Stupid Machine Tricks

It’s been a mantra since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution­—machines produce goods and services more cheaply, more efficiently, and of higher quality. They also do things that people don’t want to do. That’s so true that it’s become an article of faith that’s never questioned. Too bad, because it’s not always the case.

How many machines doe it take to fix a sidewalk?
As I was strolling through town a few days ago, I saw four examples of how we’ve become so tied to industrial gear that we’ve made simple tasks expensive, inefficient, and environmentally unsound. The first and second of these involved the use of a riding mower. I take it as a given that no power mower is energy efficient but, in the same way that I think a rancher or plumber might actually have a need for a low-mileage pick-up truck, so too do I think that people who live in the country, grounds crews, and lawn maintenance companies make their jobs much easier by using such machines. I have to say, though, when you use a rider mower in spaces so small that you have to reverse out of them, efficiency bleeds into stupidity.

I saw that. There is a row of three down-market apartment buildings on West Street in Northampton whose frontage is devoted to macadam parking lots. The buildings are separated from each other by strips of land about the width of a desk and a depth of about twenty-five feet. There’s no lawn; not much grows in the shadows. Still, leaves blow into the spaces, which was what the mower was picking up. The space was so narrow and required so many reversals that it took about three times as long as it would have taken with a rake.

Speaking of rakes, it’s a shame about the rake shortage, isn’t it?  Of all the inventions of the late 20th century, leaf blowers may be among the dumbest. They are loud, smoke-belching fuel hogs, but my main beef with them is that they’re very inefficient unless one is seeking to dislodge leaves from bushes, gutters, or garden beds. Here’s what I observed on the Smith campus—grounds crew personnel walking up and down blowing leafs into central piles. First, they could have done all of this with rakes and gotten some aerobic benefit that wouldn’t have made all that noise at 7 in the morning. Second, those piles took a half hour to make but only 10 minutes to rake. Third, another machine—a riding mower with a bag—came by to collect the piles. If you’re going to run the mower/bagger anyhow, why bother with the stupid blowers? Insofar as I can see the main purpose of leaf blowers is to scatter all the mulch that was carefully put down in the spring.

Still, those two projects were practically models of economy compared with a small project on a town road. Crews needed to get into a section of the water lines via an entry point (which we used to call manhole covers). In the old days, this would have meant some burly person with a jackhammer chiseled away the macadam enough so the cover could be prised up. After the job was done, another one or two people would have come by to restore a hot tar sealant to the cover. Not anymore! No! It now requires a mammoth vehicle that’s about the size of a water driller to pulverize the road surface so that one guy can open the cover. The drill takes out about four feet of the road. When the job is done, another truck arrives and several people throw some crushed stone into the hole and place a red cone over it until it can be resurfaced. That, of course, requires a paving machine, and then a steamroller. Good grief! No wonder the average road cost is now a million bucks a mile!

Don’t get me started on how inefficient and overly expensive it was to replace a section of a downtown cracked sidewalk. My dad used to do this with a sledge, 2 x 4 forms, some fresh gravel, Sakrete that he and another guy mixed in a wheelbarrow, and a pair of trowels. Now we’re talking one machine to break the pavement, another with gravel, a small backhoe  to level the gravel, and a cement mixer. They’ve not yet figured out how to replace the trowels. They have figured out how to write huge invoices.

Maybe a good way to restore health to the US economy and rebuild its infrastructure is to stop spending so much money on toys and more on labor. I’m no Luddite—machines can do wonderful things. But they don’t always make sense.   


Birdman: Best of 2014?

BIRDMAN (2014)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Fox Searchlight, 119 minutes, R (language)
* * * * *

Wrap the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and perhaps Best Supporting Actress as well. Not since Synecdoche, New York (2008) have I seen a film this intelligent, provocative, and gloriously weird. At last––a film that's both playful and has a triple-digit IQ! See this one with friends as you'll be debating and discussing it for weeks to come.

The set up is deceptively simple: ageing actor Riggan Thomson(Michael Keaton) is directing a Broadway revival of a play based upon a Raymond Carver short story collection, What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Love. Riggan wants to change his image as the public knows him for one thing and one thing only: his blockbuster role as Birdman, a comic book superhero brought to the silver screen. Here we get a glimpse of what director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Amores perroes) intends to do. This film is everything thing a summer blockbuster isn't: complicated, reflective, ambiguous, and magical in ways that originate in the mind, not in computer-generated f/x. Don't look for simple good guy/bad guy scenarios in Birdman, and pay no attention to promo labels such as "black comedy," as there's way more going on here.

Riggan needs a hit for more than his career–he's bombed in his marriage to his soul mate (Amy Ryan), has been a lousy father to daughter Sam (Emma Stone), is in the process of driving away girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), drinks too much, and is slowly either going insane or being overwhelmed by real superpowers. If you needed a play for the Apocalypse, his adaptation of Raymond Carver would be it. Especially when his lead actor suffers an accident (or did he make it happen?) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) arrives the day before dress rehearsal. Mike might be a tortured genius, a total jerk, or Beelzebub. His creative destruction might be pushing Riggan to confront his demons, urge him to surrender to them, or push the poor sap over the edge. Similarly, Mike might be exactly what Sam needs to make her lose her self-destructive attitude, or he might be providing the ammunition for her to lock and load. He could be the force that turns Lesley (Naomi Watts) into a real actress, or he might just be a perverse satyr who can only get it up when he's on stage. He might be a font of wisdom, or maybe just a fountain of egoistic bullshit.

That's the thing about this film. It evokes Fight Club in the ways it subverts what we see. Or is it what we think we see? There's a sign on Riggan's dressing room mirror that says, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing." Maybe. Watch Keaton's barroom dustup with Broadway critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) and get back to me. Check out Riggan's dialogues with his Birdman alter ego (or is it Carver?) and let me know. Can Riggan fly, or does he crash and burn? Can he act, or is he really just the hack he thinks he is. When he stands on the stage and says, "I don't exist," does he? 

This is a beautifully written film (Iñárritu, Nicholás Giacobone, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.) and Iñárritu's direction is more imaginative than any superhero film you've ever seen. Michael Keaton is a tour de force who must simultaneously assume the roles of possessed director, failed lover, ineffectual parent, tyrant, shaman, charlatan, and wounded self-doubter. (It's hard not to muse upon Robin Williams as we watch him.) Edward Norton is always wonderful and he's at his incendiary best in Birdman. Iñárritu chose well for a film framed around comic book superheroes. Keaton, of course, was Batman and he reduxes that voice for some of the film's creepier sequences. Norton, on the other hand, was Hulk and co-starred in Fight Club. Emma Stone also has a breakout performance in Birdman in a role that might well be titled Millennial Forced to Grow Up. In a stunning departure from usual American movie fare, all of the secondary actors are strong: Watts, Duncan, Ryan, Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis as Jake, who might be Riggan's best friend or might be just another sycophant hoping to cash in.

Is a thing just a thing? You'll be arguing over this film's ending for quite some time—one that I confess originally left me dissatisfied until having lunch with three other people, one of whom had an interpretation I find compelling. Yes, it's that kind of film. It's already been honored at Venice, where it carried off several major awards, including the Golden Lion. I'm ready to anoint the film, Iñárritu, Keaton, Norton, and Stone.  

Rob Weir


Restore Democracy Locally

Last Tuesday was a very bad day for progressives nationally, but it wasn't so bad locally. No, I don't mean gun control bills or approval of recreational marijuana use. I was cheered by something that happened in Northampton, Massachusetts–the City Council approved step one of Mayor David Narkewicz's plan to reorganize city government. The mayor's first target was the much-despised Department of Public Works, a body viewed by many locals as an arrogant, unregulated fiefdom.

Northampton strikes back!
Before November 6, the DPW got a budget from the city that, in turn, had very little say in how the money was spent. The DPW took its marching orders from the Board of Public Works, which had the power to set local water rates, sign contracts with private firms, set DPW policy, and determine which projects it would take on and the scope of those projects. Got that? An unelected body headed by an unelected director took orders from an unelected advisory board. I cast no aspersions at any current official, but let's just say that there's high potential for abuses within such a non-democratic, idiosyncratic structure. Mayor Narkewicz put DPW under direct city control and one only hopes that all city boards will be similarly stripped of independence.

It's important to know how boards across America attained such autonomy in the first place. It's not the fault of any living person–unless there's a retired city official of about 120 years of age somewhere. Autonomous bodies were the brainchild of Progressive Era (roughly 1901-17) reformers. Lots of useful regulations were passed in the Progressive Era, the first of three major government-directed reform periods in American history. (The other two are the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s.) Progressives had numerous blind spots, though; among them a worshipful trust in experts and an abiding fear of socialism.

Progressives wanted to streamline government and make it more "efficient." Efficiency is a good thing, right? Well, not always; efficiency is most quickly achieved autocratically. Let's face it, democracy takes time and that's inefficient. Moreover, The People–a group elected officials tend to distrust mightily even as they wax poetic about them–often have different ideas about how things should work. Sparked partly by wishing to counter the corruption that permeated late 19th century city government and partly by blind trust, many Progressive Era municipal reformers turned to what is known as commission-style government. That's what most places have these days–a mayor and a small board or city council that acts as a small Congress for the municipality. So far, so good. But what happened next wasn't so good. Progressives trusted "experts" so much that they allowed them to reorganize major parts of city government into independent and semi-autonomous boards. After all, wouldn't you want a civil engineer to run your water works? No–you wouldn't! You want that person's expertise, but you do not want him or her assuming political power.

Commission governments often become shadow governments inside of the elected bodies; in some cases, they are the real government in terms of wielding actual decision-making power. Elected officials often like this. After all, if the "experts" make the hard decisions and the electorate is angry about those actions, elected officials are insulated from voter wrath. (That's why, by the way, Congress set up an 'independent' commission to determine military base closings. They never have to go on the record and vote on them!) Fine, but we don't elect city councilors and mayors to pass the proverbial and literal buck. If your town has a passel of independent boards, it means you as a citizen have little input into their decisions. In many ways, it hardly matters who is on the town council as their only real power is to vote upon the budget of boards such as DPW. 

Nor was commission government entirely about efficiency. Between 1912 and 1991, 340 American cities elected socialist mayors, councilors, and other officials. In many cases, these socialists spearheaded the municipalization of city services such as water, sewer, electricity, power, transportation, and landfills. That is, they went from being private enterprises to being city-owned. Imagine a world in which the city regulated the power rates, not a group of investors. That happened and is still around in many places. Most of the time rates are lower in city-owned enterprises. Forget efficiency, you sure can get better rates when you remove profit from the equation. That's why so many cities are now looking into things such as their own Internet and cable services. (I dream of the day I can say sayonara to Comcast!)

I could cite numerous ways in which social democracy is superior to for-profit enterprises, but let me emphasize the democracy side of things. It's simply undemocratic to allow boards serving the public to act autonomously from that public. Moreover, it's an abrogation of duty for councils and mayors to allow this. It is, if I may be so blunt, their job to tell city boards what to do, not vice versa. Kudos to Mayor Narkewicz.

I'd also like to suggest that those of you who live elsewhere should put the heat to local government to follow Northampton's lead. Do it for democracy's sake. Maybe we can restore some sanity to America one town at a time!