Articles of Interest, February-March 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for February and March:

Buckminster Fuller’s Chilling Domes (with further commentary and notes here) by Stuart McMillen


I discovered Stuart McMillen during this interval of time, and summarily binged through his modest and very high quality archive of comics. I don’t endorse all opinions that McMillen espouses in his comics, but I do think that they’re all good and thoughtful reads. Two of them were in fact readings for the salon sessions I hosted last term: Supernormal Stimuli and Deviance in the Dark.

But I’m choosing to feature Chilling Domes, because while I enjoy culture war hot takes, they’re a pretty common sight in my corner of the internet. Conversely, it’s an incredibly rare delight when my interests in radical planning initiatives and quirky mid-century polymaths get indulged, at the same time. And an even rarer delight when that happens without the polymath getting real authoritarian or racist.

Check out the notes too for more on the physics and some plausible sounding explanations for why this phenomenon hasn’t been further explored in the almost-century since.

A Surgically Sculpted Face, the Newest Back-to-School Necessity by Wang Lianzhang

Chen isn’t worried she might not like her face after 10 years. “I can do more surgeries to change it again,” she says. “Any woman who can make the cruel decision to be pretty is brave. They will have better chances to make money and they will have a stronger desire to make money. They will be more hardworking than anyone else — because that’s the only way to cover the cost of further plastic surgeries.”

If you only had time to read one piece out of the five, make it this one. It’s such an interesting, meaty piece. And it’s talking about a social phenomenon that I guarantee you will make its way across the pond in the coming decades. It touches on so many interesting things! The role of social media in making being pretty more important than ever! The changing perception of what plastic surgery is (empowering, practical, incremental, something you can take out a loan for because banks recognize it as a good investment to boost your earning power)!! The very existence of FACE TRENDS!!! Can you imagine having to get a new face every five years to be considered stylish??? Holy CRAP.

I will say that this piece made me realize that maybe I’m not as transhumanist as I thought I was. I felt vaguely unsettled by the way that the interviewees spoke negatively about their original features. I thought the “before” picture of Chen Siqi was quite cute and I felt sad that she didn’t, or that her culture didn’t, and that in either case she felt better after having it changed. But since I feel comfortable with my own features, I’m definitely not in a position to judge, either.

And there’s some really interesting sociological aspects to transhumanism to think about here. If people want to augment their bodies with improvements that aren’t actually improvements but just because of societal norms or trends, would allowing that be a net positive for society? What are the circumstances under which it wouldn’t be? The closest frame of reference that I have is the Discourse surrounding facial feminization surgery for trans people, where body dysmorphia is seen as a reasonable justification for surgery. It looks like in plastic surgery circles though, dysmorphia in general is a big no-no. From this piece: 

A small percentage of patients have body dysmorphic disorder and will never be satisfied with their appearance… it is essential for hospitals to hire psychological counselors to evaluate the patients.

There’s also this recent piece on incels getting plastic surgery (which JSYK I’m breaking my no-hype policy to post; this week it’s been linked everywhere and I’m extra grumpy about it because to add insult to injury it’s kind of bad and irresponsible as a piece of journalism), which had something similar to say:

Some surgeons will not operate on patients they believe may have body dysmorphia. “To me, that’s a red flag when someone has 200 pictures of themselves on their phone,” says Joe Niamtu, a cosmetic surgeon in Virginia, who declines to operate on many young male patients seeking sculpted faces. “The risk is they’ll never be happy.”

That’s going to be an interesting tension to observe.

And lastly, here is a hot take: when our generation reaches boomer-age, one thing our grandkids will post in the 2070 equivalent of r/forwardsfromgrandma would be memes about how much we suck because of our regressive af views on cosmetic surgery. We’ll be writing very embarrassing opinion pieces about how our kids are super selfish for choosing to not look like us at all, and it’ll get as soundly mocked as this piece is now. And they would be entirely correct for mocking us.

Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same by Justin Fox

A TL;DR: In the mid-90s someone discovered that building codes classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible, and because “stick construction” brings down the development cost of housing by 30% it’s quietly overtaken the States and Canada as well as a handful of other wealthy nations since then. It would depend on developers working against their own economic interests to close this loophole, and in the meantime there’s been quite a few sketchy fires and close calls. Some municipalities and industry professionals are starting to raise alarm bells about this issue.

Glenn Corbett, a former firefighter who teaches fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, took me on a tour of some of New Jersey’s “toothpick towers,” as he calls them, pointing out places that fire engines can’t reach and things that could go wrong as the buildings age. “You’re reintroducing these conflagration hazards to urban environments,” he says. “We’re intentionally putting problems in every community in the country, problems that generations of firefighters that haven’t even been born yet are going to have to deal with.”

So that’s interesting and terrifying. But not really interesting and terrifying enough to be top 5 out of the hundred or so things I’ve read in this 2 month period by itself. It’s here because it made me reflect upon the planning education that I’ve gotten in the last four years, in a university that’s known to be the most STEM-oriented in the country. A planning education where I’ve taken seven or eight social justice-oriented courses, three being mandatory. A planning education where I’ve heard the term “stick construction” exactly once.

SlateStarCodex published a photo essay on the 2019 APA Annual Meeting, and his third thing is a similar observation about the psychology field. Like psychology, planning is a field where you do need a considerable amount of Wokeness to do your job properly. But should I have been learning more about building codes?

The Route of a Text Message by Scott B. Weingart

My leg involuntarily twitches with vibration—was it my phone, or just a phantom feeling?—and a quick inspection reveals a blinking blue notification. “I love you”, my wife texted me. I walk downstairs to wish her goodnight, because I know the difference between the message and the message, you know?

It’s a bit like encryption, or maybe steganography: anyone can see the text, but only I can decode the hidden data.

My translation, if we’re being honest, is just one extra link in a remarkably long chain of data events, all to send a message (“come downstairs and say goodnight”) in under five seconds across about 40 feet.

This is just such a neat piece of longform writing. I don’t know what else I can really say about it, I just really enjoy pieces that is a person enthusiastically infodumping about a thing that I know just enough about so that it barely doesn’t goes over my head. So that it barely punches me in the face, I guess? What makes this piece particularly appealing is the romanticization of tech that is a constant thread throughout. Not in the “it’s going to save us all” type of way which is boring and dangerous, but in the “look at this thing that we built, that generations of humans had a hand in shaping, that now exists in the world and against all odds works for us despite how much of it is cruft and duct tape” type way, which is MY JAM.

Fantasy Birding is Real, and it’s Spectacular by Ryan F. Mandelbaum

“Fantasy birding is basically the offspring of three unrelated obsessions of mine,” says Matt Smith, fantasy birding’s creator. “One is obviously birding, which I fell into pretty hard as a kid in Mississippi. The second is sports, baseball in particular, which always turned me on because of all the numbers. And the third is making things for the web.”

I just. Really love weird internet communities. They’re like online equivalents of stores that sell just one thing, which is another thing that I love.

And if you’re not familiar with 21st century birding, you might be surprised by the pretty impressive amount of online infrastructure and citizen-science-stry that happens when it comes to birds, which makes fantasy birding possible. I remember learning about the Cornell Lab and eBird in my second year field ecology course, and being blown away. I kind of thought that birding was a thing that retirees did with guidebooks from the seventies and a trusty set of binoculars? But reality in this case was so much cooler. And sometimes, you just need a reminder that reality is pretty cool, you know?

Challenges facing Violence Against Women Shelters in Ottawa

[Epistemic effort: I’ve had a month for digesting what I heard, but haven’t actually set time aside to think hard about the implications. I have done my best to cross-reference all the claims that I noted down, but there may still be some mistakes remaining, and there’s a chance that I completely misinterpreted something that was said.]

I went to a roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by women’s shelters in the Ottawa region mid-November, and I realized that I was incredibly privileged in that government regime changes generally don’t affect me.

What do I mean by that? Well, I think there’s this general consensus around my social class, that politics are mostly a form of entertainment, and all of the head political figures all kind of channel Zaphod Beeblebrox while some 50 year old white dude with 30 years in the public service and a job title like Assistant Deputy Chief Underminster of Finance actually controls everything. It turns out that I was very, very wrong, and it’s just that the “middle” class is kind of untouchable politically. The Ford administration has actually meant that some urgently needed social services are now underfunded or defunded entirely, with severe implications for the subaltern classes. There are changes, and people’s lives have objectively gotten shittier. I just didn’t see it.

This realization has made me change from ambivalence to disapproval of my fellow leftists who are/identify as accelerationists, who think that we should just burn the entire current structure down and start anew, because according to them the system in place has a net negative impact on the world. Now that I know that this is not the case, my reaction is “hey buddy if you’re going to burn down this system that millions of people depend upon for some reason or another, you better have a dang good reason, because the people whose lives will be upended the most, and for the worse, will be your poor, your disabled, and your oppressed, not the well-off relatives that you resent for being xenophobic.“

In the specific case of the roundtable, I learned that  women’s shelters in Ontario lost funding, meaning they either didn’t get enough to keep up with wages and inflation, or actually had to cut the number of beds that they had, which was already pathetically few to begin with. Whatever number you had in mind, it’s lower than that. There are 121 in Ottawa as of 2016. Women who flee often flee because they want to protect their children, so each woman that you take in will generally require 2-3 beds. Women stay for 3-6 months while they get their lives in order to move on. So. Ottawa, a city with a population of almost a million, can support approximately 50-60 abused women at a time, and zero men. I am willing to bet money that that is not close to enough. Ottawa is not a uniquely bad city when it comes to supporting battered women; in fact it may be better than average. Society just flat sucks, in general. (If this information made you update your mental model on the services your city provides for women, I regretfully inform you that you should make approximately the same update w/r/t homeless shelters, resources for refugees, subsidized/community housing, support for queer youth, CPS, and so on and so forth.)

The other incredibly shitty thing is that when it comes to supporting the subaltern classes, funding models are exceedingly zero sum at times. Three years ago, women’s’ shelters here were able to ring up 311 (the municipal help line) when they had a woman on the line who needed to get out, but no room in their shelter or in any other shelter in the city. The city would hook them up with a room for, not 3-6 months, but a decent chunk of time. Now, because of rising housing costs and an influx of refugees, the motels, city shelters, and overflow rooms are all full, all the time,  and that is no longer an option for the shelters. This, by the way, is the case even though the mayor, who honestly seems like a pretty cool guy, spent $6.4m over budget last year on shelters.

And, the week after I went to this roundtable, Ford started cutting watchdogs for the province left and right, because according to the party they were ineffectual and therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. Watchdogs were brought up as a topic during the roundtable discussion as well. According to the panelists, in general they weren’t the most efficient form of advocacy, because it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you. But it was still useful, and it was provided at no cost to the shelters. Now, the shelters are preparing  to scrape at the splintered bottoms of their barrels to pay for advocacy themselves. I don’t like that, but I am generally not a fan of anything that our current government is doing, so that’s not a big surprise.

Misc notes:

  • Cities don’t have enough money to do anything in the “best” way that we are taught at City Planning School. The way “housing first” is supposed to work: “step one when a person becomes homeless is to give them a stable source of housing, so that they can keep their stuff, have an address which is very important for applying to jobs, and not fall apart mentally.” The way “housing first” works because there are approximately like, negative four affordable units in the city: the city will give you a subsidy of $250 a month for housing. But. Only after you’ve spent more than a cumulative total of 2 years in a homeless shelter, and are not addicted to any substances (“clean”). It is very hard to be clean, if you’ve spent 2 years homeless. Also, homeless shelters are not safe for women generally, so only men stay for long periods of time. This means that men got 80% of the “housing first” subsidies. By the time you get a house because of the “housing first” policy, you already lost most things that a house was supposed to give you.
  • Another fun thing is that, landlords that are familiar with the housing first policy will deliberately push their rents above the affordable housing threshold, because they don’t want “troubled” tenants. I won’t say that landlords are scum because of this, because I can see where they’re coming from. But this goes back to how severely problematic rent-seeking, and the idea of housing as a form of investment/passive income, is.
  • This should go without saying, but battered women will make bad decisions sometimes, like going back to their abuser after their shelter stay. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help them, because a) you don’t know their circumstances and b) you would likely do the same in their shoes. These women [a/n: I feel really uncomfortable with how the shelters speak of their clientele exclusively using female pronouns, but I mean, they’re women’s shelters.] are doing incredibly draining crisis management on a day-to-day basis. They’re trying to keep food on the table and their kids quiet so they don’t get beat up. Recovery is non-linear. Don’t hold this against them.
  • Lots of women will “hold out” until the shelters have a bed available for them.
  • A common misconception is that a women’s shelter is like, a large hall with 60 beds in one room. In general they’re like motels, with individual suites – some with connecting rooms too or a dividing wall that can be brought in if there are older kids who need their own space, etc. Lots of times, the kids don’t even know that they’re staying at a shelter of some kind, their mothers tell them that they’re just going on a mini staycation or something.
  • We know the solution for solving all these problems – for raising women out of poverty, for effectively transitioning them away from abusive relationships. Things like having beds immediately available, providing childcare, and ensuring that they can keep their pets with them (because they are beloved members of the family, and also something that the abuser can threaten/injure/kill if it is left behind) all help women stay away. The only problem is that we don’t have money, and in fact we are losing funding. Ain’t that a bitch.
  • This year has been especially bad for women. In general, one woman is killed every six days. In 2018, the figure has shot up to 2.5-3.
  • On the bright side, #metoo has had a visible impact, and more women are seeking out shelters – older women, wealthier women, immigrant women.

De-Commodifying Housing for Fun (and Zero Profit)

I recently discovered this youtube channel that uses cities:skylines to explore the politics of planning. It’s pretty great. This one video in particular I think says a lot of important things about housing and gentrification, so I took notes. The notes are on the second half of the video, not because the first half isn’t good but because it goes over concepts I’m already familiar with. Everything below should be taken as basically a transcription of the ideas outlined in the video, i.e. I don’t own anything and if you find this useful you should consider kicking a few bucks his way.

so here we go:

Conventional methods of fighting gentrification:

More housing (YIMBY)
-YIMBYists are ragtag groups, varies wildly in quality (internet urbanists, development shills, actual anti-poverty activists), east coast groups generally more friendly to tenant rights

-Some nuances on luxury vs affordable housing:

-“luxury” is an advertising term, it basically means granite countertops, hardwood flooring, in house laundry, maybe a doorman. But the only real difference between luxury and affordable units is the rent.
 -The floor area is generally the same, because of minimum requirements, and the fact that shoebox apartments are generally illegal.
 -Luxury housing costing more (DESPITE BEING BASICALLY THE SAME) means higher ROI and less risk.

-“filtering” – some argue that luxury housing of today becomes affordable stock of tomorrow. This is basically trickle down economics, and even if by some miracle it works that way, at best it will take 20 years and buildings generally don’t last much longer than that (citation needed).

-older, worse buildings for poor people also means higher risk of displacement due to construction.

-land value tends to be higher where higher density is. We can argue cause and effect, but NYC and Hong Kong are both extremely built up and dense, but you don’t see units decreasing in price.

-Usually done through downzoning broad swathes of a neighbourhood (medium/high density to low density, meaning that new apartments won’t get approved) – but illegal conversions will still remain a thing as well as conversions made before downzoning

-Downzoning only serves to stave off problem of rising rents, it doesn’t change the fact that richer people want to move into the neighbourhood and are willing to pay a premium to do so. In addition, it means new units are limited in number. The community may have more control over the rate at which rent rises, but the problem still persists.

-zoning also obviously doesn’t cover renovations, so landlords can still renovate cheap units into expensive ones, which means that displacement of current residents will still happen.

Opposition of Neighbourhood Improvements

-opposing bike lanes, transit improvements, sidewalk improvements, etc.

-the idea is that even if the neighbourhood lands a good employer, it’s not likely that current residents would get the jobs there. Therefore improvements that might improve mobility/attract employers are generally opposed.

-following this line of logic, there will never be housing that is both good and cheap.

In general…

Yimbys and anti-gentrification activists are answering two different questions. Yimbys are asking “how do we fit everyone in?” Anti-gentrification activists are asking “how can we keep everyone already there in their houses?”

The truth isn’t in the middle (this isn’t south park). There is a pressing and urgent need for more housing in lots of cities, but those same cities are also going through eviction crises and mass displacement owing to the development of those desperately needed housing units.

The Actual Real Solution: The De-commodification of Housing

Housing needs to become just housing, and not also the default investment vehicle for large swathes of the population. Socialists talk a lot about this and tend to get patronizing responses like “haha, wow, everything’s possible after the revolution, right comrade?” but there are genuine actionable strategies to make this happen piecemeal in the current capitalistic political environment.

We can’t just pass a law that says “housing is de-commodified now, guys,” but anything that reduces the ability for landlords to extract rents from their tenants, or otherwise reduces their power over them, is de-commodification. Anything that provides housing at below market-prices, competing with the current profit-seeking model, is de-commodification. Policies that help homeowners afford foreclosure insurance, or otherwise support them when they are underwater on their mortgage, is de-commodification. Policy examples:

Co-operative ownership of apartment buildings.
 -A board elected by the tenants oversees the building(s) and makes decisions about maintenance and finances.
 -Plenty of these exist already, but mostly for the well off (baugruppe with private mini units and collective unschooling for the kids!!!!!)
 -Encouraging co-op housing would go a long way towards reducing the power of landlords.

Rent control.
 -limits rent increases per year to reasonable levels, or stops them entirely sometimes.

Guaranteed legal counsel in tenant-landlord court.

Improved and expanded tenant rights.

Community land trusts.
 -civic organizations that own and manage land and the buildings on them in a community.
 -they are organized by members of that community
 -they keep rents just high enough for maintenance purposes but lower than a for-profit entity would.

Increased availability of quality public housing.
 -you want make public housing cheaper than the market rate, and you want to open it to everyone and not just poor people. You have to build a lot of it and you have to make it accessible to jobs and services. Be as appealing, if not more appealing, than private sector alternatives.

Right of first refusal laws.
 -Already a thing in Washington DC (TOPA)
 -If an owner sells an apartment building, the tenants of that apartment building have the right to form a tenant association and purchase the building from the landlord, rather than the person the landlord is trying to sell it to.
 -In DC this generally requires the association to partner w another development firm to finance the purchase, but it still means that the tenants have more leverage to stay in the apartments, or to receive hefty buy-outs to leave.
 -Can also be applied to factories and manufacturers – workers get the option to buy the equipment and the factory and continue as a worker co-op
Vacancy taxes.
 -if an apartment or condo is vacant you have to pay an extra tax. Same goes for if you’re airbnbing it out.

Tenancy unions.

“Good-cause” eviction laws.
 -laws that impose major restrictions on what can result in a tenant’s eviction.

Stricter licensing requirements for landlords and stiffer penalties for failure to keep apartments in good condition.
 -Landlords sometimes let the building they own rot so tenants are forced to move out, and then turn around and sell it to a developer – who was going to demolish it and build new housing on top anyways.
 -Better monitoring and implementing actual consequences for illegal conversions, slumlords

So all of this would work towards making it much harder to make money off of housing. It curbs speculation and decreases profit possible from rent-seeking. Effectively, the idea is to make housing useless as an investment, and therefore only to put people in. Now obviously this makes it less financially viable for the private sector to build housing, since the profits from speculation and rent-seeking would disappear, or be significantly reduced. But it wouldn’t be impossible. The value of housing would simply be based on its usefulness as a house, rather than as an investment vehicle.

All the policies mentioned above have been implemented in at least one or two cities, but having these policies work together and full de-commodification would have to go further. We also don’t really know what that might look like. People’s retirement savings are tied to their houses and huge parts of our economy are based on appreciation of real estate holdings. Policies that de-commodify housing will hurt the economy as we know it, pretty significantly. But if we want to live in a world without rent or landlords or homelessness or gentrification, it’s a risk we’ll have to be willing to take.

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