Sunday, July 28, 2019

RIP César Pelli

Another great modernist architect has passed away:
César Pelli, an architect whose soaring towers defined the skylines of cities around the world, died on July 19 at the age of 92. A versatile designer, Pelli penned museums, airport terminals, and hospital campuses. But he was best known for his skyscrapers, which departed from strict modernism in their integration of historic forms and broad palette of materials. 
Born in 1926, Pelli was raised in San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of the Tucumán province in northern Argentina, and graduated from university there before obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954. He then spent a decade working for the great midcentury designer Eero Saarinen, offering significant creative input on projects such as the TWA Flight Center and Ezra Stiles College and Morse College at Yale University.
Pelli later started his own practice. He was extremely prolific, but his most famous works include the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) in Manhattan, Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center in Minneapolis, the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, the Patronas Towers (which from 1988 until 2004 were the tallest buildings in the world) in Kuala Lumpur, and the recently-completed Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

César Pelli has also contributed much to the architecture of Houston. Between 1982 and 1983, the Four Oaks Place and Four Leaf Towers were completed. Four Oaks Place consists of four buildings of various heights and are covered by a skin of blue and gray ceramic glass. The Four Leaf Towers are two tall residential towers featuring curtain walls of pink and brown ceramic glass and topped with octagonal truncated pyramids. Their height and design made them landmarks of Houston’s Uptown skyline.

Pelli also designed the O'Quinn (formerly St. Luke’s) Medical Tower, which was completed in 1990. The 25-story building, located between Fannin and Main Streets, is characterized by two octagonal towers covered with a tight glass and mullion system. The so-called “Twin Syringes” have become an architectural focal point of the Texas Medical Center.

Pelli was the architect of record for 1500 Louisiana Street, which was commissioned by Enron; however, Enron collapsed before the building was completed in 2002 and never occupied it.

Pelli has also contributed to the architecture of Rice University as well as the University of Houston. Herring Hall, the home of Rice’s Graduate School of Administration, was completed in 1984. The Ley Student Center was completed in 1986. Both buildings conform to the Beaux-Arts scheme of Rice University while being decidedly modern, with a banded red brick façade. On the sides of Herring Hall, the brick is laid in a diagonal pattern, while the brick at the Ley Center is accented with blue, further reinforcing Pelli’s experimental use of color. On the University of Houston campus, Pelli designed the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex, which was completed in 2005. It features steel, buff brick and red clay tile as building material and is located prominently along Cullen Boulevard.

I studied César Pelli extensively as an architecture student at the University of Houston and I enjoyed his work. I am saddened that he is no longer with us.

Slovenia: Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bled and Ljubljana

Back-to-back Eurotrip posts, because it was exactly one year ago today that we made our way from Austria to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, stopping along the way to enjoy the natural beauty of Vintgar Gorge.

Vintgar Gorge is a ravine cut over the ages by the Radovna River. It was not accessible until the late 1800s, when a local mayor and a cartographer came up with the idea of building a wooden walkway along the ravine's sheer walls. The walkway was completed in 1893 and the gorge has been a tourist attraction ever since.

The wooden walkway follows the canyon walls just above the river, providing amazing scenery at every turn.

Along certain sections of the ravine, the wooden walkway crosses from one side of the canyon to the other. Below, the river passes through multiple rapids, waterfalls and whirlpools. The water is crystal clear; I even saw a trout swimming in it.

As the ravine continues, it widens a bit and the wooden walkway becomes a concrete path. The entire length of the walk is 1,600 meters, or one mile, and ends at the Šum Waterfall.

One of the smaller waterfalls along the gorge's walkway. Vintgar Gorge is open from April through November and the admission fee is currently €10 for adults (it was €5 when we visited a year ago). The pathway is narrow and can get very crowded, so visitors are advised to get there early.

After we left Vintgar Gorge, we drove around nearby Lake Bled, which is perhaps Slovenia's most famous tourist landmark. The lake's focal point is its island, upon which sits the Church of the Assumption. The 17th-century church is accessible by boats which dock at the bottom of a 99-step staircase to the church. The lake is also overlooked by Bled Castle, which is perched atop a cliff on the north side of the lake and today is a museum. We didn't visit either the church or he castle because we were in a hurry to get to our hotel in Ljubljana. That just means that we'll have to go back one day!

The Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, which dates to 1901. Although the outskirts of the city are dominated by large, Yugoslav-era apartment blocks, the center of Ljubljana is charming and comfortably walkable. The dragon is a symbol of the city.

A view of Stritarjeva Ulica (street) in central Ljubljana, with the  street, with Fountain of the Three Rivers in the foreground and the pink, baroque Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in the distance. The church is one of Ljubljana's better-known landmarks; its location in front of Prešeren Square and the Triple Bridge is visible from much of the old town and helps to orient visitors.

Ljubljana Castle, with the 1891 Philharmonic Hall in the foreground. (Apparently they were setting up for a concert in Congress Square when I took this picture.) A funicular takes you to up to the castle, which has a delightful courtyard as well as multiple exhibits (including a history of Slovenia through its Napoleonic, Austrian and Yugoslav eras to independence).


A portion of Ljubljana, as seen from the top of the tower of its castle looking west. Congress Square, from where I took the previous picture, is clearly visible to the center right. The gray-and-cream building with the green roofs adjacent to it is the headquarters of the University of Ljubljana. The building at the far end of the square is the Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity, which was completed in 1726. Behind that are the 1960s-era buildings of Republic Square.



Another view of Ljubljana, from the same location looking northwest. A portion of the castle itself (which has existed in some form at the top of this hill since at least the 11th century) can be seen to the lower right, and the green-capped towers and dome of Ljubljana Cathedral are visible just below the center of picture. The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation is to the left.


A close-up of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and Prešeren Square, which is the psychological center of Ljubljana. A portion of the Triple Bridge, which crosses the Ljubljanica River in front of the square, can also be seen. We took a boat tour of the Ljubljanica, which was a fantastic way to see the city from a different perspective.


We spent two nights in Ljubljana and tried to see a much of the city as possible. However, there was still a lot of the city - the University District, Tivoli Park, everything outside of Ljubljana's historic center and several museums - that we did not have time to explore. Again, it just means that we'll have to go back one day!

The people of Ljubljana were generally very friendly; we did not have a problem finding people who spoke or understood English or otherwise finding our way around. The food was excellent.

If you're planning a trip to this part of Europe, put this city (as well as Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge) on your list.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Berchtesgaden and Königssee, Germany

We've reached the one-year anniversary of the big 2018 Eurotrip, and I have just a few more posts regarding the adventure. It was one year ago today, in fact, that we made the second of two trips to the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden and environs.

Berchtesgaden is located in the very corner of Bavaria, near Germany's border with Austria. It is about 20 miles southwest of Salzburg, and was less than an hour from our timeshare in Schladming, which made it an easy place for a day trip. It is a popular tourist destination due to nearby attractions such as the lake Königssee and Berchtesgaden National Park.

Berchtesgaden is also near the location of the Berghof, which was Hitler's Alpine headquarters, as well as the Eagle's Nest. The compound was destroyed after World War II, and today the site is the location of the Dokumentation Obersalzburg museum, which contains information about the area's use by Nazi officials and about the history of the Nazi Party in general. (We did not visit Dokumentation Obersalzburg or the Eagle's Nest on this trip - too depressing - although we probably should see it some day.)


The first area attraction we experienced was the Rossfeldpanoramastrasse (Panoramic Road), a privately-maintained toll road which reaches altitudes of 1,570 meters (5,151 feet) and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Alpine countryside.


There are several places along the Rossfeld Panoramic Road where people can stop, get out and walk along pathways. One such path straddles the Germany-Austria border and provides amazing views of the peaks in the distance and the valleys below.

It was just a little bit hazy the day we visited, but the Alpine scenery was nevertheless stunning. The toll to drive along the roadway is €8.50 for passenger cars; just watch out for cyclists while you drive.

The town of Berchtesgaden is a typical Bavarian town, with the requisite market squares and biergartens. Today it is a major tourist center due to all the attractions in the area as well as its proximity to Salzburg and Munich.


The Marktbrunnen (Market Fountain) in Berchtesgaden's market square. Berchtesgaden was occupied by Allied Forces after World War II and had a United States military presence as late as 1995.

The Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist and the adjacent Berchtesgaden Palace, as seen from the Schlossplatz. The church has existed since at least the 12th century but has been rebuilt several times; the current twin-tower, neo-Romaseque façade dates from the 1800s. The Palace was originally a medieval monetary but in 1810 became the summer residence of the Bavarian royal family. The green-domed spire of St. Andrew's Church can be seen in the background to the left.


The Haus der Berge (House of the Mountains) is the Visitors' Center for Berchtesgaden National Park. Visitors to Berchtesgaden should put this venue at the top of their to-see list. 


Mom and dad explore the Haus der Berge. The museum's interactive "Vertical Wilderness" exhibit, in English as well as German, explains the four main habitats of Berchtesgaden National Park: water, forest, mountain pasture (Alm) and rocky terrain. As you climb up the exhibit pathway, you also "climb" through these four habitats.


The flora and fauna of the Bavarian Alps are exhibited an explained here, as well as the history of tis people. Unlike most museums, at Haus der Berge you are encouraged to touch the taxidermied animals and other items on display.

The exhibit's lights and sounds change to mimic the passing of the day or the seasons. The designers of the Haus der Berge clearly had a lot of fun putting these exhibits together.


The Haus der Berge offers a fantastic view of the Watzmann, which is the third-highest peak in Germany. The Watzmann is a key geological feature of Berchtesgaden National Park.

Another key geological feature of Berchtesgaden National Park is lake Königssee, which we visited a couple of days after our first visit to the area. A fleet of electric boats ferry passengers to a handful of destinations along the narrow lake. The boats depart from Schönau am Königssee, at the northern end of the lake, are used both by sightseers wanting to see the lake as well as hikers wanting to access hiking trails within the park.

Nestled between the lake and the Watzmann is St. Bartholomew's Church (St. Bartholomä). A church has been at this location since 1134, the current Baroque structure was completed in 1698. This is a popular attraction and the Königssee boats make a stop here.


The boats also stop at Salet, on the southern tip of Königssee. Several hiking trails begin here, as this display indicates. One trail leads to Obersee, another smaller lake just south of Königssee.

Sightseers admire and cool their feet in the Obersee. Corinne and I spent several minutes here, relaxing and taking in the scenery, before returning to Salet, where mom and dad decided to stay.

A view of the Königssee's Salet dock, looking north. From here we took the boat ride back to Schönau am Königssee, admiring the beauty of the Bertchesgaden Alps one final time before returning to Schladming. The following day we moved on to Slovenia, which will be the subject of my next post.

We made two day trips to Berchtesgaden and really only scratched the surface of everything there is to do there. If you have some time to spare while you're in Bavaria or Salzburg, be sure to visit this amazingly beautiful corner of Germany.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The end of First Pasadena State Bank

A piece of Houston (and more specifically, Pasadena) history came crumbling down last weekend:


Citylab's Kriston Capps explains why the building was significant:
For Texas architecture, and for modernist history, the loss will sting. Built in 1962, the First Pasadena State Bank is a rare example of a tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (and actually completed). The building’s architects, of the firm MacKie and Kamrath, were Wright devotees, and they made the building in keeping with his design principles. Vacant since 2002, the tower tells an unlikely story of Houston’s evergreen economy, the consolidation of American banking, and Wright’s lasting legacy—and its demolition will claim a bit of the history of all three.
“The building is very distinctive in terms of not only its spatial organization, but the way in which its detailing is derived from the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and lecturer at Rice University.
The First Pasadena State Bank building was remarkable not only because of its obvious Wright influence, but also because it was (aside from its refinery towers) the tallest building in the industrial town of Pasadena, located directly east of Houston proper and directly south of the Ship Channel. The building was readily visible from nearby freeways such as State Highway 225 and marked what was essentially the "center" of Pasadena: a large block that contained the tower along with the city's main post office, its city hall, library and municipal complex, and what was then known as the Pasadena Town Square shopping mall.

While such a distinctive building might today seem out of place in a low-slung, blue-collar town such as Pasadena, back in the early 1960s it served an important civic purpose:
The First Pasadena State Bank would be the only tower the firm ever saw completed, and the only building of distinction in poor Pasadena. It was not unusual for a Texas town to throw up a single skyscraper in the middle of the 20th century. Oil boomtowns across Texas built similar signature structures, one apiece, in the 1920s: a five-story bank building, an eight-story hotel, and the like. Often, by the time these upstart cities got the treasured tower open, the good times had already moved on. (San Angelo, the place where this writer’s family is from, is one of these one-horse towns: The Cactus Hotel, built in 1929, is the only feature of the city skyline.) 
“There was this impetus to go out and hire an architect and design a landmark building, which obviously is not the case any more,” Fox says.
Back then, banks were reliable suppliers of these community-affirming projects. They had the capital, but more importantly, they had the local imprimatur: Through the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. banks were required to be locally owned. “Deals were sealed with handshakes, and the bank’s president, Buddy Jones, waved hello to his customers,” writes Lisa Gray, columnist for the Houston Chronicle. That changed in the 1980s, when states began permitting the entry of out-of-state bank holding companies. Once-proud towers hosting state-chartered banks were relegated to branch status or closed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the number of U.S. banks dropped from 14,500 in the mid-1980s to 5,600 by 2014.
The great wave of consolidation hit First Pasadena, too, and the bank went through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. JPMorgan Chase got the bank, while another entity ended up with the building; it was shuttered in 2002. Yet another private investor held the tower from 2005 to 2018, but to no end. Finally, its space-age swag long since stripped, the First Pasadena State Bank building came into the possession of the Pasadena Economic Development Corporation. Harris County recently assessed the building’s value at a sorry $100.
The private investor who owned the building from 2005 until 2018 repeatedly made claims that they were going to renovate the building but never followed through. The vacant building continued to deteriorate, and was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike. What was once an icon of Pasadena had become an symbol of neglect and blight.
“When I first became Mayor, I was looking out my office window and realized I had a perfect view of the First Pasadena State Bank Building,” Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner told the Chronicle. “However, instead of looking out onto a stately piece of architectural history, I realized I was looking at a run-down, neglected and dangerous empty building.” 
The mayor added, “That’s when it really hit me: For a lot of people, this is their image of Pasadena. And I knew then, we needed to start changing perceptions.”
It's unfortunate that such a remarkable building - a local landmark, a symbol of civic pride, an excellent example of mid-century Texas modernism, a product of a different, more-forward-looking era - was allowed to decay to the point that there was no choice but to bring it down. But this building's story is all too common in the architectural world: the civic and economic conditions that brought the building into being change, the structure itself ages out of profitable use, collective inertia sets in, and eventually what was once a proud landmark becomes a blighted eyesore. And so another piece of the region's history is lost.

Paper City has more.

Half a century ago last Saturday

Yes, I posted this a decade ago. And no, it never gets old:

The legal supremacy of the automobile

In the United States, people are compelled to use the private automobile to fully participate in our society. Those that, for whatever reason, cannot or do not operate their own vehicle are essentially second-class citizens. University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill aregues that this is by legal design:
It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency on the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it. 
Let’s begin at the state and local levels. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.
Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. [More on this in a moment.] As the UCLA urban-planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.
Working in the transportation planning profession, I frequently hear the claim that private automobile use is the dominant form of transportation because "people love their cars," and that attempts to plan and promote alternative forms of transportation, such as pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure or more public transportation, are at best frivolous and at worst wasteful because "nobody chooses to use" them. As Shill points out, however, the automobile's dominance in our society isn't so much a "choice" but rather a "necessity" promogulated by almost a century's worth of policies that have favored its use over all other forms of transportation.

In addition to the factors he described above, Shill goes on to list policies such as tax deductions for mortgages and parking, design standards for vehicles, insurance requirements, and criminal law as examples that have prioritized the automobile. He continues:
Since the dawn of the automobile, governments have been slow to address its downsides. “We have gloated too much over the usefulness of the motor car,” said The New York World in a 1913 editorial. “We put it into reckless hands. We make no effective laws against its misuse.”
In the years since, American government at all levels crossed a line. Instead of merely accommodating some people’s desire to drive, our laws essentially force driving on all of us—by subsidizing it, by punishing people who don’t do it, by building a physical landscape that requires it, and by insulating reckless drivers from the consequences of their actions. To page through the law books today is to stumble again and again upon evidence of automobile supremacy. The range and depth of legal supports for driving is bewildering. But these laws, which are everywhere we look, are also opportunities.
Shill argues that all of these policies and laws encouraging and enforcing automobile supremacy could be reversed by the legislative bodies that enacted them to begin with, whether at the local, state or federal level. At the local level, zoning ordinances are one such example; city leaders could relax and reform these rules if they had the will to do so.* Other local ordinances that favor automobile use pertain to minimum parking regulations; in fact, and in regards to Houston and its parking-space-per-resident ratio that Shill mentioned earlier, City Council took a (small) step towards addressing that issue last week when it voted to exempt Midtown and the East End from the minimum parking regulations that the city imposes on development:
Market-based parking exempts areas from the citywide parking minimums, allowing property owners to provide the number of off-street parking spaces "they believe are necessary to service their customers," according to the planning department. "This change gives property owners more flexibility in the use o their property and removes a bureaucratically-imposed minimum that is based on one-size-fits-all analysis." The area, notes the planning department, has "sufficient multimodal transportation system, high transit ridership, and the existence of significant surface and parking garage spaces."
The expansion was supported by the East Downtown Management District and the Midtown Management District.
Even so, the "we need parking minimums because nobody chooses to walk" argument still made an appearance, courtesy of one councilmember who doesn't even represent any of the areas being exempted:
Councilmember Greg Travis, the only council member to vote against the amendment, insisted parking spaces were necessary because people wouldn't walk to destinations. "Today? Walk for two blocks, it's not going to happen."

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner was quick to point out that the majority of businesses in the affected areas were supportive. The Kinder Houston Area Survey, meanwhile, has tracked the increasing desire for walkable urbanism among Houston-area residents.
Look: no realistic person is going to argue that private automobiles don't provide tremendous advantages when it comes to personal convenience, comfort and mobility. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question the countless hours of our lives wasted by the congestion they cause, the 40,000 people killed every year by their use, the way they dictate our physical environment, or the way they essentially relegate those who don't own or operate them to second-class citizenship. It's well past time we as a society re-examined the laws and policies enacted at all levels of government that mandate automobile supremacy.

* I'd like to see more cities abandon conventional land-use zoning ordinances not only because they necessitate driving but also because they have become horribly misused. What started out as a way to protect residences from nuisance uses (e.g. factories, junkyards, slaughterhouses) has evolved into a tool to enforce socioeconomic exclusion. I witnessed this when I worked as a zoning officer in Denton and I am glad Houston does not have it (even though the lack of zoning obviously did not prevent Houston from becoming an automobile-dominated metropolis).

Friday, July 05, 2019

JetBlue to switch airports in October

Interesting.
JetBlue Airways will relocate its Houston operations to Bush Intercontinental Airport on Oct. 27, leaving the smaller Hobby Airport. 
In a news release, the airline said the relocation is "aimed at strengthening JetBlue's relevance in New York and Boston, while also growing the carrier's customer base in Houston." 
JetBlue flies nonstop from Houston to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and the Boston Logan International Airport in Massachusetts.
JetBlue's been serving Hobby for well over a decade, which makes the decision a bit unexpected. I guess they finally decided that being a bit player in Southwest's fortress hub - they accounted for 1.3% of boardings in fiscal year 2018, as opposed to Southwest's 93.4% - was simply no longer a viable business strategy. Pretty much every other airline is up at Intercontinental (including United, which accounted for 77.4% of IAH's enplaned passengers in 2018), so maybe JetBlue believes that Bush IAH offers advantages relating to economy of agglomeration or business traveler preference that don't exist at Hobby.

JetBlue is not the first airline to make this decision; Frontier tried to fly out of Hobby earlier this decade but switched its services back to IAH after less than two years. It's just hard to compete head-to-head with Southwest.

It's been over a decade since I last flew JetBlue, but I liked them and I hope their decision to switch airports keeps them participating in the Houston market. The HAIF forums have further discussion.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Quito’s Basílica Del Voto Nacional

As much time as I've spent in Quito, it's hard to believe that I've never visited this church:
The sight of Quito’s Basílica Del Voto Nacional is as threatening as it is beautiful.
 The neo-Gothic church can be seen from nearly any point in Ecuador’s capital, which sits high in the Andean mountains. From afar its three pointed towers reach up towards the peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, piercing clouds in the sky. At ground level, the structure looms over the city, appearing in clear sight in the gaping space at the end of el centro’s Venezuela Street.
Its harsh angles, towering height, and moody air make it an intimidating sight so much so that at any given time, hurried folks will pause to stare at the strapping structure for just a moment or two. Looking at this basilica from even a kilometer away, a tourist may feel a shiver creep up towards their scalp but if a gaze from a distance causes a shred of terror, know that there’s more to be anticipated once inside its walls. 
Basílica Del Voto Nacional is Spanish for Basilica of the National Vow. This is a monument iconic not only in the capital of Ecuador but for the country as a whole. Its original intentions were to honor the sacred heart of Jesus (the notion that the heart of the resurrected son of God is the symbol of his love). In a nation of devout Catholics, that holds ground but local legend has given the basilica another purpose. Even during a short visit to Quito a traveler from abroad may hear whisperings that this basilica has the power to end the world.
Source: Wikipedia - by Maros M r a z (Maros) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8319779

 Unlike the ornate, centuries-old Spanish colonial churches in central Quito (e.g. the Metropolitan Cathedral of 1565, the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco of 1604, or the Compañía de Jesus of 1765, all of which I've visited). The Basílica is fairly new. The neo-gothic church was begun in the 1890s and finally consecrated in 1988. That was my first summer in Quito, and although I caught occasional glimpses of it, I never went for a visit. Looks like I was missing out:
Most visitors to Quito will become aware of this religious Ecuadorian icon either through seeing it on a walk through the UNESCO world heritage site that is the old historic center or through exploring its interior for a two-dollar entry fee. For the full experience, those with courage could (and should) embark on the cold-sweat inducing climb to the back tower. That excursion is a must-do while in Quito.
The basilica stands at a height of 377 feet which makes for a lot of stairs to climb en route to the back tower. During that climb, winding steps bring curious wanderers past small, circular windows punched out of the walls offering a peek at stone carved sea turtles and birds from the Galapagos and then to the floor looking down on the long, narrow body of the building with rows upon rows of pews faced towards an altar outfitted with the burning candles, the sacred heart of Jesus, and the Ecuadorian flag.
Even though be Basílica opened in 1988, it was not "completed" in that year. In fact, it never will be:
For three decades, the basilica has been open to devout worshippers and tourists alike. It has been well over a century since Julio María Matovelle’s workers first broke ground. Still, no matter when a curious passerby wanders inside its walls, they will see a group of Ecuadorians hard at work in some corner of the basilica. It may seem that perhaps a traveler arrived during a time when, say, one of the front towers was in need of fixing. This is not the case.
If the recent work on one of the front towers created a bit of an eyesore, unluckily for your Instagram feed, it’s because construction will in fact never be finished. Local legend has it that once this basilica is completely done, the end of the world will come. The story goes that life as we know it could be doomed thanks to this eerie-looking building that stands close to the equator in the middle of the world. As such, no detail is overlooked. There’s always work to be done, updates to be made, a spot to be fixed. This has been the case for 130 years and the people of Quito will continue to find excuses for the work to continue. Simply put: the Gothic structure is never to be finished.
It's now been eighteen years since my list trip to Ecuador. To finally go see the never-to-be-completed Basílica is just another reason for me to go back.

The joys of writing on a 30-year old computer

The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost contemplates computing from an earlier time:
Everything about this computer is loud: The groan of the power supply is loud. The hum of the cooling fan is loud. The whir of the hard disk is loud. The clack of the mechanical keyboard is loud. It’s so loud I can barely think, the kind of noise I usually associate with an airline cabin: whoom, whoom, whoom, whoom.
This is the experience a computer user would have had every time she booted up her Macintosh SE, a popular all-in-one computer sold by Apple from 1987 to 1990. By today’s standards the machine is a dinosaur. It boasts a nine-inch black-and-white display. Mine came with a hard disk that offers 20 megabytes of storage, but some lacked even that luxury. And the computer still would have cost a fortune: The version I have retailed for $3,900, or about $8,400 in 2019 dollars. 
That’s a lot of money. It’s one of the reasons why computers weren’t as universal three decades ago as they are today, especially at home. In 1984, when the Macintosh first appeared, about 8 percent of U.S. homes had a computer; five years later, when the computer I’m writing on was sold, that figure had risen to a whopping 15 percent. 
That made for a totally different relationship to the machine than we have today. Nobody used one every hour—many people wouldn’t boot them up for days at a time if the need didn’t arise. They were modest in power and application, clunking and grinding their way through family-budget spreadsheets, school papers, and games.
My family's first home computer was a Macintosh, which we acquired in the spring of 1985. The machine wasn't nearly as powerful as Bogost's SE: our Mac had 512k of RAM and no hard drive; everything was run from 3.5” floppy disks with 400k of storage. It was ridiculously primitive by today's standards, but its mouse-operated graphical user interface was an amazing upgrade from the Apple IIs we used at school. Friends and classmates alike would come over to my house just to marvel at the machine; we drew pictures with the MacPaint graphics software that came with the computer, played games, and drew primitive animations and created musical compositions with MacroMind's VideoWorks/MusicWorks suite. The word processing program, MacWrite, was originally only used by my father to write letters; eventually, I would start to use it to complete school assignments; which would be printed from a loud and bulky dot matrix printer.
There aren’t many programs worth running on this old machine, anyway. I installed Pyro, a popular screen saver of the era, and Klondike solitaire, as if I couldn’t distract myself with my iPhone instead. Even within the programs that made people spend money on computers, simplicity reigns. I’m writing in Microsoft Word 4.0, which was released for this platform in 1990. More sophisticated than MacWrite, Apple’s word processor, the program is still extremely basic—the only reason I chose Word was so I could open the file on my modern Mac to edit and file it. 
There’s not much to report; it’s a word processor. A window displays the text I am typing, whose fonts and paragraphs I can style in a manner that was still novel in the 1980s. Footnotes, tables, and graphics are possible, but all I really need to do is produce words in order, a cruel reality that has plagued writers for millennia. Any program of this era would have afforded me the important changes computers added: moving an insertion point with the mouse, and seeing the text on-screen in a manner reasonably commensurate with how it would appear in print or online. 
In fact, the only feature that’s missing, from a contemporary writer’s perspective, is the capacity to add hyperlinks. That idea had been around for a couple of decades by the time the Macintosh SE came out, but Tim Berners-Lee wouldn’t develop the first web browser until 1989, a year after this computer was manufactured and a year before this copy of Word was released. Of course, it doesn’t matter much, since I can’t go online with this machine (at least, not without adding a modem, and software that wouldn’t become available for another half decade or so).
Next to the overall lack of computing power compared to today's technology, the biggest difference between using a computer three decades ago and using a computer today is the lack of internet connectivity. It may have been possible to access some internet-related functions back in the 1980s, such as email, usenet groups or ftp sites, if one had the proper dial-up modem and provider; we certainly had no such connection. There was, therefore, no World Wide Web to browse, no messages to send and receive, no social media to obsessively check. The ubiquitous time suck that is today's internet connectivity - through our desktops, our laptops and our phones - simply did not exist. Quite frankly we were probably better of for it!
Even bracketing the welcome absence of the internet, with its hurtling notices and demands, the speed of this machine’s operation changes the tenor of my work. Computers used to be slow as hell. When I first got a 386 PC in the early 1990s, I would switch it on and leave the room for a while, so it could load the BIOS, then DOS, then Windows 3.1 atop it—hard disk grinding the whole time—until finally it was ready to respond to my keystrokes and mouse clicks. 
The Macintosh SE I’m writing on now boots much faster than Windows ever did, but everything here is slow too. When I open a folder, the file icons all take shape like a color squad entering formation. Loading a program like Word issues a long pause, giving me enough time to view and read the splash screen—a lost software art that provided entertainment as much as feedback. Saving a file grinds the hard disk for noticeable moments, stopping me in my tracks while the cute watch icon spins.
Honestly, I had all but forgotten about the sound of the floppy disks grinding in their drives while I opened or saved a file until I read this passage. It was an omnipresent noise: the lack of available RAM mean that whatever program I was using oftentimes had to pause while it read operating instructions off the floppy disk. Using a computer definitely a more time-consuming undertaking back then, but I doubt I even noticed. Today's computing speeds were unthinkable back then, and the slower boot-ups and the constant grinding of the disks were just part of the experience.
The high-tech industry would characterize that act as an inconvenience, probably, imposed by the primitive technology of the past. Inevitably, in the hands of engineers and investors, the machines were bound to become faster, more powerful, more influential, more ubiquitous. And indeed they did, and now they are everywhere. My laptop is always on; my tablet is ever at the ready; my smartphone is literally in my actual hand except when I’m sleeping, if indeed I ever sleep instead of staring at it.
As I flick off the power switch on the back of the Macintosh, the whine retreats in a gentle diminuendo, until it finally gives way to silence. I have accomplished a feat that is no longer possible: My computing session has ended.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

US Women's World Cup defense begins with controversy

Yesterday the US Women's National Team began their quest to defend their 2015 FIFA Womens's World Cup title by obliterating Thailand, 13-0. Now, in addition to defending their crown, they're also having to defend their actions during that game; namely, that they humiliated a vastly inferior Thai side by running up the score against them as well as celebrating excessively and disrespectfully after each goal:
Thailand's players were in tears at the full-time whistle after suffering the heaviest defeat in World Cup history at the hands of the US. 
There were those on social media who criticized the defending champions for celebrating each goal, but Alex Morgan -- who became only the second American to score five in a World Cup match -- told reporters that "every goal counts." 
Morgan, who comforted Thailand player Miranda Nild after the match, said it was important for the team to "continue to go" and score as many as they could in case goal difference would ever prove to be a factor in the group stages. 
"We knew that every goal could matter in this group stage game and when it comes to celebrations this was a really good team performance and I think it was important for us to celebrate together," said the striker.
The Americans' performance incurred some derisive virtue signaling from their neighbors to the north:
Alex Morgan, who bagged five goals in the mauling, was seen counting her goals on her fingers as she rattled them in.
Megan Rapinoe, playing her 154th game for USWNT and scoring her 45th goal, sprinted to the sidelines and indulged in a pre-planned celebration set piece as she scored the USA's ninth against the Thai part-timers. 
Wilder celebrations followed — but so did accusations across the globe of classlessness, lack of sportsmanship and disrespect, most notably from USA's northern rivals, ex-Canadian national team stars Clare Rustad and Kaylyn Kyle. 
"This was disgraceful for the United States," Rustad said. "I would have hoped they could have won with humility and grace, but celebrating goals eight, nine, 10 like they were doing was really unnecessary." 
Kyle added: "I'm all about passion, but as a Canadian we would just never ever think of doing something like that. 
"For me it's disrespectful, it's disgraceful. Hats off to Thailand for holding their head high on their first time on a World Cup stage."
The overwrought condescension coming from Rustad and Kyle aside (hey, maybe you should place better than fourth in the Women's World Cup before criticizing, eh?), the American ladies' celebration after each goal was nevertheless a source of controversy, and even former US star Hope Solo expressed discomfort with the nature of the celebrations:
It was tough for me to watch some of the US goal celebrations – which have come under criticism – considering the scoreline. You do want the game to be celebrated and you do want to see players having fun but at the same time I thought some of the celebrations were a little overboard. A few seemed planned out and I do know some players spend a lot of time thinking about celebrations for the fans. It’s not always necessary.
To be fair to Solo, she was critiquing the celebrating but defending the score itself; "[w]hen you respect your opponent you don’t all of a sudden sit back and try not to score," she wrote. ESPN's Graham Hays, for his part, wasn't buying any of the criticism, whether related to the score or the celebrating:
But to put blame on the United States ignores two obvious points. First, the Americans didn't make the rules under which the number of goals scored is part of deciding the outcome of the tournament. Goal differential counts. The U.S. women want to win its group. Unlike just about any other sport, the Americans have a vested interest in running up the score.
And second, it isn't the United States' fault it can't clear its bench. It is allowed three subs. It used three subs.
"If this is 10-0 in a men's World Cup, are we getting the same questions?" U.S. coach Jill Ellis asked after receiving repeated queries about the score. "I think a World Cup, it is about competing, it is about peaking, it is about priming your players ready for the next game."
But beyond that, why is it the obligation of the U.S. team to act in the interest of creating a picture of a falsely level playing field? Why shouldn't FIFA or the Asian Confederation get blamed for not doing more to promote the women's game in places where it lags behind? 
Are we really going to blame players for celebrating a goal, in many cases in their first World Cup, instead of looking at the underlying reasons for the disparity in the first place?
This is a key point: at the international level, there isn't nearly as much parity for women's soccer as there is for the men's game. The Thai women have an interesting story, but the bottom line is that the nation of Thailand, like much of the world as a whole, fails to invest in, and develop, the women's game. Couple that with a Women's World Cup that only recently expanded from 16 teams to 24, thereby increasing the overall disparity of the teams participating, and results such as yesterday's shouldn't be especially surprising.

Therefore, I'm not particularly receptive to criticisms about the score itself. When you're playing in the World Cup, and you have an opportunity to score a goal... Well, you score a goal. Not only do the rules regarding goal differential essentially require it, but, in soccer, scoring opportunities are hard to come by and if you are to reach your full potential as a soccer player then you need to take advantage of those situations. Especially at the World Cup stage. Yesterday seven US players scored; for four of them, it was their first-ever goal at the World Cup. That's invaluable experience, and it creates confidence moving forward in the tournament. Furthermore, as somebody who has groused about the lack of offense in soccer in the past, I really can't get too upset about the rare instance wherein a team scores "too many" goals.

I'm a bit more sympathetic to criticisms regarding the way the women celebrated after each goal, if only because such behavior is generally frowned upon in sports as a whole. For example, in American Football there is no penalty for running up the score, but excessive celebration after a touchdown merits a 15-yard penalty (and, in the NFL, sometimes a fine). Did the USWNT need to celebrate their eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth goal against Thailand with as much enthusiasm as their first or second? Maybe not. Maybe a quick group high-five or half-raised fist pump would have been sufficient after goal eight or nine. But where do you draw that line? At what point is a team "required" to contain its excitement, especially at the World Cup stage?

Yahoo's Dan Wetzel argues that America's ladies have nothing to apologize for:
Finally, there were complaints the U.S. players shouldn’t have celebrated their goals because scoring was so easy. 
Except, scoring a goal in the World Cup is never easy.
It might not have been difficult against Thailand in the second half, but that was just a single moment of the play. Just getting here required years and even decades of sacrifice and work from each and every American player (and their families, coaches and teammates through the years).
To score in the World Cup is an accomplishment any serious player dreams about. For Pugh, Lavelle, Horan and Mewis, these were their first-ever World Cup goals. To say they shouldn’t celebrate the accomplishment or suggest it holds less value due to the opponent is to dismiss all the blood, sweat and tears it took to get here.
Yes, the game was a massacre, but that’s what happens sometimes in sports. These American women aren’t here to go easy on anyone. They aren't here to consider hurt feelings. That would be insulting to everyone involved.
They are here to win and they’ll inspire a generation of girls around the globe by playing exactly how they did on Tuesday: full-throttle, unapologetic and with both power and creativity.
They played the beautiful game, beautifully. It was something to behold, not condemn.
Next up for the US Women is Chile on Sunday.

Schadenfreude

I don't follow hockey very closely, but I do know that right now, a lot of Boston sports fans are rather unhappy.

And that makes me happy. Because Boston sports fans suck.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Twenty years in the real world

It's been exactly ten years since I wrote this post, which means that's it's been exactly twenty years since I began employment at the City of Denton and thus entered the "real world." At the time I wrote said post, I opined that things had generally gone well for me over my first decade as a productive member of society - I was married, with a kid, and a mortgage and a full-time job - I and expressed hope that "the next few decades are as interesting and fun as the last one has been."

Alas, not long after I wrote that post, the "real world" would smack me down in a big way. Within a year of that post, I would be divorced, I would no longer be a homeowner, and I would be virtually unemployed as a lack of billable work would require me to take a temporary leave of absence from my job. Shortly thereafter, cancer would unexpectedly claim the life of one of my best friends, and I myself would end up in the hospital for the first time in my life.

It was, all in all, a humbling experience.

In an attempt to get my life back on track, I would then make a few less-than-ideal decisions - jumping into a relationship with somebody who, while being a good-hearted person in general, would turn out to be simply not the right person for me in particular, and moving in with her to a rental in an expensive neighborhood that I really couldn't afford by myself after she moved out - that set me back even further. A subsequent attempt to forge a relationship with an old high school interest was also ill-advised; a reminder that one cannot live in the past.

To my credit, I made some better-considered decisions as well; most importantly, I changed employers at the beginning of 2013. This decision has worked out well for me, personally and professionally. I also, eventually, found somebody perfectly suited for me; Corinne and I have been together for almost four years and I'm excited to give the marriage thing another try with her next year. Buying a house is also in our future, once finances permit. To that end, I've paid off the debts I've incurred while living in Bellaire, and am gradually adding back to my savings.

The "real world" creates setbacks sometimes. But I've moved on.

None of this is to say the last decade has been "bad." In fact, it's been rather amazing in many respects. I've taken some amazing trips, (and, in doing so, gotten 1/5th of the way towards reaching my life's ultimate goal), participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras parades, watched the Astros win the World Series (and, in a total fluke, got to attend the most amazing game of that series) watched the Cougars win a major bowl gamesurvived a few floods, killed my awful web 1.0 website, and watched my son grow.

I figure that I am now roughly halfway through the productive, wage-earning phase of my life. I'd love to retire sooner rather than later, of course, and I do have various IRAs and 401ks that are slowly but surely accruing value. But with a house purchase hopefully! in Corinne and my future and a son who is four years away from college, retirement is something that is not happening anytime soon.

One thing I really need to do over the next decade is look after my health a bit better. I've really put on the pounds over the past decade. Corinne's going to be pretty pissed at me if I drop dead of a heart attack right after she marries me, so I should probably take some steps to ensure that doesn't happen!

Friday, May 31, 2019

The world's least-visited countries

Most people haven't even heard of them:
Parisian bridges are weighted down with copycat "love locks," while visitors crowd cheek-to-jowl into Barcelona churches and Dubrovnik's historic center. In Italy, attempts to manage the impact of tourism range from segregating visitors to fines for flip-flops.
As a glut of anxious headlines document overtourism, it's easy to think that the planet is simply full.
 
But stray from the well-worn tourist trails, and you'll discover another travel story entirely. In much of the world, there are places that are eager to welcome tourists -- and when practiced sustainably, where tourism can even help alleviate poverty. 
The contrast between the most- and least-visited places is stark. In 2017, nearly 87 million international tourists arrived in France. That same year, a mere 2,000 international tourists visited the South Pacific country of Tuvalu, where it's easy to find a beach -- or even an entire island -- to yourself. 
Based on the most recent data (PDF) compiled by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, this list reflects many of the world's least-visited countries and overseas territories, where you'll find gorgeous natural beauty, culture and history without pushing through a thicket of selfie sticks.
I completely understand the tourist-related problems of Dubrovnik, Venice, and Santorini, where we found ourselves packed into narrow streets with other visitors. (Of course, the fact that we were tourists in these places - off of cruise ships, no less - meant that we were part of the problem.) The thing I like about the idea of visiting under-the-radar destinations is that you can actually be part of the solution, rather than the problem, by pumping money into these economies (as long as your trip is done sustainably).

What's interesting about CNN's list of the 25 least-visited countries (which actually contains only twenty sovereign nations; the other five are dependencies of other countries, even if they have some measure of autonomy) is that many of them are also among the twenty-five smallest independent countries that I want to visit before I die, including Tonga, Tuvalu, Kirabati, and São Tomé and Príncipe. That stands to reason, because the world's tiniest, most obscure countries would also see the fewest visitors. (Two of the nations on CNN's list - Lichtenstein and St. Kitts and Nevis - are ones I've already visited and checked off of my list.)

My goal remains visit these countries, although I know it won't be easy getting to many of them. There's also the paradox that countries with few tourists probably don't have a lot of tourist infrastructure. I'll need to do my research before I visit some of these places.

Belated Game of Thrones thoughts

(Spoilers follow.)

The ending of Game of Thrones was pretty much the most disappointing finale I've ever watched.  (I've been underwhelmed by series finales before, but this one was especially unsatisfying.)

Much has been written about the series' unsatisfactory ending, but this video kind of sums everything up for me:

         

Aside from the fact that the ending of the series left so many questions unanswered, many of the plot "resolutions" delivered by the finale were difficult to believe.

Let's start with Bran becoming king. Maybe that was what George R. R. Martin envisioned, and perhaps his reasoning will be better explained in the books (if and when he ever gets around to completing them), where Bran's character is apparently more central to the story than it was in the TV series. But his character's story in the TV series, where he does little more than stare at people, warg into ravens and get Hodor killed (Bran didn't even appear at all in one of the series' seasons), simply doesn't suggest that he has any business becoming king of Westeros. It's hard for longtime fans to accept.

It's also hard to accept the way that Bran got to be king, which was the result of a decision by a council of Westerosi lords and ladies that miraculously convened outside of King's Landing after Daenerys's death. This council was, in a matter of minutes, able to resolve all of the struggles, wars and intrigue that Westeros had experienced over the previous several years by simply replacing the continent's hereditary monarchy with an elective one (those never work, by the way, and will probably just make things worse in the long run). They made this decision based on nothing more than an impassioned soliloquy by Tyrion (who was supposed at the council to be judged for his crime of disobeying Dany, rather than to chart a new political course for Westeros).*

And don't even get me started on Jon, who somehow is not summarily executed by Grey Worm, the rest of the Unsullied, or the remaining Dothraki** for murdering Daenerys, but is rather sentenced to be returned to the Night's Watch (which no longer has a reason for existing) for his crime. The huge plot reveal that he was the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen served no purpose after all.

The fact is, the entire final season (not just the finale) was pretty much a disaster. It was rushed and contrived, and the character development that had made the series so great over the years was simply tossed aside.

For example, I didn't have a problem with Daenerys's descent into villainy. It follows age-old themes regarding the corruptive nature of power or the idea that well-intentioned tyranny is still tyranny. I did have a problem with how it was manifested. Whether Dany's decision to turn King's Landing into Dresden was the result of emotionally-deranged genocidal madness or a ruthless calculation to destroy the seat of Westerosi power and send a message to the other lords of the continent, the writers simply did not justice to her character's turn. Jaime's decision to return to Cersei after his one-night-stand with Brienne (a regrettably unnecessary and gratuitous hookup, by the way) was similarly hollow. 

Perhaps it was inevitable that the series would degrade the further it got from George R. R. Martin's source material (a viral Twitter thread from a professor of philosophy at UConn explains this situation). And it was certainly a bad decision to shorten the last two seasons, as it gave the creators less "real estate" to work with. In the rush to bring everything to a close with as much spectacle as possible, the series forgot what it was all about.

The bottom line is that Game of Throne's creators, David Benihoff and Dan Weiss, spent the first six seasons painting a masterpiece of lavish character development, intriguing plot twists, and compelling storytelling. Then they spent the seventh season vandalizing it with spray paint, and spent the eight season shitting all over it. It's a very disappointing ending that will forever tarnish the legacy of what was once the best show on television.

* Also, when Sansa made the declaration that The North would opt out of the Bran-led kingdom, Yara Greyjoy should have done the same for the Iron Islands and Nameless Dornish Guy should have done the same for Dorne. Those three kingdoms were always culturally and structurally different from the core of Westeros (i.e. Westerlands, Crownlands, Stormlands, Riverlands, Vale and Reach) and seeing all three of them fall out would have reinforced the idea of a new political era for Westeros. This was a huge miss on the part of the writers.

** We were led to believe that almost all of the Dothraki died in the Battle of Winterfell, but apparently there were plenty of them left to overrun Kings Landing. This was one of the many continuity failures of the final season of the series.

Goodbye to middle school

Hard to believe that Thursday was Kirby's last day of eighth grade. His mom and I attended his promotion ceremony at Lanier Middle School and took some pictures afterward:



He'll be heading on to high school this fall. The "Beast" is growing up!

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Governor signs UH medical school into existence

Obligatory update to a story I've been following for a while:
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill creating a medical school at the University of Houston amid concerns about a physician shortage in the state. 
Under the legislation signed into law Wednesday, the University of Houston's College of Medicine will be the 13th medical school in Texas. It will be based in the UH System's flagship campus in Houston. Nearly half of the Texas medical schools are in the Houston area. 
On Thursday, Abbott described UH as on the way to being "one of the world's preeminent universities." He said he plans to do a ceremonial signing of the bill in Houston. 
“The University of Houston continues to cement itself as a top tier University, and I was proud to sign HB 826 into law establishing the University Of Houston College Of Medicine," Abbott said in a statement. "As Governor, I have pledged to elevate Texas’ institutions of higher education and this bill furthers that goal."
My understanding is that the only hurdle remaining for UH Med is approval from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. If that happens, the college would enroll its first students in the fall of 2020. Stay tuned.

CHVRCHES at White Oak Music Hall

A couple of Fridays ago, Corinne and I went to the lawn at the White Oak Music Hall to see CHVRCHES. It was a good concert at a nice venue that I'll need to visit more often.

Not too much to report form the concert itself. The synth-pop trio from Glasgow played most of their better-known songs; keyboardist Martin Doherty even took over from foul-mouthed frontwoman Lauren Mayberry to sing a couple of tunes. The back-and-forth chatter between band members between songs was just as entertaining as the songs themselves.


The set was rather short, at 15 songs total, and left out a couple of my favorites, including "Gun" and "Lies." My biggest complaint wasn't that, but rather the Gen Z douchebags standing in front of us who were more interested in talking over the songs than watching the show. Such is the nature of outdoor festival-type concerts such as these.

Otherwise no complaints. the late-spring evening was perfect for an outdoor concert. The lawn at WOMC is a small and comfortable space to watch the show. The lines for drinks were short, and a couple of food trucks handled eating options (although they probably could have used one or two more). I have no complaints about acoustics or sightlines.

We didn't try to drive and park, but rather took the METRORail Red Line up from Midtown, got off at Quitman Station, and made the short walk to the venue. I would recommend this option for getting there, if you are able to do so.

The Houston Press review, including the setlist, is here.