Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From Sun to Syria, Technology Vexes

Have you heard?

We have a new crisis on our hands:  shiny skyscrapers.  And how they reflect sunlight.

Here in north Texas, we've been watching a heated battle sizzle between a celebrated museum and its new high-rise neighbor in downtown Dallas.  For over a year now, the Nasher Sculpture Center has been complaining about all the sunlight being reflected from the recently-completed Museum Tower, a residential skyscraper across the street.  Several attempts at mediating a compromise between angry Nasher fans and owners of the gleaming luxury building have failed, with each side demanding the other side construct costly new features for their structure to fix the problem.

The fact that most of the artwork apparently being baked by the reflected rays are solid sculptures made of impermeable materials seems beside the point.

Then comes news that a sleek Jaguar automobile was partially melted in - of all places - London, England, after it was parked near a glassy new high-rise.  Plastic parts that were bolted onto conspicuous exterior surfaces of the car literally warped after being subjected to a couple of hour's worth of glaring sunlight.  Sunlight that was being beamed off of a skyscraper dubbed the "Walkie-Talkie," under construction across the street from where the Jaguar was legally parked.

This news from London reminded one reporter of claims a couple of years ago by a lawyer in Las Vegas that his hair was singed by sunlight being reflected from a glassy skyscraper across the swimming pool from where he was sunbathing.

Suddenly now, our urban environments seem to be turning the sun against us.

Technology Can Illuminate at Inconvenient Times

Granted, skyscrapers have always had their critics.  Usually, people complain that tall buildings block the sun, and create dark canyons of shadows and gloom on streets and sidewalks.  When mirrored glass windows became popular a few decades ago, people began complaining about the way they reflected sunlight.  These days, however, glass has been engineered with high-tech light-controlling coatings to be highly energy efficient - and exceptionally shiny.  Today's glass isn't even just for windows anymore.  Sophisticated glass walls can actually be more cost-effective than traditional masonry.  They can also be shaped in unique new ways, allowing buildings to be designed with unconventional curves and angles that not only create more animated profiles for buildings, but also reflect sunlight in unprecedented directions.

Time was, a modern office tower was a tall cube, but these days, it can be just about any shape architects - with their computer-aided design software - can dream up.  Museum Tower in Dallas is an oval in plan view, but its glassy sides, as they curve, taper ever so slightly, making the sun bounce off of it in more of a downward direction than a flat surface would.  The glass walls of London's "Walkie-Talkie" tower sink inward in a concave bowl shape that helps focus the sun's rays - on those three days each year when England has clear skies - into a concentrated light saber.  In Las Vegas, the semi-circular glass walls of the Vdara Hotel may not look terribly menacing - until you realize that they face due south, capturing the Nevada sun in all its blazing, blinding brilliance like a U-turn made of mirrors.

The offending concave glass wall of London's "Walkie-Talkie" also faces south, and both buildings were designed by the same architecture firm owned by Rafael Viñoly.  Fortunately for the directionally-challenged Viñoly, Dallas' Museum Tower was designed by an entirely different firm - and faces west.  Of course, the western sun can be mighty hot; just not for as long as a southern exposure can.

And fortunately for the Vdara Hotel, the guest that's created the most ruckus out of what hotel staffers casually call the "Vdara death ray" is, yes, a lawyer, but he also owns a condominium in the sprawling complex of which the hotel is just a part.

It all goes to show that simply because advances in glass technology and computer drafting have made architectural design a lot more creative a business, some basic, irrefutable realities still exist that need to be addressed when making a building.  For one thing, concave glass surfaces should not face southward.  The sun's properties aren't going to change just because your client owns land that faces a certain direction.  And it's not just glass:  renowned architect Frank Gehry, famous for his undulating walls, has had problems with the reflective properties of the stainless steel used on his iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, whose exterior needed to be sandblasted after construction to appease blinded neighbors.

The more we know, and the more technology allows us to know, the more complex things can be.  Like one software trainer told a website design seminar I once attended, "just because software allows you to do something doesn't mean you should."

In a way, information and technology can lead to hubris.

They can also, however, confound hubris.

Technology Can Inform At Inconvenient Times

Let's now consider the critical crisis unfolding in Syria, and the push being made by President Obama to build support for attacking the Assad regime.  Over this past holiday weekend, the White House has been working feverishly to advance its position that Assad has deployed chemical weaponry against his own citizenry.  One by one, Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle appear to be falling in line behind the president, admitting that we need to take a stand against Assad.

Yet the American people, by margins approaching sixty percent, adamantly refuse to support military action in Syria.  Washington operatives and most of the mainstream media are convinced it's only because we're war-weary, and we don't appreciate what's at stake if we don't do anything.  Some cabinet officials and members of Congress seem befuddled by such intransigence on the part of us voters in taking them at their word.  They're they ones with the international intelligence, and we should entrust these big decisions to them.

Thing is, America's voters today have far more methods of obtaining information than we've ever had before.  Of course, the quality and reliability of that information may be suspect, but still, thanks to technology, none of us need to rely on presidential press briefings for our perspective of national or world events.

While reading "Personal Narrative," an autobiographical essay by the great Presbyterian minister, Jonathan Edwards, I was reminded of how profoundly limited journalism was back in his day, before the American Revolution.  Europe had some rudimentary newspapers, but if you think today's modern rags are biased, you'd have been appalled at what passed for journalism in the 1600's.  In the Colonies, some budding journalists began to print notice sheets around the time of Edwards' death in 1758, but they were hardly comprehensive, and news took days - if not weeks and months - to travel, let alone be verified and documented.

One wonders what America's Continental Congresses would have been like if they took place today, with the Washington Post, FOX News, and hundreds of bloggers hashing out every sentence.  Edwards writes of his hunger for global news, and whenever scraps of information and rumors from far-off places reached the Colonies, he eagerly devoured them without questioning their legitimacy.  Today, our access to whatever kind of information we want is so abundant and instantaneous, we take it for granted.

And I think that really galls conventional politicians of both parties on Capitol Hill.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if they loathed the many ways we can learn about domestic and world affairs, and various perspectives of those events.  When it comes to Syria, for example, plenty of alternative news sources from websites around the world that aren't beholden to traditional media outlets are reporting that compelling evidence links Syria's insurgents and rebels to the chemical attacks, instead of Assad's forces.  How do we know Obama's claims are more solid?

It's a fiercely convoluted struggle over there in ancient Syria.  We've already learned that religious tolerance existed to a far broader extent under Assad than it likely will if the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of the country from him.  We've seen how "free" the democracy desired for the Muslim Brotherhood was in Egypt.  And yes, a dozen years of misguided warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq have left American voters unconvinced that our State and Defense Departments really know what they're doing.

President Obama, however, has marched out onto a precarious diplomatic ledge of his own making, and finds himself desperately needing affirmation so he can go ahead and punish somebody - anybody - for the chemical attack experts say almost certainly took place a couple of weeks ago in Syria.  It fits more conveniently into Obama's narrative to accuse Assad of the chemical attack, since the autocratic Assad has been so aggressively attempting to crush the rag-tag revolution in the country his family has ruled for decades. 

Unfortunately for free-thinking Americans, the media hasn't been able to obtain irrefutable proof that Assad was behind the chemical attack that is provoking Obama into action.  Our government, in conjunction with the governments of Britain, Germany, and France, have cloaked the proofs they say exist with claims that maintaining their secrecy is vital.  However, thanks to the pugnacious work of unconventional journalists in Russia and the Middle East - people for whom we might otherwise have reason to be skeptical - we have plenty of reasonable doubt in this case.  Maybe it's reasonable doubt based mostly on our skepticism of our own government, but it's doubt all the same.  And politicians hate dealing with doubting voters.

Maybe people like me who steadfastly oppose intervention in Syria will eventually learn that Capitol Hill is right, and that attacking Assad is in our national interest.  Maybe the plethora of alternative news sites whose alternative views of the Syrian conflict are shaping our own defiance of the Obama administration's stance will be proven false.  Maybe they will have been as unreliable as we'd otherwise have assumed them to be.  In an earlier time, America's ability to gather global intelligence in diplomatic and military matters was considered unassailable.  But now, thanks to advancements in the way the press does its job, and in the way we can learn what the press is learning, the American public is far less gullible, and far more skeptical.

Would that the sunbeams architects have inadvertently channeled through their curvaceous designs could shine into the dark recesses of Washington, illuminating the truth so that we could all make wise decisions for the greater good.

Alas, even as modern technology allows architects to create ever more adventurous and provocative structures, it also reminds us that the more things change, in Washington, the more politics stays the same.

Instead of cover the glass, it's cover your --- well, you know.

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