November 19, 2009


I recently stumbled across a Beethoven quote somewhere which has him saying his Sixth Symphony is "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds". The difference in what "painting" means now compared to then brought me up short: what else is something like a Rothko or a Bacon or a Diebenkorn than a "matter of feeling" or affect or, well, visual musicality? Well, it's a lot else, really, but it's still hard to think of "painting" as realistic depiction or something somewhat programmatic in the way it must have been to Beethoven.

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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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August 01, 2009

The Rest Of The Story

Corazon Aquino dies, and the front page tributes and obits in the US media rightly stress the courage and integrity she showed in her struggle against the Marcos regime. But what these US sources almost universally don't mention — except in throwaway phrases at the end of the piece or hints here and there — is that that struggle was against a US-backed and US-armed regime that had US support until its last dying moments. As a mark of respect, it'd be nice if the US media had the courage to get the bigger story out there as well…

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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July 21, 2009

Two Anniversaries

Everybody above a certain age here seems to want to do the big one (all those noisy "Where I was forty years ago…" articles and postings), but fifty years ago today unsung local lad Elijah "Pumpsie" Green became the first guy to break the color barrier at the (then) notoriously whites-only Boston Red Sox. Only ten years before the moon landings, only ten years before Woodstock (and ten years before that local love-fest, Altamont, for that matter), you couldn't play for the Red Sox if you were black, no matter how good you were. Getting to the moon, getting to Boston… worlds apart.

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July 06, 2009

Organization Man

Robert McNamara dies (I can just see the SF Chron's headline: "San Francisco Man Dies; Attended University of California at Berkeley").

"When the [Vietnam] war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder." (The Washington Post). What US obits like this are consistently leaving out is the number of Vietnamese dead, and what happened to the Vietnamese national social fabric, but that's surely of little concern to the Post, let alone to the US population as a whole. Even nearly fifty years later the US's endless self-absorption and self-pity on the war hasn't completely faded; and McNamara's a handy touchstone for the US's view of the whole disaster, unfairly or not (as typically happens to any complex and interesting person connected to that war).

McNamara became retrospectively wise (as opposed to being seen to be wise in retrospect) about the war; but he said a lot of things about other topics that were wise at the time:
"In 1966, even as the buildup of U.S. forces continued and Cold War tensions gripped Europe, [McNamara] said it was 'a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word . . . The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.'" (from the Post's obituary, again).
Well, wise enough; that last clause of his seems diagnostic: the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first often seem defined by the US's inclination to believe it's on a mission from God (or mammon) to police the world; and for a short while, McNamara was deputy chief of police whether he could bring himself to admit it or not. Time to round up the usual suspects, I guess.

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July 04, 2009

Them The Savages

"He has […] endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Maybe it's too easy to get all cynical and knowing about things like this, but that one still pulls me up short. Doesn't get a lot of play these days, that sentence, even on a day normally infused with a general atmosphere of self-congratulatory belligerence. No surprise, I guess; somewhere in the gap between the Declaration's great phrases and off-handed hypocrisies lies the difference between words to die for and words to kill by.

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June 29, 2009

No Night Sweats

Phil Turnbull's excellent Australian Post Punk site No Night Sweats is back, bigger and better than ever after moving from BigPond to new hosting (and its own domain). I'm not exactly a totally disinterested bystander, but take a look… (and check out Phil and Rob's A Slow Rip blog too while you're at it).

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May 31, 2009

Punch Up

"The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight, […] a lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles" — Bruce Nauman, quoted in the latest New Yorker, on the SF art scene he once escaped from years ago.

It's still a lot like that, at least for older San Franciscans: I don't think establishment San Francisco's ever really got over the fact that in the last few decades LA's become the cultural heart of California, the place where interesting art happens, a place where music and culture go their own merry way without so much as a nod to mother San Francisco. Those older San Franciscans seem fixated on LA (and, to a lesser extent, NY) as cultural rivals, but there's really no contest: San Francisco might have punched well above its weight fifty years ago, but looking back lovingly at the 1960's doesn't in itself a vibrant culture make, and neither New York nor LA see SF as much of a rival — gallingly for us here in the Bay Area, they don't see us at all.

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January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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January 01, 2009

Paradise Drive

"I was driven into Paradise" — Schoenberg on exile in California (that same California that surprisingly threads its way between Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, and John Adams at least…).

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December 10, 2008

Why, Indeed?

"If the development of print-as-commodity is the key to the generation of wholly new ideas of simultaneity, still, we are simply at the point where communities of the type 'horizontal-secular, transverse-time' become possible. Why, within that type, did the nation become so popular?" (from Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities").

It's a dirty job but someone's got to read it….

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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August 07, 2008

The Dreaming

Michelet's "Each epoch dreams the one to follow" seems quite wrong; every epoch dreams the one it follows. We sleepwalk the one to follow….

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July 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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May 28, 2008

On A Generalization Of The Second Theorem Of Bourbaki

In Moe's I pick up a small paperback, "The Artist And The Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed" by Amir D. Aczel (Thunder's Mouth Press, NY). The world's crying out for a good Bourbaki biography, but this ain't it, unfortunately. It's a confused, repetitive, portentous, and rather plodding attempt to … well, what, exactly? And that's the problem, I think: it's trying to be a bunch of things, and doesn't really do any of them well.

It rather half-heartedly tries to play on the suspense of Bourbaki's identity, but the Bourbaki in-joke won't be any sort of mystery to maths insiders, or anyone who's read the jacket blurb, so that vein can't be mined for much. It's also a weird Grothendieck booster — but that falls flat, too, if only because most non-maths types won't understand why Grothendieck might deserve the adulation (especially since this will almost certainly be the first time they've ever heard of him), but more importantly because Aczel just lets that part of the story trail off, without actually explaining G's importance (he was important, to be sure, but he's the sort of guy — like Tesla, in a different field — who attracts True Believers). He seems to think it's self-evident; but without a good maths or maths history background, it's not clear at all.

In fact, the one thing it might have done to pull the whole thing together would have been to help explain the maths and the maths background, but the book seems to assume either (or both) that the reader can't or won't understand the maths, or that they already know it. It's a strange omission, for sure: a history of a mathematical identity (in several different usages of that term) that doesn't explain the maths at all.

The book's also a claim that Bourbaki was either a spark of Structuralism or sparked Structuralism, something that I hadn't heard claimed before and that struck me as potentially interesting. But as with so much of this book, that trail just sort of petered out after a lot of suggestive but inconclusive tidbits. I'd guess Bourbaki was very weakly both a spark of Structuralism and sparked Structuralism (there's a lot of vague metaphorical stuff in common if you don't spend too much time looking at the details), but it seems a real stretch to make him one of the great Structuralist prime movers.

And the book claims that Bourbaki almost single-handedly founded modern maths, which strikes me as ludicrous: Bourbaki was an interesting sidetrack or sideline at best, and, like the book's many claims, really went nowhere in a sea of words. I don't know any mathematicians who spend much time reading Bourbaki (I personally find him more unreadable than most maths writers, and given the field, that's really saying something), and few think of Bourbaki's rigid and scholastic attempts to reground mathematics as having led anywhere much at all.

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May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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April 25, 2008

Rumsfeld Was Right

Well, not really (and not at all where it matters, which would be on the ground in Iraq). But watching the first part of PBS's excellent Frontline series "Bush's War", he comes across as almost sympathetic, one of the few people in power in Washington or London at the time who wasn't completely mendacious or mealy-mouthed or stupid or self-pitying or willfully ignorant or who hadn't lost his or her moral nerve (he had no moral nerve to lose), a person who was often enough almost right (or right enough) about tactics and short-term strategy (but who was woefully wrong, or at least blind, about the overall direction and long-term picture); a good lieutenant in need of a smart moral captain. He was no Cheney, in other words (or a Powell, surely a good example of a general in need of a spine-stiffening lieutenant).

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November 16, 2007

St. Herbert

Herbert Muschamp died recently. I can't top Michael Bierut's article on him in Design Observer: he was required reading, but not always for the reasons he wanted to be read, all those "outré movie references, inappropriate sexually-charged metaphors, sweeping incontrovertible declarations, and, of course, the requisite roll call of the moment's hottest names" (as Bierut puts it). I think I've always much preferred Paul Goldberger as an architectural critic.

About the only thing that surprised me in the various obits was Muschamp's age: hardly young (59), but much younger than I'd mentally pegged him as. He seemed to be a holdover from the Europe of the immediate post-War, if not maybe even Weimar; my mental image of him was of some sort of cravatted roue in his eighties or even nineties, holding forth to the entranced younguns about pre-War European Modernist pioneers and artists. Yes, too cruel, I know; but nothing I say here can detract from his overall influence or effect, and hell I enjoyed his writing (if not always his message).

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October 11, 2007


In his "Design and Crime", Hal Foster takes Adolf Loos's famous "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects" (and the associated "ornament and crime" tirade about civilization and purity) seriously, as ideological baggage. But if you're going to take a statement like that seriously and at face value (rather than as the drily amusing polemical provocation I tend to think it is), you have to take it seriously as a psychological phenomenon rather than politically or ideologically. You're not going to get too far into why such slogans seduce without delving deeply into the subconsciouses of the sort of people for whom Purity and Authenticity appeal so much. It's about Belief, not about ideology. In such people, Belief prefigures ideology (but again, given Loos's actual output, you can't help feeling he's just stirring; like Schoenberg, he protests about protesting just a little too much).

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September 20, 2007

That Bin Laden Thing

"Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely 'illegitimate' and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against American or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate 'resistance'" — Thomas Friedman in a recent NYT Op-Ed piece.

Without taking anything away from Friedman's main point in the article as a whole, it's a little odd to claim that Bin Laden created this situation. Bin Laden didn't invade Iraq on transparently-false pretenses, and Bin Laden didn't then preside over a deeply-destructive occupation of lethal missteps and incompetent ad hoc decisions. And Bin Laden as he currently exists is at least partly a creation of ruthlessly-stupid and deeply hypocritical American foreign policy decisions, both recent and over the decades. And of media and administration attempts to portray him as much larger than life.

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September 16, 2007

American Genius

Stax pre-1969. More important than the moon shot.

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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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June 28, 2007

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

"I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original" — Reyner Banham, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies".

There's something deeply familiar but also quite exotic about the LA shown here (from an old 1972 BBC documentary); it seems transported from another world, both temporally and spatially. It's not just the dated cars, the empty freeways, and the references to Watts being rebuilt (it's difficult to know what to make of his comments about Watts and his visit to the ghetto — that's worth a whole article in itself), but it's also the sense of the vast bits of LA that he just glosses over or ignores completely. Banham takes LA on what I think he thinks is its own terms, but LA's more than just the Usual Suspects (Venice, Pasadena, Watts, Palos Verdes, Wiltshire, Sunset, Santa Monica, the beaches, Hollywood, Griffith Park, etc.), it's also Sun Valley, San Bernadino, Northridge, Simi Valley, even Victorville (well, nowadays, at least). Banham thinks of the sun setting over the Pacific as being iconic, a shared experience for Los Angelenos, and it is in its way (in a way that's definitely not true for that other Californian Pacific city, San Francisco), but most of LA is a long way from the sea, and the sun sets over refineries, hills, freeway on-ramps, housing projects, or the cars stuck in front of you on the Harbor Freeway a lot more than over Santa Monica pier or Hermosa Beach. And there's something deeply significant that by far the most articulate interviewee in the film is a Muscle Beach denizen (who we never actually get to see). Oh, and dig the Ed Ruscha "interview" near the end!

Jimmy Little loves Los Angeles too, but that's partly because I have the option of leaving it when I'm working or visiting down there (and because LA's attitudes can be such a bracing charge after the self-absorbed fog of smugness that so often envelops San Francisco). For all its reputation as a non-city or even an anti-city, LA at street level can feel a hell of a lot more like a huge bustling conglomeration of cultures, interests, people, and businesses (you know, a "city") than those self-centred places with a Real Downtown….

(Part of Flix and California).

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June 04, 2007


"[Lincoln] Kirstein once defined American style [...] as 'a leanness, a visual asceticism, a candour, even an awkwardness which is itself elegant [...]'" (quoted in a recent NRYB).

Even fifty years ago, it's hard to imagine anyone saying that with a straight face, but Kirstein wasn't exactly noted for his sense of humour.

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April 15, 2007

Andrew Sullivan's Soul

"Sullivan splashes excitedly around like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He's less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer" — Jonathan Raban reviewing Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back" in a recent NYRB.

Sullivan's a smart, complex, tragic, and (for me, at least) rather attractive and exemplary figure (for all the wrong reasons), a man who seems to struggle mightily with having to bear a whole bunch of crosses, not least of which is that he's a True Believer trying desperately to belong in the skeptical house of Oakeshott, and he's the sort of person (common enough in academia and politics) whose rhetorical abilities far outstrip his self-knowledge. Like many True Believers, he seems defined by his need for True Enemies (rather than the True Enemies themselves), someone who navigates by a constantly changing constellation of intellectual enemies.

"For the fundamentalist ... there is one moment of real conscience, the moment when he makes the decision to conform his mind and will to an external authority. After that, his sole task is obedience [...]". (Sullivan dissing fundamentalists, as quoted by Raban).

Sullivan's real tragedy, though, bubbling below the surface, is that he failed the greatest moral and philosophical test of his life, throwing himself in uncritically with the quite plainly Rationalist (in Oakeshott's usage of the term) Bush project immediately after 9/11 (and especially with the Iraq invasion). He became fundamentalist at the crucial moment; or, rather, he seems to be a serial fundamentalist who latched on to another True Belief in the heat of the moment. His latter-day reflections on quite why he behaved that way seem disingenuous or quite unable to get to the heart of the matter: we weren't all fooled, we didn't all Believe in the way he did.

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April 05, 2007

Historical Amnesia

"'Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran's image look savage,' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, adding that a cultural campaign against Iran would not succeed.

The film has enraged Iranian officials and others over its depiction of the ancient Persians, the ancestors of modern day Iranians, with complaints that it depicts them as murderous and warmongering." — from a recent Grauniad article on the film "300".

Well, maybe he's right (or not) about the intention, but I can tell him from personal experience that anyone who tries attacking Iran's image by using Persia as a proxy isn't going to get too far here — how many average Americans even know Persia really existed, let alone that it's Iran's (more-or-less) ancestor?

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March 31, 2007

Hog Heaven

The Hells Angels are in town, a greying sea of greasy-jacketed geezers from around the world celebrating the Oakland chapter's 50th anniversary en mass in downtown Oaktown. Oakland may not be the place where it all started, but its chapter was one of the most infamous (think "Sonny Barger", "Altamont", and "Hunter S. Thompson", at least), and, stripped of all the spin and cutesy / nostalgic / condescending "how times change" commentaries on the local evening news, the local chapter's still not exactly all sweetness and light…

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March 25, 2007

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

"Walter Benjamin once wrote that in observing a city, outsiders concentrate mostly on the exotic and picturesque, while the natives always see the place through layers of memory" — Amos Elon reviewing Orhan Pamuk's "Istanbul: Memories and the City" in a recent NYRB.

But it's precisely because of people like Benjamin (and Pamuk, for that matter), that even outsiders see cities like Paris (or Istanbul) through layers of memory — other people's memories, for sure, but what's most striking (for me, at least) about visiting a city like Paris or New York or London or LA is the overwhelming sense of recognition of the ordinary rather than strange exotica. You can't read those cities like unknown books, you read them through layers of half-remembered (or vividly-remembered) memories of other texts and memories, you re-read them (this time in the original). What perhaps feels exotic is the source of the sense of remembrance in each place.

(When I moved to London I felt like I was inhabiting books; coming to California was about inhabiting TV and film).

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March 03, 2007

Épater le Bourgeois

"This [notoriety] suited Ibsen: scandalising the bourgeoisie was the best way of becoming a certified Modern." — Martin Puchner reviewing Toril Moi's "Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism" in a recent LRB. Well yes — bourgeois scandalising the bourgeoisie would seem to be the very definition of a model Modern movement. Postmodernism? A project concerned mostly with celebrating the bourgeoisie with faint praise.

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February 11, 2007

Proddies v. Catholics

The people in the Woy Woy area when I was growing up there were — by today’s Australian standards — pretty homogenous. The main division seemed to be the Prods vs. the Catholics — and that wasn’t much, since we kids tended to play together no matter what the "religion" of the others (if someone in those days asked you what your "religion" was, they were asking whether you were Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, Presbyterian, or the like). Nearly everyone was of English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish descent, mostly second or third generation. The Irish were invariably Catholic, the rest of us mostly Proddies. A few "immigrants" (often enough second or third generation themselves) lived in the area, mainly Italian, Greek, or Yugoslavian. Real immigrants were a bit exotic — even the Poms (like me). Pretty much everyone was white — there were virtually no Aboriginals or Africans at all living in the area. When Gary Sobers visited the area on a friendly cricket promotion (and played for Wyong, if I remember correctly), he was treated as a God — black or not, he was just exotic and absolutely revered as a cricketer. (Of course there were black American servicemen all the time in Sydney, but Sydney was another world to most of us…). The only Asians at that time and place were upper middle class people like doctors (in fact several were friends of my parents); they were almost all ABC’s with broad Australian accents.

Churchgoing was pretty rare and not taken terribly seriously by most people, except the ritual Christmas, Easter, and wedding (etc.) services. I really never knew anyone whose parents went to church more than once in a blue moon — and that includes people of all social classes. Religion simply played no part in public life there (except the Catholic vs. The Rest thing, which was more tribal than religious); it typically played a very minor role in private life, if at all. Lots of kids sports were played on Sunday mornings in any case, making churchgoing for us a little unlikely (until I left for Canberra, I really never went to church more than perhaps four times a year). The population was split about 60 / 40 Protestant / Catholic (I think); most Protestants were Church Of England, with a strong second going to the Methodists and Presbyterians (the Scots influence…). There were a smattering of Lutherans, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc., but they were almost universally regarded as a bit eccentric or off the beaten path, a little… strange (including the Lutherans). In retrospect, there were also a couple of Jewish families, but at that time I wouldn’t really have been able to tell you what "Jewish" meant (an ignorance that vanished overnight when I was sent to Canberra…).

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