The Ideal of Figueres

May 23, 2014


From The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla:

I personally enjoy city milieus that have the spirit Figueres embodies.  I feel at ease there.  I think this is a city, properly speaking, what one should call a city.  Denser, more extensive concentrations of humanity may exist…but without the same degree of urbanity.  Figueres is a small, yet fully rounded city.  And if it is enchanting because it is fully rounded, it is all the more so because it is small.  Large cities are tiring, stressful, uncomfortable, pretentious, and grandiose:  they tend to give a false idea of life.  Small cities seem more made-to-measure for ordinary mortals, more advantageous for work and leisure, and offer a life that is more direct.  One doesn’t waste so much time, though naturally one doesn’t earn so much money.

Amen to that. Figures was nice, and so was Narbonne!

NYC, Storms, and Risk

June 20, 2013

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg released his report on the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  There’s a lot in there:  so much, that it’s hard to get a handle on just what the plan actually is.  Some of it seems quite sensible (new regulations for building in areas that are vulnerable to flooding) and some of it seems like the same old same old (continuous beach nourishment).

The mayor took an aggressive stance on the issue:  in case you didn’t know, the report informs us that tough is a synonym for resilient, and NYC is a synonym for “tough”.  During the press conference, a chorus of “We shall not be moved,” would not have been out of keeping with the tone.

Bloomberg also threw down the gauntlet to all those skeptics, deniers, quibblers, and doubters who ask whether or not climate change had anything to do with Sandy (doesn’t matter – climate change will make future storms worse), and if our fears of climate change and sea level rise are perhaps a bit overwrought.  On that last point, he delivered one of the most remarkable policy statements I’ve heard recently

 “Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point.  The bottom line is: We can’t run the risk.”

Umm… if we don’t think it is ‘real’, then there is zero risk.  Perhaps he means that we cannot run the risk that it is real (by acting as if it is not), but then, we have to discuss that.  He wants to foreclose discussion.

I’m not a fan of Bloomberg, but I am a fan of Paul Krugman, but on climate change, Krugman is the same way, despite his hammering of his opponents (justifiably) for their lax standards of evidence and logic.  Here’s his latest comment in a recent column:

Now, uncertainty by itself isn’t always a reason for inaction. In the case of climate change, for example, uncertainty about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures actually strengthens the case for action, to head off the risk of catastrophe…Delaying action on climate means releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we debate the issue…

Same sort of logic:

– We are  uncertain about the impact of carbon dioxide on climate, but…
– we must not delay serious action to reduce the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because…
– it will have a severe impact

The last point contradicts the first.  For an alternative view, I offer excerpts from a lengthy post by Dr. Robert Brown, a professor of physics at Duke University on the use of the label “denier” to tar those who are skeptical about climate change claims:

 …most of the skeptics do not “deny” AGW [anthropogenic global warming], certainly not the scientists or professional weather people (I myself am a physicist) and honestly, most of the non-scientist skeptics have learned better than that. What they challenge is the catastrophic label and the alleged magnitude of the projected warming on a doubling of CO_2. They challenge this on rather solid empirical grounds and with physical arguments and data analysis that is every bit as scientifically valid as that used to support larger estimates, often obtaining numbers that are in better agreement with observation….

…The issue of difficulty is key. Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

…Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

…This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity…

Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

November 25, 2012

There is a festival of doom in the Sunday New York Times today, with multiple articles on the threat to coastal cities in the USA posed by rising sea levels.  It includes a mournful, fatalistic essay by James Atlas, and a suite of interactive graphics that allow users to see just “what could disappear.”

This quote from one article pretty much sums up the message:

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

A few things to note here:

  • This paragraph assumes that the predictions based on models are all correct, and that the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) hypothesis is proven, “settled science.”  It’s not really that certain.  Or rather, the models themselves display tremendous uncertainty.
  • Also taken pretty much for granted is the fact that humans are not going to give their economy a thoroughgoing overhaul into the world of Green, so we might as well get ready!
  • Unmentioned is the fact that in many places, e.g. NYC, sea level has been rising steadily for centuries.  In NYC, it has been at a rate of about 1-foot per 100 years.
  • The word ‘could’  is used many times:  this paragraph is a worst-case scenario.

I had a professor of Ancient Art once who liked to say, “Civilizations come: Civilizations go…”  In archaeology, ‘civilization’ is synonymous with ‘city’.  Many cities have seen their harbors silt up, their water supplies disappear, their precincts inundated with lava or sea water.  It’s part of history.  Many other cities have survived for millenia by adjusting and changing.  When the writer says “It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase,”  he is displaying a lack of insight and imagination.  Yes, it would be hard to imagine how our cities could survive direct hits by meteorites either, but that’s not likely to happen.

I would suggest the following scenario as likely:  The climate will change, but most likely not in the drastic way some scientists predict.  Seas will continue to rise where they are rising now, and perhaps in other places as well, perhaps a bit faster, but slowly, over centuries.  Unlike Holland, where inundation brings national catastrophe approaching eradication, most places can adapt slowly, and they will adapt.  People will make decisions, slowly, haltingly, stupidly or with foresight, about when and where it is worth rebuilding.  Change happens even in NYC – most skyscrapers are not built for the ages. Lower floors can be abandoned or ‘repurposed.’  It all takes time, and we have time, plenty of it.  Things will change.  The only impossibility is keeping them just as they are now.

There is a bright side to all of this.  Think of the economic stimulus potential of a huge program to raise local airports and critical infrastructure above the flood level – the greatest ‘shovel-ready‘ public works program in history!

Cranky on Consumerism…

April 29, 2012

crank   (krngk) n.

– A device for transmitting rotary motion, consisting of a handle or arm attached at right angles to a shaft.
– Informal:   A grouchy person; An eccentric person, especially one who is unduly zealous.

Back to one of my favorite topics for complaint:  It seems that every time I look at the news, especially the business news, everything is about the Internet.  (Surprise!)  I just want to find out whether the UK and Europe are imploding and all I see are articles about startups and IPOs for outfits selling gizmos that help us spend money, waste time, and gain access to more information, most of which is of no use to us, except as a way to help us spend more money and waste more time.  In the NYTimes, one academic jocularly speculated:

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, he went on, you won’t have to shop at all. Your vast piles of shopping data would be instead collected, analyzed and used to tell you exactly what you need: a new motorcycle from Ducati, perhaps, or purple rain boots in the next size for your growing child. Money will be seamlessly taken from your account. A delivery will arrive at your doorstep.

And if we could just figure out how to have machines make all the stuff for us, grow our food, and tend our bodies without having to move, we could just plug in and live virtually!

Don’t get me wrong – I love stuff.  I just spent hours shopping for a new pair of shoes made of Tyvek – looks really cool.  But I wouldn’t be destroyed if all these opportunities were taken away.  Is it my age?  I had a roommate once who thought of nothing but making money and buying. “That’s what man is,” he, a resolutely unphilosophical person told me.  “Man is a consumer.  He buys things.

When I was thirteen, I got a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I recently discarded it, but I kept the A and Z volumes just as a reminder of happy times gone by.  I would start off looking something up, it would lead to something else, and something else again in another volume, and pretty soon hours had gone by while I ‘surfed’ the expanse of human culture, and I was left sitting on the floor surrounded by opened volumes.  Now I do it online.  I rather like doing it online, but I don’t kid myself that my experience is essentially any better.  Just faster, and more rich in media.  Some things I can find now with ease that I would have had to go far out of my way to get then…but that was part of the fun of it!  Something gained, something lost.  This is the way of life, but, not on the business pages.  How long before people start to get jaded?

A minority opinion, but not a solitary one.  The caveman at the left is the logo of Uncivilized Booksa small publisher of comics, that I discovered in Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD.  Yes, an actual store!  This comics artist, Tom Kaczynski, seems to be thinking the same sort of thoughts.  And I love that logo!  That’s me, but I wear a collar and carry a laptop as I face the day’s challenges of scratching a living from the earth.

In one of his comics, Kaczynski talks about Richard Florida, and his books on the rise of The Creative Class…new to me. But at the symposium I attended Friday at the Regional Plan Association in NYC, I felt like I was hearing what he was describing, at least at the morning session.  Bike paths, cultural diversity, cafes, restaurants (for the record:  I like all that stuff) capital chasing all those smart, talented, hip-and-with-it highly educated technology workers…  What must a city do to woo them to come and live in its precincts?  And what about the not-so-smart and not-so-hip or talented?

Mayor Bloomberg gave his “NYC is Great” (and so it is) speech, and remarked that the RPA has been around giving us great plans since 1929!  1929 gave us so many great things – he rattled off a few, including Scotch Tape.  Was it a subtle joke on his part that he omitted The Crash?

Once again, mes pauvres lecteurs, I call your attention to this brilliant piece of social commentary:  Flaubert on the Internet.

Vieques – Bioluminescence

December 21, 2011

Took a little time to get away to Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, about 20 minutes by plane from San Juan.  For decades, much of the island was used by the US military as a proving ground for artillery, with the result that it was never developed as a tourist destination.  It remains a very quiet and undeveloped spot now that the bombing has been halted (decades of agitation achieved the goal in 2003) although some, not all! are hoping for a big uptick in development.

Those who are hoping against casinos and resorts are the ones who treasure the island as a little bit of relatively unspoiled nature.  The place reminds me of my days in Goa, many years ago, but without the people.  At least, when we were there, it was not hopping at all, although the high season starts after Christmas.  How high it gets, I don’t know.

Besides the beautiful beaches with calm water and fine sand, Vieques is known for the ‘bio-bay’, or Mosquito Bay (not for bugs, but for pirate ship that used to hide there) which has the highest concentration of bio-luminescent creatures of anyplace in the world.  These microscopic organisms produce bright light when they are disturbed – nobody knows why for sure.  If you have ever taken a cruise in warm waters at night and peered over the bow, you may have seen flashes of light from the bow wave that are caused by these critters – they are not rare, but this bay is remarkable.

At night, paddling through the water on kayaks, the bright stars above, and the water totally dark, any movement disturbs the Pyrodinium bahamense dinoflagellates, which causes quite a show.  The paddles pierce the dark surface of the bay and are surrounded by a bright glow.  If you shake your hand in the water, everywhere there is white light.  Fish darting below the surface of the water leave streaks like meteorites crashing through the atmosphere.  Pounding on the side of the kayak sends out a pressure wave causing every creature within twenty feet to glow brightly.  If you scoop up the water and let it run down your arms, it looks as if you are covered in glowing molten metal.

Swimming in the bay is prohibited!  We took an excellent tour of the area led by Abey, son of Abe, who is one of those folks happy to see development held at bay.  He even is happy the military was there for so long – it kept the bay and other areas undisturbed.  He rants about the evils of urban life a lot, but seemed to accept my comment that romantic nature lovers are all born in the city.  If you go, give them a call:  they really know the territory!

Ghost Crabs will keep you company…

And speaking of nature, here’s an old video:

Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!

Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.