Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Vonnegut foresee Donald Trump's false-idol campaign way back in 1961?

I devoured about a dozen Kurt Vonnegut books when I was a teenager, and they were worldview forming towards my lifelong love of science fiction, political commentary, international relations, and just plain sociology.

Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Slapstick are just a few of the best books ever written, and two of Vonnegut's books, Welcome to the Monkey House and Breakfast of Champions, even made my all-time top 60 novels list. And don't forget Harrison Bergeron, easily one of the greatest short stories, period.

Somehow I had missed his 1961 novel Mother Night, written in a very fertile part of his early career, and it stands up very well amongst both his greatest works as well as the test of time.

The layered tale is all about American Howard W. Campbell Jr., who begins the story from an Israeli prison and ends it there as well. He is recruited to be a Nazi spy and goes on to great infamy as a major radio voice in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. Because he is a spy, he is able to escape the post-war Nazi trials and live the rest of his days in anonymity in New York City. He is visited by white supremecists who idolize him, and there isn't a ton of humor in this book, by Vonnegut standards, but the story of the supremacist dentist is among the funniest moments in Mother Night.

Howard had lived a rich love life before the collapse of Germany as well, and a woman calling herself his former wife Helga also visits New York to give him a brief respite of happiness in his old age. Then all goes wrong and he ends up turning himself in. Spoiler alert: the novel does not end well for Howard in that Israeli jail.

Even though Howard is a surprisingly sympathetic character through much of the tale, the moral is that who you pretend to be is who you actually are. Howard tried to hide behind his American spy status, but he truly said horrendous things over the air during the war that make it difficult to forgive him.

Mother Night is a quick read and pretty perfect for these times, when it remains too early to tell, before Donald Trump assumes the American throne, whether certain groups of people will be rounded up and deported or worse. Even if Trump never does all the ruthless and mean things he promised during his campaign, he will never be able to fully run away from who he pretended to be simply for the sake of beating his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Syria gets a much-needed closer look in Woolly Mammoth's Kiss

The first thing I loved about Woolly Mammoth's recent production of Kiss was the fact that I didn't read the playbill before watching the show.

That kept me guessing for several minutes in the middle of playwright Guillermo Calderon's play that the actors really were Skyping Syria to find out how life was going for the alleged writer of the play. When the translator left the screen, I caught on, but it made things about as current-event-y as could possibly be.

I feel like the world doesn't know nearly enough about the absolute destruction happening in a place I remember friends and family having told me about enjoying traveling throughout - beautiful plains, deserts, and mountains - in the past. Dictator Bashar Al-Assad has laid waste to the place in just a few short years, and the play does its best to help us understand just how awful life has turned there.

The story begins with a group of fairly average and superficial friends who are in the process of falling out of love with their chosen mates and into love with others in their tight circle. It's a funny and entertaining story, and something the audience would not expect from a night at the theater about Syria.

But then the play breaks and the excellent Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (as a Faye Dunaway-like soap-opera star) quickly informs the audience that she's the director (she isn't) and the cast Skypes Syria to speak for the "first time" with the writer, who is holed up in a very sad and scary situation. The rest of Kiss brilliantly redoes the play as life very well could actually be in today's Syria. They blaze through the soapy elements with a focus on death and sniping and the all-out destructiveness that we all hear about in the news each day.

We've been so numbed by all the bad news from Damascus and Aleppo and many points in between that we can't even digest how this might be the worst of all wars on the planet right now and at least partially a result of our country's confused and directionless war against terrorism.

Tim Getman, Shannon Dorsey, and Joe Mallon are the other key players in this masterpiece collision of the arts and current events. Let's hope it continues to be performed in places throughout the country and has some effect on the ways we can all help our fellow humans in a place that truly needs it now more than ever.

What the theater should be in the 2010s.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 25, 2016

Best Magazine Reads: Rhinos all but extinct, will have to rely on the Ted Williams method

In my various trips in the past on safari in Africa, I tend to get very emotional and attached to the magnificent animals we come across. I could watch any animals, from hyenas to elephants, for hours on end if my friends, family, and tour guides would let me.

One of those obviously on the most amazing end is the northern white rhino. I'm not sure if I've ever actually seen one in the wild, but as a GQ article in the November 2016 issue details, it's unlikely. There are now three left in the world. They live in a protected reserve in Congo and are led by a grandfather who's too old and frail to reproduce.

And even if he could, he would have to do so with his daughter or his granddaughter, the only other two white rhinos in existence. The article, by Zack Baron, offers a slim hope that extinction doesn't have to be forever. There's a facility, dubbed "the resurrection zoo," outside of San Diego that stores frozen strains of endangered animals, including the white rhino. The article outlines the somewhat murky plans of the operators for bringing dozens of animals back to life after they've disappeared from the planet.

It all sounds a lot like the animal version of baseball legend Ted Williams at his cryogenic facility, but at least there's a little hope. And, for the people who continue to kill Africa's glorious animals in the name of commerce, just stop it already!

Monday, October 31, 2016

5 things I learned about John Lennon from his first wife's book

Surprisingly, John Lennon's first wife offers up a lot of interesting nuggets (it seems like they must have all been noted by now) about The Beatle's early life. For Beatles' lovers, this is definitely worth a quick read, and here are five nuggets to whet your appetite.
  1. When John was murdered in December 1980, Cynthia Lennon, his first wife, was running a little bistro with a friend (the ex-wife of Paul McCartney's brother James) in North Wales. This was more than a decade after their divorce, the breakup of the Beatles, and the beginning of John's relationship with Yoko Ono. When she heard the news, she was visiting Mo Starkey, Ringo Starr's first wife who had a brief fling with George Harrison after their divorce. Ringo called and told her. Cynthia's son, Julian Lennon, lost his dad at the age of 17, the same age both John and Cyn each lost a parent.
  2. John died on December 9 (December 8 by U.S. time), which was eerie because of all the significant dates in his life that had to do with the number, not to mention his songs "One After 909," "Revolution 9," and "#9 Dream." Yoko was happy to have Julian fly immediately to New York, where John was shot, but was blunt in telling Cynthia to stay away.
  3. Some of the early chapters are a little unexciting, as they detail the bad guy John falling in love with the nice girl Cynthia at art school. But it picks up when she meets Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe, whose place John and Cynthia would borrow for their sexual encounters. She got along particularly well with Paul and Stuart, and one day after Stuart and Cynthia had innocently danced, John hauled off and hit her hard. She determined she would leave him then but clearly didn't.
  4. At age 5, John's aunt Mimi took him away from living with his mother Julia because Julia was living married with someone else and Mimi thought it was unfit for John.
  5. When Stuart Sutcliffe died of a brain hemmorage at the age of 22 in 1962, John always acted like he did when someone close to him died. He laughed uncontrollably. Then he would not talk about it for weeks or months and keep his emotions bottled up inside.

How does actual sharing fit into the sharing economy?

I recently moderated a panel on insurance for transportation options like Uber and shared vehicles at the Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago. I also wrote a couple of articles, including the one below and this one on Uber and sharing in middle-sized and small cities. Both originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

It’s safe to say that, in 2016, the sharing economy has gone mainstream. What’s funny about this is that what most people are referring to when we talk about this segment of the economy has little to do with sharing.
I was thinking about this while I rode my hotel’s “shared bicycle” ($22 for four hours) around Chicago prior to the start of this week’s Shared Mobility Summit (of which Mobility Lab is a media sponsor).
The driving forces for the sharing economy, when it comes to transportation, should be efficiency, reliability, traffic mitigation, and the appeal of non-driving options.
But Uber and Airbnb, arguably the two biggest names in the sharing economy, are at their core peer-to-peer businesses. Sure, Uber helps people who don’t live near transit have a better option than taking their own vehicles, and Airbnb can be more convenient and less expensive than staying in a hotel. But in the end, drivers and hosts are providing a service that costs their customers money.
This is not the essence of sharing as most people think of it. Uber and Airbnb are technologies that, with the spread of internet access, have allowed average, non-corporate people to make money from their resources. But there really isn’t any bartering going on, and it’s not “sharing our stuff” in the sense of enjoying portions of our things with each other.
Most importantly, we don’t want to miss the unprecedented opportunity for people to use limited resources more efficiently. It’s not UberX, but UberPool, that should be the focus – actual shared rides. It’s not car companies trying to put more vehicles on the road. It’s Turo, formerly Relay Rides, that lets people rent out their already existing and sitting-most-of-the-time vehicles. It’s Sameride, which is focusing on building critical mass for its carpooling route.
There’s a long way to go before the average household understands all of this. In a recent studyby the Insurance Research Council, 71 percent of American adults “report little familiarity” with the sharing economy, with a plurality of that group, 46 percent, saying they are “not at all familiar.”
Another major study, conducted by Pew, found that only 15 percent of Americans have used a ride-hailing app, and only 3 percent say they use them on a daily or weekly basis.
These are very intriguing, and somewhat stunning numbers to a city boy like myself, where the services are more commonly used and density creates more options. Doesn’t everyone like a deal? For instance, I stayed in an altogether-pleasant Airbnb in Pittsburgh this month for $90 during the University of Pittsburgh homecoming, when no hotel in the city core could be found for less than $350. There appears to be a lot of people overpaying to stay in hotels simply because “that’s what we’ve always done.”
It makes me wonder how old-school models like hotels, taxis, and transit are going to survive once a lot more people start realizing they have all these other options. Do they even need to survive? Have we simply been doing it all wrong all these years?
Perhaps part of the problem in reaching people might actually be technology. There are so many apps that do so many different things; maybe it’s no wonder that people default to the car over transit or the hotel over someone’s guest room. A new study from Xerox found that half of all respondents believe they will have one app for all their transportation needs by 2020. This sounds like wish fulfillment by people who want all these little players to go away or merge or something.
Maybe one app for carpooling, one app for car-sharing, and one app for ride-hailing is the model that would get more people into the sharing economy.
Finally, where does government fit into all of this? Promoting and incentivizing sharing that has a larger societal benefit seems like a good start. Since the market is so competitive, most start-ups aren’t sharing their data, another thing regulation could encourage. More open data could help planners, programmers, and others make the broader transportation network run more reliably.
Perhaps federal and state governments could usher in some incentives to get these services to open up and cooperate as part of a larger transportation system. If services are going to channel the nature of sharing, it should be to play a role in improving accessibility and equity too.
If most of the businesses and services being defaulted into the “sharing economy” category truly don’t fall into a more traditional definition of sharing, then perhaps it’s not too late to call the sector something else altogether. The Associated Press has already gotten the memo, last year instructing writers to refer to “ride-sharing” as “ride-hailing” instead.
But if these options truly begin to relieve traffic congestion, increase affordability and accessibility, and improve many of society’s other ills created by our current transportation situation, then we can truly begin to feel all warm-and-fuzzy inside the sharing economy.
Photo: A ride via Uber (Andrew Brackin, Flickr, Creative commons).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pittsburgh emerging as a transportation leader, still has work ahead

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab and parts of it were republished by Streetsblog as well.

Pittsburgh’s time to shine has come. The city has been thrust into the national spotlight, viewed by many transportation leaders as one of the nation’s promising blueprints for how cities can finally do transportation well.

But while visiting Pittsburgh last week, I had the chance to put Pittsburgh in context with what people outside of town think.
The positives:
  • Mayor Bill Peduto is a real mover-and-shaker, something any city that wants to retrofit its car culture must have.
  • Pittsburgh made it into the final seven for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge (which was awarded to Columbus, Ohio).
  • Mayor Peduto is hiring for a director of the just-announced city Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, which will think more holistically about the ways Pittsburgh uses its streets and public spaces.
  • Pittsburgh has become a testing ground for Uber’s autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear so far how much the citizenry actually embraces this, but you have to hand it to Peduto and city leaders for trying something – anything – that’s an improvement over our current car culture.
The challenges:
  • That car culture is certainly alive and kicking in Pittsburgh. Anecdotally, at least compared to the rapidly improving Washington, D.C., region, there seems to be considerable amounts of honking, unsafe maneuvers in crowded areas, and a general animosity towards people on foot and bicycles.
  • Several times, I walked along Forbes Avenue – a major one-way thoroughfare that runs east from downtown to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Walking along on the sidewalks or waiting at bus stations feels terrifying, with fast-moving buses and cars passing dangerously close by. This is a street loaded with college students, who are the keys to our future and arguably one of the city’s greatest calling cards. Wouldn’t Forbes Avenue be better served as a red carpet of sorts for tourists and students to see what a great city it is they are entering? Traffic-calming measures, better and more creative sidewalks and bus stops, and protected bike lanes are all desperately needed. (The same holds true for the parallel, westbound and equally as dangerous Fifth Avenue.)
  • I loved the 28X bus that takes visitors straight from the airport to downtown. But apparently not many other people love it, which is a shame. It only runs every 30 minutes and the buses I rode had passengers, but they were not so full that anyone had to stand. More frequent buses and some sustained marketing could help make it more popular, because once you arrive in downtown or Oakland, it can be really beneficial not to have a car.
  • Healthy Ride launched as Pittsburgh’s bikeshare system just over a year ago and has been successful enough to see pretty phenomenal expansion, from 12 stations to 50 and growing still. As a tourist, I enjoyed the system and was able to quickly register and take $2, 30-minute rides throughout my stay. The challenge for Pittsburgh is its hilly topography. The city could install inexpensive wayfinding signage for the hills, similar to San Francisco’s The Wiggle, which directs riders to the easiest route around several hills.
I have a lot of hope that these challenges will be met. Pittsburgh is a hotbed of talented minds thinking about the city’s transportation issues.

In my time there, I was lucky enough to represent Mobility Lab and Arlington, Va., in presenting to two groups about how to identify and influence the decision-makers who can get things accomplished, and initiating little things, like pilot projects, that can add up to successfully changing resident’s perceptions.
First, I spoke to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University as part of a speaker series hosted by Traffic21, a group focused on transit technologies that is probably as close as Pittsburgh gets to having its own “Mobility Lab.”
Then, I spoke at the 4th Annual Oakland Transportation Fair to transportation experts from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The fair, at the University of Pittsburgh, had exhibits featuring fascinating tools and products, free rides in an autonomous vehicle, and was organized by the Oakland Transportation Management Association, which is itself directed by one of the city’s transportation leaders, Mavis Rainey.
Forbes Avenue doesn’t seem to be as dangerous through the Carnegie Mellon campus as it is around the University of Pittsburgh. But it’s encouraging that CMU’s chief campus architect Bob Reppe told me all about the plans for that stretch of roadway. PennDOT is renovating it as acomplete street, with features that recognize the existence of pedestrians and cyclists. Where once there was an underused parking lot, there will soon be a much more attractive welcoming space to the campus, and parking will be placed underground and out of sight.
It won’t happen overnight, but for rebuilding a city that’s better for everyone – drivers included – there is a formidable braintrust in place to keep Pittsburgh heading in the right direction.
Photo: A bike lane on Clemente Bridge, installed in 2015 (David Kent, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fountain of Youth springs eternal in Youth and Zootopia

The fountain of youth can be a powerful theme in the movies, especially as we get a little older and more aware of the swift mortality that is our lives.

This fact makes the Michael Caine-Harvey Keitel vehicle, entitled Youth, a spellbinding work. While it's difficult to take one's eyes off the movie, it's not for want of trying. Youth is slow, with a barrage of cliche lines (that mostly somehow work well), and often seems it would be best suited for the stage. It's also a little disorienting, perhaps intentionally, as for most of the film the two lead actors seem to be at a strange home for rich people (young and old) who have fallen on difficult times. But it turns out are were only vacationing at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

At the 2015 European Awards, it took home best movie, best lead actor for Caine, and best director for Italian Paolo Sorrentino. And the content about losing once greatness or even ability to show talent (see the stunning depiction of once-masterful soccer star Diego Maradona) is intriguing, as are the many strange fantastical sequences with the lead characters looking back at various aspects of their lives.

On the most primal level, I could watch anything with Caine and be at least somewhat entertained.

But much more uplifting is a film for the youth, Zootopia, which I finally got around to seeing. The animals zoom around the big city in a quest to eradicate stereotyping, police profiling, and racism. It's a pretty great message to be teaching our kids at this point (or really any point) in history. And Disney has once again mastered the art of entertaining both children and adults with a raft of double meanings throughout.

Youth: 3 out of 5 stars
Zootopia: 4 out of 5 stars