Los Angeles, 31 March 2017

Two weekends ago, my wife and I visited Joshua Tree National Park, together with our daughter and her beau (I should quickly explain that we are currently in Los Angeles, visiting the happy couple). For those of my readers who have only a hazy idea of this National Park, let me give some background. Located some three hours’ drive east of LA, the park straddles the border between two desert ecologies, that of the lower-altitude Colorado desert, and that of the higher-altitude Mojave desert. It was created back in 1936, to protect and preserve its rare desert plants. As a tribute, I throw in here a photo of the lady, Minerva Hoyt, whose tireless efforts back in the 1930s finally led the US Congress to list the site.

The park is – at least to my European eyes – enormous: 3,200 square kilometres, the size of Luxembourg. But that’s less than 1% of the size of California. One of the difficulties I always have in the US is getting used to the size of things here (including food portions, but that is another story).

The park’s symbol, and the origin of its name, is the Joshua Tree, a member of the Yucca family.

It is related that the plant got its odd name from a group of Mormon pioneers in the mid-19th century who were heading west to what they fervently hoped would be their Promised Land. When they came across the tree, members of the party decreed that the plant’s shape reminded them of the Biblical story in which Joshua holds up his hand in prayer to stop the sun.

Personally, I have my doubts about this tale but have no better name-origin story to offer.

There are parts of the park where Joshua Trees cluster closely. Contrary to many web sites, that of the park itself included, I’m not sure I would go so far as to call these clusters a forest.

It is sad to relate that the Joshua Tree is in danger of disappearing from the park because of climate change. I suppose the trees are finicky in their locational needs, both in terms of altitude as well as of terrain. Climate change is making their current location too hot for them. But where can they escape to? The tragedy of the Joshua Tree, and indeed of all plants, is that being rooted to one place they cannot migrate to cooler climes. To migrate long distances they are totally dependent on either having their seeds sail away on the back of the winds or on animals eating their fruit and wandering far away and depositing the seeds in a nice bed of faeces. It seems that in its evolution the Joshua Tree opted for the latter form of dispersal, but it was its bad luck to create this symbiotic relationship with the Shasta ground sloth.

Note that this is an artist’s reconstruction of the animal based on fossils; it disappeared in the big wave of extinctions that occurred in North America some 12,000 years ago (perhaps hastened on their way by the first humans who arrived in North America, or perhaps not; the experts are animatedly divided on this issue). So the Joshua Tree has been nailed to the spot for the last 12,000 years.

After admiring the Joshua Tree – in my case with a point of sadness – we went for a hike through a most interesting geological formation that the park hosts.

When we weren’t wondering where the end of the trail was because we had run out of water, we were wondering how these formations had come to into being. Wikipedia has since informed me they were formed by the cooling of magma beneath the surface into a form of granite with roughly rectangular joints. Groundwater then filtered through the joints to erode away the corners and edges to create rounded stones. In a final step, flash floods washed away the covering leaving these piles of boulders.

All this was in the higher-altitude Mojave desert. After finally getting a badly-needed drink of water, we started down for the lower-altitude Colorado desert. As we wound our way down, we quite suddenly entered a belt of Cholla cactuses.

These cactuses are gleaming white at their crown

but go coal black at their base

and eventually collapse in an untidy, dirty black pile

leaving behind this strange trunk, empty at the core and with regularly spaced diamond-shaped holes in the remaining husk.

It looks for all the world like a thick mesh fabric which has been rolled into a tube.

Just past the belt of cholla cactuses, we began to spy another strange plant, the Ocotillo.

From a distance, it appeared to be a cactus with long thin branches. But when we got close, we saw that actually the plant closely covers its branches with leaves rather than have them all clustered at the crown like most other trees do.

Onwards down into the Colorado desert we rolled until at last we sighted what had brought us there, the desert’s flowers.

We were visiting the park at that short moment in the year when the apparently barren desert bursts into flower. The flowers race to create seeds for the next generation before the summer heat builds up and withers away everything on the desert floor.

And with that, we cruised back up to the upper Mojave desert and took the road back to LA.

Minerva Hoyt: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/historyculture/mhoyt.htm
Joshua Tree: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm
Joshua praying to stop the sun: http://pasemonmaspram.blogspot.it/2017/04/
Joshua Tree cluster: http://www.wolfsvisionphotography.com/JoshuaTreeNationalPark.html
Shasta ground sloth: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/10/bring-back-the-shasta-ground-sloth/
Rock formations: http://charlesgurche.com/photography/landscape/national-park/joshua-tree/
Cholla cactus gardens: https://www.123rf.com/photo_9396795_beautiful-cholla-cactus-garden-in-joshua-treer-national-park-in-afternoon-sun.html
Cholla cactus close-ups: my pictures
Ocotillo: my pictures
Wildflowers: http://niebruggestudio.com/wildflowers-at-joshua-tree-national-park
Wildflower close-ups: my pictures


Milan, 31 January 2017

Over the weekend, my wife and I took a train up to Varese, to the north of Milan. The objective of our little trip was the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, situated on the hills of Biumo in what were once the outskirts of the city. Built originally in the 1750s and extended in the 1830s, the Villa is a nice example of Baroque with some Rococo thrown in.
The gardens, formal in design but with a dash of English informality, are very pleasant to walk around, even at this time of the year.
But what had drawn us here was not so much the Villa itself as its collection of American contemporary art. By one of those strange quirks of history which make life so interesting, its last owner, the most Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Buimo, had developed a passion for contemporary American art, collecting feverishly from the mid-1950s through to the early 2000s. Much of the collection is now dispersed in museums. Many American museums, for instance – notably the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York – either bought or were grateful recipients of important chunks of Count Panza’s vast collection.

So here we were, in this Baroque-Rococo setting, taking in pieces from the very latest waves of art. It made for an interesting clash of perspectives.
But actually, the most interesting part of the Villa’s collection is housed in what were once the stables and carriage house, a building which has been stripped of any historical context: bare white walls and floors, nothing more. Works by Dan Flavin, famous for his installations made with fluorescent lights, predominate. Walking down the long corridor of this building, we found ourselves awash in the primary colors emanating from the many rooms leading off the corridor.
Each room houses one piece, like this one.
The colors are strong, almost blinding. My wife and I preferred by far this much quieter piece, housed in an almost black room.
As we advanced down the corridor, there was this luminous half-moon at the end. Was it another Dan Flavin, I wondered?

No, it was a piece by James Turrell, foremost exponent of the Light and Space movement. The artist had simply removed a piece of the external wall and what we were seeing was the blue winter sky. In a room off the corridor was another of his pieces, this time a square hole in the ceiling. We were gazing up at the winter sky, yet without any sensory clues such as clouds or trees it seemed to be an abstract painting
one where the intensity of the blue varied as we moved around the room.
It was a singularly beautiful experience.

Turrell has another piece in the Villa, an example of his earlier work exploring sensory deprivation. A small group of us stood in a room where corners had been eliminated and were bathed in light of varying colors, giving rise to optical illusions.
By another of those quirks which make life so interesting, my wife, not knowing what awaited us at the Villa, had recently booked us a slot for a session in a similar installation by Turrell at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, when we go and visit our daughter next month. This will give us a chance to see the other pieces which Count Panza sold to the museum, like these Rothkos for instance.
At the risk of being accused of frivolity, I feel I must report on another meeting of the US and Italy which we experienced that same day. After the visit, we walked down the hill and repaired to a place called Hambù for lunch. This is a case of American fast food meets Italian design.
Or, as Hambù’s web-site breathlessly puts it, “We are not talking about the usual meat patty between two pieces of bread and sauces, but rather of a gastronomic challenge: the radical revolution of the sandwich.”

One more example of the wonderful things that can happen when cultures meet and mix. The new American president and his acolytes should take note.

Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, exterior: http://www.shoppingandcharity.it/en/magazine/villa-panza-between-history-and-contemporary-art
Villa interior: http://www.latitudeslife.com/2010/06/dividere-il-vuoto-a-villa-panza-va/
Villa gardens: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
Villa interior with art: http://dogma-art.com/giuseppe-panza-collection/
Villa interior with art: http://www.flashartonline.it/article/giuseppe-panza-di-biumo/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
James Turrell, half moon: my picture
James Turrell, sky painting: my picture
James Turrell, room: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/arts/design/panza-villa-exhibits-illusionary-works.html?_r=0&referer=https://www.google.co.uk/
LA MOCA, Rothko: http://www.panzadiscoveringinfinity.com/the-story/
Hambù: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/apostrofoio.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/hambu-di-varese/amp/
Hambù set table: https://www.tripadvisor.com.ph/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g194942-d7294471-i155563419-Hambu-Varese_Province_of_Varese_Lombardy.html


Vienna, 30 December 2016

My wife, son and I have just visited a show on Georgia O’Keeffe at the Kunstforum in downtown Vienna. I suppose O’Keeffe is best known for her big, close-up paintings of flowers
or of animal skulls floating over desert landscapes from the American Southwest.
But personally I find that, after a wow moment on first sighting, these pall quickly. Seeing them now, I find them somewhat twee.

What I prefer by far in O’Keeffe’s works are her paintings of New Mexico’s landscapes. Two in particular in the show caught my attention, Purple Hills from 1935
and Rust Red Hills from 1930.

It’s not all her landscapes that I appreciate. It’s those where she has cut away much of the detail to reduce the landscape to its essential shapes and colours. For me, this kind of painting is a form of abstract art. In fact, it’s the only form of abstract art that I really appreciate, where the eye is captivated by the interplay of shape and colour but where there is still a recognizable subject.

Even as I write these lines, I gaze at two prints of paintings hanging on my wall, by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris, who worked in the same way, painting quasi-abstract landscapes. In his case, though, his subjects came from Canada’s far north. The prints I have are his Lake and Mountains, painted in 1928

and his Mount Lefroy, painted in 1930.
Harris is part of the Group of Seven, a grouping of seven Canadian painters who believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature and who concentrated on paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. Perhaps the most iconic painting of this group is North Shore, Lake Superior, painted by Harris in 1926.
I first came across the Group of Seven as a teenager, when I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I loved their paintings, especially those of Harris. The pared down monumentality of his paintings seemed to reflect so well the huge, spare landscapes I was seeing around me.

The only other time I have come across abstract representation of landscapes is in Australia, and more specifically in the work of Rover Thomas, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The example I gave there was the painting River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

I also gave there an example of another quasi-abstract landscape, this one by the Australian painter Fred Williams, again of a river system.

Interestingly enough, Georgia O’Keefe painted a similar scene, It Was Blue and Green.

It seems to be the case that painters are drawn to these types of “abstract landscapes” in the remoter, more rugged parts of the world. I wonder if there are North African painters, or painters from the Sahel countries, who have painted in abstract form the landscapes of the Sahara desert. Or how about Scandinavian or Russian painters who have painted their far north in abstract form? Who knows, maybe there are even Argentinian painters who have depicted Patagonia in this way.

But O’Keefe shows that actually it is possible to extract the abstract from the more homely parts of the world. Here is her Winter Road 1, from 1963, also in the Vienna show.
Perfect: a dark brown to black line curving across a white background, but also obviously a road across snowy hills. I have seen this exact scene several times in my life in places no more remote than North Yorkshire.

Georgia O’Keeffe, flower: http://de.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/05/what-do-you-see-in-georgia-okeeffes-flowers/
Georgia O’Keeffe, animal skull: http://www.marissamuller.com/blog/2015/7/3/skulls-flowers
Georgia O’Keeffe, Purple Hills: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=1935
Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hill: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/my-faraway-nearby
Lawren Harris, Lake and Mountains: https://www.oberhauserart.com/close_up_views_of_selected_artwork
Lawren Harris, Mount Lefroy: http://www.artcountrycanada.com/group-of-seven-harris.htm
Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/canadian/The-Group-of-Seven.html
Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
Fred Williams, Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Georgia O’Keeffe, It Was Blue and Green: http://www.oocities.org/moondarlin/artokeeffe3.html
Georgia O’Keefe, Winter Road 1: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/the-walk-to-laggan-cottage-ruins-and-ancient-footfalls/georgia-okeeffe-winter-road-1-1963/


Kyoto, 13 November 2016

We read glumly about the results of the American presidential elections and their aftermath. The future looks bleak. Yet, even in this dark hour, it is impossible not to be struck by the beauty that surrounds us in Kyoto.

The paintings on the sliding doors of the temples, branches spreading over a wash of gold.
The sweep of moss, brilliant green, under the trees, in the temple gardens.
The leaves turning on the Japanese maples, early November scarlet bleeding into old summer green.
I am moved, like the Japanese poets of old, to compose a haiku.

Velvet moss greening gnarled roots,
Maples blooming red:
I weep for America.

Sliding doors: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/44858
Japanese poet: https://www.pinterest.com/reaconnell/haiku-japanese-poetry/
Other photos: ours


Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As readers of this blog cannot have failed to notice, I’m a bit of a history buff. I suppose it runs in the family. My father had an extensive collection of history books, which as I grew up I filched for a quiet read in bed, and my elder brother actually teaches the subject.

As perhaps we all do, my interest in history started with the grand events, the Kings, the Queens, the battles. But with age, I became more interested in the history of the voiceless: the poorer segments of society, the goods and chattel which we humans have enslaved and used for our own material comforts, and – the topic of this post – our forefathers from the time when there were no written records: pre-history. Precisely because they have no written history, the latter can only talk to us through the material remains they have left behind, and through the chemical and biological tracers they have scattered about, from our genetic codes to such mundane things as pollen records. This post is about a particular material remain left to us by the voiceless, rock art.

My first meeting nearly half a century ago with this art form was not very propitious. They were rock paintings, in the middle of Lake of the Woods, on the US-Canadian border, where I was spending a week canoeing. They were painted on a small overhang on the water’s edge of one of the many small islands that dot the lake, so that we could bring the canoe alongside to study them. They looked something like this.
If I’m to be honest, I didn’t think much of them. They were pretty crude drawings, and awfully faded. I was far more excited by the very old man we met on another island, who told us that he remembered as a child being hurriedly bundled off into a hiding place because the local Indians had gone on the warpath. Wow! Indians on the warpath! To a boy of 15, that was something to talk about, not those crude, faded rock paintings.

At about the same time as I was gazing with a certain skepticism at the rock paintings on Lake of the Woods, I came across my first rock engraving. It was the White Horse, carved in the mid-19th Century into the escarpment of the Yorkshire Moors near my high school.
I have to say, though, that I was more taken by the gliders soaring silently on the updrafts created by the escarpment than the White Horse carved into it.

Well, time passed, I grew up, and I became wiser (I hope). My growing fascination with pre-history meant that I became more interested in rock art. Not that I saw that much rock art in the flesh, as it were. For instance, I have never managed to see the rock engravings in Valcamonica up in the Alps, not that far from my wife’s home town of Milan, even though it was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the other hand, when my wife and I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona early on in our marriage
we came across some rock engravings among the old American Indian pueblos.
I may not have been seeing much rock art, but I was reading up on whatever new finds were being made. For instance, new caves were being found in France and Spain with art from the Paleolithic era, adding to what was already known. I give here just a few examples from some of the better-known caves:

Now this is really art! Visiting these caves is on my retirement bucket list – if we can manage to get in. Many of them are closed, or access to them is severely restricted, to protect the paintings. Forget the problem of stray fingers touching where they shouldn’t. Even our innocent breath deteriorates the artwork.

Several of the articles I read were about rock art in Australia. For instance, there was much excitement several years ago when it was announced that some rock art in the Northern Territories had been dated to 28,000 years ago, which made it Australia’s oldest dated rock art, and some of the earliest in the world.
Then there were articles a few years before that about the fascinating rock art in Kakadu National Park, also in the Northern Territories, which goes from the ancient

to the modern – Australian rock art didn’t stop tens of thousands of years ago.

All this meant that I approached the rock art which we visited on our recent tour of the Kimberley with a lively interest. We found ourselves confronted with two quite different styles of painting. The more recent, Wandjina art, is dominated by these alien-like faces.
To my mind, these paintings were only mildly interesting. Of much greater interest was the considerably older Gwion Gwion art, which is peopled with stencil-like figures like these.
In contrast to many of the representations of people in rock art, where they tend to be reduced to mere stick figures, Gwion Gwion art shows them dressed and coiffed. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that one can get an idea of what the painters of this art might have looked like if we had met them.

There are very recent articles reporting scientific analyses which suggest that these paintings could be 50,000 years old. This very much favors the theory which I mentioned in my previous post, the author of which argues not only that African peoples sailed to the Kimberley and brought the baobab tree with them but also that they were the authors of the Gwion Gwion art. He claims similarities between this art and the rock art of the Sandawe people, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania.

Personally, I’m not convinced. But hey, I’m no expert. In any event, reporting this claim has allowed me to segue smoothly to Africa, a major storehouse of rock art. And here I will leave my readers with some remarkable rock art from the Sahara, once a green and verdant land full of game and peopled by the humans who hunted them and who recorded their lives on the rock.

Lake of the Woods rock painting: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/8653359
White Horse, Kilburn: http://www.jdw-fitness.co.uk/ben-campbell-5k-10k-trail-races/
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/siti-unesco/valcamonica-larte-rupestre.html
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.invasionealiena.com/misteri/articoli-misteri/963-arte-rupestre-delle-alpi-la-valcamonica.html
Canyon de Chelly: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Canyon+de+Chelly+National+Monument
Canyon de Chelly pictographs: http://www.inn-california.com/arizona/apacheC/canyondechelly/rockart.html
Cave wall, Lascaux: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/2xfe1z/what_if_cave_drawings_are_done_by_cavechildren/
Hunters, Lascaux: https://hartogsohn.com/category/טכנופוביה/
Bisons, Altamira: https://www.pinterest.com/gfrilli/prehistoric-art-altamira/
Horses, Chauvet: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/prehistoric-cave-paintings-of-horses-were-spot-on-say-scientists
Bears, Chauvet: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/francechauvet.htm
Rhinoceros, Chauvet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10920920/French-cave-paintings-inscribed-on-Unesco-World-Heritage-list.html
Reindeer, Font-de-Gaume: http://artdiscovery.info/rotations/rotation-1/packet-1/
Nawarla Gabarnmang: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/06/24/spe31.asp
Kakadu woman: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_10231459_aboriginal-rock-art-namondjok-at-nourlangie-kakadu-national-park-northern-territory-australia.html
Kakadu kangaroo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/521502831831829461/
Kakadu boat: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/photogalleries/australia-aboriginal-art-photos/photo4.html
Wandjina art: https://www.pinterest.com/rosadevaux/wandjina/
Gwion Gwion 1: our photo
Gwion Gwion 2: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Gwion Gwion 3: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/photographs/
Sandawe rock art: http://africanrockart.org
Giraffe, Dabous, Algeria: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/giraffe/
Cattle, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Antelope, Oued Dider, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Man and dog, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Archer, Oued Djaret, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/


Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, 1066 And All That: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse


while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.


This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.


Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum


Woad plant: http://woad.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/6/1576/1436768_orig.jpg (in http://woad.weebly.com/grow.html)
Mel Gibson: http://media-cdn.timesfreepress.com/img/news/tease/2012/11/02/braveheart-3_t1070_h10b97cb70851af7b29a07a4e9321ac5de746798e.jpg (in http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/sports/columns/story/2012/nov/02/5-10-friday-mailbag-dooley-dynasties-defenses-and-/91886/)
Medieval tapestry: http://www.needlenthread.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/wool-tapestry-01.jpg (in http://www.needlenthread.com/2011/09/pins-and-woad-dyeing-of-textiles.html)
Hôtel particulier, Toulouse: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/H%C3%B4tel_d’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg
Erfurt University: http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?binary=internal%3A%2F%2F84cd21ee849566f965b0eeaaf15626e8.jpeg (in http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?id=Erfurt)
Indigofera tinctoria: http://s3.amazonaws.com/sagebudphotos/INTI/Indigofera_tinctoria2_600.jpg (in http://sagebud.com/true-indigo-indigofera-tinctoria/)
Packet of natural indigo dye: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_dye
Indigo processing Carolinas: https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/images/IndigoProcessingSCMap-lg.jpg (in https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/plantations/Indigo_Cultivation_and_Processing.htm)
Indigo processing Bengal: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00glossarydata/terms/indigo/iln1869.jpg (in http://eastindiacompany1600-1857.blogspot.com/2015_01_01_archive.html)
Town gas manufacturing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Drawing_the_retorts_at_the_Great_Gas_Establishment_Brick_Lane.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manufactured_gas)
Coal tar: http://www.permastripe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/coal-tar-16.jpg (in http://www.permastripe.com/coal-tar-parking-lot-sealer-is-it-toxic/)
Mauveine: https://lilyabsinthe.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/6233293ca7d59e6c175f596742cba93b.jpg (in http://lilyabsinthe.com/2015/05/14/mauveine/)
Old BASF plant: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASF)
Master of the Blue Jeans painting: http://images.artnet.com/images_us/magazine/reviews/karlins/karlins1-26-11-2.jpg (in http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/master-of-blue-jeans1-25-11.asp)
Blue spectrum: http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Blue-Spectrum-728×455.jpg (in http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wallpaper/blue-spectrum.html)


Bangkok, 25 January 2016

I have a wonderful pair of jeans. I bought them God knows how many years ago and ever since, through a constant cycle of wearing and washing, they have softened, whitened, shredded, and micro-ripped. They are the very epitome of distressed jeans (“Distressed (of fabric): visibly aged and worn, from long, steady use, but still intact and functional”).


I laugh scornfully at those half-starved ladies who mince around in what are obviously fake distressed jeans, jeans that have been subjected to Lord knows what processes (stone washing, sand blasting, chemical bleaching, cutting, slashing, and on and on) in some sweat shop in a poverty-stricken part of the planet.

woman in distressed jeans

This pair of jeans are still relatively OK. The next pair seems to have been subjected to the tender mercies of Edward Scissorhands.

imageUsing a metaphor, my jeans are comparable to a great wine, aged over years in a cool cellar

bottle of good wine

while theirs are just alcopop.

alcopopAnd the funniest thing is that my jeans cost me little, while theirs cost hundreds of dollars. Ha!

Actually, this business of cost, as well as the deliberate mutilation of the fabric that we see in the previous pictures, both give me pause. Let’s remind ourselves that until relatively recently the denim of my trousers, along with the closely related jean fabric, were almost entirely used to make work clothes for working people. Levi Strauss made his fortune manufacturing tough, long-lasting, affordable denim trousers for men like this: gold panners caught up in the California gold rush (the forty-niners, “was a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine”)


or for the miners in the gold and silver mines out in Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada


as well as, of course, for the cowboys who roamed the Western range.


In a word, jeans were made for tough men who worked in the great outdoors.

The original ads for Levi jeans gloried in this toughness. The company was making trousers that even horses couldn’t tear apart!


How did this tough, no-nonsense, affordable piece of clothing morph into expensive rags clinging to the legs of elegant, half-starved women? Tasteful rags, I grant you, and clean, but still rags.

Step 1 in this transformation, it would seem, was the dude ranch phenomenon. For those of my readers who don’t know what dude ranches were, they were working ranches in the American West, where city people from the East (called dudes by the locals) would come for a vacation to enjoy a romantic outing to cowboy land without having to suffer the discomforts and dangers of the original immigrants. The popularity of dude ranches soared after the First World War with the advent of the car and easier travel. Here’s the cover of a popular magazine from the early 1940s, which shows what most people probably thought of dudes (notice the laughing cowboys in the back). But what is of even greater interest to us is what this fashionable young lady is wearing – undoubtedly a pair of blue jeans.


When on the ranch, these city slickers (another term used for dudes, along with greenhorns and tenderfoots) clearly wanted to dress like the cowboys which they met there, and then they started bringing these exotic clothes back East: most readers probably don’t know that Levi jeans were not sold east of the Mississippi until maybe the 1930s or even 1940s. Presumably, though, it was still a small minority of Easterners who wore jeans and then only out in the countryside.

Step 2 in the transformation from a good, honest piece of clothing to an expensive rag was the adoption of blue jeans by Bad Boys – bikers and such, of which Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One became the epitome. Please note the scruffy jeans he is wearing.


James Dean, in the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause upped the ante, in an equally scruffy pair of jeans but looking cuddlier than Brando.


(You see the jeans rather more clearly in this poster of the film)


Middle class parents hated everything about these films, including the jeans, therefore of course their teenage children loved them. It didn’t help that righteous school principals, cinema managers, and the like were banning jeans from their premises. That just added fuel to the fire.

The wearing of jeans as a sign of youthful rebellion, and of being youthful generally, culminated in the 1960s with the surfing, the flower power, the anti-Vietnam War movement of that decade. Here, for instance, is a hippie couple getting hitched – “married” would not be the correct word I think. I throw the photo in because the officiator is wearing a fine pair of jeans.


And here’s one of the gigs at Woodstock, where most of the band members seem to be wearing jeans. Note the serious flare on the jeans in the back of the photo – my very first pair of jeans, which I must have bought in the early ’70s, were so flared.


Even when things turned ugly, as they did in Kent State a year after Woodstock, jeans were being worn. I think everyone in this photo, including the Dead Student, is wearing jeans.


Note also how the Mourner has adorned her jeans with graffiti (art work is too big a word) – something which jeans wearers of the ’60s liked doing and something which the fashion world caught on to quite quickly. Already in the latter half of the ’60s, a New York boutique called Limbo hired impoverished, out-of-work East Village artists to embellish its jeans with patches, decals, and other touches, and sold them for the-then princely sum of $200. Jeans wearing was on the way to becoming trivialized.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that jeans had pretty much entered the mainstream. The definitive proof of that is that I, who was never that alternative, was wearing them. They were still casual wear rather than formal wear, but they had “arrived”. There was, however, still an important step to take, namely the wearing of ripped jeans. I suppose we’re so used to wearing anything nowadays that the sight of ragged clothes on obviously well-off people doesn’t shock us. But not all that long ago, and by that I mean in my lifetime, wearing ripped and ragged jeans would have meant only one thing: you were poor, if not downright down-and-out. To stress this point, let me throw in here a picture of a painting by an unknown Italian artist of the late 17th Century, who goes by the soubriquet of “The Master of the Blue Jeans”. He is so known because of the ten or so paintings which are known to be from his hand, and which all have as their subjects people (poor people I should add) wearing blue jean fabric.


As readers can see, the child in this painting is very obviously poor, and the jean jacket which he is wearing is ripped. In today’s world, this child could probably sell this garment for a good price (after a strong fumigation and a good wash I would think). But in his day, and indeed even today in many parts of the world, ragged clothes meant poverty. Which is why my grandmothers obsessively darned and mended every hole they found in our clothes. And which is why there are many paintings recording this part of a woman’s work.


Yet in some mysterious way, some two-three decades ago it started to become chic, at least in certain circles, to wear ragged denim. Why?

It seems that we have the punks to thank for this. It was they, with their anti-conformist, anti-establishment, anti-everything attitudes who popularized the slashing of jeans. This picture gives a good example of the genre – both punks and slashed jeans.


I suppose slashing one’s jeans was just another, very obvious, way of giving the finger to our social conventions, in this case that rags were shameful; no doubt punks’ mums were horrified to see their children going around in rags and were mortified by what the neighbours might think.

But why didn’t this fashion statement just remain in the shadows of the sub-culture of punk? To answer that, I think we must acknowledge a modern trend in the fashion world. For centuries, the trend setters in fashion were the social elites, people like Louis XIV


or Beau Brummell, intimate of the Prince Regent, later George IV


or Edward VII, inventor of, among other things, the Homburg hat


or even someone like Mona Bismarck, American socialite of the 1930s


Beginning in the 1930s, though, we can see a shift towards a less elitist view, with film stars, for instance, becoming fashion trendsetters. By the 1960s, the shift seems to have been complete. The fashion trendsetters are now people on the street, like the punks, who are pushing fashion boundaries. Which has brought not just rag-wearing but also body-piercing and tattooing into the mainstream.

Personally, I think an important but overlooked element in the road of rags to riches is the introduction of an elastic component like spandex into the denim, which has allowed jeans to become very tight around the leg. Let’s face it, while the punks may have been giving us all the finger, the fashion industry doesn’t want to do that. It wants slashed jeans to send a nice message, and what’s nice about slashed jeans is that it allows one a sight of the shapely legs of the half-starved women inserted in those jeans. And one doesn’t get a good sight of the legs unless the jeans adhere tightly to them.

That, I think, concludes the journey of jeans from serious work clothing to chi-chi vestment. What can be next, I wonder? Well, there is talk of jeans disappearing altogether. Many young things, it seems, are opting more and more for the cute sounding athleisure, which is cutting into jeans’s traditional markets. If this goes on, everyone will be dressed like this


or this


or other variations, and Levi Strauss will either be making these or will have gone out of business.

I must keep my jeans for another 30 years. They will probably be a very rare piece by then and be worth a fortune.


My jeans: my photo
Woman wearing “distressed jeans”: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4r9MHsbshO8/VLuo7CuxZBI/AAAAAAAA36s/sTB-FnG5_a4/s1600/Distressed%2BDenim.jpg (in http://www.over50feeling40.com/2015/01/would-you-wear-it-wednesday-distressed.html)
Extremely distressed denim: http://www.aliexpress.com/item/Women-s-Vintage-boyfriend-slouchy-Big-Ripped-Destroyed-Washed-Out-jeans-Denim-Distressed-punk-rock-trousers/1867914655.html
Bottle of good wine: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/7e/71/99/7e71991ec3b450efa2b50d7923cdb1f5.jpg (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/196539971211872465/)
Bottle of alcopop: http://drink-brands.com/drinks/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SourzFusionzAlcoholicDrink.jpg (in http://drink-brands.com/drinks/alcoholic-drink/sourz-bring-out-sourz-fusionz-bottled-drink/)
Gold panner: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-mininggold.html
Gold miners: http://www.mcmahanphoto.com/lc548–montanamineoldwest1889goldminersphoto.html
Cowboy: http://www.old-picture.com/old-west/Cowboy.htm
Old Levis poster: https://equigeoblog.wordpress.com/tag/horse-logos/
Woman dude: http://debyclark.blogspot.my/2012/06/20-june-1942-woman-at-dude-ranch.html
Marlon Brando in The Wild One: http://leblow.co.uk/fashspiration-of-the-week-kate-moss-on-a-motorbike/
James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause: http://www.grimygoods.com/2014/03/06/12-best-iconic-mens-vintage-biker-leather-jackets/
Rebel Without A Cause poster: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048545/
Hippies getting married: http://s192.photobucket.com/user/Swinging_Sixties/media/1960s/Hippies.jpg.html
Woodstock: http://www.woodstock.com
Kent State shooting: https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/flowers-are-still-better-bullets-45-years-after-kent-state-massacre
Boy in jeans jacket: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/vintage-jeans/?_r=0
Woman darning socks: http://stilllifequickheart.tumblr.com/post/35997420012/wybrand-hendriks-interior-with-wife-mending-socks
Punks: http://ellorajones.blogspot.com/2011/06/punk-rock.html
Louis XIV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XIV_of_France
Beau Brummell: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Brummell
Edward VII: http://blog.sekora.cz/?tag=edward-vii
Mona Bismarck: https://www.pinterest.com/ccmfarrow/power-of-style-mona-countess-of-bismarck/
Athleisure-1: http://www.ocreurope.com/athleisure-a-growing-trend-in-fitness-fashion/
Athleisure-2: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/sleepy-style-fashion


New York, 2 January 2016

There was a habit in China that I always found strange – dissonant perhaps is the better word – and that was the locals’ enthusiastic adoption of typical Christmas decorations. One would enter any self-respecting mall at the end of the year and there, standing proudly in the foyer, would be a resplendent Christmas tree.
imageA tree was sort of OK. Pine trees grow in China, right? and one could imagine the Chinese covering them with colorful baubles. I could even live with the muzaked Christmas carols that invariably were being played in the malls. Seeing Father Christmases in China, though, that was really strange to me.

A man dressed as Santa Claus walks past two security guards in downtown Shanghai December 23, 2010. Officially recognized by the Finland government after a four-year training, the man is one of 50 officially registered Santa Clauses who is paying a visit to Shanghai, warming up the Christmas holidays. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

I mean, Santa Claus has his roots deep in Northern Europe, in some place like this
and not in the arid plains of northern China.
Luckily, I never saw any Santa elves while in China. That would really have been too much, I would have had to take to my bed.

My Chinese office staff always got enthusiastically into the swing of things in the first weeks of December, sprinkling the walls and other surfaces with Christmas decorations.

I tolerated all this Yuletide good cheer à la chinoise, although the first year I found it somewhat disconcerting that one of the secretaries kept her decorations up around her workspace way after Christmas: a cheerful Santa ho-hoing away and a couple of reindeer-drawn sleighs as I recall.
In July, I finally got around to asking her why she kept them up. They were cheerful, she replied. OK, why not? My role in running the office did not extend to policing the interior decorations, so long as they didn’t offend public morals.

Luckily, now that we no longer live in China I don’t get this weird feeling of something not quite right around Christmas time. In fact, this year, in Brooklyn, I get the feeling that everything is absolutely right. In this part of Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens), many of the brownstones have small gardens in front of them. Their owners have enthusiastically filled them with various Christmas-themed stuff, many of them lit up at night. The result is a very pleasant walk for me and my wife from the subway stop down to our daughter’s apartment. I throw in here a gallery of the community’s efforts in Christmas son et lumière (actually lumière only; there was no son except for the wind rattling the branches of the trees above our heads).

Here we have a bare-bones offering, although the lights do give off a cheerful glow.
In these next few photos, the owners have created somewhat more complex tableaux

whereas in the next cases the owners have made some serious efforts
All these efforts culminate in a wonderful series of tableaux where compressed air (I guess) has been used to create large and exceedingly cheerful balloon-like sculptures, which wave gently with every passing breeze.
But a whip around the web shows that all these efforts are nothing compared to what some people have done. Here, for instance, is an unutterably cool house somewhere in Queens.

The owners should get a medal for their efforts.

All things considered, my feelings of discomfort about seeing such cheery Christmas scenes in China are silly. In this highly globalized world of ours, where we all dress the same, eat the same, buy the same furniture and furnishings, see the same movies, and play the same videogames, where’s the harm in the Chinese decorating their apartments, houses, offices, and malls with Christmas paraphernalia? Especially since it’s all made in China.

Christmas tree, China: http://www.ocweekly.com/news/south-coast-plaza-looks-a-lot-more-chinese-these-days-and-its-not-by-accident-6781849
Father Christmas, China: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/what-china-loves-about-christmas-and-doesnt/250488/
Winter, Sweden: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/8355017/Skiing-in-re-Sweden-the-place-to-go-for-Europes-best-snow.html
Winter, Inner Mongolia: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-winter-grassland-inner-mongolia-china-image50804885
Christmas decorations in office, China: http://godfatherstyle.com/creative-inspirational-work-place-christmas-decorations/
Santa Claus wall decoration: http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/2Pcs-28x21cm-Merry-Christmas-Santa-Claus-Wall-Stickers-Christmas-Decoration-Random-Pattern-Christmas-Stickers/532381_32242806520.html
Garden Xmas decorations: my photos
Highly decorated house: http://indesignss.co/best/best-christmas-decorated-house-in-queens


New York, 1 January 2016

2016 is upon us! My wife and I did not stay up to ring in the new year, we let the younger folk do that.
No need to make any new year resolutions, this year will be one of momentous change! (for me, anyway) I retire in August and finally become a free man again! Yippee!
What I need to do over the next eight months (apart from ensuring as smooth a handover as possible to my eventual successor) is to figure out what my wife and I will do with all this wonderful spare time given to me. Travel is high on the list. For instance, we are planning to drive across the US, something I’ve dreamed of doing since my student days in the US 35 years ago, visiting the natural wonders of the West
as well as the man-made wonders along the way.
Or there’s a little trip I’ve had in mind for a while, visiting stained glass windows across Europe, from the Medieval glories of la Sainte Chapelle in Paris
or Chartres cathedral
to the modern take on this art form in Cologne Cathedral.
Further afield, I have emitted the desire in a previous post to visit Easter Island.

AH2B07 Chili

Or how about Belize? My wife is currently searching the web for places there where our daughter and her beau could go and spend a short vacation. I’m thinking we should go there too and do some snorkeling

as well as go and visit some of the country’s Mayan ruins
My wife and I have also talked of spending several months in a number of our favourite cities, cities which we’ve only been able to visit briefly because of our work schedules but which we would like to get to know better. And on and on … There’s so much of the world we’ve not seen! But we cannot spend our whole time just traveling. For one thing, it gets rather expensive and I’m not sure how far my pension will stretch. For another, it greatly increases our carbon footprint, which is currently a big problem.

Which brings me to more serious things that my wife and I need to do in this latest phase of our lives. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that we are going to have to do something to drastically reduce our environmental footprint.
imageI’m thinking in a confused way of turning these efforts into a blog and/or a website and/or an app to help others do the same. That will definitely keep me busy, especially since the workings of websites, apps, and the like are black holes to me. Time to learn and keep the old brain working!

And then there’s the exercise! We have to continue the good work we’ve started. Joining a gym near our apartment in Milan is a definite possibility (we’ve already looked into the options). But we’ll surely supplement that with trekking in the Ligurian hills behind our apartment near Genova.
And here we can give back for all the years we’ve been using the trails, volunteering to help maintain them in our spare time (of which we will now have plenty).

And then, hopefully not in contradiction with the last two thoughts, I would like to turn my hand to some cooking. Not common-or-garden cooking but rather out-of-the-way things. For instance, I’ve always wanted to make tomato ketchup from scratch

and I want to try (again) to make my own vinegar.
Vinegar makes me think that I would like to try pickling my own vegetables.

I know this culinary impulse of mine is strange. I suppose it’s my way of rebelling against all the processed food that has swamped our lives. Maybe I can make this a subset of my website on reducing our environmental footprints, since our current food habits are such a big part of them.

I’m thinking that I could also do a bit of teaching, linked to my professional specialties. One university has reached out to me, let’s see if we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
I’m sure there’s a thousand other things we could set our hand to. But of course it could be that amongst all this busyness we’ll be called to do our duty as grandparents. The children are not yet at the point of having their own children, but the moment could come. Have no fear, children, we’ll drop everything and be there in a jiffy!
What better way is there to spend one’s waning years than in imparting some of one’s experience (I won’t say wisdom) to the little ones in our society?

Happy New Year!


New Year’s eve: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/11-thoughts-had-this-new-years-morning
Happy Snoopy: https://johnrberkowitz.wordpress.com/2015/03/
Monument Valley: http://anguerde.com/TTF-412276-zidane.html
Gateway Arch: https://cityofstlouis.com/events/day?date=2018-01-20
Sainte-Chapelle: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/517280707186310674/
Chartres Cathedral: http://art1arquitectura.blogspot.it/2011/07/rilke-la-catedral-el-roston-el-caiptel.html
Cologne Cathedral: https://anushkaenalemania.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/ciudades-koln/
Easter Island: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/824581012997275195/
Snorkeling Belize: https://blog.tripreviewer.com/2017/08/21/top-water-activities-to-do-in-the-usa/
Belize ruins: http://lushpalm.com/10-places-to-see-before-its-too-late/
Environmental footprints: http://ingienous.com/the-challenge/economics/consumption/
Monte di Portofino: https://www.caisezionedirho.it/sito/images.asp?cat=25&id=146
Tomato ketchup: http://cjoloughlin.ie/product/tomato-ketchup-brown-sauce/
Wine vinegar: https://www.vomfassusa.com/shop/vinegars/bordeaux-red-wine-vinegar/
Pickled vegetables: http://www.recipesbnb.com/small-batch-pickles/86358
Blackboard: http://www.enjoymyanmarholiday.com/index.php/essay/11149/
Grandparents: https://sweetsouthernhome.net/2018/02/26/5-things-older-citizens-should-do-to-protect-their-homes/
Old year and new year: http://mzayat.com/cliparts/old-clipart-man-and-boy.html


31 December 2015

Two years ago, when we were last in New York, we visited Ground Zero and the newly created Memorial to the victims of 9/11. Several days ago, during our current New York stay, we decided to go back to see how things have moved on.

Well, I’m glad to report that One World Trade Center is finally finished. I read up the back story to the development of the overall master plan for the area as well as for the design of the individual buildings; a veritable Shakespearean drama, with super egos confronting each other in dramatic showdowns, stabbing each other in the back, making sonorous declarations to the press, and otherwise carrying on like children in kindergarten. It’s a wonder that anything got done at all.
Rising serenely above all this human mayhem, WTC 1 is a very lovely, glass-sheathed building. As readers can see in the photo below, the corners have been severely shaved back. I wouldn’t know how to describe the geometrical shenanigans going on here, so I simply quote a line from the building’s entry in Wikipedia: “from the 20th floor upwards, the square edges of the tower’s cubic base are chamfered back, shaping the building into eight tall isosceles triangles, or an elongated square antiprism”. However you describe it, the effect is pretty cool.

WTC 2 is lagging behind. After having gone through a complete redesign, it is now being built, with a planned completion date of 2020. It should look like this once it is finished – a set of cubes stacked somewhat untidily one on top of the other.
Personally, I’m not sure I will like this building. Something about those poorly stacked cubes disturbs my sensibilities. But I’m willing to be convinced once 2020 rolls around.

I will skip over WTCs 3, 4, 5 and 7 (WTC 6 seems to have disappeared from the roster in the new master plan), although I would draw readers’ attention to WTC 4, finished a few years ago and a very handsome building indeed. I want to focus instead on the Transportation Hub, which is a grand name for the entry to the subway lines running under the site. This, I have to say, is a rather strange-looking structure.
When I first caught sight of it, from the side, I was powerfully reminded of photos that came out in the immediate aftermath of September 11, showing the jagged remains of the outer sheathing of the old WTC 1 and 2 buildings which had come crashing to the ground.
I don’t know if that was also on the mind of the Hub’s designer, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. In his public pronouncements, he has talked rather about it being like a bird flying out of a hand. It certainly has a bird-like quality from the back, although commentators have suggested a more stegosaurus-like look, which as the photo above shows is certainly true from the front. For those readers who may not be familiar with their dinosaurs I throw in a picture here of a reconstructed stegosaurus.
The similarity is even more striking when you consider a stegosaurus skeleton.
Frankly, I’m not completely sure how well this piece of design will withstand the test of time. Calatrava’s other design for the new World Trade Centre, the rebuilding of the tiny Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas which got flattened in the maelstrom of September 11, may weather better, at least from the models I’ve seen
but we will have to wait until 2017 to pass a firmer judgement.

Well, it seems that my wife and I have plenty of excuses to come back to New York in the years to come. Which is nice, because the primary current excuse for our coming, our daughter living here, is about to disappear as she moves on to greater and better things.

Silent film dramatic scene: http://bayflicks.net/2014/01/17/whats-screening-january-17-23/
WTC 1: http://anotherpartofme.com/the-real-reason-one-world-trade-center-1wtc-lost-its-best-features/
WTC 2: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/12/travel/two-world-trade-center-tower-big/
Transportation Hub: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/nyregion/a-crossroads-decades-gone-will-reopen-at-the-world-trade-center.html
Ground Zero: http://www.propublica.org/article/new-docs-detail-how-feds-downplayed-ground-zero-health-risks
Stegosaurus reconstruction: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stegosaurus_in_popular_culture
Stegosaurus skeleton: https://digitalstore.makerbot.com/stegosaurus-skeleton
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/nyregion/st-nicholas-church-destroyed-on-9-11-to-rebuild-with-byzantine-design.html