Weekend Reading: this one’s for you, civic-minded libertarians

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. This Guerilla Public Servant Forged an L. A. Freeway Sign to Help People Avoid Getting Lost (Slate)

Ankrom wanted his sign to be built to Caltrans’ exact specifications, which included designs able to be read by motorists traveling at high speeds. He copied the height and thickness of existing interstate shields, copied their exact typeface, and even sprayed his sign with a thin glaze overspray of gray house paint so that it wouldn’t look too new.

2. Rogue Sign-Maker Hacks NYC Subway for Efficient Boarding

The MTA was not into it. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” said a spokesperson, adding that “regular customers already know which car they want to get into.”

But the EPP won’t be foiled easily. “I really tried to make them as permanent as possible. I’ve made a lot of these things,” said the sign-maker. “I’m really going for it. I’m ready for them. My plan is to eventually convince the MTA that this is a plan worth allowing. I want to beat them with the numbers — just keep putting them up.” And the signs are just the beginning. “There are better ways to navigate through all of the stations. The next part is… just watch where you’re walking.”

3. Guerilla gardening: a report from the front lines (The Guardian)

This grey in the title of the forum is not just the built environment and the pounded pavements, but is also a mentality. The urban greening movement has been around for more than 50 years; only now is it starting to take to the elegant mainstream. The fun and colour in the venture invites us all to chuck seeds over forbidding fences or to sneak bulbs into tree pits. Grab yourself some tulip bulbs and join in.

4. Etobicoke man’s staircase a hit with neighbours, but mayor warns against copycats (CBC) | City replaces this man’s homemade Tom Riley Park staircase for $10k after controversy, safety concerns (CBC)

Matthew Cutler, spokesperson for Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation, said the city is determined to find a solution that works for the community.

“Although designers try to design a park in the safest and most accessible way with pathways, we do learn that people want to take shortcuts, and they start to carve new paths into the grass or new ways down a hill, and we try to respond to that,” he said.

“In this case, I think, with the stairs, with what Adi and Gail have done, it’s just a sign again that we need to find a new way and better way for folks to get down there.”

5. Reverse Graffiti: Activist Art Extraordinaire (Huffington Post)

Reverse graffiti is form of street art that involves carving into the dirt and dust that surrounds us. Artists subtract from a surface in order to create a negative image within the positive, often quite dark layer of grime. They use methods as simple as dragging their finger across a dirty car window or as elaborate as carving elaborate stencils, which they then mount on a surface and spray with a high pressure water hose, to impress a finely wrought illustration or message. Reverse graffiti is a form of activist art, in that the work often draws attention not only to a particular image etched into a surface, but also the extent to which these surfaces – and our cities – are caked with pollution.


Weekend Reading: the death of the Queen, the investigative switchboard, and good luck paying for college

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. ‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death (The Guardian)

QE2 has been on the British throne since 1952; she is both the longest-living and longest-reigning monarch in Britain, and the longest-reigning Queen in the history of the world. I’ve never known another Queen. My parents have never known another Queen. But even though it’s a little hard to fathom at this point, she is actually mortal. What’s going to happen when she dies?

2. The Switchboard Operator Politicians Feared (The Walrus)

He recalls the time he was told that then prime minister Jean Chrétien would not be flying with the press corps to Morocco. Chrétien, he was told, would meet them there. Thompson deduced Chrétien was taking a holiday somewhere in Morocco, but the prime minister’s office wouldn’t confirm. He called the switchboard operators and asked them to do what they could. “Five minutes later, they call me back and say, ‘Mr. Thompson, we have your party on the line, please hold.’” A moment later, Thompson could hear Chrétien’s distinctive tones over the phone. “The funny thing was he kind of pretended he wasn’t himself,” laughs Thompson. “Finally, I said, ‘Is that you, prime minister?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry, he’s not available now’ and hung up the phone.” The story ran with a line about the prime minister’s private holiday in a Moroccan city.

“I learned afterward that the process of elimination was if Chrétien was going to Morocco, where is he going to stay?” says Thompson. “They decided that he was a Marrakesh kind of guy, and if he was going to go to Marrakesh, what are the three best hotels, and which one of those has a golf course? They called the hotel in Marrakesh with a golf course and asked for Jean Chrétien, and they got him.”

3. Why Is College So Expensive In America? (The Atlantic)

Fun fact: when I was in undergrad, I had American classmates who came to our university because it was cheaper to pay international tuition in Canada than domestic tuition in the United States. I graduated about a decade ago, so it will have risen by now, but my yearly tuition then was a very reasonable $5,000/year. America: what is the deal?

Aunt Thirza’s Lapghan

I made a lapghan! — otherwise known as a lap blanket, I suppose, but lapghan is way more fun to say than that. This is another piece for the prayer shawl ministry at church, made from a pattern provided by another woman who’s part of it; the above-named Aunt Thirza was her husband’s aunt. She apparently had made over seventy of these for a local hospital, crocheting well into her nineties. And it’s a great pattern! I will see if I can get permission to publish it — and then if I can translate it back out of the super-abbreviated version I wrote down.

This was made from a very large ball of Loops & Threads “Impeccable Big! worsted” yarn (yes, the italics and exclamation point are part of the actual name), in the colourway “earth”. I worked it all up on a J hook. It’s a very simple pattern where you’re just repeating two rows — one is a bunch of loops anchored to the row below with single crochet, and the other is clusters of double-crochet done in the loops, with a chain stitch in between them. At the finish, you’ve got a row of loops on each end in which to stick some tassels if desired. I like the result; it’s a little like granny stripes, except the blocks are stacked on top of each other instead of interlocked. I was also tickled to see that the Loops & Threads pooled!

Here we are with a banana for scale. This would be very easy to scale up into a larger project such as a full-size blanket, as the only thing you have to worry about is that your starting chain is divisible by four. This was a nice size to work with; not too big to carry around with me, and large enough to cover one regular-sized lap, or several small ones.

Welcome to the Metropol Hotel

You guys. This book.

A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Illyich Rostov, an aristocrat sentenced by the Bolsheviks to spend his life under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow — just across the way from the Kremlin, in fact. There he spends the next thirty-two years, from 1922 to 1954. It’s a rich and delightful novel, and the ending was so perfectly bittersweet that it made me weep (thereby greatly alarming my husband, who had been peacefully sleeping beside me when I burst into tears). Here is the book trailer, which will perhaps give you a taste of it:

Despite the physical constraints of life inside the Metropol, Count Rostov’s life is enriched and enlivened in particular by his contact with three women: by Anna Urbanova, the glamorous silent film actress; by earnest and curious Nina, whom he first meets as a nine-year-old staying in the hotel with her governess; and most profoundly by Sofia, Nina’s five-year-old daughter, who is deposited into his care for “a month or two” halfway through the novel, when the Count is in his mid-forties. Nina is following her husband into Siberia; you can perhaps imagine how that ends, and so the Count finds himself thrust into unexpected fatherhood. There is also a largeish cast of supporting characters, including hotel staff, foreign diplomats and envoys, Soviet officials, friends from Rostov’s past, members of the KGB, and of course, hotel guests various and sundry.

What is most amazing to me about what Towles has done in this novel is that it feels so much like one of the classic Russian novels, albeit with a much more modern setting. This is despite the fact that Towles is American, born in Boston and currently residing in New York; he says on his website that “I am hardly a Russologist. I don’t speak the language, I didn’t study the history in school, and I have only been to the country a few times” (source). Now, I’m not a Russologist either, but I have read some of the Big Russian Novels and A Gentleman in Moscow has the same — what? Tone? Flavour? It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, but this felt in a lot of ways much like reading Anna Karenina or something in that line. It’s just so very Russian.

If you’re looking for a novel in which to engross yourself, give A Gentleman in Moscow a try. It’s perfectly splendid.

Explore More: Amor Towles (author website) | Book soundtrack (Spotify) | The Metropol Hotel (official site) | The Metropol Hotel (wikipedia)

Weekend Reading: Facebook is like the terrible ex I can’t stop talking about

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. I Quit Liking Things on Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How it Changed My View of Humanity (Medium.com)

I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a slew of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings.

2. I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What it Did to Me (Wired Magazine)

My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time. After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.

Likewise, content mills rose to the top. Nearly my entire feed was given over to Upworthy and the Huffington Post. As I went to bed that first night and scrolled through my News Feed, the updates I saw were (in order): Huffington Post, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Upworthy, a Levi’s ad, Space.com, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Verge, Huffington Post, Space.com, Upworthy, Space.com

3. Stress Test for Free Speech (The American Scholar)

In the 20th century, when relatively few people controlled the media, the challenge for a speaker was getting access and opportunity to speak. In the 21st century, most Americans have access to a platform and thus plenty of opportunity. The challenge is for speakers to get listeners to pay attention, to keep their messages from being buried by an avalanche of content, no matter how benign.

It’s much worse when that competing content is malignant. To drown out a viewpoint on social media, bad actors create distraction, disinformation, and demoralization, and they disseminate fake news (including the invention of terrible crimes—called atrocity propaganda), destroy reputations, and regularly make death threats. Some of the most potent attacks happen in the dark, when armies of trolls send private messages so that their targets don’t know who is attacking them.

“All of this,” Tufekci says, “invalidates much of what we think about free speech—conceptually, legally, and ethically. The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.”

4. What It’s Like to Wallow in Your Own Facebook Data (The Atlantic)

Reading through this archive recalled a moment when time spent online was less anxious, less fraught—a time when Facebook was a website, not a platform; a novelty, not a conglomerate; a lark or procrastination tool, not a threat to democracy. Personalization was the work of the user, not the algorithm––and the dangers of privately controlled, algorithmically determined information flows would have seemed, to me, like the stuff of late-night stoner speculation. These ancient posts were a throwback to a time when nobody knew the name of Facebook’s founder. Why should we have? My peers and I saw the website, like the other social networks we had played with—Xanga, LiveJournal, Friendster, Myspace—as a toy with a shelf life. Eventually it would be phased out, disposed of. We could have probably been forgiven for being a little naive.