10.27.17

Friday links, late October edition

Posted in Links, السياسة at 5:00 pm by

  • Local vandal caught “red-headed” [WSB Radio]

    There is a pileated woodpecker that lives around here, too; he once spent some time on the screen on my bedroom window, but thankfully he didn’t start attacking it!

  • Lego Announces Women of NASA Legos Set [Fortune]

    Very cool! Way to go, Lego. (I think I still have my late 80s or early 90s era Space Shuttle Lego set down in the basement somewhere, just waiting for Sally Ride and Mae Jemison to take a spin.)

  • Republicans Have Stockholm Syndrome, and It’s Getting Worse [Foreign Policy]

    While there are a few reasonably-high profile Republicans who are publicly “waking up” to what is happening to our democracy (Sens. McCain, Corker, and now Flake), the author argues the rest of the Republican Party is doubling down on accepting—and even asking for!—more abuse from a president who is using them for his own ends.

Also, in case you missed it, I have some (many!) thoughts on last Sunday’s Pittsburgh episode of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.”

10.26.17

On “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” in Pittsburgh

Posted in History, Links, السياسة at 12:18 am by

I originally had this piece set to be one item in the weekly “links” post on Friday, but as I continued writing it, the piece took on a life of its own and became far too long for a simple links list—and important enough to live in a post of its own.

Last Sunday, CNN aired Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown visit to Pittsburgh1, which was required viewing at the Ardisson household. As a child of a family whose roots in the Pittsburgh exurbs (today probably considered suburbs) and the city itself run back four generations on one side and generations, even to the dawn of our Republic, on others, who made annual trips back there for many years to visit grandparents and cousins, and who still has family there, but who was born and grew up in the South, a product of rising education among the Baby Boomers and of the Steel City diaspora, the program was both personal and fascinating. Though Pittsburgh (and the surrounding area) is not part of my identity, it nevertheless is part of who I am, so I watched as someone who had some familiarity with the city and its general narrative, yet who is still an outsider to the situation, watching from a distance—not impartial, but also not intimately connected.

Although not universally popular in the ’Burgh, the episode raises a number of important issues that are generalizable to our entire country and, as The University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper The Pitt News argues, challenges the established narrative. I wish my grandparents—especially my grandfather, in this case—were still alive so I could discuss the episode with them. Still, here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. The episode begins with a local historian mentioning that Pittsburgh was the city that made the steel that defeated the Confederacy, built the railroads west and the skyscrapers up, defeated the Kaiser, and defeated the Nazis—and the episode ends with a couple of people (just a couple among many people in a reasonable-sized crowd) wearing Confederate Battle Flag headscarves and blankets at a demolition derby in New Alexandria (pronounced “New Aleck” in Pittsburghese, by the way), a small town 30 miles east of Pittsburgh and about 15 miles east of where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived nearly their entire lives. This is one of those contradictions that are part of America—and, specifically, white, working-class America—today, the adoption of symbols of racism and hate that their ancestors would have taken up arms to defeat.

  2. Bourdain also obliquely points out the often-racial undertones of mid- and late-twentieth century urban renewal: bulldoze an economically depressed area of a city—often one that is predominantly African-American and with little political clout—displacing the current residents, and build something new, perhaps (as in the Pittsburgh case, with the old Civic Arena hockey stadium) something that brings people from other areas of the city or outside of the city in for a few hours on weekends or evenings. The parts of the neighborhood that were not demolished find themselves fragmented due to population displacement and perhaps cut off from each other or the rest of the city due to the new development, but that new development does not bring real economic revitalization or opportunity to the area, just more traffic and parking lots. Look in any major American city and you will likely see something similar—I don’t know all of the specifics, but I’ve seen some of it in both Washington, DC and Atlanta.

  3. The flip side of that is that revitalization often takes the form of gentrification, where new, more-well-off residents come into a neighborhood and begin buying up homes and storefronts and begin to price the long-time (working-class) residents out of the area. New, trendy restaurants and boutiques replace the former bread-and-butter businesses, and fancy cars from outside the neighborhood begin taking up the neighborhood’s parking spots when their owners come to shop and eat. In Pittsburgh, this process has been facilitated by the boom in high-tech and medical research that has replaced the steel industry as the cornerstone of the region’s economy. Somewhere there is a fine line that produces a balance between revitalizing a neighborhood and gentrifying it, but the program implies that many people in Pittsburgh think that balance has not been achieved.

  4. When I was young, I remember seeing all of the derelict (and probably closed) mills and buildings of J & L (roughly “jay-nell” in Pittsburghese) and other steelmakers along the Parkway (I-376) as we drove through Pittsburgh on our way home. When I came back around the turn of the century for the first time after about a decade away, those old mills had been replaced by gleaming buildings of glass and steel, housing offices and research centers of the new Pittsburgh. The bust from the collapse of the American steel industry was over, and Pittsburgh was experiencing a renaissance—new, well-paying tech and research jobs, new (re)development, and the like. I remember being so thrilled seeing viable economic opportunity in the city again and replacing the derelict buildings of the steel industry (though of course also a little nostalgic for the loss of the Pittsburgh I knew growing up, because, after all, I am me).

    What I had overlooked then, and what Bourdain and several of his interviewees pointed out, however, is that while these new industries brought new tax dollars, new jobs, and better economic conditions to the city—the political entity—the people filling those buildings are largely newcomers. They’re not from Pittsburgh (although certainly many of them have studied at Carnegie Mellon University—by the way, that’s pronounced “Car-neigh-ghee”, not “Car-nuh-ghee”), not the children of the millworkers and mine workers and life-long residents of Pittsburgh. They’re not the (mostly white, but in Pittsburgh certainly African-American, too, according to Bourdain interviewee Sala Udin, whose father dropped out of high school but still found good work that allowed him to support a family of 12(!) children) working-class Americans who saw the loss of their livelihoods with the collapse of the steel industry, endured the bust and stayed in the city and neighboring towns, cheering on the Steelers and Penguins and Pirates through it all, and then saw an economic recovery that had no place for them, or their children, in it. Politically, these long-time residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding towns made possible by the steel industry would have voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last election. If you had lived through an economic recovery that had no place for you in it, the jobs in the Hillary Clinton/Democratic Party platform would seem like more of the same, jobs for outsiders from wealthier, urbane coastal cities, and no help—or hope—for you.

  5. I agree with the criticism offered by many Pittsburghers that Bourdain did give short shrift to the economic recovery in technology and related fields, and I think that by almost glossing over that accomplishment, it weakens the critiques (implied or otherwise) of that recovery (e.g., gentrification and the lack of opportunity for the working-class Pittsburghers that did not leave during or after the steel bust—see particularly the penultimate segment on Braddock) that encompassed the majority of the episode. But it is food for thought for those of us thinking about the future of our country (and especially the so-called “urban liberal elites”)—we must have a real plan to address the plight of our working-class neighbors and friends; promising more new jobs in technology and research isn’t a viable solution (certainly not in the short and intermediate term), even if those jobs can be made to appear.

    This backbone of society, the men and women who made the steel that built America and saved the free world, can’t just drop into those jobs. In the Ardisson family, it took four generations to get a college degree and make the move: from the mine (and farm), to the factory (and later a family business), to the military and civil service, to, finally, a college degree and a middle-class office job at the dawn of the computerization of the field. I’m sure it is possible to accelerate that timeline in the twenty-first century, but there is still a generation or two that needs opportunity now, and workable ideas aimed at providing that opportunity seem few and far between (and not at all guaranteed, as seen by the failure of Braddock mayor John Fetterman and Steelers great Franco Harris to obtain the medical marijuana cultivation permit they hoped to use to provide jobs in Braddock). I don’t have the answers (and neither does Bourdain), but it is critical that we have good, compassionate minds working on this problem2 so that we can move our country forward again.

If you care about this country and its future—even if you have no interest in Pittsburgh itself—I urge you to check your CNN listings and catch the episode whenever it airs again. It’s solid and thought-provoking, even with its flaws, and important for understanding today’s America and for figuring out a path forward.

        

1 Having never seen an episode of the program before, I had no idea what to expect and have no idea whether this episode was typical or not. I only knew of Bourdain as one of the “celebrity chefs,” but food, while present, was a background element. ↩︎

2 Coincidentally, on Wednesday morning I got an email from the Obama Foundation about one of the “speakers” at the Foundation’s upcoming summit: Paul Green from eastern Kentucky, whose son wanted to learn to program but had no educational resources available to him. So Green created a program to provide advanced STEM educational opportunities for his area of Appalachia. Programs like his won’t be a silver bullet and solve all of the problems of economic opportunity for working-class Americans, but they are a step in the right direction towards that goal, at the very least providing new outlets for the young, rising generations. ↩︎

10.25.17

Writing, writing, writing

Posted in Life at 2:25 am by

I worked on three separate posts on Tuesday evening (two full posts and a weekly links post). I hope to have them all up by the end of the week—cross your fingers. It feels good to get my brain working constructively on prose I can actually finish every once-in-a-while! :-) (My “Drafts” is an enormous, sad graveyard of ideas I never was able to bring to fruition or completion. :-( )

10.13.17

Friday links, mid-October edition

Posted in History, Links, السياسة at 5:09 pm by

Once again, just link singular.

  • “On Being White….And Other Lies” (1984) by James Baldwin

    My friend Michael posted this on Facebook earlier this week, and it’s the only thing I’ve read all week that is still bouncing around inside my head. In part that’s because Baldwin briefly touches on the Middle East (with which there are many parallels that scholars in the field are quick to see), but mainly because he offers a compelling argument that what we over a dozen or so generations have constructed is not an American society or identity, but a white one. Sitting here in 2017, in some ways it seems superficially, culturally, less true, but certainly politically and socially more true than in 1984. I wish I would have read this in AP US History, or in American Literature, in high school; it is a mind-opening perspective that was sorely lacking.

10.12.17

New “Writings” section on al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā

Posted in History, Life at 9:00 am by

For the first time in more than a decade and a half, there is a new page—a new section, even!—on the website: الكتابة (“Writings”), which attempts to collect many of the things I have written over the years in one place. Some were, once-upon-a-time, found at various locations on the Internet but have long since gone missing; others are making their web debut (even though, in some cases, their HTML files were generated years ago!).

It’s also the first (non-testcase) page I’ve written from scratch since CSS became a useable web standard :o The styles employed aren’t fancy, but they’re there, and they’ve been designed so that one day, if I ever get around to it, I can CSSify the entire al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā website.

I have no delusions, though, that any of my planned “remodeling” work on the site will happen any time soon; for now, al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā remains a living, breathing, decaying example of mid-to-late 1990s web design, of more (dubious) historical value than anything else.

But, for the first time in ages, there is something new there, and I’m happy about it—and especially happy to finally start collecting scattered writings and making them available for reading once again.

10.06.17

Friday links, beginning of October edition

Posted in Links, Software at 7:17 pm by

Once again, just link (singular):

  • USPS ‘Informed Delivery’ Is Stalker’s Dream [Krebs on Security, via Michael Tsai]

    Most of the paragraphs of the article are quotable, but here are just two, early on:

    Once signed up, a resident can view scanned images of the front of each piece of incoming mail in advance of its arrival. Unfortunately, because of the weak KBA questions (provided by recently-breached big-three credit bureau Equifax, no less) stalkers, jilted ex-partners, and private investigators also can see who you’re communicating with via the Postal mail.

    Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal if the USPS notified residents by snail mail when someone signs up for the service at their address, but it doesn’t.

    The good news is that the Postal Service is planning on making a few changes to (barely) improve security—debuting in January 2018. The Krebs exposé reminds me that, in addition to general QA on any sort of project, it is imperative these days also to have security and privacy reviews (probably at several points during the design and implementation phases) on nearly everything.