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Be a Leader, Not a Liter

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Be a Leader, Not a Liter

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 20, 2019

Be a Leader, Not a Liter

Who needs the metric system, anyway?

World Metrology Day is Monday. Forgive me if I don’t raise a pint—sorry, 473 milliliters—in commemoration. This date is meant to celebrate the International System of Units, otherwise known as the metric system. Against pascals of pressure, the U.S. stands nearly alone in maintaining its own “customary units” of weights and measures. We should stand tall on our own 2 feet. The metric system has never measured up. It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.

Proponents of the metric system have been metering out contempt since their inhuman invention emerged from the French Revolution. In 1793 France’s own customary units, including the pied du Roi (king’s foot), fell victim to Jacobin Terror. The radicals standardized regional differences and went the extra mile, rationalizing their measures through the blinding logic of Enlightenment thought.

The metric system became a symbol of modernity. More than overturning millennia of custom, the meter also overturned man and his labor as the basis of measurement. Nearly all customary units derive in some way from use. The acre was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could till in a day. The fathom is 6 feet, the span of the arms, useful when pulling up the sounding line of a depth measure. The meter is unfathomable, calculated (imprecisely) as a tiny fraction of the Earth’s circumference.

Worse than the abandonment of human measure is the imposition of decimal division. From calendars to clocks, French radicals went all in for 10. That works well for abstract calculations, as with dollars and cents, but not when measuring things in the real world. The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.

The abstract inhumanity of the metric system may be newly measured as new bases are adopted to replace “Le Grand K,” a platinum cylinder kept locked away in France that has been the kilogram standard. The metric kilogram will now be determined through a new fixed agreement of Planck’s constant, the length light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, and the amount of time it takes a cesium-133 atom to vibrate 9,192,631,770 times. It’s so simple!

The U.S. has come close to compulsory metrication more than once. The latest push came out of the 1970s, with metric textbooks, metric road signs, and “The Metric Marvels,” a “Schoolhouse Rock” knockoff. President Reagan ended the effort in 1982.

With the European Union being cut down to size, can we hope for a return to British imperial units, which the U.K. was forced to abandon after it joined? A pint’s a pound, the world around, and it beats walking the Planck.

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The spirits of the city

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The spirits of the city

THE NEW CRITERION, May 2019

The spirits of the city

On the new Hudson Yards development in New York.

Hudson Yards, the real estate development that opened in March on the far west side of midtown Manhattan, is an astonishing feat of American industry. This is especially true at a time of diminished industrial expectations, when American muscle often lifts little more than the latest app. Yet for all of its impressive mass, its glass, concrete, and steel, the forms that have risen at Hudson Yards are spiritually longing, oddly so, for what should be a display of towering confidence in human enterprise. Even as it stretches to the skyline, the shortcomings of Hudson Yards speak to a loss of faith and an inward turning of urban perspective.

Cut from whole cloth, the $25 billion complex of Hudson Yards, now partially completed, rises above a train yard that continues to operate as the western terminus of the Long Island Railroad, where lines of passenger cars await deployment to the platforms of Pennsylvania Station to the east. Beneath these trains run additional tracks, including the pair of North River Tunnels built by the Pennsylvania Railroad a century ago that still serves as the arterial link of the Northeast Direct service between New York and New Jersey. In total, some three hundred caissons, fourteen thousand cubic yards of concrete, and twenty-five thousand tons of steel have been built around thirty working tracks and four tunnels to form just the first ten-acre eastern platform, on which now sits the largest private real estate venture in American history. A second phase, of residential towers to rise above the rail yard to the west, will soon follow. To construct anything atop this transportation corridor without service interruption or the ability to create basement space is an achievement of engineering and manpower. To do so in a way that attracts worldwide attention while creating commercially viable real estate is a triumph of capitalism.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

The popularity of Hudson Yards, apparent in the crowds that already flock to this new nexus of office, retail, and residential offerings, where upscale materials coat every surface of its multifaceted forms, is one reason its critics have been so bilious in their condemnations of the complex. “A shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent,” is how Michael Kimmelman painted this “vast neoliberal Zion” and “architectural petting zoo” in The New York Times. “A grand gift of urban space to the global elite,” sniffed Justin Davidson in a cover story for New York magazine, which depicted the complex as an Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road that is the High Line—the astonishingly successful elevated park built a decade ago on an abandoned spur of the New York Central Railroad. “Too clean, too flat, too art-directed,” Davidson continued. “I suppose this apotheosis of blank slate affluence is someone’s fantasy of the twenty-first-century city, but it isn’t mine.”

Having just redirected the river Amazon from establishing a spillway in the borough of Queens, the critics bemoan the industrialists of The Related Companies, the real estate juggernaut founded by Stephen M. Ross, who have made it through their gauntlet of condemnation to create the twenty-eight-acre complex. Sketched out in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, approved and developed through the economic downturn of 2008, Hudson Yards emerged out of the last innovative period in New York leadership—so distinct from the current era of de Blasios and Ocasio-Cortezes—that understood what cities must do to thrive. When completed, the entire complex will boast new parkland, a new school, and twelve massive office and residential towers containing four-thousand new apartments and space for fifty-five thousand workers.

Legitimate arguments should be made, and have been leveled, against the many zoning dispensations, tax abatements, and regulatory loopholes that brought the development to fruition. The urbanist writer Kriston Capps has noted one egregious example, in which gerrymandering has permitted the developers to soak up foreign investment by offering visas through a program meant to help impoverished areas, all by linking Hudson Yards to low-income housing miles away in Harlem.

Ultimately, such criticism merely draws attention to the stultifying effects of New York’s endless zoning ordinances, taxes, and regulatory hurdles. Hudson Yards reveals the fructifying energy that can flourish when the long shadow of government gives way to the sun of human striving, if only such light could shine across all endeavors rather than a single favored project.

The technical complaints, I suspect, also mask the greater concern for most critics: that this final flowering of Hudson Yards serves as a delayed reminder of a city that was planted and tilled under two decades of Republican supervision. For them, the problem of Hudson Yards is not its failures but its many commercial successes.

And indeed, from what was once a sunken railyard there now emerges a multitude of attractions. Connected to the $2.5 billion extension of the 7 Train on one side and the pedestrian High Line park on the other, Hudson Yards has overnight become a new measure of urban orientation. In the two months since it opened, I have dined on a surprisingly expensive fish called a milokopi in a top-floor restaurant of its 720,000-square-foot shopping mall, attended an inaugural performance in its cross-disciplinary contemporary art venue called The Shed, and walked twice up the spiraling stairs of its open-air sculpture called the Vessel (the first time after its ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by the television personalities Anderson Cooper and Big Bird).

Like the Mareographic Zero measurement on Venice’s Punta della Salute or the Prime Meridian line that runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, Hudson Yards lays claim to its own central marker. This is the Vessel, or at least that’s the temporary name of the bauble dreamed up by the new-age British designer Thomas Heatherwick that rises fifteen stories in the middle of Hudson Yards, looming over its quasi-pedestrian plaza with 154 flights of 2,500 steps and eighty landings. The shiny, copper-colored object was a secret fancy of Ross, who kept the model locked in his office and paid for the Italian fabrication of its elaborate steel latticework.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel is the quintessence of the complex. Meant to reference an Indian stepwell used to walk down to varying levels of well water, here the staircase leads up to dry nowhere. The higher you go, the less fulfilling the experience becomes, at least for the views looking outward. As the Vessel is hemmed in to a greater and greater extent by the surrounding buildings, what mainly comes into focus is the Neiman Marcus sign outside the top floors of the mall. While the surrounding buildings each boast a different architectural pedigree, from above they cross-breed into smoky-glass mutts.

One building known as the Equinox Tower—designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—still lays claim to a few distinguishing characteristics. In its limestone pinstripes, we can see the bespoke tailoring you only get from som. And the Shed building, a combined tower and concert hall designed independently of The Related Companies by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the High Line, boasts a novel rolling shell developed around an industrial gantry. On the outside, the building resembles a shopping cart return, while the drafty space within could be a zeppelin hangar. The skin of this structure is made of inflated mylar, which reduces its rolling weight and gives its outer surface the sensuous appearance of a quilted handbag or a designer puffer jacket. It remains to be seen if this venue on city land, a Kunsthalle that has put the Halle before the Kunst, will “redeem” Hudson Yards, as many have promised. So far, its anti-elite elitism seems like mere puffery, with the usual high-flying art world suspects, including Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the über-curator hatched in a Swiss free port, and the Park Avenue Armory’s Alex Poots tapped to run the show. “Let’s get away from this crazy high-art, low-art concept,” Poots announced at the opening. “Why do we need to create a false hierarchy?”

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

If you have to ask, you will never know. The self importance of The Shed, which cost $400 million just to build, not to mention the price of sustaining it, underscores a what-if that I have been asking since the city first set this parcel aside for a cultural venue. What if a world-class museum, namely, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had moved here? With the Whitney Museum of American Art now anchoring the southern terminus of the High Line, having relocated from the Upper East Side, just think of the genuine cultural corridor that might have been created with moma at its northern end. The museum’s present location, straddling Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets in midtown, is a product of historical circumstance, not strategic planning. It just happened that the Rockefeller family owned their townhouses there, and donated the parcels to become the first kernels of the experimental modern museum. Indeed, there was a time when midtown was residential. No longer. For the past fifty years the museum has been buckling under the pressures of its surrounding real estate, profiting along the way, save for the museum experience that has resulted. It should have been time for a fresh start.

The Shed may surprise everyone and fulfill its many promises, but for now the Vessel remains the main attraction at Hudson Yards, even though as a walkable sculpture it provides lackluster views, at least looking out. Its orientation is, rather, directed in and down to its own emptiness. When Ross unveiled its design two years ago, he declared he wanted the equivalent of the famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, but with an attraction that would stay up all year. Such comparisons between Rockefeller Center and Hudson Yards may be numerous, but they work mostly as comparisons in contrast. Created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and designed by Raymond Hood at the height of the Great Depression, that other complex is imbued with spiritual meaning. An Art Deco Roman temple dedicated to American industry, Rockefeller Center reflected the family’s belief in John Wesley’s evangelical economics—to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” As an open-air cathedral, that complex terminates in an altar of Paul Manship’s golden Prometheus. Every Christmas season, with the tree, its pagan idolatry is redeemed through a pageant of conversion.

Hudson Yards conveys no such meaning. Its Vessel is an empty basket. Its towers stretch uneasily to nowhere. At street level, its sightlines are also nonexistent. One of the most consequential decisions at Hudson Yards was to obstruct any sense of the street grid. The way the mall turns its back to Tenth Avenue is an affront to the city. The avenues and cross-streets of New York are the open naves of a great urban church, all stretching up and out to the infinite. By deliberately blocking their view, Hudson Yards takes the straight lines of the city and curves them in, with an orientation that is circular and inward, rather than straight and out. The Vessel is the vortex of this overall scheme, one that speaks to themes of regression and surveillance rather than motifs of aspiration and uplift. At its center, instead of inspiring thoughts of others, the Vessel is the Christmas tree to the self.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Like its Vessel, Hudson Yards will leave you feeling hollow, with an emptiness that will never quite be sated by expensive fish or quilted handbags, despite the many suggestions to the contrary proposed here by its hundred shops and restaurants. Hudson Yards is advertised as a “new way of living,” filled with self-serving and often infantile adult distractions, but the result is unfulfilled and unfulfilling. By having us face ourselves in an infinite reflection of polished metal and darkened glass, Hudson Yards ultimately turns its back to the unbought grace of life in the big city.

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Trotsky on Ice

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Trotsky on Ice

THE NEW CRITERION, April 12, 2019

Trotsky on Ice

On lunch with Trotsky’s murder weapon at the new International Spy Museum.

It isn’t every day you have lunch with the weapon that killed Leon Trotsky. Or that you find yourself seated next to Jonna Mendez, the former CIA Intelligence Officer, who with her husband, Tony (of Argo fame), served as the Agency’s Chief of Disguise. Then again, the International Spy Museum, my luncheon host, is not your everyday institution. Founded in 2002 by Milton Maltz, the broadcasting magnate and United States Navy veteran who once worked for the National Security Agency, the museum is designed to recognize the patriotic service of our country’s secret warriors while also telling the story of international espionage. 

When the International Spy Museum unveils its new 140,000-square-foot headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 12, at least one recent addition to the collection should drive home the point of Communism’s razor-sharp brutality: my unexpected lunch companion—the ice ax used in Mexico City in 1940 to murder Leon Trotsky.
 

The ax used to kill Leon Trotsky. Photo: James Panero.

The ax used to kill Leon Trotsky. Photo: James Panero.

H. Keith Melton, an expert on espionage stagecraft, pursued this storied object for years before acquiring it in the late 2000s. Now, in gifting it to the museum, he revealed just how this unlikely weapon was used to carry out one of the most infamous political assassinations of the last century. 
 

Once comrades in Marxism-Leninism, Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin split in the infamous schism that tore through the Bolshevik leadership and the many followers of its October Revolution. George Orwell based Animal Farm, of course, on their bitter clash of ideologies and personalities. Trotsky, the idealist represented by the character “Snowball,” sought continued international socialist revolution; Stalin, the thuggish “Napoleon,” wanted to consolidate power in Soviet Communism.

Trotsky was pushed out of the Soviet Union just as Snowball was driven off the farm. The one-time heir apparent to Vladimir Lenin was first exiled to the satellite Soviet states. He fled through Turkey, France, and Norway before ultimately being welcomed by the Socialist government of Mexico in 1937.
 

Leon Trotsky,  ca . 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

Leon Trotsky, ca. 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

First residing with the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (who became his lover), Trotsky and his family eventually moved into a fortified compound in the village of Coyoacán, near Mexico City. Armed guards supplied by his many supporters in the American Socialist Workers Party provided protection for the “Old Man,” as he was known. Trotsky wrote prolifically during the period. He also declared the Fourth International to support “permanent revolution” against the nationalist bureaucracy of Stalin and his Soviet Comintern. 

These public activities contributed to Stalin’s decision to order Trotsky’s assassination in 1939. Stalin tasked his secret police of the NKVD with the killing. Already the most powerful spy network in the world and the predecessor to the KGB, the nkvd set in action at least three autonomous plots against Trotsky.
 

Diego Rivera, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Trotsky,  ca.  1939. Photo: Princeton University.

Diego Rivera, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Trotsky, ca. 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

The first was an all-out assault, code-named horse, on the compound by twenty-four Communists battled-hardened by the Spanish Civil War. After a treacherous American guard gave them entry, in the early morning hours of May 24, 1940, an assault team quietly entered the compound dressed as Mexican policemen. They mounted a machine gun by a eucalyptus tree to pin down the guard quarters. Meanwhile, a raiding party shot up Trotsky’s bedroom from multiple directions, firing several hundred rounds. Seventy-three bullets entered the room. None other than the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Stalinist sympathizer and the public face of the operation, was the given the honor of firing the final rounds at Trotsky’s bedsheets from the doorway. Today, Siqueiros must be the only blue-chip artist to have headed up a Stalinist assassination attempt. 

Remarkably, Trotsky and his wife both survived the attack by hiding in a darkened corner of the room during the shootout. After the failed assault, the American Trotskyists strengthened the compound with electric gates and tightened protocols. The nkvd knew they would need new tactics to get inside Trotsky’s defenses.

Set in motion long before the failed raid, a second plot was already underway. Caridad and Ramón Mercader, a mother-son team of Catalan communists, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, were tapped by the NKVD to infiltrate Trotsky’s inner circle. With the help of Communist Party USA and disguised as a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Ramón seduced a New York Trotskyite named Sylvia Ageloff as she traveled in the summer of 1938 to Paris for Trotsky’s Fourth International. Taking a second cover as “Frank Jacson,” Ramón joined Ageloff in Mexico City and became Trotsky’s driver, offering up his Buick automobile for the compound’s use after Trotsky’s vehicles were stolen in the Siqueiros raid.

While the American security team urged Trotsky to search compound visitors, the Old Man refused to do so for his “trusted” insiders even after the raid. Mercader therefore knew he could smuggle small weapons inside. While he had a pistol (and brought it along at the time of the assassination), Mercader and his NKVD handlers looked for an instrument that could deliver a more silent blow, one that would allow an assassin to make his escape. They settled on a 1920s ice-climbing ax, or piolet. Seasoned in deadly hand-to-hand combat from the Spanish Civil War, Mercader believe he could deliver a single direct blow to Trotsky’s skull with the pick end of the instrument that would kill him instantly.

On August 20, 1940, as his mother waited for him outside in a getaway car, Mercader went to meet Trotsky, nominally for advice on an editorial he was writing. Under his raincoat he carried a .45-caliber Star pistol and the ice ax, with its ash handle cut down to 12 inches. As Trotsky began reading his article, Mercader dealt him a single blow from behind. But the assassin closed his eyes during the hit, striking a glancing blow that cracked Trotsky’s skull but did not kill him immediately. “Trotsky gave a cry that I shall never forget,” he later testified. “It was a long ‘Aaaa,’ endlessly long, and I think it still echoes in my brain. Trotsky jumped up jerkily, rushed at me, and bit my hand. Look, you can still see the marks of his teeth. I pushed him away and he fell to the floor. Then he rose and stumbled out of the room.” Trotsky died in a nearby hospital the day after the attack.
 

The murder scene where Ramón Mercader assassinated Leon Trotsky. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis.

The murder scene where Ramón Mercader assassinated Leon Trotsky. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis.

Hearing the noise, Trotsky’s guards rushed in and beat Mercader, who was arrested, tried, and convicted for murder. Through the trial and his nineteen-year imprisonment, he continued to call himself a Trotsky sympathizer. It was only after his release and his hero’s welcome back in the Soviet Union in 1960 that Mercader’s true identity became known. Meanwhile, the murder weapon he dropped to the floor was entered into evidence and wound up as a retirement gift to a Mexico City police chief. Kept under a bed for decades, the weapon resurfaced in 2005 as he daughter brokered a deal to sell it to Melton.

At the International Spy Museum on May 12, the ice ax will join Mercader’s gold watch—engraved and awarded by the Soviet Union in 1965—his eyeglasses, which were broken in his beating and arrest, a pair of binoculars used in the plot, and a self-portrait by his mother.

“The aging revolutionary, who believed that all means—lying, treachery, violence, or murder—were acceptable to achieve an end,” Melton says of Trotsky, became a “victim of the same ruthlessness.”

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