The one Beatles song that mentions suburbs

“Penny Lane” was released in 1967 as a double A side single with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The chorus for the song included these lines:

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back

See the official promo video featuring the Beatles here:

While the Beatles did not grow up in a prototypical American suburb, they did grow up outside the city center of Liverpool. Here is how Paul McCartney described it:

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.

John Lennon made a similar statement:

The bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.

The Beatles were not immune from writing about everyday subjects: on their previous album Revolver, the first three songs revolved around mundane topics like paying taxes, lonely women, and sleeping too much. This song combines mundane life – a place with a bus terminus – with childhood nostalgia. This location is far from the Beatles’ urban (Liverpool, Hamburg, London, New York City, other major cities) and country (estates, getaways) lives with which they would become associated.

While they probably did not intend to do so, the song hints at the postwar existence of many in the English speaking world: suburban-like neighborhoods with single-family homes, relatively safe streets, working class to upper-middle class residents, and a steady life revolving around family drama, school, and happenings in the neighborhood. Including the forming of bands with kids around your age who share some of your interests and are also trying to be cool.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

Using humorists to predict the future because they can push beyond plausibility

Predictions made by experts are often not very good so why not let humorists try their hand at looking at the future?

This is not because “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to “The Simpsons.” So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

The writers of “The 80s” would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their “predictions” were wildly wrong. Congress didn’t ban the consumption of meat, Muhammad Ali didn’t become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Disney didn’t buy the United Kingdom, a musical version of “1984” starring Leif Garrett, Tracy Austin and Marlon Brando (as “Big Brother”) did not become the movie of the decade, cancer was not cured with “a substance secreted in the cranium of the baby harp seal when its head was struck repeatedly.” But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with “The Simpsons”: You’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus…

The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities.

To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few “serious” forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.

Looking into the future is a difficult task since the future is a complex system with many variable at play. Even with all the data we have at our disposal these days, future trends do not necessarily have to follow in line with past results. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s writings from The Black Swan and onward: there are certain parts of reality that are fairly predictable, other areas that complex but more knowable, and other areas that we do not even know what we do not know. See this chart adapted from Taleb by Garry Peterson for an overview:

Taleb's quadrants

This also gets at an important aspect of creativity: being able to think beyond existing realities.

Another bonus of looking to humorists to think about the future: you might get some extra laughs along the way.

Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.


These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?

Quick Review: Egan’s books The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, A Visit From the Goon Squad

After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:

1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.

2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.

3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.

4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.

All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.


Closing the blinds when showing home interiors on HGTV

I watch my fair share of shows on HGTV and I recently noticed something: many of blinds or shades are closed when the interior of the homes are shown. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Lighting issues. Windows can produce glare either from interior or exterior lighting.
  2. The shows may be filming at night. Looking out into blackness is not that appealing.
  3. Blocking off the windows means the show can emphasize the interior and perhaps particularly show new window treatments.

These are good reasons to cover the windows. Yet, it strikes me that taking this action means the private nature of the home is emphasized even more. HGTV homes tend to emphasize the actions of the nuclear family inside the new home. Sometimes, the yard is really important to the homebuyers or homeowners but even then, the exterior is far less important than the interior spaces where it is presumed the family will spend more time.

Additionally, blocking off what is outside the windows ignores one of the most important features of homes: location, location, location. HGTV shows spend little time showing the neighborhood. Again, even when the characters are really tied to a location or neighborhood, this is primarily conveyed verbally and then the rest of the show focuses on interiors. Thus, not only do we not see much of the neighborhood, we also do not always see what the homeowners would see out their own windows.

All of this makes more sense when it is placed into the larger context of the American ideal of a single-family home on its own plot of land inhabited by a nuclear family. This is a powerful ideal, particularly for HGTV’s target demographic.