February 28, 2010

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 38

Berkeley Post Office

The Post Office — a luminous, beautiful mediteranean building dating from when Californians still cared about civil architecture and took pride in their public buildings.

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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October 10, 2009

Mystical Maths

In Moe's this morning I buy a copy of Alain Badiou's "Number and Numbers", and present it to the clerk, a guy who's sold books to me here for years.

Him: "Ah, Badiou! Man of the moment!"
Me: "But I bet you thought you'd never sell any copies of this book…".
Him: "It's Berkeley. Someone's going to buy a copy eventually…"
Me: "Yeah, that someone's me, I guess. I just love reading stuff like this to see what happens when philosophers try to take on math; it's nearly always some sort of semi-mystical train wreck."
Him: "Ha! A friend of mine used to read Badiou — and Deleuze and Derrida and all those guys — a lot, but he was always high, and he never stopped giggling and chuckling his way through it all. Made me kinda wonder what was in those books."
Me: "Yeah. Treating it as a species of entertainment is probably the best way to cope."

I'm hopeful of a little bit more than entertainment, though: there's evidence in a quick flip through the book that Badiou's not just interested in waving his hands ostentatiously in front of the usual mathematically-ignorant philosophy types. We shall see….

Later, in the supermarket, with some typically overheated Dylan song supplying a smooth soundtrack, the (huge) woman behind the deli counter has a (huge) black and white badge on her chest that says "God is good — all the time!". Somewhere out there, God's rolling in his grave.

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July 11, 2009

Moe Day

Moe's is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today. It's sobering to think that I've been going there at least semi-regularly for nearly half that time, and first bought a book there in 1985. Moe's and the Milano (and Cody's before it went belly-up) have defined my Saturday mornings for twenty years now….

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July 05, 2009

Endangered Species

In the Milano this morning a studious old guy in a tidy denim jacket and half-moon glasses, surrounded by overflowing shopping bags of belongings on the floor around him, makes laborious notes while reading a hardback King James bible, a paperback copy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks on the table next to the bible.

It's such a blast from the past, it stops me dead: twenty years ago you saw sights like this all the time in Berkeley coffee shops (except it was more commonly an old hippy ostentatiously reading Marcuse while bending the ear of anyone unlucky enough to sit within a metre or two of him), but nowadays it's like the reappearance of the Spotted Owl or Bald Eagle. Not sure what to make of this isolated sighting amongst the clacking laptops and the wordless mumbling homeless slumped over the benches…

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June 27, 2009

All That Jazz

It's hot, at least by Bay Area summer standards (20C by 10am, but probably at least 40C just twenty minutes' drive over the Hills), and they've thrown open the roof and front walls of the Milano for the breeze. At the back of the upper level three very nerdy and earnest-looking students are gathered around a laptop and a textbook labeled "Modern Piano Jazz" (or something like that), absent-mindedly drinking coffee. At one point one of them looks up and loudly says to no one in particular "E9th!" as though he's had a revelation. I can't help hearing it in my mind as played up the neck on my old blue Strat.

Down the street at Moe's a Famous Author who I don't recognize but feel I should is bantering with the staff. They know who she is; me, I just trawl through the architecture section for low-price gems. There's a large cut-price hardback on Frank Gehry which I just have to buy — you can't spend much time in LA without running across his buildings, where they tend to seem more at home and less forced than in the wider world. As I leave the Famous Author glances at the book under my arm and asks whether there are any Gehrys in the Bay Area? I'm ashamed to say I don't actually know, which feels weird.

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April 18, 2009

Cal Day



It's Cal Day at the university, and Berkeley's being overrun by good cheer and sunny futures. At one of the stands a young guy's hawking silly hats with floppy ears and a big Cal bear on them: "Cal Hats! Cal Hats! Get your Cal hat here! All proceeds to charity!" He locks eyes with me as I wander past and says "Sir! A Cal hat for you?!" I can't help smiling and responding with "Do I look like the kind of person who wears a silly hat?!" He squints at me, pauses, then grins back, doing a pretty good imitation of my Anglo-Australian accent "Yyyyeeeeeessssss... why yes you do, mate! You could wear it while lecturing!"

A decade or two of being mistaken for a professor while walking through Berkeley does the ego a lot of good; I buy a hat. Surely the right thing to wear while reading Baudrillard at The Milano; an Irony Hat in mufti, I guess.

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April 11, 2009

Downtown

Downtown Berkeley, 11am, an older white woman (at least 70, I'd say), dressed in classic expensive Californian upper-middle-class clothing, stands beside me waiting for the lights to change on Shattuck. Apropos of nothing at all she looks up at me and says "The last time I was here it was full of people protesting gay marriage!" I look around at her, smile sweetly (wondering where this was leading), and say cautiously "Yeah, it's Berkeley…". She goes on: "They're nuts! They're bigots! Can't they see even their god created everyone, straight and gay! I had a great time screaming back at them. If anyone thinks being gay's a choice I'll scream at them too!". She smiles broadly, steps off the street as the lights change, and strides off towards Wells Fargo.

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March 08, 2009

Life On Mars

In Moe's I stumble upon Felix Guattari's "Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977" (Semiotext(e), ed. Lotringer, natch), a book I just have to buy after a quick skim, if only because the blurb describes "Anti-Oedipus" as one of the most important books of our time, and because in one of the chapters Guattari, when asked for a brief overview of something or other in an interview, goes on for several unstoppable pages (unintentional comedy is always the best comedy).

I've long had a soft spot in my intellectual heart for Guattari — his analysis of R.D. Laing's Kingsley Hall anti-psychiatry adventures (included in this collection) is characteristically perceptive and droll, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to an agenda that attempted to get psychology (as a practice, if not a science) out of the whole claustrophobic Oedipal thing and more engaged with broader social and institutional contexts (at least). But this collection was written at a time when it was possible to discuss psychiatry and psychology in great detail without once even mentioning neuroscience or neuropathology (except dismissively in passing), and to talk about something like schizophrenia entirely in social or institutional terms. Not that Guattari himself does this (at least not here), but this was a time when it was even possible to straight-facedly discuss "curing" schizophrenia using Freudian analysis; reading bits of the collection over the past few days has been a sort of mental Life On Mars for me.

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December 20, 2008

JUNK

Upstairs in the Milano a skinny young junky with stereotyped glassy eyes, greasy hair, and tats down both arms twitches in the corner badly out of place bent over a weeks-old newspaper. After a while he starts trying to hit up the nearest tables for money for a bagel, people look the other way or move downstairs, he slowly makes his way my way until he's close enough that I can see the letters "J U N K" tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in gothic script. Just before he gets to me he stumbles and knocks someone's glass onto the floor, looks around startled, and flees past me downstairs and out onto the street. Upstairs we start relaxing again. Outside, the vendors on Telegraph keep on setting up the stalls for the holiday bash. In Moe's there's a row of art books on urban graffiti; one of the covers has a photo of a 1980's New York subway train, the graffiti along its length looking like the tats on the junky's arms, right down to the gothic script of one of the tags.

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November 22, 2008

Game Day

In The Milano the radio's playing a glacial rendition of the third movement of the Brahms violin concerto; it's the sort of thing that gets called stately, but it sends me out early onto the street, where a surly-looking guy in a wheelchair is begging on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign saying "Family kidnapped by ninjas need $$$ for karate lessons chop chop". You do what you can, I guess; most in the red-and-gold crowd streaming up Telegraph for the Big Game just turn away. On lower Sproul the cheerleaders gather in the gleaming cold surrounded by beached sousaphones and trumpets; one day I'll finally capture the surrealism strewn around so casually here.

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November 10, 2008

Soundtrack For A Future Short




Click here for a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up mp3 I did of an Ivesian short stroll around Sproul Plaza last Saturday while the University of California band warmed up for a game (listen to it with headphones and loud to get the full effect).

I take my surrealism where I can get it, I guess.

(There's a much larger and higher-quality audio-only Quicktime version here for those of you with the bandwidth).

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September 01, 2008

It's A Dirty Job…

Mars is telling me that "Space Is The Place" (come on guys, you did that one last year) but on Telegraph it's usually more of a void, and in Moe's remainders section I buy one of those unintentionally cute authoritarian tracts on Architecture (with a capital "A"), "New Architecture 5: Truth, Radicality, and Beyond in Contemporary Architecture" (capitalisation normalised for readability), published before-it-all-went-wrong to celebrate the radical future Architecture and Architects were planning for us all back in 2000 (one of the buildings discussed is metaphorically on my front doorstep, so it cuts close to home sometimes). It's got a foreword by Baudrillard (of course!) with whole paragraphs of things like:
Does architecture peter out in its reality, in its references, in its procedures, in its functions, in its techniques? Or does it go beyond all that and lose itself in something else, which is perhaps its own end, or something that might permit it to go beyond its own end? Does architecture exist beyond truth, beyond its own truth, in a sort of radicality that challenges space — rather than controls it — that challenges society in its obedience of its conventions and insititutions, that challenges the very creation of architecture and the creative architect with his illusion of control.
Super! Pure poetry!

Allusive words, meaningless in their ability to mean almost anything; in fact the whole foreword is a sort of densely-packed tar pit of phrases that evaporate when exposed (and that I just know I'm going to return to over and over…). The engineer in me wants to say that these are the words of someone in love with the sound of words (and in love with the sound of themselves); the architect in me says that both the foreword and the tract itself show that it's infinitely easier to construct whole shining cities full of seductive phrases than it is to create a single building worth inhabiting — and seemingly impossible to write simply and thoughtfully about architecture's products from the potential user's point of view….

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June 25, 2008

Signs Of The Apocalypse

Oakland Middle Harbor

The air over the Bay's a murky reddish orange, thick with the smell of burning from Northern California's eight hundred uncontained wildfires; close to home, both Cody's and De Lauer's close permanently within a week of each other.

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June 21, 2008

Behind The Image

In the cavernous old Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley the clerk behind the desk looks up at me looking up at the huge photo murals by local lad Ansel Adams on the wall behind her (not the usual Saint Ansel images, but the more subtle and interesting stuff you don't normally see in places like this); when I look down again she smiles and says quietly that she wished they'd put photos of photographers up there instead of the photos themselves. She says she's rather see who's behind the photos than the photos she sees every day, she wants to see people instead of rocks and buildings (later, she shyly admits to being a photographer herself).

It's unusually hot and sunny outside, and in the Milano they've opened up the roof and the entire folding front wall, and the place is full of light, soft breezes, bright Conjunto… and a smattering of students, studying for summer courses (one of the reasons I've kept coming back to the Milano is that it's so often full of hard-working students clacking away at laptops or earnestly discussing molecular structures or l'Hospital's rule over lattes and bagels — such a contrast with the Mediterraneum, which is always full of aging loud damaged hippies and boomers talking at the top of their voices about stale politics and dead icons). Outside on the street, Mars is telling us it's "Cheap But Not Easy"; beneath the Mars sign there's an old homeless guy splayed face-down across the sidewalk asleep next to a carpet of glass, totally naked except for an old pair of embossed cowboy boots and a small beach towel someone probably placed across his arse. I don't have the heart to take a photo. A few minutes later there's a flurry of police and an ambulance, and a short walk later there's nothing to see at all.

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April 07, 2008

Reach Out



UC Berkeley's administration has put up a bunch of those irritating self-congratulatory inspirational marketing slogan flags along the pleasant little pathway next to the bluegums and the Campest Sculpture on Campus that I walk along several times a week on my way up to Moe's and the Milano.

They're (presumably real) quotes from (presumably real) students (and obviously picked with an eye to visual diversity). One of them says: "Berkeley has taught me that the world is mine: all I have to do is reach out and take it." I'd sort of hope that Berkeley might teach exactly the opposite, but never mind; California's always been the Promised Land for the self-entitled.

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November 24, 2007

Protest The Impunity!

Inscribed in chalk on the sidewalks of Telegraph, just down from the University: "Stop the Impunity of UC!". Now there's a protest chant that just rolls off the tongue.... (But it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiments behind it, though, no matter how cumbersome the expression: the University of California at Berkeley is a very rich and powerful state institution that is in every sense above local law here, and often does whatever it feels like to and in the city of Berkeley without a second thought. But what would Berkeley be without the university? Just another pleasant urban suburb, I guess).

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November 20, 2007

Lurking




Sometimes you need just a little hint of (tonal) manipulation before you can show what you really saw... (another of those fleeting urban glimpses with a strong sense of place, a glimpse that'll disappear forever some day soon…

(As always, click on the image above for a much larger version).

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November 10, 2007

Back To Normal

It's a home game day at Berkeley (a lopsided USC Trojans vs. The Bears game up in the stadium, apparently), and in the Milano some sort of American Modernist classical piece on the radio competes with the Asian drums out on Sproul and the marching band warming up nearby. The effect's like Ives coliding with a gamelan, something Our Charles would approve of, for sure.

Outside, in the drizzle on Telegraph, a young homeless guy asks me for change for coffee. He looks like he'll actually get coffee with it, so I give him four quarters and terse smalltalk, and a minute later he's disappeared into the Mediteranneum. Me, I disappear into Moe's and end up with Luca Frei's "The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg — An interpretation", a book full of the sort of throwaway apercus like "Sleeping: is that also part of culture?" and "Of all the insults and the accusations that have been thrown at us, that of parasitism fills me with joy [...]" that I suspect will either quickly get very tiresome or will suck me right in (there's a thin line between attitude and ambition)

Back on Telegraph, Mars is now saying "Fabulous clothes for naked people". With Mars it's not so much an ad as a proclamation, or even a command. I wish I could comply. On the other side of the street the coffee guy's sitting on an abandoned doorstep drinking coffee; he sees me and waves. On my side a tall skinny guy in a yellow hoodie under an immaculately-tailored and buttoned-down dark blue Cal sports blazer topping ironed jeans and a pair of docs sweeps by to great effect. I don't have the guts to take his photo.

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October 06, 2007

All Warm And Fuzzy

In the Milano they're playing a light, unfamiliar, flowing Spanish-language cover of the old Pretenders song "Back On The Chain Gang" with a very different set of lyrics in the chorus, I can't get it out of my head all day, later I discover it's one of Selena's, something I hadn't quite expected or known. Down Telegraph, Mars is now telling me I make their sweaters feel all fuzzy, which seems a little unlikely, but they know best. You can't argue with an oracle.

At Moe's I pick up two remaindered coffee table books on late modern (but not Modern) architecture: I seem to look to architecture (rather than photography or painting, etc.) for visual inspiration nowadays. And not just the architecture in books, but those concrete images talking to each other across the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Los Angeles… (there's not a lot of capital "A" Architecture in the Bay Area, so you have to go looking for architecture in the small, in the unexpected detailing above a shopfront in Oakland's uptown district, or the way the Transamerica Pyramid is so often visible at street level only by reflection, or in the overall effect of a streetful of shabby Victorian terraces). There's more to chew on there than in most of those capital "A" art books I can't help also browsing….

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September 03, 2007

The Man Behind Starbucks

Alfred Peet, onetime Berkeley resident, founder of Berkeley's original Peet's Coffee and Tea, and the person who almost single-handedly made the Bay Area a source of high quality coffee from the 1960's on, died last Wednesday.

When I first came to Berkeley in the mid 1980's the really good coffee here made an immediate impression on me — you could get excellent cappuccinos, lattes, espressos of all sorts, coffee by the pound, etc. (along with good bagels or pastries) cheaply and easily in any number of small coffee shops and cafes throughout Berkeley or San Francisco; a lot of that coffee was supplied by Peet's or small local companies inspired by Peet's. After London's acidic instant powdered swill, the coffee here was a relief; what made it a surprise, though, was that everyone had told me over and over before coming here that American coffee was just terrible (often enough, they still say that, which is odd, but never mind). But American coffee as I experienced it was just great. What I didn't really know at the time, of course, was that (as with so many things in life) I was experiencing coffee as it was in the Bay Area, not in the US as a whole: coffee Out There beyond the Irony Zone was still swill — as it was in all of Britain and the vast majority of Australia, of course. Good coffee in the Bay Area (and, later, LA) historically went hand-in-hand with the whole California Cuisine thing that also made everyday Bay Area food something to dream of back in the food wasteland that was London in the 1980's; it's no accident that the original Peet's store is only a minute's stroll away from Chez Panisse in North Berkeley.

Peet's death was quite big news in the Bay Area, but it's unlikely to have meant much anywhere else, unless you also knew that he was the source of the raw coffee beans, expertise, and inspiration for the original Starbucks founders, in which case he looms rather large in both US gourmet coffee and cultural history. As someone who can remember when Peet's was still a small local affair (like Noah's Bagels, for that matter), who's watched Starbucks elbow its way into the Bay Area and compete head-to-head with Peet's (which has itself become a small national chain), it's hard not be ambivalent: Peet and Peet's succeeded in raising the level of coffee quality and availability throughout California and then the rest of the US, either directly or through Starbucks (go on, admit it…), but the whole annoying suburban hipster coffee culture that's grown up with it all also owes a lot to its roots in Peet's and Berkeley. And while Peet's still isn't quite Starbucks (Peet's really isn't a chain of sit-down coffee shops in the same sense that Starbucks is, it's more of a coffee retail and wholesale outfit that also happens to sell coffee and pastries over the counter, and its reputation is a lot more benign), the sight of Peet's trying to match Starbucks block by block through the downtowns and neighbourhoods around here can be a little depressing. Peet himself sold Peet's to one of Starbucks's original owners some time ago (there's a tangled history here), and it's been through a series of ownership and management changes over the years, but it's still based here, and I used to pass its main roastery in Emeryville every few days (which is now apparently in Alameda, just across the Estuary).

I think what makes the average aging Berkeley hipster really cringe about all this is just how much Starbucks seems to be the logical extension of the original Peet's experience and aims, with the added "taking coffee to the world" evangelism that's succeeded beyond those hipsters' dreams. Someone had to do it, I guess.

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September 01, 2007

Morning

Cafe Milano, Berkeley

Saturday morning, breakfast, Cafe Milano, Berkeley, looking south (for the Berkeley nostalgists out there who tend to look the other way)

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May 05, 2007

Longer Days

Mars tells me now that Longer Days Mean Shorter Skirts, but all I see is bondage gear in their windows and the usual derros, ancient hippies, and ageing self-important boomers strewn along the begarbaged blocks of Telegraph. In Moe's I buy a cheap remaindered paperback of Adorno's collected essays on music, a rich collection of easy targets. Adorno's writings on music are one of those sprawling guilty pleasures for me: he's so certain of the details (and so often right about the details) that he seems to completely miss the bigger picture. He's a Man On A(n Aesthetic) Mission, and he never lets us forget it — and like reading any literate True Believer, reading him is like entering another universe, something as entertainingly off-kilter in its way as Ben Marcus (an author Our Theodor would Not Approve Of, I'm sure).

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March 27, 2007

God Bless!

God bless our brave billionaires



Downtown Berkeley, 25/3/07

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January 21, 2007

Taking The Fifth

In the Milano, the guy behind the counter switches the radio from some tired-sounding Conjunto to the local classical cheese station, and there's something terribly familiar about the results. It takes a minute or so, but I realise I'm hearing Beethoven's Fifth for the the first time in maybe a decade, and start actually listening along with the bagels. It's one of my short shameful confessions, I guess, but for me this concise little piece of bombast transcends "warhorse" at times, and if it weren't so often verging on the delirious, it could almost be Classical rather than Romantic, with those clean lines developing with such well-measured logic. One day I'll have the courage to listen to it properly again… damn the critics.

I wander down to Moe's and torture myself by browsing books I can't afford to buy. There's yet another of those twee many-words-with-few-pictures books on (this time) female nudes now (they always have that "now!" there with the unstated exclamation mark). Give me nakeds instead, any day.

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