On New Year’s Eve 1889, the world changed with the first public demonstration by Thomas Edison of a practical and affordable light bulb and, not to be forgotten, a method of delivering electric power to same.
Unlike so much stuff, the electric light profoundly changed history and culture, for both good and ill as with most important innovations.
The History Channel has a version of the story, along with a couple of interesting videos.
Some damn serious music by the irrepressible Nina Simone. She is singing about the 1950s and early 1960s, but events in Ferguson this year remind us that rotten-to-the-core racism is still here, loud and proud.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how much of “our” body was actually composed of bacteria and similar organisms. Now, it seems, some of those brethren of ours may actually control how long we live, and how (un)comfortable our old age is. The reporting is from sciencedaily.com:
Using mathematical modeling, researchers at New York and Vanderbilt universities have shown that commensal bacteria that cause problems later in life most likely played a key role in stabilizing early human populations [which]… offers an explanation as to why humans co-evolved with microbes that can cause or contribute to cancer, inflammation, and degenerative diseases of aging.
The work sprung from a fundamental question in biology about senescence, or aging past the point of reproduction. “Nature has a central problem–it must have a way to remove old individuals, whether fish or trees or people,” says Martin Blaser, microbiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. “Resources are always limited. And young guys are ultimately competing with older ones.” In most species, individuals die shortly after the reproductive phase. But humans are weird–we have an extra long senescence phase.
Blaser began to think about the problem from the symbiotic microbe’s point of view and he came up with a hypothesis: “The great symbionts keep us alive when we are young, then after reproductive age, they start to kill us.” They are part of the biological clock of aging.
Sheesh! What do we get out of all this? Do you ever get the feeling it is these microbes that are running the whole scheme, and not us?
124 years ago today, one of the last and most egregiously violent acts in the always-violent campaign of the United States to eliminate the native North American population — a brutal genocide hidden behind the name of Manifest Destiny — took place at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Almost 300 Lakota — 200 of them women and children — were massacred by the US 7th Cavalry. In celebration, the US Congress awarded two dozen soldiers the Medal of Honour.
Frank Baum, who would later write the Wizard of Oz, wrote with sadness the following in response to the massacre: “Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Luckily, some of them survived
We should never forget that the strength of the United States was built on the genocide of its native peoples, and the slavery of another race, and when American statesmen complain about ISIS or Al-Qaeda or other so-called “terrorists”, they are mouthing an unspeakable hypocrisy.
a flat green blade growing from the stem of a plant,
the absorbing and digesting of
a body of myths
the property of becoming self-luminous
in the recognition of
fire and hunger and strong desire
the acceptance of the heat and light caused by burning;
a steady flow that rises
as the tide, and ebbs
known only to those of special comprehension,
something very white,
a leaf blown across the firmament
the beginning of all things, the nape
that links the body of one life to
the head of the next
I have in passing mentioned my disdain for quite a bit of contemporary “conceptual” art. I described one show as being “[l]ike a fart; it was unpleasant to be around, but the memory quickly fades in fresh air.” I have trouble seeing the work of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst as anything but marketing manipulations, and their influence seems malign. It is good to have it confirmed that I am not alone.
Jed Perl, art critic of The New Republic, has come out swinging in a long article called “Postcards From Nowhere“, which is his review of five major new exhibitions.
What there is to discuss is not visual experiences so much as visual stunts, which are frequently mind-boggling in their size and complexity. Mostly what I can offer, after all this museum going and gallery going, is a series of postcards about nothing written from places that felt like nowhere … It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money …
He complains vigourously about
the laissez-faire aesthetics that give collectors sanction to regard one of Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel balloon animals as simultaneously a camp joke and a modern equivalent of a Tang dynasty horse. (A critic in The New York Times described one of these glistening metal doggies, currently on display on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a “masterpiece.”)
… Koons is mostly concerned with massaging the egos of gallerygoers and museumgoers–and, of course, high-end collectors. He knows how to cozy up to his constituency. Those of us who are outraged that Koons and Hirst and Murakami now take up so much space in our museums are not angered by their work. We are angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work. There is no art here to enrage me–or to engage me, either.
He is particularly sharp against Takashi Turakami, currently enjoying a retrospective in Los Angeles.
In the case of Takashi Murakami … you cannot possibly understand what a safe haven for frauds and con artists the art world has become until you have walked into this trickster’s trap … the work is all shell, all facade, all empty assertion.
And he notes the baleful influence of the new style on the physical buildings.
This helps to explain the poorly defined character of so many new museums and galleries. These exhibition spaces, whether the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles or the New Museum in New York, are as incoherent as the art they have been designed to house. They are bland, generic warehouse-style spaces–places to dump expensive stuff. And the new style in exhibition design, especially at the Whitney Biennial, favors a chockablock look, with works set in front of one another so that nothing can be experienced in and of itself.
There is a great deal more of meaty discussion in the article. For anyone interested in contemporary art and its markets, It is well worth the time it takes to read.
Six years ago today we started to make our no-knead bread. We have made it every other day or so ever since and we rarely eat any other kind of bread. I just made our next loaf this morning. I was going through some old posts last night and came across the following which was posted on December 28th, 2008.
In 1977 there was a long bread strike in England. In some parts of the country one could pick up an expensive loaf from free-lance bakers; but I lived in a small town in Somerset and there was no alternative but to learn how to bake my own bread. I remember the first few times being serious disasters with an inedible product, but I eventually got the hang of it. Still, I was relieved when I could just pop down to the local store and get what I needed.
Fast forward thirty years. We live on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, home to a number of bakeries that are well-known and popular across the city — Fratelli’s, Uprising, Strawberry, Aran Spelt, and Pane Vero to name just a few. We’ve enjoyed bread from many of them over the years. But a few months ago, my bride started to bake her own version of Tuscan bread; most of the time we eat just that nowadays. It tastes good and the process makes the whole house smell magnificent.
Last week I came across the world’s most simple bread recipe — flour, yeast, salt and water. And best of all, no kneading is required! A lazy man’s dream. Last night I made the dough and this morning I cooked the loaf. It is great — very crusty on the outside, soft and airy in the middle, and with a clean straightforward taste. I’m pretty pleased with myself to be honest.
Six years is, I guess, not very long for a tradition; but I am sure it will continue.
The major Canadian literary prize, the Giller, was won in 2010 by Johanna Skibsrud’s “The Sentimentalists”. This book was published by a small boutique outfit called Gaspereau Press and was available only in a small edition typical of small presses (they specialize in runs of between 400 and 4,000 copies). The Giller would generally add tens of thousands to sales and a number of larger publishers offered to print a large run. Gaspereau however refused all offers, dismissing Random House et al. as people he wouldn’t want to do business with, and strongly defending tiny quality print runs.
That is one part of an interesting story. The other came in an interview that the publisher at Gaspereau had on CBC Radio where it was noted that Gaspereau has made an e-Book version of “The Sentimentalists” available to anyone online. The publisher dismissed that as merely “the text,” comparing it slightingly with the “book” and being condescending to those who would be content merely “to consume the text” rather than hold the book in their hands.
I understand where he is coming from but I am sure he simply does not see how that diminishes the author, who in this scheme of things merely wrote “the text”, and puts the publisher/binder in the position of artistic genius above them. The book is mightier than the text. Hmmm, I don’t think so.
I’m not interested in reading rubbish no matter how beautifully the physical object is crafted; and I would be happy to read DeLillo and Dos Passos and Richard Brautigan on scrap pieces of paper rather than not read them at all.
Over the years, I believe I have made clear my dislike of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Turakami and their ilk. They are the highest earning “artists” alive today, coining tens of millions per piece with work that I happen to think have the same value as those paintings on velvet you can still find in junk stores around the world. Everyone’s taste is different, and I don’t expect others to buy into my opinion.
I think of most of these pieces as bad or failed art, but an excellent article by Roger Scruton has allowed me to understand them better as part of the history of kitsch.
Nobody quite knows where the word “kitsch” came from, though it was current in Germany and Austria at the end of the 19th Century. Nobody knows quite how to define the word either. But we all recognize kitsch when we come across it. The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. At Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch – worn out cliches, which have lost their innocence without achieving wisdom …
The kitsch object encourages you to think, “Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.” That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens’s most sickly death-scenes, said that “a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell”.
Scruton describes the work of Koons and others as “pre-emptive kitsch”:
The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch. Far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. Pre-emptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch, and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials.
Take a porcelain statue of Michael Jackson cuddling his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, add cheesy colours and a layer of varnish. Set the figures up in the posture of a Madonna and child, endow them with soppy expressions as though challenging the spectator to vomit, and the result is such kitsch that it cannot possibly be kitsch. Jeff Koons must mean something else, we think, something deep and serious that we have missed.
There are three copies of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. One was sold more than a decade ago for $5.6 million.
Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself – namely its money value.
The intersection between “art” and “commerce” is always a tricky one. Good thoughtful article, well worth the read.
In my continuing effort to prove that I am no Luddite, I want everyone to know that I find the introduction of a technology-based real-time speech translator by Skype to be a marvelous thing indeed. They have started out with English and Spanish but promise more languages next year and onwards until all major languages are covered.
Skype Translator relies on machine learning, which means that the more the technology is used, the smarter it gets. We are starting with English and Spanish, and as more people use the Skype Translator preview with these languages, the quality will continually improve.
As the PR says, “people will no longer be hindered by geography and language.” The elites and their organizations, through their swarms of simultaneous translators, have for long been able to converse in real time with the elites of other nations and cultures. Now it seems, through technology, that access to the learning, knowledge, and wisdom of others will soon be available to the average Jane and Joe wherever they are from their own screens.
That is really neat, especially to a kid who grew up with sci-fi books in the 1950s that promised this very thing!
The following articles about our environmental impact on the world have caught my eye this week:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued a new report on the impact of climate change on fishing. Moreover, they report continued over-fishing of certain stocks. “The researchers found that black sea bass, scup, and summer flounder exhibited significant poleward shifts in distribution in at least one season. The shifts in black sea bass and scup were related to temperature, while the shift in summer flounder was related to a decrease in fishing pressure and an expansion of the population age structure. The southern New England/Mid-Atlantic Bight stock of winter flounder showed no change in distribution … Increasing ocean temperatures have significantly affected marine life, inducing shifts in distribution and changes in abundance.”
Chinese authorities have confirmed that the southern glaciers in that country are fast disappearing. These glaciers are “a critical source of water for drinking and irrigation in India are receding fast, according to a new comprehensive inventory. In the short term, retreating glaciers may release greater meltwater, ‘but it will be exhausted when glaciers disappear under a continuous warming,’ says Liu Shiyin, who led the survey for the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute in Lanzhou.”
And did a TV stunt about an anaconda eating a scientist help or hinder efforts to save the Peruvian jungle and its fauna from devastating and illegal gold mining? “Due to runoff from the illegal gold mining, today nine out of the fifteen fish most commonly consumed in the Madre de Dios region have mercury levels higher than are deemed safe by the US EPA. The result is that 78% of the human population in the region has dangerously high mercury levels in their bodies, a problem especially perilous for pregnant mothers.” The scientist tells his highly persuasive tale about a serious mission to protect snakes and people.
Previous What Are We Doing? posts
One of the finest songs ever recorded just happens to be about Christmas!
Phil Spector’s 1963 wall-of-sound Christmas album was probably the first LP I bought with my own money (earned from my paper route).
Growing up in a slummed out bombed out working class district in West London in the early 1950s, there was little formal intellectual stimulation. I got lucky in two ways. First, my grandfather was an engine driver (a locomotive engineer) and his union, ASLEF, were big supporters of Adult Education. The union arranged for its members and their families to attend lectures and films. Through them I was lucky enough to attend several years of lectures for children at the Royal Society where I learned in a most entertaining way the basic laws of physics and the solar system. Second, there was my Uncle Jack.
Uncle Jack was the brother of my mother’s oldest sister’s husband. In the 1930s, Jack was a bum, a hobo traveling the roads of England. At some point he decided that was not the future he wanted and, passing the entrance exam that was available back then, he entered Oxford University where he eventually became a professor of sociological statistics. Jack never married or dated (so far as I know) and never drove a car until much later in life he visited the States and became enamoured of wide-finned machines.
Uncle Jack’s niece was my cousin Pauline. She was a little less than a year older than me and we were quite close friends. Whenever he was in town, Jack would take Pauline and me on special outings: we would row on the river, or visit museums. He took us to the very first fast-food burger joint in London, and somewhere else he taught us the joys of Knickerbocker Glory and Banana Split ice cream sundaes, which hadn’t even been dreamt of in my imagination. He treated us with the seriousness that we deserved, and we appreciated that. He liked his beer (it would be his brother who introduced me to the pleasure of bitter ale when I was just twelve) but every year he would bring to our house a fine bottle of wine from the Oxford cellars for my father and he would decant it himself by the fire.
It was through my Uncle Jack that I was signed up to attend annual lectures for children at the Royal Institute of British Architects. I became acquainted with the Greek orders, the structure of temples, Palladianism (as illustrated by Chiswick House, where my mother used to take me to play in the park), and Sir Christopher Wren.
As I got older, I continued to attend lectures at RIBA and elsewhere. It was through these that I learned about Le Corbusier (generally a god to the lecturers), Robert Moses, and had my first taste of approved brutalism (oops, I meant modernism). Luckily I had been brought up in a neighbourhood which, having had large portions bombed flat during the war, had undergone an earlier version of “urban renewal” and so I was already familiar with the failures of central planning.
Most of my relatives lived in subsidized housing projects (called “council estates” in Britain), huge multi-storied blocks linked with concrete walkways. I particularly remember the rubbish chutes on each floor, the fact that the ground floor always smelled like a garbage dump, there were wide boys (or spivs) selling stolen property in the carpark, and gangs of kids hanging around the stairwells (thankfully, I knew most of them and wasn’t often troubled). Looking back, these were terrible places to live and bring up a family (although my own family’s privately rented fourth floor cold-water walk up tenement was no better, that’s for sure — and they had hot water.)
I didn’t become an architect or anything like that, but my interest in urban design remained. I attended further lectures in London and Manchester before I left England, and I read Geddes and Mumford and Jacobs. It was Robert Caro’s majestic multi-volume biography of Robert Moses that enlightened me the most, though, about central planning and the social disasters that nearly always befall that sorry exercise.
When I came to Vancouver in the late 1970s, activists had already scared off most urban renewal projects, including the freeway that would have devastated Grandview, Strathcona, and Chinatown, although we did have numerous housing projects in place, such as Stamps Place, Little Mountain, and Nicholson Place. I came here pre-Expo and watched in awe as the city planners grew our city to met the event.
For twenty years or more, as Vancouver City Planning worked its way through the original Local Area Plan or LAP (which gave us the Grandview we love today), City Plan, and Community Visions systems, I was proud to tell the world about how well our planners had done. I watched as they built a world-class city based in large part on retaining the diversity of our neighbourhoods. That all changed in 2005, of course, and city planning here has gone downhill ever since, as you can read about relentlessly elsewhere on this blog.
What triggered this rememberance was a snippet of an article I read (and which I have subsequently lost) which argued forcefully in favour of a renewed need for good old-fashioned urban renewal. Almost immediately after, I read a Washington Post book review of a new biography of Le Corbusier. “In ‘Modern Man,‘ Anthony Flint attempts to liberate Le Corbusier from the indictments that have plagued his legacy.
His ideas and his template for disruption have value that has been obscured by the withering dismissal of those who see him as the destroyer of cities,” Flint argues. “There is much that works and much to be learned from Le Corbusier — and it’s in danger of being tossed aside, a baby thrown out with the modernist bathwater.”
Too late, I say, and thank goodness: Le Corbusier and his fascistic technocracy is dead (although there are some might say that Vision Vancouver’s social engineering-via-development agenda comes close). We learned that lesson at least once. We can only hope that the Chinese with their numerous and entirely vacant centrally-planned mega-cities will catch on soon, and that Vancouver activists can at least blunt the edges of Vision’s cruel vision for our beautiful city.
For those who might be interested, Uncle Jack, after many years in the quiet of English academia, gained a posting to Stanford, discovered America, women, and fast cars with more chrome than style. After two years of that, exhausted, he returned to a tenured professorship at Sheffield University in England. One summer in the 1970s he travelled to the south island of New Zealand for an adventure holiday in the wilderness. He never came back; just decided he liked it well enough and would stay. If he is still alive he will be in the his mid-90s. A grand man from whom I learned much.