Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Master and Margarita | The Truth About Lies

The Master and Margarita | The Truth About Lies

My friend the novelist Jim Murdoch provides a very detailed and interesting commentary on Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. An astounding novel that I first read last spring. It was one of those books that sort of popped out at me when I was browsing the bookshelves in the bookstore while looking for something else entirely. As Jim says, and I agree, every writer should read it. Perfectly delightful.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sufjan Stevens, BQE

This week while driving on the Long Island Expressway we heard on WNYC Spinning on Air an interview of a musician and selections of his work.

The comment made in our truck while on our way to Home Depot was something like, "Yeah, I think this is the guy I started to play his music and it freaked me out. I had to shut it off. He did an album of electronic music about animals that sounded like someone who had never done electronic music."

But there was something else going on here in this orchestral music that we were hearing on the radio. As soon as I had an opportunity I followed up to get hold of the entire symphony, laid back with the headphones and let it rip. As some of my friends & family already know I have one hell of a lot of hours driving on the Robert Moses built expressways around, within and out of NYC. Plus a bunch of years living and working in the Willy-B/Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It is not solely a dedication to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or the original commission by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the intimacy of my decades of familiarity with the expressway, either on it, near it, under it -- there is something gloriously grand in Sufjan Steven's symphonic composition BQE that makes me feel that it could only have been bred, born and nurtured in the soul of Brooklyn.

Though that sentiment may be in great part an illusion seeing as Sufjan is originally from Michigan. Though his banjo wings and his Methodist upbringing could be magically misleading.

I am not a reliable music critic, don't intend to be , I know my taste is eclectic (give me Dongjing any day), but anyone that titles a composition "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois", would not remain off my radar for long. Though I will say that if you breeze around looking up YouTubes and such you will find a very mixed bag.

The largest complaint that can be found on the internet about Sufjan centers on his being stylistically all over the place, either a pop-folk indie, or symphonic composer, and if you listen to his work (other than his symphony) you may immediately notice that it varies in quality, at times remarkable then just as suddenly it falls off a cliff somewhere. I was asked why an artist would behave in this manner and it caused me to reflect on how, as a writer, I can hit a note here, and miss there, fall off a cliff or bash my face into a brick wall, and that my own work is, as with Sufjan... it is all over the place. I never really have a feeling for when it is good, or bad, I'm involved and engaged in the minutia of the fungus on the tree trunk, let alone looking at the forest from outer space. Difficult to hold down, difficult to pin down, an existential leap through an obstacle course brought on by a being alive and awake. Perfectly willing to change the rules of the game to take the game onto another playing field, or to evaporate the playing field entirely in favor to sit on a sofa and eat chips. If one follows their creative inspiration, as obviously Sufjan is doing, and they have the least bit of a complicated human nature then they are not going to fit very well into the boxes provided by audience expectations in a world of mass-commodity media, either in music or in literature (and it appears Sufjan is also a writer). What one needs to anticipate from Sufjan is something entirely else next time.

THE BQE- A Film By Sufjan Stevens from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Interlude I—Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Traffic Shock, BQE - Movement IV
Album, DVD etc. available at Rough Trade.

A full CD soundtrack, the DVD of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway footage, a 40 page booklet with liner notes and photos as well as a stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster reel. Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens' label, to release a limited edition double gatefold vinyl edition of The BQE on 180-gram vinyl with a 32 page booklet, and a black and white version of a BQE themed Hooper Heroes Comic Book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Deep Economy, the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben

When I read this book I kept reading passages that made me desire to buy more copies and send to specific of my friends as McKibben brings up so many issues that I have heard expressed regarding the need for a sustainable human built-environment, as well as sustaining the resource of traditional trades.

Preservation of old buildings, and the people who practice the craft of historic preservation, is not solely about a near-religious fixation on ancestor worship. It is also about not discarding the embedded energy and resource of the existing built environment, and a conscientious understanding of how most optimally to preserve that previously expended use of energy resources, and it is this perspective that the practitioners of traditional trades embody in a collective knowledge. To bring these people together to share in their knowledge is to build a sustainable community toward a durable future.

You can paint it GREEN if you so desire, but it is so much more than choice of a color pallet.

“Consider the most influential new program on television in the last decade, Survivor, which ushered in the reality show craze. Along with its uncountable offspring, it operates on the premise that the goal is to end up alone on the island, to manipulate and scheme until everyone else goes away and leaves you by yourself with your money”

And then we have the father of balloon boy.

Can one say that Richard Heene and his family is not living out the American dream, or soon to be nightmare, in a sort of modern morality play of Everyman as reinforced by our mass-news media?

I have been building a UFO out of cast iron for many years now... on a test flight of an early prototype it sunk off the south shore of Long Island. Possibly I should have called the Coast Guard? Or possibly the answer to capture maximum broad-band exposure is more gas and we purchase more better duct tape?

After many years of working in the construction industry I am often struck, and a bit outraged, at the prevailing public opinion that the low bidder on a project, particularly one paid for by taxes, is the least cost and the most efficient. On the surface it makes sense that we would want to pay less for more, or for just enough, but once the public spotlight on a project is gone, once a project goes into contract there are a whole host of “hidden” costs. These are costs that are in the interest of various players, particularly the ones who receive the windfall, to want to keep hidden. The name of the game is to bid low, which assures getting the project, then fight for change orders on every single discrepancy that can be fought over. It makes for a cantankerous work environment. Contractors who master the low-bid game also master the change order process. I say this as the largest change order I was ever involved in manipulating, from the contractor side, was $2.5M and it had more to do with bureaucratic incompetence than it had to do with necessity. Give it a few years later and the entire project would likely be done over again at an even higher cost. There are techniques of manipulation and negotiation that one learns as in any profession.

None of this low-bid outrage has much to do with Bill McKibben’s book, least ways not much on the surface. This book sat on the corner of my work desk for more than a year before I finally picked it up. In part my slowness in taking it on had to do with the recession, having to work hard enough already to stay solvent and not wanting to focus on those problems, and a reluctance to maybe look at what is hidden beneath our current economic trends. There is one thing that comes out to me very strongly in the current economy, and that is that healthy community, connections, relationships, networking is vital to our personal survival. That is a bit of what McKibben talks about, the relationship of hyper-individualism, the uninhibited pursuit of number-one as opposed to the common good, and posits this social relationship against a backdrop of a closed-earth system with a limitation on progressive growth, and a limitation on the resources of energy, and a strain on the natural environment that human life itself is dependent upon.

Something that I picked up on in New Orleans post-Katrina is that the historic structures that survived tended to be built not only in survivable areas, but with local materials (cypress for example, plaster made with burnt oyster shells for another) that were understood by the local building culture to be appropriate, but also that the local building culture had been influenced by centuries of French experience in Equatorial and tropic climates. And yet, post-Katrina one of the problems encountered was the tendency of sheetrock to get black mold (unlike with plaster, and who knows how much of the sheetrock came from China and may contain poisons?), or the replacement of exterior doors or windows with the latest mass-manufactured big-box substitute. McKibben in one passage talks about local forest harvests and what some may call “alternative” building technologies that re-jigger the mass production economics in the building industry (think home building industry, and was it not the home building industry, mortgages etc. that fueled the last economic bubble?) to increase local labor (decentralized, potentially in work teams, as in communal and/or barter exchange) and in the end come out not only less expensive in the long-range (avoidance of long-term debt and usury) and often with materials that can be replenished within one human’s lifetime.

Regardless what one believes about climate change it is fairly obvious that humans are running out of resources as populations increase, and as emerging 'growth' populations take on a rapidly expanding conversion of non-renewable energy resources -- but what is not so easily noticed is the hidden costs of our state of mind, of the ferocity of our individualism, our demand that an individual has a right to rise to the top “by their own efforts”. Unfortunately nobody rises by their own efforts, they rise by the efforts of the community that selects and supports them to rise. One can bend the language to create a myth of self-reliant individualism, but it remains just that, a myth.

One of the things that I hear, and feel, is that a long-term sustainable economic recovery cannot be obtained if we continue to push toward “progress” in the same manner as got us to where we are now, and that a future economy will need to be different, will need to be more communal... and I mean this in the sense that not every home needs to be a McMansion, and not every McMansion needs three cars and a speed boat too large to trailer behind their SUV. McKibben provides a host of examples and contemplation on the hidden costs and the need for sustainable, local, community based economic models. What I come away with is looking at the immediate lives around me, my own included, and a desire to figure out how to make sensible adjustments toward a sustainable business model and life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Philadelphia Aerial Lift Accident 10/12/09

This is a similar model of lift that we were using on our gig on Park Ave. in September -- the one where we had to move the machine out of President Obama's route of travel. In this case one of the mechanics died from the 125' fall. Fox Chicago article with videos http://bit.ly/21cthu and a detailed article including comments by Brent Schopfel, owner of Masonry Preservation Group http://bit.ly/4p68nx

A problem with any equipment -- in this case the rule that one does not move a lift on the street or sidewalk when it is extended -- is that operators get comfortable with the equipment, be it lift or scaffold or whatever, and begin to take risks as they explore the boundaries of the safety envelope. Note that there were two lifts used at this location (you an see a white lift extended to height in the still of the 1st video here) and there were not the appropriate street and sidewalk permits.... on Columbus Day.... and for an inspection at a church.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why I had nothing to add here in September

September was a busy month for our business.

Project #1: We provided site and logistic support services for the design team for investigation of the Edison Memorial Tower in New Jersey. This is the tower at the Menlo Park location where Edison invented the light bulb. The exterior of the tower is made with John Earley exposed aggregate panels. John Earley was an artisan who developed and advanced the early practice (yes, Earley was early) of exposed aggregate concrete. We spent an intensive week there, first in, last out on the site, making sure that the architects and structural engineers, technicians, consultants and conservators got the information that they came looking for. This is our third Edison related project, the first being our lead on the movement of Edison Building #11 from Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI to within 10’ of where it originally resided at the Edison National Historic site in West Orange, NJ. The building had been relocated to Dearborn in 1940 and essentially we reversed the process. We were also involved in an early stage in the rescue of a former schoolhouse from Edison’s Ogden Mine at Mount Sparta, now turned into a local Hungarian culture museum at Franklin, NJ. [Yes, and those are people hanging from ropes off the tower, not us, but our friends at Vertical Access.]

Project #2: Paint stripping from limestone within a vestibule at the 90th Street entrance for the Church of Heavenly Rest. This project had to be done over Labor Day weekend as the Church leases space for a day school and the messy work had to be done when the children, and their parents, would not be around. For some unknown reason the beautiful limestone within the vestibule had been covered over the years with several layers of paint. This project has proven a very messy job and more of a challenge than we anticipated, but we persist, and continue to work at removing the paint. We enjoy logistical problems and in this case you need to imagine using paint stripper within an enclosed space (as if inside the chamber of a large drum) and then coming along with a pressure washer and removing the residue and controlling the run-off. Talk about blow-back! Fortunately the paint stripper that we are using, that appears to work, does not eat through our skin with chemical burns as it appears impossible to undertake this mission without getting ourselves immediately soaked down to our socks and underwear. I absolutely hate paint stripping... but we do a considerable amount of these small missions for the church. We are also involved with the restoration and resetting of a bronze gate on the 5th Ave. elevation. One of our favorite projects with the Church this year was to mount the alms box just in time for Easter. We got to meet the 80+ year old woodworker who made the box... we asked him to drill four holes into the back of it.

Project #3: We had a gig to run a 125’ tall aerial lift around on Park Ave. between 52nd and 53rd Street for a structural engineer to investigate the condition of the terra cotta cornice at the Racquet & Tennis Club. Talking logistics, this project was an interesting challenge. I was worried about traffic both pedestrian and vehicular in a highly congested area of Manhattan, but that was the least of our adventure. I am almost nearly complete with writing up just what went on at this gig, near to 9,000 words. Simply put, first thing 1,000 Chinese showed up and we were in the middle of their demonstration, that is how we found out the hard way that the UN was in session, then we had to deal with being in the path of Obama who wanted to visit Letterman... we were in the path on the street with a 44,000 pound machine (i like this little advert movie). It got sticky. And in the final move of absurdity we were faced with a possible shut-down for a television series shoot on Park Avenue. We managed to survive.

In the midst of all this we had family birthdays, vehicles that needed critical care, worked with a team to assemble a bid on restoration of a windmill tower at Sagamore Hill, the Town of Brookhaven threatening to clean our yard, and a construction project suddenly happening next door to our house. Oh, and we think we finally fixed the damaged sill cock at the Mineola Presbyterian Church.

October is starting up a bit slower, and we are grateful for the rest and the opportunity to put things back in order. It is not a good time of year to have a cold. It is a good time of year to work on the heating system for the office shed. In the mean time we visited a church in Harlem where the roof and parapet are rather dramatically gone, and we looked at maybe doing repair work on sculptural stone benches at the British Memorial Gardens at Hanover Square in lower Manhattan.

Next week we are going to be doing probes at a bath house at Jones Beach. We have worked on a number of Robert Moses structures, most recently as the probe & mock-up contractor for the design team for the restoration of the pool at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is a $40M+ project now in stage of going to contract. We used to live across the street from the pool – when the gangs stole from parked vehicles they would go hide in the pool house to sort through the loot -- and we have a long history with the neighborhood that we had sense to run away from, to move to the most obscure spot we could find on Long Island, before Williamsburg became upscale artsy fashionable. And in the past we relocated the Paul Manship aluminum medallions from the façade of the NY Coliseum to remount them on the face of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel ventilation building at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Our project to mount these medallions held up the filming of Men in Black II as the ventilation building, which houses an array of very large fans, is the structure that is used as the headquarters in the movie.