Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Why is Tuition so High?

Richard Vedder explains why...

I will admit to having very much enjoyed my undergraduate experience. The college I attended was very small, having fewer than 1200 students, and an exorbitantly high endowment. The students there were coddled every step of the way and there were arguably more landscape workers than students. Access to professors was a given, as the classes were so small, it was common for teachers to become surrogate parents to some of their pupils. The gym facilities were plentiful, classical concerts were free and fancily catered, and the 9-hole golf course served as the community country club for the surrounding town.

Thinking back on that time, I am now aware that I was a beneficiary of distorted system of school finance that affected different classes of students unjustly. The tuition was 3 times higher than the premier state university, and the majority of students on that campus were on some form of financial aid. Who was paying full tuition? It turns out that a minority of students do pay the maximum price, an amount set by the university not only to pay for rising expenditures, but also to milk their customers at as high a ceiling as possible. This practice is based upon the idea that the rich students partially subsidize the poorer students, in which "poor" means middle class students who cannot afford full tuition. It's similar to the way healthcare reimbursements are done in the U.S. Doctors set the price of their services high so that they can be assured a minimum amount of direct revenue once all the other expenses in filing with insurance companies, medi-care, and the expected reduction of the negotiated price take their hefty cut. The university system in our country is by its nature very competitive, but it works as a highly distorted free market, much like the U.S. healthcare system. Just as government programs fund about 40 percent of medical costs in the country, government-backed sudent loans and grants provide such a windfall to the college coffers that they are able to progressively raise their tuition rates for as much as government aid will allow.

And where does all this tuition money go? To superstar professors, to fancy new buildings, to fancier lawcare, and to the hiring of non-educational staff like diversity counselors and assistant football coaches. Fancy dorms, which are looking more like condominiums than the traditional barrack, and large recreation centers seem to be the new priority for colleges more than ensuring that the educational quality rises. There are many aspects of attending college in America that I feel fortunate about, and I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything else. But when the pace in which college tuitions rise three times as fast as the general rate of inflation every year, then it's apparent that there are too many inefficiencies and corrupted priorities in our colleges. Academics come first, and it is only fair that the students who foot other's bill get their money's worth.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Gateway Effect

When flying over the country, it’s hard not to notice the tremendous extent to which the country is covered by farm land. The scale of plowed fields on the landscape is of a magnitude far larger than the idyllic quilt-like landscape of Europe. Each tract in a typical mid-west farm would have enough space to contain a sizeable urban neighborhood. But what of the neighborhood in the farming towns, where the population gets steadily older? The very mechanized nature of farming in America has led to the gradual emptying of agricultural towns, with young people often moving to cities for work and migrant workers traveling from state to state ready to do back-breaking work on the fields, agri-business expanding the scale of farming while diminishing the number of workers needed. With all of this demographic change one wonders what the future holds for farming communities.

Change often comes from the most unusual places, and this article points to the emergence of information technology as possible source of hope for America’s rural communities. The information revolution that kicked into high gear following the widespread use of the internet has indeed introduced something revolutionary to the way humans make decisions on where to live. The industrial revolution favored centralization with the railroad, the factory town and the emergence of a financial sector that raised capital and speculated on properties at a heretofore unseen scale. Now the trend is towards greater decentralization, with new telecommunication technologies permitting individuals to work wherever they choose. Proximity still offers its advantages, but now internet retail sites and the competitive business of parcel delivery cancels out the need to go to stores and shop constantly. The attractive allure of low-cost real estate in rural towns makes taking a pay-cut in salary acceptable. This is already beginning to happen, as some tech workers displaced by foreign outsourcing have become resourceful.

This new phenomena has already been observed by Joel Kotkin, an urban sociologist whose views are contrary to much mainstream opinion.
Here are some additional perspectives on "the new ruralism."

Saturday, August 27, 2005

What He Said...Thoughts on the War in Iraq

So far in my blog, I've refrained from writing specifically my views on current events. As my list of recommended links to the side suggests, my opinions are congruent to much of what is written on those sites. I am no journalistic writer, and blogging has made me realize what a true talent it is to be able to write so concisely and persuasively. Fortunately, the blogosphere has benefited the spread of articulate conservative/libertarian writers to a very high degree, while great liberal writers have yet to emerge in this new medium. I often find myself unable to add much to the debate, so I tend to post about other subjects with which I am more familiar, like European culture, architecture, and other things I find amusing.

With this in mind, this article by Christopher Hitchens about the Iraq War could not have better outlined my views on this matter. This admittedly socialist British writer in no way concurrs with my views on religion and domestic social policies, obviously, but his position on Iraq has been unwavering and exactly what I would say had his literary prowess. This article provides something that everyone needs when discussing things of such historic gravity in the world: perspective. Below he illustrates how quickly we forget about the trouble that was brewing before our very noses:

I once tried to calculate how long the post-Cold War liberal Utopia had actually lasted. Whether you chose to date its inception from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, or the death of Nicolae Ceausescu in late December of the same year, or the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, or the referendum defeat suffered by Augusto Pinochet (or indeed from the publication of Francis Fukuyama's book about the "end of history" and the unarguable triumph of market liberal pluralism), it was an epoch that in retrospect was over before it began. By the middle of 1990, Saddam Hussein had abolished Kuwait and Slobodan Milosevic was attempting to erase the identity and the existence of Bosnia. It turned out that we had not by any means escaped the reach of atavistic, aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology. Proving the same point in another way, and within approximately the same period, the theocratic dictator of Iran had publicly claimed the right to offer money in his own name for the suborning of the murder of a novelist living in London, and the génocidaire faction in Rwanda had decided that it could probably get away with putting its long-fantasized plan of mass murder into operation.

Critics of the current conflict in Iraq seem to have embarassingly short memories, whether it be what happened in the mid seventies after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam (reeducation camps, massive executions, the "boat people", the "Killing Fields") or the fact that wasn't for the U.S. to prove Iraq had disarmed its WMD's but for Saddam to allow inspectors and declare that he did (which he never dared do), or that indifference to conflicts around the world including repeated attacks by Al Qaeda during the "roaring" nineties served as powder keg for the current conflict we are now in. Critics against initiating the war, not those against the war's handling, seem to suffer from a failure of imagination in that they cannot connect events in the past that logically led to the events of the present.

It's a very selfish concern to want the troops home without caring that such a move would prevent soldiers from achieving their mission, and in the end the realization of their potential in their chosen profession. It's a selfish and fundamentally racist reason to deny the people of the Middle East a chance at democracy and building a muslim society that eventually can serve as a model to the rest of the region because they will never 'get' our cherished form of government. It is not only selfish but downright criminal to push for the removal of the most powerful and virteous military force in the world in a region scourged by fanaticism, misogyny and death and leave the iraqis to an undisputably evil aversary as the 'insurgency'.

It is often pointed out that many of the first Bush administration's foreign policy advisors were of the realist persuasion. This meant they believed that the natural state of international relations is governed by the constant threat of force. Stability is achieved when competing forces wield threats equally to achieve an uneasy but practical truce. Ideology is extraneous, since it is all about who has the power. Therefore the realist approach to foreign policy disregards whether a proposed involvement is morally justified. This explains many of the policies and military exploits that took place during the Cold War.

Yet realism had unintended effects, giving rise to forces that came to strike America in spectacular fashion on September 11, 2001. The War on Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism has been waged with little regard to realist doctrine, and for that reason it is the one war that I can fully endorse with no reservations. This time America fights not because we want to achieve a practical peace by the canceling out competing threats of force. She fights because it is the right thing to do. Given the appallingly despicable nature of our enemy there aren't two morally equal sides. It's a no brainer whose side one should be on.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Peter Bagge on Malls

I've never enjoyed shopping. Being married to one who does requires me to spend lots of time in shopping malls. I'm familiar with all the arguments against covered malls, but I'm more interestested in finding out what explains their continued popularity, since I assume that the people who frequent malls have good reasons to go there. I don't buy the argument that average people simply don't know better therefore we (the experts) should tell them exactly how they should enjoy themselves while shopping. What many of the mall's critics fail to realize is that malls are evolving all the time, the designs reflecting changes in the way people buy, eat out, play with their children, or simply relax. I think about these things because my job compels me to, as I help on the design of retail spaces and big shopping malls. The kind of places I had come to undertand as a mall is nothing compared to the lavish and increasingly multi-functional megastructures that are on the drawing boards. I urge you to take a look at Peter Bagge's humorous account of malls how they've changed in importance throughout his life.

Bigness and Its Many Independent Parts

James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institue writes:

Yes, the United States has problems. A good rule--call it the Rule of Bigness--is that in any economy where 100 million families generate $12 trillion in GDP, there are bound to be problems somewhere--enough to fill many hours of woe on nightly news programs.

Congress still hasn't addressed the coming crisis in Social Security and Medicare. Iraq is consuming lives and tax dollars. Terrorism looms. Interest rates and producer prices are rising. Real estate bubbles have puffed up in some urban areas and resorts. Many consumers have borrowed too much, and poverty hasn't been eradicated.

But, on the other hand, the Rule of Bigness requires you to look at all the aggregate numbers, not just selected ones and convincing anecdotes...

I find the first line of this quote instructive. The U.S. is a big country. Not just in land area but in the number of people and its infinite variety of ethnicities. To compare the U.S. in all its complexity to smaller like, say, Costa Rica is almost like comparing apples to oranges. As a whole the U.S. can accomplish quite a lot, but among its many parts, it becomes clear that not all work equally. Some sectors of the American economy are thriving, like retail and financial services, while others are not doing as well, like manufacturing. American universities are regarded as the far and away the world's best, but its grade schools are in many major cities embarassing. Some cities have the most healthy inhabitants imaginable, others seem dedicated to decadent indulgence, obesity and early death. The safest areas often have the highest density of legal gun owners, while the most dangerous are in places where guns are banned. Some of the most politically liberal towns are the least culturally and ethnically diverse (San Francisco, Austin, Boulder), while many conservative cities accommodate with teeming but energetic immigrant populations (Dallas, Phoenix, Houston).

More than to point the obvious contrasts in America, I present them to remind others that when making comparisons with America, it is important to have some perspective of what you are dealing with. It ties in with my recent post about why the U.S. can never become a Scaninavian socialist superstate, in which I emphasize that America's demographic diversity challenges the necessary unified social norms that are instrumental to a successful welfare state. It's not just the people, but also its very structure and size. There's no other country where its federal structure has developed into fifty states that have near autonomy on its legal system, form of legislative government, and state militias. Each state does not depend all that much on the capital city, like far-flung Siberian cities to Moscow. If the U.S. as we know it were to politically disintegrate tomorrow, fifty states would be ready to move forward on their own indepently. Though each state's economic vitality varies from one another, in not one would a person's standard of living be visibly lower.

As Glassman reminds us, America has its sore spots as well as its problems. It is a blessing that our culture is among the most self-critical in the world. As difficult as it is for foreigners to believe, Americans rarely talk at length about how great they are. That kind of talk is reserved for one day of the year, on the 4th of July. For all the other days, we are bombarded with all that's wrong with us somewhere in some part of the country. And our media organizations make sure that if there is something wrong about another country, it's because America has failed to do the right thing over there. Glassman notes that negative local stories and heartfelt anecdotes belie the broader national statistics that paint a better picture about the state of the nation. Sure the statistics provide a much needed sense of perspective about what is actually going on, but this overriding belief that not all is good contibutes to an ethic of improvement embraced by most Americans.

Americans can take it because their country is big enough to realize that it can't be perfect.

In any case it's an opportunity for self-improvement, which itself is a big business in the U.S. We're into personal reinvention, and the term 'rebirth' is used for all sorts of ways to describe permanent change. It's a way of looking to the future, realizing that life could be totally unlike what we imagine today. Such dramatic change is expected by Americans, since we're mindful that immigrants in the past and present had to make remake themselves into completely new people to become Americans. Many solutions to the nation's problems will not be the tried and true from elsewhere, but more likely will seem radical and novel. From school vouchers to private retirement accounts, America's special circumstances require imaginative reforms that can engage all the country's many parts. It's foolish to believe that all parts can act equally in harmony. The very messiness, exagerration, and extreme expression that is American culture makes for its seductive international appeal, does it not?

hat tip: Expatriots United

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Selfishness Paradox

Do we become less selfish if we agree to pay lots of taxes toward government-run social programs? It’s an argument I often hear from my European friends when they talk about the flaw of living in the U.S. Since there isn’t a government monopoly in taking care of the sick, the destitute, and the helpless as there are in most Western European states, it is interpreted by most people that the political will of Americans is less influenced by a sense of solidarity and charity. It often surprises many Europeans that Americans contribute the most per capita to private charities, and even more among “red” (republican-leaning) states than in “blue” states. Church-going seems to be a big influence in how much people donate, and churches are also seen as legitimate organizations that can address the needs of the downtrodden more efficiently than a state agency. Although much the concern about faith-based programs receiving federal dollars a few years back was legitimate, especially on the issue of the separation between Church and State, I suspect that some critics were fearful of the success of private organizations compared to wasteful public agencies.

John Stossel, possibly the only libertarian in broadcast media today, writes about the difficulty in establishing non-profit charitable organizations in America. He points to the endless tangle of bureaucracy and regulations that require enterprising do-gooders to seek permits and enlist licensed professionals before ever helping the first soul:

Delancey Street has been hugely successful. Thirteen thousand people have been through its programs. The ex-addicts now run a dozen businesses, including a restaurant and a moving company.
But Mimi Silbert, who started Delancey Street, says it almost didn't happen, because government kept getting in the way. "We have had to fight every bureaucracy that exists." Silbert doesn't employ certified teachers and drug counselors, so welfare workers tried to smother her with red tape. "If Jesus Christ walked in today and wanted to start Christianity, he wouldn't be able to do it because they say to him, 'You need two psychiatrists, you need one social worker, somebody has to sign the things . . . "

Stossel then briefly summarizes how the government assumed greater responsibilities for social welfare. He reminds us of mutual aid societies, like the Knights of Columbus or the Lions Club, who sought to help the underprivileged in their own communities. Membership to them was common before the arrival of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and belonging to them cultivated a sense of benevolence among members and an obligation to others. A sense of responsibility in serving others is essential towards the maintaining of communities, since communities are nothing but a chain of direct relationships between people. Government agencies disrupted these bonds and abrogated responsibility.

Now when we walk by a homeless person, we tell ourselves that somehow that person is not using the services made available by the state. Does it ever occur to us that we should ask ourselves what we can do to help that person that would ensure he got the help he needs? I’m sure we do, but we probably think that it’s not worthwhile when you are only one person and you pay lots of money in the form of taxes to help this guy. Then you reason that the state is not doing its job well, since that homeless person wouldn’t be on the sidewalk in the first place. In the end, it’s all kind of futile since we all know if we use state services to help that person, their very lack of accountability will ensure that he will probably end up back on the street. This may be one reason why Americans donate generously to private charities. Somehow we are convinced that they practice accountability better than government agencies. Not only do extensive welfare systems diminish people’s desire to help the downtrodden, but it kind of engenders a feeling of helplessness on how to truly help.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Pretty Funny, if You Ask Me

What if you were a starving academic writer and you had just published a book about a subject as exciting as the history of salt. Wouldn’t you want to promote your book anyway possible, by way of celebrity endorsements. What if one of the world’s most well known people made it known that he was going to read your book during his much reported vacation? Under most circumstances it would be a dream come true for the author…unless that endorsement came from George W. Bush. Apparently, Mark Kurlansky, the author of Salt: A World History, is furious that his book is tied to the president’s reading list:

What does it mean that George W Bush, a man who has demonstrated little ability for reflection, who is known to read no newspapers and whose headlong charge into disaster after cataclysm has shown a complete ignorance of history, who wants to throw out centuries of scientific learning and replace it with mythical mumbo-jumbo that he mistakenly calls religion, who preaches Christianity but seems to have never read the teachings of the great anti-war activist, Jesus Christ, is now spending his vacation reading my book, Salt: A World History?

Although Kurlanksy invites Bush to learn the great lessons of history revolving around the possession of salt, it’s clear that he doesn’t regard the president as worthy of reading his book. What is it with some writers who are so intent on having their book read by “the right kind of people”? This projection of snobbery in Kurlansky’s editorial is the quickest way to diminish the potential number book buyers. I honestly would actually like to make the time to read his book, being a history buff and all. But when an author shows his true colors and displays a lively antagonism against someone with whom I agree for the most part, it will now be far too difficult for me to read without a sense of disdain for the author in the back of my mind. I’m aware that ‘true’ writers are those who don’t write for the buying public but for the contribution towards the general pool of knowledge. But if that pool of knowledge is reserved for those who agree with the author and not someone who disagrees with him, it isolates the writer from the world at large ever more so. And you wonder why academia in the humanities has become so irrelevant to everyone else?

hat tip to Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Problem with the Scandinavian Model

On the libertarian blog today, Megan McArdle refers to a simple explanation by Zimran Ahmed why the U.S. will never be like Finland. Mr. Ahmed was responding to an editorial published recently in the Washington Post about Finland by Richard Kaiser that praised Finland's smooth running welfare state, where everything from medical care to schooling to benefits funtion seemlessly:

Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

The editorial continues with a more detailed description on all the amenities and supposed benefits Finland's policies have brought about. For those who are quick to remind themselves on the lack basic social services in the U.S., Kaiser's article imparts lessons that should appeal to most Americans. Yet his praise for Finland is just one of a long string of articles and reports that have over the years highlighted the Scandinavian social model, often overlooking one important and determining factor as to why it cannot be universally applied: homogeneity. Mr. Ahmed basically points out that:

People respond to incentives. In a tiny, homogeneous country, group norms can take the place of monetary rewards. If you identify strongly with your neighbours then you care if they shun you. But the US is 50 times larger than Finland and very heterogeneous -- people here don't care much about what their neighbours think because 1) their neighbours are not neccessarily much like them and 2) they keep changing. In this kind of soceity group norms simply will not work. If my neighbours in Boston stopped talking to me, I honestly would not notice.

The fact that social norms play a significant role in the success of welfare states also point to these systems' weakness. As soon as the populations of these historically homogenous countries turn heterogenous due to immigration, the social norms soon become fractured between rival communities. There is a direct correlation between the emerging heterogeneity of national populations and the rise of nationalistic or anti-immigrant political parties. This is often the result of a sense of betrayal within the native population that the benefits of the welfare state was intended to complement the existing social norms, but no longer are. Immigrants from radically different backgrounds were not supposed to be part of this closed system. Native citizens begin to see immigrants as a threat to this originally happy balance. If one were to closely study the agenda items of far-right parties like the Front Nationale in France, the Republikaner in Germany or Jorg Haider's party in Austria, they all have in common the resolve to reverse immigration, not because of its ill effects on the free market economy, but rather because of the drain of welfare resources they present. The fact that all of these European extremist parties are associated with racism is no coincidence. In defending the nation they are not only protecting language and culture within a defined territory (the very definition of a nation) but also the institutions that promote social cohesion to reinforce a singular national identity. Whether it's "La France pour les Francais" or Hitler's use of 'Das Volk' these concepts are closely wed with the exclusive privileges enjoyed by those belonging to the nation. Those outside the national group by default are excluded from these privileges. Rather than to expand the definition of who can belong to the nation to eliminate exclusion, most Europeans are inclined to continue excluding outsiders, since their very identity as part of the national ethnic group is at stake. Especially when most Europeans are socialized since birth in valuing their communal identity, as opposed to the embrace of individuality in America, national identity is far more significant matter and inviolable.

An article for the Hudson Review by Bruce Bawer is one of the better written essays on understanding the divide between Americans and Non-Americans about how the U.S. is perceived. For Keiser to arrive at such an admiring judgement of the Fins requires a low estimation of American virtues. He describes his own country as "a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes." Bawer contradicts much of what Keiser idealizes in the Finnish, or for that matter the Norwegians, with whom he has lived among for quite a few years. He points out that in spite of America's deficiencies, it wields a cultural magnetism which many young Europeans find irresistible, regardless of the efficient structure of their welfare systems:

This experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues I’d always taken for granted, or even disdained—among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak one’s mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Euro- peans view Americans as ignorant is that when we don’t know something, we’re more likely to admit it freely and ask questions.) While Americans, I saw, cherished liberty, Europeans tended to take it for granted or dismiss it as a naïve or cynical, and somehow vaguely embarrassing, American fiction. I found myself toting up words that begin with i: individuality, imagination, initiative, inventiveness, independence of mind. Americans, it seemed to me, were more likely to think for themselves and trust their own judgments, and less easily cowed by authorities or bossed around by “experts”; they believed in their own ability to make things better. No wonder so many smart, ambitious young Europeans look for inspiration to the United States, which has a dynamism their own countries lack, and which communicates the idea that life can be an adventure and that there’s important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style “morning in America” clichés may make some of us wince, but they reflect something genuine and valuable in the American air. Europeans may or may not have more of a “sense of history” than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing students’ historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that matters—a belief in the future.

Read it all.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

My Favorite Cumudgeon

One of my favorite contemporary social observers, Theodore Dalrymple has come out with a new book. His background as a psychiatrist for prison inmates gives him particular insights on pathologies common among individuals who lie at the bottom of the social hierarchy. To some, Mr. Dalrymple comes off as a sort of cumudgeon and is endlessly critical of the status quo that surrounds the desperate plight of the underclass. His last book, Life at the Bottom, describes aspects that affect their outcome and behavior and the failure of social services in dealing with them effectively. He loathes the general coarsening of modern culture, with fashions, language, and acceptable behavior influencing society from the bottom up. Although his views are based on anecdotal experience, their breadth and intensity of them allow him to create vivid portraits of the poor that few others non-fiction writers are able to do. Instead of citing economic inequality, racism, or other kind of vicitimization, the author points to cultural flaws, the adoption of nihilistics attitudes, and people's inherent barbarity that civilization struggles to repress. Below are a few articles Dalrymple contributed for City Journal for readers interested in acquainting him or herself with his writing:

Who Needs Parents?
Free to Choose
Jihad Chic
All Sex, All the Time
Lo, the Poor Terrorist
Why Theo Van Gogh Was Murdered
The Roads to Serfdom
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Release toward Heaven

Moshe Safdie is a Canadian architect who made his first big mark as the designer for a cluster of prototypical dwelling units at the Montreal Expo of 1967. Since then his designs have gone from 'metabolist' to post modern to expressionist. His most recent project, the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, punctures the landscape and opens an elegant incision to reveal the lives of those murdered from the violent genocide during the second world war. In plan the top level consists of a dynamic relationship of shapes in the forms of skylights, clerestories, and openings to the level below. My first impression looking at the top plan was of a Russian constructivist painting or of the plan of Tschumi's Park de La Villete scheme. Compare this abstract composition at grade level with an eerily romanesque subterranean arrangement of spaces in the lower plan. The axes formed by the main hallways and the terminating apses combine to form a cummulative yet an orderly and unified composition while the peristyle and hypostyle columned halls and circular rooms invoke sacredness and mystery. It also reminds me of a Roman catacomb in its seemingly labyrinthian and insular qualities. This contrasts with the seemingly arbitrary assembly of rectangles and lines at ground level whose relationship to each other is more about the ambiguous spaces in between than about the connected procession of spaces below. The upper plan's similarity to pyramid complexes in Egypt is probably a coincidence, but this memorial achieves a monumentality in almost the same way, by marking a distinct assembly of forms on the landscape in very deliberate and mystical way. I would like to believe that the concrete walls that sweep out at the very end are gestures of a praying hand. But observing how this sculptural opening is at the end of a long a deep trench lit by a continuous open slit above suggests the anticipation of a resurrection, an escape from the earth to the clear sky of the heavens beyond. Overall, some powerful and bold spaces, from the few photos I've seen of this project.

Hat tip to Joe N at No Pasaran! He provides more pictures and commentary of this project.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Tim Worstall:

We're regularly told that we must walk more lightly upon this earth, that we have to make room for the other species, that the loss of biodiversity threatens us all. I agree with those thoughts. Where I disagree is in the prescription by which we should do so. For we go on to be told that we must become more like our ancestors, live closer to nature, in order to do so, return to some Rousseauesque paradise of few of us living off the land in the manner of our forefathers.

That doesn't seem to match up with what the professionals are telling us here now does it? In the case of what is now the USA, a couple of million hunter gatherers (known as the Clovis Culture) wiped out those large animals that we're talking about. Now, with three hundred million in the same area we appear to have sufficient land to save the Megafauna of other continents.

I certainly do recall that most big animals' extinction were the result of over-hunting by primitive peoples, as demonstrated by the killing of the woolly mammoth during last ice age. Modern industrialized societies have instituted a system of collecting and conserving large animals through zoos and nature preserves that cannot be easily found in less developed territories, where hunting and poaching make for a logical means of survival. For those who study closely the problem of biodiversity loss, there is an essential correlation between economic prosperity and species preservation. A slash-and-burn peasant farmer in Brazil has no economic incentive to preserve a species in the Amazon, especially if that specie is still unaccounted for by biologists. For someone who constantly worries about how he will be fed that day, the value in protecting rare creature is almost nill. In contrast, for a very well-fed American office worker, the thought of observing a rare bird or an exotic large feline has great value in the spiritual sense, while its economic value is negligible. The fact that millions of dollars have been spent saving certain rare birds in captivity (the california condor, peregrine falcon, bald eagle) and that numerous laws were passed to enforce species preservation is a testament not only to a raised environmental awareness among Americans, but also to the high level of prosperity that can pay for policies with no real intrinsic economic value.

The very thought of restoring populations of large species of elephants, felines, is indeed quite plausible with all the open land in North America. Read the article to understand the context in which Worstall comes up with the above realization.

"Real Art"

Beyond his unique and somewhat psychedelic style, the content of Peter Bagge's cartoons are extremely relevant on cultural issues of the day. Unlike the witty single-panel cartoons often seen in the newspapers, Bagge chooses to present an argument by depicting scenes that illustrate his point. He discusses an assortment of topics, but I'm sympathetic to his views on urban sociology and cultural issues. This cartoon ties in to the post on Camille Paglia below, which describes the decadence found in contemporary art. Although the narrator in these pages sets himself up as the sensible observer, a few of his points come off as shallow. Yet I still laugh everytime...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Neat Kind of Gal

I was first introduced to Camille Paglia when I was in college during a discussion on the post-modern phenomena of feminism. She had much respect from my professor who himself was an art historian and archaeologist. Reading her contributions to the then nascent internet magazine after college, I understood why my professor shared an admiration for her, since she concerns herself with scholarship in the humanities. Somehow she would combine her passion for the study of art and poetry with feminism and politics in general . It was this combination that made her jottings such fun to read, her complex and internally contradictory personality so intriguing. Instead of employing Marxist structures and post-modern semniotics to express rather orthodox views about women and power, she is very plain spoken and observes real-world people and events to come to some original yet traditional conclusions. She's a defender of the great cannon of Western literature and philosophy and an antagonist of contemporary intellectual fads. She has a populist streak to her, and much of her perspective is colored by her parents' and grandparents' experience as immigrants. Her lesbianism sits in the middle of all this stew and though her political positions lean to the left, she possesses such an open mind so as to absorb conservative arguments. She's all over the place essentially, but her personality is so full of inherent tension that her statements are often delightfully unpredictable.

Make some time to read this in-depth interview of this fascinating person.

Thanks to No Pasaran! for the tip

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Adieu, les Vacances

It pains me to knock on my country of birth, but I often find myself having to remind people that there's a good reason I live in the US. As a couple of previous post have suggested, life isn't getting any easier in France. Now I find that the country's most visible and envied civil right, the 7-week long paid vacation, is going unused by almost half of all French workers. Apparently many cannot afford to get on vacation, and they find themselves staying at home. This is of no surprise when few are allowed to earn extra money by working more than 35 hours a week and part-time jobs are scarce. It's all part of the paradox of modern industrial development: the very rich are too busy working to take a vacation, while the unemployed poor have all the time in the world but no money to enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Only Time Legislative Pork Works for Me

As one who supports limited government and all the fiscal responsibility and reduction in state services it entails, legislation like the recent highway bill should be a target of intense criticism. Yet there's one little nugget in that bill that gives me reason to be grateful for its passing. Although I believe that government should concentrate its roles in the protection of property (defense) and of its citizens' rights (police) while leaving education and healthcare to the private sphere, there's always a nice boondogle it should indulge in from time to time. Especially if that boondogle promises one these beauties:

My lucky hometown of Dallas is guaranteed to get two signature bridges by Santiago Calatrava, one the world's most celebrated architect/engineers. Sure there's no urgent need for such a flashy design, as the current bridges are fine though dull. And yet, there is something to be said for objects of beauty that can be seen at a distance, and Calatrava does not disappoint. Well done Texas congressmen and senators! I'm all for a little pork if we can have some more gorgeous architectural monuments out of the deal.

Trash Talk

Let’s leave some space at the landfill……or maybe we shouldn’t worry about it at all. The footage of a barge loaded with trash traveling from state to state during the nightly news made a deep impression on me when I was young. Ditto the scenes of the New York landfill littered with sea-gulls. Unbeknownst to most of us since then, it turns out such events were more the result of bureaucratic incompetence and local factors rather than an actual shortage of landfill space. One startling statistic from Bjorn Lomborg’s edifying book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was that if all the trash stored in landfills across the U.S. were to be dumped in one place, the area of this giant landfill would be 1/6th the size of a typical county in Oklahoma. Now it seems that exponential increases in storage efficiency have made it hard on waste disposal companies to actually make a profit taking other people’s trash. As it stands, it appears we can’t be making trash fast enough to keep the dumps satisfied.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Design Link

For those of you interested in current architecture news, this site seems to be a good place to start. It should give you an idea what the current trends are, and what the star architects or "starchitects" of today are up to.
This comprehensive article on the National Mall is a must-read. Washington D.C. is truly unique in the world as it is the only fully realized town based almost exclusively on Baroque principles: wide avenues, grand vistas with monuments, and heavy symbolism. It's distressing that such features are being undermined by endless proposals for memorials. I like going to Washington to bask in its Baroque glory. It's a shame that L'Enfant's spirit is fading from view.

The American Jobs Machine

This Wall Street Journal editorial solidly explains the healthy jobs outlook in the U.S. Other major industrial countries should envy our lot, rather than foolishly declare that all the new jobs are hamburger-flipping positions.

Looking around my workplace, it’s hard to believe what some people say about difficult employment situations in America. My firm is hiring left and right nowadays and those involved in forecasting manpower are still complaining about a shortage of good people. It seems that much of the morose attitudes about the economy are the result of an unrealistic comparison with the boom years of the late Nineties. Somehow the millions of jobs created out of speculative thin air that was the Dot-Com bubble is the standard by which all economies should be measured. I would venture to declare that today’s economy is more solid in its fundamentals than that period, from more credible profitability to significantly better productivity. I remember well before the downturn how my office was full of incompetent workers that were quickly hired that really shouldn’t have been there in the first place. A few years later, it was apparent that some bosses had learned their lesson, hiring temp workers first and then making the best of them full-time employees soon after. Although losing a job can be initially traumatic, it helps to identify it as an opportunity to do something better. In my line of work, changing jobs is often the fastest way to augment one’s income.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Here's a wonderful summary at Chicagoboyz of the ongoing tension between the desire for aesthetic appeal and the need for personal comfort. The pioneers of the Modern movement were often guilty of championing the former and forsaking the latter. Still, there are examples from that period where beauty and comfort are one, like this classic below.

Here we go again...

Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, wants to strengthen its claim to the tallest towers in the world. Ever since the Sears tower was completed in the mid-seventies, the city has struggled to erect anything nearly as tall. In 1996, Maylasia's Petronas towers striped the title away as the world's tallest. A dejected Chicago responded a few years later with a serious looking proposal to outsize its predecessor at 7 South Dearborn. When that project fizzled, who else but "The Donald" declared that he would bring the world's tallest back to the windy city with his new luxury condominium/hotel building on the Chicago riverfront. September 11th happened and Mr. Trump cowered by reducing the size so as to the be only fourth-tallest building in the city. Now some enterprising developer wants to try again, with this beauty, but I remain skeptical. Super high-rises make little business sense these days, but I for one love many of these new designs for their sculptural merits. In any event none of the aforementioned buildings will come even close to the height of this one in Dubai, which is already under construction and one I've worked on myself.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ornament and Crime

At least this example of Austrian Jugenstihl is being saved… This was one of the first examples of the white minimalist box which would decades later be called the “International Style”. Although its exterior looks quite plain and monotonous, Adolf Loos had a refined skill in using lavish materials for his colorful interiors. It’s ironic that this architect is most famous for declaring that using ornamentation was criminal. I’m skeptical of taking such simple descriptions for granted, since there was articulate case to be made against excessive ornamentation. What Loos was really doing was using the essence of materials as the ornament rather than some arbitrary form. A truly misunderstood architect, but it's hard not to blame someone who equates something most people like (ornament) as a serious violation.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Happiness is an option

According to a recent Survey, Europeans are on average not as happy about their lives as their American counterparts. It appears that Americans believe their future will be better and their present isn't so bad. This German-based blog points to major publications there that like to describe doom and gloom in American life inspite of evidence to the contrary. You can check out the survey for yourself, but anecdotally, my experience confirms the survey results.

When I was an exchange student in the eastern state of Saxony, Germany 3 years after reunification, I noticed right away the difference in expetations between German and American high school students. I had just left an environment dominated class ranking, college guides, preoccupations with majors, GPAs and AP courses and early admissions to one were the future beyond high school was never a subject of discussion, much less grades. I do concede that the context in which I was in was not the most typical for a German gymnasium (elite high school), as its curriculum was being transformed to better emulate West German standards. In a way it was quite a nice time for me to be carefree about my prospects that year, but I always wondered what would become of the others, who were all quite smart and capable. But since the future never seemed too important to them, what they did in the present to prepare for it didn't seem to matter all that much. There's no shame in being second-best in Europe, which is quite opposite to what we tell ourselves here in the U.S., where we're all 'winners'.

Another instance where this American optimism was evident was when my German host brother took a particular attraction to the American girl who was part of my exchange program. She was your typical all-American achiever, with plans to enter Columbia and an amazing ability soak German, with a very fun personality. My host-brother, who was quite the ladies man, had never encountered such a personality in all the cute German girls he had dated. He confided in me that all the German girls he had been with were rather dreary and uninspired compared to her. And though I have met some very nice and even quite intelligent German girls, they were in no rush to get out in the world and make their mark and beat out everyone else. Still the future Chancelor of Germany might just break the mold...

What explains this difference? I'll try to answer that in a future post.

Moving on up or moving away?

In another thought-provoking piece, David Brooks gives advice on what field of study a precocious kid should choose to understand the world he or she lives in. Just as he described this phenomenon in his recent book, he notes that the freedom to move encouraged by globalization has created the effect of greater social fragmentation. With the right amount of prosperity, it seems that most heads of households prefer to live with people more like them rather than those who are different. Is it instinct? Or is it a perverted form of individualism? Whatever the answer is, it’s evident that social unity requires considerable political and ideological force from the outside rather than within. Whether it’s the Kingdom of God or the Marxist Utopia, there are ideas so powerful enough to counter this individual inclination towards parochialism and isolation. I credit post-modern relativism for undoing much the spiritual and philosophic glue that promoted social unity on national and even international scales.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Save the Russian Constructivist Masterpieces!

The ten years following the October Revolution in Russia were among the most fecund periods in architectural creativity. The attendant enthusiasm of reinventing a new world promised by the communist revolution spawned an avant-garde group of artists and architects that sought to express art as a relationship between sculptural objects rather than pictorial representation. This big conceptual leap called Constructivism influenced subsequent modern architecture in Europe in the late twenties and thirties, and today's elite designers borrow heavily the stylistic cues from this movement. Because it was mostly 'paper architecture', in that it was rarely ever built, it is sad to see such rare examples in such disrepair. Upon consolidating his power, Stalin pretty much ended the avant-garde movement by exclusively commissioning buildings in an austere neo-classical style. It embodied power and authoritarian values, not dynamism and abstraction. What a shame...

Is your job boring?

Megan McArdle , who is guestblogging at Instapundit, writes about her brief experience in investment banking. She points to how boring it was for her and that this justified the big bucks those who work in that field. I've already come across two people in my firm who decided to give up their careers in investment banking to become an architect. For those of you who are not aware, architects are poorly paid relative to other professions. It is understood by everyone who embarks on a design career that one must sacrifice monetary rewards for the joy of realizing buildings from your imagination. Sure some architects can make a decent income in the low six-figures, usually as partial owners of the firm after decades of hard work. But most young architects won't attain that status, as they advance very slowly up the profession and plateau income-wise. Others will leave architecture altogether for a better paying career, usually in real estate, graphic design, and even law.

So when I or many people who work in an architecture firm encounter a person who abandons a better paying profession, the initial reaction will be: "what were you thinking?" or "are you sure you know what you're getting into?" As McArdle is a journalist, I'm sure she is familiar with the financial precariousness that affect those who work in the more "fun" professions like art, writing and design. I will admit that my job is not boring in the way some high-paying jobs are described in this Washington Post article, but money is an issue.

From my point of view, those who've been engaged early on in the low-paying creative and academic fields will never fully appreciate what they truly have because the lack of money will always be among the foremost concerns on their minds. I'm willing to bet that the opposite case, those who began in high-paying but tedious jobs and transfer over to low paying but rewarding jobs, get the better part of the deal. They have the advantage of financial stability which begets an important sense of freedom and confidence that those working in the trenches of design firms and academia rarely enjoy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

How do you say 'start-up' in French?

Some in France are finally rediscovering the word "entrepreneur". It's ironic that the country which gave the independent businessman his name is also the most restrictive of his desire for free enterprise.

Monday, August 08, 2005

V. S. Naipaul

This author is always lurking in my mental lists on what books to read in the future. Probably one of the few literary Nobel laureates I can tolerate to read, he has a fascinating background. The film The Mystic Masseur is an homage to his early life in Trinidad. This interview reveals this amazingly perceptive writer.

It ain't all that great...

If you were to know who Le Corbusier actually was, my pseudonym suggests I have a tie to France. I am actually a dual citizen, of both the French Republic and the United States. As such I have the privilege to make the choice between the two countries pertaining to where I want to live. As it stands, I currently live and work in Texas, the result of a decision my French father made over twenty years ago. He got close glimpse of his homeland under Mitterand and opted with great personal sacrifice to start his life over across the pond in the US of A. It’s articles like this that proved my father right. Many of my acquaintances wonder why anyone would leave such a beautiful country with such a ‘joie de vivre’. Well, it ain’t all that great…

Sunday, August 07, 2005

It ain't all that bad...

This article by New York Times columnist David Brooks is a pleasant reality check of the culture we live in. There's no denying that the author has reputation of seeing the sunny side of things in contemporary society, but that in itself is no flaw in evaluating reality. I find his recent books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive far more spot on about American life and sociology than his oft celebrated contemporaries Jeremy Rifkin and James Howard Kunstler. Maybe it's because I'm an optimist at heart, yet a lot of it has to do with the fact that I embrace the reality in which I live. I have no wish to change the way things are. I don't live my life with the constant urge to escape what surrounds me. My education has given me a sense of perspective which convinces me that things have never been better than now. It's hard to stay sane if one doesn't agree with such a view of things just a wee tiny bit.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Kind of Experiment

This was my very first online post that I published on about a year ago. Since then I've found that I'm better off publishing a traditional blog. Livejournal readers were unfortunately not too receptive to my musings.

I'm finally trying out this live journal stuff after several people around me have become fully engaged in it. I was at first hesitant to do anything on live-journal since I thought it was more of a personal diary than any sort of serious intellectual forum. However I soon discovered that most entries were more or less web logs, some of which I read almost religiously. My brother has demonstrated that one can indeed express himself however he chooses and will find many to respond back. In the end though, this is just a rough first step toward establishing my own blog, which will involve more information, more serious discussion and a more useful dissemination of ideas.

One thing I've always wondered about on the web was to see whether there are any souls out there willing to chat about the least mentioned of topics--buildings. It's a given that we love to chat about our daily life, friends, arguments, current events, and our favorite rock bands. But is there room for those to talk about the latest buildings featured in some glossy journal on architecture? I've seen one web site,, which will feature from time to time a lively discussion on a new building by some star architect. It becomes one of those moments when suddenly there are people who know what it's like and who I can totally relate to on an intellectual level.

On the other hand often such people or unable to shift gears and change the subject. When talking sensibly about the news of the day, they can't reason their arguments nearly as well. About music, their passion's as deep as a reflective pond. I often feel frustrated with colleagues when it becomes clear that they do not think much about the world beyond their drafting tables (or rather beyond the virtual reality of their 3d cad programs on the computer). I'm quick to remind them that yes, there is a whole world to discover and digest and that the failure to realize this will end up in feeling bitter about having 'missed out'. People in my profession are unusually bitter, which would surprise outsiders to architecture. I mean, what could be cooler than to design buildings and see them turn into reality? For some that's enough to justify the bitterness. For others, there is a lingering sense of disappointment. Sure my design was built, but gee, is this what I really wanted? How much of my vision had to be compromised for the wishes of the client? Is this what people will remember me by? Didn't I lose money in fees finishing this building? Couldn't have this turned out better?

Until the day comes when I can confidently take credit for my built design, I take solace in honing other skills and accomplishing other unrelated skills. I have to constantly remind myself that hey, there's more to life than this profession. Who says traditional ways of doing things will govern the way I practice? I often get the sense that the smartest among us are the ones who find a new way to profit on our old loves. I wouldn't be surprised if I find some new way myself. One needs to always conduct an experiment to test whether what we always believed is indeed true. So this is a little kind of experiment to see whether a live diary reveals new things.