Strauss Trunnion Bascule


The day after a very painful election result it’s tempting to rant, but rather than dropping multiple tons of science from altitude (as is my usual habit), I think perhaps lowering some very gently and under control is a better idea – anyhow, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this funny little set of photos – so bear with me a minute.

This is the second bridge one encounters when heading down Cherry Street to the small but now quite lovely Cherry Beach, which is sheltered by Tom Thompson park (on the ever more verdant Leslie St spit) its small bay also populated by at least three tiny ‘outer harbour’ marinas. (Makes me wonder – do the serious sailors like to be closer to the city, or is better if the dock is harder to get to, but the open lake itself considerably easier?)

Scale and counterweight (top photo)

We wondered from a distance about the size and materials involved in those counterweights. Turns out that each of them is one massive (and one hopes very intelligently reinforced) concrete ‘pour’. As for their size – Nada standing underneath one gives us a good idea – gigantic!

The exquisite thing about going to all the trouble to craft counterweights that take you so close to equilibrium of course, is that you’ve already taken care of almost all of the important work that the bridge will ever do, up front – taken the herculean task of heaving the heavy mass of the steel bridge and made it easily manageable. No longer about lifting vast weight, it is mostly a problem of overcoming inertia.

There’s a second design elegance I quite like – someone thought to sculpt out the bottoms of the counterweights, so they wouldn’t crush any pedestrians. Mind you, I’d still be a little nervous biking underneath one when the bridge was coming up (standing rider plus helmet was probably not the vertical clearance they had in mind, back then).

The machine-house

Oh man – the line-man in me gets excited when I look at this – and so does my sentimental inner wobbly – the very height of thirties industrial chic!

Plus, this is one of those spots built by workers to do important industrial work, (back when they still had it). Intrigues and informs in the same way as a site-manager’s drawing table, or a surveyor’s choice of optics. Everything is anything but arbitrary.

I suspect that for a generation or two, the skill of conceiving of such construction, let alone a refined design within that specialized medium, fell away completely. However, though invisible to many (video-games are the greatest generational split in culture, currently active) these historical designs are among many arts now being revived, to create both splendid historical and entertaining dystopian virtual worlds! (More on generally overlooked but surprisingly optimistic signs within that subculture, soon).

Back to equilibrium, workers and industrial chic, for just a moment.

The revolutionary thing about Reagan and Thatcher was that they convinced the middle class to stop thinking of themselves as working class people who had done well (general sympathy with the poor and struggling), and instead start thinking of themselves as rich people who had been ripped-off (jealousy of, turned into sympathy for, the ruling class).

This worked embarrassingly well – and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

It also meant that the equilibrium of public opinion has shifted far out of balance between the rich and poor, which has made it much much more difficult for workers and the poor to get a voice, or to make any dent at all in policy.  Even that policy specifically draughted to address their needs, really mostly works to serve the needs of the condescending/administering class.  There are of course many well-meaners along with the lazy incompetent and cynical.  But that ‘saviour class’ absolutely dominates the dollars, the structure and the rules of the game.  No one ever involves those who are experiencing the extreme stress of poverty as the crucial experts they are, and as if their experience and dignity count for something.  Social programs aren’t designed by or with them, but are almost always pointed at them from on high.

Ever since that mass political selfishness revolution, the left has been on the defensive, as workers have been stripped of pensions, dignity, safety and a living wage, while at the same time we’ve been philosophically assaulted from both sides by gleeful Madison Avenue neoliberalism and neofascism – with a shocking number of media outlets earnestly insisting these are now our only two possible options.

Sadly, we’ve been suckers, and let them dominate every important debate with two wrong answers presented as solutions – and we’ve pretended this ‘range’ (which is always heads I win, tails you lose) represents open debate and a state of freedom.  By buying into the twinned-nonsense plan for decades, we’ve almost forgot how to think, debate and compromise for ourselves, without handy dumbed down corporate supplied arguments – even though we all know perfectly well that both sides are offering us sugar-coated ecological suicide pills, which can only possibly profit the sellers of the illusion, and of the means of our own self-authored demise – (and even then, not for too much longer – the ‘projected customer base’ shrinks rather rapidily on that model).

Trussed Worthy

Oh, the math of it!  I find these visual geometries inherently exciting – and beyond that, they point to something really nifty about technology that those who don’t swing tools all day for a living, sometimes fail to adequately appreciate.

Every solution is built on a smaller solution, and is then added to the all the solutions we know, to advance our understanding of the problem that hasn’t quite been solved yet – until that problem is solved – at which point that whole library of solutions becomes one module of the sum solutions available to be incorporated into the next cycle – as a language-based extension of our technological understanding!

The Warren Truss (triangulated open beams, seen here) was used a lot in early aircraft design, for bridges, and even to create strong but much lighter floor supports, which allowed taller skyscraper construction (the tradeoff of structural weight versus total load borne, is a lot like the tradeoff in rocketry between the weight of the fuel and the (shockingly high) proportion of total thrust required to lift it). Plus, this photo makes me think of John Malkovich as a tone-perfect arrogant art teacher in the brilliant “Art School confidential” – and his wonderful boast “Yes, I’m the one who started triangles”.

But there is also something metaphorical here which we can benefit from considering more often and deeply. How strong interconnected and unified are we as a society? How light and nimble, how well-balanced? Can we carry the heavy weight, but still get out of the way of a freighter, bearing down on us? And if not – why not? We used to know how to work this bridge – or it wouldn’t be here.

There are so many justifications for anger, no question – fantastic ones, too – many of them heartbreaking – and so what? Anyone who thinks we’re going to win anything lasting by amplifying our already blinding indignation – rather than organizing to win and consolidate practical gains intelligently – is missing a huge (elephant/room) point.

We are and we aren’t who we were – and we have and we haven’t realized that.

Means of control

First of all – we have to recognize that we haven’t yet updated our appeal, in order to swing the centre around to a position of equilibrium. Way more middle-classers are still feeling like ripped-off rich people, than awfully fortunate workers. The fact that many are in an objectively worse position than they were (or would have been) twenty years ago, makes this challenge much harder to surmount. Emotionally, outrage feels entirely justified – if justification is our primary goal. On the other hand, we have every reason to remember and rekindle sympathy for the poor and bottom-end working class when we find ourselves among them – or just a paycheque or two away at best.

But lets also remember something here – we are a far more docile group than those of a couple generations ago. This seems to be completely unrelated to policy decisions, both repressive and permissive (but may well be related to our highly paranoid and again Madison Avenue shaped perceptions), actual levels of violent crime in most stable and developed countries around the world, are a fraction of what they were at their peak (best suspect for cause of that peak is currently once ubiquitous leaded gasoline having a negative impact on foetal development, permanently diminishing impulse-control).

So – next time you are tempted to sneer at a younger person for not being as wild and daring with their youth as you were – remember – not only are they carrying more student debt, paying more for rent, and earning a heck of a lot less then you were in that phase of your life – they also aren’t nearly as structurally brain-damaged! ;o)

But seriously, though – if anger was ever going to work, it would have worked back when the youth of North America were not only numerically overwhelming and righteously furious, but also incomparably more violent (on a clear, though of course statistically distributed basis).

What can actually move the weight of the bridge again? Shifting the equilibrium – and this is where individuals can still make all the difference in the world. Rather than raging and despairing, we need to be talking with the unconvinced, the skeptical, the angry, and bringing them in toward a more humane centre.  And we can only hope to change others with our dialogue, when we are just as open to being changed ourselves.

“What is a good man, but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man, but a good man’s job?”

(From Stephen Mitchell’s controversial but rather lovely translation of the book of the Tao)

Also, before I move on – the 1st gen gamer in me can’t help screaming “Zork!” Just from looking at that lovely old control panel. Get all the switches right – and the whole gigantic dam behind you drains completely! The first truly epic moment in all of gaming history!  Mind you, this was text-based, and so had (via McLuhan) immaculate (because imagined) visual resolution.

Mister Strauss Trunnion Bascule himself (or so I shall always presume)

I am even going to go so far as to consider that an excellent likeness, and proceed on that basis (no disrespect to the engineers, only mean to say that I’m switching to art-head, now).

So – what(TF) do we do, when it feels like we’re fighting an endless losing battle, and the established parties and powers aren’t listening to us, or even proposing to steer in a way we consider fully sensible?

What can we do? I mean that literally – what kind of art can each of us do – what kind of volunteer work, to reach someone who needs our attention and help? What kind of sensitive outreach, to touch a bitter heart, and by warming it, help to denature it’s poison?

There are as many ways to approach the question as there are of us – and more – we each have many alternate approaches available – which means no single try-and-fail should ever lock us into a big failure feeling – it’s just another lesson, which can help us do better next go-round.  But only if we TRY and KEEP TRYING!

The sun is still rising, the plants are still teaching us about resilience – we still know what we know – and we still care as much as we care.

Which means we can still pour our hearts out – and just maybe, spread a little more caring and understanding out there in the world with our determined, humble, generous and/or creative efforts.

Help in some small way to bring the babbling Babylon of angry voices back from their corners, and perhaps even step out of the ring altogether, so we can once again know ourselves as the incredibly talented team that together built this too-proud ziggurat which we now forget how to even operate!  We are the only ones qualified to judge it, to remodel it (sensibly, and with extreme humility and constant careful observation) – or indeed, if need calls, to tear corrupt and proven harmful parts of our system down completely for the good (survival) of everyone on earth.

I say – let us take it upon ourselves to shift the equilibrium of sympathy and awareness for the poor back to the point where a couple of workers with a rusty old motor and a handy spanner to whack it with, are always enough to swing the masses into balance again as needed.

What do you say?

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