Sutyagin’s Moving Castle or Ruskyscraper

Slowly but steadily making my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, I recently watched Howl’s Moving Castle. It made me remember the wooden skyscraper in Archangelsk I wrote about before.

Apparently the skyscraper is still standing, although it looks like it has deteriorated significantly. I cleaned removed the old broken links from my old article about it and got permission from Nikolai Gernet aka nixette to use one of his photos. Archangelsk has a rich history of wooden architecture and nixette has more photos here and here as well as many other interesting pictures from Archangelsk and of Sutiagin’s wooden skyscraper in particular.

It’s interesting to note that both Russia and Japan have a rich tradition of wooden architecture.

Sutiagin's Wooden SkyscraperHowl's Moving Castle

While looking for info about this, I found another gem: the conceptual design called Ruskyscraper by Eugene Staune who works for Arhitekturium architectural firm. It’s supposed to have 25 stories of 10.8ft each made primarily out of wood and glass. The articles describe it as economical, but I really doubt that– if there’s anything that I’ve learned from watching The New Yankee Workshop, wood can be very expensive. This project would probably use laminated engineered lumber, so I guess it could be doable.

The floor plan seems to be rather wasteful, but hey, this is a concept design, not something that is probably going to be built.

Victory Day

Time is slowly erasing the traumatic memory of the two world wars. That is to say that the people who fought in it are dying out, and the younger generations do not like to think of the horrors that the two great wars brought.

When I was growing up, World War II did not seem very exciting to me, from the infantile militarism standpoint. Bootleg American movies, like Rambo and Star Wars seemed oh so much cooler. WWII killing machines seemed outdated and andand reminiscences of veterans who were invited into Soviet classrooms prior to every May 9th – boring.

I did like the Polish movie serial about WWII, called “Four tankers and dog” (“Четыре танкиста и собака” in Russian and “Czterej pancerni i pies” in Polish). It was an awesome, awesome serial about a Polish tank’s crew in WWII. Recently I purchased it on DVD from a Russian movie store as a present for my childhood friend. We watched it a bit, and I’ve got to tell you, it held up amazingly well.

Later, I realized that “Star Wars” technology was based on WWII, down to space battles mimicking real aerial dogfights. The rest of ideas Lucas lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. That was probably one of the reasons why the original 3 episodes were so much cooler then the new ones.

WWII is all the rage these days. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an awesome WWII game. Mike Mingola brought back WWII chic in his Hellboy comics, Nazi mad scientist and all.

I particularly like WWII-style superheroes, without overabundance of superpowers and in baggy costumes with many gear pockets and bandoliers. In Hellboy’s origin story, there’s a panel where a group of Allied soldiers poses for a picture with Hellboy and Liberty Torch, a wartime superhero, that appeals to me a lot. I also liked how in Batman: Year One Batman uses thermite as a weapon that he gets from his military-looking bandolier belt.

For the firts time since Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage, computer programmers became active, this time being driven not by intellectual curiosity, but by a dire need to break Nazi codes. If not for the Polish scientists who created the first Enigma-breaking mechanical “bombes”, Alan Turing and the rest of the computer pioneers, me and my dad not only wouldn’t be computer programmers, but probably would not have been born.

That reminded of an echo of WWII that I once encountered. I used to work as a doorman, porter and elevator operator in an Upper West Side residential building where Robert Oppenheimer was born. There was a very nice old man who lived alone in a huge pre-war apartment. Every year he asked one of the staff to help him set all the clocks in the apartment during the daylight savings switch. It remains one of the more memorable experiences for me from my employment there. I remember a huge apartment with many clocks. The old guy seemed to be very anxious to have all of them set, and all of them set correctly, asking me several times to check and doublecheck. Must have taken me half an hour to get them all. Once I set all the clocks he became very relieved.

I guess the guy had a very special relationship with time. My boss told me he saw a number tattoo on the old man’s arm. That most likely means that he had a “user id” for an IBM punchcard machine in Auschwitz.

There are Always Leaks

There are those movies that keep you actively thinking about them for days and weeks after you see them. Primer, which I watched with my wife yesterday is one of those. If you are one of those who are afraid of “spoilers” – this is your warning, although I believe it’s really impossible to create a “spoiler” for this movie. You’ll watch it once, twice, three times, then with director’s commentaries, then read the entire message board and still will not be able to figure it out entirely.

Primer is a story about time travel paradoxes, but not really. It’s about innovation, competition, trust and inability to see the entire picture.

Without the science fiction element, the movie is about garage innovators. The core of innovative group is almost always two people. Sometimes it starts out with more people, but then boils down to two. Jobs and Wozniak, Hewlett and Packard, Gates and Allen. You need to have your John and your Paul, George and Ringo are not that important. So you have these two people who together are destined to create great things. Can they trust each other? Would they do screw each other over?

We know for a fact that the alpha geeks are often ruthless. Steve Jobs gets a design job from Atari, gives it to Steve Wozniak, promising 50/50 spilt, and after Woz delivers the work gives him $300 while pocketing a few grand, saying that the fee was $600? When Apple becomes a success he deserts Wozniak. Then gets forced out himself. Then he majorly screws over founders of Pixar. Then takes back Apple. Typical preppy high school drama, except with higher stakes. And realize this – he does all that instead of enjoying his money and free time.

Anyway, the movie has two protagonists, Abe and Aaron, engineers talented like Woz and a bit less ruthless than Jobs. Abe creates a time machine that can use to travel back in time to the moment when the machine is powered up for the first time and then explains its use to his friend. That opens endless possibilities for them: make money in the stock market, prevent bad stuff from happening. Which they do for a while, but then their competitive instincts kick in. Can you really trust your partner not to go into the past and put you out of commission?

Worse of all — if you go back in time and then prevent your second self from entering the time machine all of a sudden there are two of you. The biblical names of the characters are significant in this context – Abraham – the “Father of Many” and Aaron – the “Bearer of Martyrs”. They become involved and a four-dimensional battle for control with each other and their paradox-born doppelgangers. “Failsafe machines” — extra time boxes set up in hidden locations that allow for extra “entry points” or “save points” become important weapons in this game. Can you really trust yoursef becomes the real question.

Abe and Aaron are competitive and very, very smart. They create a crazily complicated situation, with time machines, time machines inside time machines, doubles that have all recorded audio track of the timeline provided to them by future selves, extra timelines and resets via failsafe machines. “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon” sounds absolutely normal in the context.

A similar, buth much less complicated situation transpired in Stanislaw Lem’s 7th voyage of the Star Diaries of Ijon Tichy..

That sci-fi story went like this: Ijon’s rocketship ends up in a “space storm” with a broken rudder. Fixing a rudder is a two person job, but luckily the space storm brings together Ijons from different times. All he really needs to do is put on a space suit, wait for a later him wearing a space suit to appear, cooperate and fix the rudder. Instead he ends up arguing with his future and past selves, hitting and being hit by them and eating his own supplies of chocolate. Here’s a quote from what seems to be a full text of the story that somebody probably illegally posted on the web:

“I came to, sitting on the floor of the bathroom; someone was banging on the door. I began to attend to my bruises and bumps, but he kept pounding away; it turned out to be the Wednesday me. After a while I showed him my battered head, he went with the Thursday me for the tools, then there was a lot of running around and yanking off of spacesuits, this too in one way or another I managed to live through, and on Saturday morning crawled under the bed to see if there wasn’t some chocolate left in the suitcase. Someone started pulling at my foot as I ate the last bar, which I’d found underneath the shirts; I no longer knew just who this was, but hit him over the head any how, pulled the spacesuit off him and was going to put it on–when the rocket fell into the next vortex.

When I regained consciousness, the cabin was packed with people. There was barely elbowroom. As it turned out, they were all of them me, from different days, weeks, months, and one–so he said–was even from the following year. There were plenty with bruises and black eyes, and five among those present had on spacesuits. But instead of immediately going out through the hatch and repairing the damage, they began to quarrel, argue, bicker and debate. The problem was, who had hit whom, and when. The situation was complicated by the fact that there now had appeared morning me’s and afternoon me’s–I feared that if things went on like this, I would soon be broken into minutes and seconds–and then too, the majority of the me’s present were lying like mad, so that to this day I’m not altogether sure whom I hit and who hit me when that whole business took place, triangularly, between the Thursday, the Friday and the Wednesday me’s, all of whom I was in turn. My impression is that because I had lied to the Friday me, pretending to be the Sunday me, I ended up with one blow more than I should have, going by the calendar. But I would prefer not to dwell any longer on these unpleasant memories; a man who for an entire week does nothing but hit himself over the head has little reason to be proud.”

One other main themes of the movie is the inability to know certain things no matter how smart you are. Too many things are open to too many interpretations. The geeks on the web are obsessively putting together timelines, diagrams and theories of what really went on. I don’t even think that the author of the screenplay completely understands the whole sequence of events. And he directed and played in the film! How many timelines are there? How many Abes and Aarons? What do they mean by “recycling” the machines? What the hell happened with Tom Granger?

There is also an interesting recursive theme in the movie: cheapness. The actor/director/screenwriter, shooting on what is described as $7000 budget and making it look very good, has done some ingenious things. So do the inventor in the movie – he keeps his day job instead of throwing it away to follow the dream, too cheap to have a steak for lunch, and even at some point he cuts copper tubing needed for the project out of a refrigerator. I don’t know if building a time machine is that much more difficult than making such an awesome movie on a 7K budget.

By the way, if you are looking for hints about the movie, the commentary track on the DVD is a pretty horrible place to start. It’s full of jems like “That sound effect – yeah [background laugh] – that was George Forman Grill”.

All I know, is that I want an Emiba Devices t-shirt. And a garage.

The League Of Objects Made In Different Places

And here’s what I spent much of my Sunday sitting in the armchair and reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (thanks for recommendation, badger). For a minute I thought about where all the stuff that surrounded me was made.

Matcha tea is from Kyoto Japan, so is the bowl. The cigar’s components hail from Nikaragua, Ecuadore and Sumatra. The water is from Fiji. The ashtray is probably made in China (my radium glass ashtray broke) and so is the window fan that sucks out all the smoke. The armchair is made in Italy. Tilde the cat is probably made in Brooklyn (even though she looks sullen, she was not posed at all).

I wonder if Michael Chabon got the name for one of the title characters from this old hotel a couple of block from the Empire State Building.

Objectivist Living With Style

A Curbed article about the new “tower of penthouses” tower reminded me of the Enright House in Rand’s “The Fountainhead”:

He stopped. He saw the reproduction of a drawing: the Enright House by Howard Roark.

He did not need to see the caption or the brusque signature in the corner of the sketch; he knew that no one else had conceived that house and he knew the manner of drawing, serene and violent at once, the pencil lines like high-tension wires on the paper, slender and innocent to see, but not to be touched. It was a structure on a broad pace by the East River. He did not grasp it as a building, at first glance, but as a rising mass of rock crystal. There was the same severe, mathematical order holding together a free, fantastic growth; straight lines and clean angles, space slashed with a knife, yet in a harmony of formation as delicate as the work of a jeweler; an incredible variety of shapes, each separate unit unrepeated, but leading inevitably to the next one and to the whole; so that the future inhabitants were to have, not a square cage out of a square pile of cages, but each a single house held to the other houses like a single crystal to the side of a rock.

Yeah, I guess Mr. Calatrava is no Mr. Roark. But still, kudos to him for trying.

Hand Chewed

I just learned from co-worker that I missed a reading by Douglas Coupland over at B&N in Union Square. He signed books and everything! Dang. How I wish Barnes and Noble had an rss feed of all the Meet the Writers events in Manhattan stores.

Anyway, heads up – Coupland is on his way to Atlanta, SF, Berkley, Portland, Seattle, etc.

I am surprised Kurt Vonnegut did not think of this first: “hand chewed” book sculptures. I wonder what inspired Coupland – the Spanish Inquisition that forced heretics to eat their books?

“Generation X”
Paper and magnolia branch
First edition English language version of Generation X
hand chewed by the artist and then formed into a nest
2004

There’s No Cleopatra And There’s No Needle

Central Park contains an amazing artifact commonly referred to as “Cleopatra’s Needle”. It’s one of the many Egyptian obelisks scattered all around the world, and one of the two that used to stand in front of the Sun temple in Heliopolis. A second obelisk is located in London these days.

In general, Egyptian obelisks were moved around the globe by different governments kind of like a college statues by drunken frat boys. The Romans moved the two Cleopatra’s Needles to Alexandria, and then as gifts from the Egyptians to the Great Britain and the US, the were moved by British and American engineers to their current locations. Overall the moves turned out to be amazing feats of engineering, especially with the British overcomplicated scheme of building a pontoon around the obelisk and towing it with another ship.

You can find it right across from the Met, on the 5th Ave. side approximately between 81st and 82nd.

The pillar does not give an impression of being an element of the Sun god’s temple. The 3500 year old monolith is gloomy, foreboding and downright Lovecraftian. The shadow play at sunset is especially spooky (that’s what I tried to capture in the above picture).

Cleopatra has very little to do with either obelisks. They were built by king Tuthmosis III (well, the king probably had some help from his slaves). Later everybody’s favorite pharaoh, Ramses II, seeing how there was a lot of space left on the obelisks added some of his own “press releases” to it:

The writing looks like a story of an alien abduction (with the flying saucers and wavy tractor beams), but as it turns out these are normal hieroglyphics. “Bird , Bird , Giant Eye … Cat Head , guy doing this” and so forth. I thought that there were thousands of glyphs, but it turns out that they are just an alphabet. So the flying saucers on the picture are “R” sounds, and the “tractor beam” is an “H”.

I was surprised to see the pharaoh being referred to as “Lord of the Two Lands, User-maat-ra”. What was he a user of? Well, as it turns out all pharaohs have ridiculous system of 5 different names. I mean, come on, a Horus name and the Golden Horus Name!? (Horus happens to be the Sun god, the one with the falcon head ) User-maat-ra happens to be the throne name, the one that one that the Greeks transcribed as Ozymandias.

So he’s the king from Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandias” sonnet. Yup, good ol’ Ramses was kind of like Donald Trump – liked to build things and put his names on things. Also, like a rockstar or an NBA superstar he had sex with hundreds of women, siring hundreds of children as Durex Ramses condoms were apparently not available back then. Last but not least he was apparently the “7 cows dream” and “let my people go” pharaoh of the Bible.

A Jaunt To Boston

I dread the question “how was your weekend” because I usually spend my weekends not going anywhere. But this time I have enough to do a whole “how I spent my weekend” post as my wife dragged me to Boston. She wanted to see Russian bells at the Lowell House in Harvard as well as break the loosely stay at home cycle that I am so prone to.

We took a Fung Wah bus to Boston (“Licensed and permitted by Federal Highway Administration” and everything). Fung Wah is one of the companies that operates New York Chinatown to Boston Chinatown trips at cutthroat rates – about $15 each way. Somehow they took on Greyhound and seem to be winning – Greyhound was forced to bring its rates down from about $45 to $15. We took a Greyhound bus on the way back, and I’ve got to tell you that the Fung Wah experience was a bit better. They left on time, had little shopping bags to throw you garbage into, and most importantly did not play a stupid movie at full blast – I really did not need to have my mind raped by former Batman performing in 1998 Christmas horror flick Jack Frost. Next time I am taking Fung Wah again.

We were driven around Boston by and old friend of mine, had dinner in an Indian restaurant and later drinks at the top of the Prudential Tower. Top of the Hub is located on the 52nd floor of the tower and has views to die for.

I had some Old Potrero which (as I now know) was incorrectly billed as a Canadian whisky. Even though it’s made in San Francisco and not Canada according to Anchor Brewing website, it was very good and unlike any other whiskey or whisky that I ever had. I’ll have to get acquainted with real hoser stuff later.

Our hotel room purchased with hard earned Mariott Points&tm; had this outstanding view of the controversially named Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

We visited the “Art Deco: 1910-1939” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. There were two pieces that I really liked – a metal gate that was used as a door to an executive suite in the Chanin Building and a pottery vase. I tried to imagine what a regular employee would feel seeing that gate, with a design of cogs and wheels, coin stacks and lightning bolts so wild that it looked electrified. The vase had a design of spirals that looked like Cthulhu tentacles, actually shining with evil glow. Overall, for $20 the exhibition was too short and not that interesting.

The main purpose of our trip was a visit to the Lowell House Bells. As it turns out an amazing set of Russian bells from the Danilov Monastery was purchased from the Soviet government in 1920s by a diplomat and industrialist Charles Crane thus escaping smelting. Crane gave it as a gift to Harvard. The bells were installed and then tuned by Constantin Saradjeff, an eccentric Russian bell expert who reportedly had superhearing powers, being able to “identify by ear any one of 4,000 bells in Moscow”.

Harvard students organized a Society of Russian Bell Ringers and for 50 years have been trying to learn to play the bells and learn their history, passing everything learned onto the next generation. They practice for 15 minutes every Sunday and invite everyone to visit the bell tower, listen to and even play the bells.

There are 14 bells of small and medium size and two very big bells called “Sacred Oil” and “Pestilence, Famine and Despair”, which are played from a console that has pulls and pedals:

And then there’s an absolutely giant 26,700 lb “Mother Earth” bell that is played by standing inside and moving its 700 lb clapper by hand. It takes a few sways to actually ring it once.

I stood inside the bell when it was played, and it was an unforgettable experience. The reverberations would not stop for minutes. Some say that Russian bells have healing powers. I don’t know about that, but that ring of the Mother Earth bell must have had everything from infra to ultra sounds in it. My wife had a great time taking her turn playing the bells, and I kind of regret that I did not have the guts to try it. Next time I sure will, and advise that you do the same.

Again With Time

Setting Wright’s book aside, I went on to read Jack Finney’s “Time And Again” which was up  next. I’ve read it in Russian translation many years ago, but understood very little of what makes it so very special a book. My mom seemed to appreciate it better back then, because it remains the only science fiction book that she ever liked. This time, in English and after a quarter of my lifetime spent in New York, the book truly resonated.

“Time And Again” is a time travel story, with a novel and decidedly low tech approach.  The idea is that the past really exists, but we do not slip back into it because our minds are tethered to the present by a web of knowledge that is increasingly time specific: computer is a machine, not a person; Microsoft is a giant corporation,not a tiny little startup; Altavista is forgotten, Google is the best search engine; webpages are out, blogs are in; I just opened Semagic to write this post, I just typed this sentence.  We are constantly reminded of when we are: our computers hum, there are airplanes flying overhead, if we look out of the window there are cars parked outside.  We call them cars, not automobiles most of the time.

To travel back you need to find a places that exists both in the present and in the past unchanged, potential portals. If have certain talents, go to such a place, dress in the style of the past, eat what people used to eat then, become saturated with the lingering atmosphere of the past. And then, trough self hypnosis, make yourself temporarily forget about modern things – and back you go, into the past.

In the book, a government secret project taps a talented, but loosely and dissatisfied illustrator Si Morley who successfully uses an empty apartment in the Dakota Building near Central Park to travel back to the Eighties. The Eighteen Eighties.

Just like Jack Finney is better known for “Invasion of The Body Snatchers“, the Dakota is better known as the building where John Lennon lived and inf front of which he was killed. It’s a monster of a building with 14 ft ceilings, very thick walls  and giant apartments. From the top floors all you can see is Central Park, a place that is kept true to Frederick Law Olmsted’s master plan as much as possible. In short – a time portal.

What I especially love about the book is the fact that it is very well illustrated with photographs and drawings which are presented by the protagonist in line with the narration. Why in this age of computer augmented publishing  so few other books show photographs next to the text that describes them is beyond me.

Here’s Si Morley’s photo of the Dakota side to side with my version:

Wright Is Wrong

I started reading John C. Wright’s “Last Guardian of Everness” but got stuck in the middle because of the cursed conventions of the degenerate genre that Wright chose to try his hand out in, and “MTV style” narration that jumps from a character to character (there must be an official name for that, but I don’t know it). 

The degenerate genre is Fantasy, of course, and the conventions are:  magic, characters that are “chosen” (and “last guardians” in general), unicorns and other mythological critters, cities with names that sound like allergy medicine names (Celebradon? give me a break).  Passing by much abused elves and gnomes in favor of lesser know dudes like selkie and Koschey The Deathless is ok, but still short of coming up with original types. 

Wright is much better than an average Fantasy writer, but his storytelling is somewhat sloppier than necessary for me to swallow Fantasy.  Unfortunately, it looks like he is becoming much more boring, sloppy and he is yet to produce something better than “Guest Law” and other of his short stories.  The Phoenix Trilogy was good (even if too long and not polished enough to be a true masterpiece).  He has a beautiful world created in “Guest Law”, and the best part of  the Phoenix Trilogy for me was that it was kind of related to that world. But he squanders all of that to write slightly above mediocre Fantasy.