Recent Reading (Online)

  • Infrastructural Voodoo Doll from Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which summarizes and expands on Manaugh’s excellent Atlantic article on the new intelligence gathering unit at LAX. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Atlantic piece, also quoted on the blog:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

  • Situational Assessment 2015 by Jordan Greenhall on Medium almost two years ago now. It is a wide lens assessment of human civilization at this moment, and makes for particularly bracing reading after the 2016 US election. A taste:

After WWII, we engineered a deep retrofit with a whole set of new technologies (the welfare state, operational planning, mass production, scientific engineering, etc.) and this worked. Wonderfully. Population exploded, lifestyle transformed. We went to the moon.

But not all was well in the State of Denmark. Our late 20th Century innovations managed to carry us through to somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. At this point we again started to see the edges of our “civilization toolkit” giving away and we made a fateful choice: stability in exchange for adaptive fitness. We doubled down. And since then, every time that the foundations started to shake, we’ve consistently chosen “more of the same.” The result is that we’ve been living in an increasingly delusional systemic environment.

At this point, it is increasingly evident that every single one of our social institutions are in what I call the “rococo stage” or the “root bound” stage: they are complex, heavy, ineffective, poorly designed and essentially impossible to change for the better. Education, healthcare, policing, legislative and regulatory decision making, wealth distribution, monetary system, etc, etc. You name it.

  • On Progress and Historical Change by Ada Palmer on Ex Urbe. This is another wide-lens look at our current moment, with a focus on the notion of progress and how change over time looks. It’s also a great exposition of Whig History, Great Forces history v. Human Agency history, and has a great description of a mock papal election Palmer conducted with her students last year that reads like an allegory for our current moment in history. Palmer is one of my favorite writers on history (she’s also pretty good at science fiction) Here is how she frames the piece:

I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.

  • The Real Reason Your City Has No Money from, makes a strong case against urban infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus. on the dilemma of replacing ageing infrastructure. “Thus, Lafayette has a predicament. Infrastructure was supposed to serve them. Now they serve it.”

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