April 30, 2007

Pop (culture) quiz

I came across this quotation a few days ago. Pop quiz: who said it, and when?

Steel was terrific for tall buildings because it could withstand great lateral stresses as well as support great weights. Its weakness was that the heat of a fire could cause steel to buckle. American codes required that structural steel members be encased in concrete or some other fireproof material.

Who is it? A 9/11 "Truth" debunker, answering metallurgical genius and Truther convert Rosie O'Donnell's assertion that fire doesn't melt steel? (And how does the lovely and talented Ms. O'Donnell think steel is made anyway?) James and Pat at Screw Loose Change responding to Loose Change: This Time We Finally Got It Right Edition?


Those words come from author and essayist Tom Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus to Our House1 This book, a critique of the Modernist or "International Style" of architecture, was published in 1981.

What Wolfe is describing is the design of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue in New York, built in 1958 and designed in the Modernist style by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with the American Philip Johnson. Believing in the dictum "less is more," Mies' original design was pure functionalism: the structural steel would be on display on the exterior of the building. (Modernists need nothing so "bourgeois" as ornamentation.) However, he found himself up against American building codes, which require that steel be encased in concrete or otherwise fireproofed. No matter, he concluded: encase the steel on the interior of the skyscraper, but "express" it on the exterior by attaching bronze I-beams carrying no load but imitating the concealed steel inside. (You might ask: Why does a purely functionalist structure require 3 million pounds of bronze decorative fake structure on the outside? Quiet, you.)2

To make a long story short: Fully 20 years before the destruction of the World Trade Center, the vulnerability of structural steel to fire was not up for debate.

Of course, these days, with our postmodern, question-all-authority Zeitgeist, even empirically provable facts such as fire wrecks steel buildings are questioned by porky chat-show hosts and black-T-shirted Twoofers who live in their parents' basements and have as much experience with metallurgy and civil engineering as I have exploring Mars.

There's a classic joke used to illustrate the difficulty of overcoming people's deeply held presuppositions. A man insists he is dead, despite the fact that he is walking, talking and breathing. His doctor convinces him (eventually) that dead men do not bleed, then takes a lancet and jabs him in the finger. The man stares at the blood welling up from his fingertip, and exclaims: "Holy moly! Dead men do bleed, after all!"

Yesterday, this happened. A tanker truck carries considerably less fuel than a Boeing 757, the crash didn't directly damage the bridge's structure, and it carried none of the load that the structure of a 110-story skyscraper does. Yet one good blaze weakened the structure enough to collapse two sections of the interchange.

It's a sign of the times that my first reaction, upon hearing this news yesterday, was to wonder how long it would be before the 9/11 Twoofers started claiming the MacArthur Maze bridge collapse was a government set-up. Answer: As usual, not very long.

Holy moly! Dead men do bleed, after all! Surely the truck was really a hologram and the bridge was actually destroyed with a missile. We anxiously wait for Spooked911 to build a model of the MacArthur Maze with chicken wire and cinder blocks, and demonstrate that it should be impervious to fire.

Incidentally, From Bauhaus to Our House was my first experience with Tom Wolfe, and I'm definitely going to be a repeat customer. The book is a polemic against the "glass boxes" of Modernist architecture and the religious fervour with which the various Modernist "compounds" defend their own version of architectural orthodoxy. (Generally speaking, they are all agreed that the "bourgeois," whatever that nebulous term happens to mean at the moment, is bad.) Why is it that America's modern skyscrapers, the most visible symbols of its technological and economic prowess, are homogenous, dull, bland cubes of steel and glass? Bauhaus was written too early for Postmodern architecture to have revived the idea of variety and individuality in landmark buildings, but Wolfe does cover such figures as Edward Durrell Stone, Eero Saarinen and to an extent Robert Venturi, forerunners of the Postmodern movement, whom he terms "apostates" from the Modernist compounds.

Wolfe spends several pages discussing the infamous Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, widely regarded as the most colossal failure of public housing. Built in the mid-1950s, Pruitt-Igoe's 33 identical high-rise tenements were textbook Modernist: wide-open green areas, communal galleries, skip-stop elevators, and enclosed walkways. In the pie-in-the-sky theories of Modernist architects, these features were supposed to foster community. What they did was foster crime and vandalism, and it was only a few years before the project fell into disrepair and neglect. Finally the entire project was declared beyond redemption, and all the tenements were imploded between 1972 and 1976. It was the first Modernist structure to be intentionally demolished, leading some Postmodern architects to declare it the end of the Modernist era.

As a point of interest, the Pruitt-Igoe architect was Minoru Yamasaki, later the designer of the very Modernist World Trade Center. Cue the spooky music.


1 Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981). The quotation is on p. 75.

2 No one who speaks German can be an evil man! footnote: Mies was also worried about the untidy appearance of the Seagram Building when its occupants tried to screen out the sun with window blinds. So he designed special blinds that had only three positions: open, closed, and halfway. Ironically, Mies left Germany because the Nazis didn't feel he was fascistic enough.

April 22, 2007

And now . . . this - Apr. 22, 2007

"Pleez let my son out of prisun. Signed, Timothy's Mom"

Officials released a prisoner from a state facility after receiving a phony fax that ordered the man be freed, and didn’t catch the mistake for nearly two weeks.

Timothy Rouse, 19, is charged with beating an elderly western Kentucky man and was at the Kentucky Correctional & Psychiatric Center in La Grange for a mental evaluation. He was released from that facility on April 6 after officials received the fake court order.

It contained grammatical errors, was not typed on letterhead and was faxed from a local grocery store. The fax falsely claimed that the Kentucky Supreme Court "demanded" Rouse be released. . . .

Prison officials did not notice that the fax came from the grocery store because policies in place did not require checking the source of a faxed order, said the LaGrange facility’s director, Greg Taylor.

"It’s not part of a routine check, but certainly, in hindsight, that would perhaps have caused somebody to ask a question," he said. He added that misspellings on orders are common.

[Full Story]


It's a good thing there are people like Virginia Ramey, who pack .38s and know how to use them, to protect the good citizenry of Kentucky from the consequences of their bureaucrats' dimbulbery.

April 21, 2007

And now . . . this - Apr. 21, 2007

"Gun control" means a steady hand and aiming first

After confronting a man she said was stealing from her Kentucky farm, [1944 Miss America, Venus] Ramey pulled out a gun and shot out a tire on his truck so he couldn't leave, allowing police to arrest him and two others. . . .

She drove over to the building and blocked the truck sitting there.

When she asked a man what he was doing, he replied "scrapping," and said he would leave.

"I said, 'Oh, no you won't,' and I shot their tires so they couldn't leave," Ramey said.

She had to balance on her walking stick as she pulled out a snub-nosed .38-caliber handgun.

[Full Story]

Just the image of an 82-year-old lady leaning on a cane with one hand while blasting away with a .38 with the other, cracks me right up.

April 12, 2007

April 08, 2007

In Christ alone my hope is found

We proclaim that Christ has been raised from the dead.
So how can you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

If there is no resurrection of the dead,
then not even Christ has been raised.

If Christ has not been raised,
our message is meaningless.

If Christ has not been raised,
Your faith is fruitless.

We slander God by claiming he raised Christ,
because if there is no resurrection of the dead,
then Christ has not been raised either.

And if Christ has not been raised,
then your sins are not forgiven.

And if we placed our hope in Christ, and he has not been raised,
we are the most pathetic of people.

Why imitate his death, burial, and resurrection in baptism?
Why put our lives at risk every day?
Why face the lions in the arena?
Why live for anything but the pleasures of the now?

Wake up!

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!

And therefore we are not pathetic,
and therefore our sins are forgiven,
and therefore our faith is fruitful,
and therefore our message is momentous.

And therefore we, too, will be raised.

A grain of wheat will not become a living plant unless it dies first,
and that is how it is with the resurrection of the dead.

What goes into the ground is perishable;
what comes out is imperishable.
The old body is natural;
the new body is spiritual.

The first man, Adam, was given life;
the second Adam, Christ, is the life-giver.
The first Adam was a natural man;
the second Adam is a spiritual man.
The first Adam came from the dust;
the second Adam came from heaven.
And today we bear the dusty image of the first Adam from earth,
but tomorrow we will bear the spiritual image of the second Adam from heaven.

When the Last Trumpet sounds,
the dead will be changed to the living,
the perishable to the imperishable,
and the mortal to the immortal.

Where is your victory, Death?
Christ is the victor.
Thanks be to God!

So stand firm!
Do the work of the Lord, knowing this,
that in him, your work is not in vain:

For he is risen indeed.

(An Easter meditation on 1 Corinthians 15, hastily and loosely paraphrased while listening to the gorgeous In Christ Alone by Margaret Becker, Máire Brennan, and Joanne Hogg. This chapter was expounded upon at a sunrise service this morning on Parliament Hill, and the rhetorician in me was struck by Paul's use of tropes, particularly antithesis and parallelism. I wanted to try and bring out the Apostle's powerful argument - for a powerful truth - with a little exaggeration and reorganization of his structure. If bad poetry isn't your cup of tea, be sure to read Rebecca on what the Resurrection means for believers.)

April 05, 2007

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!

"For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in." (Matt. 23:13)

KJV-only "street preachers," consumed with their hatred of James White, sabotage another effort to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Mormons. Read it and weep.

There aren't enough dim bulbs in the world to hand around . . .

April 03, 2007

The panda says NO!

The title of Lynne Truss' book Eats, Shoots & Leaves comes from an old joke - not referenced in the text but printed on the back cover - about a panda that walks into a bar and orders a meal, then pulls out a gun, fires two shots, and walks out. Asked why he did it, he shows the bartender a nature book, whose badly edited entry on the panda says it is a native of China that "eats, shoots and leaves." Rim shot. As soon as I read the following paragraph, I knew two things about this book: a) I was about to be subjected to a protracted vent about crimes against grammar, and b) I was going to have a lot of fun reading it:

I don't know how bad things are in America, but in the UK I cannot emphasise it enough: standards of punctuation are abysmal. Encouraged to conduct easy tests on television, I discovered to my horror that most British people truly do not know their apostrophe from their elbow. "I'm an Oxbridge intellectual," slurred a chap in Brighton, where we were asking passers-by to "pin the apostrophe on the sentence" for a harmless afternoon chat-show. He immediately placed an apostrophe (oh no!) in a possessive "its". The high-profile editor of a national newspaper made the same mistake on a morning show, scoring two correct points out of a possible seven. On a TV news bulletin, the results of a vox pop item were shown on screen under the heading "Grammer Test" - the spelling of which I assumed was a joke until I realised nobody in the studio was laughing. Meanwhile well-wishers sent hundreds of delightful/horrific examples of idiotic sign-writing, my current favourite being the roadside warning CHILDREN DRIVE SLOWLY - courtesy of the wonderful Shakespearean actor Timothy West. Evidently, this sign - inadvertently descriptive of the disappointing road speeds attainable by infants at the wheel - was eventually altered (but sadly not not improved) by the addition of a comma, becoming CHILDREN, DRIVE SLOWLY - a kindly exhortation, perhaps, which might even save lives among those self-same reckless juvenile road-users; but still not quite what the writer had in mind.1

Each chapter of Eats, Shoots & Leaves is devoted to one punctuation mark (or a few related ones). The lesson is served with a generous helping of snarky anecdotes. The best of these is about a teenage Truss tearing her new pen pal, the befreckled Kerry-Anne (who dotted her i's with little circles), a new orifice with a semicolon:

I replied to her childish letter on grown-up deckled green paper with a fountain pen. Whether I actually donned a velvet smoking jacket for the occasion I can't remember, but I know I deliberately dropped the word "desultory", and I think I may even have used some French. . . . The main reason I remember this shameful teenage epiphany, however, is that in my mission to blast little Kerry-Anne out of the water, I pulled out (literally) all the stops: I used a semicolon. "I watch television in a desultory kind of way; I find there is not much on," I wrote.2

Book Review
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss
Gotham-Penguin, 2003
ISBN: 1-592-40203-8
209 pp.

But amidst all the biting wit, the book does give helpful, and largely unconfusing, guidance for good punctuation usage. Many of the examples form a running gag involving Starburst candies (Truss is amusingly resentful of their name change from Opal Fruit), and in the chapter on semicolons, several take a jab at Kerry-Anne and her freckles.

The one thing this book doesn't explain clearly is quotation marks. For some reason, Truss prefers North American-style inverted commas (double outside single), but British-style "logical" placement of other punctuation within them. Her explanation of logical punctuation didn't un-confuse me any more. I think I can see why the American edition was published with British spelling and typology instead of following the usual custom of converting it to American usage: one side of the Pond might completely miss the point!

My edition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves comes with a "Punctuation Repair Kit," consisting of a variety of punctuation-mark stickers, which pedantic vandals can use to correct local vendors' signage; and a handful of "The Panda Says NO!" stickers, which I assume are to cover up superfluous apostrophes when your grocer tries to sell you "apple's"3 at $1.49/lb. I wouldn't use them myself, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be immensely satisfied to see that other grammar vigilantes have stuck them on signs all over town.

"Bad Comma", Louis Menand's peevish review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the New Yorker4 points out, in painstaking detail, numerous instances of punctuation at odds with Truss' rules. Perhaps the copyeditor should have paid closer attention to detail. However, it's nit-picky to place a serial comma (a stylistic preference that Truss doesn't like) on the same level as an apostrophe in a plural (an error). Truss is a curmudgeon, but she's not a pedant. Maybe the New Yorker prefers its grammar descriptive rather than prescriptive.

After finishing up Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I sought out Truss' followup, Talk to the Hand. In this book, she laments the death of common courtesy, in such ways as the lack of simple pleasantries (please and thank you); the breakdown of public and private spaces (leading to telemarketers intruding upon your dinner with obnoxious sales calls, or loud cellphone conversations on the bus about how many times and with whom and in what positions); the end of true customer service (so that customers must serve themselves by punching endless numbers into automated attendants); and the Universal Eff Off Reflex (because everyone has the right to do what he wants and to be free of criticism for doing it5, "Eff Off," or an equivalent hand signal, has become the expected response to any attempt to rebuke or correct loutish behaviour). It's an excellent read - in many ways more entertaining than the previous book - but here, Eats, Shoots & Leaves gets the nod simply for not merely pointing out what's wrong, but being helpful. I'd be happy enough to have both volumes on the bookshelf, but it's Truss' earlier book that I would include in the library I carry from workplace to workplace.


1 xx-xxi.

2 104-05.

3 Halal footnote: Or, more commonly around here, shawarma's.

4 Louis Menand, "Bad Comma: Lynne Truss's Strange Grammar," The New Yorker, 28 June 2004, 102-04.

5 Judge not, lest ye be judged footnote: I sometimes wonder if our prevailing non-judgmentalism ought not to be classified as a Christian heresy. After all, Jesus did say "judge not" (amongst other things), and it's probably the one thing in the Bible everyone knows . . .