The Legend of Kovalevsky’s Tower

I decided that I’ll take a break from a blogging break to tell a story that has two of my favorite things: symbolism and legends of my hometown. In particular, it’s the legend of the Kovalevsky’s Tower.

A fountain and a tower are two very commonly used symbols. A fountain is a symbol for life and creativity, one with a mostly positive meaning. A tower is a darker symbol, one about overreaching achievement, and fall. In Tarot a Tower card is an ill omen. Yet a tower is a very attractive symbol. I am immensely drawn to towers, just look at how frequently I write about them.

There aren’t any skyscrapers in my hometown. There are fountains though. Not just the regular water spritzing ones: there are three very important neighborhoods called The Big, Middle, and Little Fountain. You see, Odessa, although on the sea, is located very far from any rivers that can provide potable water. In the olden days much of the water was procured from three wells, the Big, Middle, and Little Fountains, which were located relatively far from the city center, near the sea. An alternative way to collect water from rooftops was available, but as there’s a lot of dust in the air, people referred to this less tasty water as “this is no fountain”, an expression that survived to this day referring to something sub par.

If you take a tram from the city center, you’ll pass through the many stations of the Little, Middle and Big Fountains which follow the sea shore and are mostly filled with dachas. My grandparents used to have a dacha at the 13th station of the Big Fountain, a little plot of land with a house and outhouse that my father and grandfather built themselves. When we left, it was sold for about $7000. I am told that the land that we used to own would be worth about $1,000,000 today.

The last station is 16th. There you would switch to an ancient little tram with two “heads” (it was needed because there was only a single track, and one tram would service the whole line going back and forth). This tram, nicknamed push-pull would take you to yet another neighborhood called Kovalevsky’s Dacha. There were more dachas there, a large Russian Orthodox monastery, and natural, sand-less beaches with steep rocky cliffs (the rest of the shore used to be like that as well, but the cliffs where dynamited and sand washed on).

There is a legend connected to Kovalevsky and his dacha. This legend is a little bit like Rashomon, as there are many different ways it’s told.

In one version, a wealthy merchant, Timofey Kovalevsky decides to solve Odessa’s water problem by building the first water line. He finds a huge water well beyond Big Fountain and starts laying pipe into the city. At the source he builds a huge tower. He finishes the project, but he is financially ruined due to insufficient revenues. Either the water is of poor quality (not like Fountain water, because of the pipe sediment), or because people are afraid of technology and call his water “machine water”, or because around the same time another water line from Dniester river is completed. One way or another he is ruined, and commits suicide by jumping from the tower. In this version it is a story of pitfals of technology, its quick obsolescence and/or inferiority to older technology.

A famous version of the story comes from Kataev’s “Lonely White Sail”. In Kataev’s version Kovalevsky undertakes his water line project alone out of greed. A slew of bankers beg him to take them as partners, but he refuses, wanting a water monopoly. He builds the tower to get to the water, only to run out of money – the water is too deep, and the machinery and pipes are too expensive. He begs the bankers for money, but they refuse. Kovalevskiy keeps circling around the tower thinking about how to get money to complete the project, getting crazier and crazier, but one day gives up, climbs the tower and jumps off it. In Kataev’s version the legend is a cautionary tale of greed.

An even more disturbing version comes from Paustovsky’s “Slow Time”. Paustovsky tells the story differently. In it, Kovalesky is a very rich eccentric. He buys a plot of land far from the city and builds a dacha. Then he commissions a huge tower to be built, for no practical reason whatsoever. Several times he drinks tea at the top of the tower, and then commits suicide by jumping from the top. In another variant of this the purpose of the tower is mystifying the contractors, until the moment it’s complete: Kovalevsky has it built in order to jump from. This way it’s a story of depression, eccentricity, purposelessness, and suicide.

All stories mention that the tower was preserved until WWII, and did end up serving a purpose: it was a very good nautical navigational landmark. During WWII it was destroyed, similar to Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island. Legend of Wardenclyffe Tower echoes many aspects of the legend of Kovalevsky’s Tower – the running out of funds, the mysterious purpose, etc.

This, of course is all very lame journalism and research. I am basically retelling the same story the way I heard it, the way I’ve read it on a number of websites, and in several books. I don’t have access to archives or any specialist literature that might shed any light on what really happened with Kovalevsky and his tower. I hope maybe commenters might eventually add some more information to this post.

I don’t know exactly where the tower used to be and where its remnants are right now. My understanding that it’s somewhere near the Big Fountain cape. The link provides the rough coordinates and a photo. Maybe it’s possible to find the location in Google Maps.

I was able to locate only a single photo that supposedly shows the tower on a website retelling one of the variants of the story. The tower is indeed humongous, and really does not look like a water tower. Maybe there’s a point to the the story about a pointless tower built for suicide.

[update] I recently found this old photo that provides a view from beyond the lighthouse:

From all the accounts that I’ve encountered the tower was destroyed. But what is this then? I’ll be in Odessa this summer, and I’ll mount an expedition to check this out.

The tower is described as an over-sized chess tower, a tower that looks like a lighthouse, a good navigational aid seen from the sea, and a ominous, dark building.

Here are some two old postcards (a photograph and its retouched version) of the Big Fountain cape. There is a lighthouse, and something that looks like a long slender tower. Could that be Kovalevsky’s tower?

This is what the natural beaches looked like all over Odessa’s coast. I remember beaches near Kovalevskiy’s dacha looking like that when I was little.

Another view of the Big Fountain cape, with a “shalanda” fishing boat. There’s something tower-like in the distance, but it’s very hard to tell.

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Modernism, Postmodernism and the Voice of the People

“It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism” Al Gore

I am a man with huge gaps in education. Every time I think about all the history, philosophy and literature that I should be familiar with, I shudder. Take, for instance, Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels. Out of the top 10 I olnly read numbers 4, 5 and 10.

By the way, Modern Library editors did not understand the web enough to run a poll for a reader selected top list. Of course, the list came to include 4 Ayn Rand and three L. Ron Hubbard titles, with two top spots going to “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” and third to “Battlefield Earth”. I am a bit surprised to see the Objectivists defeat the Scientologists, but I guess they’ve heard about the vote earlier and mobilized their forces ahead of time somehow.

A similar “vote” happened on the TV Guide website once. The poll was run to determine the most annoying Star Trek character, and early on Ensign “Wussley” Crusher had a good lead on the competition. That was until Wussley’s alter ego, popular blogger Wil Wheaton, asked his readers to stuff the ballot box. Funnily enough, both wilwheaton.net and tvguide.com have the same PageRank of 7, so he had more than enough readers to rig the vote. I don’t remember who won and I can’t really look it up because in its recent redesign TV Guide broke most of the old urls (one of the reasons why its PageRank is so low).

Anyway, I really wanted to talk about the top Modern Library novel, Ulysses by James Joyce. I must have started this book 3 times, only to get stuck a couple of pages into it. I’ll have another go at it sometime, but I am afraid I am not smart enough yet to tackle it.

One thing that leads me to believe that there might be a day when I’ll enjoy Ulysses is my growing appreciation of the Modernist movement. Even though the contents of the book elude my understanding at this moment, I really like the dustjacket created by E. McKnight Kauffer and book design by Ernst Reichl. Just because of the dustjacket design I paid $15 for this book many years ago, when I usually refused to pay more than a buck for a used book. The elegance of the form and color, the expressiveness of the simple type elements is lightyears beyond the current, and I guess what should be called “Postmodern,” cover.

The funny thing is that “Modernism” is not modern at all. We are talking about books, architecture and music that is at least 50, and some times almost 100 years old. What comes after Modernism? Postmodernism. Honest to God, it looks like our society is running out of naming ideas. What do you name a language that comes after B? C. And then? C++. What comes after Generation X? Generation Y. Then? Generation Z.

The latest poll is about Wesley Crusher.

Midnight Linkage

* Oh, such an awesome shot from inside the motorman’s cab. Click on “comments” to read about how it was taken.

* Wow. Decopix.com, one of the best sites about Art Deco that I’ve ever seen, presents mind-boggling Art Deco fridge.

* Similar to the celebrity path pavers in Brooklyn Botanical Gardenthat carry the names of famous Brooklynites like Isaac Asimov and Mae West, you can have your own paver in Tompkins Square Park through Make Your Mark in the Park program. And it’s just 250 bucks per paver! 70 characters – enough for a url. I am actually thinking about this…

Crouching Tourist, Hidden Bathroom

One of the most annoying things about New York and many other American cities is the lack of pubic bathrooms. There are no paid privately ran WCs like in Europe, so tourists mostly rely on McDonalds and Starbucks stores for bathroomage (if it’s not a word, we have the technology to make it one).

There are a few other esoteric choices like subway bathrooms – despite the popular wisdom that there are none, most terminal stations and big hubs have open bathrooms, which are scary and extremely dirty, but are sometimes functioning. In all of my years in NYC I wasn’t brave enough to actually use one. I have seen a few experimental high tech bathrooms, sort of 24th century port-o-johns around the city. The one that I used once had a five minute time limit after which the doors opened and the floor was automatically cleaned.

But if you are to experience the NYC’s ultimate hidden, but public bathroom, you need to visit the Trump Tower (725 Fifth Avenue at 56th Street ). There is a doorman next to a set of doors that you can see swung open when an unlucky Apprentice is being expelled, but it’s not going to open for you. You need to enter through revolving doors reserved for regular shmoes. But inside you’ll find a huge pink marble lobby housing a public mall, complete with a multistoried lighted waterfall, Starbucks, Tower Records, a small booth hawking “You are fired” t-shirs and mugs, a bunch of luxury stores, a deli counter and – you guessed it – one of New York’s best public restrooms.

Almost everything in the building is adorned with a “T” or with Turmp’s “family crest”. I was expected to see it on trashcans and urinals, but I guess The Donald did not want to go that far with branding. Men’s bathroom has grey marble surfaces and is well maintained. I expected it to be more lavish, but it is still better than the rest.

The Macbeth Problem

You might have noticed that the pictures were a bit too dark lately, right? I just about gave up trying to adjust my home and work double monitors for reasonable color, contrast and gamma. So I decided to part with some monetary units and requisition myself a fine color calibrating apparatus. Just like Intuos2 tablets that used to be prohibitively expensive but are more reasonably priced these days, calibrating devices can be had for under $200.

For instance, Colorvision Spyder sells for $129.99 at the site powered by the mighty Obidos.

But then I hear that a slightly more expensive GretagMacbeth Eye-One is much better. But the company that houses Rufus the Dog does not even sell those Eye-One thingies.

What’s a poor programmer to do? I am not sure it’s very practical to spend over 200 bucks on a device that I might use three-four times…

I bet it would take a long time to explain my problem to the owner of Macbeth Artificial Daylighting Company of New York in 1915

The Ugliest Building In Brooklyn

Inspired by Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which currently features Frank Gehry’s Museum of Tolerance  that looks like robot’s puke ,  I decided to start my own section on architectural monstrosities.

Behold – The Six of Diamonds Building.

Just the first look at it puzzled me immediatly. Is this a residential or a commercial building? How many floors are there in the structure? What is the function of the small square windows on the facade?  Is there a windowless torture chamber on the top floor beautified with the green diamonds? It seems like pepto-bismol would have been a better choice of color, but then that’s probably what it was before fading out.

Rise of The Machine or Deadprogrammer’s Throne

Remember I was lamenting the lack of robots in my household? Well, I went ahead and did something about that. I am a proud owner of a butt washing robot.

Yep, I purchased a top of the line Toto S300 Washlet (Jasmin). It looks kind of like that, except I have a different model toilet, different mosaic tile on the floor and walls and an orchid that I bought at the Rockefeller Center Orchid show instead of the vase with a lily. But the idea is the same.

Now, think about the question that Howard Stern’s co-host asked Dan Rather. “Do you check after you’re done wiping?” And how many times do you have to check before you are satisfied with results? Toto washlet seat does an amazingly good job of washing your ass. I mean, squeaky clean. Really.

Being top of the line, Jasmine seat comes with really amazing features. Believe it or not, it forces air through a deodorizing filter while you do your duty. And the dryer works much better than I expected. Yes, you have to wait a minute or two, so you should keep some toilet paper around if you need to dry yourself in a hurry.

The machine is so smart that it remembers when you usually use it and turns itself off to preserve energy during “off peak” hours. Still, even when it enters “sleep mode” water heats up instantly and is always at the temperature that you set it. Well, almost, maybe the first couple of seconds it’s a bit colder, but not freezing cold.

The remote control is very, very usable. I like how they hid rarely used buttons under the top cover. Cleaning is a snap.

The only thing that is not so cool is a big fat wire loop that you can’t see on the pictures on Toto’s website. It’s located on the right side of the seat and I got to tell you, it look like that wire on the side of Borg’s head.

I guess it’s there to remind us about the dark side of technology.

The Sonic Quality of My Fridge

I recently learned that there is such a thing as “hospital grade” electric outlets and plugs. Apparently they are slightly more robust and have stronger, springier contacts that keep power cords from unplugging. Here’s an example of a Hubbel brand 20 amp outlet (that’s why it has a T-shaped slot) and surge protection (that’s what the light is for, I guess).

The prices range from 8 to 70 bucks per outlet. Of course audiophiles could not pass by such highly priced electrical components.

Greg Graff writes in this Usenet post:
“I was stunned at what a hospital grade electrical connection could do in my system. Much tighter/deeper base (which is saying something for the WATTS), larger/deeper soundstage, fuller midrange, and a sigificant increase in dimensionality. “

That’s nice, Greg. But some are a bit more skeptical :

“Personally, I use the hospital grade plugs on almost everything, because I used to work at a technician at a medical center and salvaged several dozen plugs off surplus equipment. I strongly recommend them if you don’t pay anything for them. I doubt they’ve improved the sonic quality of my fridge, though…”

I wrote about audiophiles before in my article Brilliant Pebbles, Lost Marbles or The Proud Audiophile.

Deadprogrammer’s Favorite Skyscraper

My favorite skyscraper is a little obscure (like many of my favorite things). Today it’s called the AIG building. When it was built, it was called the City Services Building or Sixty Wall Tower.

The soaring art deco tower was built for City Services Corporation, a company willed into being by one Henry L. Doherty. Doherty was a thoroughly Randian character. A self taught engineer, he started off by leaving school in 1882 at the tender age of 12 to go to work for a local gas company and went on to build one the biggest electric, oil and gas companies worth 1.3 billion in 1930. A technophile, Doherty traveled around the country in his personal train car with telephone and wireless equipment to keep in touch with his empire. Even his bed had phone connections, and electric fan, heating pads and electric motors that could move it through remote control swinging doors onto a porch of his penthouse apartment. He was a very good executive and salesman, but always took a title of Chief Engineer. He even applied for an official engineering license (as he didn’t have any academic credentials). He did have 150 patents to his name and had many articles about oil refining and economy published.

The architectural firm of Clinton & Russel, Holton & George was given the task of designing City Services Building, but Doherty and his engineers had a hand in it too. The building’s heating and air conditioning system was designed by City Services engineers, and Doherty himself suggested double-decker elevators, and terraces with aluminum railings. The building was planned as an embodiment of Doherty’s vision.

The tower starts of as a chunky block wide “wedding cake“. The reason for that is New York City zoning laws. NYC building had to have “setbacks” that would allow light to reach the ground. This was required so that the shadow of a skyscraper would not permanently block daylight on the street. But higher than a certain level you could build without setbacks though. And that’s exactly what the architects did in this case: above the “wedding cake” is a tremendous tower.

The building is recursive: there are two columns shaped like it on it’s sides.

When I was reading The Fountainhead”, this is how I imagined the Dana Building. Coruscant City towers look very much like the City Services Building.

Doherty was planning to live in a penthouse apartment on top of the building. But his health gave out, and after spending some time in sanatoriums he died. Instead of the penthouse apartment an observation gallery was built.

City Services building also became the final masterpiece of it’s architects, Clinton & Russel, Holton & George. No major work came their way after senior partners Clinton and Russel died, and then one of the junior partners, Holton died and George retired.

City Services Inc was hit hard by The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935: they were told that no company could sell or produce both oil and gas. They chose oil and became CITGO. The company moved it’s headquarters to Tulsa selling City Services Building to AIG. AIG renovated the building, but closed off the lobby and the amazing observation deck to the public. Now the observation deck serves as an executive lounge. If you have some juice at AIG and could give me a tour… Well, that would make me happy. Well, it could happen.

Much of my information for this article came from a very good, but poorly organized book called Skyscraper Rivals. I could not find any books about Henry L. Doherty except a $350 “Principles and Ideas for Doherty Men”, a compilation of his articles and letters.

Wegee was a big fan of City Services Building, a book “Weegee’s People” chronicles the life inside the tower. When I get it, I’ll write another article about the double decker elevators, the all-female redhead elevator operators and other marvels of the City Services Building.


Henry L. Doherty and the City Services Building (from “Skyscraper Rivals”)


This is how I get to see the AIG building from a train window.


Coruscant City from Star Wars (image from http://www.wizards.com)