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Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Let’s start from the beginning…

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

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Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Read more at the new Per Square Mile.

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Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

A subtle shift occurred on the Internet recently. Maria Popova unveiled at South by Southwest a project she’s been working on for the last year called the Curator’s Code. Popova—a serial aggregator on her site and on Twitter—is hoping to encourage content aggregators to give a little back to the original source through links that trace the origin of the work. The site isn’t much—it’s a plea for transparency coupled with a few tools to facilitate citations—but Popova’s idea has made a palpable splash.

The Curator’s Code is only a start, but I’m happy it’s out there for two reasons. One, I’m a writer. I want my work to be spread as far and wide as possible, but I’d also like to be noted as the original source. And two, I started dabbling in aggregation—sharing, really—two months ago when I launched the Linked List. Before that, I thought a lot about what it means to be a responsible and ethical aggregator. In the process, I developed my own code of conduct which I think does more to respect original content than the Curator’s Code.

The entire point of the Linked List is to send people out to other sites. That’s it, really. I view the Linked List as a themed Twitter account without the character limit. If you think that way, everything else follows naturally: Don’t copy too much of the original article. Don’t summarize it, either. Get people to click the link. Even the design I chose for the Linked List emphasizes outbound traffic. The headline—often the most visible link in the post—is a link to the article itself. The permalink to my post—the infinity symbol just to the right of the headline—is almost an afterthought. Everything about the Linked List is meant to send you away from Per Square Mile. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

Oh, and there’s one more principle I follow—don’t be a dick. When I’m crafting a Linked List post, I think to myself, Would I be OK with my work being shared in this way?

That’s an easy question for me to answer. I’m a writer, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some, ahem, aggressive aggregation. Take my article on income inequality in the Roman Empire. Russia Today repackaged it without a link (an oversight they later corrected). Business Insider and the Huffington Post excerpted a small paragraph and summarized most of the rest. I have no idea how much traffic they got from their versions, but I do know that among the three of them I received well under 1,000 hits.

Fortunately, not all aggregators are created equal. From that same post, Matthew Yglesias on his blog at Slate pulled one factoid from my article, added a quick take, and sent me over 1,000 visitors. On other posts, the editors at Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish have sent me a few thousand readers by tastefully excerpting. And I have great respect for John Pavlus: Where Gizmodo and Business Insider were happy to copy and post one of my infographics—sending me around 1 percent or less of the traffic their posts received—John not only asked permission to use the image for a post at Fast.Co Design, but he interviewed me for his piece.

It would be great if “overzealous aggregation” meant the sort of effort that John put into his post, but it doesn’t. The Curator’s Code is a first step, but it’s not a complete solution—it would be easy to use the “via” and “heard through” links as a license to over-aggregate.

I signed a pledge to honor the Curator’s Code, but I’m also sticking to the principles I outlined above. They may not be perfect and they may not work for everyone, but I think they’re good signposts for when I’m working on the Linked List.

What do you think? Do Linked List entries catch your attention enough to send you away (and then hopefully return)? Am I striking the right balance between aggregation and original content? Does the Curator’s Code go far enough? Or do my principles do more to respect original content?

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The City 2.0

Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

TED is currently in full swing, and the program this year has an entire section devoted to the city. Fitting, given that this year’s TED Prize went to a city-centric project, one that hopes to crowdsource ideas to solve urban problems and reinvent cities. It’s predictably named The City 2.0. The site has a flashy splash page, but the innards still need some work—tapping in my current city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent me to a generic index page that encouraged me to “get connected” with other aspiring urban planners in my area, but responded to my clicks with little more than a broken Google Maps interface and some “COMING SOON” dialog boxes. For now, it’s long on pizzazz and short on details.

The TED Prize website fortunately has more on what The City 2.0 hopes to accomplish:

For phase I, the website (www.thecity2.org) will focus on helping individuals in forming cross-disciplinary groups to:

  1. determine the issue they want to tackle (i.e. traffic, lack of trees);
  2. determine a solution;
  3. develop an action plan;
  4. work to implement the solution;
  5. share the story of their success or failure with others.

Companies and organizations will be able to offer their tools to site users for use in executing their action plans. Ten micro grants of $10,000, coming out of the $100,000 TED Prize money, will be awarded in July 2012 to ten local projects that have the best hope of spurring the creation of their City 2.0.

To be clear, that’s $100,000 to be equally split among ten groups. Not a lot of money to tackle problems that probably need millions, even billions, of dollars thrown at them. Thankfully, there’s more:

As the site continues to grow and the overall platform grows we expect to:

  1. expand the functionality for individuals to connect and act;
  2. develop and design templates for knowledge sharing between new ideas formulated on the site and preexisting projects;
  3. build out our resource section with new local and global partners;
  4. introduce technology solutions for non-web based communities;
  5. expand our financial incentive program with larger grant offerings for active projects
  6. establish local and/or global gatherings on the City 2.0.

That’s a little better. This part of the project should have a longer-lasting impact than the small pot of grant money. Local civic groups often don’t have the skills or wherewithal to build a connected platform to publish their ideas and solicit feedback. The City 2.0 could provide that. But soliciting ideas is just the beginning. Many other hurdles stand in the way, and from what I can see The City 2.0 doesn’t propose how to address them.

The most obvious barrier is money. The City 2.0 acknowledges that to be successful it needs “companies and organizations willing to offer empowering resources” and “financial support”. It seems to me they are simply hoping companies and philanthropists will step forward and reward the best projects. That’s papering over a big problem.

The next issue is how to choose the best project. The City 2.0 says in its intro video that it will “combine the reach of the crowd with the power of the cloud”. Both crowdsourcing and the cloud are hot topics these days. Crowdsourcing in particular can give people a voice who otherwise may not have spoken up, and it leverages the law of big numbers to extract a handful of singular, stand-out ideas. But the real problem with crowdsourcing solutions for cities is more fundamental than that: Who decides which ideas to implement?

Lior Zoref, a crowdsourcing advocate, gave a TED talk this year about the wisdom of crowds in which he was joined on stage by an ox. After the gasps died down, he asked everyone to guess the weight of the animal and submit it to a website. At the end of his talk, he announced the average of the audience’s guesses: 1,792 pounds. The real weight of the cow? 1,795 pounds.

It is an impressive demonstration, but one that doesn’t sell me on the crowd’s ability to reinvent the city. That’s because crowd wisdom cannot apply to projects like The City 2.0. With the ox’s weight, there is one right answer. The crowd’s wisdom can be unambiguously verified. But with ideas and concepts like those solicited by The City 2.0, there is no right answer. And you certainly can’t distill an “average” idea from them all. Ultimately, a panel will have to pick the winners and losers. Those panelists will have enormous sway over the outcome of The City 2.0. If they are experts in their field, what’s to say the winners will be revolutionary, or even substantially different from their own work?

If winners are picked by popular vote—which I highly doubt—that, too, is no guarantee that the most promising proposals will be selected. People don’t always know what they want. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs once said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” There may be wisdom in crowds, but genius is usually confined to individuals.

I suspect it’ll take true genius to remake the city. We’ve been spinning our wheels in recent years, rehashing concepts of the city that have been around for decades, even centuries. Those ideas may have worked well in the past, but they didn’t have to contend with airports, globalization, or climate change. Today’s best solution may be unlike anything we have come to expect from cities.

I’m sure The City 2.0 will fund some great projects, but we won’t really know how they work until we really try them. Not small bits here and there, but big implementations. Trying on that scale takes money, and the only organizations with the money to do it are governments.

Does that mean it’s back to the old way, sitting through planning meetings and zoning boards? Maybe. Crowdsourcing is a great way to gather ideas, but implementing them takes community and persistence and enthusiasm. It’s possible that a website could create that community, but I’m skeptical—most social media tools piggyback on existing, real-world social bonds. I know I sound pessimistic about The City 2.0. I’m not entirely. I hope that the project will uncover a work of genius that would have otherwise been ignored, but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo from The City 2.0.

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Taiwanese countryside

The day after Thanksgiving I was on the tail end of a journey that spanned three flights and four airports. I was zipping through the Taiwanese countryside, though I didn’t realize where I was at the time. You could be forgiven if you thought my confusion was caused by the 28 hours of travel I had endured the day before, or maybe the intense jetlag, but you’d be wrong. I was fully alert.

This being my first time in Taiwan—my first time in Asia, in fact—I felt like a kindergartener on his first day of school. Everything felt foreign, new, and exciting. Mopeds raced ahead of automobiles at every stoplight and surged through crowds of people wandering the famous markets. Their rattling exhaust mingled with the vaguely eggy smell of effluent seeping from sewer grates. Politicians beamed down from billboards, thumbs erect in positive estimations of the country’s prospects. Lights pulsed along every roadside, manmade rainbows framing incomprehensible Chinese characters and occasionally humorous English phrases.

Amidst all the clamor, my density-obsessed mind couldn’t help but notice something else. This place was crowded. It was so packed with three-story houses, mopeds, Mazda 3s and Mitsubishi Delicas that it felt like one continuous city. In fact, I didn’t know we had left the city until my wife told me so. That was the source of my confusion.

When she mentioned that, I was taken aback. This was the Taiwanese countryside? To me it looked more like a confused mishmash of industry, farmland, and suburbia. But then realization settled in. I was in Taiwan, the second most densely populated country in the world.¹ With 23 million people living mostly on the slim plains sandwiched between the west coast and the rugged mountains that dominate two-thirds of the island, it makes similarly-sized Holland seem depopulated.

Satellite view of Taiwan

That Taiwan is a mountainous island no doubt partially accounts for its teeming population. But so too does the humid, tropical climate of the lower elevations. Tropical ecosystems are the most productive in the world, in part due to their year-round growing season and generous precipitation. It’s why the majority of Taiwan’s population lives on the flat, western sliver, and why farmers there don’t need large land holdings. It’s also why the Taiwanese countryside is as populous as some American suburbs.

As we whizzed by parked cars, rice paddies, and murky fish farms, I had an epiphany. I was in the country. Sweeping aside my preconceptions, I realized that “countryside” is inherently interpretable term, one that depends more on how the land is used than it does on population density.

¹ If you don’t count city-states or tiny oceanic flecks like the Maldives.

Photo by Tim De Chant, satellite image from NASA.

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7 billion

Earth

Sometime today—or maybe it’s already happened—the 7 billionth person on this planet will be born. It’s a milestone, that’s for certain, though I’m unsure whether it’s auspicious or portentous. What I do know is it’s a bit contrived. The 7 billionth person will face the same challenges as the baby born just before or just after. They are all entering a world that is trying to answer its most pressing question—how many of us can it support?

The answer depends, of course, on what sort of future those people will have. Will they live like Americans—sated and safe—or like Somalians—as uncertain about their next meal as they are about their country’s fate? That, of course, depends on resources. In truth, we won’t know the answers to any of these questions until we get there, if we’re even lucky enough to realize when we’ve arrived.

For years now, I’ve felt as though the world has been filling up around me. Part of that has been the result of changing scenery, an impression reinforced by years of moving up the density ladder from small towns to bigger cities. But that feeling is also supported by cold, hard facts. My worlds are filling up. It’s most evident in my hometown, a small city where change comes slowly if at all. Yet even there, the roads and houses and shops I knew can’t contain the now pulsing masses, grown half again as large as when I first knew them. Like a teenager, the city is coping with its new size awkwardly. Ambivalent about the future, it keeps trying to be the city I knew. But even I—with my propensity for nostalgia—know better. Every time I return, as I sit trapped a dozen deep at a stoplight, a lesson is writ large in the taillights of the car in front of me. Growth, like progress, cannot be stopped.

So as we cross this synthetic threshold, close your eyes for a second to take snapshot of the world as it is. It will never be the same. Then open them to a future that’s two people fuller.

Related posts:

If the world’s population lived in one city

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cardboard box

Nostalgia is not something I avoid easily. It usually lies dormant until woken by some change, distinct or subdued. And when it does, it takes charge. Small details and insignificant landmarks shout out, begging me to remember everything about this place and this time, from the noteworthy to the not-so-historic. And something as momentous as a cross-country move hurtles me back even further as I sift through the scraps of paper that invariably define my life. A ticket stub from a tram in Germany. A Polaroid with an Elvis impersonator from college. A note my wife scribbled, explaining how to write her name in Chinese, and how its homonym is “Little Zero”.

And so every time I—now we—move, I am reminded of how this last place and the one before it and so on were good to me. Each time, I found friends, opportunities, and new perspectives. And each time, I am sad to leave.

The first time in my life I moved I was 16, and we were only moving three miles away on the same side of town. My school didn’t change and neither did my friends. But I was moving away from the only home I knew, and I was desperate to feel some attachment to our new house. I remember closing the linen closet door one night and noting how it made a whooshing sound. I thought, this is something I will remember. I belong here, because I will always remember how the linen closet makes a whooshing sound when you close it. It’s a silly detail, but I still notice it fourteen years later.

And so every time I move to a new place, I start cataloging those silly details. The first year is always the most difficult. With a sense of place like mine that is anchored in hundreds, even thousands of details on small, subtle scales, it can take a while. Necessities dominate at first—the path to the grocery store, a running route, a good place to get pizza—but the later details are what tell me I’m at home—the sound of the train, the smell after a rainstorm, the putterings of the neighbors.

And so here I sit, waxing nostalgic about my time in Chicago, and by extension the Midwest. The scraps of paper from Chicago and places previous are all safely tucked away in boxes, waiting to be shipped, again, across the country. 16,422 people per square mile. The population density of Cambridge, Massachusetts, our soon-to-be new home. It’s a statistic that’s very similar to our current Chicago neighborhood. But it’s only a number, and much as I’d like to think that I’ll quickly find my groove because the numbers align, deep down I know better. I know that it won’t feel like home until I know that number and the people and the trees and the streets and the sounds and the smells and more.

Photo by Justin Shearer.

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