Third World America

I have Arianna Huffington’s new book “Third World America” here. It’s more broad than deep, and includes a long list of familiar gripes about the decline of the middle class with some sad unemployment stories and self-help tips sprinkled in.

My favorite part is a section titled “Who could have known?” which criticizes excuse-making by irresponsible people involved in the scandals and disasters of the last decade. Responding to Alan Greenspan’s shoulder-shrugging hindsight of the financial crisis, Huffington writes:

In truth, the problem is not that we are “not smart enough as people.” As we’ve seen time after time smart enough people are all too willing to ignore facts they don’t like or that don’t happen to benefit them in the short term. And to lessen personal culpability, they institutionalize not knowing—constructing oversight systems deliberately designed to be ineffective and accordingly unable to provide those in power with information they don’t really want to know.

This gets to the root of her complaints: too little accountability for the powerful. But I feel like she is blaming them too much. Shouldn’t we, the accounting public, the people they are supposed to be serving, be holding them responsible?

For example, I fume every time I hear a politician interviewed on the news and the reporter lets some nonsensical sound bite pass without a challenge. I wonder why we don’t have more responsible reporters, but then remember that I should be a more responsible consumer of the news. If I don’t demand it, they won’t produce it.

Frank Lloyd Wright

We visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park this morning. Lore is a big fan and I’ve always had a casual interest in his work.

The interior is a bit dark in places, as there is not a lot of direct sunlight, but it also has a warm, soft, greenness. There were lots of surprising views from one room to a next, as if no room was really separate. You could tell he was a bit persnickety about the design of his home. He paid a lot of attention to detail and designed his own furniture. He even paneled over a couple of windows to block the view of a house next door which he detested.

Because I couldn’t take pictures indoors, and because the midday sun was too bright, and because I can’t operate a camera very well, this building is ill-served by these photos.

Chicago, part two

A rust-colored bridge crosses a green river among skyscrapers.
Our water taxi ride was fun, like a ride through an urban canyon.

We started our second day of exploration with a water taxi ride up the green Chicago River up to the Sears Tower, now known as Willis. The view from the 103rd floor was a bit hazy and the windows were a little dirty but we saw some great sights nonetheless. Against my better judgment, I walked out onto the glass-bottomed ledge for a look straight down.

We spent the afternoon shopping along the “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue. We went to a Macy’s—not exactly a quintessential Chicago experience. I think they bought Marshall Field’s a while back because they occupy a couple of Marshall Field’s old buildings.

Irregular stainless steel panels adorn a band shell.
It didn’t take long for us to warm up to Frank Gehry’s band shell.

For the evening, we walked through the Loop and down to Millennium Park, which is more of an architectural and cultural park than a typical city park. Frank Gehry designed the band shell at the outdoor concert pavilion. At first we thought, “oh, another lopsided Gehry building” but we had to admit it was pretty cool after checking it out up close. Gehry also designed the adjacent meandering bridge from which the brilliant skyline can be seen. The most intriguing part of Millennium Park is the Cloud Gate, which I can only describe as a gargantuan stainless steel kidney bean. You can walk under the concave part and look at your many distorted reflections. My camera battery crapped out halfway through our tour of Millennium Park. I’m thankful for that because it reminded me to look at the city around me as it lit up after sunset.

Our dinner at the Green Door Tavern was as good as the half-pound hot dog on my plate was heavy.

Chicago

Chicago is only four hours away and now I’m wondering why we haven’t gone before. We’re staying in the Near North neighborhood at the Ohio House Motel. It looks a little outdated from the outside but it is clean and in a good location for walking or catching a train around the city.

A trapezoidal black skyscraper alongside other skyscrapers and a limestone water tower.
Hancock Center reminds me of Minas Morgul.

Lore is blown away by the variety and quality of Chicago’s architecture. The broad streets and sidewalks, along with the open space along the lakefront make it easier to admire the buildings than in New York, where you really have to look straight up much of the time.

Woman seated on museum steps painted red, yellow, and blue.
Lore is hard to spot but looks right at home on these colorful steps.

Our first order of business was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which had an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. They didn’t let us take pictures of that exhibit but we saw many of his delicately balanced mobiles. There were some other exhibits, but not many, including works by sculptors influenced by Calder.

A stegosaurus skeleton displayed in front of a painted mural of the same.
I liked how the museum incorporated old murals into the contemporary displays of the fossils.

In the afternoon we took a train (underground, not elevated) to the Field Museum of Natural History for my dinosaur fix. I love dinosaurs and always have ever since I was a kid. The dinosaurs are among the many fossils in the Evolving Planet exhibit. I suppose we could have skipped the exhibits on cyanobacteria and synapsids but I happen to like learning about evolution. Some of the videos weren’t working, which is one of the pitfalls of high-tech multimedia museum displays. The exhibit’s emphasis on biodiversity and extinction ended with a rather simple but stunning mosaic of our planet’s many beautiful life forms.

We walked from the Museum Campus back to the Near North for a dinner of deep dish stuffed pizza from Giordano’s. It was good, not great, pizza—a little lacking in garlic and onion for my tastes—but the crust was really soft and delicious. Our small pie was still massive and probably good for about four meals.

Harpers Ferry

I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia this week being trained to train people to train people, if that makes sense.

Space

After we finished watching “Star Trek: The Original Series” a while back, we watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” miniseries. Since then, I’ve been reading various books about space exploration.

I finished “The Eerie Silence” by Paul Davies right before I went down to the Gulf for the oil spill, and so I didn’t get a chance to write about it. For a short book, it summarizes neatly the last fifty years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and outlines some of the challenges ahead. Davies searches for answers to a simple question: if there is intelligent life beyond our solar system, why haven’t we heard from anyone? His suggested answers are reasonable and even-handed, and cover everything from “we are alone” and “we’re not looking in the right places” to “they’re not interested in talking to us” and “they were there 100 million years ago and now they’re gone”. The more I think about his book the better I think it is.

I also borrowed “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence M. Krause. Krause thinks the known laws of physics can accommodate interstellar travel and a few other of the show’s futurisms. He also thinks the most exotic technology of “Star Trek” is the transporter device. After he’s done describing it, it seems pretty unattainable. I won’t be getting beamed anywhere in my lifetime. He gives “Star Trek” writers a lot of credit for being at least grounded in good science.

“Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach,  is an amusing book though the title is misleading. It’s only tangentially about traveling to Mars, and more about dealing with bodily functions in space. A manned mission to Mars would have to meet all the challenges of the Apollo Project or the International Space Station compounded over several years. “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem,” she begins. After detailing a lot of engineering problems like eating, defecating, and bathing in zero gravity, it’s clear that accomplishing a manned Mars mission is a matter of the political will to pay for it.

I’d have to go back to Carl Sagan and “Cosmos” to pull this all together. The three books are about overcoming the technical barriers to exploring space; “Cosmos” is about the inspiration to explore it in the first place. It’s clear Sagan felt space exploration was valuable on its own merits. I wonder if the materialistic, bottom-line worldview we’re adopting will stifle the impulse to acquire knowledge for its own sake, if it hasn’t already. Mary Roach concludes “Packing for Mars” by pointing out that money never goes into the things it should, like schools and hospitals, so if we’re going to waste money we should waste it on something amazing.