Monthly Archives: April 2013

Although it had been publicly available for almost two years and invented several years before that, on April 30th in 1993 the World Wide Web became officially available to all for free. That was the day that CERN put the intellectual property rights associated with the Web into the public domain. To commemorate the anniversary, the first website has been put back online at its original address.


Emily Dickinson once said that she knew when she had read a good poem because she felt as if the top of her head had been ripped off. I feel like it’s more like getting high or drunk, but I suspect that she and I are describing a similar sensation. It is not only how I can discern a good poem, but also a good painting or a good building. Once, talking to a friend who is a writer, obsessed with seemingly all art forms, and a self-described aesthete, he commented that some people seem to have a facility for perceiving aesthetics and some people don’t, that it was like having an extra sense that not everyone shared. I would adjust this statement slightly and say that it’s not a binary option, but a continuum. Some people have that sense to a greater degree than others. There are people who seem to rarely ever be moved by aesthetic experiences, and a large number, probably the majority, who can feel it, but can also ignore it when they choose. Then there are those of us who find it nearly impossible to not think about, to the point that it is occasionally painful.

Although it is possible that this sensitivity can be cultured or developed, I suspect it has a significant inherent component. You grow up spending your life trying to convince others, often futilely, of the importance of some object or another. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you receive confirmation from an external source that these peculiar feeling you have are shared by others. Once when driving along a winding county road, I made my father stop the car so we could get out and look at an abandoned building. My father was a graphic arts teacher and, although architecture was not a particular interest of his, he had a general interest in all forms of visual art. We walked around the large, blocky building a bit. Sometimes, forms can be a delight. Finally, when there was not much left to do, we got back in the car and drove away. I remember vaguely hoping that it would be restored and not torn down. Some time later, I found out that the building had been designed by Louis Sullivan.

As a very young child, whenever my family would take a trip into New York City, I would keep my fingers crossed that we would drive past a particular building. When we did, which wasn’t frequent, I’d press my face against the glass of the car window and keep my eyes glued on it until it came into view and look at it until it was no longer visible, trying to imprint every line and curve in my memory. I’d point it out to my mother. “Huh? But that’s just a big old warehouse.” It would be over a decade before I learned that the Starrett Lehigh building was not “just” a warehouse but was an influential and highly regarded piece of architecture. Its curves, set backs and dramatic horizontal bands of windows would inspire many prominent architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Phillip Johnson.

Eventually, you develop some confidence in your own judgement. You look at something say to yourself, “That is a handsome building,” and you feel confident that it has some value even if the designer never became famous or it is what some people call “vernacular” architecture. I was put in mind of a category of vernacular architecture which I frequently find very attractive in a post about abandoned buildings by Life&Ink, that is a sort of vernacular commercial architecture, which I have mainly seen in the U.S. and Canada, built during the 1930s that is influence by the machine aesthetic. It frequently has horizontal lines and curved surfaces. Glass block and neon are not unusual. I sometimes think of these as Domesticated Deco. There’s probably a proper name, but I don’t know what it is. It is also, in my not so humble opinion, undervalued. Photos of declining American cities inevitably include a few photos of these. There are many sad aspects about Life&Ink’s post, but the fact that at least a couple of those buildings seem to be nice looking buildings makes it even sadder. When these buildings are not abandoned, they are frequently torn down or their facades are ripped off and replaced by something which is currently more popular.

What is popular in the U.S. today? It is important to note that I didn’t say stylish; I said popular. We are no longer in the realm of pedigreed architecture, but the realm of the vernacular. In fact, vernacular architecture today seems to take its cue, not from the work of contemporary architects, but from other styles, both high and low, of the past. Not far from where my mother lives, there are large expanses of small, suburban houses of the sort that were built in large numbers after the Second World War. For decades there were no significant changes. They were small, and additions were commonplace, but the additions were frequently built with the same lack of pretension as the original house. During the past decade or so, however, these houses have undergone significant alterations. Clapboard siding has been replaced by a stucco like material. On the corners of the exterior, this stucco is shaped into imitation quoins. Columns are added, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, who cares. And then maybe a front door with an oval, leaded glass window. All of this, and more, on a building the scale of a shoebox. I shy away from saying what I really think of these alterations for fear of offending someone who has done exactly this to their house. A visit to the dentist is more pleasant than driving down one of these streets.

I wonder what it says about our culture. This is always a dubious exercise. “The past’s notion of what the future would look like.” That’s a sentence I’ve read many times in reference to the machine inspired designs of the twentieth century. The notion is mentioned in another post that was done in response to this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge that showed a house by a Finnish architect that looks like a UFO. The round window and industrial materials put me in mind of the work of Jean Prouvé, a modern French architect and designer whose work I very much enjoy. The implication often seems to be that the people in the past were naive because they believed technology would improve our lives.

However, I believe that people who look to the past are equally naive. It is true that we have problems in the present, but the solutions lie in the future, not the past. Buildings are one of the largest consumers of energy, and hence one of the largest contributors to climate change. However, if we were to heat our houses with the methods of the past, by burning wood, peat or dung, we would be in far worse shape because there are far more people today than in the past. Once, sitting in a hair salon, I read a profile in a magazine about an engineer. He said that he felt that the engineers he knew had a more optimistic view of the future than other people and they were eager to get to work to solve today’s problems. We must be brave and face the future, whatever it looks like, because time only moves forward and we have no choice. Hopefully, that means a more efficient and thoughtful use of resources, and those resources include the buildings left over from the past.

It would have been such fun this weekend to fly someplace exotic with no other purpose than to take photos for this week’s photo challenge. However, prior commitments prevented me from doing that. So instead, I asked myself, what if someone from far away came here, to Baltimore. What pictures would they take to show the culture? The monks in the photos put me in mind of church goers here. I also thought about crabs, but crabs were not in season yet. I’ve been dying to take some pictures on the marching bands, but I’m not sure where to find them when there is neither a parade nor a football game. Football was another possibility, but, again, it’s not the right time of year. Baseball, but they’re not in town this week. Finally, I settled on an American ritual that has always puzzled me. In the spring and the fall, people go outside and build fires and “roast” marshmallows. Now, it’s necessary to point out that marshmallows are nothing more than sugary confections that don’t actually require roasting and are no longer made from marsh mallows. Then, this burnt marshmallow is sandwiched between two graham crackers with a piece of chocolate thrown in. This is called a s’more. If you didn’t know, graham crackers were originally made from graham flour, which was invented by the Reverend Sylvester Graham for a vegetarian diet intended to reduce the libido, among other supposed benefits. So, in the good weather, Americans like to give themselves asthma attacks by sitting in front of an open fire eating these peculiar foodstuffs made from libido reducing crackers, chocolate and roasted whipped sugar and gelatin blobs. (If any individuals recognize themselves or their children in the following photos and would like to have the pictures taken down, just let me know.)

Assembling a computer was no more or less difficult than I expected. It was time consuming and perhaps took about two hours more than I anticipated. What I thought would be boring and routine, loading the operating systems, turned out to be a long, convoluted mess. Windows 8 installed without incident. Then, it froze. It felt like the movie Groundhog’s Day as I rebooted the computer yet again and it froze within the few minutes. I loaded Ubuntu, which worked well. Then I tried to load Windows 8 again. Just to see if Ubuntu had some magic powers I don’t understand, I tried Slackware. Slackware worked as well. I was about five minutes’ patience away from no longer being a Windows user. Then I went online to see if I could find Linux replacements for the programs I use most frequently. Um, not really, at least not for all of them. The thought of creating a Hackintosh even went through my mind. However, I’d chosen the hardware anticipating a Windows 8/Linux dual boot system, and I doubted that I’d have suitable hardware for that. So finally, I broke down and, believe it or not, I purchased Windows 7.

So now I’m working on my nice comfortable desktop with a nice big screen with my fantasy computer all assembled by yours truly. Windows 7 appears to be running smoothly and I’ve made little adjustments, like moving the user files to a hard disk drive. That should be easier to do than it is. I haven’t yet partitioned the solid state drive or loaded Linux onto it. I just need to give myself a little break for a few hours. After all, it’s almost 5:00 am on Sunday morning and I’m only just now putting up my Saturday post.

Sweet Bedstraw. The leaves are opening in the form of a spiral around the cluster of small buds.

Cat on a bathroom countertop drinking from a water fountain.

Crash loves water. Unfortunately, he developed a habit of jumping in the tub and crying at the top of his lungs so we would turn on the faucet. So I bought him a water fountain. Yes. I know it’s a little over the top to buy a cat a water fountain, but he does love it.

The cat and the water fountain.

I am hoping that in a post within the next few days I’ll be able to announce what a wonderful computer I’ve built. (Is that Eddie Floyd’s voice I hear.) In the meantime, I will post a photo I took in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a place I’d been wanting to see ever since I read Foucault’s Pendulum. I finally got there last December when they had an exhibit about robots. Here is Albert Ducrocq‘s le Renard.

A photograph of an early robot, le renard, french for fox. A dome shaped fur cover has been moved slightly aside to reveal the electronic parts inside.

A flock of snow geese takes off from a marsh at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Maryland.

I’m trying to keep up with my commitment to myself to post everyday. Today, I put together a computer, so I’m a bit behind on posting. Perhaps I will be able to report how it went tomorrow.

I’m still suffering from something of a creative block as far as painting and drawing goes. Simply put, I don’t know what to draw. Today, I tried one of my usual unblocking techniques and put on a bit of music and just scribbled aimlessly.

A scribble of a woman reclining on a sofa.

A close-up of bleeding heart flowers.I don’t have a copy of Albion’s Seed on hand, a book about how regional cultural differences in the United States can be traced to regional cultures in England which were brought to this continent by colonists, so I’m working from memory, so please pardon any minor inaccuracies. Fischer makes few references to the native people who occupied the land taken over by the English settlers. (Fair enough, it’s not his subject.) One reference he does make, and I believe it had been in the context of the settlement of the western bank of the Delaware, is to an Indian tribe that had been “peaceful” and later became “warlike.” Fischer’s interest is in the persistence of cultural traits, not in their changes. Still, it echoed a general tendency to characterize the indigenous cultures of North America as either “warlike” or “peaceful”, as inherent characteristics rather than seeing a tendency to fight or not as being dependent on circumstances.

A former boyfriend, whose parents came here from Taiwan, liked to tell an anecdote. One day, his father asked him what he thought were values in Chinese culture and, more importantly, their relative importance. My boyfriend ranked honesty at the top of the list. His father shook his head in disbelief. “Boy,” he said, “Are you ever confused.” However, my boyfriend’s error had an obvious origin, his parents themselves. Being raised by Taiwanese parents in the U.S., he associated his parents values with Chinese values. His father, a scientist, valued truth and honesty above social tranquility. Despite having been raised in a Chinese culture himself, his father’s own personal values did not mirror perfectly those of the culture in which he had been raised. Logically, we know that his father must have been influenced by the culture in which he grew up.

Within a period of two years, around the age of thirteen and fourteen, I attended three different schools, all located within less than an hour’s drive of one another in Northern New Jersey. Yet each of these schools had their own distinct subculture. Religion was an easy-going, multi-cultural affair in the first, the second school, almost solidly Roman Catholic, approximately half Italian and half Irish, was the only place in the United States where I’ve felt out-of-place as an atheist, and, in the third, religion appeared not to exist at all.

When reading about the gun debates in the U.S. on political sites, I often feel as if I’ve fallen through the looking-glass. What world are they talking about? It’s really quite disorienting. I’ve never really seen myself as being gung-ho about gun control, yet the pro-gun people baffle me. They seem to think that I must be in favor of draconian bans because I don’t like guns. What’s to like? Who are these people? They’re like phantoms that exist only on the internet and t.v., because I’ve never met one of these people in person. Then one day, I saw a state by state breakdown of gun ownership. New Jersey was dead last. That gun culture, that supposedly American gun culture, it’s not my culture.

New Jersey, the state in which I was raised, is an outlier in a few other respects. It is usually ranked first or second in terms of wealth. It is the most densely populated. It had, last I checked, the highest average level of education. Perhaps these facts don’t conform to the stereotype of the state. A friend of mine once told me that the state of Baden-Wurttemberg is often joked about with the phrase, “We can do everything except high German.” I think New Jersey should steal this and adopt as our motto, “We can do everything except good taste.”

Another received notion about the United States is our puritanical attitudes towards sex. Yet every summer, my family went to Provincetown.

Where is Provincetown is an easy question to answer. It’s all the way at the end of Cape Cod at the very tip of Massachusetts jutting into the Atlantic Ocean at 42 degrees North by 70 degrees West. But the more interesting question is what is Provincetown. By definition it is a small coastal New England town, but culturally Provincetown is a concept, a living idea, an institution of free thought, imagination, creativity, fun, freedom and equality. Provincetown is a continually evolving libertine phenomenon. It is a work of art with hundreds and thousands of visitors adding their own unique brush stroke to a collective portrait of a community. It is truly like nowhere else. (Steve Desroches)

Those puritanical notions are very American, yet so is P-town, ironically founded by actual Puritans.

At the same time, I am most certainly American. Despite regional differences and sub-cultures, it’s not entirely unintelligible to talk about an “American” culture. I never feel so American as when I’m traveling abroad.

I think it’s important to understand that any culture is complicated, containing both primary currents and counter-currents. Although I enjoyed Fischer’s book greatly, and it helped explain why the American culture I hear so much about doesn’t resemble very well the American culture I grew up in, he also, I believe, overstates his case. Culture does change over time. The culture I grew up in has changed dramatically over the course of the last four decades and it will continue to change. Generalizations will always be just that, generalizations.

About a year or so ago some birders were having an exchange on the internet. I said that I didn’t think I qualified as a birder, but proceeded to post the list of birds I saw that day. They responded that it was okay for me to call myself a birder. So, as a birder, lackadaisical though I might be, I assumed that my post for this week’s photo challenge would involve birds, especially since I don’t believe that I have yet posted any photos of Red Tailed Hawks or Black Vultures, birds I see almost every day and are certainly associated with the word “up.”

However, my sister has had a hellacious week at work and finished a big project on Friday. So, on Saturday, we got a bottle of champagne. Instead of tramping through fields and forests trying to get photos of birds, I took, slightly tipsily, photos of bubbles floating up.

bubbles in a glass of champagne.