Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The House Is on Fire

If your neighbor’s house is burning, you’re not gonna spend a whole lot of time saying "Well, that guy was always irresponsible. He always left the stove on. He always was smoking in bed." All those things may be true, but his house could end up affecting your house.
We’ve got to make sure that we put the fire out and then go start making sure that these folks stop leaving the stove on.
- Barack Obama speaking to a crowd of 12,000 at the University of Nevada, Reno

James Nachtwey's TED Wish

I don't know what James Nachtwey is working on for October 3rd, but if he's delivering it, I'm there. As you probably know, winners of the TED Prize are given the opportunity to fulfill a wish. Control Room director Jehane Noujaim, for example, decided on a concept of international short-film sharing, which turned into Pangea Day. What we know about Nachtwey's project: 
James Nachtwey is preparing to reveal his photographs, which highlight a shocking and underreported global crisis. Over the past 18 months, the TED community have been working with James to gain access to locations he wished to photograph, and to prepare spectacular plans for unveiling these pictures.
Here we learn that the results of Nachtwey's project will be projected on buildings and shown on screens in public all around the world at the indicated times and places.

Socialism for the Rich

For years now, they’ve told us that we can’t afford — that the government providing healthcare to all people is just unimaginable; it can’t be done. We don’t have the money to rebuild our infrastructure. We don’t have the money to wipe out poverty. We can’t do it. But all of a sudden, yeah, we do have $700 billion for a bailout of Wall Street.
—Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
(Via Panopticist )

Monday, September 29, 2008

RIP Invisible Hand

Adam's Smith's "Invisible Hand" died today and was buried after a short ceremony at the rear end of Wall Street's famous bull statue. The Invisible Hand was just 232 years old. It leaves behind scores of still faithful adherants, hundreds of bankrupt companies, and millions of former employees with diminished retirement accounts.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Regarding the Pain of Others

Over a passage of time, this series of photos by Nina Berman depicts Iraq veteran Ty Ziegel and his girlfriend. Berman captures the couple before Ziegel went to war, Ziegel as a handsome soldier serving overseas, Ziegel disfigured by a horrible accident on the battlefield, Ziegel and Kline on their wedding day, and Ziegel alone, after the couple separated and eventually divorced three months after their marriage. It's not my intention to sensationalize those events in a young man's life, only to point out the power of photography to place his story before us. We know war is hell, but we're seldom confronted with its consequences. I don't think I'm politicizing Ziegel's story if I say, we this series of images serves as a pointed reminder that we should be damn sure we're initiating a war for good reasons before sending our young men and women over there, the length of their lives stretched out before them. I have to note that I feel somewhat trite even writing the preceding, since the point seems obvious. If only we'd adhered to the principle.

The photography blog BagNewsNotes posted an image from this series in early 2007. Reading the comments on that post, it's both poignant and shocking to see how they encapsulate hope and well wishes upon Ziegel's marriage. Yet the full photo series tell a different story. Kudo to Ziegel for allowing the entire story to be told.

Regarding the Pain of Others is, of course, the title of Susan Sontag's book on the impact of photography's depictions of violence and atrocities.

Outsiders NY

It turns out the JR mural I've been photographing lately is part of a street art exhibit entitled "Outsiders NY," which just opened in that building and will be there until October 12th. I walked through it late this afternoon and photographed many of the works on display, including the detail from a JR photomontage above.

Outsiders, NY is on display at 282-284 Bowery in New York from September 26th until October 12th. Open 11am - 7pm daily.

Also, I noticed I've accumulated so many images of Obama in street art , so I created a new set called precisely that.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

RIP Paul Newman

Paul Newman, you were one classy, classy guy. Can't imagine the young whippersnapper actor who'd replace you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Losin' Dough

As heard on Zero 7's Another Late Night entry:
Wall Street losin' dough on every share
They're blaming it on longer hair
Big men smokin' in their easy chairs
On a fat cigar without a care

But that's what makes the world go `round
The up and down, the carousel
Changing people, they'll go around
Go underground, young man
People make the world go `round

-The Stylistics, "People Make the World Go Round"
-Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed

Skinner Covers Dawkins

Just listening to the new single by Mike Skinner AKA The Streets and had to wonder if he were paraphrasing Richard Dawkins. You decide:
For billions of years, since the outset of time
Every single one of your ancestors survived
Every single person on your mum and dad's side
Successfully looked after and passed onto you life
What are the chances of that like?

- The Streets, "On the Edge of a Cliff"
Compare with:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. ...

[T]he instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.

The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn't bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:

Napoleon started it all. If it weren't for him, I might not be sitting here now writing these words ... for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of my great-great-grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.

Morris tells how his ancestor's enforced change of career had various knock-on effects culminating in his own interest in natural history. But he really needn't have bothered. There's no 'might' about it. Of course he owes his very existence to Napoleon. So do I and so do you. Napoleon didn't have to shoot off James Morris's arm in order to seal young Desmond's fate, and yours and mine, too. Not just Napoleon but the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else's instead. I'm not talking about 'chaos theory', or the equally trendy 'complexity theory', but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.

- Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow
Turns out I'm not the first to notice the Skinner/Dawkins connection.

Quote for the Day

"In America, the only respectable form of socialism is socialism for the rich."

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, September 21, 2008


In an NYT op-ed entitled "Art of Darkness" this weekend, Jonathan Lethem laments the fact that no one has been held accountable for the events of the past few years and that it's a pattern that's now being repeated in the financial sector.
If, like me, you’d hoped, distantly, vaguely, probably idiotically, that the 2008 presidential contest might be a referendum on truths documented since the previous presidential election, guess again. That our Iraqi invasion was founded on opportunistic lies, that it was hungered for by its planners in advance of the enabling excuse of 9/11, is a well-delineated blot on American history. But for those of us interested in a conversation about accountability it was always declared to be too soon — we remained unsure of the evidence, or too traumatized to risk fraying the national morale — until the moment when it was abruptly too late, when it became old news.

Yet I suspect it is still the news. While both candidates run on the premise that Washington Is Broken, I’m disinclined to disagree, only to add: our good faith with ourselves is broken, too, a cost of silencing or at best mumbling the most crucial truths. Among these, pre-eminently, is the fact that torture evaporates our every rational claim to justice, and will likely be the signature national crime of our generation — a matter in which we are, by the very definition of democracy, complicit.
Reading this Salon article by Glenn Greenwald, I'd have to say we're seeing Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine in action all over again. A quick visit to her site reveals she feels the same way: It currently showcases a series of articles around the theme of "Disaster Capitalism in Action," all of which discuss the unfloding government bailout of the financial services sector. 

A friend, mapkid, also points out this article by Senator Bernie Sanders. He calls for some accountability, too: 
[I]n addition to protecting the average American from being saddled with the cost, any serious proposal has to include reforms so that we end the type of behavior that led to this crisis in the first place. Much of this activity can be traced to specific legislation that broke down regulatory safety walls in the financial sector and allowed banks and others to engage in new types of risky transactions that are at the heart of this crisis. That deregulation needs to be repealed. Wall Street has shown it cannot be trusted to police itself. We need to reinstate a strong regulatory system that protects our economy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mind-Blowing Street Art

Houston Wheat Paste - JR

I walked down to Houston tonight and was confronted with this, the most gargantuan piece of wheat paste art I've ever seen. I hope some photos, too, which I'll post if they came out OK. Took them in the dark with taxis whizzing by. It's simply jaw-dropping. At Houston and Bowery, dwarfing the Shep Fairey art on the same corner.

Update: Added some photos to Flickr I took this morning (Saturday, 20th), including the one above. Of course, it's already been tagged - over night, I think.

Update 2: Apparently the creator of the above wheat paste, a French photographer named JR, recently completed a number of similar efforts in Rio De Janeiro. According to Boston.com's The Big Picture photo blog, "JR has focused attention on women - relatives of victims of violence - by displaying their large portraits in one of Rio de Janeiro's hardest hit neighborhoods." I'm sure his work on Houston must be part of a similar effort. The Wooster Collective has more extraordinary photos.

There's also a Web site dedicated to explaining the project. There JR explains:
The Women project wants to underline their pivotal role and to highlight their dignity by shooting them in their daily lives and posting them on the walls of their country.

On the other hand, by posting the same images of these women in Western countries, the project allows everyone to feel concerned by their condition and connects, through art, the two different worlds.
A remarkable project.

Also, JR's site, which currently feature's the Houston mural on the homepage. And a Flickr photo by lucky_dog of the wheatpaste actually going up.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shift Happens

Some interesting and sobering stats from "Shift Happens," one of the most popular presentations on Slideshare.net:
  • The 25% of the Chinese population with the highest IQs is greater than the population of the United States
  • In India, the top 28%.
  • The U.S. ranks 20th in the world in broadband penetration
  • In 2002, Nintendo invested over $140 million in R&D.
  • The U.S. government spent less than half of that on research and innovation in education
  • 1 in 8 couple married in 2005 met online
  • The number of text messages sent and received each day exceeds the population of the planet
  • The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years
  • So, if you're a college student, what you've learned is outdated before you graduate

Top 5 Things I Learnt About Feminism from Conservapedia

Conservapedia is a clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth. ...

No other encyclopedic resource on the internet is free of corruption by liberal untruths.
- from the About Conservapedia page on Conservapedia.com
According to Conservapedia, feminists:
  • oppose chivalry and even feign insult at harmless displays of it
  • shirk traditional gender activities, like baking
  • detest women who are happy in traditional roles, such as housewife
  • prefer that women wear pants rather than dresses, presumably because men do
  • seek women in combat in the military just like men, and coed submarines
Coed submarines! The horror! Funny, none of the self-proclaimed feminists I've had the pleasure of dating have minded my displays of chivalry. And I've met some fabulous feminist bakers. And knitters. You get the point. 

You could argue that I've been selective in what I've pulled from the entry. But that's the point. The fact that any of this nonsense survives in the entry at all undermines the seriousness and authority of the enterprise.
Neither is Wikipedia a "liberal" version of Conservapedia. I'd be happy to critique a genuinely liberal version of an Encyclopedia for its misrepresentation or emotionally loaded presentation of facts and for making stuff up, as well. It's that principle that makes me a reluctant visitor to Huffington Post, et al.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tangled Bank

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
Thanks to the folks at Science Made Cool for linking to my previous post. They are responsible for curating the posts included in the latest edition of the Tangled Bank, "a carnival of science bloggers where you’re guaranteed to learn something new and exciting."

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Future Impact of Neuroscience Upon Jurisprudence

I'm reading The Best Technology Writing of 2008 (kindly provided to me for review by The University of Michigan Press) and finishing up Jeffrey Rosen's excellent March, 2007 article, "The Brain on the Stand," which details how advances in neuroscience may affect the U.S. legal system in the near future. To wit, if we discover that some people are predisposed neurologically to anger, how can we hold them responsible for their actions in the same way we do now? He interviews Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who asserts a more skeptical tone, suggesting that just because a neurological condition can be established in an individual, we may not automatically absolve them of responsibility. But Morse also concedes that some conclusions might have an inevitable impact upon our legal system:
“Suppose neuroscience could reveal that reason actually plays no role in determining human behavior,” he suggests tantalizingly. “Suppose I could show you that your intentions and your reasons for your actions are post hoc rationalizations that somehow your brain generates to explain to you what your brain has already done” without your conscious participation. If neuroscience could reveal us to be automatons in this respect, Morse is prepared to agree with Greene and Cohen that criminal law would have to abandon its current ideas about responsibility and seek other ways of protecting society.
Rosen has apparently stated his fear more explicitly elsewhere that these conclusions could lead to a society, which embraces the pre-emptive incarceration of those likely to commit crimes (well, we're already doing this in principle at the international level, right?), instead of punishing people for committing actual crimes.

That wasn't my first thought, though. My first thought was that, should this sort of empirical data amass to significant proportions, it might likely make society feel much more comfortable with genetic engineering. If you know you can isolate the neurological problem, wouldn't the next step be to prevent it genetically? After all, you might argue, it'd be like preventing cancer - only if you're preventing the creation of, say, a serial killer, so you might be saving several lives.

So, do we end up with a future of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report? Or Gattaca? Seems like one of the two is inevitable. We just have to agree to which we feel more comfortable embracing. Was Gattaca just a worse-case scenario? Is there a best-case scenario for genetic engineering we'll have to consider as a species?

Also under neurology: Robert Burton's recent Salon article, "Born that Gay," asks "Do recent neurological studies prove once and for all that homosexuality is biological?" Short answer: Yes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Learning How to Think

[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

- David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College
Via Gawker

Rest in Peace, David Foster Wallace

McSweeney's has pretty much turned into a tribute to Wallace for the time being, with writing from various contributors, which makes for some exceptionally compelling reading. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Obama in the Wayback Machine

A young civil rights lawyer and writer by the name of Barack Obama critiques The Bell Curve way in October 1994:
The idea that inferior genes account for the problems of the poor in general, and blacks in particular, isn't new, of course. Racial supremacists have been using IQ tests to support their theories since the turn of the century. The arguments against such dubious science aren't new either. Scientists have repeatedly told us that genes don't vary much from one race to another, and psychologists have pointed out the role that language and other cultural barriers can play in depressing minority test scores, and no one disputes that children whose mothers smoke crack when they're pregnant are going to have developmental problems.

Now, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out that with early intervention such problems can be prevented. But Mr. Murray isn't interested in prevention. He's interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor. With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it's artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell. It's easy to see the basis for Mr. Murray's calculations. After watching their income stagnate or decline over the past decade, the majority of Americans are in an ugly mood and deeply resent any advantages, real or perceived, that minorities may enjoy.
Obama was barely 33 years old at the time.

I was 25 then and I gave a presentation on the The Bell Curve in grad school for a Research in Education class around the same time. Oh, how I wish I could go back and do that again, knowing what I know about that tome and Charles Murray now!

Rosler & Koudelka

MArtha Rossler - Point & Shoot

New York photographer Martha Rosler has work on display, which I hope to see at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Her Photoshop mashups combine images of war and American consumerism. One particularly striking image, "Point and Shoot," shows a super model strolling the streets of (presumably) occupied Baghdad. Especially relevant during Fashion Week.

Rossler's exhibit, "Great Power" runs until October 11th.

Koudelka - Russian Tank in Prague

Additionally, New York being the embarrassment of riches for photography fans that it is, there's a Josef Koudelka exhibit, "Invasion 68: Prague," on at Pace/McGill Gallery until October 30th, as well. Koudelka's a Czech photographer, who worked for Magnum in the '70s. Still working at 70, he's certainly among the world's greatest living photographers.

Google image search for Josef Koudelka
Magnum Photo profile of Koudelka

As you'll note, tanks figure in both exhibits.

East Village, New York, 9/11/08

East Village, New York, 9/11/08

See the above photo, taken tonight, and my This Is New York City photoset on Flickr.

Thoughts on 9/11? Not many. Osama Bin Laden's uncaught. Afghanistan's getting worse while we pour money into Iraq. The war's spreading to Pakistan. We may still be adolescent enough as a nation to elect John McCain President, who's less inclined to diplomacy, more to military might as a solution. (We live in a Bizarro world where the word "diplomacy" is often spoken with contempt, as is the word "liberal.") We're obsessed with the superficial and the facile - witness the praise heaped upon a scarcely qualified VP candidate - and it's greasing the way to our downfall. But, hey, there's a new iPod coming out and it's even thinner than the old one with more storage. Good times.

Apologies for the bitter tone. I think, like many, I just feel shocked (shocked) at how easily so many others are suckered in by the (not even admirable or appealing) surface of things. Sarah Palin's introductory speech to her fellow-countrymen was laced with venom and condescension; nonetheless, she won the instant, unqualified admiration of millions.

Still, take a breath, I tell myself. Take a break from the political blogs. There is still beauty in the world

  • Watch this absorbing video lecture on "Will China and India Dominate the 21st Century Global Economy?" Answer: an unreserved "Yes."
  • Wigsalon is taking advantage of the instant craze for, yes, Sarah Palin wigs.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Murakami on Memory

"You know what I think?" she says. "That people’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They’re all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of then-thousand-yet bills: when you feed ‘em to the fire, they’re all just paper. The fire isn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is Kant,’ or ‘Oh, this is the Yomiuri evening edition,’ or ‘Nice tits,’ while it burns. To the fire, they’re nothing but scraps of paper. It’s the exact same thing. Important memories, not-so-important memories, totally useless memories: there’s no distinction-they’re all just fuel." ...

"You know, I think if I didn't have that fuel, if I didn't have those memory drawers inside me, I would've snapped a long time ago. I would've curled up in a ditch somewhere and died. It's because I can pull the memories out of the drawers when I have to- the important ones and the useless ones- that I can go on living this nightmare of a life. I might think I can't take it anymore, that I can't go on anymore, but one way or another I get past that."

- from After Dark by Haruki Murakami