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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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Jakarta (photo by Josh Haner for The New York Times)

Before I write about my trip home to visit my family (and LG the Canada goose), we need to pause for a moment to gawp in wonder at Indonesia’s decision to move their capital city.   Perhaps you are rolling your eyes in idiference and casting your mind back to Sung Dynasty/Mongol era when the Chinese capital (as variously construed by various factions)  could have been any of 28 locations, or you are remembering 18th century America when the capital meandered around the Mid-Atlantic to such an extreme extent that the national capital was some random bar in Trenton for a while [shudders].  Yet, this is not the era of Mongol conquest, nor the birth of a nation.  Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and Jakarta is absolutely enormous.  The city proper has a population of more than 10 million people and the full metropolitan area could arguably be the second most populous in the world with 34,365,000 souls packed into 3,300 square kilometers…although, frankly I found that list to be completely baffling and I can’t believe New York isn’t higher (also New York City’s GDP is greater than all of Indonesia’s…so maybe we can afford not to be too tetchy about rankings on some internet list).

Uh, anyway, according to president, Joko Widodo, Indonesia will move its capital city to Borneo over the course of the next decade, as set forth in this not-very-compelling illustration I just made.

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As you can see, Jakarta is in northern Java, so the move crosses about 1250 kilometers (800 miles) which includes the Java Sea.  Imagine if we decided to move Washington DC to Saint Louis, but St. Louis was on a huge island (St. Louis is not on an island, right? I don’t know much about it).

I have never been to Jakarta, but my mother grew up there and her house is filled with furniture and artworks from the great city.  When we visit my grandparents I hear all sorts of tales about Grandpa’s obstreperous mynah bird (that bird evidently had a naughty mouth), the giant cobra in the garden, and the beauty and chaos of 1960s Indonesia.

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Bogor in 1968 (photo by Roy Stall)

Jakarta needs to move because it is sinking fast.  Not only is the Java Sea rising (like all of the world’s oceans) but the city was built on top of a huge aquifer which was seriously depleted by the needs of 34 million people and all of their crops, showers, dishwashers, and whatnot.  The new location is more stable and already has some critical infrastructure in the oil-rich cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.  To quote Asia Today, “The capital will be built on 180,000 hectares of land already owned by the government, thereby minimizing the cost of land acquisition. Earthquakes, flooding and volcanic eruptions are less common in that area.”

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The current site of the proposed capital

The new capital is currently a rainforest, but the Indonesian government hope to minimize forest loss by keeping the city as dense as possible and by “building green.”  That sounds faintly hopeful, but if Indonesia’s real estate developers are anything like the ones here, it might not work out right in the real world.

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To be honest, I have no idea how to assess this proposal.  Obviously all of Jakarta won’t go to the new location.  It could be the Indonesian president is trying to juice the (moribund) project of building up the economy of Borneo (the majority of Indonesia’s economic output comes from Java).  But whatever the case, and whatever the ultimate outcome, this is not the last instance of this sort of move which we shall see.  The near future will feature massive disruption to seaside communities everywhere in the world (New York has been studying Holland and creating parks and building huge seawalls, but who knows if our plans will hold up?).  Best wishes to Indonesia in their quest.  Please spare the rainforest as much as possible, and let us all know what you learn.

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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!

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I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.

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Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.

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 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.

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Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.

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Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.

 

   

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Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future.  In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people.   The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources.  The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism).  Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers.  The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.

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As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present.  We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent.  Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper.   Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies).  At first the growing utility of machines  was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers.  Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.

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Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution.  Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services.  It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm:  everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry.   Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important.   It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.

(Source: Forbes.com)

(Source: Forbes.com)

Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen.  If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well.  Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs.  Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).

Billionairebot from Futurama

Billionairebot from Futurama

Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology.  Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors.   Expensive machines do not have all the jobs:  it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits.   Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society.  Capital & equity will have meaning.  Labor and innovation will be worthless.

Of course maybe I am being paranoid.  Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends.  Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.

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Again, who knows?  We are talking about the future.  But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation.  As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock.  Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming.  In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress.  Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?

Our glorious mechanized future?

Our glorious mechanized future?

The “ghost fleet” of container ships lies anchored and inactive off the coast of Malaysia.

Today we return to China, the incandescent heart of global world trade.  The Chinese economy has emerged from the mud, blood, & chaos of the 19th and 20th century to become a world-straddling giant. GDP has grown at rates of 5% to 10% (or more) per annum, year after year.  Entire giant cities are springing up, seemingly overnight. Roads, airports, canals, and railroads are being rolled out like carpet.  The Chinese are magnificent, invincible, beyond the ordinary constraints of destiny! Yet (as you might have noticed) outside of China, there is an international financial crisis going on.  One wonders how the Chinese economy, which is still based around selling socks, buckets, and cheap plastic crap goods to everyone in Europe and the United States is coping with the huge declines in demand from those sectors.

 

An inscribed walnut-shell snuff bottle (Ching Dynasty, ca. 1736–1799. photo Bonhams)

But let’s put such a question aside for now.  That was all back-up information to the real subject of today’s post: walnuts!  Walnuts are edible seeds from trees of the genus Juglans (a word which means “acorn of Jove” to honor the virility and fecundity of the king of the Roman pantheon).  Walnuts are interesting plants in all sorts of ways.  Both the wood and nuts are commercially important. The trees conduct extensive chemical warfare against other plants.  There are dark and captivating myths concerning walnuts in cultures from East Asia to the Mediterranean to North America.  However, we will have to address the fascinating botanical aspects of walnut trees in a future post, because right now there are more immediate concerns: a speculative bubble for actual walnuts has formed in China and the nuts have become the focus of intense price inflation.

 

Buying walnuts at Yayuan International Antique Market in Beijing August 26, 2012. (photo by REUTERS/Stringer)

In China, walnuts have long been a popular plaything.  Handling the seeds is thought to increase blood flow, and the wealthy have long regarded walnuts as a status symbol. An article from Reuters (which is apparently a real article rather than a satirical joke) underlines the Chinese affection for walnuts by interviewing an ardent collector and enthusiast:

The bigger, older and more symmetrical, the better, says collector Kou Baojun in Beijing, who owns over 30 pairs of walnuts, most of which are over a century old and have taken on a reddish shine from years of polishing in the palm. “Look how well these have aged. Playing with these kinds of walnuts isn’t for ordinary people,” Kou said.

Like tulips in 17th century Holland, Chinese walnuts (particularly ancient, symmetrical, or large specimens) are trapped in a speculative bubble. Chinese bankers, investors, and speculators have been pouring money into building up light industrial production capacity and driving exports to the rest of the world.  As international trade withers, it is unclear how to reallocate all this money.  Ordinary Chinese investors have been fleeing the Chinese stock market because of widespread economic uncertainty, flagging exports, and because all-too-familiar shenanigans have made it difficult to invest in equities without being fleeced.  As this great river of capital backs up and flows elsewhere, strange markets are created, such as the thriving bubble market for dubious and or mercurial cultural objects like special gourds, esoteric teas, rare tropicl hardwoods, and, yes, walnuts.  A pair of particularly fine antique walnuts was recently listed (on a walnut trading site) for a price equivalent to more than $30,000.00.

The Chinese central government is desperately trying to “cool” the economy, but, in the mean time, people see walnuts appreciating in value by 200% and they can not resist the lure of easy money (even if they are literally investing in common nuts which grow on trees).  Cynical economists have speculated that the central government does not care about such frothy markets, since the craze for esoteric cultural items is at least not causing rampant inflation in food or energy prices, but those with a historical mindset have to wonder how this bubble is going to pop.

The exact moment a bubble is burst (Photo: BARCROFT MEDIA)

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