Friday, August 19, 2011

Rapid fire ranting

Just some ranting that needs to be done today...

1) Park Royal hotel latest official casualty of the Christchurch quakes

Today they announced that the Park Royal was officially going to be demolished but not rebuilt. Having seen it first hand 2 months ago after the cordons around it finally eased, I guess it was possible to see some reasons why that might have been the case.

Nevertheless, it is saddening to see it go. Like many places, I've had fond memories there:
- as a young child, falling asleep on the dining table while waiting for desert to arrive
- sitting in the restaurant, staring up at the high glass ceiling, watching the two lifts - decorated with small glowing lightbulbs like those around a mirror in a dressing room - going up and down, while the resident piano man sat under a little house thingy with adorned with a four large and elegant clock faces, tinkering away and adding to the general ambience of the whole place
- passing through the foyer on nights when I had concerts at the Town Hall
- having birthday dinners and more recently enjoying afternoon tea

Heck, before the earthquakes first struck, we were planning on heading there on New Years' Eve once. Sadly, that won't be happening anymore :(

Just as with how "they've" done with every other significant public structure badly damaged in this city, notably AMI Stadium, they've once again spent months carefully sidestepping (what seems to have been absolutely clear or pretty clear but just not perhaps politically safe to mention yet) that the building was going to be demolished as it was too "badly damaged" to repair. Another one is the Town Hall next door; after I've heard that this one is going, I have little doubt that that will eventually be next, just perhaps something to be mentioned a few weeks or months down the track.

Then again, in terms of Feng Shui, the demolition of the Park Royal may in fact be a good thing. I remember taking a look around an exhibition in the Art Gallery (IIRC summer 2010) showcasing the architecture of the architect behind many of Christchurch's modern-ish civic/public buildings. This exhibition included floorplans and elevations, practical scale models, as well as some history behind the construction of these buildings. It was from this exhibition (or perhaps from some earlier work I did during HS) that I learnt how the original "grid" layout of Christchurch's CBD streets was intended to evoke the Union Jack (i.e. the flag of the UK) in accordance with the ideological bent of the early settlers.

Now apparently, Victoria St, one of the diagonals feeding into Cathedral Square was blocked off early to form Victoria Square, with the corner of this being occupied by the Park Royal hotel, sitting beside the Town Hall. So in a way, you could say that this building was blocking the flow down Victoria St into the heart of the city, and by demolishing this as a result of the earthquakes, we are regaining that "natural" corridor. Somewhat interesting was that originally (according to the plans), they (or more specifically, the architect) had planned to put the council headquarters there instead, but they would've been just two tall ugly block buildings (much like the equally doomed Copthorne Hotel across the road, which suffered foundation issues back in September '10).

2) Earthquake Recovery...
And anyone who might've had any illusion that there'd be a quick recovery in Canterbury would I think have either been naive or terribly delusional. While in the generally upbeat weeks after February it might've been possible to believe that it could be done, I think we're at a point now where my original estimates that with the rate of progress here, we're looking at 10 years (optimistically) for the CBD to have been "rebuilt" (in the sense that we have a number of important buildings up and things businesses starting to return as well as foot traffic), but more like 20 years if we're looking at any kind of "recovery".

Also, with the recently revealed plans for what the "temporary" Cashel/City Mall, where most of the (largely) beautiful heritage buildings have been demolished (*), consisting of a temporary shopping precinct consisting of a set of a rabbit's warren of shipping containers, stacked two to three levels high, to be opened by the end of October.
(*) In particular, the Whitcoulls Building (check out some of the other images in the gallery too; I only just uploaded it today, while going through checking for nicer pics of the Park Royal. These were the last/only pics I've managed to take of the old City Mall, which is now all gone...), which was my favourite of the lot that've now been demolished. In the past few months, I've read in a few places that the views of some heritage snobs considering it as "fake" and "pretentious", or effectively shoddy crap (IMO, the structure of the building may have been, but the facade was one of the nicest in town). Then again, they're probably the same bunch who thought the Provincial Chambers were the "crowing masterpiece"of Benjamin Mountfort's Gothic Revival styled works in Christchurch, though its fate today (as a crumpled, mangled heap of rubble, whose roof had caved inwards, making it most badly damaged of Mountfort's creations) reflects my personal disdain for it (it always just looked like a dark and dank lump of irrelevance).
It's perhaps a pity that many of these facades won't be around in future, especially with future buildings designed. The level of craftsmanship and ornamentation present in these older facades is distinctly missing from more "modern" designs, which are often driven by the "bottom line" of bean counters. IMO, it these frontages which are really what people know and love about cities, and less (or not at all) about the actual buildings behind them. For instance, while there were a lot of nice frontages around the place, when I was younger, I personally really disliked the shabbiness of the interiors of some of the older buildings (especially the uneven-floors factor), but also just the red-brick ugliness of the backends. This kindof led to some rather embarrassing skylines, as behind those iconic frontages, you'd just have tin-shack crap. With the level of special-effects talent in the country, I'd think that it wouldn't have been all too difficult to have asked Weta Workshops to have come down and attached foam-cast facades onto modern+safe+economically-built buildings.
I dunno if it's just me, but shipping containers seem to be the new "it" thing here in Christchurch (second only to high viz vests, but perhaps still ahead of tents). They're used (stacked 2-3 layers high) beside cliff-faces bordering roads and properties as fences and protective barriers, to prop up ailing buildings, and apparently, now to create new shopping centres. The idea certainly does have some novelty to it, but judging from the way that people tend to quickly adapt to things and then leave them as-is, combined with slow overall progress, I suspect that we're going to be seeing these for a very long time (if they don't eventually become permanent too).

Perhaps as a permanent feature, it might be quite a tourist attraction in its own right, like some of the modernist architecture in Europe that I've seen from time to time. If not, it might also just resemble the scene in our prisons (I can't remember if they eventually went through with this or not, but there was a huge debate on the issue a few years ago) whereby the government was planning on housing prisoners in shipping containers stacked on top of each other, as they couldn't afford to build more prisons in the interim.

3) CBD Draft Plan
There are some positive aspects here, but also some questionable things.

The plans for Cathedral Square are a step in the right direction. In particular, the idea to have some water features there is a good idea, though I wonder how long they'll last  before succumbing to the general fate of water features in public spaces (here in NZ, we seem to have a somewhat allergic tendency towards these things... they seem to show up from time to time in renovated spaces, but often disappear a few years later in favour for a cafe, seating, or just nothingness).

The concept visualisations of new public buildings, including a new convention centre and public library look interesting. One of the ones I saw seemed to resemble the Art Gallery in certain ways, while looking like it was more centered around a giant carrot.

As for the height restrictions for new buildings: finally some attempts to get some kind of skyline shaping going on. For far too long, we've had a bit too much mishmash, particularly with some of the older crummy red-brick buildings (you'd be surprised how many of them turn out to be "heritage" buildings, but yet exist in near desolation). However, it's perhaps a bit of a stretch to say that we should only have heaps of "low-rise" buildings up to 7 storeys high; while I'm not saying that skyscrapers are necessary or even desireable (there's a point where such monsters just start creating a very inhuman environment, where on ground-level, it's just dark you look up without being able to take in a building fully), we seem to have gone to too far an extreme here.

You also have to wonder about some of the requests for more "green spaces". As it stands, our current "green spaces" or parks have and are quite under-utilised. Apart from the two main squares, Cathedral and Victoria, where many large-scale public events are held from time to time, we also have two smaller rectangular ones - Latimer and Cranmer. As any long-time Christchurch resident would know though, these two latter ones are quite barren, depressing places, where hardly anybody goes, except perhaps at night, when druggies and dagger-wielding underbellies come out to play. Not exactly a recipe for a safe and secure city that people would want to spent time dwelling in as-is. For such a concept to succeed/prosper, you'd either need some forms of night markets or feature displays, perhaps seasonally changing (at this point, those in the arts crowd would point out their quest for "art in the community", and art exhibitions in public places) as a catalyst for establishing these as hubs of vibrant activity.

Another questionable item is the proposed "light-rail" network. While I do see the benefits this sort of thing "could" have (having seen the transport systems in places like Sydney and Hong Kong), the feasibility of this for Christchurch is a bit questionable, especially if it just links the CBD to the University as proposed. For that, we have busses already; busses which are underutilised, at least on certain routes. Certain reasons for that underutilisation may have to just do with the form-factor and/or limitations on the service such as traffic delays, though these may not be enough to justify this.


And now for other completely unrelated topics...

4) Firefox Release Cycles...
Argh! Just the other day, Firefox suddenly announced in a popup that version 6.0, six point zero! was now released. But it just seems like a few weeks ago that 5.0 was released.

Were there really any big changes which would have justified such a major version number bump? I dunno, but if there were, they haven't been too loudly heralded. But if there were to be major changes, would they have been able to have been released just a few weeks after the previous major version was released? I doubt that, especially while keeping quality control under check.

From a user perspective, frequent "major version" updates are IMO not nice. I'm not disputing the role of smaller updates on a regular basis, such as the ones where bug fixes are pushed out, instead of waiting on major releases for some critical bugs to get fixed. However, regular "big releases" with a few new features seems a bit too frequent for people to keep track of.

IMO, a healthy number of "major" releases in a year would be between 2 and 4 (weighted more heavily to the lower end of this scale).

5) CSS

Who on earth worked on this designing this vile load of codswallop! Nearly completely undebuggable (silent failures with no way of determining why it failed FTW!), infuriatingly hard to get behaving correctly and consistently (I'm strongly in opposition to all those people who claimed that fixed-format layouts using tables as being "bad"... at least we could consistently know where something would end up, instead of silently hoping that it turns up in the right place, providing our stylesheets don't get munged up somewhere in transmission.

6) World Economy
You probably hear about it enough on the news already everyday, but it's pretty clear that the current system is practically broken quite badly. Prices on everything everywhere are going up, nearly every government in the world is in serious debt and are resorting to bailing each other out (the less in debt lending money to those more in debt), and China is smugly chugging along gobbling and posturing as it had for the last few millenia when emperor's still ruled the roost.

Last week, there were rampant reports of a highly "volatile economy", or shall we phrase that more precisely, the "sharemarkets" were "down". What is with the world's obsession with these things going down? Yeah sure, some Wall Street bankers just lost a couple million dollars that they'd usually spend downing cocktails on private yachts in the middle of the Caribbean from time to time. So what! Retirement funds vapourising as a result of a dependence on entities which appear fundamentally broken, in worse ways than CSS is? Madness. Fears over the stability of America? Blasted Republicans!

And for all the hooplah last week, the NZ dollar barely slipped below 80c against the USD. You call that a "sharemarket" in "recession" or "down"? Bullocks! For (perhaps decidedly) selfish reasons, I'm currently in the camp which looks forward to the NZ dollar being lower against the USD, which apparently goes against the grain in some sectors. Anyways, IMO, for one day that our dollar doesn't drop from 80c to 50c in the space of a day, we're hardly suffering any "recession" and shouldn't really be making too much of a flap about it (but by that stage, I'd probably be too busy trying to convert all of my remaining USD back to local currency and start collecting interest on it ;)

Anyways, this raises several good points which I just cannot understand:
a) If every country in the world is in debt, and every economy is in trouble, then why is it, that we cannot simply say: "Right guys, let's just wipe off all the debt we all owe to each other silently and start fresh".

b) What's the "total wealth" available in the world? If it isn't increasing anymore, then are we just all hooked into some giant degenerate slowly-imploding ponzi-scheme? If it is increasing, then where's it coming from, and what is it? If it's just numbers in some computer systems, then surely we can just manipulate as per a, and we'll have world peace ;)

c) In Biology, we say that with predator-prey relationships, a population has a carrying capacity; you get seasonal variations where everything fluctuates around this as it supply and demand varies. What then is there to say that there isn't an implicit/hidden capacity present in world economies too?

Perhaps we've just been focused for far too long on just increasing growth each year, at ever increasing rates. At some point, these growth levels are going to reach unsustainable levels; if b) holds any weight, then surely we reach a point where no more growth can actually be had, and trying to extend beyond this just upsets the equilibrium that this whole system is in causing problems. Perhaps what we're seeing now is just the system falling back down to its carrying capacity; that is, all the recent "losses" have really just been the system reverting/backing down from an unstable state (this time, instead of taking nearly a decade to blow, it took just over 3 years) due to excessive appetite for growth.

d) What if The Matrix was not just a movie...

7) London Riots
Yes, this was last week's news as well, but it beggars belief that "mayhem and anarchy", catch-cries from many a futuristic story, were the driving manifesto from the hooligan mobs who descended into a primal animal state. Why was there such apparent "anger" that had to be vented, especially by the participants who were mostly in the early teens, "minors" still by many jurisdictions? Where was all this coming from, and where were the parents of these kids/what have they been doing?!

To see the kinds of sheer lawlessness, rampant disregard and disrespect, and aggression on display during those days is quite a sad statement on the world in which we live in. It increasingly seems far different to the on I grew up in... an unrecognisable world that's been turned on its head. No wonder it has often been said that "if the youth of the today are our future, then we're doomed". There's not much hope to be had for humanity seeing this kind of behaviour on display.

And barely a week later, we hear reports of another variant on the "swarm and carry": flashmobs showing up to loot stores across America, swarming in, collecting stuff, then walking off unchecked.

In my books, these disturbing trends are practically on the lines that the large scale civil unrest in Arab nations, nicked the "Arab Spring", where popular uprisings against the incumbent regimes have taken place, are rooted: Mass mobilisation driven by apparent fueling of hatred, anger, and feelings of injustice...

Back up a moment. Haven't we heard this trifecta somewhere before?

If you look at this from a slightly different perspective, these are practically the exact motivating factors behind the rise of terrorists and terrorism, coming "Jihad" as Al Qaeda calls it. Except now, these incidents can perhaps be considered "home grown" terrorism - terrorism initiated by "natives" of a community (i.e. the Norwegian camp gunman) as opposed to the more traditional stereotypical terrorists (iconified by Bin Laden). But is there any proof that in all these cases, there weren't actually some stealth orchestrators behind the supposed/alleged masterminds who incited these acts of violence? Actually, we probably won't ever know. Perhaps, and this is purely speculation, that we are really just witnessing a terrorism tactic, fronted not by the "traditional" terrorists, but rather through less suspicious channels using crowd-sourcing.

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