Shaping Factors

Over lunch, I was reviewing my accumulated potential news chum links. There had been some interesting articles over the last few days that had piqued my interest (got it right this time), but what would theme? Then it hit me — a connection between articles. All of these have to do with factors that shape our perception and our history, especially in California and Los Angeles in particular.

  • Drawing the Line. Curbed LA had a recent article of late on Los Angeles History 101, presenting 13 defining moments in Los Angeles history. Item #8 was redlining, which was the process of distinguishing particular neighborhoods for particular ethnic and economic groups. That article provided some interesting history, including the fact that many communities in Southern California were “sundown” towns, where blacks were not permitted after sundown (these include Hawthorne, Palos Verdes and South Pasadena). It also mentioned “redlining”: When the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was established in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, it was meant to bolster the housing market. It also assessed and ranked the value of land and risks according to a neighborhood’s economic and racial makeup. Depending on the community, certain groups were barred, or loans were more risky. The redlining connected to their item #9, which is the dark history of how the Dodgers acquired the land for Dodger Stadium, as well as items #10 and #12, the Watts Riots and the Rodney King Riots. This dovetailed with an article in the Atlantic looking at the practice of redlining in more detail. That article went into the racist history of both the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, showing how the redlining shaped the racial tensions that impact the city to this very day. Look at the redlining maps, and then look at where the racial issues boiled over in Chavez Ravine, Watts, and South LA. Then think about other LA incidents such as the Zoot Suit Riots, and you’ll see the racist history of California in gory detail.
  • Water and Land. Another defining moment in the Curbed LA article is #3, Water and Mullholland. Water enabled the city to grow, but at a great cost. Water is also key to California’s growth, and there was a great article on that a few months ago talking about the central valley of California, water rights, and the small number of farmers that own vast acreage and shape politics and policy in the San Joaquin Valley.  The article talks about Stewart Resnick. . Last time Resnick checked, he owned 180,000 acres of California. That’s 281 square miles. He is irrigating 121,000 of those acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet. It looks at the impact of Resnick’s companies, such as Pom Wonderful (of Cuties fame). He is one of the largest growers of pistacios. And, of course, he owns a mansion in Beverly Hills.
  • Perceptions. Our perceptions are shaped in various ways. The Washington Post had an interesting article (use incognito or private mode if blocked by their paywall) about how social media shaped and spread a historical lie. This is the lie that “The Democrats created KKK.”, and it involves a purported photo of a Klan march captioned: “This photo was taken at the 1924 Democratic Convention. It was known as the ‘Klanbake’ (just in case you want to Google it).” The problem? There was no Klan march at the 1924 Democratic convention — the photo was actually taken in Wisconsin — nor was the convention ever actually known as the “Klanbake.” Read the article for the full details and disputation. But we’re seeing other shaping perceptions, notably in the form of faked videos of celebrities. Often called “deepfakes”, these are used to create “celebrity porn” or fake news, with politicians saying things they never did. Of course, we see the video and believe our eyes — seeing is believing, right? Wrong. Now even what we see is faked.  So here’s a good guide on how to recognize “deepfake” videos.

 

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Interesting Histories

It’s been an interesting week. Although I was collecting a bunch of news chum, they never coalesced in my head into a coherent post. Now it’s the weekend, so let’s start clearing them off. This first collection provides a bunch of histories that I found of interest:

  • Street Light Banners. 1984. For some, a chilling book. For others, a foretelling of our current political climate. For me, it is the memory of when Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, with pastel banners and wayfaring signs all over the city. It turns out that the 1984 Olympics was the first major use of the light pole banner. As the article notes: “With only $10 million to outfit the entire city (five percent of the budget of the 1976 Games in Montreal) the designers of LA’s Olympic look, overseen by legendary designer Deborah Sussman, had to be scrappy. Instead of stadiums, they built towering scaffolds. Instead of brand-new Olympic villages, they outfitted parks and freeway entrances with colorful pylons, sonotubes, and giant inflatable stars. Little of it would have stood a chance if it had rained (luckily it didn’t) but the designs looked great on television. It was a classic LA story. The street banners were intended only to line the Olympic marathon route, which ran down Exposition Boulevard from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum downtown. At the last minute, however, the organizing committee dramatically expanded the program, promising banners to dozens of additional neighborhoods and even cities in neighboring counties.”
  • 31 Flavors. Here’s another Los Angeles creation. No, not ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins.  Starting with two shops, one in Glendale, the other in Pasadena, BR franchised and grew, until by the time of the 31st anniversary, Baskin-Robbins had already accumulated more than 500 flavors. The previous year, they had come out with several flavors made for the U.S. bicentennial celebration, including Yankee Doodle Strudel, Valley Forge Fudge, Concorde Grape and Minuteman Mint. Over the years, their commemorative flavors have ranged from Beatle Nut in 1964 to Lunar Cheesecake in 1969 to Saxy Candidate in 1996. Today, Baskin-Robbins has 1300 flavors.
  • Use of the American Indian Image on Advertising. It’s a staple of advertising, from Land O’Lakes butter to Native American Cigarettes. They were at cigar stores and on motorcycles. How did the image of the American Indian — either the full headdress or the beautiful princess — come to be everywhere. Here’s an article that explores a new exhibition of how the image of a people that we systematically oppressed and pushed out because an advertising image that is everywhere. As the article notes: “American culture has used imagery of American Indians to symbolize authenticity in branding, or combativeness in sports and the military, even as it has subjugated real-life Indians throughout history. At its core, the artifacts in the exhibition reveal how Indians have become an integral part of the American brand itself–something that companies have been capitalizing on for decades.”
  • Food Colors. Brightly colored food. Red maraschino cherries. Blue jelly beans. Yellow banana pudding. Do we ever stop to think where those colors came from? When food dyes came in, they were made from products such as coal tar, a by-product of coal manufacturing.  Yet we believed them safe. As the article notes: “Food companies soon used the coal tar colors as well, especially in butter, candy, and alcohol. Though gross-sounding, they might have been healthier than the alternative. In both Britain and the United States, the 19th century was plagued with food adulteration, often in the form of food coloring. In order to make pickles, jellies, and candy more vivid, manufacturers added dangerous metal salts such as copper sulfate and lead chromate. In contrast, coal tar dyes were so vivid that only a little was needed. Plus, the tiny amount meant that the flavor wasn’t affected.” But were they safe? And what are we using today?
  • Elevators. We probably don’t think twice about using an elevator. They are everywhere. They are what made the high-rise revolution possible. But there is risk, such as the time the President got caught trapped in an elevator.  This was at the Pentagon, a concrete building/bunker with only one elevator. What did the President’s party think? Levinson’s first thought was that he was experiencing, first-hand, an attempted coup by the U.S. military on McNamara’s last day in office. “Was someone about the inject some type of gas into the lift or drop some form of explosive? We had the head of state and the Secretary of Defense in one small place that was undefended and vulnerable. A natural site for an extraordinary disaster.”
  • Interstate 95. For a highway system that started in 1955, one would think the Interstate Highway System, after 60 years, would be complete. But it isn’t, and one glaring whole was New Jersey… was in New Jersey on I-95. Finally, through a kludge, I-95 has (almost) been completed. Construction to fix the I-95 gap began more than eight years ago in Pennsylvania, but it has now reached its final stage. This week, the New Jersey Department of Transportation began switching out road signs in preparation for the change. But until it opens, if you are driving northbound on I-95, just outside of Princeton, a road sign will warn you that I-95 North—the road you are on—is ending. But the physical road itself doesn’t end—instead, the highway veers south, now under the name Interstate 295. If you don’t get off at an exit, you will find yourself suddenly driving south, and have to do a complicated series of maneuvers to get back on a northbound road. On the other side of this gap, Interstate 95 continues northward, starting from eight miles away.
  • Mapping Applications. Some of us love road maps. Some of us love our navigation applications. But did you ever think about where the maps come from, and how they were created in the era before satellite mapping. It was a hard process, and this article explores how cartographers made maps before modern technology. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.
  • Printers. Although this article isn’t as long as I would like, and omits a number of classic printer types (such as the IBM 1403 Line Printer, or the workhorse ASR33s and the DEC LA36  Dot Matrix Printer), here’s a short exploration of the start of computer printing technology. The articles notes that in 1953, the first high-speed printer was developed by Remington-Rand for use on the Univac computer, and the original laser printer called EARS was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center beginning in 1969 and completed in November  1971.
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Oddities of the Food World

Clearing out some more news chum — this time with something you can really chew on:

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Difficult Decisions

A few days ago, I wrote a post titled “Navigating the Minefield” where I discussed three interesting societal divides: (1) how do we deal with old, potentially problematic, music; (2) the divide about coats on the UW Madison campus; and (3) how autonomous automobiles may have a significant impact on privacy. WIth respect to the following news chum items, item (1) is particularly applicable. Titled “The Music I Love Is a Racial Minefield“, it explored the problem of music, and playing songs that had problematic history, origins, or words — such as the Star Spangled Banner, where the full version as written includes a verse in which slave owner Francis Scott Key, an outspoken white supremacist, rails against “the hireling and the slave.”  I recommend everyone read that piece, which includes the following paragraph by an artist I enjoy, Dom Flemons (the American Songster):

“People are trying to find modern sensibilities in stuff that was not built on modern sensibilities,” Flemons told me. In 2015, he performed an instrumental version of Stephen Foster’s “Ring, Ring de Banjo” at a Foster-themed event with the Cincinnati orchestra. Foster’s racist lyrics are “absolutely unacceptable” nowadays, and “I would never think to perform that song outside the context of that specific show,” Flemons says. But these once-popular songs “are a document of what happened,” and failing to acknowledge that history would “completely devalue the strength of how far we’ve come.”

The following three news chum pieces evoked in me similar feelings to the “Racial Minefield” article, and are worthy of your consideration:

  • Sexual Predators. How do we separate the art from the artist? That’s a big question in these days of #MeToo and TimesUpNow. In particular, how do we treat the art created by these individuals we now know were predators and harassers? Can I still enjoy Fat Albert and Bill Cosby’s routines, knowing his history? What about watching “Annie Hall”? Vox has a great opinion piece on the subject titled “How to think about consuming art made by sexual predators“. It’s conclusion is that the answer is not easy. The basic conclusion, according to a historian consulted in the article, is to put everything in context: “As a historian, I strongly believe that it’s important that we keep these men’s work accessible. Woody Allen films are a genuinely important part of American film history. The Cosby Show is key to understanding representation in media and tangled issues of race, class, and acceptance. But I also can’t imagine watching old episodes simply for entertainment.” But where do you fall on the subject? Can you listen to Bill Cosby, or watch the artwork of Gaugain, the same anymore?
  • Smoking. In a somewhat similar vein is an article by Peter Filchia in Masterworks Broadway about the context of musical plots or dialogue that centers on smoking. Many shows were written at the time that smoking was ingrained in American society. Certainly the classic musicals of the 1950s make jokes about smoking. Look at the lines in musicals that refer to smoking, and look at the musical writers that also penned cigarette jingles. Filchia doesn’t draw a particular conclusion, but does really demonstrate how musicals are a product of their times. (Which, I’ll note, is why shows like Showboat remain problematic, as does the behavior of Rosemary in How to Succeed — how would we view today a woman that predatory towards her male boss?)
  • Confederate Iconography. The last article of interest is from Religion News, and has to do with changing names of things named after Confederate Icons. It is one thing to take down a stature, or to rename an elementary school that has no connection to the person. What do you do if you need to rename a church where he actually worshipped or was memorialized? This article, titled “Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it” explores just that issue. It talks about three churches : (1) St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond, which is the church Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended during the Civil War; (2) Christ Church, in Alexandria, a 1773 Episcopal parish that claims George Washington and the Lee family as former worshippers; and (3) R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington VA, where Robert E. Lee was senior warden after he joined the church in 1865.

All four of these articles, which are fascinating reads, demonstrate why reconciling the facts of history with the emotion of people and with common sensibilities is never easy.

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But What Do We Do With The Leftovers?

Observation StewTwo days after Thanksgiving. You’ve made your stock from the turkey carcass, and have just about finished the meat in the frig, but you’re still working on all the sides that were leftover. All. The. Sides. So many sides. Here on this blog, we face a similar problem: What to do with all the links accumulated that just stubbornly refuse to theme? The answer, of course, is to make stew:

Inequality and Battles

  • The Internet and Inequality. One of my major complaints is the assumption that everyone has fast internet (an assumption that will be even more challenged if we lose net neutrality). For example, we move the best quality TV to subscription channels and pay-pay internet, and we forget what the leaves the rest of the country with — the large portion that still doesn’t have internet or only has dialup or phone services. Wired has an interesting article on how the slow internet is fueling inequality. Now think about how this inequality will be further fueled when the telecom companies are the ones controlling the pipes, who can see what, and who can’t see what.  Control of the message can be for good (filter out the stupid) or for bad (filter out those who disagree).
  • Fonts and Culture Wars. Here’s another battle of interest: Fonts. Fonts can have a subtle but significant effect on culture and culture wars, according to Wired. For example, think how you perceive documents written in Blackletter or Comic Sans, or the fact that certain languages, by the nature of the writing, make it hard to text. Truly an interesting article on the impact of design.
  • Weaponizing Taxes. When people complain about taxes, they often talk about its use to support the defense establishment. But the tax code can be used as a weapon itself, and that is what this administration is doing. The “reform” bill shows that the right understands how the rules of the economic game are shifting — toward capital and away from labor (even away from the labor of the wealthy). Thus, they are adjusting it even further to reward business and investing, and to care even less about income earned from wages. They are adjusting the code to work against progressive measures like education and middle class wages, they are working against progressive states that used state tax codes to help their people.

Los Angeles

Honoring the Past

  • Getting Rid of Stuff. Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you honor the past when cleaning out stuff? Specifically, how do you honor your parents when cleaning out their house? This is a growing question as the Millenials and Gen Y adopt the less is more attitude, and have to deal with the debris of the “accumulate” generation.  As the article notes: If we do it right, we preserve and transmit their memories and values to the next generation. If we do it wrong, we may open lasting wounds within our families and ourselves.
  • Reusing Sacred Spaces. During Thanksgiving, a popular song is Alice’s Restaurant, about a couple that bought a church and converted it to a house. The issue is a serious one: What do you do with sacred spaces when the community goes away? In Maine, the answer is to convert an old synagogue into high-end apartments.  The 15 members of the Auburn ME Beth Abraham Synagogue sold the building last week to a developer. On Sunday, the community will take a final tour of the building and then ceremonially move a Torah scroll to the nearby 100-family Temple Shalom Synagogue Center, an independent and egalitarian congregation (formerly Conservative) that Beth Abraham members will join. The building, after removing a few more liturgical pieces, will then become 10 apartments.
  • Repatriating Bones. One of the forgotten Native American tragedies has been the treatment of Southern California tribes and their relics. So it was quite a pleasant surprise to read about the repatriation of a large collection of Tongva/Gabrielano remains from Catalina Island. This is happening for many reasons, including increased awareness and casino proceeds.

Sexism

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Things Come and Things Go

Today’s collection of news chum addresses two areas of interest to me: origin stories, and reports of things disappearing. Origin stories are interesting because we don’t often know where some popular things come from; many come from new or emerging trends. Disappearance stories, on the other hand, are often reflective or indicative — again — of trends in society.

 

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This Is My City

As Jack Webb almost once said (yunguns, look him up), “This is my city, Los Angeles, California”. Here are a few stories I’ve accumulated over the weeks about my city, and places that I’ve actually been to or near:

  • Earl Carroll Theatre. I was at this theatre many years ago to see Ain’t Misbehavin‘. I didn’t know its historical significance then. It later became the Nickelodeon Studios, and will now be refurbished. Much of the glory is still there, as these photos show.
  • Daniel Freeman Hospital. The place where I entered the world many many (many) years ago. Later bought by Tenet Healthcare, and then closed. It is now being torn down, to become luxury homes.
  • Westside Pavilion.  Back when I was at UCLA in the late 1970s, this was a small surface shopping center with a market (Vons, IIRC), a good sushi place, a Sees Candy, and a large May Company (with a spiral driveway where I scraped a car once). Then it was “mallified”, taking all the character out of it and become an haven for the wannabe rich (the rich had Century City). It expanded, took out a perfectly good bowling alley. Today? Malls are out of favor, Nordstroms ran to Century City, and Macy*s (nee Robinsons May nee May Co) is closing. Anyone want to buy a mall? Rumor is that with retail out of favor, this will either become open-air shopping (like it was originally), or mixed use with housing and shopping near the Expo line.
  • The Panorama. When we went to go see Man Covets Bird, there was this odd little theatre across the street that we later learned was the Velaslavasay Panorama, an old fashioned type of entertainment from the time before movies. They’ve reopened, and there’s one last chance to view their installation of Effulgence of the North before they change it. It is described as  “a panoramic exploration of the limitless horizon which lies beyond a frigid terrain, illuminated by the ethereal Aurora Borealis.” Next to be installed: Shengjing Panorama. You have until Sunday to see it.
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The Worst Programming Language

Yesterday, while reading my RSS feeds, a post came across titled, “Perl is the most hated programming language“.  The article was referencing a Stack Overflow report that was characterized as saying: “Perl, the Old Spice of programming languages, is the most disliked by a significant margin, reports Stack Overflow. Delphi, used by children to write viruses for adults, and Visual Basic, used by adults to write games for children, are running neck-and-neck for second place. Trailing far behind are PHP, for people who still don’t care about security, and Objective-C, for people who still don’t realize they work for Apple. Coffeescript, a language designed to make Javascript more annoying, takes sixth spot; Ruby, very briefly popular among people who wanted to write web apps without actually doing any work, lurks in seventh.”

Now them’s fighting words.

I also took a look at a discussion on the subject over on Slashdot, where the comments were equally derogatory towards Perl, as well as a number of other languages. It is a amazing the hatred cluelessness out there. This is a discussion that has been going on forever about what is the most hated, the worst, the ugliest, the … programming language. I know. I’m a Compusaur — I’ve been programming since the mid-1970s, cutting my teeth on languages like BASIC, FORTRAN IV, and APL, and I’ve used even older language. I’m also — and I can say this with absolute confidence — the person who has been programming in Perl the longest with the exception of Larry, it’s author. I’m Perl’s Paternal Godparent; Larry, Mark, Jon, and I were carpooling to SDC when he wrote the first version of Perl, and I’m the person who was doing combo Perl-QMenu scripts to support the BLACKER program. I’m the one who knows that Perl would not exist without the TCSEC (Orange Book), so don’t say the NSA hasn’t given you anything.  I wrote the first version of the history section in the Camel book, fuggahdsake.

But back to the question at hand: Whenever anyone tells you that something is the worst or the most hated, you must learn context. You think Perl is bad for readability? Try reading APL or LISP, and remember that COBOL was designed to be readable.  Different languages and different editors are good for different things. Almost everything has strengths and weaknesses.

Perl is best at what it was originally designed to do: Text manipulation and report generation. It is great for easy text parsing scripts thanks to regular expressions and associative arrays, and implementing state machine parsing tools isn’t complicated. I have a large tool that at its heart is perl; it is perl that helps me generate the California Highway pages. But is perl the best language for system administration (which is what the Stack Overflow folks do)? No.

I’ve worked with loads and loads of languages, from Algol to Zed (well, I’ve looked at a little Zed — it is a formal methods language like Ina-Jo or Gypsy). I’ve written large programs in Algol 68C and PL/I (actually, both PL/C and PL/I (X)). I’ve worked in BASIC (especially RSTS/E Basic, which was a model for some Perl syntax), Fortran IV and 77 and WATFIV, COBOL, C, Ada, and APL. I’ve even done some LISP and SNOBOL, as well as MINITAB. To me, the language I had the most is Excel Spreadsheet Macro Languages, for I’ve seen difficult to find errors in that language to devastate organizations.

But most of the “kids” responding to that poll grew up in a different era. They learn Java and C++ and drink the Object Oriented Kool-Aide. They deal with PHP and Python and hosts of other new scripting languages, and complain about the old — without realizing that the newer languages are building upon the foundations of the previous ones, correcting the mistakes for a new generation.

In reality, the programming language you hate the most is the one that you’re unfamiliar with, that someone wrote bad code in, with no comments, that you have to maintain. Just as you can write easy to maintain code in any language (including APL — but in APL you can write it in one line), you can write garbage in any language.

All it takes is talent.

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