Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for June, 2008

Links: Confused of Calcutta Considers YouTube; Brian Lehrer Interviews “Internets Celebrities”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 12, 2008

On Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami writes of an upcoming lecture on the anthropology of YouTube and muses on YouTube’s volume of programming having surpassed that of network television. JP’s words lead me to refer again to the work of my favorite YouTube contributors, the self-created “Internets Celebrities” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (for links to their blogs and their films go to the next-to-last paragraph of my post of May 25). The Internets Celebrities’s combination of humor and economic and social insight have created a new genre of commentary-meets-comedy-meets-NYC-street-sensibilities and of making young (and old — witness this writer) people aware of the workings of the systems and situations in which they live — this while bypassing television broadcasting and movie-houses. Via YouTube, each of the Internets Celebrities short videos have logged up to 1,000,000 views each. For insight into what they’ve done, how they do it, and the place of YouTube in the process, view this recent broadcast (“Ghetto Economics”) on New York’s Brian Lehrer Live.

Posted in Communications, Economy, Internet, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Patterns of Human Trajectories, the Essence of Cities, Jacobs vs. Mumford

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 7, 2008

Via JP Rangaswami (Confused of Calcutta) this link to an article on the website of Nature Magazine, entitled Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race: Tracking study proves that humans are creatures of habit. The essence of the story:

“By monitoring the signals from 100,000 mobile-phone users sending and receiving calls and text messages, a team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, has worked out some apparently universal laws of human motion.

The results could help epidemiologists to predict how viruses will spread through populations, and help urban planners and traffic forecasters to allocate resources.

Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues show that most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, are creatures of habit. They make regular trips to the same few destinations such as work and home, and pepper these with occasional longer forays such as vacations.”

The article was especially interesting to me — in small part because I am a similar creature of habit, satisfied by, but also mildly embarrassed about, clinging to comfortable routine trajectories between and within New York, Sofia, and Istanbul, the three cities amongst which I divide my time — and in large part because of my interests in examining and clarifying the nature of cities and of the infrastructure of the exchange of knowledge.

As the decades pass, I continue to examine and debate the dichotomy best expressed by the polarity between Lewis Mumford’s epic “The City in History” and Jane Jacobs’s 1960s urban manifesto “The Life and Death of Great American Cities.” In essence: Are cities composed of great monuments and the products of ambitious physical plans or are they more a function of the aggregated trajectories, intentionality, and intersections of their inhabitants? To express this in terms of New York’s ambiguous struggle with the legacies of master builder and politico Robert Moses: Which view will triumph, the critiques of the displacements and damage to the human fabric of the city Moses’s grandiose road-building projects caused, this as expressed in Robert Caro’s epic biography of Moses “The Power Broker,” or the admiration for the art deco industrial styling of the great bridges and other infrastructural monuments Moses pushed through to realization, this as per the series of “revisionist” museum exhibitions and academic publications on Moses’s achievements that surfaced in New York two years ago?

At present, I am involved in writing and photography on the changing nature of the city of Istanbul and the bifurcation over the centuries between that city’s great monuments and the trajectories of its inhabitants. More on this if/when the project is authorized to proceed. In the meanwhile, though, in the context of Istanbul, I include this link back to a past posting the second half of which treats an Istanbul photocopy shop and how its function as a node of knowledge exchange is shaped by its location and the physical trajectories and intentionality of its patrons.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Links, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

Posted in Books, History, Language, Links, Popular Culture, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.

Coda

Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

The Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal to Help Meet Them, Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists, Blues and Lenya

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2008

Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal

This week’s podcast (The Prosecutor) from listener-supported Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life begins with a soft-spoken and cogent fundraising appeal from the program’s chief commentator, Ira Glass. Glass reports that ever since the station began its experimental podcasting of weekly episodes of This American Life a year-and-a-half ago, weekly downloads of the program have risen to 400,000,, and in some weeks have even exceeded a half-million.

This successful podcasting service, Glass continues, is free to the program’s listeners but not to the station. In Glass’s words: “… the bandwidth itself to do that much internet traffic costs our home radio station $152,000 this year.” His appeal is for each subscriber to the program’s podcasts to donate a single dollar per year to offset these costs. Such a minuscule donation would cover the program’s bandwidth bill three-fold. Of course, Glass acknowledges the sad fact that most internet users are unwilling to pay for the value they receive and, so, he suggests that responsible listeners give $5.00 each thereby making up for the unfulfilled donations of four slackers.

I plan to respond to Glass’s appeal by putting my money where my podcast-listening ear is and donating $5.00 to support the free distribution of Glass and colleagues’ excellent show. I challenge all those involved with me in debates on the future of internet infrastructure and fellow followers of Doc Searls’s worthy Project VRM (an attempt to gear “markets” to the wants and needs of individuals) at Harvard Law to do the same. Dare to join me?

Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists

Recently, during a walk through the Garden of Tsar Boris III (in communist times the Garden of Freedom) in Sofia, Bulgaria. I encountered a gathering of “anti-fascists” commemorating the anniversary of the denouement of the Second War World in Europe. Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War but switched to the side of the Allies following the Soviet occupation of the country in September, 1944. Those Bulgarians who fought against the Nazis after the country changed sides have been relegated to a historical purgatory in the post-communist era in which the rhetoric of anti-communism has come to outweigh the memory of anti-fascism. There were fewer than 200 people, most of them quite old, at the anti-fascist gathering. On the other hand, rallies of Bulgaria’s antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim Ataka party (which won 25% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election) still attract thousands.

Only hours before the stumbling across the gathering in the Sofia garden, I had heard the word “fascist” used in a more contemporary context. In an interview on the weekly podcast of the BBC’s Front Row, the 82-year-old American literary doyen (and eternal curmudgeon) Gore Vidal responded to a request to forecast the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election by saying that “… the likeliest outcome is that the Republican party, which is not a political party in any sense that Britain might know, (but which) is a mind set of crypto-fascists, will steal it from any Democrat who wins it, as they did with Albert Gore … they are quick to steal, look at the mess they’ve made.” And this is only the beginning of Vidal’s take on the party of Bush and McCain! The Front Line interview also includes Vidal’s recollections of fellow post-war literary giants Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Bravo to Gore Vidal on all accounts!

Blues and Lenya

As an antidote to exposures to fascism, or to an excess of radio talk shows, two musical podcast suggestions: For a regular doses of the blues, try The Blues File. For background and anecdotes covering the all types of music and musical personalities, subscribe to Sarah Fishko’s excellent Fishko Files with, as a delightful, haunting, and anti-fascist starting point, this broadcast treating the great Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and iconic interpreter of the music and lyrics of Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and others.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Links, Literature, Media, Music, Podcasting, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Lower East Side, Meyer Lansky, and “Keep Your Business Under Your Hat”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 2, 2008

I grew up in the intimidating shadows of great Lower East Side New Yorkers, from communist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) to comic actor Zero Mostel (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), from socialist congressman Meyer London to gangster and math-whiz Meyer Lansky. For a prose- and cartoon-sketch biography of Lansky and a cautionary tale about his motto of “keep your business under your hat,” see this recent piece from the New York Times (note: if you are not up to registering for the Times Online, you can view the piece without registration here).

Part of the Lower East Side side of me admires the toughness and invulnerability of those who keep their business under their hats; the side of me that is involved in debates on the nature of knowledge and the future of the internet, however, agrees with the moral of the last plate of the cartoon sketch, i.e. that, in the end, keeping your business under your hat gets you nowhere.

(Any present or ex-, real or fantasy shtarkers viewing this post might also want to click through to Six for Five).

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Conquest by Infrastructure Roll-Out: The 14th-Century Ottoman Advance into Europe, Neglected Monuments of Northern Greece, and a Fascinating New Book

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 1, 2008

Click on A Published Coincidence, an entry just posted on my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, for a few words on “The Shaping of the Ottoman Balkans 1350-1550: the Conquest, Settlement, & Infrastructural Development of Northern Greece” a new book by Heath W. Lowry, Atatürk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University.

Apropos of the subjects treated here at HakPakSak, “The Shaping of the Ottoman Balkans” treats the centrality of the building, financing, and maintenance of the physical and social infrastructure of trade, travel, hygiene, and worship to the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire. The book is also a fascinating and richly illustrated guide to out-of-the-way and oft-ignored monuments of northern Greece.

My thanks to Professor Lowry for including a number of my own photographs in the volume and for his citations from, and kind references to, my stand-by article The Ottoman Architectural Patrimony of Bulgaria, the partial output of a past Fulbright grant.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Links | Leave a Comment »