February 25, 2024

I wanted to start this month with a bit of catch-up, posting some things from earlier in the year that I intended to write about earlier but, for one reason or another, never did.

First is a pair of articles from the New Yorker: “A Lake in Florida is Suing to Protect Itself,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, and “The Elephant in the Courtroom,” by Lawrence Wright. Both pieces are about who, or what, can have legal or political rights. The idea of animal rights is more familiar, and really Wright’s piece is about what we think the limits of those rights are, and what those limits should be based on. It’s one thing to say that animals should be protected from cruel treatment and abuse, and another to say that an animal can file (or have filed in its name) a writ of habeas corpus, which is what is at issue in the case he’s describing. One important part of the question is whether and how intelligence matters— does a being have to have self-awareness in order to have rights? Why? And if so, how do we test for that?

Kolbert’s piece pushes that question even further: it’s about a lawsuit filed in the name of a lake, to protect it from environmental damage. For a human, this suit would be (relatively) straightforward: if the construction of a new housing development, say, will harm you or your property, then you can take the developer to court, and the question becomes whether you can show that the damage did or will in fact occur. But that all assumes that you have definite interests, which can be clearly defined and argued for, and that you have a right to the protection of those interests. Does a lake have interests of its own, separate from those of the people or animals who might make some use of it? Does it have a right to defend those interests? If so, how far does that right go? And who is entitled to assert those rights, since the lake obviously can’t do so itself?

Next is “Killer Truck, Dude,” by Dan Kois. Trucks, and some SUVs, are getting bigger and bigger— especially taller— and bigger trucks are more dangerous. The irony is that one reason these sell is because they make the people driving them feel safer. And they’re right; Kois brings up the point that vehicle safety ratings only consider the danger to the people in the car in a collision, not the danger to anyone else, and the same vehicle can protect its passengers very well but be much more likely to hurt others. I suppose you could see this issue as a question of rights, too: do you have any right to demand that other people’s vehicles be safe?

My last older item is “Tusi: The Pink Drug Cocktail that Tricked Latin America,” by Alessandro Ford. I feel like people studying marketing could gain a lot of insight from this story (provided they are untroubled by ethical qualms— which, frankly, seems fairly likely). Tusi— also known as “tusibi”— is a pink powder that people snort, and it has become extremely popular, first in Colombia and then throughout the Americas. That is about all one can say definitively about it, because Tusi “is not a single substance, nor is it even just a drug cocktail: tusi is a narcotic name brand…It is the “Coca-Cola” of drugs – an instantly recognizable product of mass merchandizing.” The name comes from 2C, the original designation of a group of synthetic hallucinogens produced in the U.S. in the 1970s. These were banned, but became niche club drugs in, as Ford notes, “European discos.” It made its way back to Colombia, where “aromatic pink food coloring” was added to make it more appealing (yes, really). It started to catch on, but supplies were always short, and so dealers started cutting it with other, less expensive drugs, including ketamine and regular old cocaine. The mixture was highly variable— so much so that eventually, “a gamechanging realization hit home: that as long as it was pink and powdered, any random combination of locally available drugs could be turned into “tusi.” After all, what was being sold was as much an idea as an experience…” Now, it has become “accepted that tusi refiners would add an “individual touch” to their product” with a specific mix of drugs. At this point, in other words, “tusi” is really just any combination of drugs— though usually including both a stimulant and a depressant— that has been colored pink and sold with that name. Reading this, I thought of the (mostly imaginary) Tide pod trend, by which it appeared that all you needed to do to get people to willingly consume poison is make it an appealing color.


And now some more recent things:

It’s a little weirder than her previous work, but I still love Se Ve Desde Aquí, Mabe Fratti’s newest album:


And Burial’s recent Streetlands EP:


Remaking the River that Remade L.A.,” by Michael Kimmelman, with photos by Adali Schell

The Los Angeles River is maybe the most famously altered waterway in the world. For most of its length, it looks less like a river than a man-made canal, perfectly straight and lined with concrete. All of this was done to prevent or reduce flooding; it’s a river that runs at a trickle a lot of the time, but in a big rainstorm can rapidly overrun its banks and wreak havoc, as it did early in 1938, when floods killed 87 people and did massive damage. These interventions have largely worked, in that they have prevented major flooding, but did so at great environmental and social cost, in some places.

More recently, though, many plans have been proposed for changing the river again, and the arguments about how to do this encapsulate more or less every debate in urban planning today. Some want to return it to its natural state— or, at least, to something that appears more natural. There’s a Frank Gehry-designed plan for elevated parks along a big stretch; critics worry that this could spark gentrification in some poor towns and neighborhoods, driving people from their homes. At the same time, the threat of flooding hasn’t gone away— in fact, climate change is making it more of a danger, rather than less. Everybody wants something from the river, and from any potential redevelopment; there are many equally valid interests, and their demands are often mutually exclusive.


How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented,” by Tekla S. Perry and John Voelcker

So, I did not notice until I was close to the end of this article that it was originally published back in 1989. I’m not sure why it cropped up on the IEEE website now, but its age makes it an interesting window into the way some of these things were being thought about and debated much closer to their invention.

I think an argument could be made that the graphical user interface (GUI) is one of the most significant technological innovations of the last half century. There were obviously computers before there were GUIs, and the internet existed earlier as well, but it’s hard to imagine either of those things becoming so integral to our lives without an interface that regular people would actually use. The GUI made computers intuitive (or at least more intuitive), and that is what really made the concept of the :personal computer” viable. I’d heard an abbreviated version of this story before, in which Steve Jobs and some other people from Apple visited Xerox PARC, saw the first mouse-based interface, and bought the idea from Xerox executives who didn’t understand what they had. Not surprisingly, it was much more complicated than that.

In any case, there are two things I thought this story illustrated nicely. The first is that it the GUI was not actually one invention at all, but many different innovations, all invented at least somewhat separately, that had to come together to make anything like the interfaces we are used to today. Many of these now so taken for granted that is is surprising they needed to be invented at all, like icons and collapsible menus. For a computer GUI to take shape, all these pieces had to work together, and the pieces that were developed first often had to be adapted to the ones that came later. The end result was not really the idea of any one person or company, in particular, but the point at which the various elements more or less clicked into place.

The second thing is the power of path dependence. Many of the specific conventions of the GUI were settled on not necessarily because they are ideal or work perfectly, but because timing or pure chance let them become dominant for just long enough that everyone got used to them, and so they stuck around. For instance, there was a debate over tiled vs. overlaid windows; the latter allows more things to be going on at once, but also makes it easy to lose track of information. Tiled windows remain more orderly, but constrain how much information can be on the screen at once. There isn’t necessarily a clear right answer as to which is better, but clearly overlaid windows won out, and to lose this functionality now would seem frustratingly restrictive. Maybe even more basically, the dominant metaphor of the computer GUI (at least outside of mobile operating systems) is the desk or file cabinet, with files nested in folders, some of which are placed on the desktop for easy access. That was chosen more or less because a designer looked around the office and realized how familiar these things were. But there’s no particular reason that chunks of data need to be called files, or that related lists of them need to be called (or look like) folders. But we’re now so used to this idea that changing it would be confusing.


The Secret Life of Videocassettes in Iran,” by the MIT Technology Review

This is an interview with Blake Atwood, the author of a new book about underground videocassette culture in Iran. Basically, in 1983, the government in Iran banned home video technology, and more or less immediately networks to trade, sell, and rent video tapes emerged and flourished.

What is really fascinating about the video ban in Iran is how spectacularly it fails. During the decade-long ban, the circulation of movies on video doesn’t only continue; it grows by leaps and bounds. An entire underworld of videocassettes emerges. An underground rental industry forms, with individual video dealers copying and distributing movies on video. These cassettes — although technically banned — are reaching almost every corner of the country.

Cassettes—many dubbed copies rather than the actual commercial product— were sold by dealers, who created their own labels to contextualize and explain the movies to their audiences, since many were foreign productions. These dealers therefore played a huge role in shaping many Iranians’ experience of cinema through the 1980s. Even when the ban on videos was lifted, in 1994, the underground networks continued to function more or less uninterrupted, since official censorship severely limited the movies that were available legally. It’s a cliche to say that constraints breed creativity, but it’s also frequently true, and this story is a good example.


And, the shortlisted photos for this year Architectural Photography Awards are great.


That’s it for this month. I hope to have some kind of end-of-year roundup done for the end of December, but we’ll see how things go.

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