The inferno of the living

March 20th, 2004 § Comments off § permalink

From Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino:

[Khan] said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Thin Cities 4

March 15th, 2004 § Comments off § permalink

From Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which I have been reading just a few pages at a time:

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them onto trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.

From hunger to cruelty

February 2nd, 2004 § Nine comments § permalink

Chances are you’ve read William Carlos Williams’s plum-eating poem, but you probably haven’t seen these wicked variations on it.

These links are from an excellent piece by Teresa Nielsen Hayden about publishers’s rejection letters. If you think you might submit a manuscript of any kind anywhere, ever, for any reason, go read it.

It is a statistics class

September 2nd, 2003 § One comment § permalink

One of my city planning classes might move from its current room, which is horribly overcrowded, to one of Wurster Hall‘s larger rooms. Unfortunately, the proposed replacement is room 101.

The door opened. With a small gesture the officer indicated the skull-faced man.

“Room 101,” he said.

There was a gasp and a flurry at Winston’s side. The man had actually flung himself on his knees on the floor, with his hands clasped together.

“Comrade! Officer!” he cried. “You don’t have to take me to that place! Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know? There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll confess it straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it–anything! Not room 101!”

“Room 101,” said the officer.

The man’s face, already very pale, turned a color Winston would not have believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.

“Do anything to me!” he yelled. “You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand by and watch it. But not room 101!”

“Room 101,” said the officer.

– George Orwell, 1984


May 30th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town—
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week for half-a-crown
For twenty years,

And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears,

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.

It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

—John Betjeman

No daddies, apparently

March 2nd, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

Anyone who cares about libraries, newspapers, or history—and I care about all three—would be disturbed by Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold, which describes how libraries around the world came to replace thousands of pristine volumes of newspapers with inferior microfilm.

What’s more, I’ve experienced one of the worst problems of microfilm—the occasional missing page, section, or entire issue of a publication—more times than I can remember. Several months ago, I went looking for a New York Times article from September 1959 describing the previous decade’s problem with juvenile gang violence; Jane Jacobs cited the article in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I was quite curious to read it. After some searching, I found it in the Times‘ subject index for that year. When I looked at the microfilm, though, the section it appeared in was missing entirely. Most daily newspapers no longer keep a print run of their own papers, so it’s quite possible that the article no longer exists anywhere at all.

But none of that disturbed me half as much as this passage:

The railroad from Cairo to Alexandria, imposed on the Abbas Pasha by the English in the early 1850s, runs through several bustling necropolises; Egypt had no indigenous coal and very little wood. A small item in the September 27, 1859, edition of the Syracuse Daily Standard reads: “Egypt has 300 miles of railroad. On the first locomotive run, mummies were used for fuel, making a hot fire. The supply of mummies is said to be almost inexhaustible, and are used by the cord.” Dard Hunter’s Papermaking cites an informant’s report that “during a ten-year period the locomotives of Egypt made use of no other fuel than that furnished by the well-wrapped, compact mummies.”

A geologist by the name of Isaiah Deck decided it would be better to remove the mummies’ linen shrouds and use them to make rag paper. There is evidence that American paper manufacturers took his advice.

The mind reels.


February 2nd, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

My dad sent me a haiku that he wrote about the Columbia disaster:

A thousand points of
light; those Texas faces looking
upward, waiting

—Rick Williams

Big picture

April 29th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

I decided to set A Pattern Language aside for now and read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities instead. A Pattern Language is fascinating and engaging, but because its scope is so broad, it elides much of the reasoning and experience behind each pattern. Jacobs presents a more detailed argument about a narrower topic, which is what I want right now.

In other news, I (heart) Throat Coat tea.


April 24th, 2002 § One comment § permalink

A coworker and I went for a walk during our lunch break today, and we started discussing the next version of a Web application we both work on. I complained that some of our developers had thrown away one of my ideas for the UI and implemented something far less user-friendly. As I explained the problem, though, I realized that my original idea wouldn’t have worked. Then I came up with a new idea that will.

After work, I came home, picked up A Pattern Language, opened it to pattern 131 (“The Flow Through Rooms”), and chanced upon this paragraph:

The following incident shows how important freedom of movement is to the life of a building. An industrial company in Lausanne…installed TV-phone intercoms between all offices to improve communication. A few months later, the firm was going down the drain—and they called in a management consultant. He finally traced their problems back to the TV-phones. People were calling each other on the TV-phone to ask specific questions—but as a result, people never talked in the halls and passages any more—no more “Hey, how are you, say, by the way, what do you think of this idea…” The organization was falling apart, because the informal talk—the glue which held the organization together—had been destroyed. The consultant advised them to junk the TV-phones—and they lived happily ever after.

Nous aurons toujours Paris

April 22nd, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

A Pattern Language is an important and valuable book, not only for its contributions to architecture or to other pattern languages, but because it encourages its readers to pay attention to and make sense of their own communities and homes.

Mostly, though, the book makes me miss Paris, a city so perfect that it seems unfair that anyone should have to live anywhere else.

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