March 23, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina

Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina tells the history of Chile and Stafforrd-Beer's attempt at the start of the 1970s to build a socialist democracy with help from cybernetics and networked computers. An alternative, more decentralized approach to the same sort of issues that today's "big data" and "smart city" initiatives aim to address.

Here are my dog-eared pages notes from reading it. (If you want another contemperaneous history of socialist technology approaches in the UK, check out The Plan a documentary)

Page 3
In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it; I find it good cybernetics.
—Stafford Beer, February 1973

Page 8
Through sociotechnical engineering practices, Chilean and British technologists tried to make Project Cybersyn implement and uphold principles of Chilean democratic socialism. For example, the system included mechanisms to preserve individual liberty within a context of greater state control. Some Cybersyn technologists also tried to use Project Cybersyn as a vehicle for increasing worker participation in economic management and proposed having workers collaborate with Chilean operations research scientists. I argue that, for the system to support values such as worker participation or decentralized control, Cybersyn needed to implement and maintain the social, organizational, and technical relationships specified by its designers. Yet the reverse was also true: changing these social, organizational, and technical relationships could cause the system to produce configurations of political power, including totalitarianism, that were very different from Chilean democratic socialism.

Page 22
From its earliest days cybernetics valued the cross-disciplinary pollination that occurred when experts from a variety of fields convened to discuss a common problem. The conferences organized by the Josiah Macy Foundation from 1946 to 1953, which laid the groundwork for the field of cybernetics, are the most notable example of such collaboration. For example, the attendance list at the first Macy conference included the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, mathematician John von Neumann, anthropologist Margaret Mead, logician Walter Pitts, Rosenblueth, Bigelow, and Wiener, among others. Attendees at the Macy conferences drew inspiration from cybernetics' encouragement of the use of common metaphors to describe biological and mechanical systems and took this innovation back to their home disciplines.

Page 25
To put it another way, Beer was more interested in studying how systems behaved in the real world than in creating exact representations of how they functioned. Furthermore, he was centrally concerned with developing mechanisms to help these systems self-regulate and survive. He stressed that cybernetics and operations research should drive action, not create mathematical models of increasing complexity and exactitude.

Page 28
Beer challenged the common definition of control as domination, which he viewed as authoritarian and oppressive and therefore undesirable. It was also "naive, primitive and ridden with an almost retributive idea of causality." What people viewed as control, Beer continued, was nothing more than "a crude process of coercion," an observation that emphasized the individual agency of the entity being controlled. Instead of using science to dominate the outside world, scientists should focus on identifying the equilibrium conditions among the subsystems and developing regulators to help the overall system reach its natural state of stability. Beer emphasized creating lateral communication channels among the different subsystems so that the changes in one subsystem could be absorbed by changes in the others. This approach, he argued, took advantage of the flexibility of each subsystem. Instead of creating a regulator to fix the behaviour of each subsystem, he found ways to couple subsystems together so that they could respond to each other and adapt. Such adaptive couplings helped maintain the stability of the overall system.

Page 35
The Viable System Model devised ways to promote vertical and lateral communication. It offered a balance between centralized and decentralized control that prevented both the tyranny of authoritarianism and the chaos of total freedom. Beer considered viable systems to be largely self-organizing. Therefore, the model sought to maximize the autonomy of its component parts so that they could organize themselves as they saw fit. At the same time, it retained channels for vertical control to maintain the stability of the whole system.

Page 39
In contrast to the centralized planning found in the Soviet Union, Allende's articulation of socialism stressed a commitment to decentralized governance with worker participation in management, reinforcing his professed belief in individual freedoms. Yet he also acknowledged that in the face of political plurality the government would favour the "interest of those who made their living by their own work" and that revolution should be brought about from above with a "firm guiding hand."

Page 54
Beer also felt that CORFO needed to change its practices and worried that the "quickest solution" to managing the enterprises "will be imposed before any new thinking has time. Unless cyb[ernetics] can move faster."

Page 61
The exponential increase in the number of punch cards processed annually by the Chilean treasury paralleled the rise in the number of pages it generated annually, as well as the greater length of the annual report that accompanied the presidential address to Congress (105 pages in 1965; 496 pages in 1967; and 1,075 pages in 1970, illustrated each year by ever more graphs and tables).

Page 63
[Beer] regarded the centralized approach [of the Soviet Union] as bureaucratic and overly complex, as well as vulnerable to manipulation. Factory managers and government bureaucrats could easily change the value of the data they submitted to the computer centers in order to put their management skills in a more favorable light.

Page 73
Second, Cyberstride, like the Viable System Model, tried to find a balance between autonomy and cohesion. For example, when the system detected a production anomaly, the National Computer Corporation would alert both CORFO and the factory interventor. The government would then give the interventor a limited window of time to resolve the problem on his own. The enterprises therefore maintained their autonomy to a reasonable degree. If the interventor could not resolve the problem within this limited period, CORFO would intervene. Such intervention would limit the autonomy of the factory, but Beer reasoned it was nonetheless essential for preserving the viability of the entire economic system.

Third, the system's design reflected Allende's commitment to raising employment levels, a key part of the government program. Unlike concurrent uses of computer technology in industry, Cyberstride would use computers in a way that did not lead to unemployment. In industrial settings, computers are often linked to factory automation, which can raise productivity levels but also allow companies to downsize their workforce. Rather than automating labor or replacing management, Cyberstride would offer factory managers and CORFO a tool to help them increase factory productivity using the human and material resources available.

Page 79
The program also implemented a new and untried method of Bayesian statistical forecasting known as the Harrison-Stevens Approach, which first appeared in the December 1971 edition of Operational Research Quarterly. Dunsmuir stumbled onto the method while performing a literature review for the project. He convinced Beer that the new method would recognize significant variations in the production data and predict whether these initial data points signified the beginnings of a linear trend, and exponential trend, a step function, or an anomaly that would return to normal.

Page 87
Even in its final version, however, the model would not function as a predictive black box that gave definitive answers about future economic behaviour. Rather, it offered a medium with which economists, policy makers, and model makers could experiment and, through this act of play, expand their intuition about economic behaviour and the interplay of price controls, foreign exchange reserves, import and export rates, and other factors. Thus, the simulator was not meant to replace human expertise but to enhance it.

Page 89
Beer used the word algedonic to describe a signal of pleasure or pain. An algedonic meter would allow the public to express its pleasure or pain, or its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with government actions.

Unlike polls or surveys, these algedonic meters would not limit or prompt answers by asking set questions. The user simply moved a pointer on a dial somewhere between total dissatisfaction and absolute happiness. This design "uses the [human] brain as a computer," Beer wrote, "structured and programmed by individuality." Reminiscent of Beer's attention to autonomy and broad participation, the meter permitted users to construct their own scale of happiness and did not impose a standardized definition. Unlike many survey techniques, the meter did not require users to rationalize their level of happiness or normalize it to fit on a uniform scale. Instead, the meter recorded the user's gut feeling at a particular moment; the position of the knob on the meter would determine the voltage output on the device. Beer wrote that the meters could be installed in any location with a television set, such as in a Chilean home or in select community centers.

Page 93
According to Gerrity, the CIA planned to bring Chile to the point of economic collapse by urging companies to "drag their feet in sending money, in making deliveries, in shipping spare parts, etc." and to "withdraw all technical help and not provide any technical assistance in the future." We may never know the full extent of U.S. intervention in Chile during the Allende government or the entire role played by companies such as ITT, but we do know that the U.S.-led economic blockade created shortages of spare parts, caused significant problems for Chilean industries, stopped industrial machinery, and affected the production and repair of consumer goods.

Page 109
[...] the deputy director of the State Technology Institute explained, "it is important for Chile to be selective about the technologies it adopts, because in the long run they may determine social values and the shape of society—as the automobile has in the United States, for example.

Page 125
Beer imagined that the individuals sitting in the operations room would be either members of the government elite or factory workers, individuals who did not know how to type—a skill typically possessed by trained female secretaries. With little instruction, occupants could use the large "big-hand" buttons on each armrest. Participants could also "thump" these buttons if they wished to emphasize a point. Beer claimed that an interface of large geometrical buttons made the room more accessible for workers and prevented it from being a "sanctum sanctorum for a government elite." Through this design decision, the system allowed for worker participation.

Page 132
Looked at from a different angle, the Cybersyn system could even be read as disempowering Chilean workers. The timing charts printed in the study of the Easton Furniture factory are reminiscent of the time studies that characterized the Taylor system of management, which had been introduced in a number of Chilean factories before Allende came to power.

Page 145
In many ways its relative obscurity had benefited Cybersyn. The team had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy that was rarely challenged. Using his informal web of contacts, Flores had found it fairly easy to secure most of the financial, human, and material resources that the project needed and had done so without bureaucratic delays.

In October 1972, truck owners and then many other business owners across the country went on strike, in an attempt by the owning classes to bring down the government..
Page 149
After the strike, Silva said, "two concepts stayed in our mind: that information helps you make decisions and, above all, that it [the telex machine] helps you keep a record of this information, which is different from making a telephone call. [Having this record] lets you correct your mistakes and see why things happened."

Page 150
To put it another way, the network offered a communications infrastructure to link the revolution from above, led by Allende, to the revolution from below, led by Chilean workers and members of grassroots organizations, and helped coordinate the activities of both in a time of crisis. During the strike, workers in the state-run factories found ways to maintain production while simultaneously defending their workplaces from attack. They also transformed factory machine shops into spaces for repairing the trucks the government owned or requisitioned. Meanwhile, the telex network helped the government direct raw materials, fuel, and transportation resources to the places that most needed them. It also helped the government keep track of its trucks and provided information about which roads were blocked and which roads were open.

Beer estimated that the telex network transmitted two thousand messages daily during the strike. "The noise was indescribable," Beer said [...]

Page 158
[Beer] advised the government to ask the Chilean people what goods they considered essential, the quantity they desired, and the quantity that they already had, and use that information to determine which goods were of "primary necessity."


He urged the government to use the pamphlet he had developed and Angel Parra's folk song to teach the Chilean people about cybernetic thinking in government and to promote the government's use of science and technology in the service of the Chilean people. He pushed the government to create a "proper proletarian channel" for Chilean television and radio that could shape public opinion of the government and offset the influence of the media outlets run by the opposition and funded by the CIA.

Page 159
Beer insisted that workers should control the use of Cybersyn and argued that this was within their capabilities. Since he reasoned that Cybersyn was like any other "automated machine tool," he concluded that Chilean workers could reasonably use the system "without understanding the electronics," such as the mainframe computer. Beer also felt that the operations room should function as "the shop-floor of Total Industry" and reiterated that it should be "a place for the workers." In addition, Beer wanted to change the power relations between Chilean scientists and technologists to that of advising the workers when needed and performing supporting roles, such as system maintenance.

Page 161
In contrast, Beer's report envisioned a more substantial form of participation. He wanted to change how management decisions were made, whose knowledge was used to make these decisions, and how workers, technologists, and managers interacted. And he believed that Project Cybersyn could change all this for the better.

Page 163
In his writings Beer often cited nature as a complex system that remains viable through its self-organization. He argued that such systems do not need to be designed because they already exist. To modify the behaviour of such a system, one need not control its every aspect but rather change one subsystem so that the overall system naturally drifts toward the desired goal. Perhaps the injection of worker action could drive Chile toward a new point of homeostatic equilibrium, one that was congruent with the overall goal of socialist transformation. Worker improvisation on the ground could, moreover, supplement Allende's directives from above. beer viewed this redundancy as another prerequisite for self-organization and system viability. He wanted to encourage self-organization both by having Chilean workers participate in the actual design of Cybersyn and by using cybernetics to enhance the new forms of participation that were developing in Chilean communities. Such participatory activities would not only increase worker freedom but also create a more participatory working life and a more democratic society.

Page 166
Because the team grew in this decentralized, "opportunistic" way, most new recruits were not introduced to Beer and had little or no awareness, let alone understanding, of cybernetic principles such as the Viable System Model or the Law of Requisite Variety. Nor did they understand how Beer's approach to decentralized control was congruent with the principles of Allende's democratic socialism. Increasingly, Cybersyn was becoming a technological project divorced from its cybernetic and political origins.

Page 168
Examining how beer's and Flores's views changed in the aftermath of the strike shows that individual experiences, historical moments, and geographies all contribute to the ways that technologies have politics and politics are shaped by technology.

Page 178
To these criticisms, Beer responded that the system used simple technologies such as telex machines, drew from excellent programming talent in London and Santiago, and relied on many "human interfaces," meaning it was not automated. He also said that he was tired of hearing the assertion that such a system could be built only in the United States, and stressed that building the futuristic control room required only "the managerial acceptance of the idea, plus the will to see it realized." But, he added, "I finally found both the acceptance and the will—on the other side of the world." This final comment was a not-so-subtle jab at his British compatriots, who over the years had questioned the legitimacy and feasibility of his cybernetic ideas.

Page 183
The ease with which Hanlon painted Cybersyn as upholding political values that were the opposite of those of Chilean democratic socialism is a good example of the difficulty engineers and other technologists face in designing political values in a technological system. In fact, Hanlon was not alone in recognizing Cybersyn's potential for centralized control.

Page 187
It could also be argued that Project Cybersyn used computers in ways that could not be replicated in more industrialized nations. In 1973 the Chilean economy was more than twenty times smaller than that of Germany and almost one hundred times smaller than that of the United States. The Chilean economy was also composed of only a few core industries. Building a computer system to manage the Chilean economy was thus a much simpler task than trying to build a comparable system in Germany or the United States [...]

Page 198
Members of the military still loyal to the constitutional government quickly put down the coup attempt. However, the attempt made visible the divisions within the military and signaled that the president was losing the support of the armed forces. In response to these events, members of the Cybersyn team were understandably concerned about Beer's safety and their ability to protect him. Despite their efforts, Beer remained conspicuous in Las Cruces: he was a six-foot tall Englishman living in a small Chilean town—and he accidentally set fire to the mayor's house shortly after he arrived.

Page 207
Why Project Cybersyn, a technological project that outwardly tried to decentralize Chilean power structures and support the revolution from below, was frequently read as a tool for centralized government control is a more complicated question. In some cases this interpretation was the result of misinformation, as was the case with the secrecy charges. In other instances it was the result of a willful attempt to cast the Allende government in a negative light. The Soviet embrace of cybernetics in the late 1950s and 1960s might also have influenced some to see Cybersyn as a centralizing technology.

Page 212
Computer and communications technologies have often been linked to processes of political, economic, and social transformation. But claims that these technologies can bring about structural change in society—like the frequent assertion that computers will bring democracy or greater social equality—are often made in the absence of historical analysis.

Page 213
More often, Cybersyn team members attempted to embed political values in Cybersyn through sociotechnical engineering, meaning that they tried to build values not only into the function of the technology itself but also into the social and organizational relations of its construction and use.

Page 215
For example, Allende charged the Project Cybersyn team with building a system that supported worker participation. Yet the scientific techniques Chilean engineers used to model the state-controlled factories resembled Taylorism, a rationalized approach to factory production that disempowered workers and gave management greater control over labor. Time analysis, for example, emerged in the context of capitalist production, prioritizing efficiency and productivity over other values, such as the quality of shop floor life. By using time-analysis techniques, Cybersyn engineers could have inadvertently created production relationships that were counter to the Popular Unity platform and then solidified them in the form of a computer model.

Page 220
This story of technological innovation also challenges the assumption that innovation results from private-sector competition in an open marketplace.

Page 231
"The ideal of an objectively knowledgeable expert must be replaced with a recognition of the importance of background," Winograd and Flores write. "This can lead to the design of tools that facilitate a dialog of evolving understanding among a knowledgeable community." Building on this observation, the authors propose that computers should not make decisions for us but rather should assist human actions, especially human "communicative acts that create requests and commitments that serve to link us to others."

Page 233
This last quote specifically for Jackie Pease...
[Beer's] last book, Beyond Dispute (1994), proposed a new method for problem solving based on the geometric configurations of the icosahedron, a polygon with twenty equilateral triangle faces. He called this new method "syntegrity" and argued that it could serve as a new approach to conflict resolution in areas of the world such as the Middle East.

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March 02, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 2nd 2020

  • How to help someone use a computer. Words of wisdom. Worth applying to other related teaching avenues too, it reminds me of the good examples of fixing I see at the DoES Liverpool Repair Cafes: where the person with the broken item fixes it themselves, with help from the expert, rather than stood to one side watching the expert fix it for them.
  • In The Eternal Inferno, Fiends Torment Ronald Coase With The Fate Of His Ideas. "Carillion consisted, essentially, of a sales and contract management organisation that hunted public-sector service contracts and then hired subcontractors to carry them out." Metcalfe's law is great when you apply it to the number of people with phones in your phone network, or how many computers are connected to the Internet; it's terrible when you're counting the number of entities contracting between each other to deliver something. This is why we need to rid so many areas of our life of marketisiation and financialisation - not (just) because it's not a humane way of arranging affairs, but because it doesn't work!
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February 24, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: February 24th 2020

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February 10, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: February 10th 2020

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January 20, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 20th 2020

  • The Future is Grim. A scary look at all the ways the climate is changing. However, there are also plenty of them that show how it is us who are causing things and so, although an immense challenge, lots of ways that we can move to making amends.
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January 14, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is a telephone-directory of a biography, but given the length of Robert Moses' reign over New York and the power he wielded within the city—despite never being elected to office—it's quite understandable. And there isn't even space for the story of his best-known fight, the one he lost to Jane Jacobs. That was the launchpad for her career as an urbanist when she wrote her similarly epic (and former blog-all-dog-eared-pages entrant) The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The Power Broker is an eye-opening account of how someone can acquire such power and influence and interesting not least as an education in what we should be wary of with the people and companies who run our cities.

I made lots of notes in this, but then, it's nearly 1200 pages long...

Page 14

The courtiers and courtesans of [Moses'] empire wallowed in an almost Carthaginian luxury. Favored secretaries, for example, had not only bigger cars than city commissioners (as well as round-the-clock chauffeurs so that they could be on call twenty-four hours a day) but also higher salaries.

Page 20

He evicted tens of thousands of poor, nonwhite persons for urban renewal projects, and the housing he built to replace the housing he tore down was, to an overwhelming extent, not housing for the poor, but for the rich.

Page 48

Two years among her [Oxford University's] spires and statue-crowned columns, her quadrangles and cloisters, her towers that had whispered to Matthew Arnold "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages," would boil the fattiness out of the idealism, rendering out of a vague desire to "help people" not only a clear, definable concept of public service but also a specific means of performing that service. Two years among her richly paneled halls, her ancestral tankards and inlaid croziers, among begowned processions led by bedels carrying silver staves and among gardens tended by a thousand gardeners would distill the arrogance, potent though it already was, and make it still more potent by adding to its essence a philosophical base, the British belief, firm indeed in the early twentieth century and epitomized in the trappings and teachings of Oxford, in the duties—and the rights—of those born to wealth and privilege.

Oxford in 1909 was the castle keep of British conservatism. The key to its ancient gates was wealth; in the year Robert Moses entered Oxford's Wadham College, the university was largely closed to the student whose family was not rich. Conservatism characterized the attitude of its students—including the ninety Americans among them.

Page 49

As strong as Oxford's conservatism was its emphasis on public service. Its tone in 1909 had been set for the preceding three centuries by rich young men who were sent to the university as a preliminary to public life and who, from positions in Parliament or the civil service or the learned professions, actually did, after graduation, govern Britain and its vast territories overseas. But the leavening of devotion to public service with an unabashed insistence on the rights and privileges of aristocracy could not help but make that devotion somewhat patronizing, infusing it with a strong air of condescension and noblesse oblige in its most obnoxious form.

Page 53

What Moses admired in the British civil service was that it had two separate and distinct classes: a very small administrative and policy-making "upper division" reserved for "university men," and a much larger "lower division" consisting of "clerks of ordinary education" selected through examinations on the high-school level who "do the lower and more mechanical work." The class differentiation that Moses admired was a rigid one. Carefully placed technical hurdles made it difficult, almost impossible, for a young man, even one of dedication, industry, ambition and talent, to rise out of the lower division.

"Brilliant," Moses called this setup. "Far-sighted." It attracts into public service precisely the men most needed there, "the most intelligent and capable young men in universities," he said. And it keeps them in government by reserving for them posts from which they can exert real influence and authority.

Page 67

Moses was to talk again to Miss Perkins. Every time he did, her astonishment grew. "He was always burning up with ideas, just burning up with them!" she was to say. "Everything he saw walking around the city made him think of some way that it could be better." Happening once to comment that it was too bad that mothers who took infants to Central Park had to leave when diapers needed changing and go all the way home, she saw her idle words strike instant fire in Moses' mind. Why not build diaper-changing shelters? he asked.

Page 76

Shining through all Moses' statements was confidence, a faith that his system would work, a belief that the personalities of tens of thousands of human beings could be reduced to mathematical grades, that promotions and raises could be determined by a science precise enough to give every one of those human beings the exact rewards he deserved.

Page 166

The $15,000,000 bond issue, he said, must specifically authorize the Legislature "to provide for permanent improvements as well as the acquisition of land . . . for large facilities which make a park accessible and attractive to people." "Conservation"—the previous park ideal—had to be combined with "recreation," he said. Furthermore, he said, "permanent improvements" did not mean only improvements within parks; it also meant means to get to them—"parkway and boulevard connections between state parks and between state parks and neighboring centers of population."

Page 171

He wanted 124 miles of parkways. And he wanted the parkways to be broaderand more beautiful than any roads the world had ever seen, landscaped as private parks are landscaped so that they would be in themselves parks, "ribbon parks," so that even as people drove to parks, they would be driving through parks.

Page 173

Once, no reformer, no idealist, had believed more sincerely than he in free and open discussion. No reformer, no idealist, had argued more vigorously that legislative bills should be fully debated, and that the debates should be published so that the citizenry could be informed on the issues.

Page 189

"Moses never even tried to negotiate with us. He decided to seize first and negotiate afterward. There was no condemnation, no proceedings, no notice to us. They threw a cordon of state troopers around the property and now they say, 'Your remedy is to go to the Court of Claims for compensation.'"

Page 194

Wait, Smith said. He had thought of something his advisers hadn't. New York City wasn't hot in April. It wasn't hot in May. New Yorkers weren't deperate to get out of the city in April and May, desperate for a bathing beach such as the one the Taylor Estate would provide. In April and May, they hadn't yet reached the point at which they didn't care at all about the legal technicalities of park acquisition; they hadn't yet reached the point at which all that mattered was that someone was trying to provide them with a place to swim—and someone else was standing in his way.

Page 218

Another lesson Moses learned was that, in the eyes of the public, the end, if not justifying the means, at least made them unimportant. Al Smith had succeeded in blurring in the public's mind the legal technicalities of the fight—by focusing the public's mind on the end of the fight: parks.

Page 219

But what if you didn't tell the officials how much the projects would cost? What if you let the legislators know about only a fraction of what you knew would be the projects' ultimate expense?

Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. How could they? If they refused to give you the rest of the money, what they had given you would be wasted, and that would make them look bad in the eyes of the public. And if they said you had misled them, well, they were not supposed to be misled. If they had been misled, that would mean that they hadn't investigated the projects thoroughly, and had therefore been derelict i their own duty. The possibilities for a polite but effective form of political blackmail were endless. Once a Legislature gave you money to start a project, it would be virtually forced to give you the money to finish it. The stakes you drove should be thin-pointed—wedge-shaped, in fact—on the end. Once you got the end of the wedge for a project into the public treasury, it would be easy to hammer in the rest.

Another lesson Moses learned from his first use of power was the latitude given him by its posession.

Page 222

One other thing, he said. The bathhouses were going to have at least one innovation never included in any public or private building in America: diaper-changing rooms. He had designed them himself, he said. They would be divided into cubicles and each cubicle would contain only a diaper-dieposal basket, a washbasin, a mirror and a shelf for a mother to lay her baby on. And the shelf shouldn't be table-height, he said. He had watched mothers changing diapers and higher shelves would make it easier.

Page 256

In politics, power vacuums are always filled. And the power vacuum in parks was filled by Robert Moses. The old park men saw beauty in their parks. Moses saw beauty there, too, but he also saw power, saw it lying there in those parks unwanted. And he picked it up—and turned it as a weapon on those who had not thought it important and destroyed them with it. Whether or not he intended, he turned parks, the symbol of man's quest for serenity and peace, into a source of power.

Page 257

And parks were, unlike improvements in teachers' salaries or other highly praised, but unmeasurable accomplishments of [Smith's] administration, an accomplishment that he could see, an accomplishment whose visible, concrete existence could prove to him that he had indeed done something for his people.

Page 267

Wanting Miss Tappan available whenever he needed "secretarial" assistance, Moses placed at her disposal a car and three chauffeurs, who worked around the clock in eight-hour shifts. On many mornings she arrived at his home at 7:30 A.M., her car pulling up behind that of Howland, who was picking up Moses' night-written memos, and she would get into Moses' limousine so that he could start dictating the minute he stepped in. As she drove with him, her car followed behind so that whenever he was finished with her, she could get out of his car, step into her own, and speed back to Belmont Lake or 302 Broadway to parcel out the work among the subordinate secretaries while he, chauffered by one of his three chauffeurs, continued on to his destination.

Page 315

Moses was fond of repeathing at this time a quote often used in Albany. "You can get an awful lot of good done in the world if you're willing to let someone else take the credit for it." Certainly Moses was willing at least to share the credit for the work he had done with the man he needed if he was to get more done.


[...] the realities of the democratic process in America make it almost impossible to get a road, a bridge, a housing project, a bathhouse or a park approved and built in two years—or four. The Governor who finds a man who can inject into the democracy-public works equation a factor of personality so heavy as to unbalance it and get public works built during the span of a single term of office has little choice, if he is ambitious for political success, but to heap on that man more and more responsibilities, even though the giving of responsibilities carries with it the grant of more power.

Page 323

[During the Depression] More than 10,000 of New York's 29,000 manufacturing firms had closed their doors. Nearly one of every three employables in the city had lost his job.

Page 370

Some of the new superintendents quietly handed quarters to laborers whose inability to keep up was due to hunger or frostbite; others fired them. But none of the ramrods stopped driving. If they did, they knew, they would be fired themselves. They were, after all, working for a boss who, when questioned about a new wave of firing that almost touched off riots in several parks, said, "The government and the taxpayers have a right to demand an adequate return in good work, faithfully performed, for the money that is being spent. . . . We inherited men who were working without plan and without supervision. The plans have now been made, the supervision is being supplied, and we expect the men to work."

Page 400

Chanler said in court that the new law gave Moses the right to do whatever he wanted in parks as long as it was for a "proper park use" and that Moses was the only man who could determine what was, and was not, a proper use. And Chanler was right. As the reformers read the law, the law that they had helped pass, they realized that they had helped turn over the parks that were the priceless heritage of the city to the whim of one man.

Page 463

"You've got to understand—every morning when a mayor comes to work, there are a hundred problems that must be solved. And a lot of them are so big and complex that they just don't seem susceptible to solution. And when he asks guys for solutions, what happens? Most of them can't give him any. And those that do come up with solutions, the solutions are unrealistic or impractical—or just plain stupid. And those that do make sense—there's no money to finance them. But you give a problem to Moses and overnight he's back in front of you—with a solution, all worked out down to the last detail, drafts of speeches you can give to explain it to the public, drafts of press releases for the newspapers, drafts of the state laws you'll need to get passed, advice as to who should introduce the bills in Council and Board of Estimate resolutions you'll need; if there are constitutional questions involved, a list of the relevant precedents—and a complete method of financing it all spelled out. He had solutions when no one else had solutions. A mayor needs a Robert Moses."

Page 483

Driving in automobiles had then still been thought of primarily as pleasure, a pursuit for comfortable middle-class or wealthy fathers (the only fathers who could afford automobiles) taking their families for an outing, just as driving horse-drawn carriages had been a pursuit for pleasure. And it had been important to insure that these families had the most pleasant surroundings possible to drive through and within the city's limits the most pleasant surroundings were those provided by parks. The provision of pleasant scenery for drivers to enjoy was, in fact, a primary function of parks; that was why every great city in Europe had its great driving park, Paris its Bois de Boulogne, Rome its Pincian Hill, Florence its Cascine and London its Hyde Park. Roads had belonged in parks in the nineteenth century—so much so that, if necessary, other values of a park had to be sacrificed to provide the roads with the best of the park's scenery.

Page 486

Authority is delegatable; genius is not. Some of the men to whom the work was delegated were first-rank architects or engineers—many of them, in fact, for the Depression had driven into the Arsenal many brilliant young professionals who in ordinary times would have been making names for themselves in private commissions. But they were not Robert Moses. The further Moses' presence receded from individual small park projects, the less distinguished these projects emerged.

Page 489

Whatever the reasons, "RM," an aide would say, "just wasn't interested in anything small. He used to say, 'That's a little job. Give it to so-and-so.' And that attitude filterd down, so that the fellows weren't interested in small things either." Coupled with his feelings about the people for whom the effort would have to be made—the lower classes who didn't "respect" or "appreciate" what was done for them, in particular the Negroes who were "dirty" and wouldn't keep his beautiful creations clean—his lack of interest in "anything small" made him uninterested in small parks in slums.

Page 492

Knowinv how important small parks were to the city's poor, the reformers could hardly believe the implications of Moses' policies when they began to discern them. By banning public transportation, he had barred the poor from the state parks. In the same way, he was barring the poor from the best of the city parks, the big parks on the city's outskirts such as Jacob Riis and Alley Pond. And now he was saying that he would not provide the poor even with small parks. He was pouring tens of millions of dollars into creating new parks in New York—but he was creating almost none for the people who needed parks most. The philosophy that parks were only for the "comfortable middle class" had been outdated for at least ten years. But, they began to see, that was the philosophy Moses was following.

Page 504
Anticipating that the matter would become public knowledge, Moses went to the press—and he did so with his usual blend of demagoguery and deception: breaking the story himself to get his side of it before the public first; oversimplifying the basic issue to one of public vs. private interest; identifying the "private interests" with the sinister forces of "influence" and "privilege"; concealing any facts that might damage his own image.

Page 510
Robert Moses built 255 playgrounds in New York City during the 1930's. He built one playground in Harlem.

An overspill from Harlem had created Negro ghettos in two other areas of the city: Brooklyn's Stuyvesant Heights, the nucleus of the great slum that would become known as Bedford-Stuyvesant, and South Jamaca. Robert Moses built one playground in Stuyvesant Heights. He built no playgrounds in South Jamaica.

Page 513
[Moses] himself solved a problem that had always baffled designers—how to force swimmers to wash their feet before entering the pool—by building what the Architectural Forum called "tactful depressions"—hollows too wide to be jumped—clear across each corridor leading from the locker room to the pool so that swimmers had no choice but to walk through them and through the special foot-cleansing solution with which they had been filled.

Page 514
"We [Moses and Corporation Counsel Windels] were driving around Harlem one afternoon—he was showing me something or other—and I said, 'Don't you have this problem with the Negroes overrunning you?' He said, 'Well, they don't like cold water and we've found that that helps.'" And then, Windels says, Moses told him confidentially that while heating plants at the other swimming pools kept the water at a comfortable seventy degrees, at the Thomas Jefferson Pool, the water was left unheated, so that its temperature, while not cold enough to bother white swimmers, would deter any "colored" people who happened to enter it once from returning.

Page 515
The new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks. "It wasn't more than three weeks after they opened that I decided to go out to Jones Beach on a Sunday," Paul Windels recalls. "I got on the Interborough and by God it was as jammed as the Southern State ever was."

Moses announced that he had the solution: build forty-five miles of new parkways, including a great "Circumferential Parkway" around Brooklyn and Queens that would provide motorists of these boroughs (and of Manhattan if the proposed Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built and linked up with the parkway) with an easier way to reach the Island—and, since the parkway would run for twenty miles along the edge of the Brooklyn waterfront, with a wonderful view.

Some city planners noticed that the traffic pattern on Long Island had fallen into a set pattern: every time a new parkway was built, it quickly became jammed with traffic, but the load on the old parkways was not significantly relieved.

Page 519
But provisions for [running a railway alongside the new parkway] should be made immediately. All that was required was to make the bridge wide enough for two lanes of tracks as well as for automobiles or to build a second deck for the tracks—or, if Moses did not want to adopt either of these courses at the present time, to make the bridge foundations and towers strong enough so that , should at some later date the rapid transit link be desired, the bridge could support a second deck that would be built at that time. If provision was made now, while the bridge was being planned, the RPA said, it could be made cheaply, at a minor increase in the cost fo the bridge. If it was not made, a whole new bridge would have to be constructed from scratch when the rapid transit link proved necessary, and the cost would be tremendous. [...]

But Moses refused event to consider its proposal, and the RPA received no editorial support. Without opposition from a single city official, he built the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge without any provision for a rail link, opening it three full months ahead of schedule, on April 29, 1939.

Page 522
The El had cast a shadow over Third Avenue, but the El had been forty feet wide. The Gowanus [highway] was ninety-four feet wide. Its shadow was more than twice as broad.

Page 545
In that age, parks had been for the upper and "comfortable middle" classes and one of the things those classes wanted most to do in parks was to drive through them—at the slow, leisurely speeds of the era—and enjoy their scenery. In that age, therefore, it made sense for a road through a park to be placed at its most scenic location—in the case of Riverside park, at the river's edge.

But things had changed. There had been 125,101 motor vehicles in New York City in 1914; there were 804,620 in New York City in 1934—and additional hundreds of thousands in the Westchester and New Jersey suburbs that would also pour cars onto the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Page 561
"Always the man in the car has the river in full view," wrote a newspaperman. That was true. But to give the man in the car that view, fleeting at best and harried, to let him enjoy a brief glimpse of beauty as he passed by it, hurriedly and with his mind on other things, Moses had taken it away from the man not in the car, the pedestrian walking beside the river or sitting beside it, picnicking or just looking at it, soaking it in for long minutes and hours, the man who would have had time to enjoy and savor the view, the man whose life could have been enriched by it.

Page 572
Urban improvements on such a scale had never been seen—had, perhaps, never been dreamed of—in America before; there were, for example, more miles of divided through highways uninterrupted by intersections at grade in the New York metropolitan area in 1940 than in the next five larger cities in the United States—Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland—combined.

Page 610
And this difference made the 1936 Tunnel Authroity fight a watershed in Robert Moses' life. Always before, Moses had conceived a public work, and then had sought the power to bring it into reality. In the Tunnel Authority fight, someone else conceived the public work. Moses sought the power to take it over. Before, his motivation had always been the work—the project, the achievement, the dream. Now the motivation was poower.

Page 626
"He had figured out a gimmick," says Reuben A. Lazarus, drafter of the original Triborough Act and himself a master of the gimmmick—and as Lazarus spoke a smile broke over his old, wrinkled face despite his attempts to conceal it, and his voice was filled with admiration, the admiration of a master of a difficult craft for a man who was more than a master. "That sentence looked so innocuous. But it changed my whole act completely. With that sentence there, he had power to issue forty-year bonds and every thirty-nine years he could call them in and issue new bonds, for another forty years. La Guardia had thought that authorities . . . would be temporary creations that would build something and then turn it over to the city and go out of existence as soon as it was paid off. But with that gimmick in there, it would never be paid off."

Page 634
If, moreover, Moses' authorities were becoming an independent empire, the heart's blood of that empire was money: tolls. The bulk of those tolls were collected at the huge Triborough Bridge toll plaza. If the empire had a heart, that was it. Moses built his new office in the very shadow of that toll plaza.

Page 644
When they opened, and the Board filed back onto the horseshoe dais, it approved unanimously the expenditure of $16,000,000 for [Moses'] Circumferential Parkway—and, to enable the city to spend the money, eliminated from the list of previously approved projects $8,000,000 worth of schools and hospital improvements, $5,000,000 in subway extensions and $3,000,000 in other projects.

Page 670
It was not, of course, only the reformers who opposed Moses' proposal—or at least the haste with which he was trying to ram it through. Also in the opposition were most of the city's most important elected officials—right up to the Mayor—and, speaking with a virtually unanimous voice, the city's press. Always before, elected officials, backed by the press, would have possessed more than sufficient power at least to get a few weeks' time to study a proposal if they wanted to study it. But they possessed such power no longer. The city had a problem that desperately needed solution. It had no money to solve the problem itself. Moses had the money. And if the city wanted a solution, it would have to accept his solution—or none at all.

Page 715
[...] a total, during the first fifteen years after World War II, of close to three and a half billion dollars which he dispensed in the city on behalf of federal and state agencies largely beyond the control of the city's government.

Page 720
A charting of the legal fees and other emoluments that Moses distributed to lawyers during the postwar era—a year-by-year analysis of who got the fees, when they started getting them and when they stopped getting them—provides almost a year-by-year chart of the fluctuations in the political influence of certain key Democratic lawyers.

Page 739
New York's big contracting combines needed to keep working and they needed to keep working on big projects. Moses controlled such projects, so he controlled the contractors. And he controlled their political contributions.

Page 751
But in reality a single power—the power of money—could render all those powers meaningless. And thanks to his public authorities, Robert Moses had the money. A borough president, searching desperately for a means of obtaining large-scale public works for his borough, could find only one way: to cooperate with Moses. He had no choice in the matter. Supposedly the servant of these elected representatives of the sovereign people of the city, Robert Moses was in reality their master.

Page 796
And the cost of neglected maintenance is astonishgly high: the West Side Highway, for example, could have been kept in perfect repair during the 1950's for about $75,000 per year; because virtually no repairing was done, by the 1960's, the cost of annual maintenance would be more than $1,000,000 per year; and in 1974 the highway had begun literally to fall apart—a condition that would take tens of millions of dollars to repair. By the time Moses left power in 1968 the city would be utterly unable to make even a pretense of keeping its physical plant in repair.

Page 808
The mail, a huge stack of it, would be waiting for him on the desk of whichever one of his four offices he was using that day. Summoning three secretaries to ring his desk, he would plow through the letters so rapidly—scribbling instructions on some, snapping off orders about others, dictating replies, tossing the letters to the three women in rotation—that within thirty minutes the huge stack of paper would have melted down to the bare desk top.

During the 1920's, Moses haad turned the big black Packard in which he had to spend so much time into an office, holding conferences in it with aides whose own limousines trailed behind, waiting to take them off when the conferences were finished, carrying with him always a supply of legal note pads and sharpened pencils and using the time in the limousine for work. Now the limousine was a Cadillac instead of a Packard. But it was still an office.

Page 826
The excursion marking the opening of the Robert Moses Power Dam at Niagara in 1961, for example, lasted three full days. It became a legend among the reporters lucky enough to go along.

Page 827
To crack an especially tough opponent, Moses might invite him to a lunch at which he would be the only person present besides the Coordinator and his aides: then, if the guest tried to argue, he would be in the position of trying to argue alone against a whole platoon of "informed opinion." It was even more difficult to disagree when the man with whom you were disagreeing was your host. Manners set limits on such disagreement; even if convention was disregarded, the host ahd the not inconsiderable psychological advantage of fighting on his home grounds, ground to which, in fact, the guest might even have been transported by his limousine, which he needed to take him home again.

Page 849
When he replied to protests about the hardships casued by his road-building programs, he generally replied that succeeding generations would be grateful. It was the end that counted, not the means. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Once, in a speech, he said:

You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.

The metaphor, like most Moses metaphors, was vivid. But it was incomplete. It expressed his philosophy, but it was not philosophy but feelings that dictated Moses' actions. He didn't just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it.

Page 868
The poverty of their community made fighting all the harder. Years later, an acquaintance casually remarked to Lillian Edelstein that another group of housewives, Central Park West housewives, had, in a battle over expansion of the Tavern-on-the-Green parking lot in 1956, won a victory over Robert Moses—and was startled to see the eyes of the tall, dignified woman filling with tears of remembered frustration. "Do you know why?" she said bitterly. "Because they had the money for an injunction, that's why."

Page 902
Build railroads at the same time that you were building roads, and solving the metropolitan transportation problem would be greatly simplified. Pour all available funds into roads without building railroads, and that problem would never be solved.

Page 916
The fact—a fact documented for the first time in Bulletin 77—was that although the population was increasing just as fast as people thought it was (the number of families in the counties surrounding New York had increased by 50 percent between 1930 and 1950), the commuting wasn't. There had been 301,000 commuters coming into the city daily in 1930; in 1950, there were 357,000—an increase of only 19 percent. The difference was not in the number of people coming into and out of New York every day, but in how they were coming. The number of rail commuters had actually declined, from 263,000 in 1930 to 239,000 in 1950; 38,050 persons had commuted by automobile in 1930, 118,400 persons commuted by automobile in 1950. While the number of commuters was up 19 percent, the number of automobile commuters was up 321 percent.

Page 947
But even the initial, ultraconservative figures had remarkable implications. Robert Moses was planning to spend $500,000,000 for an expressway that would increase the one-way automobile-carrying capacity of Long Island by a maximum of 4,500 automobiles or buses per hour—during the two-hour peak period, by a total of 9,000 automobiles or buses. For $20,000,000—one twenty-fifth of that cost—he could reduce the automobile-carrying capacity needed by 6,500 automobiles and 400 buses. He could do as much for Long Island by spending $20,000,000 as by spending $500,000,000—if he spent it on rapid transit.

Page 970
But it was an educational experience. For the people living in the ruins of Manhattantown taught the good ladies of the Women's City Club something about slums that they hadn't learned in their textbooks. In the textbooks, "slums" were synonymous with "dirt" and "blight." But, recalls Mrs. Black, "the thing that hit me was that most of the apartments you went into were well kept, clean." Time after time, City Club volunteers would walk off the filthy street, up the filthy stairs, down a filthy hall, and knock on the door of an apartment—and when the door to that apartment was opened, behind the frightened face peering out ("Oh, they were always frightened," one of the volunteers said. "They always thought you were from the developer or the city") was a room neat and clean. "What hurt the most," Mrs. Black says, "was just the feeling of people trying to make a decent place for their family to live in these conditions."

Page 1006
But new facts were not necessary. Plenty to document the true shape of the Moses version of urban renewal were already available—had been available for years—in heearing transcripts or in club or commission pamphlets, rich nuggets of news just lying around waiting for someone to pick them up, put them together—show them not as isolated incidents but as part of a pattern—and print them.

And on July 30, 1956, just a month after the conclusion of the Battle of Central Park, the World-Telegram and Sun began printing them.

For all its omissions, this first series on Title I—researched by Gene Gleason and written by Fred J. Cook—painted a disturbing picture of the way New York City was being reshaped. It showed, as no one had previously shown, the relationship between the fact (previously written about in any real depth only by Kahn) that on many Title I sites no development had taken place in the four years since the city had handed them over to private interests and the fact (brought out in the Caspert hearings but never before documented in all its shocking details by anyone) that Moses' system financially encouraged failure to develop. It showed that the "slum clearance" program was clearing not just slums but healthy, pleasant residential and business sections—and was not building anything to replace them.

Page 1007
Investigative reporters quickly become aware of a phenomenon of their profession: information so hard to come by when they are preparing to write their first story in a new field suddenly becomes plentiful as soon as that first story has appeared in print. Every city agency has its malcontents and its idealists and its malcontent-idealists—officials and aides and clerks and secretaries unhappy with the philosophy by which it is being run or the pay-offs that are being made within it—who have been just waiting, for years, for the appearance of some forum in which their feelings can be expressed. When they realize that there is one at last—when they see that first story—they cannot get their information to its writer fast enough.

Page 1083
But it was to be a tough dream to realize. No project on which Robert Moses had ever embarked was to document more definitively his statement: "It takes more than a good idea to make a great public improvement. The fact is that such things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years."

Page 1141
What was necessary to remove Moses from power was a unique, singular concatenation of circumstances: that the Governor of New York be the one man uniquely beyond the reach of normal politcal influences, and that the trustee for Triborough's bonds be a bank run by the Governor's brother.

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January 09, 2020

Tactical Civics? Municipal Making?

As ever, one of the background processes going on in my head is wondering about how to improve the city, specifically Liverpool because that's where I live, but I'd expect anything we do to be useful ideas/patterns for others to absorb...

There are blips of more active thinking prompted by Dan Hill's writing, or conversations with our neighbours in the Fabric District, but I've been trying to find ways to get back to some doing for a while now.

I think that's going to look like a fairly low-key meetup of some sort. Probably not much more than me deciding to spend an evening or weekend day hacking on things, and extending the invite to whoever else is interested. I want to do some experimenting and making myself, not run a meetup where (only) others get to do that. At least not in the short term.

However, despite all that, the blocker has been what to call it.

There are elements of what would be tactical urbanism, but tactical sounds too militaristic for my liking, and urbanism implies that it's all about cities. It's not. Ruricomp is just as interesting, and villages and the countryside are just as capable of leading the way.

Maybe it could be something like Municipal Making, given the rise in municipalism (we can gloss over the fact that the Council recently sold the Municipal Buildings to become a hotel...), but that feels a bit like using big words to sound important, which risks putting off parts of the city whose interest I'd rather be trying to pique.

Traditionally I'd run this under the #CodeForLiverpool banner, and that could yet be the best option, but Joe Bramall will be pleased to hear that his influence and my experience at Liverpool Global Service Jam have given me pause for thought on putting the coding cart before the service design horse.

Perhaps I should keep it simple and go with the more established civic tech...

While I'm worrying too much over the name, I'm actually going to swerve it for now and build some stuff.

In a great bit of serendipity, the Ladies of Code Liverpool group are having a Code Hangout this Saturday at DoES Liverpool and don't mind me gegging in. So I'm going to sit quietly in the corner at that and most likely get back to playing with planning application scrapers.

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January 06, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 6th 2020

  • Grenfell – Are firefighters to blame? Understanding human error. Excellent article on the difference between blame and accountability, and how we need more of the latter (for Grenfell, but also elsewhere).
  • One nation, tracked An investigation into the smartphone tracking industry. Sobering reading from the New York Times, investigating how our location is tracked and not-actually-anonymised by tech firms and apps on our smartphones.
  • IGP's Social Prosperity Network publishes the UK's first report on Universal Basic Services. Arguably a better option than a Universal Basic Income, particularly for the transport and information options - I'm less convinced on the shelter or food options: I can see how giving people cash for their rent could just let rents rise to absorb it, but we'd need to overcome the stigma of "council housing". But maybe we've already managed that with right-to-buy mixing up the ownership on estates (my house in Cambridge for example, is ex-council and others in the street are still council- (or housing association-) owned), so as long as new council-builds are a mixture of rent and own across all the sizes and types, we can avoid the problem?
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December 23, 2019

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 23rd 2019

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December 10, 2019

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 10th 2019

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