General – Page 26 – God of the Machine
Jun 182002

Fifteen years before Christopher Alexanders deservedly celebrated books on patterns in architecture and at least twenty before anyone had heard of design patterns in software, Jane Jacobs, in her 1965 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, laid out an urban pattern language. Her patterns include short blocks, residence and work mixed together (also one of Alexanders patterns), aged buildings (interspersed with newer ones to promote diversity of use), wide sidewalks (to give children safe, because supervised, areas to play), and high dwelling, as distinct from population, density. City neighborhoods that have these patterns are alive; neighborhoods that lack them are dead. But as Jacobs points out, the urban planners like Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, and the other prophets of what she calls Garden City opposed these patterns at every turn. To see their legacy in Manhattan, look at Stuyvesant Town, or any housing project. Essentially they hated cities and proposed to fix them by making them as uncitylike as possible.

The power of Jacobs book lies in its specificity. To get some idea of her method, consider one of her patterns, high dwelling density, in some detail. She first takes pains to distinguish dwelling from population density:

The Garden City planners and their disciples looked at slums which had both many dwelling units on the land (high densities) and too many people within individual dwellings (overcrowding), and failed to make any distinction between the fact of overcrowded rooms and the entirely different fact of densely built up land. They hated both equally, in any case, and coupled them like ham and eggs, so that to this day housers and planners pop out the phrase as if it were one word, “highdensityandovercrowding.”

But here the planners run into difficulty: often the most successful areas of a city, because they have high dwelling densities, have high population densities as well, but without overcrowding. And the opposite is also true: areas with low population densities, like Bedford-Stuyvesant, are often full of overcrowded dwellings.

Having isolated the real question, dwelling density, Jacobs proceeds from low to high to see what works and why. Six to ten dwellings per acre, yielding lots of 70 by 100 feet or so, can succeed in a suburb. Ten to twenty dwellings per acre tends to look like semi-detached row houses, like parts of Queens.

These arrangements, Jacobs writes, although they are apt to be dull, can be viable and safe if they are secluded from city life…They will not generate city liveliness or public lifetheir populations are too thinnor will they help maintain sidewalk safety. But there may be no need for them to do so.

Above 20 dwellings per acre, however, youre in a city:

From this point on, a city settlement needs city vitality and city diversity. Unfortunately, however, densities high enough to bring with them innate city problems are not by any means necessarily high enough to do their share in producing city liveliness, safety, convenience and interest. And so, between the point where semisuburban character and function are lost, and the point at which lively diversity and public life can arise, lies a range of big-city densities that I shall call “in-between” densities. They are fit neither for suburban life nor for city life. They are fit, generally, for nothing but trouble.

Successful urban areas typically have dwelling densities of at least 100 to the acre, and sometimes many more. And yet the urban planners consistently recommended population densities of about 100, which meant dwelling densities of about 25 to 50the exact recipe for gray areas and blight.

It seems incredible now, but in the early 1960s, Robert Moses, New Yorks Parks Commissioner and public works czar, planned a series of east-west expressways through Manhattan, beginning with Greenwich Village. One of the best passages in Jacobs book is a description of the intricate street life, the staggered comings and goings, on her block on Hudson Street, and a more wanton destruction of this sort of life could hardly be imagined. She remarks in her book that There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and money. To sound nicer, we may call these public opinion and disbursement of funds, but they are still votes and money. Lacking money but having votes, Jacobs put her principles into practice, organized her neighbors against the expressway and defeated Moses, who at the time was at the height of his powers. Moses lost his momentum, and none of his proposed cross-Manhattan expressways came to pass. We should thank her by reading her.

Jun 182002

Mickey Kaus complains that, since he moved his blog to Slate, the back button on the IE browser is broken if you go to his old address, and so it is. (Fine, don’t believe me. If you’re using Internet Explorer, click the first link in the previous sentence, then click the back button. Now, before clicking the second link, bookmark this site. Now click the second link and try the back button again. Now come back here and finish reading.) Web monkey to the rescue: I emailed Mickey the following:

I don’t know what kind of software your web server in Nevada is running, but if it’s Apache, then there’s a simple solution to your back button problem. Your trouble is, you (or they, I guess) are redirecting URLs when you should be rewriting them. Let me explain. A redirect is like a forwarding number. If I type in, I actually go to that old address, where I’m told that the new address is such and such, and off I go again. Then when I try the back button, I get stuck in the endless kausfiles/slate loop because I’ve actually been sent to two addresses.

What you want is not a redirect but a rewrite. With a rewrite, I type the same address, but the server, instead of forwarding me anywhere, examines the address and changes it on the spot. I go one place, not two–giving me a nice bonus of a faster response time–and my back button still works.

I know how to do this with Apache. If the Nevada boys are running some other software like, God forbid, Microsoft’s Internet Information Server, then all bets are off. But for Apache here’s one way to do this:

In the httpd.conf file, under the kausfiles hosts directive:

RewriteEngine On
# Rewrite all requests for the kausfiles main page to this new URL
RewriteRule /index.html

That’s it! You can get a lot fancier if you want to, but even this simple setup beats hell out of what you have now.

This was three days ago, and it’s radio silence from the Mick. He cites several readers who point out that you can use the history arrow or hit the back button twice real fast, and one who says it’s no problem in Mozilla, but I offer an honest-to-God fix and…nada. Sheesh.

Jun 172002

Chapter 1: The Foundations for a New Kind of Science. Hi. I’m Stephen Wolfram, the smartest man on earth. My discoveries will revolutionize mathematics, physics, biology, social sciences, computer science, philosophy, art, technology and a bunch of other stuff people haven’t thought up yet. The few fumbling attempts at my insights to date — in artificial intelligence, catastrophe theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, cybernetics, dynamical systems theory, general systems theory, nonlinear dynamics, and statistical mechanics — are nowhere.

Chapter 2: The Crucial Experiment. You can apply a few simple rules to coloring squares on a sheet of graph paper and come up with random-looking patterns sometimes.

Chapter 3: The World of Simple Programs. You can make the rules a little more complicated but the patterns don’t get any more random.

Chapter 4: Systems Based On Numbers. You can get random pictures from numbers and functions too.

Further posts as I digest the implications of this revolutionary work.

Jun 152002

When I read this book at 40 I realized that when I read it at 20 I didn’t understand Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond at all. It is tragic in the novel, if retrospective balm for the ego, that Isabel is taken in by them herself.

Osmond is indeed a monster, and James is very specific about how. He is a solipsist: everything in his tiny universe must be a reflection of himself. This is why he is prepared to marry off his daughter to a man who doesn’t love her, why he does nothing for Madame Merle, who devotes her life to helping him, and why, finally, he hates and tortures his wife: she is too independent, her ideas are her own rather than reflections of his. James says much, and his characters still more, about how clever Osmond is, but his ideas, for all the care he lavishes on them, are really quite dull. They boil down to an abiding respect for forms, customs, traditions. When his sister, the silly but shrewd Countess Gemini, explains to Isabel that Madame Merle never married Osmond because “she has never had, about him, she had never had, what you might call any illusions of intelligence,” we are surprised, but we feel, on reflection, the force of the judgment. Yvor Winters complains that Osmond, although a “thoroughly unpleasant neurotic aesthete,” is not adequate to inspire the sort of terror that Isabel, and later Pansy, feels. But what can be more terrifying than a clever, well-plotted attempt to stifle one’s ideas, one’s person, one’s very identity? That’s what Osmond does, and what he is.

A few words about Ralph Touchett, one of the most unforgettable of the substantial galaxy of Jamesian minor characters. Ralph, unlike God, must pay for his omniscience in impotence: he is ill, and must take his pleasure from the gallery. In the plot, however, is Ralph is very much a man of action. The two great turning points of the novel–Isabel’s inheritance, and her break with Osmond–are both precipitated by Ralph. He does a great deal more than watch.