Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spiritual power stations - China Mieville

Each city has buildings that radiate power, a special aura. Take away the building and something dies, some lifeform disappears forever. Some of the building are inconspicuous, hidden in sidestreets behind curtains of trees. But others are beacons of energy. If they fail the city fails.

Rotterdam
China Mieville has made this tangible, in his book Looking for Jake, in the opening story with the same title:
I saw a guard, as alone as all the others. What's happened? I asked him. He was confused, shaking his head. He would not look at me. Something's happened, he said. Something there was a collapse ... nothing works properly ... there's been a a breakdown ... He was being very inexact. That wasn't his fault. It was a very inexact apocalypse.
Between the time I had dosed my eyes on the train and the time I had opened them again, some organising principle had failed. 
I've always imagined the occurrence in very literal terms. I have always envisaged a vast impossible building, a spiritual power station with an unstable core shitting out the world's energy and connectivity. I've always envisaged the cogs and wheels of that unthinkable machinery overheating, some critical mass being reached ... the mechanisms faltering and seizing up as the core explodes soundlessly and spews its poisonous fuel across the city and beyond. ...
Dordrecht
Since I read this story I've become sensitized to these buildings and I see them regularly. Some were built in the 1920's as constructivist art-deco. Others are modern. It's good we're building such spiritual power-stations again ... but is it really good? Is the energy really positive?
Berlin

The Gaumont State is a beacon, a lighthouse, a warning we missed. It jags impassive into the clouds as the city founders on rocks. ... The Gaumont State exerts its own gravity over the changed city. I suspect all compasses point to it now. I suspect that in the magnificent entrance, framed by those wide stairs, something is waiting. The Gaumont State is the generator of the dirty entropy that has taken London. I suspect there are many fascinating things inside. I'm going to let it reel me in.

References:
Looking for Jake and other stories, China Miéville, 2005 - wikipedia article - I have bought the book and I can recommend it. Other books by China Mieville are relevant too, especially Kraken and The City & the City. They change the way you see the city.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Truncated windmills

Elements of the Dutch landscape - 6

In the book The innocence of Father Brown G.K.Chesterton has included a story called The wrong shape. Just before the group stumbles upon a murder scene - disguised as a suicide - Father Brown meditates upon good and bad shapes of objects and buildings:
Father Brown had stopped for a moment, and picked up out of the long grass, where it had almost been wholly hidden, a queer, crooked Oriental knife, inlaid exquisitely in coloured stones and metals. ...
"It's very beautiful," said the priest in a low, dreaming voice; "the colours are very beautiful. But it's the wrong shape.
 
"What for?" asked Flambeau, staring.
"For anything. It's the wrong shape in the abstract. Don't you ever feel that about Eastern art? The colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad-- deliberately mean and bad. ...
"Why, look at it," cried Father Brown, holding out the crooked knife at arm's length, as if it were some glittering snake. "Don't you see it is the wrong shape? Don't you see that it has no hearty and plain purpose? It does not point like a spear. It does not sweep like a scythe. It does not look like a weapon. It looks like an instrument of torture." 
"Well, as you don't seem to like it," said the jolly Harris, "it had better be taken back to its owner. Haven't we come to the end of this confounded conservatory yet? This house is the wrong shape, if you like."
"You don't understand," said Father Brown, shaking his head. "The shape of this house is quaint--it is even laughable. But there is nothing wrong about it."
Walking through the Dutch landscape you frequently come upon buildings with the wrong shape. These are the truncated windmills. At some time the windmill lost its function and it got too costly to maintain the superstructure. So it was demolished and removed. What remains is a castrated, claustrophobic bunker that does not reach for sky and wind anymore. Not really a corpse but more a zombie.
Zoetermeer
Father Brown seemed to be studying the paper more than the corpse; he held it close to his eyes; and seemed trying to read it in the twilight. ...  
Darkness full of thunder followed, and after the thunder Father Brown's voice said out of the dark: "Doctor, this paper is the wrong shape." 
"What do you mean?" asked Doctor Harris, with a frowning stare.
"It isn't square," answered Brown. "It has a sort of edge snipped off at the corner. What does it mean?"
Zoetermeer
Schiedam

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Edgeland sports fields

Elements of the Dutch landscape - 5

There are always sport fields at the boundary between city and country. Probably the optimal combination of low land costs and acceptable distance from the city. They are often near allotment gardens and are always threatened by budget cuts and land grabs.

They are difficult to find by car, because there are no orientation points nearby. They are not in the middle of nowhere, but on the edge of nowhere.

The components are always the same: parking lot, fence, gate, canteen, benches, light masts, fields, goalposts, flags, advertisements of local sponsors.

Extremely functional architecture. Almost acceptable  coffee, standard candy bars, friendly and enthusiastic staff. Positive atmosphere.

Montfoort
Schoonhoven
Hazerswoude
Rotterdam
Dordrecht

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Old news experiment - 2

Last year I found a temporary source of free high quality newspapers. They were a few weeks out of date but that was no problem. Unfortunately the source has since dried up. But I still have a few left and I use them for self-experimentation. Like in: Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters.

Borges quote - During WW-II Jorge Luis Borges did not want to read the "common" newspapers with all the war news. He did not find it culturally relevant and did not want to be distracted by this "noise". Instead he decided to read the classic literature about the Punic (?) wars.
Yesterday I spent a lot of time on Google but I could not find the source of the quote. It may have come from the book "Seven Nights" (no it didn't - I leafed through the whole book).

Research questions - With the thin stack of year-old newspapers in front of me it's difficult to formulate the research questions:
  • What news is still interesting after one year? Does it add a missing puzzle piece to my picture of the world? Does it stabilize my world view? (very subjective!)
  • What news is still relevant after one year? Does it show a relevant trend? Can and should I act on this news?
  • Is it useful to read the newspapers? Or can I spend my time better?
Detailed results - It takes about 2 hours of breakfast time (with tea and cake and laptop) to work through 4 quality newspapers. Most of the time is spent scanning headlines. A few articles are worth digging deeper. I've cut out 5 pages to keep. These are the main points:

Economics trends:
  •  Higher oil prices are bad for aircraft companies - America wants to use strategic oil reserves - More work is needed to pump oil from old wells - Dispute about levels of Saudi oil reserves after a cable on WikiLeaks.
  • More energy security through European gas pipeline network.
  • Threat of inflation in Europe - Fear of inflation in America.
  • Gold has never been so expensive - Investors are interested in Zimbabwe (platinum, diamonds, gold, chromium) and Mongolia (gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, uranium, coal).
  • Moody's downgrades Greek debt to B1 - Athens is angry.
  • Mervyn King sharply criticizes the bonuses of bankers.
  • China is afraid of inflation and rising prices - The four problems of China: high cost of housing, inflation, unjust income distribution, corruption - China spends more on the internal security apparatus than on the military - Social unrest is growing.
  • S&P has downgraded German banks because the state will likely not support them - German banks have loaned 37 billion to American municipalities and these are in financial problems.
  • Maersk has built the biggest container ship that can carry 18.000 containers.
  • Paul Krugman: What's happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab - an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy. The shock doctrine is on full display.
Economic details:
  • Insider case against hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam.
  • Coca Cola it striving for more sustainability in the company.
  • Dutch Rabobank has survived the crisis well.
  • There is doubt if the Renault employees were really involved in espionage for China.
  • The creditors of Parmalat want more money.
  • The interest on the Irish debt might be reduced.
  • Credit Suisse might have supported American tax flight.
  • Glencore is a secretive commodities trading empire.
Information technology:
  • Every day web 10.000 pages link to Facebook - Facebook is becoming a closed "Internet inside the Internet".
  • Skype going into video-telephony and advertisement.
  • IPads and apps are hot.
  • Cloud computing "will give IT wings".
  • Computer industry desperately needs professionals.
  • Advertisers pay well for the chance to be linked to female bloggers - dooce.com has 100.000 followers.
  • What role did modern media play in the Arab spring? They are important, but not more than that.
Sociology:
  • The current religious crisis is different from the previous ones because this time we are totally uninterested in the question of God, we believe we can abolish any concept of God (Erkenntnis die: Wir koennen uns nicht fassen. / Und finden keinen der uns Goettern gleicht. / Und keinen, der uns hilfe reicht. / Wir sind uns ohne Gnade ueberlassen. - Guenter Kunert) - The SPD wanted to remove the crucifix from the meeting room of local parliament.
  • Eugenics under Franco in Spain, stealing the children of potential communists.
  • The British first heartily cooperated with Gadaffi and now they want to topple him.
  • 7.5 million Germans are "functionally illiterate", they can read short sentences but not longer texts, they cannot fill out a form, men: 60%, women 40%.
Culture:
  • Letters of Hans Fallada have been found in the Israeli national library. He writes about his loneliness, his illness and his fears. (Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein.)
  • The attack of the populist government on "elite" culture and "leftist hobbies" in the Netherlands.
  • A book was published on the letters of Bruce Chatwin.
Science:
  • With more cheap digital weather stations the temperature levels are being reported in tenths of degrees (like: 0.2), this precision is totally useless.
  • SkySails could reduce energy consumption in shipping.
  • Scientists did not distort climate data, US inquiry finds.
  • Watson, the computer, won the world "jeopardy" championship, humans do not mind very much.
Analysis - The collection above is heavily biased. It is strongly filtered in several steps:
  • Most of the things that happen in the world go unobserved and unreported.
  • The reported news is selected by the media corporations and news editors - they select what their readers want to pay for.
  • From the published news I select what I find remarkable, interesting or valuable - most probably I'm extremely biased and I'm searching for news that supports my general world view - it is easy to deduce my world view and political orientation from my selection above.
How much direction does the information give me - is there any actionable information?
  • I cannot do anything about the economic information. I can watch the trends unfolding but I'm unable to influence them. I cannot hide - as one of the 99% I'm too late to buy gold, and these times are too unpredictable to invest in anything. I could invest in a fund using a broadly spread portfolio but I'm unable to predict how close we are to bottom.
  • I can (and do) watch the sociological, cultural and scientific trends with interest, but again because these are emergent properties of society I can do relatively little about them. Governments were and are rotten. I will vote carefully in any next election, but will that help?
  • I see the direction the IT field is taking and it is useful to gain knowledge in that area. But I already know and do that.
Preliminary conclusion - working hypothesis
  1. Reading a year old newspaper does not differ much from reading a current newspaper.
  2. Most of the information is short term noise.
  3. Most of the long term trends are already known.
  4. Very little information is actionable.
  5. Most of the news amplifies feelings of insignificance and powerlessness.
  6. It is possible to find solace in culture and art.
  7. It is better to not read the newspapers at all or to concentrate on art and culture.
This is a much more negative conclusion than I expected! I don't know if I completely agree with myself and if I'm willing to follow-up on this conclusion. More thinking and experimenting to be done!

Sources:
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - 1,7,8 March 2011
International Herald Tribune - 26-27 February 2011
Guenter Kunert
Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters