THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 5

23 Sep

SEPTEMBER 28, 2009 :: WIGGLE YOUR TOES

FORECAST: partly sunny, with a chance of natural disaster

TOPICS: iTunes Genius, Algorithms, Natural Disasters, Clichés like ‘No Man Is An Island,’ Interconnectedness, I Heart Huckabees, Hip Bones Becoming Elbows, The Burnham Plan Centennial, Openlands’ 500 Miles of Water Trails, Blair Kamin, ‘Green Infrastructure,’ Chicago’s Olympic Bid

::

1. BIRD + YAMAGATA

B comes before Y, alphabetically. And Bird came before Yamagata, chronologically (Music of Hair was released in 1996, Yamagata’s EP in 2003). So that explains the order. But B is a long way from Y spatially, and ’96 precedes ’03 by a good long while.

But there they were, one following the other, and logically so since neither alphabet nor discography determines placement with iTunes Genius, Apple’s playlist generator that created quite a stir when it came out in 2008, though it wasn’t particularly revolutionary.

I use it on occasion, neither besotted nor disappointed with its taste. But the other day it did something odd.

It put Andrew Bird’s “Imitosis” just before Rachael Yamagata’s “Reason Why.” Not a big deal until you listen carefully to Bird’s words. The focus lyric—repeated with poignant emphasis—is, “Tell me doctor, can you quantify, the reason why?” And then a song whose title asks the exact same question? It was creepy. Just what information did Genius aggregate to form a playlist? Was Apple’s technology so advanced that it took into account lyrical themes? Was Bird and Yamagata a coincidence, or was the “brain” of this music database aware of existential conundrums?

I did some research. A 16-year-old Canadian kid sums up Genius pretty accurately.

“You send information about your music library to iTunes, where this ‘brain’ analyzes it, runs it through the algorithm, and spits it back out to you. …The more information this mega-brain of information feeds on, the smarter it becomes.”

Another user mentioned that the algorithm probably relies on “user-created playlists: if two songs appear together in the same playlists of many different iTunes users, then those songs become linked in the ‘mind’ of Genius.”

I felt a bit relieved and a bit disappointed. Genius wasn’t interpreting emotive sentiment. But could it? In addition to genre tags and beats per minute, could lyrical themes, emotional output, or social messages be tracked with enough precision to link similar songs?

Would a song like “The Honey, the Power, the Light” bring up “When the President Talks to God,” “Megalomaniac,” “I Hear Them All,” and “I’m Standing in the Light”?

No. It wouldn’t. I just tried.

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2. QUESTION + ANSWER

Bird + Yamagata put me in a contemplative mood. Searching for the reason why these two songs had ended up together, I’d joined the musical artists in their search.

The REASON WHY.

It’s as frustratingly complex a question as you can ask, yet to not ask it would be to live a comatose life. Existence demands a WHY, and those who’ve exercised their existence have asked it since the dawn of abstract thought.

They are spiritual and corporeal questions, born out of painfully tangible events (natural disasters (see Bird again) tend to illicit the question en masse), but wandering further.

“WHY didn’t he save himself?” “WHY did he get in the car?” “WHY are you rich, and I am poor?” “WHY me?” “WHY not me?” “WHY did God allow this to happen?” “WHY do I believe what I believe?”

The answers to WHY questions are therefore also both spiritual and corporeal, their roots planted in the physical soil of our lives but reaching deeper, more mystical truths—some of which we understand, some of which we come to understand through those answers, and some of which we remain forever ignorant.

This metaphysical thread, from which the WHY of things is born, is interconnectedness. We don’t often see it until later, but events in our lives are interconnected with other events—those in the past and those in the future—and also with events in other people’s lives. Once we see this, we often see the WHY, the reason for the unexplainable.

The WHY question, as cliché: “WHY do bad things happen to good people?”

An answer, as cliché: “No man is an island.”

That latter cliché was referenced a few months ago, for one reason or another, and I was struck by the analogy’s scientific inaccuracy: even islands are connected—just not at first glance. This realization spawned a piece of writing that’s become very meaningful to me, a poetic manifesto reminding me of WHY and its answers:

We see a vast expanse of midnight between our shores
and think so much separates us

But islands are merely the
mountains that peak above the sea

Our roots find their home in the same
igneous pasture as those
thousands of miles across the waters

It’s called “Don’t Light a Signal Fire, Wiggle Your Toes.”

::

3. BERNARD + BURNHAM

There are certain movies that pack a double (or triple, or quintuple) punch. Gigantic is, for me, the most recent addition to this genre. It’s a multi-layered comedy so darkly funny and intricately personal it could be the collaborative project of The Directors Anderson (Paul Thomas and Wes, though the two aren’t related and have not been so named, until now). John Goodman moves a malignant tumor with his mind, Paul Dano is attacked by an omnipresent homeless man, and Zooey Deschanel is a quirky, tragically helpless rich girl who may or may not be a hooker. I’ll give it two thumbs up, even if no one else did.

Perhaps one of the punchiest films, because it comes across originally as a bizarre but innocuous study in perverse antic (but is so much more), is I Heart Huckabees. Early in the film Dustin Hoffman, as Bernard Jaffe, holds up a blanket and explains his theory of the universe: everything is the blanket—an orgasm, the Eiffel Tower, a hamburger.

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: “Everything is the same, even if it’s different.”

HOFFMAN: “Exactly. But our everyday mind forgets this. We think everything is separate, limited: ‘I’m over here, you’re over there,’ which is true…but it’s not the whole truth. Because we’re all connected.”

In the past 70 years interconnectedness has gained scientific validity and mainstream popularity. Psychology is based on the very idea of interconnection. My wife studied psychology, so I asked her about this.

ME: “It’s kinda like that ‘hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone’ song.”

HER: “Not really. Because things are connected to everything else; it’s not really ever a progression. Like behavior is tied to neural pathways, but those neural pathways can be altered by an environment, after a long enough time. So it’s more like everything’s jumbled up, connected to everything else.”

So it’s as if the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, but it’s also connected to the vertebrae and could become an elbow if somebody put a gun to its head.

And we’re just scratching the surface.

The way we live can emphasize or minimize the truth of interconnection, and little is more important to the way we live than where we live and how that affects movement and interaction. In 1909, Chicagoans found themselves the recipients of a visionary book that had at its core the truth of this interconnectedness and in its pages already-rendered ideas for how they might embrace and improve it.

The book was The Plan of Chicago, by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett.

Burnham, who enjoyed tremendous success as the chief designer of the Columbian Exposition’s White City sixteen years before, was the primary author and has since received most of the credit for the book.

His name gets thrown around a lot here in the windy city, and deservedly so. What became known as The Burnham Plan inspired a movement for better cities throughout the entire country, and he is still revered for his holistic approach to civic design. [In honor of the plan’s centennial, the One Book, One Chicago program chose The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith, who gives a lecture on the topic late next month.]

::

4. WHITE + GREEN

Burnham focused on interconnectedness especially as he designed the city’s system of parks and boulevards—miles of extra-wide, tree-lined streets connecting acres upon acres of green space. A few blocks from our apartment, Sacramento Avenue morphs into Humboldt Boulevard and cuts a wide, curvy swath through Humboldt Park (neither of which would exist without Burnham’s influence).

This man’s vision affects my life everyday. I walk through the park to get to the library, my wife and I have attended dance performances at the historic boathouse, and wherever we’re going, the boulevards are easily the choicest paths—winding and broad, natural, letting us forget we’re in Chicago.

From an aerial view, these boulevards, I imagine, resemble rivers.

On June 14, Openlands, a leading organization in conservation efforts, celebrated 500 miles of water trails in northeastern Illinois as part of the Burnham Plan Centennial. Its vision was to find ways to unify the region’s waterways—creeks, rivers, and Lake Michigan—into “a rich and vast resource for people of all ages, interests, and abilities.” Though more iconic landmarks—Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile—come to mind as Burnham’s primary achievements, he was passionate about projects like that of Openlands, the interdependence of man-made and natural beauty, envisioning “an interconnected network of open spaces and natural areas, or ‘green infrastructure,’ consisting of greenways, biking and hiking trails, waterways, wetlands, parks, forest preserves, and native plant vegetation.”

In 1909 green was just a color, not a business model or a building technique. Yet, Burnham saw the world through the lenses most of us now wear.

Blair Kamin, the writer behind the Tribune’s Cityscapes column, thinks this year’s centennial is the perfect opportunity to re-envision Chicago, hard as it may be.

“In 1909, the booming Chicago region could be compared to an adolescent — gangly, full of energy, still taking shape. Today, by comparison, Chicago is mature…And yet, it would be foolish to say that Chicago has stopped growing or that we lack opportunities to shape its growth.”

What we need, Kamin says, is organic, sustainable growth. Wise developers have said this for decades, but finally, few planners oppose the notion that “compact, walkable communities” are the answer to the problems sprawl has created: more roads, streets, and sewers; greater traffic congestion, which “fouls the air and costs each Chicago-area commuter hundreds of dollars each year in wasted gas and time;” and the loss of fertile, Midwestern farmland.

Kamin says the aim of today’s visionary “is not a White City, but a Green Region.”

I have my doubts about some of the more radical ideas for the next century, but the city’s Olympic bid, the results of which are announced in 12 days, could spur tremendous change in just a few years. On top of that, Kamin’s closing words reminded me that interconnectedness is complex, that working toward its preservation and invigoration has never been easy or immediate.

“A plan isn’t a blueprint. It’s a vision, an aspiration. You measure its impact over decades or a century…The real power of the Burnham Plan is the power of an idea: that we are forever engaged in the process of making better cities and suburbs, and that we still have the capacity to do that—in a new century, confronting new realities and imagining a new and greener future.”

READ: The Plan for Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, Carl Smith.
RESEARCH: Burnham 2.0: A Composite Plan for the High-Speed Rail City

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