More from my walk in the park.
The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up. Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded–I expect a toll in the dozens–as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)
How is such a thing possible? Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.
The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:
- start fewer fires
- faster emergency response from fire brigades
- buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
- buildings that facilitate escape
- proper behavior by occupants
- better medical care for survivors
No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.
No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.
No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.
No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.
Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.
No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?
Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.
The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.
Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.
[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in. Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights, it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything: ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.
Four years ago, I wrote a glowing review of a documentary, Queen of Versailles. Can’t imagine what brought this to mind.
…The second-most-astonishing aspect of this film is even sadder. I tuned in expecting to see the usual diverting reality-TV real-estate porn. Yet the wealth generated and consumed in this film just provides very little value or real enjoyment to anyone.
David Siegel runs Westgate Resorts. He made his money by selling people timeshares they really can’t afford. For a time, Westgate generates great opulence for the Siegel family. But what comes of that wealth? Unlike (say) Steve Jobs, David Siegel doesn’t create beautiful and useful innovations that make our lives noticeably better. Unlike Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Siegel has no philanthropic vision to channel his wealth for worthy purposes.
Unlike millions of prosperous, albeit less cosmically-wealthy Americans, the Siegels don’t seem to use their wealth to make people close to them safe and happy. David Siegel’s checkered history with his adult son exemplifies things. Their relationship is strictly business. Then there is Jackie’s high school best friend. She’s a single mom who ends up in foreclosure. Jackie sends her $5,000 in an apparently unsuccessful effort to forestall the foreclosure. If I had the cash to construct a $100 million mansion, my best friend wouldn’t lose her modest home.
The Siegel family’s spiritual emptiness—I don’t know how else to say it– is rather heartbreaking. The Siegel children don’t seem to be turning out very well –except perhaps for his teenage daughter who in one scene rightly and righteously chews Siegel out for being a jerk to the rest of the family. [Heartbreaking post-script: This young woman subsequently died of an accidental drug overdose.] It’s hardly surprising that the kids are irresponsible and bratty, given their father’s narcissism and plain meanness.
Jackie Siegel is a beautiful, sweet, and vacuous trophy wife. She accumulates warehouses full of expensive junk for what is expected to be America’s biggest mansion. She has too many kids, too many toys, too many rooms, animals, too many nannies and servants. She even has too many inches on her bustline after (what I assume to be) ludicrous surgical enlargement shown off through her correspondingly ridiculous cleavage-displaying wardrobe.
Her husband treats her with blatant disrespect. When she turns forty, he jokes that he will replace her with two twenty-year-olds. Or maybe when she’s sixty he will replace her with three twenty-year-olds. He comments on camera that being married to her is like having another child.
Westgate teeters on the edge of collapse when it’s hit by the financial crisis. Both Siegel and his adult son protest that the banks got them hooked on cheap credit and are now trying to take over the jewels of their empire. Truthfully, though, everyone seems to lose in this story. The banks don’t get their principal back. The huge mansion is last seen as an unfinished and unsold construction project. Westgate teeters on the edge of ruin. Employees are laid off. Timeshare owners are foreclosed or left holding the bag for an over-valued properties.
We get to know two responsible adults in the entire film. The first is the limo driver (himself a failed real estate speculator). We also watch a heartrending interview with their Philippine nanny who relaxes in a big former playhouse of the Siegel children and who sends money back to her real family overseas.
I take it from later news that Siegel eventually landed on his feet. I guess that’s good. During the 2012 campaign, he got public attention as one of those crazy entitled CEOs who threatened to fire his workforce if Obama won reelection. In the end, Siegel didn’t go through with it.
I take it that he’s back on top again. He’s restarting construction on his 90,000 square-foot palace. It’s an old story, though. This man remains a pitiful figure.
Ashurbanipal was a conqueror and warlord on the grand scale, and in his long reign (668-627 BCE) extended the Assyrian empire to include even Egypt. Assyrian treatment of the conquered was brutal, and included massacres, flayings and population transfers. Three kings later, a coalition of rebels led by Babylon destroyed the kingdom.
But he was a cultivated and multilingual man and assembled possibly the world’s first great library. The British Museum has 30,000 fragments of cuneiform tablets taken by Layard, and that must be only a fraction. Persian traditions hold that the relics inspired Alexander to build his own, a project taken forward after his death by the Ptolemies at Alexandria.
Under Saddam Hussein, archaeologists hatched a plan to recreate a research library at Mosul University under the title of Ashurbanipal Library. It would be focussed on archaeology. The British Museum agreed to supply copies of all its collection. The plan moved ahead slowly after Saddam fell. A campaign was launched by the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Cairo, another ambitious revival, directed at universities in the Arab world. Call this Library 2.
This is what Mosul University looks like today.
ISIS of course burnt the idolatrous library before the artillery and rockets got to work. The people in Cairo are relaunching the library campaign, though I couldn’t find anything on their website.
The archaeology research centre is a nice idea and I hope it moves ahead again. But what the students need tomorrow is a basic working library in all fields: science, languages, technology, medicine, law …. While the fighting on the East bank of the Tigris was still going on, students and professors were working to clear the rubble and start teaching again. The website is back up (only in Arabic). This determination deserves practical support. ISIS was a threat to all of us, and the people of Mosul paid very heavily for its destruction.
This does not look like a case where individual donations can be useful. It needs at least sponsorship from university departments and schools prepared to assemble a starter library in their discipline, plus expert input from librarians and IT people, and an operational fund from a government or billionaire. And tact as well: the university is in the Arab world, and that will be the language of instruction. Perhaps along with Kurdish? You see the problem.
Ashurbanipal Library 3 can be the one that sticks.
The Wisconsin state capitol building is quite beautiful.
What is is about art, that when smart, tough-minded people get near it, their brains turn to mush? I’ve worked in a museum and universities, and studied the former professionally: while management of the latter is often very feckless and lax, museums take the cake. Most recently, but not exceptionally, a board of trustees starring the business élite of New York City has managed to let the Metropolitan Museum of Art go seriously into the financial toilet, despite having assets worth at least $100 billion.
Today we have a lawyer, apparently capable of actual research and inference from evidence and writing literate English, proposing that artists should have a full value deduction for the untaxed value of gifts of their own work, something we fixed fifty years ago. He managed to get that truly loony and regressive idea (like all deductions, this one is only valuable for successful artists who are already rich) past the editorial page editors of the New York Times. I can see them now, looking at this piece of copy and going all gooey-eyed and misty…”Art! Awww…we love art! Let’s print it!”
OK, Mr. Rips and NYT tough-minded skeptical journalists, how’s this idea?
President, University of California
Dear President Napolitano:
Because of my great love and affection for the University of California, I propose to give half my working hours to Cal as pro bono work, and only take a salary for the other half. Now, I will need you to double my salary rate for the half time I’m on the clock, but this won’t cost you anything. What it will do is enable me to deduct my unpaid time against my new salary under the new rules, which will leave me with no taxable income at all: we can stiff the taxpayers for my whole tax bill! Naturally, I’m happy to give you a cut of this windfall, shall we say 20%: you make money, I make money, the students still get their courses…who could object to this?
I might add, doctors in our hospitals can really clean up this way; in fact anyone who works for a nonprofit or a government agency is looking at a historic opportunity to rip off the taxpaying public, and surely we’re as lovable and deserving as artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and knowledge and health are as important as art.
Do we have a deal?
Very truly yours,
[my coauthors and I get well into the weeds of this foolishness in Patrons Despite Themselves: Taxpayers and Arts Policy, if you want to follow up. Sheesh.]
This is a very tough post to write, because I have to confront a collision of legitimate values I hold strongly. I just received an invitation to sign the petition here. I am not going to sign, even though I am the world’s biggest fan of learning languages. I regret that among the six with which I have some competence, none is really foreign (to me, that is, non-Indo-European). I think real command of at least one foreign language, meaning conversational comfort, writing a business letter, and reading a novel, not passing a written exam, should be a graduation requirement at any college that respects the idea of a liberal education. Requirement, period. I deplore the feeble command my students have of languages they have studied for two and three semesters in courses. And by the way, every new language is easier than the one before. Continue Reading…
Here it is in all its neo-mudéjar glory, the best money could buy for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.
Now wait a minute. A Catalan triumphal arch? Celebrating what victories? The whole shtick of Catalan nationalism, as of so many other varieties, is victimhood. We were betrayed, including by perfidious Albion in the form of the British Tory administration that negotiated the Peace of Utrecht in 1714 and let the Bourbons keep the Spanish throne, by every government in Madrid since then, and no doubt a whole list of local quislings. The last real triumph of Catalan arms was SFIK Jaime of Aragon’s annexation of Valencia in 1238.
In fact the Barcelona arch is entirely pacific. The friezes are so PC as to be nearly comic. This is “The Apotheosis of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce”, for which Antoni Vilanova was paid 1,530 pesetas.
The arch seems to say: look, never mind about the defeats, we have made a success in culture and the economy! Take that, you gun-nut Bourbons! It makes me feel better about Catalan nationalism, though I see no reason to take back my strictures on its extensive wishful thinking and bad faith about public expenditure.
Should we see the arch then as a clever piece of irony at the expense of the militarists? This is a much harder question, and calls for some digging. Continue Reading…