Just like that, we’re a third of the way through 2017. I’m traveling the new two weeks, first to NYC/DC for some Sustainable Development Goals work, and second to Chengdu, China to meet with academic partners at Sichuan University. So now’s a good time to catch up on reflecting upon work, ideas, and art from the last few weeks.
My Stanford project-based learning class this quarter has been focused on a 500-acre district in Monterrey, MX called DistritoTec, and the experience has been exhilarating so far, kicked off by an enjoyable trip down to Monterrey with students over Spring Break, and since then, progressing nicely through mindsets of systems thinking and toolsets like geospatial analysis. Two years ago I did another SUS project with partners in Juarez, MX, and that culminated in a presentation to the Subsecretary of Energy in Mexico City. Besides some old family trips to the more touristy coastlines, Monterrey is now the sixth place I’ve been to in Mexico, and it’s the place I feel most comfortable. The undergraduates at Monterrey Tec were a joy to hang out with and reinforced the value I place on cross-cultural learning and making friends and acquaintances across borders. We discussed Trump, immigration, and the wall here and there, but mostly it was nice to just let the idiocy and dishonesty of American politics dissipate amidst genuine and authentic immersion and experience. Monterrey does not feel nearly as sprawly as Juarez but probably only because of the illusion of proximal mountain ranges; in reality it is just as large and stretches by its fingers. It felt like a mix of some of the ghettoness of Juarez with some of the cosmopolitanism of Mexico City. One wealthier area, San Pedro, felt strangely like any suburban office park from Southern California. Pretty much the only new Spanish slang I’ve picked up is “fresa”, which I think is essentially the same as basic, as in “strawberry girl, basic girl” (and so much funner to say). Luckily, I got no food poisoning this time; unfortunately my red meat tally suffered a massive spike due to delicious arrachera, carne asada, and cabrito, but overall my sustainable diet is still looking good compared to past years — I’ll try to quantify a preliminary result around the halfway mark of this year.
Otherwise at Stanford the most exciting progress has been the further realization of the SUS vision amongst faculty, the SDG independent project which I’ll discuss after the NYC trip, and the Stockton project, in which four students have been killing it in the Bank of America’s Low Income Housing Challenge. The project is a 1.6 acre dense mixed-use development which will revitalize a blighted part of South Stockton which I’ve been working with since 2014. It’s a joy to see the project continue to move forward through major political and legal hurdles, and to see the spirit of grassroots, community-driven urbanism thrive in Stockton. I really haven’t blogged as much as I would like to about my developing ideas around urbanism and urban systems, but I’ve been thinking about starting that up, not here but in the formal SUS blog at sus.stanford.edu; I’ll announce that if/when it comes to fruition.
At Nueva, my Advanced Architecture studio doesn’t move nearly as quickly as Stanford’s class but it’s still always great to see younger students blossom and grow in their passion and command of design. The class “studio” called 131 East (after the address of the school) has worked on three different competitions so far, and is just starting its final project which is a design research project on tiny homes as transitional housing for the homeless in Oakland. The work is not quite finalized in terms of documentation, but if you want to take a look, check out 131east.com. Unfortunately it is getting harder and harder each week for me to see myself being able to commit to another year of teaching there, with all the work building at Stanford, Stockton, and my new nonprofit venture. Currently the plan is to cancel the Intro to Architecture class in the Fall, but to run Advanced again in the Spring, especially for some students who weren’t able to take it this semester; but if I do that, there will be no path for new students to get into Advanced. A satisficing solution awaits to be seen.
I was really gungho about writing about intellectual dishonesty right at the start of the year, and building out an ethical framework that I could then use to critique political news. It turns out I can barely even keep up with the news itself (nowadays spoon-feeding myself NPR’s Up First, NPR Politics, KQED’s California Report, Vox’s The Weeds, and WYNC’s On the Media), so I’ve had to just plain give up on the possibility of committing 5+ hours of my week to an “intellectual honesty” project. Now I believe that, for most of us, there’s a converse project we should focus on, which is avoiding intellectual distraction. It really isn’t worth my time to talk about Trump on a day to day basis, especially when half of what’s happening out of Washington and viral media is literally designed obfuscation from real issues. I also still feel the same way as I did about the value of big protests, largely being a self-congratulatory preaching to the crowd that checks off a box on your Instagram feed. If I’m not going to be in national politics myself, I’d much rather focus my own energy on empowering local governments with tools, infrastructure, and policy, and never let any Kendall moment make me feel satisfied.
I will say that I do occasionally fantasize about what I would do if I could meet Trump, and if it were being filmed. So far my strategy is to act like he’s not even there, skip right over him to Melania in a line of handshaking. On matters like this I still take my inspiration from an incredible moment in The Fountainhead, where the nemesis asks Roark what Roark thinks of him, to which Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”
OK, on to culture. I haven’t been reading as ravenously as when I fell in love with the Three Body Problem trilogy (which I’m still thinking about using as inspiration for a short story); all I’ve read since the last post is The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, which wasn’t as strong as The Expanding Circle but was still morally nourishing, and The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs which surprised me with the originality and relevance of its ideas, like the breakdown of our assumption that rural life came before urban life.
I’ve been to quite a few concerts in the last few weeks, including an entertaining Foxygen concert, an absolutely gorgeous Whitney concert except for standing behind a 7 foot tall dude, and a spellbounding Hans Zimmer concert in a packed Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which brought me right back to my days of playing percussion to movie soundtracks in high school symphony orchestra and concert band. This past week I also got to see Hamilton, which, unfortunately, did not exceed my expectations. The first half, like the first half of the soundtrack, was excellent in its pacing and originality, but the second half really dragged and dulled. The cast also had some letdowns compared to the original recording cast. But for those who like hip hop lyricism and the spectacle of immaculately composed entertainment, I still recommend it highly; just don’t feel like you have to be in a rush to see it. Wicked, Fun Home, and Les Miserables top it on my list.
For music, I’ve mostly still been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s excellent DAMN. but added two really great songs to my monthly mix, “Mildenhall” from The Shin’s latest album and “Gwan” a new single from Rostam, which is absolutely gorgeous. Humanz from Gorillaz dropped this week but was a bit of a letdown past the first few exciting tracks that were released. In many ways the band is just a backdrop for a bunch of interesting new acts that edge them slightly away from their signature spooky funky hip hop into Disclosure-esque house, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but ultimately makes the album feel like a dance party playlist. There is nothing that soars like “Up on Melancholy Hill” or “Stylo” from Plastic Beach, or like the originals. My rating: 3.5/5
For movies, as of last night I think I have a preliminary top 5 of 2017 that really excited me, all genre-defying in their scope and solid in their execution. First, Get Out, which I’ve talked about before, is an absolute must-see and says the right things in the right way about race. Second, Raw is a French-Belgian cannibal film that just blew me away in its ambience and sensuality and really got under my skin in thinking about the real psychology of the condition. Third, Trainspotting 2 is a small but solid Danny Boyle film that tactfully explored the power of decades of real-time growth in old characters, in much the same way as Linklater does in his films. Fourth, Logan cemented its place alongside The Dark Knight as an elite class of superhero film that enriches the overall genre’s renaissance. And fifth, Colossal is a gaiju film unlike any you have ever even come close to imagining, and spins a very similar trick as Get Out but with social themes of drug abuse, small-town isolationism, and self-actualization.