It's been a while since I've read a paragraph that has wildly changed how I look at the world. I'm so jaded! Anyhow, here it is:
The Recent is a poor analogue for nearly all aspects of Paleozoic ecosystems except for those of the latest Permian. The lack of tetrapod herbivory, the narrow spectrum of plant-insect interactions, the importance of detritivory as the base of the food chain, and the strong partitioning of ecological resource space along widely divergent phylogenetic lines in plants are themes that run throughout most of the Paleozoic. Because of these and other fundamental differences, ecological models based on the present cannot be applied to Paleozoic examples in a uniformitarian manner.
Rough translation: life on land, until about 250 million years ago, was to modern land-based ecosystems much like what a mercantilist, caste-based economy is to a modern market economy. You know the kind: this ethnic group does this, while that ethnic group does that, and those guys? they take care of the horses; and there's never a winner without a loser.
Another excerpt from the memoirs of an American poet, this time Andrei Codrescu. He's from New Orleans -- originally, from Sibiu -- and is probably best known in the US as a commenter on National Public Radio, although his writing has its charms too. (Was he the one who quipped how great it was to live in a country where those three words, "National Public Radio", symbolize boredom, not nationalism? Might have been Daniel Schorr.) This is from The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New OrleansThe Hole in the Flag, his account of his trip back to Romania in December 1989:
The metro entrance gaped at our feet like a huge open mouth. We had read that the metro entrances of Bucharest were also entry points into Ceaucescu's maze of tunnels, a secret subterranean network constructed to outlast even nuclear war. There were reports of rooms stocked full of canned and frozen delicacies, armories containing missiles, communications centers gleaming with the latest technology. The underground network was reputed to be thousands of miles long, multilayered, a complicated nervous system whose exact shape and direction no one single person knew. Architects who had worked on portions of the system had been killed. [...]
The land of Romania is combed with the tunnels of various ages. When I was a kid, I could get from my school to my house via an old tunnel that began just under the wall adjoining our chemistry lab. It was one of many built to serve as escape routes during a Turkish assault. It connected to older tunnels that honeycombed the city and ended in the mountains. We could sink under the city at the blink of an eye, and often did, when we skipped history, which was taught by a horrible man with an eye patch named Comrade Rana. But the tunnels existed precisely because history was one subject the Romanian people had been unable to skip. [...]
A brief article, written in spare soldier's language by a certain Major Mihai Floca, described the tunnels under Bucharest being deactivated by his elite commando unit. He wrote of giant refrigerators stuffed with a variety of meats, stores of foods that "most people have forgotten the taste and color of," immense closets filled with quality clothes and shoes, comfortable dormitories, ultramodern workshops equipped with the latest electronic monitoring equipment and computers, caches of weapons, sophisticated bombs, germ warfare shells. The brightly lit "labyrinth" was vast, leading everywhere, under secret buildings, under the television and radio stations, under the Ceaucescu's many palaces and safe houses. "They were prepared to live forever in there," he concluded sternly.
You know, I might think that Major Floca might be indulging in a bit of post-Revolution urban legend, except now I've seen that damn Palace of the People. Now I wonder how well the tunnels' Ceaucescu-era concrete has dealt with the local water table and earthquake tremors. Codrescu continues:
What is it about Commies and tunnels? Harrison Salisbury reports in his book on Tiananmen Square that the Chinese troops that burst out of the Great Hall of the people and the historical museums ringing the square had slipped there secretly from tunnels under the Forbidden City. "There is even a branch railroad line with an underground station in Zhongnanhai," writes Salisbury. If one considers that the chief metaphor used in Communist propaganda is the "light of communism" or the "dawn of the new age," the tunnels become even more baffling. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: A movement born and elaborated underground that came to light through violence and then ruled illegitimately must always make provisions to return to the darkness of its beginnings.
Happy Valentine's Day from, um, me (Carlos) at Halfway Down the Danube. In the immortal words of former US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, may you all have good sex, comfortable shoes, and a warm place to go to the bathroom.
God, I hate most current videogames. None of them satisfy my primal need to destroy very large objects in a realistic manner. I spent most of the past week sick, so I decided to use my enforced free time to do something about it.
Turns out that there is enough information available on this Interweb thingy to reverse-engineer the hydrodynamic modeling programs used to simulate Big Things Go Boom physics. You know, shaped charges, nuclear weapons, meteor strikes, the origin of the Moon, et cetera.
It's kind of funny that books on game physics ignore this. There is a niche here to be filled, people!
I've been having a tough time getting my thoughts on Bucharest in order. A little unnerving. When that happens, I usually go for a walk.
My neighborhood in Brooklyn, like many in this city, has its contingent of beggars: the very polite woman with the large dog who waits by the subway entrance and always calls me 'sweetheart'; the bearded, tipsy guy with the odd hat (and wasn't he wearing a tam last time?) sometimes swaying drunk by noon; the stocky guy whose story has progressed over the years -- out of work, has to feed a daughter, just got work but doesn't have enough money, just got work and doesn't need money, medical problems, AIDS medications not working (he was quite alarmingly gaunt at this point) -- and now, weight back up, he just asks. Then there's Grant. I like Grant. Grant had his fifteen minutes of fame a few years back. There was even a Law and Order episode, sort of. Grant likes Aerosmith, and always asks me how I enjoyed whatever holiday has just passed. He's been in the neighborhood for years. The begging is recent.
Anyway. I'm walking past the only grocery in the neighborhood that stocks the beer of my people, and then only occasionally, dammit. That corner has a regular, a tall guy with a horsey face who knows the names of hundreds of pedestrians, makes small talk. By the evening rush, he has enough money for Chinese takeout, most nights.
So he spots me. I do stick out, even in Brooklyn. "Hey! How are you! Haven't seen you around in a while."
"Well, you know, been out of town..." Man, I feel awkward in these situations.
"Oh, where you been?"
"Romania?" He looks puzzled, but just for a second. "That's where they got that Cho-chess-koo guy, right?"
You know, when Doug and Claudia asked me to guest on this blog, I was kind of bemused. I really had no idea what I should write about. I mean, it's Halfway down the Danube. It has a theme. Its readers expect erudite articles on Romanian monetary policy, not some guy in Brooklyn rambling about the punk rock episode of Quincy, or wondering when the Kool-Aidguy started wearing pants.
But finally, here's a question that's topical for this blog: female pop stars from the former Yugoslavia... why haven't they taken over the world? I mean, Ceca. Severina. Well, that's two, but do you really need more? Okay, I'll throw in the back-up dancers from Bosnia-Hercegovina's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.
The only way to really get to know a city, I find, is to get lost in it. Which is how I found myself walking towards the railyard on Bucharest's inner ring road. Literally kilometers and kilometers of high-rises from the bad old days. I doubt if they've ever been the focus of so much tourist appreciation before.
Now, I am going to be contrary here, and say that by recent global standards of architecture, the Ceaucescu-era buildings are not absolutely horrible. True, they're vast malignant shoddy wastes of concrete. But that was hardly unique to Romania. Consider Governor Rockefeller's showpiece center in New York's state capital, Albany. It's almost exactly contemporary with old Nic's rebuilding scheme. Then turn away, quickly. An eyewash might be indicated.
And in fact, when I saw these remarkably ugly buildings, I couldn't help but imagine them in an American context. So the state television building on the north side of Bucharest, a long low-slung concrete affair tiled several improbable shades of sea-green (and site of some major violence during the revolution; there are memorials), looks almost exactly what an aquarium in Cleveland built during the Johnson administration might look like. The infamous Palace of the People looks strikingly like the world's largest Ramada Inn. And so on.
The real crime isn't that Ceaucescu built ugly junk. Everyone was doing it at the time: east, west, north, and south. It's that he gutted a lovely, perfectly functional city to do it. There's enough left of old Bucharest to figure out what it must have been like. But it's rather like Cuvier extrapolating an extinct mammal from a single tooth.
Hi all. This is Carlos, the mysterious fellow who has occasionally been mentioned on the pages of this blog. This is something of a test post, but I'd still like to thank Claudia and Doug for letting me post whatever crosses my mind here. (They may yet regret this.) I'm a first time blogger, but a long time commenter. As you can see from the title of this post, I'm not actually anywhere near the Balkans (or even the Carpathians) at the moment, being in sunny Brooklyn, New York. I have a bunch of terribly obscure hobbies, unkempt hair, no tattoos, I'm an Aries, and my favorite color is blue. And yes, I do drink an awful lot of coffee. Soon I will have a real post.