Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lego Tower

It's funny how often different inputs in my life mix and mingle and lead to some new endeavor.

Input #1
As I've written about recently, I have a new obsession with skyscrapers.

Input #2
I'm reading Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, which is an okay read but nothing that I can't put down, which is why it's taking me forever to finish it.  (I've renewed it four times already from my library.)

There are some interesting ideas in the book, and one of them is how the nature of Legos has changed over the years.  Chabon laments that when we was a child (in the 60's & 70's), Legos were undirected building blocks.  You bought them in generic shapes and built whatever you could imagine in your little creative head.

But by the time Chabon's kids came along, Legos primarily came in kits with pre-determined designs. You followed blueprints and built exactly what was on the box.  No creativity needed!

In the end, however, Chabon realizes that he had underestimated his kids' creativity.  Not only would they take apart and mix and match their different Lego kits, they would combine ALL of their toys together in an unholy marriage of various trademarked products.

I image-googled "mixing toys" and this pic came up. It's not really relevant, but it's too awesome not to share. 

Input #3
So these two inputs incubated in my brain for a while and then I remembered the Legos from my childhood I had stashed away in my closet.  The were stored in a metal Emergency! lunch box I had as a wee youngin'.  (Emergency! was apparently a TV show that I liked, although I don't remember it beyond the lunch box.)   

I was going to build my own Lego Tower!

When I got out my Legos, however, I realized I had the same problem as Chabon's kids.  All of my Legos were parts of kits: spaceships, police cars, ambulances, etc.  There were tons of tires, steering wheels, computer terminals, doors and windows, ladders, antennae, Lego people, and other parts that were clearly made for a specific purpose.

But there were not many actual building blocks. 

I made several attempts at creating a tower, building it and tearing it down, because I realized that to build up and not out, I'd have to make it smaller at the base, and make it even narrower as it went up.

I did the best I could do with the resources I had. Here is the final result:  

The different colors reflect the different vehicles that went into making it.  For example, the red portion near the bottom was from a fire truck.  The observation deck at the top were windshields. 

Lego Tower is now the tallest thing on my mantle "skyline":

Friday, April 20, 2012


Listening to Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, in my car makes my commute fun. I have LOLed on several occasions, and actually gained real insights on others.

The book is great, but that picture with the man-hands really creeps me out.

But I've noticed an annoying trend about audiobooks in general, and Fey's book in particular.

An audiobook will change the text whenever the author references the book itself. For example, a sentence like, "As you read this book...", will be changed to, "As you listen to this audiobook..."

Okay, in that context, it might not be appropriate to talk about reading an audiobook, since technically you're not doing that. (Although an argument could be made that an out-loud reading of a book should preserve the text exactly as is, the same way that translators render statements made by other people exactly as they say them. For example, a translator doesn't say, "He says he is hungry." The translator says, "I am hungry" because that's what the president of Gibberland said.)

But sometimes the audiobook people go overboard. I assume that they have a blanket rule to change every reference of "this book" to "this audiobook." And they follow this rule slavishly, even when it doesn't make sense.

For example: In Fey's book, she makes a reference to her book and says, "When I wrote this audiobook..."


She didn't write an audiobook. She wrote a book, and is now reading it for her readers who are too lazy and/or incapacitated (like in a car, like me) to read it themselves.

Please, audiobook producers: stop treating your audiobook as a literary work. It's not it's own art form. The best audiobooks don't draw attention to the fact that I'm listening to an audiobook, they just let me enjoy a good book. In my car. During my commute.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Haring Mystery

As soon as I saw this sculpture near Battery Park in Manhattan, the name Keith Haring jumped out at me:

I don't know how I know that it's a Keith Haring sculpture. I don't know where I learned his name, or anything whatsoever about him, other than a distinctive style I can identify but can't describe. What characterizes Haring's style? I don't know. To borrow a famous quote from a supreme court justice, I just know it when I see it.

There's another of his sculptures close by:

Are they fighting or doing it?

Whatever else it is, Haring's style is joyful, playful, and simple. I like that.


Recently, in an attempt to google myself (searching for "timblog"), I discovered another Tim Who Blogs. The other Tim is gay and much funnier than me, and recently wrote about a Haring exhibit he went to in Brooklyn.

This exhibit featured "So many dicks, y'all. So many dicks."

This is a side of Haring I was familiar with, but then again, I don't know anything about him. Is he gay? Is he still alive? What does he look like? No idea.


So to fill in this gap in my cultural intelligence, I turned to Wikipedia. I skimmed the article on Keith Haring, mostly ignoring all the arty academic talk, and tried to get a sketch of the man. There wasn't much. He died in 1990, at only 31, of AIDS-related complications.

Keith Haring, 1958-1990

The oddest thing: the article itself never mentions if Haring was gay. The only confirmation I get is that the tags at the bottom of the article include "Gay artists" and "LGBT artists from the United States."

This seemed like a strange omission, and since Wikipedia is edited by anyone and everyone, I started to get suspicious. Did homophobes not want people to know that he was gay? Or did gays not want to perpetuate the stereotype of the gay man with AIDS? Was it a political thing? Or did people simply think his sexuality was not important? There is no section on Personal Life in this entry, which you often get on Wikipedia bios. So maybe people just wanted to protect his privacy.

In an attempt to find the truth, I did something I've never done before. I looked through Wikipedia's revisions. Hundreds and hundreds of edits to this article have been logged over the years. Looking through them all is quite a harrowing (haring?) experience.

For many years, up until 2011, this sentence appeared in the section on "Early Life":

At age 19 Haring, who was openly gay, moved to New York City, where he was inspired by graffiti art, and studied at the School of Visual Arts.

Since that sentence is no longer on the current page, I had to dig through hundreds of revisions to look for when it was taken out, and maybe there would be a clue as to why. I had some theories, and one of them had to do with trolls. Every once in a while some idiot would vandalize his entry with a juvenile homophobic line like "His life was full of dicks and buttholes." I wondered if they removed the reference to his being gay to avoid that? That would be very disappointing.


In January, 2011, several incidents of vandalism on the Keith Haring Wikibio started with this edit: "Born in Reading, I turned gay Pennsylvania, Haring grew up in Kutztown and was interested in art from an early age."

Someone had inserted "I turned gay" into the opening sentence. Hilarious.

This further devolved into, "Born in Reading he turned gay which means loving other men. Haring grew up in Kutztown and was interested in art from an early age..." Eventually this addendum was also added to the end of the first paragraph: "n e He was a epic man!!!"

Clearly, some stupid kids were being dumbasses.

When this paragraph was cleaned up, ALL references to Haring being gay were removed, so it now just read, "At age 19 Haring, moved to New York City, where he was inspired by graffiti art, and studied at the School of Visual Arts." The only comment the editor made was, "Early life: rm vandalism"

And I guess the reference to Haring's sexuality never returned. Which is a shame, because the only reason it was removed was to stop/clean up vandalism by a stupid kid. Why let the vandals win?

A few days later, someone added, "he was gay" to the end of the first paragraph. Without any context, it's hard to know whether this was vandalism or just someone who thought it was important knowledge. It was removed immediately.

I don't know what to make of all of this, but I think it's an interesting story on the nature of Wikipedia.

So many dicks y'all, so many dicks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Massive Erections

As we flew into the New York's La Guardia airport, I couldn't believe my good luck at the perfect skyline view from our window. The massive erections of the NYC skyline gave me a... big happy.

Actual shot of lower Manhattan from our plane


From that high up, all the monuments and towers looked like toys, like a play model. It was a freaky feeling to realize it was all very real, and enormous.


It's official: I have a new obsession. I love tall buildings and skylines.

It all started with a trip to Chicago last year for a work conference. As I walked around downtown Chicago, amid all the cool tall buildings, I fell in love.

I loved the art, the energy, the parks, the activity. All the sights and sounds. But what really won my heart were all the tall buildings.

Since then, I have visited Chicago dozens of times. And when I drive into town, every time I see that skyline rise up through my windshield, a feeling of raw excitement grips me.

Approximate view of skyline as you come from the south on I-57/90-94.

By the time I pass the river on Lake Shore Drive (especially at night) I'm about to pee myself with excitement.

View from Lake Shore Drive crossing the river.


So it was with this burgeoning love of skyscrapers that I visited New York over spring break. And all it did was feed my obsession.

New York doesn't have the tallest buildings in the country. In fact, the five tallest buildings in Chicago are taller than New York's top five. (Chicago has four of the tallest six buildings in the U.S.) However, New York has more than twice as many skyscrapers (over 150m tall) as Chicago, and they're stuffed into a smaller area (Manhattan), so the skyline is just crammed with structures.

Here's a photo tour* of our New York trip, with some random facts & observations about skyscrapers thrown in.

*abbreviated tour. We came back with 300+ pics, but this is mostly just the buildings. The longer tour is on my FB page.

First, a little nature. We visited a big rock up against a pond in Central Park.

Of course, even in Central Park, the skyscrapers are not far away.

Then we visited lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center is.

Did you know they're building a new tower there? When it's done, it will be the new tallest building in America, 1,776 feet high. (That number, 1776, is no accident.) I had no idea they were building a new tower, but it was way cool to see it under construction. It's already taller than the other buildings in lower Manhattan, with more height to come.

What a glorious structure. I love that they're building a new skyscraper where the twin towers fell. Human beings are like ants-- you may come and stomp all over our anthill, but we're just going to rebuild. You can't keep us down.

They're building four new buildings at the WTC site. Here's two smaller ones getting started.

Then we took the Staten Island Ferry, which takes commuters from NYC to Staten Island. It's free public transit, and it gives you a great view of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

Lower Manhattan skyline. Note the new WTC building rising up over all the other buildings. It's already taller than everything else, and it's not done yet.

The photographers

Mount Rushmore, or something like that.

The further away you get, the more the tall buildings stand out. That's one great thing about skyscrapers and skylines. There are virtually an infinite number of angles and perspectives to view them from. A building right in front of you might overshadow taller ones that are further away. But that perspective changes with each step in a different direction.

The Statue of Liberty Bell (or something like that) in front of the Jersey City skyline. Yes, Jersey has a skyline, too. It's like a satellite of the Manhattan skyline. How cute.

Three skylines: Jersey City, Manhattan, Brooklyn
I like this picture because it looks like the skyline is in a cage, like at the Skyline Zoo.

Back on land, we could view the buildings up close again.

This picture shows a small (by comparison) church wedged between two behemoth buildings. The thing that fascinates me about a skyline is how it's a mosaic of so many different architects, time periods, materials, and styles. Each new building adds to the overall picture, and that picture is constantly in flux. The skyline is a living, evolving thing.

At one point this church was the tallest thing in Manhattan. Now it's not even in the top 200. I like seeing the construction of the new WTC buildings behind it. Also, because of the angle, the smaller church looks bigger than the WTC buildings. Notice the tallest building in lower Manhattan is smaller than the other two structures from this angle. It's all about perspective.

Next we went to the Skyscraper Museum, which had awesome models like this one. It shows lower Manhattan, with the proposed new WTC buildings in transparent/white.

At the museum we learned about the different ways you can measure the height of a skyscraper. There are three methods:
  1. The total height of the entire structure, including spires or antennae or any pointy things on top-- which I don't think should count because you can always just add a new one of those.
  2. The "architectural height" which sometimes includes the pointy things on top and sometimes doesn't, depending on whether it's structural or not. This is something that's impossible to tell from looking at a building. For example, the Sears Tower looks taller than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, but the latter is considered taller for some stupid structural reason. (See image below.)
  3. The highest floor occupied. (Sears Tower beats P.T. on that count.)
Sears Tower next to Petronas Towers. Which one looks taller? Well, you're wrong.

Anyway, I think we can all agree that these buildings are pretty damn impressive, so let's not quibble over who's "bigger."

Next we moved on to Midtown, where there are even more random tall buildings:

teal building

Empire State Building in the distance

Chrysler Building

Buildings lit up at night are just as awesome, if not more so, than during the day.

We went up into the Empire State Building on Friday night. Since the twin towers fell on 9/11, it has been the tallest building in NYC. That surprises me, because it was built in 1931. It's old. How can it be the tallest? Skyscrapers are not like trees-- they don't keep growing. And I assume that skyscraper technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since it was built. Still, none of these youngin'-type buildings have been able to overtake the ole' Empire State.

Looking up at the Empire State building: Soon I will be inside you!

Although it was cold as frick up there (we would also visit the Frick House museum, but not that night), being at the top of the Empire State Building was the highlight of the entire trip. Seeing the New York skyline at night was a religious experience for me.

Fifth Avenue, looking North.

Buildings huddled around the lights of Times Square.

Lower Manhattan. That really tall tower is the new WTC building. Even though it's under construction, it's already lit up.
By this time my girlfriend (and traveling companion) was already sick to death of my obsession with skyscrapers, so we did other touristy stuff.

On our last day we saw Rockefeller Center.

Here's one of the buildings they show on 30 Rock. It's actually 45 Rock. (45 Rockefeller Center.) You may hum the 30 Rock theme song now.

30 Rock

This cool building has trees growing on it! When we got closer we noticed that it said, "Trump Tower." It's one of the many buildings in NYC that have that sleezebag's name on it. My first thought was that it's annoying how an ego-maniacal idiot like that has to put his name on everything, but then I remembered something that occurred to me when I was looking at the view from the Empire State Building.

I have liberal values and believe in a more equitable distribution of income, but I have to admit: it wasn't liberals who built these huge massive testaments to human ingenuity and strength. It was hardcore capitalists. The beautiful skylines of the world have the abject human need for money and power to thank for their existence. Without them, we might be living in a more sustainable, peaceful world, but it wouldn't be nearly as awesome from a skyscraper point of view.

Actually, one of the reasons why there haven't been more erections taller than the Empire State Building in the past 80 years is that it's no longer economically feasible to build such a huge structure. They simply don't make money, and it's always about money.

As if to answer my thoughts, while I was working on this blog post, the local co-op posted this story on Facebook: Skyscraper Farming: An urban solution soon to be tested

It's a "plantscraper:" a huge towering orb that grows stuff in an urban environment. This one's in Sweden (of course.) I suppose it's kinda neat, but not nearly as impressive as the NYC Skyline.

Two last buildings from our NYC trip:

This was an old newspaper tower. A hundred years ago, all the big buildings in NYC were built by newspapers. Huh.

As we rushed to the subway to get back to our hotel so we could get to the airport, I saw this awesome, two-tower building. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to get a picture from a better angle. My girlfriend/traveling companion was already fed up with my skyscraper obsession, and wasn't willing to risk missing our plane for it. (To her credit, many of these great shots of skyscrapers were taken by her with her superior camera.)


A funny thing has happened since this skyscraper obsession erected itself in me. I've started looking up more.

Now, even as I drive around my small city of Champaign-Urbana, I look at the view around me. Instead of looking at my feet when I walk, or stressing about the traffic around me when I drive, I look up and notice structures on the horizon.

It turns out that Champaign has a skyline of its own. Granted, it's only three buildings, but it's something. When I return from my trips to Chicago, the first thing I see of Champaign from Interstate 57 are those three buildings peaking out above the cornfields. They're tiny, but visible.

To prove my nerdiness, I drove around town and investigated these three buildings-- counting the stories and guesstimating their relative height. Interestingly, two of the three are newish-- they weren't here 10 years ago. When I got home, I googled "champaign skyline" and confirmed that my estimates were right. The three buildings are of 24, 20, and 18 stories, respectively, but the 18-story tower is taller than the 20-story one. (Not quite the 110-story majesty of the Sears Tower.)

The Champaign skyline: I drove all around to get a good shot of these three towers that did not have other trees, buildings, poles, etc, in front of it. The tallest one is actually in the middle (just above the van), but because of the angle, #2 looks bigger. The circular tower is #3. The whole thing looks kinda puny in this picture. But trust me, if you stand under one of these structures, they're sorta kinda impressive.