Sunday, January 16, 2022

Angry Pigeon Perch

Back in 2014-2016, I did a little project around tracking down Portland's assortment of painted intersections, like the semi-famous sunflower one just off Belmont. If you aren't familiar with this local phenomenon, these usually come about as neighborhood volunteer efforts, typically aided by the City Repair Project, a local nonprofit. The idea is that you and your neighbors choose a nice, quiet, residential intersection, come up with an original design, and convince the city to give you a permit. Then you pick out a weekend, put up some traffic cones, and have a big summer block party. You and your neighbors pitch in to paint your design on the street, which obviously involves meeting your neighbors if you haven't already done so.

One crucial detail is that you just use regular latex paint for this, not the fancy high-durability traffic paint the city uses for crosswalks and lane dividers and so forth. That stuff's expensive, with a very limited color palette, and more importantly, you kind of want the design to look nice thru the end of summer and the nice part of fall, and then get increasingly shabby over the winter due to traffic and the elements. Then, once the weather finally improves again, it's just about time for another neighborhood block party, and before you know it you have a traditional neighborhood event that people look forward to every year.

Or at least that's the idea. I haven't gone back to check on the places I visited earlier, and it just stands to reason that a few of them were one-and-done affairs, for all the usual reasons that volunteer efforts peter out. Key people moving out of the area; heated arguments over creative vision; someone forgetting to renew the right permits or arrange for the paint; a salmonella outbreak due to last year's potluck; or people meeting their neighbors and simply not wanting to repeat the experience. That sort of thing.

I do know that some projects have continued, despite the chaos of the last few years. In particular, the big sunflower design was wiped out in 2019 by a city sewer project, and then it wasn't repainted in 2020 because pandemic, and almost wasn't in 2021 for reasons I'm not clear on. It finally reappeared last October, with a new, more angular design that I gather not everyone likes.

Beyond that, there are even a few new street paintings that didn't exist the last time I was paying attention, like the one we're visiting now (in case you were wondering when I'd finally bumble around to the actual subject of this post). I stumbled across this one in January 2020, at the very tail end of the Before Times. Right off the bat you can tell it's different from the others we've visited so far: It's painted largely on the sidewalk, spilling over into the adjacent bike lane. But not into the traffic lanes, much less the intersection nearby. And it's surrounded by low and mid-rise urban buildings instead of twee 1920s bungalows. This is in downtown Portland, at intersection of SW 12th & Main St., right outside the front door of Northwest Academy, a small private school for the arts. In fact the painting was created in September 2019 as a back-to-school event, giving kids a misleadingly fun start to the ill-fated 2019-2020 school year.

A City Repair item about the painting says it's called Angry Pigeon Perch, although if there's a pigeon in the design I'm just not seeing it. I had a long tangent all ready to go here about the school maybe teaching kids about surrealism, which pivoted to contemporary AI-generated art, and how we still understand almost nothing about why AI models work as well as they do. From there, a claim that a lot of 20th century surrealist art kinda looks like the present-day AI-created stuff if you squint just right, followed by some half and quarter-baked speculation about why that might be. I don't think I was actually on to anything interesting (much less true) there, so I won't bore you with that whole argument. In any case, while I was kicking that around for a few days, I ran across the school's Instagram account. Which points out, right in the account bio, that the school's official nickname is "The Angry Pigeons", so there's our super-mundane answer regarding the title. I am honestly kind of disappointed about this.

Until quite recently this was the only painted intersection downtown, and the city only granted the permit because the school agreed not to paint anything that cars drive on. I suppose because downtown streets are real streets, for the use of serious people engaged in important business. As a serious major city, we can't risk having serious people bump into whimsical stuff that has no obvious business model, or they might freak out and take their important business elsewhere, like Texas maybe. (I'm just guessing here.) The City Repair folks have a Google map of past and present projects, and it shows about five items in the intersection category across the entire westside. There's one on the PSU campus on a closed section of SW Montgomery, which I apparently don't have any photos of yet. I'm about 75% sure that the other three listed downtown are either miscategorized, or don't exist anymore, or never existed in the first place. There now are a couple of others downtown (as of summer 2021) that aren't on this map because they weren't City Repair projects, but we'll get to those in their own separate posts.

The remaining one on the map -- the one and only example on the entire westside outside of downtown, if the map is to be believed -- is wayyy out in Hillsboro, behind a church in an industrial park near the Cornelius Pass exit off Sunset, and I have no idea what sort of project it actually is, or was. This seems odd to me; Portland's westside does have a few neighborhoods that you'd think might be open to the idea, places like Northwest/Nob Hill, Multnomah Village, Hillsdale, Burlingame, Lair Hill, Corbett/Johns Landing, Homestead (the weird little neighborhood up in the West Hills behind OHSU), probably a few others I'm forgetting. Now, some of these neighborhoods are hilly and maybe don't have a lot of suitable intersections that are flat enough to be paintable, but zero? More likely the idea just sort of never caught on. Or at least it hasn't caught on yet, but might after somebody goes out on a limb and does the first one.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Cat Photos of 2021

Per New Year's Eve (more or less) tradition, here are some cat photos from the last year. The one on the bottom is actually from New Year's Eve last year, because I added it by accident and now it's too cute to remove. As luck would have it, this post is a tiebreaker, and I now have more posts this year than last year, with almost 90 minutes to spare. One thing I forgot to do this year was an early-December post about this weird little website turning 16 years old now, old enough for one of those extremely limited airquote drivers licenses for teens, and a poorly-paid job in the fast food sector. I also narrowly avoided doing a brand-new post about one of those street intersection murals that dot SE Portland -- I was going to explain that I had just sort of stumbled across it and knew nothing about it, but then I figured I ought to google it in case there was an interesting story to pass along or something... and discovered that I had already done a post about it and then forgot all about it. So yeah, that felt really great. Sixteen years, it's all just a blur, man.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

King Kalākaua Park, Waikīkī

Next up on this humble blog's ongoing public art thing is a statue of Hawaii's King David Kalākaua, located in the half-acre King Kalākaua Park at the intersection of Kalakaua & Kuhio Avenues in Waikīkī (so it's kind of a city park post too). Visiting was pretty unremarkable, so this post is basically a big messy brain dump of all the random stuff I could find about the park and statue across the interwebs.

First some vital stats and such. The statue here was created by Hawaii artist Sean K.L. Browne, commissioned in 1985, and installed somewhere around 1989-91. Browne also did Lahui in Kaka'ako, and the Kresser Memorial in downtown Honolulu, and a few other things around Oahu, and I mention those two in particular because I also have draft posts about them that I've been meaning to finish for a while. A plaque on the base of the statue proclaims it a gift from a local nonprofit on behalf of the state's Japanese-American community, as a token of thanks for inviting their ancestors to emigrate to Hawaii. Of course (jumping ahead to the fine print) the invite wasn't motivated by pure altruism; the islands' native population was rapidly dwindling at the time due to various then-untreatable Western diseases, and the resulting labor shortage was a serious inconvenience for the all-powerful sugar industry. So the king went to work recruiting replacement workers/subjects from around the globe, because the spice sugar must flow[1].

As a minor attraction in an area full of tourists, the statue has the usual Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet pages, and a Waymarking one, but (unlike most of the statues in Waikiki) it doesn't seem to have any Yelp reviews. Maybe giving the king anything less than maximum stars would count as lèse-majesté or something, I dunno. The park as a whole does have a Yelp page, unfortunately marred by a handful of single-star reviews from people who were trying to review a nearby parking garage instead. The park also has a Tripadvisor page under "Waikiki Gateway Park", its previous name from before the statue went in, which a few sources (including Google Maps) can't quite let go of. This original name was once shared with an adjacent hotel, which has since been renamed as well.

For whatever reason the state's public art website (and related interactive map) have no references to the statue, while the city only has a few passing mentions of it: It appears briefly on page 61 of an art inventory doc, including a dead link to a photo of it. It also gets a quick mention in a 2007 survey for the city's troubled, still-incomplete light rail system, as a cultural object that might be affeted if they ever get around to building out the whole rail system they had in mind back then. A much-shorter initial phase of the project is allegedly supposed to enter service in April 2022, a few short months from now, though this effort is already $8B over budget and 11 years behind schedule, so I'm not exactly holding my breath. As of right now there are no longer any firm plans to ever extend it into Waikiki, partly to save money and partly so it doesn't look like it's being built just for tourists.

I thought I'd found a Smithsonian art inventory page for the statue, at least, but it turned out to refer to a different, seated statue by different artists over in Hilo. At one point in this post's long existence as a draft post, I had found a page from a cleaning product company bragging about their "aqueous ozone" product being used to clean the statue in 2015; this post sat around in drafts long enough for the original to disappear, but the Wayback Machine had a copy, if you'd like to read more about cleaning products.

As for the surrounding park, the city parks department has nothing much to say about it; they have a pushpin for it on their comprehensive (?) Google map of all (?) parks on the island, but no further information is available from there. Meanwhile the state government has a 1991 environmental assessment around re-landscaping the park, because no project in the state is too small to require one. Apparently after the statue went in they decided the park needed to be redesigned, for whatever reason. The doc's only a couple of pages since the state quickly decided there was no nature or history there that needed preserving, and concluded that the re-landscaping was desirable and in the public interest. It does have a paragraph about what the park was like at that point:

The park site is almost level. Current landscaping improvements include a lawn, 14 coconut palms, 8 rainbow shower trees, and several hibiscus and mock orange hedges. Structural improvements include tile pavers along Kalākaua Avenue, a concrete sidewalk along Kuhio Avenue, a King Kalākaua Statue mounted on a circular concrete pad, and a concrete walkway and plaza enclosed by a low rock wall. (See Figure 3) The rainbow shower trees surround and shade the plaza. Within the center of the plaza there is a simulated volcano: Red bougainvillea within a gently sloping, circular rock mound.

I haven't been able to find any photos of this long-gone simulated volcano, unfortunately. Going by the description above it could've been anything from a clever bit of tasteful landscaping to full-on midcentury tiki cheese. It certainly wouldn't have measured up to the then-brand-spanking-new, all-singing, all-dancing volcano at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Which a lot of locals would have seen, Vegas being the "ninth island" and all. I did run across a 1971 photo of the intersection showing buildings where the park is now, and a comment on that page says the visible building was a rock club/bar in a former 1930s ice cream hut, and out of frame there was a local market in a former Piggly Wiggly building, all of which were demolished to make room for the park within a few years of the photo. (The county GIS system gives dates in the 1973-1978 range for the acquisition & bulldozing work.) And yes, there was an environmental assessment for the original park work too, though the only thing about it I can find is a September 1977 summary. I dunno, I actually kind of enjoy reading those things, and I realize I may be the only person who does.

Another photo from ~1965 shows a midcentury Japanese teahouse that once stood across the street from the park, which was demolished around 1991 to make room for a sleeker, more upscale... Japanese teahouse. Which went out of business a few years later, and the building has sat empty ever since, though I understand the parking garage is still open. I haven't found any old news articles to prove this but it sure looks like was a concerted (and largely unsuccessful) effort in the 90s to take this whole area of Waikiki upscale. Another big example of this is right on the other side of the park's once-eponymous hotel, where you'll find the long-vacant King Kalākaua Plaza building, a four-story upscale retail plaza that opened in 1998, anchored by Niketown and Banana Republic flagship stores and an Official All-Star Cafe. The latter was one of those inexplicable 90s theme restaurant chains, a genre that no longer exists outside of the Las Vegas Strip, Times Square, and the more cartoonish parts of Florida. The retailers all cratered within a few years, and the fourth floor office space was never occupied at all, and despite an endless series of grand plans for the site it's remained empty ever since. Though like the teahouse the parking garage remains open for business. Though I'm not sure how underground parking even works when your building is just 5-7 feet above -- and a few blocks north of -- sea level.

The park also got a brief mention in someone's 2002 masters thesis about 3D visualization in highway planning. It seems that the city wanted to spruce up the intersection back in 2000 and built some kind of early VR model of the area to help imagine what the proposed sprucing might look like. Confusingly the thesis says this work was for the intersection of Kalakaua and Kapiolani. Which is a completely different intersection over by the Convention Center, across the Ala Wai canal from Waikiki proper. Where (as you can see on Street View) there's a distinct lack of anything that looks remotely like a park. So either the paper got a minor fact wrong and nobody noticed until now, or there's a second "Waikiki Gateway Park" out there that only exists in virtual reality. Which -- if nothing else -- is bound to cut down on maintenance costs. Either way, it would be kind of funny to see what either intersection looks like in vintage 90s VRML, but this was long before source control became cool, so if a copy still exists it's probably moldering away on a forgotten Zip disk in someone's office junk drawer. Oh well.

Ok, so at this point I have to pivot awkwardly back to the statue, because there's one other detail I was saving for the end. There's another plaque on the base of the statue, this one noting it (as in, the base and pedestal) had been laid by local Masons, as the king had been an active and high ranking member for many years, as had several of his predecessors. As a result the local organization owns a lot of historical artifacts and occasionally lends some of them out for display, including a royal Knights Templar sword (whatever that is) that somehow ended up at Sotheby's in New York in 2003. As far as I know there are no magical powers associated with the sword, or any sort of curse or prophesy or anything, and finding it in a D&D campaign would likely be a big disappointment, and the whole business seems rather silly. But say what you will, you never get stories like this coming out of rectangular corn states, so there's that at least.

Based on the statue's highly visible location, and the plaque's subject matter, and the usual inclinations of the 21st century internet, search results about it quickly descend into tinfoil hat territory after the first few pages of search results, because internet. Note that those links all go to recent Wayback Machine captures and not the sites themselves, since I'm mentioning them here strictly for entertainment purposes and not to send them traffic or spread their ideas. So instead of spending any more time on that, please enjoy that one semi-related song from that one show:

By way of contrast, here's what it looks like when actual Masons have a go at the same song, after a drink or two, or three, or so.


The combo of sugar money and an ambitious king did lead to an interesting historical episode in 1886-87. It's not really relevant to the rest of this post but hey. Kalākaua had big plans for his country despite the ongoing medical tragedy; word had reached him of a civil war erupting in Samoa, with the opposing factions backed by competing Western colonial powers (the UK, USA, and Germany, in this case) contending for influence in the South Pacific as they'd previously done elsewhere around the world. This was an unwelcome development as Hawaii was in a similar position, trying to avoid being gobbled up by one Western country or another. Kalākaua had ambitions beyond his own shores, though, imagining an ocean-spanning Polynesian Confederation powerful enough to keep the region from being sliced and diced into a bunch of crown colonies and overseas territories and whatnot. With, naturally, himself as the overall head of state of this far-flung new nation. So the Hawaiian Royal Navy's first (and as it turned out, only) modern navy ship was dispatched to Samoa for a little gunboat diplomacy, and actually got as far as signing a confederation treaty with the kingdom's preferred local ruler, while almost going to war with Germany in the process. Meanwhile back home in Hawaii the sugar oligarchs decided Kalākaua had gotten too big for his britches and staged a coup, forcing the king to sign a new "Bayonet Constitution" that strictly limited his authority. This was sold to the world as introducing a modern constitutional monarchy, but the new constitution also altered voting rules such that rich foreigners could now vote, but at least 2/3 of local residents could not, thus ensuring a majority white male legislature for the remainder of the kingdom's existence. As a result of all this, the Samoa expedition was called home, and the ship was quickly sold and the navy disbanded. So yeah, the king's brief attempt at a more assertive foreign policy didn't really play out the way he'd hoped. Or at least not in our timeline. An alternate history forum thread I ran across explores some of the inevitable "What If?" and "If So, How?" questions.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

photo outage

For those of you out there who check this tiny lil' blog obsessively, looking for the latest newly-published post that I probably started in the mid-2010s and just finished, you might have noticed some ugly 504 Gateway Timeout errors where there ought to have been embedded Flickr slideshows. The deal is that there was a huge Amazon Web Services outage earlier today (though it's apparently back to normal now), which caused a total Flickr outage since they rely heavily on AWS, and that in turn caused a partial outage here, as in no photos for a few hours. No permanent harm done, from what I can tell, and no lost revenue because I didn't have any in the first place.

I only mention all of this because a core best practice in this exciting modern DevOps universe is to maintain a status blog and write a post on it whenever you have an outage, explaining what happened. Everybody says that explaining is very, very important, and explaining things is basically all I do here, so I figured somebody out there might be expecting an official status post or something. Which would go here, because this blog is its own status blog. The reason this is important is not because you necessarily expect customers to understand, but they're apparently flattered that you even tried to, and then they can repeat the explanation to other people and sound smart. For bonus points, you can make it an apology that doubles as a job posting, as this outage was minimized on your end thanks to some advanced tools you wrote in-house using the latest and trendiest language of the year, and you're thinking about open-sourcing these tools if only you could hire someone as a maintainer. As it so happens my, uh, monitoring tool was me trying to find a photo to use as a new MS Teams background during an overlong meeting today. Which, on one hand, detected the outage without any annoying pagers going off, though on the other hand it doesn't scale up very well. As for the detailed explanation, Amazon will probably post one eventually here. When that happens, just imagine that statement plus me nodding along sagely to phrases like "Elastic Kubernetes" and "Flux Capacitor", and that's your official status update from here.

This particular outage annoyed me because I like to insist this humble little blog is a tiny one-person operation, and it's just me here puttering around pursuing various weird and eccentric hobbies and whatnot. And I like the idea that the site at least appears to exist outside of capitalism: No ads, nothing for sale, no sponsored guest posts, no affiliate links, nothing. And then an outage comes along and reminds me and everybody else that this is a reverse Wizard of Oz situation, with the twin corporate monoliths of Google and Amazon hiding behind a curtain & operating all of the actual machinery here. In theory I could probably host everything from home except for the embedded maps here, that would almost certainly be slower and less secure while also costing more, and doing a bunch of system administration at home as a hobby has never been my idea of a good time.