‘Architecture is the only truly public form of art’

In Philadelphia this weekend, and stopped in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul briefly this morning. Pairing views from that visit with Jake Scott’s writing on beauty in architecture:

Architecture is the only truly public form of art. All other styles of art exist in a dedicated space. Paintings adorn walls within galleries that we may choose to enter, just as we may choose to take replicas home with us; music is not constant, it must be played in order to be appreciated and, out of respect for one another, we confine our enjoyment of our music to our spaces, be it in communion in a concert, or alone in our bedrooms; television and film are much the same, and theatre performances even more so.

But architecture exists all around us all the time. When we walk down the street, we are surrounded by architecture—in the fact, the very existence of a street is a creation of architecture. Consequently, when we are forced to interact with art in our every day life, it is only necessary that we ask that art to be good; when we look at buildings, we want them to look back, to make us feel welcome, and not be faced with an impersonal, expressionless façade. Even the term façade is misleading, since a façade contains an expression within it.

The consequence of bad architecture, therefore, is to make us feel less at home, as if the buildings glare at us as we go about our business, making an urban space into a place where no one feels welcome. Even in these spaces, our eyes are not drawn up to marvel at the wonder around us, but instead forced down to stare at the pavement, or off into the distance. …

Each building has a voice, and each city, town, or village is merely a collection of those voices. The more poetic among us might compare it to a choir; each voice has its own note, yet the harmony of the whole takes precedence; and so, when a new voice is added to the choir, it must remember this, and do its best to respect that harmony rather than disrupt it.

Inexplicable, but common

Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community:

“The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”


A constant challenge to remember that the commonplace is only so because we’re habituated to it. But we did not create ourselves, and nothing in this universe explains the reason for its being.

Alzheimer’s and cancer tests

When it seems like we’re getting worse at making breakthroughs on serious problems in the world, headlines like the ones I saw this week offer a rebuttal to cynicism. First, from Melissa Locker on Alzheimer’s:

Artificial intelligence could one day change the lives of people facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, according to a new study by researchers at UC, San Francisco.

“One of the difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease is that by the time all the clinical symptoms manifest and we can make a definitive diagnosis, too many neurons have died, making it essentially irreversible,” said Jae Ho Sohn, a resident in the school’s Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

For the study, published in Radiology, Sohn and his team fed a common type of brain scans to a machine-learning algorithm, and it learned to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s disease about six years before a clinical diagnosis could be made. …

Sohn and his team trained the algorithm on PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, or no disorder. The algorithm began to figure out how to predict Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, it was able to correctly identify 92% of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98% in the second test set…

Second, from Fiza Pirani on a cancer breathalyzer:

Researchers from the United Kingdom have launched a clinical trial for a breathalyzer-like cancer test that may be able to detect multiple cancers via chemical changes in the breath.

Such breath tests have been previously examined for several cancers, including lung, colon, prostate and esophageal cancers, but scientists hope this single 10-minute breath test may be able to detect several types at a time. …

The painless, non-invasive 10-minute breathalyzer test will detect amounts of volatile organic compounds — aldehydes or ketones, for example — usually produced in the body’s metabolic processes and found in exhaled breath. Because cancerous cells are known to produce different patterns (or signatures) of VOCs, researchers hope the test will be able to ascertain signature indicators of cancer. …

If the Owlstone tech can help differentiate cancer signatures and healthy ones, “the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there’s just one ‘cancer signature,’”…

Neither is in a clinical stage at this point, though the Alzheimer’s test seems nearly ready. I wish the piece had explained what next steps reman before it’s ready for public use.

Georgetown Waterfront Park

Visited Georgetown Waterfront Park shortly after Christmas. If you didn’t know better, these photos look practically like summer. Rode an electric Lime scooter for the first time, which was both a funner and sturdier experience that I had thought it would be.

That’s the Key Bridge linking Georgetown with Arlington, Virginia that I cross twice daily.

Unseasonably warm walks

I spent two days between Christmas and New Years walking amongst Washington’s monuments with my brothers, introducing them to most of them for the first time. Especially on New Years Day, I thought it made sense to share some of those photos as proxies for the principles and things that don’t change with the changing of years.

Like this unseasonably warm New Years Day, we were fortunate to have beautiful mild winter weather during both our initial evening walk and the next afternoon’s walk along the Mall and Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial.

Past year reviews

Tim Feriss writes that “past year reviews” are more helpful for him than New Years resolutions:

I have found “past year reviews” (PYR) more informed, valuable, and actionable than half-blindly looking forward with broad resolutions. I did my first PYR after a mentor’s young daughter died of cancer on December 31st, roughly eight years ago, and I’ve done it every year since. It takes 30-60 minutes and looks like this:

  1. Grab a notepad and create two columns: POSITIVE and NEGATIVE.
  2. Go through your calendar from the last year, looking at every week.
  3. For each week, jot down on the pad any people or activities or commitments that triggered peak positive or negative emotions for that month. Put them in their respective columns.
  4. Once you’ve gone through the past year, look at your notepad list and ask, “What 20% of each column produced the most reliable or powerful peaks?”
  5. Based on the answers, take your “positive” leaders and schedule more of them in the new year. Get them on the calendar now! Book things with friends and prepay for activities/events/commitments that you know work. It’s not real until it’s in the calendar. That’s step one. Step two is to take your “negative” leaders, put “NOT-TO-DO LIST” at the top, and put them somewhere you can see them each morning for the first few weeks of 2019. These are the people and things you *know* make you miserable, so don’t put them on your calendar out of obligation, guilt, FOMO, or other nonsense.

I haven’t done this for the past year and probably won’t get to it, but am going to return to this at some point in the future.

Anchor’s Korean pine

As the Christmas season leads to the Epiphany, one of the ways I’m keeping the season is enjoying Anchor’s Christmas Ale, this year featuring a Korean pine. It’s a somewhat difficult to find Christmas brew, and an annual tradition:

Our annual Christmas Ale is a subtly spiced and sumptuously smooth winter warmer. This year’s brew marks the 44th annual release of this Anchor holiday tradition.

Back in 1975, Anchor released the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition. Year after year, Anchor creates a new, secret recipe with a unique hand drawn label for their Christmas Ale, but the intent with each brew remains the same: joy for the changing seasons and celebration of the newness of life. With a heavily guarded, confidential recipe, Christmas Ale is sold only from early November to mid-January. This highly anticipated seasonal delight is complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and strong aromas of resinous pine.

Our 2018 Christmas Ale has varying specialty malts, lending rich flavors of brûléed sugars, holiday spices and freshly baked banana bread with a velvety finish. The aromatics are quintessential for the holiday season: nutty candied yams and resinous pine. It pours a nice mahogany brown color with a fluffy, tan head.

As each Christmas Ale recipe evolves, so does its hand drawn packaging, created by long-time Anchor Illustrator Jim Stitt, who has been creating Anchor’s Christmas Ale labels since 1975. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. For the 2018 release, Stitt created a brimming Korean Pine Tree for the label. Native to both North and South Korea, the Korean Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and a reminder of the spirit of the season. It flourishes in the picturesque botanical gardens just north of San Francisco, Anchor’s home base.

One of the pleasures of an Anchor Christmas Ale tradition is reminiscing about the different times and places and people you’ve shared their annual variations with: a close friend at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco in late afternoon, with a running partner the night before a 200-mile Ragnar Relay race in Miami, as part of a smoke-filled conversation on a friend’s Southwest Florida lanai, on Notre Dame’s campus before a football game, and with family and friends on Christmas.

The world did not know him

Merry Christmas. I’m sharing a photo from my arrival back at Reagan Washington National Airport earlier this month, but I’m visiting family near Philadelphia for Christmas today.

Last night attended Midnight Mass at Corpus Christi. In the final hour of Christmas Eve, Corpus Christi’s choir performed. Here’s a brief bit from last night’s performance:

And here’s Bishop Robert Barron reflecting on Christmas, specifically on John 1:1-18 in his Gospel Reflections:

“The world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” In that pithily crafted line, we sense the whole tragedy of sin. Human beings were made by and for the Logos and therefore they find their joy in a sort of sympathetic attunement to the Logos. Sin is the disharmony that comes when we fall out of alignment with God’s reasonable purpose.

Then comes the incomparably good news: “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” It is a basic principle of nature that nothing at a lower level of being can rise to a higher level unless it is drawn upward. For example, a plant can become ingredient in a sentient nature only if it is devoured by an animal. By this same principle, a human being can become something higher only when a superior reality assimilates him. The Church Fathers consistently taught that God became human so that humans might become God—which is to say, participants in the divine nature. In a word, we can become children of God precisely because God reached down to us and became a son of man.

I’m thinking of my friend today, who grew up with the challenge of his father to “live every day as if it were Christmas.” What lies at the heart of that challenge is to live every day with a closeness to the essential mystery that this life is, and to the reality of Christ’s revelation of himself as the root and cause of this strange and continent universe.