Jefferson Not an Asshole

The review by Edward Rothstein of the show in Washington DC about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves completed a loop for me. Rothstein, a writer I would label a neo-conservative, wrote a courageous article whose conclusion I endorse. Living a wise and good life usually involves doing the best you can within an imperfect or even corrupt system. It does not usually involve being a revolutionary. Thomas Jefferson did the best he could within a corrupt system – slavery — and both he and his slaves arguably had better lives because of it. That’s the conclusion Edward Rothstein comes to in his review of the exhibit in Washington about Jefferson. Had Jefferson been a revolutionary or a true radical, he would left his plantation and become a hermit or something. (I know from reading that it probably wasn’t even legally possible for him to have freed his slaves, but he could have simply walked away from his nice life.) That probably would not have been a good thing, neither for him, nor his slaves, nor the rest of us. But he receives the condemnation of history for the devil’s bargains he made. Of course earlier in his life, in 1776, Jefferson did choose the radical path. He chose to take up arms against his government, and endorse the spillage of blood. Was that a hard decision? Was it even the right one? I sometimes wonder, given what I have read about the roots of the American revolution. Government under Great Britain was not a tyranny. For my own life, I’ll try to choose less the option of saying, “oh the system is corrupt.” Systems are always corrupt. The point is can you work within it, or work to change it. Occasionally the times may demand a complete rejection of something, but those times are rare. Alex

We Need Woody To Remind Us How To Share

I was at a block party on Saturday, which, being in Brooklyn, had a band playing on a stoop that were pretty damn good. One of the band members, before playing Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” introduced the famous song by telling a story about Guthrie, who was the folk singer from the 1930s onward that inspired Bob Dylan and hundreds of other folkies. Anyway, the band member said that Guthrie had a sign posted when he played, or outside his door, that said something like, Anyone Who Reproduces In Of These Songs In Full Or On Part Is A Mighty Good Friend Of Mine! Boy, that attitude is in short supply. It’s clear that the copyright, patent and trademark systems of intellectual property have become perverse distortions of their original intent. Rather than inspire and reward innovation and creativity, these systems now almost certainly impede innovation and creativity. This is because the courts with some help from Congress have defined intellectual property so rigidly and expansively, that the typical process of creativity is short changed. One can’t invent a new song, a new device or a new piece of writing because every where one turns you are stepping on someone’s legally defined property rights. What’s helpful to learn is that this is not an entirely new situation. With patents, I was just reading in Richard White’s great new book, Railroaded, 19th century railroads benefited for the first few decades of a culture and practice of open sharing. Engineers and firemen would modify engines and fireboxes on the spot, and these inventions were swapped around and evolved. White compared it to the open source system among software developers now. Later though, this practiced faded out as companies began to patent their inventions more systematically, and this impeded progress in railroad development. Something similar, although in reverse order, occurred in the early 20th century when the Wright Brothers and the Glenn Curtiss were both struggling to develop commercially viable aircraft. The Wrights, who had been the first to fly a manned plane, sued Curtiss for patent infringement, and much of the normal process of innovation was stymied. Under the pressure of World War I, the federal government got the Wrights, Curtiss and other airplane manufacturers to form a “patent pool,” so inventions could be freely traded and innovation proceed more quickly. Would such an arrangement happen today. At the moment, despite some bright spots, the environment is way too restrictive. Documentary filmmakers now often edit reality to take out any logos or trademarks on someone’s T-shirt, for fear of being sued for illegal use of intellectual property. Mickey Mouse will be providing royalties to Disney when the last sun burns out, I wager. Much of the tech world competes to patent anything and everything. What we should remember about intellectual property is that it is a social good. It exists only because we as a society say it should. That being the case, we should remember, as a society, to continually ask whether these systems are living up to the reasons for their existence: improving society as a whole.

The Future of Transportation, And Thus Our Cities

The Future of Transportation

Will the auto and airplane reign supreme?


By Alex Marshall

With the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, the political scientist Francis Fukiyama caused a sensation with an essay called “The End of History?” It postulated that, with the relative collapse of Communism, the struggle among rival political systems had ended with a permanent victory for liberal, democratic capitalism. All that was left to do was to refine it.

Is something similar happening with the way we get around? Have we reached “the End of History” with transportation? Will the current system of automobile and airplane travel reign supreme’for now and for centuries hence? Or will something new come along to remake our world, as it has in the past?

Why We Shoot Each Other

By Alex Marshall
April 2001

Some school kid will shoot some other school kids again soon, and thus provide an adequate “hook” for this article. I was worried that it had been too long since the last schoolyard massacre – at least several weeks – for people to care about what I say on the subject. But I needn’t worry. Another will be along soon.

It’s difficult to identify causes or cures for the random violence that erupts in our schools, malls and office buildings. I would like to suggest some that are perhaps less intuitive than gun control or less violence on television, valid as these may be.

The Computer And The City

Written in 1995
by Alex Marshall

When the computerized letter sorter at the central post office in Washington, D.C., can’t read the handwriting on an envelope, it flips it into a slot where a live person can look at it.

A person in Greensboro, North Carolina. There, the worker sees an image of the letter on a small computer screen, reads the address, and types it into the computer. Back in Washington, a printer spits out a thin black bar code across the bottom of the envelope-which routes the letter to its destination.

The facility in Greensboro is one of the remote encoding centers that the Post Office is setting up around the country. In these facilities, rows of workers will help computers in other parts of the country route letters.

It’s Dangerous To Cycle in The City — That’s Too Bad

How Many Cyclists Can and Should Fit on City Streets?

The ferocious competition for a smidgen of asphalt on Manhattan streets might be best appreciated behind the handlebars of a bicycle. As I whiz up 8th Avenue or crosstown on 13th street, I’m confronted by double-parked delivery trucks, jaywalking pedestrians and meandering delivery boys, their bicycles draped with carryout food. Beside me, sleek SUVs with oversized grills, boxy belching trucks, and speeding yellow cabs all attempt, as I do, to grab a portion of street space and get where they are going as quickly as possible.

There’s no question that what I’m doing is dangerous. A careless taxi driver or a misplaced car door could kill or injure me in a heartbeat.

Urban Renewal in Norfolk

What Was Lost: A lot.
What Was Gained: Not Much.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

The 1950s was about new stuff, not old stuff. The United States had spent two decades postponing consumption as it fought the Great Depression and then World War II. It was ready for new cars, houses, roads and ways of doing things. With a vengeance.

It was in this spirit that from 1949 into the early 1960s, Norfolk proceeded to tear down most of the buildings and streets built over the previous 275 years. A city founded in 1680 was left with little built before 1900. Cities around the country followed its example.

Don’t Let Kirn Library Fly Away

Monday, August 16, 1999
COLUMN FOR: The Virginian-Pilot

At the end of the movie Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman pleads with Humphrey Bogart to stay with him, and to let her husband, the courageous underground leader Victor Lazlow, fly off by himself.

As the prop plane beats it propellers against the air, Bogart, playing tough guy “Rick,” looks down at her and says, no way.

“You’ll regret it,” he tells her in his sandpaper-and-velvet growl. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

That’s how I feel about tearing down Kirn library in Norfolk. That if we do it, we’ll regret it, and soon, and for the rest of our lives. (Imagine Bogart saying these words, in that accent that I now realize sounds vaguely like President John Kennedy mixed with Marlon Brando.)

Cold City of Fargo Now Cool

Coolness, as every high schooler knows, is one of those things that’s hard to define but easy to spot among one’s peers.

With cities, being cool depends in part on being economically robust and vibrant, but also on other qualities, such as having a vibrant art scene, good restaurants and interesting local music.

For various reasons, these days almost any city can become a cool city, converting itself from has been to hipness in a relative blink of the eye. It has something to do with the Internet economy, which has a hop, skip and a jump quality about it, alighting in strange places for hard to predict reasons.