Aug 282003

“Form follows function — that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” Frank Lloyd Wright said this. Wright built houses, and the function of houses, as I understand it, is to be lived in. Roofs, too, have functions, among which is to keep out the rain. One might think that a leaky roof would disturb this “spiritual union,” but AC Douglas dismisses this pedestrian concern:

Wright’s houses, for instance, are notorious for their leaky roofs. As a house is the most elemental and paradigmatic instance of a shelter a leaky roof would seem a most damning and fundamental fault. And so it would be were the house simply a building. With the possible exception of his earliest work, none of Wright’s houses qualifies as simply a building. They’re all, as is all great architecture of any sort whatsoever, first and foremost works of art. That’s to say, considerations of the aesthetic trump all else.

Buildings, no matter whose, are not “first and foremost” works of art because they are not works of art at all. “Art” is not an encomium. It is a technical term, referring to things that are intended solely as objects of contemplation. There is a fine word for edifices of this sort; the word is “sculpture.” Buildings can be beautiful or ugly, just as people can, which doesn’t make them art any more than people are. If aesthetics, in Wright’s buildings, “trump all else,” why do they need roofs at all? Tables and chairs clutter rooms so, why not dispose of them? Walls disrupt the continuity between the house and its surroundings; tear ’em down. Wright would be the first to say that this is silly, and so it is, but it is the reductio of AC’s position.

This is a case of a misapplied metaphor. The modern religion, as Tom Wolfe beat me to pointing out, is art, which has become the highest term of praise for anything at all. A well-played bridge hand, a well-placed insult, a nice-looking ashtray are all “works of art.” Except they aren’t, and neither is architecture. Art is art, and non-art is non-art, and never the twain shall meet.

(Update: AC Douglas replies. Brian Micklethwait comments. Alexandra Seely comments. Rene comments.)

Aug 272003

I’ve often been asked (well, twice) what my favorite poem in English is. This one, from Emily Dickinson, is my favorite poem today. It was also my favorite yesterday, five years ago, and, I expect, ten years hence.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away;
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone;
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

Dickinson was a nearly exact contemporary of Emily Brontë, in whose novel stormy emotions and stormy weather always coincide. In this poem she takes a rather different view. It says, very approximately, that it is an error to believe that the seasons and nature are in sympathy with ourselves (“to seem like perfidy”). In fact nature is not only indifferent to human affairs (“sequestered afternoon”) but utterly alien from them (“the morning foreign shone”). We see it only through the prism of our emotions, which are real but unrelated. The late summer light escapes into the Platonic “beautiful,” a noun, and our perception escapes as well, into memory, where we confute it with summer itself. A friend once told me that Emily Dickinson’s poems reminded him of diary entries. Anyone out there who writes like this in her diary please send it to me immediately.

In the opening two lines Dickinson tosses off an incidental insight about grief to which inferior poets would happily devote an entire poem, as Wordsworth did, to a similar insight about dissolution, in his famous sonnet On Mutability. The description of late summer, given entirely in terms of its effect on the observer, fuses symbol and subject in a way that no physical description could. This poem also employs off-rhyme more effectively than any other I know. The theme, in one sense, is the off-rhyme between the natural world and how we perceive it.

I used to think that in line 14 “a keel” would do just as well and “service of a keel” was chosen to pad out the line. Eventually I realized that “service” stresses the difference between the wing and the keel, the natural and the man-made, which is integral to the theme of the poem. There is a hint of Dickinson’s eccentric spinster grammar in line 12, where she drops an indefinite article, which proves only that no poem is no perfect in God’s eye, or mine.

Trite Dickinson productions like “I’m nobody. Who are you?” find their way into the standard anthologies and this poem never does. Some selections of her own verse manage to omit it. If this doesn’t tell you all you need to know about anthologists, then consult Palgrave, Oscar Williams, Louis Untermeyer, or Quiller-Couch.

(Update: Carl G. Jung points to an aspect of the poem that I overlooked. George Wallace comments. The Russian Dilettante comments.)

Aug 262003

I have previously discussed my facility with hardware. Yesterday’s outage proves that my UNIX system administration skills are up to the same exacting standard. I upgraded from RedHat 7.1 to the latest, 9.0, because I absolutely had to have a journaled file system, and various catastrophes ensued whose consequences I am still sorting out. Have I mentioned that I write software for a living?

What happens to the vast majority of the computer-using population, who understand nothing of executable file privileges, network interfaces, and firewall rules, when their machines go bad?

Nothing happens. They live with whatever went wrong, and in this lies the great secret of Microsoft’s success. Windows machines work, in a crude way, with minimal user intervention, nearly all the time; and when they don’t, they’re cheap enough that most people can afford to buy a new one. Most users don’t care if their desktop is ugly; they often take special pains to choose wallpaper that makes it uglier. They don’t care if 90% of their software is in barely working order, don’t care that it takes five minutes to reboot, don’t care that it beeps at odd intervals. So long as they can surf the web, read their email, and use the application of their choice — Word, Excel, some game, or, God help us, Powerpoint — they are willing to leave well enough alone. After yesterday, I can’t say I blame them.

Aug 232003

David Sucher, who runs the very interesting urban planning blog City Comforts, is asking again for “a principled, thoughtful conservative/libertarian critique of how to create the built environment,” and I figure as a sort of villain in the piece.

What makes me uneasy is that in actuality there really isn’t any principled, thoughtful Conservative/Libertarian (C/L) critique of how to create the built environment. In fact it was this discussion on God of the Machine which helped me give focus to City Comforts Blog. The discussion there ended on this note, with the comment directed to me:

“If the ‘problem’ is that you don’t care for the way cities and towns look now (under rigid zoning, I hasten to add), couldn’t it be easily rectified by simply appointing you land czar? Would that be any more unjust than allowing zoning boards to impose costs on people who get no say in the matter?”

I thought further conversation unproductive.

But that, unfortunately, is the typical C/L response: either denial or sneering and ending in “It’s my party…” There simply does not exist any intelligent or useful C/L commentary on land use governance. (Please, someone, prove me wrong!)

David’s acknowledgement that I helped give his blog focus (negatively perhaps, but I take it where I find it) is certainly more gracious than my remark. Actually we agree on most of the aesthetic questions — the bankruptcy of most modern architecture, the importance of promoting street life, parking as the tail that wags the dog. His constant criticism of “starchitecture” is well-taken. As Michael Blowhard reminds us in his discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright, nobody wants to live or work in Art. Art’s roof leaks. Art’s chairs tip. Art doesn’t have enough parking.

The dispute is over means, not ends. Private developers often erect hideous buildings, but for disaster on a grand scale nobody can touch the government. Think Pruitt-Igoe, or the housing project of your choice. Think the late World Trade Towers, unlamented by anyone who ever had to work there. David professes to admire Jane Jacobs; the great lesson of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the vast superiority of bottom-up to top-down architecture. Cities, like markets, are more than the sum of their parts, and seem to show these ancillary benefits only when individual property owners are given latitude to operate. David is a real estate developer by trade, and his experience with architecture is far wider than mine, but I know New York City pretty well, and most of the development in its most livable and attractive sections, like the West Village, antedates central planning. New York tourists, once they’re done with the landmarks, head straight for the Village, or Chinatown, another planner’s nightmare. Attractive city neighborhoods can apparently spring up without any “planning” or “policy” whatsoever.

Is the culprit bad planning rather than planning itself? Certainly 20th-century urban planning, with its emphasis on segregating uses and choking off street life, has been very bad. Yet it is difficult to see how any planner, no matter how wise, could produce the endearingly crooked streets and chaotic mix of businesses and residences that characterize the West Village, or the North End of Boston, to take Jane Jacobs’ example.

David’s demand for a libertarian theory of “land use governance,” a polite term for zoning, is not entirely reasonable. It’s like asking a libertarian how he would run the Department of Agriculture or Education, to which the obvious reply is, he wouldn’t. He’d disband it. “Land-use governance” means the nosy neighbors convene and decide what I can build on my own property and to whom I can sell it. They impose costs on me at no cost to themselves. Zoning advocates like David ought to acknowledge the manifest injustice of such a policy.

A libertarian land use “policy,” if that is the term, might develop along coop/condo lines. Coop owners, like me, own shares in a building or group of building rather than individual units within it. I forfeit a certain amount of control over my premises in return for a lower price for the same amount of real estate. I do so voluntarily, and the rules are clear and laid out in advance. A coop agreement, unlike the zoning laws, is a deal. My coop consists of three buildings, and there’s no reason there couldn’t be larger coops of entire streets, or neighborhoods. Condominium agreements could burgeon in the same way.

This leaves the problem of burden-shifting. What happens if the guy next door decides to sell out to hog-processing plant? The short answer is, too bad. You’ve chosen to live somewhere he’s allowed to do that, and it’s his decision, not yours. The slightly longer answer is, if the hog-processing plant is damaging your property, by, say, belching toxic smoke into it, you do the American thing and sue. To the extent that the plant owner damages you — by tortiously interfering with your property, not by lowering the tone of the neighborhood — he pays. For this to work properly would require a major revision of liability law, which is a post for another day.

Aug 212003

I liked Eve Tushnet’s list of words she overuses; all bloggers should be required to post one. Here’s mine:

distinguish (also the adjective, “distinguished”)
dispositive (twice is too often)

There’s a glass and concrete tower in Manhattan, 9 West 57th Street, with crossed steel supports on the outside, over the windows, “exposing structure” that it doesn’t need. I write like that. I won’t even get into my colon and parenthesis habits. I can quit any time I want to.

(Update: Mg takes me up on it.)

Aug 202003

So you want to make a left-wing propaganda movie? Then let’s see what we can learn from the most successful propaganda movie in history, to judge by actual political results, The China Syndrome. It was released in 1979, after more than a decade of steady building of nuclear power plants. Since then not a single new permit for a nuclear plant has been issued in the United States.

Correlation is not causation, and to be fair, The China Syndrome benefited from the best timing any movie has probably ever had. Three Mile Island, the worst industrial accident in history with zero casualties, followed the release of The China Syndrome by twelve days. One of the characters even muses about “contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania.” You just can’t buy that kind of publicity. Americans had already begun to turn against nuclear power but after 1979 it was shelved, apparently permanently. This was arguably due at least as much to the movie as to the accident. There is a template for a successful propaganda movie, which The China Syndrome followed to the letter.

1. Choose your heroes advisedly. Nobody, but nobody, wants to watch heroic activists. This is one of the many reasons Costa-Gavras movies are as widely acclaimed as they are ignored. To establish your bona fides you will want to make your politically sympathetic characters as personally disagreeable as possible. And who could be more disagreeable than an already-grizzled Jane Fonda and a young and hirsute Michael Douglas? (An old and jowly Michael Douglas possibly excepted.) Douglas plays a bossy, vaguely counter-cultural cameraman of questionable hygiene habits. Fonda is the local TV bimbo who has stumbled onto the story of her life, which she doesn’t understand but tries to milk for all it’s worth notwithstanding. The anti-nuclear scientist, in a nice turn from Donald Hotton, is an obvious crank, with a supercilious manner and Warhol hair to prove it.

Our reluctant hero, played by Jack Lemmon, is a “shift supervisor” (a nice righteous proletarian title) at the power plant. “I love this plant,” he says to Fonda, and we believe him, because we always believe Jack Lemmon.

2. Admit the obvious. Everyone knows that anti-nuclear protestors are Luddite buffoons. So make a special point of showing them all standing up together at a hearing with masking tape on their mouths. This earns you extra objectivity points and costs you nothing.

3. Fictionalize history — the right way. In The China Syndrome a courier, and later Lemmon himself, is run off the road on his way to a regulatory hearing to deliver crucial incriminating documents, which disappear. Now where have we seen this before? Of course: it’s Karen Silkwood and Kerr-McGee! By replaying this hoary myth without directly referring to it, the movie reaps all of the benefits of imaginary history, without the fuss of being corrected in public by knowledgeable historians or the muss of untidy lawsuits.

4. Skate the science. So “core meltdowns” are effectively impossible in modern, non-graphite reactors. So what? Don’t bore the audience with stuff like this. Instead mutter a few imprecations about inconceivable disasters and concentrate on human error instead. Everyone understands human error. The China Syndrome contains fifteen seconds of misinformation on nuclear engineering, and it’s fifteen seconds too many.

5. Keep the villains offscreen. Give Satan too much screen time and someone is bound to accuse you of being of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Oliver Stone never quite learned this. If you must show the villains, and sometimes you must, show as many of them as possible to dilute any possible audience sympathy. In The China Syndrome a corrupt inspector, a vicious plant manager, a cold-blooded CEO, and a craven publicity man split ten minutes of face time among them. Capitalist malefactors are supposed to be faceless and soulless, right? Keep them that way.

6. No happy endings. Remember, you’re raising consciousness here; leave uplift to Hollywood lickspittles. No sad endings either: too didactic. Best of all are ambiguous endings, like the TV test pattern in the last scene of The China Syndrome. Is this the end of Southern California as we know it? Could be, unless we all get out there and do something right now.

OK team, you got all that? Now, break!

Aug 172003

I have avoided writing about Kobe Bryant until now, and promise to do so forevermore, because I find it hard to understand how anyone, except a deeply interested party like a Laker fan, could possibly have a dog in this fight. In one corner is the superstar modern athlete, the closest thing one finds today to a Roman Emperor, except without the responsibilities or risk of assassination. Tens of thousands cheer him at mass rallies. Children adorn their clothing with his name. (Hey, where’s my “CALIGULA 44” Starter jersey?) Like Nero, he foists his art on an unsuspecting and indifferent public. He devotes his leisure to sexual excesses at which Tiberius would have blushed.

The superstar athlete has been surrounded since early adolescence with sycophants, handlers, agents, and coaches, all imparting the single message that, so long as he performs on the field, everything else will be taken care of. Kobe was playing in the NBA at an age when most of us are staggering home, retching, from our first kegger. As with the emperors, being protected from all of the consequences of one’s decisions is a bad character factory, turning ordinary people into brutes and marginal ones into criminals. A creditable federal cell block could be assembled from the early-90s Dallas Cowboys or the current Portland Trailblazers.

The athlete, like the emperor, is bound by the law mostly in theory. Occasionally some particularly egregious offense draws hard time, but usually his well-paid shysters run rings around the local DA and he winds up getting away with murder, sometimes literally.

To disguise these facts sportswriters engage in ritual character inflation. Mean players are “fiery” or “intense.” Borderline-retarded players are “friendly” and “unpretentious.” Sociopaths are “misunderstood.” Players who have managed not to acquire a police record, like Kobe in his pre-sexual-assault days, are “role models.”

On the other hand, these barely-socialized, easily identifiable, and immensely rich young men are targets wherever they go. At bars yobs pick fights with them and file assault charges. Women throw themselves at them and file paternity suits. In the other corner of the Bryant case we have a 19-year-old girl of, shall we say, dubious judgment, whether one credits the accusations of “basketball groupie” or not. A professional athlete invites her up to his hotel room late one night. Did she think it was for Scrabble? If, let us plausibly suppose, a little voluntary foreplay ensued, is it really sexual assault when she changes her mind? If it’s always a crime when the woman says no and the man does yes, books and movies, just for starters, have an awful lot to answer for.

Of course I have no idea what really happened, and neither do you. But Kobe’s formerly pristine reputation may actually tell against him by making it more difficult for his lawyers to slander his accuser. Even most beauty queens and American Idol contestants understand that a midnight tête-à-tête with Mike Tyson is a poor idea. But Kobe — he seems harmless, and he looks so cute in his television ads! Ladies, male professional athletes are testosterone-generating machines of frightening efficiency: proceed at your own risk. That’s not much of a lesson, I grant, but this isn’t much of a morality tale.

(Update: George Wallace comments.)

Aug 162003

Well. If you’ve tried to reach the site lately you’ve probably surmised why you couldn’t. I run my own web server, and living in Chelsea, I was the one of the last to get my power back, at 8:00 PM last night, 28 hours after it went down. This was accurately predicted by a Con Ed functionary I spoke to 20 minutes after the lights went out. “24 hours at least,” he said. Remarkably, he seemed to be far better informed than Mayor Bloomberg, who told the city at 5 PM Thursday night that the power would return in a couple hours, at 6 that it would return by nightfall, at nightfall that it would return by tomorrow morning, and at 11 that it would return Real Soon Now. Bloomberg, Plato’s mayor, apparently considers it his duty to tell New Yorkers what he thinks they ought to do but what he thinks they ought to hear as well.

Previous mayors would have handled things differently. Giuliani would have donned a Con Edison cap and told the truth, more or less. Koch would have waxed Jewish-mother-philosophical and bragged about how big New York’s backup generators were. Dinkins would have been out of town on a tennis holiday and unavailable for comment.

My favorite bit from the blackout was its attribution, by Bloomberg and several other city officials, to a “natural occurrence.” Yes, Mother Nature’s Power Grid went on the blink again. Private corporations screw up and out come the torches and pitchforks. Public utilities cause billions in damage, and it’s an act of God.

Aug 132003

A null, in computer programming, is not a thing but its absence. Suppose you have a list, a handy object that programmers use all the time. You can do many things to a list object — add an item to it (list.add(item)), count the number of items (list.count()), iterate through the items one by one. Your list might have items in it, it might be empty. Doesn’t matter, these methods will still work. But if your list is null it is not a list at all. If you try to call a method on the null list, or on any null object, your program will except, in every computer language known to man, as it should. Nothing can never do something.

You might imagine that all nothings are the same; not so. A variable that has not yet been set to a value — “uninitialized” in the parlance — is nothing, but not null. If you try to use an uninitialized variable your program will not only fail to run, it won’t even compile. Nor are all nulls created equal. Microsoft’s C#, the language in which I’m programming at the moment, has a programming null, called null, and a database null, called System.DBValue.Null. Are they equal? No such luck. Some other languages have three different nulls or more.

Everyone, I trust, has tried to visit a database-driven web site and been greeted by an error page with some gibberish like “SQL Error Column[0] invalid value NullValueException 1003.” This means that a careless programmer has allowed a null into his database and failed to check for it on retrieval. Nulls will not stand such rough treatment.

Nulls sound like a nuisance, and they are. In my experience nearly half of all programming errors can be attributed to their improper use. The layman might wonder what possible use there can be in such a thing as nothing. Here’s an instance. I’m writing a program now that involves constructing on a server long lists of complicated objects, containing many subobjects, and sending them to various clients. Creating all the subobjects takes a long time, so to improve performance and reduce network traffic I have the server “proxy” them, by sending a skeletal object to the client and not filling it out until the client specifically requests the details.

Here nulls prove their mettle. Suppose the subobject is a list, which might be empty. The server will send the parent object back with this list set to null. Now, when the client needs the list, it simply checks if the list is null, and if so, calls the server again to request it. The server returns a non-null, but possibly empty, list, and the client now knows that it has a valid list and need not bother the server for it again. Without nulls the client would not know, if the list was empty, whether to return to the server and ask for it. With nulls the client always knows to fetch the list exactly once. There are other ways to implement this kind of logic, but they are far more complex and prone to error.

Nothing can sometimes be a very beautiful thing indeed.