Wednesday, January 31, 2024

William Golding, "The Spire"

The Spire (1964) is a fascinating short novel in which William Golding examined the intersection of things about whose connections I have always wondered: cathedral building, medieval Christianity, insanity, and sexuality. The remarkable thing about the book is that Golding delved mercilessly into these connections without ever being disrespectful to Christianity. The story follows the inner thoughts of one man, Dean Jocelyn, as he struggles to add a 400-foot-tall spire to his cathedral. It is a mad thing to do, everyone tells him; but he saw the spire in a vision, and, as he says, when did God ever command us to do anything reasonable?

I have long been fascinated by the way the behavior of certain medieval saints appears holy from one angle but insane from others. I tried to write such a scene into The Raven and the Crown, an anchoress whose life story can be read equally as the dawning of faith or the loss of her mind. I don't know that I succeeded, but anyway I understand the impulse that drove Golding to write this book. People say that he could see Sarum Cathedral (above) out the windows of the school where he taught for years, and he must have pondered what a crazy thing it was for people so poor in our terms to invest so much in those gigantic piles of stone.

Did it make any sense? Oh, one could offer justifications – civic and national pride, the medieval church's commitment to magnificence, the need for a place that would be the spiritual and physical center of the city – but really not. We would look at the cost and say, no thanks, much better to spend the money helping the poor or improving education or what have you. 

And yet, they are wonderful.

Are the mad? And if they are, what does it mean that the most glorious creations of a whole age are insane? Have we lost anything by choosing to invest in health care and preK rather that mad explosions of beauty? Is a rational world missing something vital that medieval people had abundantly?

Have our vast wealth and long lives failed to make us happy because we devote ourselves too much to comfort and not enough to doing the pointlessly extraordinary?

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Transforming Brooklyn

Fascinating feature at the NY Times on how Williamsburg, Brooklyn went from a working-class neighborhood known for crime and ethnic strife to a booming, largely wealthy community. Above, North 6th Street in 1992, featuring an abandoned sawdust factory. 

And the same view in 2023, with an art gallery called National Sawdust and big new condominium buildings.

The change began in the 1990s Williamsburg when became the new home of the bohemians driven out of Manhattan by high prices. In 1992 one hipster said, "In the 70s, it was Soho. In the 80s, the East Village. In the 90s, it will be Williamsburg." Above, a 1991 photo of people working to turn an abandoned warehouse into The Fly Trap, a music and arts venue that hosted a lot of raves.

This was done with the cooperation of the borough authorities, who approved all of this, including the use of old, dodgey warehouses as music venues. The government also helped stage a long series of street music festivals that solidified Williamsburg's status as an art mecca. In my experience no neighborhood is ever transformed without both private initiative – from both nonprofits and businesses – and a lot of input from government. The presence of all these Bohemians drew restaurants, and by 1994 the Times food critics had noted the arrival of Williamsburg as a dining destination.

Williamsburg hosted breweries for a century, but by 1990 they had all closed, part of the gradual takover of American beer by a few enormous companies. But then we got the craft beer revival, and in 1996 Rudy Guiliani served as brewmaster for the opening of the new Brooklyn Brewery. (Honestly Rudy was a pretty good mayor before he went crazy.)  But the city modified its zoning laws to allow most of the old factory district to be converted to residential space.

Things really took off during the Bloomberg administration, 2002 to 2013. Bloomberg's people rezoned 37% of NYC and did everything they could think of to promote housing construction, which was built in NYC faster than in any older city in the country. This included 175,000 units deemed "affordable." Bloomberg also pushed the construction of the new commerical district in downtown Brooklyn, which was soon covered with high-rise buildings. During Bloomberg's time in office more than 10,000 new apartments and condomiums were built in the new downtown, and more than 4,500 in Williamsburg. From 1950 to 1980 Brooklyn lost 500,000 inhabitants, or 18.5% of its population; it has now regained all of those people and probably passed the 1950 level last year. Since the average household is smaller, that means many more units.

One of the spots that captures this history is the McCarren Park Pool, which was built to a New York scale, measuring 50 by 100m. This was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1935-1936. It eventually became a derelict site of drug deals and gang fights and was closed in 1984. During the 1990s revival various dreamers tried to bring it back to life, but no plan ever took off. 

In 2005 to 2008 it hosted concerns, especially hip hop.

Then in 2012 it was reopened as a pool.

But along with all this growth came the first complaints about "yuppification" and "gentrification". Upscale retailers like Hermes arrived downtown. Bohemians who came in the 1990s became opponents of development, trying to block new condo buildings so as to keep their neighborhoods as they were. They waged a decade-long fight to prevent the redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar factory on the waterfront, which they finally lost in 2014. Nearby music venues closed and moved to grittier spaces in other neighborhoods.

The Williamsburg waterfront in 2015.

It's a story many American cities have seen over and over: neighborhoods get run down and dangerous, which drives rents very low, which pulls in people like rave promoters and artists who need big loft spaces, which draws in hipster bars and restaurants, which draws in yuppies, which drives up housing prives and eventually drives out the music venues and the hipster bars.

But I don't think there is any realistic alternative to this. The world doesn't stand still. Yes, there is something weird about the repeated, rapid transformation of neighborhoods by capitalism and the quest for cool, but what really kills cities is for things to stay as they are. Living beings are always changing.

Monday, January 29, 2024


Lotusland is a remarkable, 37-acre garden in Montecito, California mostly created by mid-twentieth century Polish opera singer, Ganna Walska. 

The house, a classic of California Hispanic, was designed in 1915 by Reginald Johnson.

Part of the property was a nursery in the 1890s, and some of the older trees (like the palms at top and this dragon tree) date to that time.

The garden is structured around a series of themes: Japanese garden, 

fern garden, 

cycad garden, 

cactus garden, 

aloe garden,

water garden, and more. Seems like an amazing place. But if you go, be sure to make a reservation in advance, because admission is strictly limited. Huge photos at the garden web site.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Some Masterpieces of the Gothic Revival

Public buildings today, maybe houses later. Westminster Palace, designed by Charles Barry, constructed 1840 to 1870.

Palace of Pena, Portugal, 1839 to 1885.

House of Parliament, Budapast, Hungary, constructed 1890-1902, designed by Imre Steindl.

St. Pancras Station, London, 1868

The City Museum, Brussels. There was an actual gothic building here, built in the early 1500s, but it was damaged in three different wars. It was restored after each but by the mid nineteenth century it was in bad shape, so it was almost entirely rebuilt into this form between 1860 and 1887.

Rosario Train Station, Lisbon, designed by Portuguese architect José Luís Monteiro and constructed in 1886-1887.

Tower Bridge, London, 1886-1894

Santuario de las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia, 1916-1949, a church built over a rock where an image of the Virgin Mary appeared "miraculously".

Friday, January 26, 2024

Links 26 January 2024

Joanassie Oomayoualook, Ptarmigans

The nineteenth-century novel random character generator. The first one I got was "Byronic Peer with Ulterior Motives."

Brujeria as self-care among Hispanic Americans: "the rituals can help better ourselves by removing blockages, tackling grief and pain that maybe we even carried from our ancestors so we have the courage to move forward."

Interesting thread on X about why Evangelical art is boring. In the 17th-century you could be a bad, violent, tormented person (Caravaggio) and still make Catholic art, but it's much harder for such a person to be accepted as an Evangelical; also, great art is about struggle, and the Evangelical art we have is mostly about putting struggle behind you and finding peace. Johnny Cash would be an obvious exception to all of this, and perhaps by his example shows what the writer wants more of.

South Korean drone light show welcomes the Year of the Dragon.

Last week a Ukrainian Bradley IFV knocked out a top-of-the-line Russian T-90 tank with a 25mm autocannon. In an interview, the gunner says he knew where to hit the T-90 from playing War Thunder. (That's the game that keeps ending up in the news because people have posted classified documents to discussion boards to win arguments about its very detailed combat system.)

The USAF announces that their new bomber, the B-21, is entering production, just two months after the first prototype flew. After the very expensive boondoggle of the F-35 program the Air Force radically overhauled its procurement process to get from initial design to serial production much faster, and so far it seems to be working. But the B-21 is pretty similar to the B-2, and is being made by the same company, so that was an easy lift compared to the challenge the more radical NGAD program will present.

Texans did not lose power during this year's deep freeze, mainly because natural gas plants that froze last time have been winterized. Wind and solar facilities mostly kept working, but it took a surge in gas use to meet the high demand. (NY Times)

NY Times: "A new study estimates that reusing or recycling rare earth metals from old cellphones, hard drives, electric motors and turbines could meet as much as 40 percent of the demand for the metals in the United States, China and Europe by 2050." In theory, sure, but so far the cost and energy consumption have been too high for this to work.

Noah Smith on why he is optimistic about the plan to build a new city on farmland halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

More fraudulent scientific data exposed by amateur sleuths, in this case involving the leaders of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center, affiliated with Harvard. (NY Times, Harvard CrimsonFor Better Science) Here is a real contribution already made by AI, which can be trained to recognize duplicated or manipulated images.

Ben Pentreath, photographs of Christmas at his Dorset country house, with the village duck race. (Plastic ducks, alas.)

The resurgence of an old crime, train robbery. So much high-value freight flows inland from southern California's ports, much of it on trains more than a mile long with only two crew, that theft is not particularly difficult. (NY Times)

Speaking of train robbery, a crossword puzzle clue got me curious about who Bat Masterson really was, and, wow, he certainly did have a Wild West movie kind of life.

Study finds little difference in the criminal codes of red and blue states. My personal experience is that there is not a lot of difference in the regulatory environments, either.

Ingenuity, the little Mars helicopter, is grounded after 72 flights over three years because of a broken rotor blade. Considering that the original plan was for only 5 flights over 30 days, its career has been amazing. Bigger Mars flyers are in the works.

Tom Friedman says the world is witnessing a "titanic geopolitical struggle" between the "Resistance Network, dedicated to preserving closed, autocratic systems where the past buries the future" and the "Inclusion Network, trying to forge more open, connected, pluralizing systems where the future buries the past." The leaders of the Resistance are Russia and Iran, with partial support from China and much of the developing world. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Foggy Woods

A warm, moist day, most of our snow already washing away in the light, misty rain.