Saturday, January 30, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

J.K. Rowling

Finished Reading: 01.2010

Let me take a moment to reflect on Moaning Myrtle and Nearly Headless Nick, two ghosts who roam around Hogwarts (independently), interacting with the students. I figure they might not get much reflection for themselves these days. (Not sure how ghosts actually work). What is more appropriate and Emo than a dead teenage girl haunting a certain toilet stall in the second floor lavatory of a dank old school, crying her eyes out, sobbing and moaning simply because she is a ghost? Talk about stage fright. She probably had skin problems, and that stall is probably covered in boy-band stickers. And then there is Sir Nicholas de Mimsey-Porpington, who died many centuries ago but escaped total separation of his head from his body due to an unfortunately dull axe incident, coming so close to being headless but now remaining nearly so. Very tragic. Let us not aspire to his fate.

I don't blame the young witches at Hogwarts for staying away from Myrtle's stall, but she is a lot better to unexpectedly run into during a mad dash for a quick tinkle between Herbology and Defense Against the Dark Arts than if you were about to drop your trousers and hear Nearly Headless Nick floating over from the next urinal, droning on about proper blade sharpening techniques. I don't think we cry in the bathroom enough.

Speaking of which, I wonder how the owls get on? After flying from London to Swindon, back to Hogwarts, back to London, and on to other places where the mail must be delivered, the owls have to return to their wee wooden cages in the dorms, with tired wings and what... some hay to sleep on?. Does Harry really keep Hedwig in a cage all night until he needs to send another message to ... oh wait, he doesn't have any other friends. Poor Hedwig. And does Errol just languish in his prison for weeks on end? We know teenage boys don't want to talk to their mother's very often, but this sounds like cruel slavery to me. I hope there is some sort of magic chamber that we don't know about, where owls can relax and shoots some billiards while off-duty. Maybe read the latest hoots or drink a brew. Of course, sparrows would probably deliver their messages, which is another issue for the unions.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Green Metropolis

Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are Keys to Sustainability


David Owen

Finished Reading: 01.2010

Most people consider large cities to be the very opposite of an environmentally friendly living situation. When we look at a large city, such as New York City, we see a point source for heavy power and fuel usage and no real concentration of nature for miles. The city is not seen as an environmental goal, but this author argues otherwise, claiming that we are looking at environmentalism all wrong.

Sure, New York City uses more energy than any other city in the country, but it also has a much larger population than anywhere else, and per person actually consumes less energy as each resident of the city has a smaller footprint and uses much less energy than their friends who live in the suburbs. In New York City the population is densely stacked on top of one another, and side by side, and the neighborhoods are set up so that everything one needs for work, entertainment, consumption and living is nearby. Cities are made for people.

The suburbs however, while giving the illusion of a peaceful replication of nature, are doing more harm than good. To live in the suburbs is to live in your car. Where there is more land to spread out homes are generally larger, which means more large appliances and more energy consumption, and a higher use of fertilizers and non-natural cleaners to keep things going. To escape the suburbs and get closer to nature is to perpetuate the suburbs, moving further and further away from the cities but really just bringing a strained out version of the city with you. If suddenly you found yourself without your car, way out there away from things, you would be out of options. Owen says that more nature is destroyed by the low-density development around New York City than by the city center itself. We just don't usually think of it that way.

Of course, the reason the suburbs are so popular is that they give us what we want. More room more independence, and more privacy. This can be achieved by the use of an automobile. The primary stated and unstated goal of drivers and municipalities in every region of the country is to increase traffic flow and get commuters to their destination as quickly as possible, that is, make driving more comfortable and quicker. The author's opinion on this, with the environment in mind, is that we should make driving as difficult, expensive and inconvenient as possible in order to encourage drivers to switch to public transportation, which will probably require people to reconsider some larger aspect of their lives than gas mileage, such as where they live and where they work. Most people would rather make their current living situation as environmentally friendly as possible rather than changing the basic premise of how they live their lives. Who can blame them?

There is a fascinating concept explored in this book about the difference between making cars more efficient and smaller, and getting them off the road all together (not an option for most people). The reasoning goes that we should not be interested in getting people out of cars for the benefit of public transportation, but rather that we need to get people out of cars period - and whatever you do to get around is up to you, whether walking, bicycling, or by public transportation. It is not the car itself that is the greatest concern, but rather the lifestyle it allows and perpetuates. With the automobile we can spread ourselves far and wide, thinly coating civilization over large expanses of land, and the further we go the more we rely on the automobile for the simplest tasks. The author, and he is not alone in this, points out that this way of life may get increasingly difficult in coming years if the cost of cheap, personal transportation increases to more than we are willing to pay. It is not sustainable, so while not change while you have the choice?

I have to admit I feel pretty good about a doom and gloom book like this because it reflects my own thoughts on cities and agrees with the choices I am making every day. But we can always improve. David Owen doesn't have a lot to say about Portland (a few quick statistical mentions) because we are not really the Green Metropolis that Portlanders think they are. Most of the east side of the Willamette river is low density suburbs, and you don't have to go very far in the other directions before you find yourself in a place dependant on automobiles. There are some areas with higher density, but very few people can really get by without a car. Even if they could, they chose not to mostly because of which part of the city they choose to live in.

I would like to see Portland grow to be more dense. In 2010 we have almost 600,000 people within the city limits and that is sure to increase rapidly if the last decade is any indication. Of course there are probably a couple of million people in the "Portland Metropolitan Area," but really, most of those people are not close enough to the dense parts of the city to go without a car. We have the Urban Growth Boundary that disallows most unabated sprawl, and we have transit corridors in the form of light rail and streetcars which are ripe for new denser development. Downtown needs to seep over to the east side, trickling down the already growing mixed-used corridors of Hawthorne, Belmont, Alberta, Etc. Downtown itself is home to far too many empty lots, parking lots and single story dry cleaners. As more people move to the region, we need to make places for them closer to the center of the city, not build more homes out on the frontier fringe.

Owen notices that Americans love little cute things, like the Smart car or the Mini Cooper, but we can't seem to just leave them alone in their smallness - we want to make them just a little bit bigger or add on a little more power. I recently read that Mini Cooper is now developing an SUV of all things, just inches longer than their previous model which was just inches longer than the original Mini. As if a smaller SUV is really what we need.

I also recently read about the new Apple store which opened in New York City. It is basically a one-story pristine glass box, where the computers are on display. There is a basement for the clutter of things that are actually for sale. Architecturally, it is gorgeous. Though it is modern, clean, and seems pretty green, Owen would deride it for excessive glass (which means excessive heating, as no glass is as insulating as any standard insulated wall), ultra low density (one story, one use), and unnecessary disposable materials (the glass stair treads on the breath-taking spiral stair, which leads down to the basement, have to be replaced often from scuffs and wear). Kind of makes you think about things differently. On the other hand, we do need parks and open space, so the Apple store is like a new park to browse through, in between the towers. There are some nice trees across the street which can be clearly seen through the glass.

Can we change the world? Should we try? We are usually content to change the little things in our lives (like recycling and driving more fuel-efficient cars - which are important) but the author argues that these little things just maintain our life as it is, making us feel good about ourselves and masks the true costs to the environment. Can I change the world by social engineering, in my practice of architecture? Probably not. I cannot change the way people live or change what they want. We cannot build a bunch of towers which contain smaller apartments if no one wants to live in them. What we can do is to make the city a better place to live, and start actually caring about the environment and thinking about how our actions affect the Earth and the other bazillion people who live on it. I need to do my best and not give up on the big ideas, and hopefully you will do that same.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Mark Haddon

Finished Reading: 12.2009

Autism is a disorder of neural development that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restrictive and repetitive behavior. -Wikipedia

That is about as much as I knew before reading this fictional narration by a 15 year old autistic boy named Christopher (assumed to have Asperger syndrome). The boy discovers that his neighbor's dog Wellington has been murdered and he sets out to discover the reasons and who is the killer. In his murder mystery adventure, we are inserted into a mind that sees the world very differently than most people. Often autistic people are perceived in certain ways, perhaps as unable to comprehend ideas and what others are trying to say, but here we see from Christopher's own point of view that his world really does make the most sense and everyone else is absolutely incomprehensible.

Christopher lives in England with his father on an ordinary suburban street, and has a very ordered life, maintaining an unchanging daily schedule. He lives in the details that most people ignore, not understanding vague concepts and implied meanings. He doesn't like metaphors because they don't mean anything, and are not at all like the thing they are supposed to be like. He insists that the furniture in a room not be moved, or he will be afraid of the new uncertainty. He doesn't want to be touched by anyone, and avoids eye contact. For the most part, he only talks to his father and his teacher, and definitely not to strangers. Additionally, he has a photographic memory, remembering everything like it is playback on a tape, and loves science and logic. He has superior skills in mathematics, scoring well above his age group on tests.

Christopher has named the chapters of the book by prime numbers rather than the usual counting numbers, because it is more interesting. Thus, in this 226 page book there is a Chapter 233, though there is no Chapter 1 or 4.

Given his difficulty in understanding the world around him, his purposeful investigation of the dog's death leads Christopher to learn more about himself through new interactions with neighbors and new visits to places he has never been to before. He finds himself overloaded with information (since he notices every detail and remembers every detail) and has difficulty continuing his investigation as new details surface. Continually, he comes across adults who do not understand him and don't know how to communicate properly with a boy who doesn't speak or socialize in the way they are accustom to. If they would only take the time to listen to him, rather than quickly deciding he is loony and walking away, a lot of pain and misunderstanding could be avoided.

The boy's view of the world is much simpler than my own view; mine being clouded by occasional grand illusion. I feel this book is a clearer lens for things I've looked at for years and yet have never really seen. Often things really are as simple as they appear, and a unknown explanation may not exist. Even my frequent use of the word things in this very paragraph would not be tolerated by Christopher, as he would like to know more detail about what these vauge things are, which makes for better writing anyway. I will now try to assume less, notice more, and hopefully better understand people like Christopher who are not dumber than the rest of us, only a little different.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Finding The Flow

A Guide for Leading Small Groups and Gatherings

Tara Miller

Jenn Peppers

Finished Reading: 01.2010

Finding The Flow is a "how-to" for leading small groups. There is no exciting plot or devastating disaster involving the goldfish on the cover. These orange sea kittens are simply exploring the word wrap possibilities around the letter G.

As the facilitator of a church small group this has been very helpful and timely as our group is dealing with many of the issues discussed in the book. The group began meeting in August 2009, and there has been a core group of six of us for most of that time, with occasional newcomers showing up now and then. I had not really thought about any of these issues before, as I just wanted the group to happen however it happens. Organization seems so lame.

The authors talk about knowing yourself, so that, as the facilitator, I can learn to know what the others are feeling or how they might react in various situations. There is a section on the various stages that a group goes through as it forms and grows. Small groups can't last forever, and eventually run their course. There are important life skills discussed that can be utilized in many situations where we have to deal with other people in a group. Listening, asking questions, dealing with conflicts, and developing new leaders
are topics thoroughly explored. Annoying people are placed in the group by God to test us.

Most important is to remember that the purpose of the small group is our spiritual transformation and growth, which we do in community with the help of our group, We need to engage with the Scriptures enough to be moved by it, and this is a good way to organize that engagement.