Wednesday, July 24, 2019

New Cities in an age of Migration

Over in the Guardian, Wade Shepard* has a good look at the question of Should we build cities from scratch?

* I recently started following Wade's Vagabond Journey blog, which linked to this article.

It's an interesting read that touches on a few key global issues. On the one hand, new cities can be a way of dealing with population influx from migration:

"The major reason for new cities is that there is so much migration," says John Macomber
... the existing cities of Asia and Africa are simply not able to handle this onslaught of urbanisation. Cairo was built to house 1 million people, not the 20 million who live there today.

This attention on scalability reminds me of computer engineering. If a system doesn't scale up, then you look at either restructuring its fundamental infrastructure to cope, or you separate parts out into "external" systems that are, in effect, simpler and more self-contained. But then, aren't cities beautiful precisely because of the way they emerge to handle complex interactions? Is there an inherent size to any city? Or does our modern, controlled attention to urban politic and management these days - summed up in that phrase "smart cities" - no longer allow for complexity, emergence, and for natural death even? Is the city paradigm now closer to a walled garden than a wildflower ecosystem?

Then, secondly, there is the purely economic effect of just a massive building project:

As well as being less complicated and cheaper than retrofitting old cities, building new cities is seen by many leaders as more profitable – and sexier.
... building an entirely new city is the pinnacle of projects.

To come back to a technical perspective, is city building analogous to large IT projects - and if so, then how should we make them effective, rather than crumble into the pink elephants that large projects often turn into before ever launching?

Then finally, there is the question of need, which ties into sustainability, purpose, and perhaps even intended lifetime of a single city.

New cities that work have built-in economic drivers that give them their impetus and reason for being. Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border was sparked to life by a transportation hub along the New Silk Road;
... The new city building boom is nearly as much about maintaining and attracting high-value talent as it is about creating space for the droves of rural migrants searching for their first handholds in an urban environment.

What if "urban design" is a misnomer at this point? To come back to the gardening parallels, what if we do not "design" cities, but "seed" them? A city in the middle of a desert looks like a single plant growing, when seen from space. Should we plant several city seeds, encourage them to grow, but ultimately understand which are successful, and which need to be "thinned out"?

From the perspective of space - satellites and terraforming - then where does this leave us with the process of mass migration - the dual challenge of economic distribution in the face of technical progress, plus the grim enforcement of movement brought on by war and climate change. And, just as importantly, who decides things at this level?

Cities are clearly "the one to watch" as we try to consider the humankind plight over the next 200 years. Forget smart cities. Global city planning is where it's at.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Retro tech tomes: The Official Guide to Second Life

A little while back, a conversation with James reminded me that I've built up a small selection of historic tech-related books that amuse or intrigue me. Blog content if ever there was some (and a good chance to test emailing to the blog again).

They've all scattered to the strange corners of my house, like the dust sprites in Totoro. This one was too big to hide away though:

"Second Life: The Official Guide" (second edition) is a big chunky thing covering all aspects of getting into the virtual world. Is it still going? Yes, according to Wikipedia - wow, I'm almost tempted to try it out again. I wonder if I still have my login details. 

I have a bit of a soft spot for SL. Years ago, for work, I did some interviews in the world for how data visualisation could be taken into interactive, 3D realms. I chatted with someone from SL inside a giant flower. I saw some of the work that Daden Labs was working on, like visualising flight tracking. There were recreations of campuses and consultation exercises. The places were largely quiet, but intentionally experimental and therefore of interest.

Looking at online worlds now - especially Roblox which #son1 is into - I wonder what impact SL has had on the online world experience through time. Roblox and Minecraft seem to have enjoyed massive success in basically the same vein - Roblox in particular lets you create and script objects, upload textures and avatar items, acquire money-like tokens, and create your own whole games, which often venture into "world" territory.

However, the defining lines are subtly clear. For one, the target audiences are worlds apart. Roblox and Minecraft are geared up towards younger generations, whereas Second Life always felt like a world for adults (adults that somehow had time to get into a while 'nother existence, which seems to me isn't many). Conversation in the former are very moderate and limited, but users come together over their love of gaming - even if this means just a sense of joint exploration or revelry. The "community" crystallises around the games, which manifest as a thousand separate server instances. SL, on the other hand was only ever one place, and the community was based on that - one large "Second Life community" that was coupled to the virtual world and, by extension, the company behind it. (Yeah, I know I speak as an uninformed outsider on this. But that's how it felt, from the outside.) 

Perhaps it was difficult to truly create one's own sense of community within that context. Or perhaps the freedom offered by richer chat and engagement meant there were just too many rules to negotiate, too many rituals and cultures to learn - too much like real life all over again. It's funny that game-makers consider how well physical objects are re-created in virtual space, but not the intangible lines of interaction thta truly define us. Relationship rendering, anti-aliased and texture-bumped for human imperfection.

This book isn't as nostalgic as some of the others I have, but it does remind me of a time when virtual worlds were still something of an emerging oddity rather than a massive hit, with kids' annuals and global superstars. It felt like the worlds imagined by cyberpunk authors were strangely achievable, and we were still figuring out what the attraction of human life was, played back at ourselves through graphic cards.

Maybe I'll see you around in there one day.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Status Update 2019-07-22

Hello! I'm getting back to basics with blogging - trying out a quick status update, just cos.

Experimenting: This post is being emailed in. I wonder if it'll work. Cross-format syncing still seems to be a huge issue - I import my weeknotes from my wordpress blog into my Medium feed, just because Medium is the gathering place for the weeknotes community still. But it seems to chop out basics such as some (not all) bullet-point lists. Spacing also seems like a common issue - I'll probably have to edit this post because the breaks between paragraphs are too much, or too little. Gah.

Traversing: As per my last weeknotes, I've made the decision to go 3 days a week at work in September. Some of that time will be helping on the school runs, now that both kids are at (the same) school. Some of it is an urge to get back to the kind of stuff I was doing at Uni - democracy, groups, community, spaces, rituals, symbols, magic, power, etc. I'm not sure how it'll p(l)ay out yet - I don't have anything planned - but am interested in some side projects, and trying out different ways to bring in a bit of income.

Reading: Other than the recent Five Letters post, I've been picking into a few books recently. This is Going to Hurt was a good read indeed, but all the more better for having seen NHS teams in action at various times. Comics-wise, I read the first volume of Vagabond, which Espen kindly sent me a while back. I've also been reading Tintin in Tibet to #son2 which has been great. After going to see the Manga exhibition at the British Museum with me mum, I installed a Manga reader on my tablet and started reading Attack on Titan, which is suitably futuristic, dark, and action-filled, with odd pre-reminiscences around certain parts of Game of Thrones. Enjoying it a lot.

The Library has also come back into my life - in a borrowing of books way. Thanks to some keen-eyed staff, I'm now a big fan of Chris Reynold's Mauretania comics. I'm also now reading Jung's The Undiscovered Self, which is comforting in that it shows how a lot of modern challenges haven't really changed since - or were born out of - the 50s.

I'm not sure what to read on holiday yet. I picked up Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums second-hand recently, and might give that a go. I always like to read about traveling when I'm traveling.

Watching: Finally watched Baby Driver the other day. A friend said it was one of their favourite films. Friend also lent me Taxi 1, 2 and 3 (original French versions), and I can see a trend there. Fortunately I love car chase films with awesome music too.

Playing: Despite having picked up Zelda: Breath of the Wild recently, I've mostly been focusing on The Dream Machine, a cute and somewhat creepy little episodic point-n-click adventure, "built by hand using materials such as clay, cardboard and broccoli". The puzzles are about my level, and fit in with story nicely. I've been swapping hints with a friend, for that old-school multiplayer experience. Remember when you used to get stuck on a game and had to wait until you got into school to find out if anyone else had got past it yet?

Tech'ing: Mostly migrating data from one hard drive to a USB stick to another hard drive, across the board. Who's stupid idea was it to buy a new laptop? Still, it's fun going through old files. Maybe I should post some of that stuff. I'm also carrying on running off solar power this summer. Main changes recently have been to just get more batteries, now that I have a bigger solar panel setup. I think I should be able to last going on holiday without the worry of charging up, but I'll take some spare panels with me, just in case.

Hanging out: Been spending most of my time away from Twitter at the moment. If you're on Mastodon and into more esoteric chat, then look me up at - I'm really enjoying the small nature of this network, and the like-minded users gathering on an instance focusing on certain, more spiritual discussion.

Similarly, I've started using a few conference chatrooms via XMPP (nee Jabber), and so have my account hooked up to my phone a lot, for the same reasons as above. If you're on XMPP, or want to give it a try, then get in touch with me - I'm at

A bit of me really wants to set up an "alternative networking" group. Is that a crazy idea?

OK, that's it for now. if this works, maybe I can email some stuff in via my phone. Here's a (testing) image (that might not work) to reward you for reading this far...

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Inevitable rebellions

From "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" by Alasdair Gray (my emphasis):
I said, 'Was there a rebellion?'
'We are so sure there was one that we did not inquire about the matter. The old capital was a market for the empire. When the court came here we brought the market with us. The citizens left behind had three choices. They could starve to death, or beg in the streets of other towns, or rebel. The brave and intelligent among them must have dreamed of rebellion. They probably talked about it. Which is conspiracy."

A little book I picked up second-hand, missives from an imagined land. Give me a shout in the next week if you'd like to read it and I'll send it on to you.

Picture of the book "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire"