Rebranding cities

I just came across The Londonist’s London Rebranded: The Capital’s Changing Names, Mapped:

80 years ago, the word Fitzrovia was yet to be coined. 70 years ago, nobody talked about the ‘South Bank’. 50 years ago, Chinatown would conjure images of Limehouse. 40 years ago, Canary Wharf was little-known outside the docks. 10 years ago, nobody said ‘Midtown’. Today, nobody says Midtown.

Nothing is eternal in a city like London, and that includes the place names. New Cross was once known as Hatcham. The village of Garratt, famous for its mock mayoral elections, long ago vanished into the sprawl of Wandsworth.

In recent years, the pace of change, or proposed change, has accelerated. Neighbourhoods right across the capital are looking for pseudonyms, as property developers, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the occasional cultural or residents’ group seek swankier names to attract attention. The most egregious example is Midtown, coined a half decade ago by the local BID to encapsulate the traditional areas of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles. Many more examples are competing for recognition, from Tyburnia to London’s Luxury Quarter. Some areas are pluripotent with possibilities. Londonist’s office, for example, might be located in Tech City, the Silicon Roundabout, SoSho or Hoxditch. Or maybe just plain Old Street.

A March 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible covered similar ground:

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames, or if you want to get in the spirit of the thing: AcNa’s for short.

These sorts of rebranding and renaming activities are signs of gentrification, plain and simple. In 2011, New York politician Hakeem Jeffries proposed the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Act’ to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement:

The bill wasn’t successful.

Looking back over history, different places are more or less open to this sort of change, but it always happens incredibly slowly. In the case of London, place names only tend to change (or at least catch on) with the arrival of a new Underground station.

I wondered about the cartographers’ role. How do they label areas? Where are the boundaries when talking about places commonly referred to only by compass direction (e.g. SoHo in Manhattan is short for South of Houston Street)?

In the UK, the neighbourhood/city/county boundaries are of differing levels of importance. I live in Milton Keynes, and the neighbourhoods here are very clearly defined by the grid system of roads. There is no confusion where, say, Heelands ends and Bradwell Common begins. As made clear in the links above, other cities don’t have this clear definition.

The boundaries of neighbourhoods have have partial influence in terms of some public services, like waste collection and school catchment areas. But most key services (police, fire, ambulance) go on county lines which tend to be more established and agreed.

If we were to engage our neighbourhood residents on boundaries and names, a participatory and democratic approach might be to:

  • Consider historical information. Who were the settlers or early established populations living in the area, and what terms did they use? (In fact: what languages did they speak?)
  • Take into account plurality of voices. Some locals will side with property developers and want a new place name if it means their properties increase in value. Others may focus on status and/or self-identity and will disagree. What other groups exist? Which are the largest?
  • Consult user-generated content and ‘consensus’ sites. Asking 100 people to define their neighbourhood is likely to result in 100 different answers. How has Wikipedia been updated over the years? Who has been doing it? What maps have been created using Google Map Maker? (Not that this approach is immune to error.)

In any case, things in cities do not change quickly, and anyone who hopes they will (like overzealous property developers) are kidding themselves. Designer Mitchell Joachim, in this conversation with writer Darren Anderson, is talking about the slow progress of cities through changes in their architecture, but I think the same thinking is applicable to these sorts of name and boundary changes:

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city.

Joachim goes on to consider the last time this sort of city branding worked—the creation of garden cities:

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that?

But that’s one too many threads pulled upon for now.

The best anagram in English

Mark Dominus on The Universe of Discourse has (fully) explored all the anagrams in Webster’s Second International dictionary.

The longest pair (cholecystoduodenostomy and duodenocholecystostomy) isn’t necessarily the most interesting, as both words are made up of three units (cholecysto, duodeno, stomy) in different orders.

So he came up with a way of scoring pairs based on the degree of rearrangement required:

This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.

From this algorithm, the most interesting anagram pair is 15 letters long, with only two letters that stay next to each other. Go see what it is.

Music and the creative process

Cabel Sasser (co-founder of software house Panic) also makes music. In Stagehand: The Music, he discusses the process of writing the main theme for Stagehand, a game produced by Panic colleague Neven Mrgan and friend Matt Comi.

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Sasser’s piece shows it goes from humming/scatting a few seconds’ worth of a tune into Apple’s Music Memos app:

Through the arrangement and recording:

To the final piece, which you can buy.

It’s a fascinating story of how to nurture a germ of an idea all the way to completion, not least because of Sasser’s acknowledged inability to do it all himself:

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

I was also fascinated by the methodology (there’s no other word to use) used by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to build songs. It involves semi-plagiarism of chord progressions, anagrams, morning pages, syllable counts, databases and democratic band arrangements.

Not necessarily what I would have expected from the writer of Pinkerton, an album that soundtracked my late teenage years, which I rather hoped had arrived fully-formed in his head. Perhaps it did and his process has changed since then. Or perhaps that’s overly romanticising the idea of creativity.

In any case, Cuomo’s approach is an interesting example of using a process and a structure to foster the creative process, and there’s something to learn from it. (I’m somewhat reminded of Frank Chimero’s How to have an idea, which he seems to have removed from his site, so here’s a copy.)

Lastly, an anecdote about where the “where do we go?” breakdown in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine came from:

In his autobiography, Slash tells us the true history of the “where do we go” breakdown — credit goes to Spencer Proffer, a music producer that the band was considering for their album. Proffer was the one who thought that the song needed a breakdown after that guitar solo — the only question was what it would sound like. And then, Axl started thinking out loud, as recounted by Slash:

[Proffer] was right . . .  but we had no idea what we wanted to do there. All of us sat around the control room, listening to it over and over, devoid of a clue.

“Where do we go” Axl said, more to himself than the rest of us. “Where do we go now? . . . Where do we go?”

“Hey,” Spencer said, turning the music down. “Why don’t you just try singing that?”

And so became that dramatic breakdown.

My musical activities these days mostly consist of trying to find 10 minutes in the day to spend with a guitar: half-remembering songs I’ve learned before and playing around with whatever else pops into my head. It’s disjointed, unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. An approach like Sasser’s or Cuomo’s might yield more interesting and enjoyable results.

New Creative Commons search in beta

Creative Commons has launched a new search tool. The search covers images from Rijksmuseum, Flickr, 500px, the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Eventually it could cover the entire Commons: approximately 1.1 billion literary works, videos, photos, audio tracks, scientific research and content in other formats. Hugely useful for web publishers everywhere.

Combating misogyny with information 

Andrew McMillen for Backchannel:

Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice — go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.

When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.

But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

I hardly need to state how stupid this sort of abuse is, but what a response. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God

Tara Isabella Burton writing for The Atlantic:

Even in the United Kingdom, where secular bachelor’s programs in theology are more common, prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins have questioned their validity in the university sphere. In a 2007 letter to the editor of The Independent, Dawkins argues for the abolishment of theology in academia, insisting that “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.”

Such a shift, of course, is relatively recent in the history of secondary education. Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others. So, too, several of the great American universities. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alike were founded with the express purpose of teaching theology—one early anonymous account of Harvard’s founding speaks of John Harvard’s ,“dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches”and his dream of creating an institution to train future clergymen to “read the original of the Old and New Testament into the Latin tongue, and resolve them logically.”

Universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton no longer exist, in part or in whole, to train future clergymen. Their purpose now is far broader. But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.

Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own). The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

Yet, for me, the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth. I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two.

Emphasis mine, as I’m currently thinking and reading about generalism and breadth vs. depth of knowledge. Working in a university means these thoughts occur rather often.

Blackboards smudge productively

Peter Biello’s Granite Geek: Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much? for All Things Considered:

And you write that this doctor that you interviewed carries around his own chalk.

Oh, absolutely. And that is not unusual at all. My son is in a Ph.D program in mathematics and he talks about some of his professors that carry around their own chalk. Particularly colored chalk. You want different colors to emphasize different parts of the formula, the equations, or the proofs you’re doing.  And if you have your own chalk – you happen to like the mount of dust produces, or you like how the line goes – you carry around your own because you never know. You show up and they have crummy chalk. That would be horrible.

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.

Eastern Bloc matchbox labels

The Instagram account @matchbloc collects 1950s and 60s Eastern European matchbox labels:

Mosty – healthy refreshments. (Czechoslovakia)

A post shared by @matchbloc on

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas! – Lots more to come in 2017.

A post shared by @matchbloc on

Seasons. (Czechoslovakia)

A post shared by @matchbloc on

'Watch military films' (Czechoslovakia)

A post shared by @matchbloc on

The account is run by Jane McDevitt, Partner at Maraid Design, and Neal Whittington of Present & Correct—both based some 1,000+ miles away in the UK.

From Jane’s 2007 post on the topic:

My interest in matchbox labels lies primarily in the design but also the concept that these small images can communicate to a large number of people.

1950s and 60s Eastern European labels captivate me most. Why did this area of the world embrace modern design and imagery when many countries, including Britain, still preferred the Victorian aesthetic?

Subject matter is also fascinating. As with advertisers, governments were quick to realise the potential of these far reaching messages. Propaganda was popular but so too was public service announcements including fire safety, hygiene, money saving, alcohol abuse and road safety.

This combination of subject and design has left behind an invaluable archive of its time.

A post on It’s Nice That suggests that a book is on its way.

It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast

Nicholas St. Fleur writes for the New York Times about Geckolepis megalepis, a species recently discovered in Madagascar with a remarkable way of escaping danger:

The fish-scale gecko has a freaky way of eluding danger. When snatched by an attacker, it rips off its scales and skin so it can slip away unscathed. Basically, it streaks to survive.

“It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast,” said Mark D. Scherz, a doctoral candidate at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The torn-away scales reveal the gecko’s pink flesh, and through its translucent tissue you can see its spine and blood vessels. “It’s bizarre, it’s really surprising, and it’s quite uncomfortable when you see them,” he said.

It may seem like a gruesome getaway, but it doesn’t hurt the lizard. It loses its skin and scales with extreme ease and regenerates them in full a few weeks later. The new scales grow in with a different pattern than the previous ones, but other than that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals.