Perfectly Safe

My wife’s friend’s pet is a female Pitbull rescued from a dog shelter. Having a 4 year old daughter and two cats I do not approve of pet Pitbulls, or in fact any large dogs bred for attack/defense duty: Rottweilers, German Shepherds, etc. There are other horse-sized dogs capable of grievous harm, but since they were bred for other purposes, like pulling sleds/rescuing people, they are somewhat safer.

But any Pitbull owner will tell you that their dog is “perfectly safe”. No amount of statistics will persuade them that “shnookums” can rip off a toddler’s face or maul a person or kill a cat. I always tell them about “Chekhov’s gun“. The genetic memory of dogs bred for attacking might be dormant most of the time, but you never know what might activate it.

Yet, there are always people out there who underestimate animals, like that woman who had a pet chimp and ended up on the front page of the Post. I’m sure that chimp used to be perfectly reasonable previously. Chimps are seemingly cuddlier than Pitbulls, aren’t they?

Even professionals are sometimes underestimating animals. You probably heard about the tragic death of Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter. He made a career out of teasing dangerous animals on camera and yelling “whoa, crikey” when they lunged at him. He was done in by a stingray, a docile and non-threatening creature.

When you take an unorthodox position about safety of something, there’s alway a chance that your death will be tragically ironic.

For instance, if you rail hard against seat belt laws and die in a car accident in which everyone wearing seat belts walked away from, people will talk. Or poor ol’ Dr. Atkins, promoting the high fat diet dies of heart attack (while weighting 258 pounds). To me, these cases, while ironic, are not absolutely moronic. A lot of people became healthier on the Atkins diet, and a small number of people were killed by properly worn seatbelts.

But when it comes to dealing with wild animals, thinking that they are “perfectly safe if you know what you are doing” – there’s no such thing. If you hang out with wild animals long enough, chances are they’ll kill you. Or at least will try to.

A prime example is Roy Horn, and his tiger accident. It’s not like The Simpsons writers did not predict it. While I was not surprised that a tiger could do harm to Roy (even if he was “carrying” Roy offstage to “save” him), I was very much surprised at what level of medical treatment millions of dollars and fame can get you. They performed a decompressive craniectomy, a procedure that involves removing a quarter of a skull top and storing it in an abdominal cavity(!) for a while to relieve pressure in the brain. I doubt that an HMO patient would last long enough after a tiger attack.

The worst tiger story that comes to mind though is from the Soviet times. There was this guy by the name of Berberov, an architect. He kept a lot of animals in his apartment, but really achieved fame when he raised a lion cub. The lion, named King, lived in a city apartment with Berberov, his wife, kids and a host of other animals (including a wildcat). The lion starred in a number of Soviet films and they wrote a book titled “Don’t be afraid, it’s a lion.” The lion was shot by a policeman when it got away and tried to play with some kid’s dog.

Things were about to get worse. Like the Simpsons, the Berberovs decided to raise an new cat. The Simpsons got Snowball II, the Berberovs – King II. Mr. Berberov died of a heart attack, but his wife insisted on keeping the lion in the apartment still. It ended up badly – the lion, provoked or otherwise, attacked the wife. Her son tried to restrain the lion, which in turn, with a swat of a paw killed him by breaking his neck and scalping. Once again, a policeman shot and killed the lion. The puma, which escaped in the melee was also shot and killed.

What’s a worse idea than keeping a lion in a city apartment? Living with grizzly bears, of course. This lunatic tried to do just that and ended up mauled and half-eaten:

“In the Werner Herzog-directed documentary, Treadwell is shown singing and reading poetry to grizzlies, calling them names like Mr. Chocolate, and even petting one on the nose.

Experts say Treadwell was an example of how not to behave around these animals.”

The right to risk ironic death and/or injury, is somewhere in the Declaration of Independence. It falls under liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you for sticking with my rant. Here’s a song about Pitbull Teriers from one of my favorite movies – “Black Cat White Cat“:

Deadprogrammer’s Hierarchy of Web Needs

I recently received a phone call from a recruiter. He wanted to lure me away to some “big company” that still had “small company feel” to participate in a “redesign of a major website”. He felt like all of these things, as well as “a well stocked kitchen” were big selling points.

I am a veteran of many website redesigns, major and minor. I’ve come to dread the word “redesign” because very frequently it meant taking a perfectly good website and making it significantly worse, and then through major struggles making it marginally beter. In the past I wrote a rather bloated article titled “The Russian Tea Room Syndrome” about this. Today I would like to write a bit more about this, as this topic rarely leaves my mind and my life.

Earlier in my career, I had very little influence over the redesign process, but this is changing. This is the primary reason why my job title has the shameful word “Architect” in it: I write code and configure servers, but I want my say in strategery as well.

So, Michael, you might ask, what is the problem with redesigns? Aren’t redesigns about making websites better? Well, many redesigns suffer from not following IBM’s famous motto.

IBM has one of the best corporate mottos ever: CRUSH and DESTROY. Uh, I mean THINK. They even give out props with the word “THINK” on it and publish THINK magazine.

Many redesigns happen simply as a knee jerk reaction: oh, look company X is doing Y and using Z. When you sit in a meeting and somebody is describing a redesign purely in terms of things other people do, you are likely in trouble. No thinking is involved at all.

But sometimes it’s the type of thinking that is going on that is the problem. You have to think about the relative importance of things.

I have a picture by famous graffitti artist Banksy hanging on my wall. It is a metaphor about true and false importance.

In 1943 a Brooklyn College professor Abraham Maslow outlined what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy: a pyramid that ranks human needs. It looks like prior to him nobody really gave a lot of thought to relative importance of pooping and morality. Well, maybe a little – there’s a Russian idiom for a person of untrustworthy nature that originated during WWI when soldiers relieved themselves in rows, next to specially dug trenches: “I would not take a dump next to this person”. Also see “I hope they serve beer in hell

Here’s Maslow’s pyramid in all of its glory:

I decided I’d come up with the hierarchy of web needs:

standard adherence: strict XHTML, CSS, etc

choice of technology: language, CMS, OS, cloud/servers, etc

other features: widgets, games, microformats

multimedia: video, podcasts, interactive flash

design: graphical elements, typography, pleasing layout

semantic web: metadata, tagging

usability: text size, image size, logical layout, uncluttered interface, site name/urls, browser support

community features: comments, ratings, feeds

googliness: search, speed, security

content qualities: usefulness, interest, freshness, uniqueness

content: text, images, links

In my opinion unsuccesful redesigns happen when people start from the wrong end of the pyramid (always skipping the first step: I’m yet to meet anybody with power who thinks about these things are important).

I will expand on this in my next post.

Alexander Hamilton

From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

Ron Chernow, whom the New York Times called “as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we’ve seen in decades,” now brings to startling life the man who was arguably the most important figure in American history, who never attained the presidency, but who had a far more lasting impact than many who did.

An illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, Hamilton rose with stunning speed to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp, a member of the Constitutional Convention, coauthor of The Federalist Papers, leader of the Federalist party, and the country’s first Treasury secretary. With masterful storytelling skills, Chernow presents the whole sweep of Hamilton’s turbulent life: his exotic, brutal upbringing; his brilliant military, legal, and financial exploits; his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe; his illicit romances; and his famous death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804.

For the first time, Chernow captures the personal life of this handsome, witty, and perennially controversial genius and explores his poignant relations with his wife Eliza, their eight children, and numberless friends. This engrossing narrative will dispel forever the stereotype of the Founding Fathers as wooden figures and show that, for all their greatness, they were fiery, passionate, often flawed human beings.

Alexander Hamilton was one of the seminal figures in our history. His richly dramatic saga, rendered in Chernow’s vivid prose, is nothing less than a riveting account of America’s founding, from the Revolutionary War to the rise of the first federal government.

Architectural Pain in the Ass

I have to apologize for this cringe inducing intro wherein I attempt to translate an old kindergarten joke from Russian into English. Sorry, but I really can’t find a better way to do this.

So, in an enchanted forest a wolf catches a rabbit. A talking rabbit, apparently, as the rabbit says — look, how about this — I’ll give you two puzzles to solve, and if you do, I’ll take you to the place where my friends and family hang out. If you can’t solve them — you let me go. The wolf agrees. The first puzzle is : “Two rings, two ends and a bolt in the middle.” The wolf does not know. “It’s scissors” – says the rabbit. OK, then, the second one. “No doors, no windows, house full of guests.” “No idea” – says the wolf. “It’s a cucumber” says the rabbit, and the wolf lets him go. Next day a bear catches the wolf, and the wolf makes a similar deal with the bear. OK, what is it – “no doors, no windows, ass full of cucumbers?”

Every time I pass 2 Columbus Circle that’s what I am thinking about. An ass full of cucumbers. (I shudder to think about where this page is going to be located in Google search results).

Edward Durrell Stone created this perforated windowless museum that looks like a Soviet-era public bathroom on crack. In fact, I am pretty sure that’s what Mr. Stone was smoking. Well, actually according to Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent he was a hardcore drinker during his earlier years and later quit. So I guess he either drank too much or not enough.

Unsatisfied with uglification through regular soulless International Style this architect came up with a whole new kind of ugly. He took the starkness of modernism and combined it with unnecessary and non-functional ornamentation. For his own house he took a normal 19th century brownstone and paced a perforated grille over it. Funnily enough, even though he raped the creation of a Victorian architect, his own widow could not undo the concrete monstrosity that he wrought — together with other brownstones his house is now protected as a landmark.

2 Columbus Circle is thankfully not considered a landmark. There are some people out there though that think that it should be. Even they agree that Stone’s building is ugly and useless. But they like the fact that it’s a challenge, a slap in the face of architects who built beautiful and/or useful buildings in Manhattan.

I remember seeing Edward Durrell Stone House while passing it by in a cab and immediately turning my head around and going “WTF!??”. None of the hundreds of good looking brownstones in New York ever evoked this reaction from me. They mostly make me count along these lines as I walk by: “2 million, 4 million, 6 million, 8 million, 9.5 million, 12 million and a carriage house – so let’s say 12.5 million worth of brownstones on this street in Brooklyn”.

Stone reminds me of another architect who also created some terribly ugly and uninspired buildings, in one of which I spent many years. Wallace Harrison spent most of his entire life building terrible International Style buildings. Actually, he started his career together with Stone, working as one of the architects working on the Rockefeller Center design. Rockefeller Center was severely criticized while it was being constructed, but later on became an almost immediate favorite of both critics and laypeople, becoming one of the most celebrated architectural landmarks of New York. His later creations were mostly in International Style. He designed the 6th avenue Rockefeller Center Extension which mixed Deco and International style, and then a horrible row of International style nightmares.

I absolutely love the quote from Grea Fortune: “”The new buildings, with their broad plazas, generous promenades. and underground concourse system… are an exciting integral extension of Rockefeller Center in design, concept and philosophy.” But this was like saying that nuclear war is an integral extension of Quakerism …”

Interestingly enough, Harrison, after being rejected by critics and his patron, Nelson Rockefeller, became very bitter and disillusioned with International Style as evidenced by this rather homophobic quote (also from Grea Fortune):

“His late life, he claimed was “ruined … by the German Bauhaus and its groups of friends who have had a disastrous effect on American architecture.” Elsewhere he characterized the proponents of the International Style as “homos who found it a good public relations [sic] to hang their hats on” “.

Well, I think that homosexuals (yeah, blame it all on them, right) have nothing to do with Harrison’s and Stone’s solidified nightmares. It’s just that they were horrible architects.

The (Drive)way of a Samurai

Larry Ellison’s Japanese fetish is well known. He owned at different times yachts named “Ronin”, “Katana” and “The Rising Sun”. According to “The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison” Larry often flies to Japan for Sakura Matsuri. And now he is building himself a $60 million 3000 sq. foot replica of a 16th century Japanese warlord’s mansion.

The house will be built using traditional materials and without nails (good idea earthquake-wise), but I doubt that any warlord had a house that big, especially with an amazing master bath that will include “.. boulder that will be part of the master bathroom shower. The 30-ton stone (yes, that’s 60,000 pounds) was recently moved into place with a rented high-rise crane that was brought to the site expressly to move the “shower rock.” ”

A house like that needs a driveway to match. Larry wants it paved with natural hand cut stone. The stone is quarried in Japan and China (Larry chose China because the labor is cheaper there) and for some reason needs to be cut on site. This means that the architect needs to provide a template for each and every stone. It would take months to do this by hand, but luckily a CIS student helped him, making Larry’s driveway his CS270 Project. Random, but not too random, concave and convex, angles not too sharp, 5 to 9 sides to a stone – this is not as simple as it seems :

By the way, is it just me or does Mr. Scorpio from “The Simpsons” look very much like the samurai in question?

Shaker and Baker or Gaudi, not Gaudy

When I was in my teens, I wanted to become an architect. I read books about architecture, and one of my favorite pastimes was trying to tell the architectural style of any buildings I saw. I did that in my native city of Odessa, Ukraine and on the trips to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. For a while I really favored the Gothic style. I really liked the soaring feeling of gothic churches. But then I’ve seen a rather plain building with rounded, yet also soaring shapes. The only decoration on the building were relief plaques. The building was rather old, yet depicted on the plaques were an airplane, a light bulb, a telegraph key and I think a radio. My dad explained to me about Art Deco style.

Here, in America, I learned about different art movements of the beginning of the century. It gets pretty complicated. There is Art Deco, Art Modern, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Shaker style. Why I like these styles? Well, it’s because I think that they have just the right proportion of beauty and utility. This is a sort of a mental cheat sheet that I have (embellished with links, of course):

Shaker Style: Shakers are a now mostly extinct religious sect. In fact they are a splinter of the Quaker movement, and were called shaking Quakers because their praying during which they shook. I can’t distinguish Shaker Style from Arts and Crafts, and indeed they are very similar. Genuine Shaker items are very expensive, but these days many manufacturers make shaker style furniture and kitchen cabinets. Although great designers and craftsmen, there are very few Shakers remaining. I bet it’s all because they are supposed to be celibate.

Arts and Crafts: Started in Great Britain. A bunch of designers and architects were pissed off by the poor quality and gaudiness of early mass produced things. Their motto was something to the tune of “turn artists into craftsmen and craftsmen into artists”. Simple bordering on austere designs, natural materials, muted colors, handmade look. The radically new idea was to take away most of decoration, but at the same time turn structural elements into decorations. Instead of hiding beams, supports, joins and other elements of construction, the designers would instead show them off. The solidity, strength are considered virtues. The proportions are usually more down to earth, not meant to dwarf a person. Think Frank Lloyd Wright and Newcomb College Pottery. Basically heavy duty, expensive hand made crap for rich people with good taste.

Art Nouveau: Started in France. The name is derived from the name of some gallery or exhibition or something like that. The idea was to create a whole new style for the new century. Just to be different. The designs are organic (meaning that things looked as if they were grown, not built), proportions – elongated. Not a single sharp edge to be seen. Think Aubrey Beardsley, Tiffany (who names their son Louis Comfort?), Gaudi and what he did in Barcelona. I would also call H.R. Ggiger’s stuff modern Art Nouveau, although I don’t know if that’s correct. In general a style for eccentric rich people.

Art Deco: Very similar to Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. The major difference is that instead of making things look hand made, the fact that things are made by machines now is celebrated. Elements of the design are very industrial, proportions – soaring. There is a wide variety in colors used – sometimes they are muted, even dark, sometimes – absolutely outrageous. Shining stainless steel is not out of place, and neither is polished black lacquer. Think Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and other New York skyscrapers, early Polaroid cameras, bakelite rotary phones (in fact anything made out of bakelite), cathedral radios, turn of the century cars.

The thing is, Art Deco is easily corrupted. There is a style that is sometimes derogatively referred to as “Bronx Modern” or “Flatbush Renaissance”. Gaudy, ugly stuff. Like much of Italian furniture sold in Brooklyn. Or like Joey Tribbiani’s apartment in “Friends”. Such perverted Art Deco is rather common. Do not confuse it with true, beautiful Art Deco.

Can He Build It? Yes He Can!

Livejournal user gornev led me to a most excellent meme in his comment to my post about wooden NYC water tanks. You see, there is this humongous wooden skyscraper in the Russian city of Archangelsk.

I wanted to post about this since I saw the picture of that building (which became my desktop wallpaper), but it took some time to find more information and to find the time to write it up. The sources that I used provide somewhat conflicting information, but that’s mostly because the articles were written at different points during the construction.

First you’ve got to see it. The links keep failing, but this google search will lead you to at least some articles with pictures.

I’ve obtained permission from Nikolai Gernet aka nixette to use this recent picture:

Nikolai also has a nice collection of old examples of wooden buildings in Archangelsk.

So here’s what I was able to find out about the building and the builder. The builder and architect is Nikolai Sutyagin, an owner of a lumber yard and a small construction company. He was brought up by a single mother in a crappy communal flat. At 14 years old he was sent to a youth correctional facility for “hooliganism” (probably a fight). When he came back he started working as a construction worker to help support his mother and younger brother. Turned out that he was a pathological workaholic. His supervisor advised him to try his hand at “shabashing”. “Shabashing” was a free market anomaly in a planned socialistic society. Because of the shortage of productive workers in the land of fixed salaries jeopardized the completion of five year plans, collective farms and factories were allowed to hire freelancers and offer pay based on performance. This meant that a skilled workaholic such as Sutyagin could earn about 2000 rubles a month when a college educated engineer’s salary was 200 rubles. Teams of shabashniks were universally hated by collective farmers and factory workers (as well as all other salary men and women), but were tolerated.

When Perestroyka came about Sutyagin used his money to start a lumber and construction business which brought him a substantial fortune. Now he needed a suitable residence. At first he planned on building a huge two story wooden house. Wooden structures are limited by law to two stories for fire safety reasons. At first he built a refrigerator sized wooden mock up. He liked the scale, but didn’t like the proportion of the roof. He decided to elongate it to achieve a more pleasing proportion. Then he started building working with his team like in the old times, but using the timber from his own company. When he was about done with the roof, he decided to build it up a little higher so that he could see the White Sea from the very top. Even though his building has two stories, the roof spans 11 more (some articles estimate the structure to have 12 stories, others – 13 and even 15).

The government and his neighbors hated Sutyagin’s masterpiece. Fire hazard or not, it stands in the middle of a rather poor village, yet it’s higher than the tallest cement building in the city of Archangelsk itself. The city government ordered the structure to be torn down, but the order was never realized as far as I know. But Sutyagin was accused by one of his employees (who supposedly stole $30,000 from Sutyagin’s company) of beating him up and imprisoning him in a shed. True or not, Sutyagin got 4 years of prison. He was let out in 2 years. While he was away his company was looted like Baghdad after the war. Now he and his wife and daughter live in the unfinished skyscraper that he built.

Now, here are some of my thoughts. I am deeply disgusted by the messages on Russian bulletin boards. There are three most common attitudes there: mocking the unfinished structure as a glorified barn, lamenting about the “mysterious Russian Soul” and gloating about the fact that the builder was sent to jail presuming that the source of the money used to build the skyscraper is stealing. Most of the press coverage concentrates on the eccentricity of the builder rather than his genius, strength of will and work ethic.

Sutyagin’s skyscraper takes up a very special place in my heart, right next to the AIG building, the Flatiron (Fuller Building) and all my favorite skyscrapers, remaining, gone and those that were destined never to be built.

I’ve used a number of articles as sources, but they all went offline. You can use this google search to find new ones though.

Sunset as Seen From the Surface of Sol III

Taking pictures of sunsets is so damn easy these days. Just bracket like crazy, and voila. Instant purdiness.
A sunset can make everything look pretty. Even the ugly ass twin brother of the building in which I live. Oooh, how I hate that building. I am thinking of finding out who the architect was and harassing that person over the phone (or in some other way).

I am thinking about writing a science fiction series about a materialistic spaceship pilot. There would be a story about him going on a quest to find the most comfortable spaceship chair, the best spacesuit in the universe, the most perfect cereal bowl. One mission would be to obtain a room in a skyscraper on a planet that wobbles in orbit in such a way that the people in that skyscraper can watch constant sunsets and sunrises over a glittering dead ocean.