Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Debt Ceiling On A Personal Scale

Some of my more conservative Facebook friends have recently posted this video, and I really appreciate it. I think it does a great job of sincerely expressing how they feel about the debt ceiling, in a way that makes it very understandable. After watching it, I can see where they are coming from, and I can see how they must think I am crazy to disagree. So I'd like to explain how I would tell this same story, with the same underlying facts, but end up seeing things differently, in the hopes that they will understand where I am coming from.

To begin with, I think the video begins on a subtly misleading note by giving the guy an income of $21,000. Sure, I get that it's just an analogy for $2.1 trillion in federal revenue, with an arbitrary number of zeroes chopped off to make it more relatable on a human scale. But $21,000 is just a hair above the poverty line for a family of three. For people living in poverty, they are perpetually on the edge of disaster, with no tolerance for any unexpected expenses like an illness or a car repair. That would be a good starting point if we were talking about Haiti or Rwanda, but we're talking about the USA, one of the wealthiest nations on earth. So let's start this story off on the right track, and say that our guy made $245,000 last year, and is one of the most well-off people in his town. (Note that the video is slightly dated. I'll use updated numbers, but keep everything in the proper proportion. US federal revenue in FY 2012 was $2.45 trillion, so I'm just chopping off 7 zeroes to tell our story.)

It is true that our guy has been spending more than he earns the last several years, and last year his expenses were $354,000. But the video paints the guy as an irresponsible profligate, wantonly spending on flatscreen TVs and vacations to Australia, when that is a completely unfair characterization. A huge part of the reason our guy is spending so much is because he's supporting his elderly parents, who have moved in with him. He doesn't complain, and he is happy to accept the responsibility of caring for his parents, but the fact is that every year they get older, they require more care, which equals more expense. A full 45% of expenses last year went to caring for his parents. Another 19% of his expenses went to maintaining a state-of-the-art security system, as well as a private security patrol. They've talked about trimming that, but his wife is pretty insistent on protecting the family. You see, their own house was burglarized 12 years ago, and several other close neighbors have been hit more recently, and it seems the threat of crime persists. Aside from that, another 13% goes to mandatory bills, 6% to the mortgage, and the remaining 17% is discretionary spending. But by "discretionary", we're still not talking about flatscreen TVs, we're talking about things like putting the kids through school (not nearly the best nor the most expensive), health care (one of the best and by far the most expensive), utilities, transportation, food, and the like.

In the video, the banker asks the guy if he has made any cuts in his expenses. He has made cuts. They haven't been huge, but they're a bit better than the video makes them out to be. He cut $6,000 from his discretionary spending, including $3,000 from the security system and $3,000 between health, education, and utilities. The video banker asks the guy if he has any new income, and the guy just hems and haws. But that's not our guy at all. In real life, our guy has seen his income go up in each of the past three years, is on track to get a nice bump this year, and looks likely to see even bigger increases for the foreseeable future. In 2009, he made $210K; in 2010, $216K; in 2011, $230K; and in 2012, $245K. This year he's looking to clear $270K. Though his business took a hit like everyone else with the recession 5 years ago, he has picked up, and has been slowly growing again, and is looking to grow even more. So our guy is actually in much better shape there than the video portrays. As far as income goes, one thing that should be noted is that he could be making much more if he chose to work more. But about 10 years ago, his wife was really concerned that he was working too much, and she forced him to give up some really large accounts in his business. Truth be told, he could handle the stress just fine, but for his wife's piece of mind, he let those big accounts and the additional income go. If he hadn't let those accounts go, he would be much closer to making his ends meet.

He's been financing his excess spending mostly by drawing against his home equity line of credit (current balance $1.2 million) and borrowing against his IRA retirement account ($485,000). That sounds like a pretty large number, and it's certainly larger than our guy would like. The biggest reason for the size of his debt was the 2008 recession. That hit his business and his whole town pretty hard, but he made some crucial decisions at that time. He could have stemmed his own losses in the short term by laying off a lot of his employees when his business dropped. But he realized that would only be a very short-term fix. As one of his town's major employers, he realized that if he laid off so many people, that would have a ripple effect that would plunge the town into deep depression, sinking his own business even further as the town sunk. Thus, he decided instead to keep employing as many people as he could, just paying them out of his home equity loan to do pro-bono maintenance and construction work around town, until the economy picked up and his business along with it. Though he drew heavily on his own personal debt (probably to the tune of about $450,000), he's seeing the strategy pay off. Major depression was averted and business has been slowly growing again. Another cause for his debt was that extra business he could have had, except for his wife fretting about him working too hard. By working less, he figures he's added $160,000 to his debt.

As big as his debt is, it's still not really so far beyond the pale for a guy of his means. He is completely staying current on paying his loans, his credit cards are completely paid up, and with a recent refinance, his combined mortgage and interest payment on all of his debt is $1,860 / month. Now that might be higher than your mortgage payment, but for a guy who made $245,000 last year, that is nowhere near tapped out. Note that if you look at financial planner's guidance on how much mortgage one can afford, they typically say your mortgage shouldn't exceed 35% of your income, or if they're very conservative, maybe 25% of your income. Our guy is currently paying 9% of his income on his mortgage. Chances are that your total mortgage (or rent) and credit card payments add up to more than 9% of your income. In that light, perhaps our guy isn't quite so financially irresponsible as he was unfairly made out to be.

Which brings me to the most unrealistic part of the video. In the video, it shows a skeptical banker unwilling to extend this guy a loan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our guy has a top-notch credit rating, and bankers are basically tripping over each other wanting to loan our guy money. They view our guy as the most reliable place to put their money, better than just about any other place they could invest it. They look at the value of his house, which is way more than his current debt, and they look at his current income, his income growth, and his potential for the future, and they are completely comfortable lending him even more money. In fact, they are so confident in our guy that they are willing to lend money to him at rates that are so low that, taking inflation into account, they are practically less than zero. Yes, that's right. The bankers of the world are willing to basically pay our guy to hold their money. And we're not talking about wild-eyed crazy bankers lending like it's 2007. We're talking about sober post-crash bankers. The smart money in the world looks at our guy and sees nothing to worry about.

Actually, I should say the bankers see nothing much to worry about. The one thing that is starting to worry them a bit is the potential instability of the guy's business, because of his wife. You see, his wife has become increasingly nervous about their level of debt, and she and her husband have been squabbling over the best way to grow the business. (At the same time, she continues to be nervous about her husband working too much, and wants him to work less, reducing his income. Somehow she doesn't realize how counterproductive that is to reducing their debt.) Their disagreements have been much more public in recent years, as she has at times taken actions like stopping payment on checks that her husband has written, or held up action at board meetings. As his wife and part owner of the business, she does have the legal ability to cause such disruptions. She is well-meaning, but her actions are threatening to jeopardize the business. From the outside, people just see instability and a business that is becoming less predictable in its management and direction. Most recently, she's threatening to cancel the whole home equity line of credit that enables their ongoing business, not realizing how catastrophic that would be. She truly wants what she thinks is best for her family, but ironically her own actions could lead to great harm to the very thing she wants to protect.

And that, my friends, is a much more accurate analogy of the current situation.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

FOOD: Papilles

We discovered a great little gem of a restaurant called Papilles, tucked in the corner of a tiny strip mall on Franklin near the foot of Beachwood Canyon (convenient for a post-Arclight dinner). It caught my eye on OpenTable as being too new to have any reviews at all, so I Googled it and noted glowing reviews on Yelp, as well as from L.A. Times critic Irene Virbila, who compared it to the tiny neighborhood bistros of the 11th or 13th arrondissements in Paris. And so it was true French cooking with farmers market fresh ingredients, but with a neighborhood scale and vibe. They have a $37 3-course fixed price menu, frequently updated based on what's fresh, with a couple choices of starters and a couple choices of mains, and that's the extent of the menu, so you have to be a bit game to eat here and just trust that the limited choices are all good. (And lucky for us, most of the choices were gluten-free, so we had no problem there.) I suspect that's the secret of what makes this place work is that they just cook a few different things each night, but those few things are superb. I started with a light and flavorful bacon and leek quiche with a marvelously flaky crust, and a light accompaniment of frisee and dandelion greens, while George started with a plate of perfectly carmelized roast cauliflower with pine nuts and mint. For our mains, we both opted for the beef cheek with baby parsnips, cardoons, and black trumpets. The beef was fall-apart tender and flavorful, and doused in a dark, umami-rich sauce rendered from the black trumpet mushrooms, complimented by the sweet earthy parsnips and the cardoons (a cousin to artichoke, but more resembling fennel stalks). For dessert, we shared a cheese plate with some excellent selections -- a Spanish cheese with a roquefort-like crust, a pungent, runny goat cheese from New York, and an aged Gouda -- as well as a delicious chocolate terrine (gluten-free!) with pistacchio crust and crème anglaise. They have an eclectic selection of wines arrayed on a bookshelf on one wall for you to peruse, and some unusual by-the-glass offerings. The red and the rosé on offer were both from Pfalz, while the white was a Sancerre. We opted to try the German pinot noir, a whole new idea to us, and found it quite nice, fruity but enough to stand up to the dark meaty sauce. We'll definitely be back to this charming little piece of a Paris neighborhood dropped in the corner of Hollywood.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FOOD: Whisper Lounge

We'd always seen the Whisper Lounge at The Grove, and had even been there for drinks once, but we always assumed it was just a bar, maybe with some pub fare. How wrong we were! On Saturday, we had dinner there after a movie, and discovered what a hidden gem this place is. There is some excellent, creative cooking going on here, and we enjoyed one of the best dinners we've had in a while. I started with a kale and apple salad that was extraordinary. I think some of the kale leaves were quickly blanched, leaving them still fresh but slightly softened, while others were very lightly toasted and slightly crispy. These two kale textures were tossed together with crisp mandarine-sliced apples, bits of blue cheese, walnuts, and little golden raisins, all in a light tart dressing of pomegranite vinaigrette. George had a simple butter lettuce salad with avocado, some beautiful radish slices with pinkish hues inside, and a bit of pecorino in a lemon vinaigrette. Our mains were equally impressive. My Scottish salmon was perfectly cooked: crosshatched grill marks on the outside but still moist and tender inside, and served covered in marvelous locally-foraged mushrooms, with soba in a light ginger-sesame broth. I wouldn't have thought to pair mushrooms with salmon, but these mushrooms -- a light, willowy kind, something like oyster mushrooms -- were perfect. The broth was a subtle earthy complement, just a hint of ginger perfume without overpowering. Meanwhile, George was singing high praises of his braised short ribs over whipped potatoes and root veggies. They had a bunch of tempting sides that were hard to choose from: Brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted cauliflower in a lemon-mint-fish sauce; polenta with radicchio, pears, gorgonzola, and walnuts. We chose the grilled broccolini with finely sliced peppadew peppers, fine slices of chorizo, in a light aioli. The cocktails were also creative, with craft ingredients. I had a wonderful cocktail of Hendricks gin, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, and fresh lemon juice, muddled with fresh blackberries. For dessert we stayed simple and gluten-free, but even there the quality ingredients and craftwork shone through in scoops of housemade strawberry and toasted marshmallow ice cream with fresh berries. We will definitely be dining at Whisper Lounge again!

Monday, October 29, 2012

YES on 34: The Death Penalty Is Not Effective

Regardless of whether you believe that the hardest core criminals should be killed, or whether you believe that the death penalty is immoral, we should all agree that the death penalty as it exists today is not serving its intended purpose. Because the death penalty entails a lengthy appeals procedure, very few inmates sentenced to death are ever killed. Since 1978 when the death penalty was reinstated in California, only 13 inmates have been executed. Many more have died of old age. While some death penalty supporters argue that we could just speed up the appeals process, that is simply not realistic in this day and age, where advanced forensic evidence such as DNA testing has proved that innocent people have been sentenced to death. It is simply not acceptable to our society that we should allow innocent people to be put to death mistakenly, so great care is taken to prevent that (and even still the record is imperfect). Given the realities of the present situation, one can hardly argue that the modern death penalty has any special deterrent effect beyond a life sentence.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining a "death row" has been estimated at over $4 billion since 1978. Death row inmates are specially segregated, and require special handling and extra guards. Ironically, even though the law provides for criminals to work in prison and have their wages garnished toward repaying their victims, death row inmates are often exempted from working because of the special handling required (extra guards, not allowed to mix in the yard with other prisoners, etc).

Prop 34 would replace the death penalty with a life sentence with no possibility of parole. This would eliminate the need for the special "death row" protocols, saving the state upwards of $100 million each year. The most heinous criminals could then be forced to work, and to pay back debts to their victims. The law would never allow them to be released. The commercials claiming that this proposition would let dangerous criminals out are just plain lying, and the ballot pamphlet argument against this prop is completely disingenuous on this point. If you read the actual proposition text yourself, it is quite clear that the death penalty is replaced with "imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole". Moreover, explicit language is added to require that the prisoners work and to have their wages garnished to repay any debts.

It is noteworthy that a number of conservative, tough-on-crime former supporters of the death penalty have endorsed Prop 34. These include Donald Heller, author of the 1978 proposition that reinstated the death penalty, Ronald Briggs who worked with his father to spearhead the 1978 campaign, and Jeanne Woodford, a former chief warden at San Quentin, who supervised four executions. If these death penalty proponents realize that the death penalty is not working, it is definitely time for change. For all these reasons, I urge a YES on 34 vote.

Friday, October 12, 2012

YES on 40: A No-Brainer to Support Citizens' Redistricting

Some of the propositions require wading through lots of argument for and against, but not Prop 40. You may recall that over the last several years, California has instituted a citizens redistricting commission to draw the political district boundaries that for years had been egregiously gerrymandered by both parties. (Seriously, look up gerrymander in Wikipedia, and you'll see a picture of California's 2008 State Senate districts.) The first citizen's commission completed their work in 2011, and the new more fairly and rationally drawn districts were in place for the June 2012 elections. Alas, several incumbents were unhappy about the new districts, and they placed this referendum on the ballot and sued in court, in the hopes of getting the districts tossed out for the 2012 elections. These politicos were righteously smacked down by the California Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion that noted that not only do the new districts appear to comply with all of the constitutionally mandated criteria, but they were arrived at through an "open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process", as was the intention of the California voters in establishing the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Having lost in court, the proponents of this referendum are no longer even supporting their own referendum. If you look in the voter information guide, the argument against Prop 40 is just a short statement from the people who put it on the ballot saying essentially "we give up". (Yes, it's a bit confusing, but the people who put the referendum on the ballot wanted a "no" vote.) So the obvious thing to do is to vote YES on 40, and show your support for California's open, transparent, and nonpartisan redistricting process.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Prop 37 is a Bad Idea

I know a lot of folks have strong feelings about genetically engineered foods, but regardless of whether you think GMO foods are evil or are perfectly safe, there are plenty of good reasons to vote NO on Prop 37.

First, I begin with a presumption that making law by initiative is generally a bad idea. The initiative was created as a failsafe mechanism for the electorate to guard against a corrupted legislature, and should only be used when absolutely necessary. It is a very poor way to make legislation in general, particularly legislation that is complex and gets down to the details of regulations, such as what exactly has to be labeled, what the labels have to say, and what the exceptions are. Detailed legislation like that is often imperfect and later needs to be corrected. The State Legislature can amend the laws that it passes, but initiative statutes can only be amended by another initiative. Even in the "pro" and "con" arguments for this proposition, both sides point to details and exceptions. This is the sort of legislation that is likely to be flawed and to want amending, making it a bad candidate for an initiative statute.

Second, this sort of food labeling regulation is not something that should be undertaken at the state level. We currently have federal regulations from the USDA defining similar issues such as "organic" labeling and "milk from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH". The federal regulations concerning milk provide a framework giving some latitude for variation within states, which is viable for milk because milk is generally an intrastate business. For produce and even more so for commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which become ingredients in many processed foods, the interstate and international commerce is substantial. Imposing a California-only regulation on this interstate and international supply chain would create a complication for all California food producers and for global food producers who wish to sell in California, which ultimately means added cost for the consumer. It only gets worse if other states decide to get into the act. That is exactly why such things need to be consistently regulated at the federal level, as has been successfully and effectively done for organic food and growth hormone-treated dairy cows. Moreover, it is probable that the USDA will eventually provide regulatory guidelines for non-GMO foods that will preempt California's initiative, meaning that everyone in the agricultural supply chain from farmer to grocer will have been jerked around by California's initiative.

Finally, the approach proposed in Prop 37 fails to follow the successful and effective path already established by USDA "organic" and milk labeling regulations. In the case of foods labeled "organic", the USDA regulations standardize the criteria that must be met in order for a food to be labeled "organic". Note that this is a voluntary positive claim. Food producers who believe that consumers will find value in meeting "organic" standards can choose to meet those standards and put the label "organic" on their product. Products that do not meet the standards are prohibited from claiming to be "organic", but they are not required to put any adverse "non-organic" label. Under this voluntary "make the claim only if you can meet the standards" regulation, the organic food industry has thrived. As of 2010, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages were a $26.7 billion business, and represented over 11% of all fruit and vegetable sales. This approach has given the consumer good choices in the marketplace, and the ability to make their own choices about the value of "organic" food, which tends to command a higher price. A similar approach was taken with the growth hormone issue in dairy cows, where dairies were allowed to market under a standardized label stating "milk from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH" if they met the criteria, but were not required to put any adverse "contains rBST/rBGH" if they didn't meet the criteria. Here again, this approach enabled choice for the consumer and the development of a substantial niche market for those willing to pay a higher price for milk from untreated cows. Rather than taking this proven pro-consumer and pro-market approach, Prop 37 imposes a negative involuntary regime where all food producers who do not meet the criteria are required to put an adverse "contains GMO" label on their products. Unlike the voluntary USDA approach that allows food producers to decide if and when they wish to make a claim that some consumers may find valuable, the Prop 37 approach imposes its regime on all producers, which is likely to trigger supply chain disruption and higher prices as food producers scramble to meet the new California-specific requirements. (Not unlike California's specific requirements on gasoline, and we've seen lately how that can disrupt a supply chain and affect prices.) When we've already seen how well a voluntary claim system can work, it would be foolish to take Prop 37's negative involuntary approach risking adverse affects on farmers, grocers, and consumers alike.

Thus, regardless of how you feel about GMO foods, I hope you will agree that Prop 37 is a bad idea.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Misunderstanding What Free Speech Means

In the wars of words swirling around Chick-fil-A this week, I saw many supporters of CfA's "Appreciation Day" saying they were in it to support CEO Dan Cathy's right to free speech on principle, while not necessarily taking a position on the content of Mr. Cathy's views. The discussions were disturbing to me for many reasons, including an apparently widespread confusion about our constitutional right to free speech, a confusion which went across the ideological spectrum.

On the "blue" end of the spectrum, some liberal mayors of large cities were stating that Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their jurisdictions. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote in a letter that "Chick-fil-A had no place on the Freedom Trail", implying that he would block plans to open a Chick-fil-A in Boston's historical center. Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced their intention to block Chick-fil-A from opening in Moreno's ward. While I personally appreciate the sentiment behind these moves, they are wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional. For a government official to block or interfere with a law-abiding company, merely on the basis of the company or its owners' stated values being unpopular, is a clear and direct violation of the First Amendment. (Well, for a state or local official, it's a violation of the First in concert with the Fourteenth Amendment, but that's getting technical.) If the right to free speech means anything, it means that a person (or the companies they own or manage) will not be treated adversely by the government on account of their views and statements. Fortunately, the ACLU exists to maintain a principled defense of free speech rights, and they already have Dan Cathy's back on this. A senior attorney for the ACLU of Illinois called Moreno's actions "wrong and dangerous," saying "We don’ think the government should exclude Chick-fil-A because of the anti-LGBT message. We believe this is clear cut." Comedian Jon Stewart and Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald also jumped on the mayors for their unconstitutional overreaction.

On the "red" end of the spectrum, many commenters seemed concerned that the firestorm of criticism of Dan Cathy and the calls to boycott Chick-fil-A were somehow infringing Cathy's right to free speech. This is just a fundamental confusion. Criticism and calls to boycott (as long as they are coming from private citizens and not government officials) are categorically not infringing anyone's right to free speech. They are free speech. The Constitution guarantees citizens a right to express their views without fear of legal penalty or adverse treatment based on the content of their views. When the US Government, under the infamous Sedition Act of 1798, was fining and jailing newspapermen for printing criticism of the Adams administration, that was a clear violation of the First Amendment. That's the sort of thing the First Amendment was meant to protect against. The First Amendment does not, however, protect anyone from being criticized or their businesses being boycotted by those who disagree with their views. Mr. Cathy's right to express his views is not infringed when someone else exercises their right to criticize him, nor when someone exercises their right not to buy his chicken sandwiches. (Fortunately, those concerned that calls for boycotting Chick-fil-A somehow infringed Mr. Cathy's constitutional rights stopped short of calling for a government mandate to buy chicken sandwiches.)

While there may be some people who turned out on "Appreciation Day" to support the principle of free speech, I suspect that many of those claiming that motive were actually motivated by support for Cathy's particular viewpoint rather than any general principle. Fortunately, there's a simple test to tell the difference. Do you donate or at least verbally support the ACLU, an organization which has consistently defended the principle of free speech, even when the content of the speech was completely odious to many of the ACLU's own financial supporters? Did you support JC Penney when they were threatened with a boycott over their choice of openly lesbian Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson? Did you support the Dixie Chicks when they were massively boycotted for making public statements critical of then-President Bush? If you claimed to be supporting Dan Cathy on the principle of free speech, but you can't answer "yes" to any of those questions, then you need to make an honest re-assessment of your true motivations.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Gordon Hadley: Exemplar of Christian service

I knew practically nothing about Adventists before I met my husband. As I've learned more about the faith and the Adventist culture, one of the things I've come to truly admire is the emphasis on Christian service that is embedded in their values. This is evidenced by the overwhelming majority of Adventists going into professions of service, such as doctors, teachers, and pastors. Health professions are particularly chosen, because of an Adventist emphasis on health as well as service. Any place you find any concentration of Adventists, there will be a hospital, a school, or especially a medical school. This dedication to health and service was exemplified in the life of Dr. G. Gordon Hadley, who not only was a teaching doctor and later dean of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, but also taught medicine in Vellore, India, managed the establishment of a hospital in Hangzhou, China, and had an instrumental role at the Kabul University School of Medicine in Afghanistan. At Loma Linda, where he was dean for nearly 10 years, he was renowned for his personal interest in each student, knowing every student by face and name. In Afghanistan, he leaves a lasting legacy having made numerous mission trips there over the course of more than 40 years from 1960, until his last trip in 2002. He set up the first pathology department and laboratory at Kabul University in 1960, and his rigorous work to establish high-quality standards of medical education earned him such high respect among the Afghanis, that he was invited to return again and again, even as the rule in Afghanistan shifted from a king to regional warlords, to the Taliban, and to its current tenuous post 9/11 democracy. That a Christian doctor would be requested, even by the Taliban, is a testament to Dr. Hadley's brand of mission. His faith lead him to serve and teach others, and to simply live a Christian example by his actions, without explicitly proselytizing. In an LA Times article recounting Dr. Hadley's extraordinary service in Afghanistan, a Harvard-educated Afghan doctor had this to say about him: "Like Albert Schweitzer, he is dedicated to the human cause… With his deeds he is a missionary of ethics and proper behavior that is necessary for a medical practice." His devotion to service was life-long. He was in his 70's when he accepted the post to lead the newly established Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital in Hangzhou, China, and he was 80 when he made his last trip to Afghanistan. We'd heard that even as recently as a few weeks ago, at age 90, he was wanting to do more, concerned that "God still had work for him to do". We should all admire and hope to come close to emulating Gordon Hadley's remarkable embodiment of the concept of Christian service.


Dr. Gordon Hadley (center) with three generations of Hadley doctors.


Dr. Gordon Hadley (center) at the 2006 Loma Linda University School of Medicine graduation ceremony,
with his wife Alphie and most (but not all) of their children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, grand-nephews,
and grand-nieces who are graduates of LLU School of Medicine, Dentistry, or Allied Health.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Climbing Giotto's Campanile

View of campanile from top of domeHaving climbed the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi's dome, we had a breathtaking panoramic view of Florence, in which we could see nearly the entire city. Alas, the one thing we couldn't see from the dome was… the dome itself. Thus, there was nothing to be done for it, but to climb the 414 steps to the top of Giotto's campanile so that we could get a good look at where we had just been. So it was that after coming down from the dome, with a quick stop for resuscitation at Cantinetta di Verrazzano, we began the ascent of the campanile. Built in the mid-1300's, the campanile is nearly a century older than the dome, and of course there are stone spiral stairs to be climbed. But the ascent of the campanile is not as claustrophobic as the ascent of the dome, since the upper two thirds of the campanile are open in the interior. There are many more and larger windows, and the climb is broken by stops at the third, fourth, and fifth levels. Each upper level has a very open-feeling "room" with pairs of huge lancet arches open on all four sides, and a center which is open through the upper levels. The windows afford some great close views of the upper part of the cathedral and the dome, as well as views over the piazza and baptistry.

View of Il Duomo from Campanile
Looking down inside Campanile
View of Baptistry from Campanile
View of cathedral from Campanile


On the fifth level, you can stand on a steel grate in the floor and look down an uncomfortably long way. You can see one or two of the bells above, and there is an older no-longer-used bell set out for close perusal, but they don't let you get too close to the seven active bells (five of which are 20th century, but the two largest are over three centuries old). As you climb the last part on steel staircases past where the bells are, they are closed off from view. We didn't get to discover what it's like to be in the bell tower when the bells ring. Probably an awesome experience, if a bit deafening.

Campanile bells
Looking down inside Campanile
Campanile bells


Looking straight down from CampanileWhen you finally get to the roof of the tower, you can walk around all four sides, but you are completely fenced in including overhead. I guess they wanted to be certain nobody did anything stupid up there. It's pretty cool to look straight down to the piazza 280 feet below, and watch the people looking like ants. Even the top of the baptistry is far below.


On top of Giotto's Campanile
Top of campanile from the dome
View of Il Duomo from Campanile


Giotto's CampanileAfter we'd soaked up the views and finally descended, we paused to look back at the beautiful tower we'd just climbed. The facing uses the same tri-color marble (white, green, and red) that is used on the cathedral, and the same geometric designs. The tower is gracefully divided into five levels, each level being taller than the one below it. This trick of perspective makes the levels look evenly proportioned when regarded from below, while the tower still looks graceful from afar. The upper three levels feature pairs of double-lancet windows emphasizing verticality, while the lower two levels are subdivided into two bands each, making them look sturdier, yet all in harmonious proportion. The first band features a series of hexagonal panels with relief carvings showing stories from Genesis and allegories of the arts. The second band features lozenges on various themes: seven virtues on one side, seven sacraments on another, etc. The third band has statues of prophets, and the fourth band are simply white lancet slabs. All of these decorations are works of art in themselves. The ones in the tower now are all replicas. The originals have been moved inside where they can be preserved and you can get a better look at them.


Campanile door
Campanile lozenges
Giotto's Campanile

Cantinetta di Verrazzano

Fresh-baked bread and pastries
Focaccia with fresh tomato and basil
Fresh-baked focacce
Fresh-baked focacceTipped off by a food blogger, we discovered the delights of the Cantinetta di Verrazzano, a bustling little focacceria and caffe in the heart of historic Florence, in the blocks between Il Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. As soon as you enter, a beautiful display case of breads and pastries catches your eye at the same time as the aroma of fresh baking fills your nostrils with confirmation that it is as good as it looks. You can get baked goods from the girl behind the bakery counter, or, as we soon learned, if you want fresh focaccia, you proceed toward the rear, where a woman will heat a slice of focaccia to order in a traditional wood-burning oven. The varieties of focaccia were beautiful to behold. One had fresh tomato and basil, another had roasted peppers and mozzarella. Yet another had carmelized onions, olives, and anchovies, while a layered one had porcini mushrooms sandwiched between two bread layers. Happily, amidst all this gluten-fest, they had something special for George too: a focaccia-like crepe called cecina, which is made from ground garbanzo beans and is completely gluten-free. The bustling place has a small number of tables, but there are also several chairs and benches around, and some people just get some focaccia and eat on the benches. If you get a table, you can also enjoy coffee or wine. The Cappellini family who run this actually owns a winery estate in Chianti (the Castello di Verrazzano), and this little "cantinetta" offers a great venue to taste their wine, as well as to enjoy a terrific light lunch or afternoon snack. We were so delighted with this place that we ended up coming back here a couple times during our few days in Florence. (The Cantinetta is at Via dei Tavolini, 18/R. Hat tip to Gluten-Free Girl, who tipped us off to this gem, and its cecina, as well as to several other great foodie finds around Tuscany.)

Focaccia with onion, anchovy, and olives
Fresh-baked cecina
Cecina

Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome

View of Il Duomo from CampanileThe Renaissance in Florence was a time of dazzling accomplishments, not only in art but also in architecture, and the (literally) crowning achievement is Brunelleschi's dome atop the Florence cathedral. When the cathedral was begun in 1296, Arnolfo di Cambio, the original architect, built a scale model to illustrate his design, which included a huge dome on an octagonal drum. The design was audacious, in that no one at that time had any idea how to build such a structure without it collapsing under its own weight. Nonetheless, the patrons of the cathedral clung to that bold vision, and when the nave was completed in 1380, they would wait for 40 more years with a huge hole in the ceiling of their cathedral until an architectural genius arrived on the scene with a solution. Filippo Brunelleschi devised ingenious solutions to numerous challenges that stood in the way of building the dome. First, there was the structural problem. While a perfectly round dome, like Rome's Pantheon, can support itself because of the special properties of circles and spheres to evenly distribute their weight stress, Florence's dome was meant to be octagonal rather than round in its footprint, and elongated in its height. These design elements make the dome especially graceful in appearance, but also make it inherently unstable. The solution was to build an interior dome which was more spherical, to bear the weight, and then an outer dome with the more graceful (but non-self-supporting) proportions resting on the inner dome. That design would be stable once it was built, but the next problem was how to support it as it was being constructed. Often, domes would be supported with a temporary wooden scaffolding while they were being built, but the scale of the cathedral's dome made that impossible. The opening at the base of the dome was 170 feet off the ground and spanned nearly 150 feet across. There were not trees enough in all of Tuscany to erect a scaffolding that big. Brunelleschi devised more creative solutions, including a herringbone pattern of laying brickwork that could support its own weight across an incomplete arch while the mortar was not yet dry. And he came up with many new mechanical inventions in order to hoist the 37,000 tons of brick and marble up to the height of the dome. The beauty of the dome and the genius of its construction are one of the greatest marvels of the Renaissance. It remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

Cathedral interior
Looking down from base of dome


Spiral staircaseThere's no better way to get a true appreciation of the scale and the construction of the dome than to climb it. There's almost always a line, but it's well worth the wait. After briefly viewing the vast interior of the cathedral, the climb begins inside the stone walls of the transept, ascending the first 150 feet mostly in tight spiral staircases of medieval stone. Near the top of this part, you enter a large room built into the transept that houses some of the original statuary from the façade that has been brought inside to protect it. In the equivalent room on the downside (you descend the opposite transept), some of Brunelleschi's hoisting inventions are on display.

Last Judgment (inside the dome)Last Judgment (inside the dome)At this point, you are at the level of the base of the dome, and you emerge to a walkway open to the interior of the church. Over the railing, you look down on the vast open church floor 170 feet below, while looking up into the dome, you have a ringside seat for the cavernous Last Judgment fresco. Swirling high above your head, rising toward the lantern of the dome, you see God in judgment, Christ, Mary, all the saints, choirs of angels, and symbolic representations of virtues, beautitudes, and signs of the end-times. Discomfitingly closer to where you stand is the darker underbelly of the apocalypse, with demons pulling wretched souls down to torture and damnation amidst symbols of sin and Hell. The enormous fresco, nearly 40,000 square feet of surface, is jam-packed with apocalyptic imagery. It was designed to be impressive when viewed from the pews 170 feet below, so you can imagine how fearsome it is when standing right at the base of it.


Last Judgment (inside the dome)
Looking up into the lantern
Last Judgment (inside the dome)


After walking partway around the base, you enter the interior of the dome itself, in passages that navigate between the internal dome and the external dome. At first, as you walk around, the curvature is slight, but as you ascend, the curvature closes in on you, with the passage not only bending more sharply, but with the walls of the passage leaning further and further in. Near the top, when you can't go around any more, the passage makes a turn straight for the center going up and across to the top of the dome. Along the way, you get to see pieces of Brunelleschi's techniques: the herringbone brickwork, the wooden and metal chains that function like the hoops on a barrel. And the whole inner/outer dome design is completely apparent because you're walking between the two.

Descending inside the dome
Descending inside the dome
Descending inside the dome


On finally emerging at the top of the dome, you can walk around the base of the lantern topper, 350 feet above the ground, with commanding views of Florence and the surrounding countryside. This breathtaking panorama of the city, coupled with the fascinating insight into the architecture, is well worth climbing 463 stone steps.


On top of Il Duomo
Views from top of Il Duomo
Views from top of Il Duomo

Friday, May 13, 2011

Along the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio

Arno RiverOne of the simple pleasures of Florence is walking along the Arno. The principal river of the region bisects the city, with the historic center of the city on the north bank and the "Oltr'arno" (the "other side of the Arno") on the south. Historically, the river was extremely variable, and could go from a placid flow to a raging torrent in just a few days. It's had its share of floods over the years, most recently in 1966, when it overflowed its banks and filled many of the historic buildings with water and mud. (In the church of Santa Croce, they display photos of the immediate aftermath of the '66 flood, which were fascinating and horrifying.) These days, thanks to modern dams upstream, it is a more regulated flow. The Arno as we found it was tranquil, with water gently passing under historic bridges and sunlight sparkling on its smooth surface, broken only by a few kayaks. On both sides, the river is lined with a bit of wild green growth below tall stone walls. On the north side, a street runs right up next to the river wall. On the south side, some blocks have a street beside the river while other blocks have buildings that back right up to the river. The buildings along the river are mostly 3 to 5 story buildings, some shade of yellow or orange (seems to be required in Florence -- Home Depot here must have a whole aisle just for yellow paint), with green shutters.

Arno River
Arno late in the day
Arno River


Ponte VecchioThere are several charming bridges that cross the river in various parts of the historic center of Florence, but the star is the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge lined with shops on either side. Various bridges have stood in this spot probably since Roman times, with previous bridges being washed away by the Arno's notorious floods. In 1345, a few years after the last bridge had washed away, they built the current one using three stone segmented arches, a design which has stood the test of time. (Segmented arches are wide and shallow, not a complete semi-circle, and allow high water to pass more easily.) Originally the bridge was filled with butcher shops, but these days the shops peddle jewelry, art, and souvenirs. In the center of the bridge, there is a gap in the shops on either side, affording views of the river, and a small square often taken up with street musicians. At night, the shops are closed up, but there are still plenty of people enjoying the romance of the bridge.

The Arno at night
Ponte Vecchio at night
The Arno at night


Ponte Vecchio / Vasari CorridorAbove the shops on the upstream side of the bridge is the Vasari Corridor, a secret passage connecting the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio. When the Medicis moved into the Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno in the mid-1500s, they wanted to be able to walk to the government offices without having to go out in the street. (Having seen assassination attempts against their ancestors -- Lorenzo the Magnificent was stabbed and his brother Giuliano killed in the cathedral during the Easter service in 1478 -- you can understand the reluctance of the later Medicis to go out in the street.) If you look carefully around central Florence, you can see bits of the corridor, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi, running along the river for a stretch to get to the bridge, and then along houses on the south side of the river. At one point on the south side, it passes through the church of Santa Felicita, with a balcony opening onto the interior of the church, allowing the Medici to observe the church service from a safe vantage.

Piazza della Signoria

Palazzo VecchioIf the cathedral is the sacred center of Florence, then the Piazza della Signoria is the civic center of Florence. It's just a few minutes walk down the broad Via dei Calzaioli from the front of the cathedral to the Piazza della Signoria, where you first catch sight of the Palazzo Vecchio, the historic town hall and capital building from when Florence was a city-state. While the implied message of the cathedral's design is "be filled with awe and look up at heaven", the implied message of the Palazzo Vecchio is "we're a powerful city-state, so don't even think about messing with us". The Palazzo is a massive stone fortress with a sturdy tall bell tower and clock, dating from the early 1300s. While the design has definite beauty, it exudes strength and defensibility. The stone walls are obviously thick, with few windows on the lower floors and only one large door. The crenellation along the top looks graceful, but also provides the perfect combo of cover and opening for archers. Many of the upper arches contain small openings for dropping rocks or hot oil on unwelcome people outside the walls.

Palazzo VecchioThe sense of history in this square is palpable. The great leaders of Florence, like the Medicis, held court in that palazzo, made great decisions, kept prisoners. It was in this piazza that Savanarola (a 15th century religious zealot a la Jerry Falwell who became a political leader for a time) conducted his infamous "bonfire of the vanities", where books and works of art deemed irreligious were burned in a great pyre in the square. When the city soon grew tired of his extremism, Savanarola was himself ultimately burned here too. (An inscription on a flat circular stone amidst the other cobblestones of the piazza marks the spot.)

Upon approaching the palazzo, even from a distance one can't help but notice the two monumental statues that flank the large entrance. One is Michelangelo's David, and the other is a statue of Hercules vanquishing Cacus (a fire-breathing cattle thief). Both statues are solid marble, mounted on pedestals, and about 16-17 feet tall (not counting the pedestal), a rather imposing three times life size. David, looking like he eats nothing but steamed veggies and brown rice, naked and armed only with his sling, represents spiritual strength. Unlike the typical composition of David with his foot on top of Goliath's head, Michelangelo chose to sculpt him in the moment before the famous battle, looking pensively but determinedly toward his foe. In his placement here, his gaze is south toward Rome. Hercules, on the other hand, looking like he eats nothing bt raw meat and steroids, represents physical strength. He too is naked but armed with a club, and appears to be pausing, perhaps deciding whether he's sufficiently subdued his foe or not. He may also be reflecting the confusion of the time, as in the time this was sculpted (1525-34), there was much political turmoil in Florence, and the Medicis were in power, then out, then in again, and the commission of the sculpture was redirected a couple times. So whether Hercules represents Florence vanquishing her rival city-states or merely the Medicis vanquishing their political rivals is a matter of who's telling the story. In any case, anyone approaching the palazzo should be quite impressed by the stone guards at the door.
Michelangelo's David
Hercules and Cacus


Rape of the Sabine WomenAs if that weren't enough, the square boasts a number of other rather muscular sculptures. At the corner of the palazzo, Neptune presides over a fountain, looking like he and Hercules would make a good cage match. Further in that direction is a regal bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I Medici. On the opposite side of the square is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an outdoor sculpture gallery with various Roman and Renaissance works. As if more were needed to put the fear of Florence into approaching strangers, the collection includes Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa", an impressive bronze of Perseus, sword in right hand with Medusa's severed head held aloft in his left, and Medusa's fallen bare-breasted body at his feet, with guts gushing out of her open neck. Giambologna has a couple of great works here. Hercules, not pausing this time, but in stop-frame action actively clubbing a centaur. The sculpture is so active it is literally taut with tension, looking like it might unfreeze at any moment. And the Rape of the Sabine women, a fascinating work said to be the first multi-figure statue in European history with no single dominant viewpoint. The dynamic composition, of one man lifting up a woman while a fallen man cowers below him, has a twisting movement that impels you walk around the statue and view it from all sides. While the David is a replica (the original was moved indoors for restoration and preservation from the rain, soot, and bird poop), most of these other statues are the originals, and you can just walk among them, as it was in the 1500s when so many great artists flourished here.
Fountain of Neptune
Cosimo I Medici
Perseus with the head of Medusa
Hercules and the Centaur


(Check out highlights of our photos from Florence, or the complete set of first day pics on Flickr.)