranking and never have to do any filing again. But again, more in another post, when I get the time...

If Ken Clarke became Tory leader I might even consider switching my vote. Why do I have a weakness for old-fashioned qualities when it comes to politics?

This blog has some really interesting research and interesting hypothesizing about oil, potential strategies to manage our use of the stuff, and the political consequences.

As the Iranian election continues to surprise and reveal so much about the country, I hope you're all paying attention...IranScan 1384 is a pretty interesting read to get the mood on the ground as well as some analysis.


June 18, 2005 || 6:40 pm

Last night was a classic Alabama night out, and it was great.

Starting quietly, cooking myself a good dinner at home and having a beer, things hotted up when some friends came by and we headed out to the 28 Club. It had been too long since I'd been there and it was fun - although a Friday night is not the busiest - to drink, tell stories, play the jukebox and watch the poker game being played at the next table. And form a plan - the which was to go down to the river. So off we went, at 1am, down to the Black Warrior at Lock 5, took off our clothes and slipped into the water. It was real Huckleberry Finn stuff. Not an electric light to be seen, just the faint blue glow of the sky and the shadows of the trees on the water. The river was really warm, muddy on the bottom and with a lazy current, and the lightning bugs glowed like pinpricks. No sound other than the buzz of the crickets and treefrogs, and the occasional owl and coyote calling. We swam around a little, and mostly just floated, looking across to the faraway other bank and occasionally talking. Apparently it takes three days to float down the river to the coast.

It was really magic! I can't believe I haven't been swimming down there before. The water was so perfect, there was no-one around, and afterwards we sat on the tailgate of the truck, our clothes absorbing the water from our skin, drinking a beer and swinging our muddy feet, before waking up our driver (who had gone to sleep in the cab) and driving back to Greensboro (via an abortive attempt to go to Waffle House in Demopolis, but the damn place is shut down!). We got to Beacon Street at around 5, just as the sky was lightening. We jumped the fence into the backyard of the old Greensboro Hotel and climbed up onto its roof (it is the tallest building in town apart from the courthouse and the old Opry) to watch the sun rise over the sleeping, empty town.

Some nights are just perfect. London can't beat these kind of moments.


More interesting stuff on Iran - this article is more my perception of how things are changing and should continue to change.

Can these urban gamesters start an offshoot in London? if they did, London nights might get as fun as 'bama in the same childlike way.

Bangladesh beat the Aussies at cricket? What's going on in the world?


1:23 am

I'm on public radio! very strangely, they decided that they liked to hear about Britney and the possum and it was featured as part of Open Source's Blogsday. Fame at last (or something. When Radio 4 come calling then I'll know I've made it!) I was more chuffed by the company I was keeping - not every day am I in any way connected to Talking Ponts Memo. But I was quite disturbed by the voice they gave me - like a stupid Southern housewife - could they not tell from my blog that I was English and, erm, more ironic than that?!

Meanwhile in the world of links:

This Open Democracy article about the Iranian elections gives a pretty good run-down of the political development of Iran since the revolution, but I'mnot sure about its concluding point in the last para. How, really, is boycotting the election going to help? I'm all for the 'soft' evolution that started to happen under Khatami. I know his hands were tied to some degree but the beginnings of change seemed to be (at least when I was there a couple of years ago) really making an impact on everyday life, without the lurching rollercoaster effect of 'regime change' and revolution.

Interesting stuff about football (sorry soccer) in America and its racial problems. The US really is extraordinary in its social racism - I see it every day here. Its OK to help poor blacks with charity, but socialise with them and try to get to know them? No way.


June 17, 2005 || 1:44 am

The mosquitoes here are getting extreme, as is the heat. I could do the latter without the former, but at around 5.30 every day the mosquitoes descend looking for blood and won't leave me alone until 10/11-ish, when for some reason they decide they've had enough. They ignore the citronella oil my mother sent me and are only just kept away by coating myself with noxious 23% DEET bugspray. And even then they will find the one sqaure inch of your body that isn't protected and suck on it until you have a huge misshapen welt. These bastards are black with stripy legs and they stop at nothing. My legs look like I have some kind of awful parasite and I'm very glad I don't have to look even vaguely attractive to anyone here. I don't know how the locals appear to get away scot-free.

But apart from that, everything is good. The slow summer days here are American movie-classic. Long evenings, the thick heat meaning you can't move fast. I'm glad our house is finished and we don't have to work on site, but even sitting still at my laptop, I am covered in a film of sweat five minutes after coming out of the shower, and it doesn't budge all day. There are swifts squeaking in the sky and rap music booming out of a car down the street. The turtles - pond turtles and the box turtles with hinged shells - are out in force on the roads and us Rural Studio kids stop to move them out of the way in memory of Sambo. A friend nearly got bit by a rattlesnake the other day and the ants will find the smallest crumb of food that you leave out. The proliferation of nature here is wild and decadent, almost disgusting - the ants and roaches, the bugs, the kudzu and the poison ivy.

You can easily see the Southern Gothic cliches in everything; and someone finding an amputated arm in the basement of a former surgery on Main Street, or a wife accidentally shooting her husband with the rifle he gave her for her birthday and was showing her how to use - these stories somehow sound stranger in the heat. (And they are both true. Happened here few weeks ago.)


1:42 am

Links for today:

Oh. My. God. If you don't click on any of my links, click on this one. This is a work of genius. The dog even sounds exactly like Jack Straw. (via Observer Blog)

The BBC's free Beethoven series has attracted 600,000 downloads. Can I tell you again how fab the Beeb is? How any of you who look at the TV and think they are sliding down the drain...well, that's because they are putting so much energy into the web side of things and they are just flattening the competition.

More reading for wannabe geeks like me on RSS and the future of tags and searching.


June 16, 2005 || 7:55 am

On the subject of tags, del.icio.us etc (a bit of a follow-on to the Britain's Missing Bloggers debate, at least in my head) this talks about the interesting divide between hardcore/old-skool techies and the social software-ites. And how social software is clearly the way forward for the net now its expanding too fast to handle in an automated, non-human way.

Basically, as the post says, del.icio.us is exactly like Google only better because it's a human filtering the info. (Or rather, better for some things - Google will always still be useful for picking up references in pages where your search subject is not the main point and therefore not tagged.) And collaborative blogs are way better than individuals like me rambling on at length. And y'all out there [my friends who read this but no other internet stuff] really need to get into RSS. And wikis. And for those of you who think I'm a total geek, I'm not, but this stuff is really interesting! The semantics...the structures...the insights into human relations and opting in/out of social situations....there's a post in there relating to some of my concerns about participation in the architecture/urban renewal sphere but that's going to have to wait for another night. I'm tired.


6:03 am

Rant of the day:

Erm - has anyone told Jonathan Glancey that oil is a precious commodity? so cars that fly might be a really silly idea?

The celebration of this kind of toy - which is damaging out of all proportion to its usefulness or fun quotient - really annoys me. Before the world tells me I'm a killjoy, I have nothing against occasional, really fun and really useless things. Fireworks, for instance, are wonderful - although I was interested to see that in India they are an air pollution problem during Diwali due to their excessive presence. But fireworks, once or twice a year and done in style, give so much pleasure to so many people compared to the amount of energy they use up that it seems a fair deal. Similarly the extravegance of buying a Chanel dress or getting decadently drunk on expensive cocktails in Loungelover or a lot of other things that give the thrill, status and sheer pleasure that this weird-ass car probably does, while doing a helluva lot less damage to those who can't afford one.

But cars that fly...well, they give pleasure to the person in it (really fun until it gets as normal as driving a regular car) but for the rest of us plebs who can't afford one, they pollute our air, make lots of noise, spoil the view and probably use enough gas in an hour to power my home for a year.

It's amazing that a journalist can write a flippant piece on gas-guzzling skycars without even mentioning climate change despite having previously written about how we should do without "out-of-town superstores, air-conditioned shopping malls, cul de sacs of executive homes" in the name of energy-saving. But skycars are sexy and fun and shopping malls are ugly and unglamorous - and this is why the Guardian likes having their architecture critic and their car critic be the same person. It's all design, right?

Yes, it is; but you're also missing the point of design if you think its sole purpose is hedonism, whether in cars or buildings. Design is a kind of magic, but is also a way of exercising responsibility. The designer is intimately aware of the interconnectedness of everything - of how the way you want your iPod to feel means that the plastic has to be made a certain way, which, at the end of the day means one person will have a job and another won't. And every designer weighs up the delight factor with the responsibility. And delight to whom: not just to your immediate end user. Some things justify more crazy, beautiful, irresponsible things than others and a really good designer can make the crazy thing also a responsible thing - think Shigeru Ban's cardboard tubes. But skycars...

Thank God they won't make it onto the market [famous last words alert]. And I should stop dissing architecture journalists before my future employers tell me to curb my loud mouth...


June 15, 2005 || 11:37 pm

Why is it that 16 yr old boys here think they have a chance at chatting me up? I feel like a jaded old granny when I have absolutely no compunction at telling them straight out that they'd better not bother. Every day it seems some shy black boy will stop outside Beacon Street, look hesitant and then ask me how I'm doing. Sometimes it takes a few seconds, and right now I had one sweet shy one sit watching me work for fifteen minutes before he summoned up the courage to ask my age. Some of the older kids are more cocky - but even if they are 18 or 20 - sorry, they don't have a chance, whether or not they believe me. Yes, you're welcome to sit in my kitchen and watch me work, but no I won't take your number, I won't go for a drive with you and I'm not going to go for 'just a walk'.

I never see 16 yr old white boys - they don't walk around town, they are whisked in SUVs back to their houses with big yards to hang around in. (A bit of a generalisation, but not much.) But 25-40 yr old white men in bars - oh, lots of them asking my age too, and they don't believe me either when I tell them they haven't a chance. At least the black kids are generally quite handsome. A white redneck with a beer belly? Not even eye candy.

Links for today:

I can't believe that the combined landline/mobile phone has only just got to England! My German cousin told me about that she had this in Berlin about three years ago.

We love to hear more about Natalie Jeremijenko crazy cool ideas (via WorldChanging.)

All respec' to Johnny B's defence of the post office in the style of The Streets.

And (small glint of pride) now if you do follow links from plasticbag, you will get to me....hooray, someone I don't personally know links to me!


June 14, 2005 || 4:48 pm

Yesterday was a bit of a write-off. I decided to take the morning off to compensate for working till 3am on a Sunday night in order to email some stuff off to England in time for first thing Monday morning. But I did get some of our drawings for Rural Development done before heading to the Mexican for a meal followed by drunken dancing till late in my friend's huge and beautiful apartment (think classic Greenwich Village loft but with no rent). America has the best music culture. Everyone knows every song - whether country, soul, rock'n'roll, hip-hop, bluegrass classics - and they intertwine in ways that we never conceive of in England. I'll really miss the enthusiam for such diverse music and the lack of snobbery that you find here (I know, NYC isn't the same, but they don't have the roots culture like here.) And my friends can really dance!

And then, you find out that one of your friends (a blues guitar genius) is Britney Spears' second cousin! like, wowee!! Ensue drunken discussion about why BS is quite so fascinating (conclusion: she is the embodiment of America and we love the fact that she's so innocent about her trashiness) and the revelation that the last time he saw her was when they were five and she was poking at a possum with a stick. Go Southern gals!

And one of the Kennedys has applied to be a Rural Studio outreach student. Sorry love, you've been outed: email sent by admin staff to director read "XXXX Kennedy has applied to the outreach programme. She's a real Kennedy. No shit."


June 13, 2005 || 5:41 am

I felt like this post warranted a bit of rambling: Where are all the missing bloggers? (via plasticbag.org)

Well, there are probably a lot who are like me...writing for a small audience of friends, family and the randomly interested (hello, whoever you are from Mexico who logs in faithfully every day!) and who don't have blogrolls linking to every well-known British blogger. So when you do a clickthrough starting at, say plasticbag, you will never get to me, reinforcing the feeling of a closed community. Aren't blogrolls a bit passe now what with del.icio.us and everything, anyway?

But, of course, us semi-anonymous bloggers exist in the USA as well. The question is really, why are there proportionally fewer Brit bloggers? and does this matter, either to the country as a whole or to the new media sector?

We all know most of the reasons why there will be more bloggers in the USA. There are more politics/news blogs because of the well-rehearsed reason that US TV and newspapers are so dire that the bloggers now provide almost the only source of what in Britain we know as journalism. The country is big - people move thousands of miles when they change job and a personal blog is a pretty efficient way of keeping in touch, especially when you live somewhere with no pubs so you have lots of free time (like me). The special-interest blogs, like knitting blogs, are also way more useful as networking tools when everyone lives miles apart. And, most of the major software developers are based over here, so naturally the most tech-related blogs are found here - and there are a lot of them.

But, does it matter? Not sure. I like (and spend too much time) browsing blogs, but almost none of my UK friends seem to do the same. I think that the UK sees the internet as a resource for information rather than a medium for personal expression, and the perception currently is that blogs are more vanity publishing than information resource. I think they could learn, as I have, that blogs are a great way (thanks in no small part to RSS) to keep up with developments in many different areas without having to shell out for expensive magazine subscriptions. I think that it may require more collaborative effort, and perhaps paid blogging/blog management, to kickstart a wider UK blogging/blog-using culture as to be frank, we don't all have time to start an altruistic blog on a subject of common interest.

I would like to see more people blogging as a way to contribute to the sum of human knowledge - dairy farmers blogging milk yields, or architects sharing useful knowledge on product specs on a group blog. I wish that more of the trade press blogged, or at least had a RSS feed (BD, AJ). I could see that, if I put the time and effort into developing and maintaining a blog about, say, the Thames Gateway regeneration, that it would become a useful resource for those working in planning who need up-to-date info about that particular bureaucratic maze, and that it might quickly become a group blog with other policy wonks. Then it might start becoming a news and opinion resource (after all, the TG is hugely controversial) and the 'straight' media might start picking up on some of the anonymous tip-offs that start appearing and it might make headlines. But I don't have the time to do this without someone accepting that it's part of my job - and really, why isn't Regen and Renewal starting those kind of blogs? Why doesn't Adnams [shameless plug alert] start an independent brewers blog? We are busier and less home-based in the UK and I do think that as a result our blogging scene needs way more input from organisations like these.

But, I'm also glad that in England people still talk to each other. We don't need to blog about politics or our daily trivia when we wake up to Radio 4, read the paper on the way to work and can't go for a drink without bumping into someone who works in the same field as you, and who will give you the gossip. Isn't the really important thing not whether the general population is writing blogs, but whether they are reading them - and reading them is all about reading outside of your own world, finding out new stuff, not the opinion of the guy who you sit next to at work all day.


June 11, 2005 || 5:40 pm

More procrastination: I now have a del.icio.us page, finally, and the most recent links will start popping up in the sidebar once I start adding them in, thanks to BigBold's RSS digest feature. So now my sidebar won't look so hopelessly out of date...


3:24 pm

The venerable Ben Hammersley's concise and incisive powerpoint from the Reboot conference, well worth a look. (thanks Boing Boing!) Ah, coffee houses - not something we have in West Alabama. Can't wait to get back to Bar Italia and the fact that my office wireless reaches downstairs to Monmouth Coffee. Today the tropical storm rain has hit and going to a cafe to work on the laptop in a cosy warm place, watching the storm rage from the inside, is exactly what I want to be doing. That, or going to the Shack to play dominoes for hours...

If only I wasn't so behind with my book stuff! This is it for today; I've got to stop blogging and do some real work. Turn off the RSS feed, turn off Limewire, turn up the music and get down to it!


3:36 am

I spent all day on AutoCAD today and forgot how boring it is and how glad I am that I'm not going to have to do much more of it ever again. Tropical Storm Arlene is heading towards Alabama and threatening hurricane status. I'm excited it's hurricane season again. The last couple of days, the thunder has been rolling around and there have been bouts of dramatic pink lightning at night like an omen, without much rain falling but with that gorgeous wet rain smell in the air.


I love this: The Corrugated Iron Club which is actually maintained by Common Ground thus further cementing my utter admiration for this fantastic organisation.

Don't trust food that refuses to grow mould.

The wonderfulkidnapped Dalek. There's a ransom note genius at work out there. (thanks, plasticbag!)


June 10, 2005 || 3:58 am

A bit of a redesign, you may notice...I was getting fed up of the cheesy graphic that I thought looked cool a year ago and this is the first stage of more changes to come, when I get the time. On the news front, I just got home from playing with a new band - County Road 4, whose frontman stopped outside Beacon Street a couple of weeks ago to ask if I had wireless internet and ended up asking me to jam with them. So I get to indulge my guilty pleasure in playing along loudly to cheesy country music. I [heart] America and Toby Keith. Look, you guys who think it's just not cool, it's ironic, alright? All of Hoxton will be dancing to George Strait in just a bit - the 80s and fake bootleg mash-ups are just so passe.

Todays links:

This is pretty interesting for those of you who have missed the open-source movement. Alongside the news that nearly half of all technorati/deli.cio.us tags are in non-roman alphabets, the impact of non-Westerm countries on the development of IT and the internet seems to be about to skyrocket.

Continuing the sprawl discussion, this exemplifies to me the worst kind of 'argument' for New Urbanism, yet sadly is all too representative of the state of the debate in the US. The line praising "urban lofts, coffee shops and townhomes" says it all...as does the reference to Seaside, Florida. It wouldn't worry me so much if it wasn't that this kind of woolly and un-rigorous thinking is so prevalent here. Guys, let's not talk about how nice neighbourhoods are because you can walk around and how awful cars are. Let's talk about energy use, conservation of resources and actually being innovative rather than sentimental about what cities in the 21st century might be.

As he says, if this fantastic conspiracy theory about Intel and Apple merging comes true, you read it here first (via Slashdot.)


June 08, 2005 || 3:37 pm


Looks like Baltimore's copying the London buses posters (remember those watchful eyes?)

This is along the same lines, only with a more British tone, as the previous item on sprawl that I blogged. He is right: suburbia does yield more biodiversity than intensive agriculture. But again, what about energy use and cars, what about long-term sustainability. (viaUrban Cartography)

Have you noticed that Google is commemorating Frank Lloyd Wright's birthday with a special logo? That's the kind of thing that makes me think they must be OK to work for...(via A Daily Dose of Architecture and Slashdot)

And in more Google news, this is pretty interesting and could be damn useful for all us architectural/urban design types, assuming they're going to make it pretty accurate...the days of counting bricks to measure your site may be numbered...(via Boing Boing)

Cuban immigrants doing it in style.


2:31 am

I'm pretty much the lone blogger among my friends, although it does amaze me that a group of people so universally interested in contemporary culture are so not into blogs. So to y'all out there, I'm going to start feeding you a daily linklog that hopefully might get more of you wasting your time like me by browsing the net...and maybe you'll learn something, laugh or suggest me a link that I've missed out...

We like to see someone caring so much about housing policy that they set up such an effective countercampaign: CHAos in Chicago. (thanks to A Daily Dose of Architecture among others.)

The Beeb is truly a great public service. Read this, especially the musicians among you. (thanks, plasticbag.org.)

None of you read the Daily Mail, right, so you won't have seen what they managed to get out of Hillary Clinton's new bio. Well, read it all here without the embarrassment of your colleagues seeing the Mail's logo on your desktop.

No longer on the site, but yesterday the Drudge Report told us that Google is now worth more than TimeWarner, the world's biggest media company. It's a fecking search engine, what's going on?!?

And for those of you who are real architecture whores and yet don't know about this site: welcome to The Gutter. Now you don't have to visit the AA bar or St John to pick up on the gossip.


2:15 am

I feel like I've blogged way too many long posts recently, forgetting the first rule of blogging is brevity. So today, just a quick update:

We went to visit the client for the next iteration of the $20,000 house today. In case I haven't explained before, we're now getting a contractor involved to test out our design in the commercial world, as all along the idea of developing the prototype was that it could become almost a cottage industry for the area - allowing the community to rely less on the charity of people like us or the dreaded Habitat for Humanity and creating jobs and a more sustainable means of housing provision in the area. The dream is still (at least for me) to create a co-operative building company, training young people to be able to build our house design and others - but as I'm sadly going to be leaving Alabama soon, that's going to have to wait (for next year's generation of Outreach students, perhaps?).

So at this stage we have teamed up with a local small contractor to start building versions of the house for people who have qualified for the Rural Development loan. The first is Clara Harris, in Gainesville, who has qualified for a $30k loan and currently lives in a house built only 30 years ago but already decrepit. It is really uninhabitable but here, anything that still has some form of house-like form is lived in and like Miss Phillips, she keeps it impeccably clean. But still, a 30 year old house that already needs replacing - it's a cautionary tale to us and I can only hope that our house is better built and will last twice as long.

Miss Harris is pretty sprightly and talks faster than anyone I've met out here in the land of the slow drawl. She obviously knows what she wants and is reassuringly unsentimental, opting to site her new house right in front of the old one which she is determined to demolish, in contrast to Miss Phillips, who we all know will love and cherish her old house until it rots down to the ground.


June 06, 2005 || 7:35 pm

Gotta love this defence of sprawl (thanks to Urban Cartography for the link!). Dolores Hayden, take that! But before all you liberal Europeans spit with fury at the excesses of right-wing America, I think this article raises many points that cannot be so easily dismissed. It's true that the car does give you independence and allow you a freedom to escape and be yourself that is important. And are salmon really more important than humans? and that use of an Ayn Rand quote on the value of privacy is pretty genius too. OK, I think saying that government provision of water, sewage, schools and other infrastructure is a 'violation of individual rights' may be going a bit far, but I will agree with the author that the right to be able to live the lifestyle you choose, however sprawling, the right to drive a car and have a huge manicured front yard between you and your neighbour are valid choices.

But of course, the one issue that the author doesn't address is the good ol' sustainability caboodle. How to preserve all these inalienable American rights for future generations, to ensure that they too can have cars, freedoms, and the civilisation that he values so highly. Salmon probably aren't more important than humans, and one can easily argue that there is no legitimacy to preserving the natural world per se. But to preserve it as a stockpile of resources so that we can continue to live the life we choose to live without compromising our basic freedoms - one would have thought that this would be an argument that the Right over here could buy into.

Perhaps in some weird way, the tide is turning - the Christian Right is starting to argue for environmental awareness on the basis that it is abusing God's creation to be so reckless with the world he gave Adam in trust. But the political Right continues, because of its allies in business chasing short-term profit, to claim that American's consumption-pollution culture is not a problem, because in the future, technological advances will mean we can solve these problems, and improved oil extraction techniques mean we our dwindling reserves don't matter. Meanwhile, the rhetoric on so many other issues is all about making the world safe for our children...


1:47 am

Church slogans of the day:

It's been another busy week, so apologies for lack of posts! We had solid rain for the first half of the week, meaning the usual tour guide service that I would have done to all the RS projects was somewhat curtailed and Alabama's poverty, that can look somewhat picturesque in the sun, looked fully as miserable as it really is. Then the sun came out and off we went to New Orleans for a night, whereby I finally got to see the city without hordes of people, minus the beer goggles and beads of Mardi Gras, and thus appreciate just how amazing the architecture of the city is. It is quite extraordinary to find that quantity of old and beautiful buildings - not just a few blocks, but street after street of wrought iron balconies, white columns, and elegant porticoes. One could walk for literally hours from the French Quarter to uptown without seeing anything to break this continuum.

Then another (wait for it) bluegrass festival! Up to Foggy Hollow for yet more late-night picking - a totally different atmosphere from last weekend but good fun, traditional bluegrass and a late-night Waffle House visit in between the pickin' which always adds to the occasion. Now it's back to my empty warehouse where I've got to get down to work again, having taken pretty much all the week off...

The other half of my brain (the bit that's still English) is meanwhile obsessed with the latest ins and outs of the Ashley Cole saga - the debate being is he an ungrateful little sod or has he been betrayed by our club? Answers on an email please, as my only contact with what may or may not be the mood among the fan base is currently Arseblog.

And meanwhile, the Observer runs an article on the 'hidden poor' of England, living on £3 a day, or so they say though a close reading of the article reveals the lowest income level quoted as being £209 per week - £29 a day, out of which must presumably be paid rent, bills and every other expense. I assume from the article that the £3 a day is 'profit' left over after paying for the bare necessities - the profit from which you are supposed to pay for haircuts, furniture and clothes. This is indeed a pitiful state of affairs. But just for a comparison (and not to try and play the competitive pity-seeking game), the average benefit payment here amounts to £14 a day. And in this county, a third of households live on this. Talk of 'personal degredation' of the level the Observer described is nothing compared to what we see here. Households with no running water or sewage systems. No kitchen. No roof. Floorboards rotting underfoot. No public housing. Glass-less windows patched with boards and cloth. This should be a national disgrace and instead there is silence. The New York Times doesn't visit West Alabama to write a feature article and we don't have Polly Toynbee going undercover to live life as a worker in the catfish plant earning £3 an hour, or living in a leaking trailer home where your shit streams out next to the well from which you pump your water.

I still don't know really what we are meant to do about this place. I veer from optimistic to pessimistic, from outraged to accepting of a grinding poverty that gets slowly less grinding with each generation, but yet stands in appalling contrast to the wealth of this nation, its paradigm of the land of plenty and opportunity, of self-satisfied suburban families in SUVs and widescreen TVs. After all, as anyone who has spent time in a third world country knows, somehow life still goes on in all its mundanity. People still live and laugh and yet this doesn't excuse the lack of help they are given. It's easy to see people going about their daily lives surrounded by all this shit and to think that somehow we don't need to do anything, because they are not screaming at us, not revolting, not waving their crutches at us with reproachful stares like the beggars on the streets of India. They live their lives ignoring what most of us would find intolerable - the roach-infested bedrooms, the broken windows, the raw sewage and some might say that they don't even care, otherwise they would get off their arses and do something about it.

But as a middle-class kid who now lives in an uninsulated, leaking warehouse that would best be described as a decrepit if romantic squat, I know how quickly once gets used to these things. I don't notice the fact that my bathroom faucet doesn't work, I just get by because I feel like I've got more important things to do than fix it. I have, of course, chosen this over a cosy little cottage for double the rent and a tenth of the space. But to criticise those who haven't chosen their decrepit rented trailers for laziness - why don't they just get some scrap wood and fix the damn thing up? they are unemployed, they've got time - is perhaps to misunderstand something about how one does live day to day, how sharing a story with your neighbour or going to church seems more life-enhancing and important than acknowledging the squalor of your existence by tackling your leaking water pipe - how the escapism of TV allows some sort of dreams to happen, how I'd rather pay for wireless internet (my equivalent of cable TV) than for a new bathroom faucet that costs a tenth as much because it lets me access another world and imagine things.

The trouble is, fixing the roof of your trailer isn't going to solve your problems. After that you've got to fix the windows, the plumbing, the floorboards, the broken car, get yourself a job, lose 50 pounds, get the hell out of West Alabama and go to Detroit or Florida. The enormity of the task leads to apathy and childlike, confused calls for help. What we need to do here is give such an enormous push that it gets some momentum going. A new, solid house can do that, to some extent, but can just be another band-aid on the sore.

Excuse my ramblings. As I said, I don't know what the answer is...


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