Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Short History of Photography

While I await my laundry finishing up in the dryer I might as well post this idea I had saved up.

A Short History of Photography:

Looking at photos from all around the world, noting those which have struck a particularly forceful impression upon us, or which had an unusually important role in history.

01. France - View from the Window of Le Gras - 1826
This is the first permanent photograph. Fittingly it is a view out a window, of the rooftops seen by Nicephore Niecepe, who also invented the internal combustion engine with his brother. What a show-off.

02. France - Boulevard du Temple - 1838
It was more than ten years later until Louis Daguerre (literally 'Louis of War') took the first picture of a person, indicating how the French feel about each other. Selfishly he named his process of development after himself, the Louisotype.

03. Mexico - Saltillo - 1847? 
The first photographs of war were captured of the Americans invading Mexico, by an anonymous ambulance-chaser apparently. The quality of the photograph is notably inferior to those of the French photographs above because, hey, you know what things are like south of the border. 

 04. Ukraine - The Valley of the Shadow of Death - 1855
Roger Fenton went to the Crimean War and took this photo. Or, rather, he took a photo, thought it wasn't gruesome enough, and so went back and added more cannonballs. True story. And then he gave it a priggish 'artistic' title. So begins pretentious art photography.

05. USA - Promontory Point - 1869
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad is a happier photo from the U.S. in the 1860s, since that was a decade of us primarily slaughtering each other. Taken by Charles Phelps Cushing this is exemplary of the classic awkwardness of staged photos of the day, a tradition persisting to the present.

06. China - Honan Soldiers - 1871 
Scotsman John 'China' Smith accidentally created this self-portrait which is very symbolic, juxtaposing thousands of years of traditional proud arrogance and savage grace with a couple of friendly Chinese guys.

07. USA - Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, Kneeling with Rifle - 1887
Geronimo was the last free native on Native American soil. Scarred as a young man so his face was a perpetual sneer, this photo was taken by Ben Wittick (asshole) after the legend had surrendered and was classified as a prisoner of war. So it's not really that threatening, seeing as it's staged and all. 

08. Germany - Wife's Hand - 1895
Taken by Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered the little buggers this is the first X Ray photograph. Not quite as awkward a story as the Curies' radiation poisoning, Rontgen also won the Nobel Prize, and also totally died from exposure to the stuff.*

 09. Congo - Nsala of Wala in the Nsongo District (Abir Concession) - 1904
Alice Harris was a missionary in the Belgian Congo when she took this photo, where the Abir Congo Company routinely savaged natives. Nsala is looking at the hand and foot of his five year old daughter. This image is part of a series that were sent back to Europe for the newspapers, beginning a tradition of making first world people feel bad about all the suffering caused on their behalf.

10. Peru - Machu Picchu - 1911
The early years of the 20th century distracted us from the terrors of photographs like the above by opening Egyptian tombs, scaling unscaled mountains and desecrating all manner of otherwise pristine places. Hiram Bingham III had a douchey enough name to 'discover' Machu Picchu, and then became a U.S. Senator. Go figure.

11. Soviet Union - Komsomol Member at the Wheel - 1929 
Arkady Shaikhet (pronounced 'shake it!') was a Red with an artistic side. Man, those Russkies sure made a lot of depictions Progress which would later sort of be ironic, didn't they? They just don't make proletariat industrial metaphors like they used to.

12. USA - Migrant Mother - 1936 
Dorothea Lange helped develop documentary style photography, as opposed to the soulless lies rendered above. This mother, Florence Owens Thompson, survived the Depression, and lived to see Reagan elected. So sort of a wash, really.

13. Japan - Battle of Iwo Jima Flag Raising - 1945 
But enough of depressing topics, let's get back to war photography. As is typical of war photographs, this was actually the second flag raising, the first photo being not at all inspiring or Pulitzer-worthy. The photographer Joe Rosenthal, ironically, was rejected by the Army for 'poor eyesight'. I guess he had a better eye for AMERICAN GREATNESS. USA! USA!

 14. Soviet Union - Laika - 1957
Who's a cute little cosmonaut? You are! You are! You're the first animal to go into space. Yes you are! You're the first brave little doggie to go into space! You're going to boil alive up there! Yes you are!

15. Vietnam - Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla -  1968
After the Soviets whupped the U.S. in the space race with Sputnik and dog murder we got back at them by getting bogged down in the Vietnam War. Eddie Adams captured the photo, and felt really bad about ruining the life of the police chief (on the left), since the guy on the right actually killed scores of innocent civilians, but the photo makes the guy on the *left* seem like the bad guy. It's like they say: you can't take it with you.

16. USA - Kent State Massacre - 1970
Okay. See, the reason why the U.S. was better than the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War was that the Soviets violated human rights. That's why they were godless bastards and we were beacons of democratic freedom. But John Filo didn't love freedom, so when Ohio National Guard opened fire on peaceful protesting college students he took this photo to strike a blow for the terrorists Commies.

17. China - Tank Man - 1989 
The Unknown Rebel was captured by Jeff Widener. This photograph of a civilian standing up to brutality was so moving that the Chinese Communist Party immediately collapsed as a result, out of deep shame.

 18. Sudan - Sudan Famine - 1993
Kevin Carter took this Pulitzer-prize winning photograph and, unable to answer what became of the girl, committed suicide shortly afterwards. Life is more important than art. Discuss.

19. France - Paris Hilton - 2005
Unlike previous decades, the dawn of the new century was absent of war, poverty, famine, catastrophically mishandled floods or strife of any kind. Photographers such as Eric Gaillard, instead decided to capture the bareness of our own souls.

Well my laundry's all done. Better go and think about art's role in society, and what I've done.

 * Just kidding! He actually was smart and protected himself with lead shields. Still died, though.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 in Books


Physics and Philosophy by Sir James Jeans.

In a physics-heavy year I found this a bit stale, a time capsule on the eve of the implications of quantum theory.

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Fascinating, as it has been proven to so many. Writings and illustrations both proved to be intensely captivating, and rarely dry or unappealing.

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco.

A work on the role and purpose of lists in the Western world. Eco provides examples and distinguishes types in this curatorial companion piece.

The I Ching.

I'm not sure what I got out of this ancient divination text. I mean, I'm glad I read it, but what came of this I can't precisely say.

French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David.

Interesting anecdotal account of French cooking, and cooking culture. Far better than the average recipe-based cookbook.

Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov.

A three-volume work, presented historically and topically, begun the year before. Asimov finished this in the early sixties, so it's a bit dated, especially the third volume, when they're competing with the Soviet Union to fill in the table of elements...

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman.

A very different, non-historical, approach to understanding physics up through the uncertainty principle.

Species of Spaces by Georges Perec.

I don't really know what this was. I mean, I understood the purpose of the work, and maybe I'm just a jaded bastard, but this was pretty vapid.

Beyond Outrage by Robert Reich.

My first e-book. I'm a big fan of Reich's economic analysis, but found this work lacking, especially in conclusion.

Selected Political Speeches by Cicero.

I read his Philippics, both great, and wanted more. So I got this slim 300 page volume from Penguin. It was something of a mixed bag - but I'd say 3/4 was either entertaining or so well-crafted that I admired it.

On the Natural Faculties by Galen.

Galen's view of medicine informed a thousand years, but I'd only recommend to those with serious interest.


The Immoralist by Andre Gide.

Blegch. I see why this work of ethical ennui and destruction was heralded as a classic. But for its innovation it doesn't hold up against, you know, every single other work that has been on just that topic since.

Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello.

This is another I read, like Gide, because it was Nobel-worthy. Again, I see the innovation and can put in in historical context of the development of drama - but I don't remember any lines, hardly any specific scenes, or details about the characters.

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo.

This is slightly better than I expected, given the criticism of Fo that seems so universal. It was a decent enough play.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.

Hit closer to home than expected. Yet the back third left me reading only for plot to be done with and to see what happens.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster.

A few months after reading this I watched 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' which was oddly similar in feel. All the stuff about the racial tensions and views, for me, detracted from the central moment - the best crafted part of the work.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

An excellent and over-looked classic, I feel as though this should be required high school reading. For a jaded reader (see above) the prose kept me engaged.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Many people find this funny. I didn't get into it until I was 200 pages in.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

I had warily high expectations going into this, having loved the BBC mini-series with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. All the same I found the work most excellent.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

Wasn't sure what to expect beyond comedy, which I found rather lacking. There are some really delightful vignettes, but this feels like a more brooding take on Wodehouse, that loses much of the humor as a result.

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Blergh. This was not a good introduction to Wharton. I wasn't invested in the poor rich girl. An only slightly updated take on themes stale as Dickens.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs.

The language, certainly, is provocative - but remarkably repetitive about 2/3 in. I got something out of it initially, but the follow-through was lacking. Not for the faint of heart.

Rameau's Nephew by Denis Diderot.

I hadn't read Diderot. Now I have. This is, technically, a satire.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. 

This was unfortunate. I'm going to swear of the Bronte sisters for the foreseeable future. Sorry Anne.

Graphic Novels/Comic Books

Une Semaine de Bonte by Max Ernst.

A pleasant surprise, I'd been expecting something less coherent. The surrealist collage ended up telling a series of fascinating stories.

Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot.

A remarkable work of meta-something and hermeneutics engaging a fiercely difficult subject, Alice in Wonderland, one of the most analyzed works of its era.

Black Hole by Charles Burns.

Had been long on my list, and proved to be a compelling read. Light enough to be graceful in its basic message, but with sufficient depth so it's not just parable.

Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O'Malley.

I'm glad to now know the cultural references. Now to see the movie...

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson.

This I loved. Burroughs-influenced, surely, this work was one of the most original graphic novels I've yet encountered - not stylistically per se, but for the work put into character and setting.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra.

A very enjoyable work, well-thought out but somewhat doomed to being topical. Interesting popular formatting of pertinent current gender issues.

Top Five

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Brideshead Revisited
Understanding Physics
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I'm Not Sending Out Christmas Cards This Year

Dear friends,

            As my body is racked with pain, full of phlegm, and shivering with cold, this holiday season reminds me of the importance of occasionally reflecting upon mortality. For the past six days I’ve not been well enough to leave the house. I left the house anyway, yesterday, and as punishment my body made me sleep until 3 in the afternoon, in retribution. In this wondrous time of year, filled with holiday lights, good cheer, and festive music, I’ve avoided the light, lost track of the days, and shun headache-inducing carols. Many of the projects and goals I had for this week, and many of the enjoyments I’d hoped to take part in, I’ve had to forgo.

From this I could make one of two conclusions. The first would be that, by golly, it’s still Christmas, and bundled in bed or out on the rooftops it’ll still be Christmas, and therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it…

Got carried away there. That’s the first message, and one I’ve heard sufficient that it bears not repeating. The second, instead, is a sober, reflective consideration of mortality.

That I am alive, a living thing that also somewhat knows itself, is astonishing. Statistically unfathomable – as inexplicable an occurrence as that of the origin of life on this rocky speck. Some find joy in this understanding alone. Due to another set of peculiar, arbitrary forces and experiences I do not – for I have been cudgeled with a desire for ‘meaning’. To live a ‘meaningful’ life. Personal basic contentment in the everyday pleasures of drink, laughter, sex, food, learning and the like weren’t enough, although they’re more than should rightfully be expected of our time here.

You see, I made a deal with myself many years ago. I was worried about wasted time. Eighty years or so seemed, and still does seem, very short. So to make it count I decided I’d every day read something new, or spend time relationship-building, seeing new sights or classic movies, listening to new music. With this pact came an understanding that occasionally, a few times a year, I’d take a day for idleness, so as to better appreciate the work done. From these diverse sources, places, people and things I hoped to cobble together ‘meaning’.

My basic rebellion was against being one of those many thousands, or millions of people who led wretched lives. All this work was to keep myself from those pits of despair and melancholia which consume lives – ruin splendor. What has been thrown into sharp relief is how unsuccessful that project has been. My job keeps me so busy that the few weeks off I have are made terribly important. Since I only have every other weekend off, these too are terribly important. But I cannot abide living for the weekend. What measure is a life where you spend five days of every week hoping for deliverance of two, and those two despairing of the upcoming five? My job isn’t terrible – it has stress and deadlines and aggravations like any job, but it also has some really rewarding parts. Six months in, and I’m counting down until my next shift is over – this was not the meaningful life I’d expected.

Last year I had the opposite problem. In Singapore I worked so few hours per week that I was bored out of my skull on a daily basis, watching tons of movies and reading voraciously, touring all around the island but without getting anywhere. Both places and times, then and now, have had the feeling of spinning wheels – one in the air and one in the mud. Neither making progress nor gaining traction.

My illness has thrown this all into a sharper contrast still. I had been so looking forward to this break, this relaxation, but also this opportunity to make time for things. See friends and read books. Wander and window shop, listen to carolers and drive around to see the lights. Traditional things from baking to tree decorating. I built it up so much in my mind, yet as my body was racked from stress I came down sick almost immediately upon my vacation’s commencing. All of this sitting around gave me time to think, and I kept wondering, over and over, if I could make meaning out of this uselessness. Was there a purpose to this pain? I was too foggy headed to do anything, my old pact useless for days on end. A day or two perhaps could have been written off, maybe even as a contrast to highlight my productivity the rest of the year, but fully a week (so far) of my precious two-week vacation wasted seemed unfair and cruel.

And so the question of mortality is thrown into relief. If I continue on living the way I have been, it seems likely that I’ll suffer the same sort of fate the next holiday and the one after that. If I slow down then it’s less likely, but I’ll no longer be able say at the end of each day that I’ve made the most of it. My fever ended up near 102 degrees this week. I’m not sure if I can handle going on at the pace I’ve set for myself. All the same the idea of wasted days stills horrifies me. I’ve had less than ten thousand days. I can expect about 20,000 ahead of me. 29,220 days – if I live to eighty. That knowledge, that striving for ‘meaning’ is what makes this past week, now written off, painful. For if we truly understand our lives than we appreciate the significant difference between 29,220 and 29,213.

So let us all keep this understanding in our hearts throughout the year, and not live for the weekend, nor for the holidays, but for ourselves. With this we might better know our purpose and walk forth into the world with renewed purpose.

Except those people who I mentioned at the beginning who don’t need ‘meaning’ to be happy.

Fuck those guys.

In peace,

~ Ross

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Blog Post 300

So when I began writing this blog in 2007, in the Spring (although not posted until the Fall), I was a dejected young Junior in college. I’d just had my first serious physical romantic relationship. I was living abroad, in Leeds. I had just begun my music collection, with about 30 albums culled from the Rolling Stone list.

What’s happened since then?

I went to Italy and Turkey, the latter being my first trip to a foreign country on my own where they didn’t speak English. I made pilgrimage to Tintern, ironic now since Wordsworth’s poem is a reflection of five years passed… I met someone I thought was my soulmate, and saw her married to a wonderful man. I created a whole new set of friends my last year in college, and then rekindled a long-dormant set from years before. I helped a friend through the pain of his fiancĂ©e changing genders. I graduated with my Bachelors. I graduated with my Masters. I studied Heidegger, whose ontology I have borrowed as my own, and had my philosophical presumptions shaken by Wittgenstein, while my humanism was rejected by Camus. My music collection swelled from 30 albums to 30 days’ worth of music. I began to watch movies and threw myself into foreign cinema and art house, with my ‘best of’ list changing from entries such as ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ to Renoir’s ‘Grand Illusion’. I met a girl whom I dated on and off in varying degrees of seriousness for nearly four years, to the point that I was considering proposing; every vision of my future had her in it. I got my first job, and moved to Reno. I worked in an inner city school in Boston. I was a private tutor in California, and learned how to drive. I was a lecturer in a junior college in Singapore. I made a new set of friends, and hung out for a spell with that country’s shnazzy crowd. I went to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. I’ve enlarged my list of UNESCO sites seen from eight to thirty-two. I went to Japan for half a month. I saw my mother try her hand at a new career, and not make it. I saw my sister literally travel around the world, and find a dream job. I saw my dad’s retirement shed forty pounds from his frame. I’ve read 282 books or seminal writings from Dracula to Keynes, Sin City to Schrodinger. I’ve lost my adolescent ability to consume vast quantities without consequence. I began writing two unfinished works of non-fiction on world history and campaign finance reform, respectively. I owned and commuted daily on a scooter for a year. I’ve owned five mobile phones, and three laptops. I traveled the country looking for interested parties to open a school with. I’ve visited Maine, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington State for the first time. I got a dance lesson from my high school crush. I switched from being a vegetarian, since I was eighteen, to eating meat when I turned 21. I bought my first professional wardrobe, which I am still wearing. I reached the landmarks of having $5,000, $10,000, and $15,000 dollars in the bank. I’ve voted twice in national elections. I had a major depressive episode, and came out the other side. I stopped writing this blog, and after nearly a year’s hiatus began writing again. I’ve discovered and changed nearly every one of my daily webcomics I read now. I got addicted to 4chan and haven’t been back in four years. I counseled my Georgian and Russian students through the 2008 crisis. I awarded my first A+ and my first F. I received my first administrative praise and first censure (for occultism). I began teaching comedy improv, having never even tried it before. I did my first stand-up routine, which bombed. I began keeping a consistent diary.

I sat in the plaza of the Boston Public Library on a summer day drinking lemonade, reflecting on our century.

I biked with my girlfriend around the island of Palau Ubin at sunset.

I spent first one, then two Christmases away from my family, in Cleveland and the tropics.

I lived for six months in a four-room flat with my father.

I accidentally started a relationship when a friend in crisis from a car crash turned to me for solace.

I rekindled a friendship with two friends from high school, and spoke for the first time in seven years with anyone from my middle school.

I was tested for HIV for the first time, and got my chests x-rayed for tuberculosis on the same day.

I one day realized that I may want kids – and am the last procreating male in my family.

I took a taxi after being broken up with, and having lost my back-up earlier that year realized I’d not been so alone in five years.

I for a time took daily walks on the California coast, regardless of time of day or weather, to see the Pacific, the clouds or the stars.

I ate fish ball soup in New Haven, in preparation for a trip abroad.

I learned how to cook Indonesian food one afternoon from an old woman in Jogjakarta.

I learned about post-relativity physics.

I made a friend in one day, eating at food stalls in Portland, Oregon.

I bellowed at a room of frightened Singaporean history students who didn’t take my subject seriously.

I marked the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in Kyoto, eating at a yakitori restaurant.

In Union Square in San Francisco, regarding the Westin St. Francis Hotel, a friend and me fervently discussed our shared belief in the imminent technological collapse due America in our lifetimes.

I took a group of students on an over-night field trip and didn’t lose any.

I toured the Doge’s palace, the ruins of Ephesus, and the Ben & Jerry’s factory.

I memorized the route I walked from the uni to my flat in Leeds, walking it a hundred times.

I memorized the route I walked from my apartment to the 7-11 in Reno, walking it over a hundred times.

I memorized the route from the MRT station to my HDB in Singapore, walking it hundreds of times.

I ran my hand across the Vietnam Memorial.

300 blog posts in about five years. Who I am now is so radically different from whom I was then, the college Junior just discovering music and brooding on Hume and Thucydides abroad. These reflections are compounded by my now dating a college Junior, five years my junior, who I can only wonder the same question for. I can only wonder where I will be in five years’ time, and what thoughts I may record in those next 300 blog posts.

I hope any who read this will still be there to join me for it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Agathocles of Syracuse

There’s an old story I found that bears repeating. It regards the tyrant of Syracuse, Agathocles. While perhaps apocryphal, it lends insight into the mindset of the Greek chronicler, Diodorus Siculus, who wrote it down in his Bibliotheca Historica.

“The truest test of being a tyrant is seen in the treatment of prisoners condemned in Syracuse during those years. The punishments administered were entirely of the tyrant’s choosing, harsh or gentle regardless of the crime committed. So it is recorded that a murder who slew his own family was awarded a punishment of 5 drachmae for a fine, while a man who was late for an appointment was sent to the dungeons for the rest of his life. This caprice in action may be the product of a frenzied mind, but by all accounts which survive his other actions as leader display a soundness of mind.

How to reconcile this apparent disparity, the soundness of judgment in most affairs of state with the terrifying consequences impulsively laid down upon his subjects, is beyond the power of any reasonable mind.”

Such was the rationality of the Classical Age (Diodorus died in 30 BCE) compared to the brutalism of the earlier Greek civilizations. As John Berger points out, the Homeric world is still tied to nature, with horses and humans receiving the same praise and description in the throes of death. By the time of Agathocles humans had differentiated themselves from the animals – consider his contemporary Diogenes of Sinope’s similar infamy arising from acting like a dog. Hundreds years later Diodorus simply can’t figure out why the tyrant used terror tactics to keep his subjects in line.

Even Machiavelli found Agathocles to be unduly base and beyond the pale. For a fellow versed in power politics, who could excuse Cesar Borgia’s excess, this reflects the infamy of Agathocles well into the Renaissance. Machiavelli says it is better to be feared than loved, if you can’t be both. We can imagine the terrible fear Agathocles inspired in his subjects. Agathocles’ sadistic brilliance is in the very unpredictable nature of his action. If his cruel punishments were predictable his populace would grow to despise him, precisely what the Florentine would warn against two millennia later. Fear without being hated, that’s what the Syracusan achieved. To hate someone requires  reflection, which terror doesn't allow for.

Modern readers are most likely unfamiliar with the Greek tyrant. That is inevitable. The names of Greek and Roman generals are no longer known to us as a matter of course. Einsteins and Gandhis have replaced former memorization of Diocletians and Cyniscas. But Agathocles is one case study that is beneficial for us to recall. Indeed, extraordinary infamy is worth studying quite carefully in any age. It shows us the state of reason in different times. Hitler’s horrors are of a very different type than Agathocles, or the Borgias. We have retained Caligula and Nero as the sine qua non of classical terror in power. But theirs, too, is of a different sort. Caligula’s madness is indisputable. Nero’s cruelty is more systematic, for example specifically targeting Christians. Since Agathocles’ tyranny is recorded in less popular works than the mainstream classics of Plutarch, Herodotus and others, the modern reader is bereaved of an important passage from the records of iniquity. 

Why is this important? Why should infamy be so closely monitored? For it is a window upon our own age’s reason. Studying mental illness provides no such consistency. Those definitions have changed considerably over the centuries, and the records of the insane verge on as appalling as the treatment awarded them. So study the fears of the general population. The tyrants, the monsters, the reactions to Pol Pot and slavers and Las Casas’ description of the destruction of the Indies: what horrifies us as a rule is more informative than the horrors of one deluded by merest reality. The calculated randomness of Agathocles was novel. This alone speaks volumes not of barbarism, but of reason in his age. We must be sure to keep such records of our own villains, and endeavor to pass them to the future, that they may not be as forgotten as Agathocles, and may serve as a litmus test for future generations of their own understanding and reason.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees 2013 Edition

And the nominees are:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Donna Summer
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Public Enemy
The Meters
Deep Purple
Albert King
Procol Harum
Randy Newman
The Marvelettes

A nice selection. Usually I assume only five will be inducted. Of this crop I only had to look up the Marvelettes, who helped Motown get started (best known by “Please, Mr. Postman”).

My personal picks would be Joan Jett, Donna Summer and Heart, all of which I’ve advocated for in the past, joined by Public Enemy (no contest) and Kraftwerk – one of the first bands I ever wanted added when I first started watching this process.

N.W.A., Albert King, Deep Purple, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and The Meters are my second-place picks.

This could be a good year. Of my initial list, from 2009, I wanted Whitney Houston, Gram Parsons, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, and the Stooges. They’ve got the Stooges, now they’ve got a chance to get Kraftwerk. Still waiting on those as well as the previous mentions of Jethro Tull, Joan Baez, Nick Drake, Richard and Linda Thompson, Dionne Warwick, Janet Jackson…

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Spider Jerusalem

If there’s one place The City is not – it’s Cleveland.

Cleveland’s become a joke, a cultural punch line. And while some of the depictions of Transmetropolitan’s City are funny, the jab it hits you with is its edge.

Instead of New York, where I’d find myself a few months later in life, I was in Cleveland when I started reading Transmet last January. Holed up in an apartment, not going out into the snow because anything I wanted to see in Cleveland I’d already seen. There I read the first four installments, and worked hard to track down the rest in libraries across the country in moths to follow.

Today I’ve finished the series, and want to reflect on protagonist journalist Spider Jerusalem, whose outlaw methods bring down corruption and make Presidents shit themselves. I want to reflect particularly because it has been said a decent number of times – first in Cleveland – that if I did drugs I’d basically be him.

Some may remember my old article on here about teetotaler life. Part of this lifestyle is because I don’t want to be Spider Jerusalem – yet.

Hero’s journeys are painful. There is loss. There is personal suffering, the abyss, the trials. People who take on these journeys and don’t survive them aren’t heroes, nor are they often tragic. They are merely forgotten.

Jerusalem’s fearlessness, as is reiterated repeatedly, is only a front. It’s true of all modern heroes, and perhaps why Achilles comes off as such an asshole. Patroclus withstanding. Jerusalem is defiant – he can stare down the barrel of a gun, provoke the man about to beat him to a pulp. Defiance is good. Defiance is necessary. Societies need defiance.

I’ve written, recently at uncustomary length, about how much society needs to change, and how distrustful I am of nearly everyone in it. (E.g. when 92% of you lost your goddamn minds and thought George W. Bush was a good President after 9/11 – Aaron McGruder and I will track you down and shoot you with bowel disruption guns.)  Non-thinkers who say ‘America – love it or leave it’ don’t understand there’s a third option, the most important one: change it.

Spider Jerusalem is at times a hopped-up lunatic in the streets, dressed as Pharaoh, waving a saber. But he’s also a serious journalist who is respected because he does research and finds out facts for himself. His purpose isn’t just to have fun – to be pharaoh, defiantly posed on top of a taxi. His goal is to change the country.

All of this may be written off as pre-election rambling. I have an answer for that, but one of my greatest peeves is that Jerusalem frequently says ‘fuck you’ to his audience to keep them away, when he should be fully aware that’s what’ll drive them to him fastest. I don’t want to be a hero – yet. I don’t want to change the world just now. Someone else can take it up and deal. Right now I’m busy, though, on the more than off-chance no one will step up to the plate. I’m safely ensconced in a job that doesn’t pay enough, in a suburban white community, with kids who are as defiant as Jerusalem ever was. One of them yesterday flipped and then dismantled a picnic table. Two weeks ago another threw a chair through a window. I’ve lost weight, sleep less, and am more productive and mentally sharper than I was six months ago. Drugs? I don’t need them.

For now what I am doing with these kids is building up Resilience. Stamina. Endurance. Strength. Taking on the constant stress of 60 and 100 hour weeks, and devouring them.

How will I use this Strength?

It should be obvious by now. 

I'm going to destroy Cleveland.

See What I Did There?

One of the more disappointing recent reads was Jacob Burckhardt’s ‘Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’ last year. I’d first encountered Burckhardt in the classic work on method, Hayden White’s ‘Metahistory’, in which historiographical texts are compared. (Since historiography is the study of how we write history, metahistory is the study of how we write historiography.)

What made the work so obnoxious was that it expected a great familiarity with the subject, yet was seemingly intended to tell us about that subject. I’m not a Renaissance scholar, but I’ve read Dante, Da Vinci, Castiglione, Machiavelli, teach art history, and think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the age. Burckhardt is credited as an important founding art historian, but what do we make, then, of someone like Vasari, or the under-appreciated Winckelmann?

See what I did there? I assumed you knew Vasari and Winckelmann, which is a totally unfair assumption. If you did –if it was something everyone just knew – why bother restating it? This is the problem of Burckhardt’s text, his ironic tone makes it nearly unreadable, either through assumed understandings which he does not bother to elaborate upon, or through over-elaborating on what was already understood and accepted.

The reason why this has currently come to the surface is because I just finished the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus Edition. In it, there is a lengthy section, an almanac, with sporadic illustrations of fabulous places, a tiresome account from Alan Moore of nearly all fantastical places. Why does he bother? The places are mentioned in often obtuse ways, seeing whether the reader got the in-joke or not – for forty-two excruciating pages. I laughed once, from the description of the blue trolls from an undersea kingdom which are occasionally spotted in Argentina. But really, this reference to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine was mostly funny because it reminded me of a funny line in the movie.

I’m not against lists, to be clear. Not long ago I enjoyed poring through Umberto Eco’s nonfiction ‘The Infinity of Lists’ and find such literary passages usually amusing, such as in Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel.’ In ‘League’ however the list is tiresome because if you don’t get the reference it’s just boring, and if you do you ask yourself why you’re bothering. It’s certainly not a complete account, although I doubt the satisfaction of such a feat, were it possible, would scarcely improve upon the enjoyment of it. ‘League’ already by design rewards readers with knowledge of late 19th century literature, the insider’s chuckle at the cameos and small references. If I didn’t catch a reference, well, I didn’t know I missed it. The Almanac section, just being a list, loosely tied together by the format, was a constant knock over the head of things missed, not read, obscured.

There are likely readers out there for whom pouring over Wikipedia in an effort to track down each subtle reference is a joy. I admit I’m not one of them. A few and I would’ve been happy to. But not forty-two, tri-columned pages of references. It’s a shame, because I found the two-volume collection of graphic material very satisfying. Both of the ‘League’ adventures were enjoyable fluff – I couldn’t take the plot at all seriously for the first, and deduced the reveal within a page. The second installment was much better, but rushed the ending. It was a neuron snack, rewarding me with well-crafted comics and the pleasure of having gotten the connections and cameos.

Perhaps, though, I’m just becoming intellectually lazy. Maybe some will read this and say that forty pages of references are not too much to ask. It’s certainly shorter than Burckhardt’s lengthier work. This brings me back to his awfulness. Consider a passage from Burckhardt:

“Intrigues, armaments, leagues, corruption and treason make up the outward history of Italy at this period. Venice in particular was long accused on all hands of seeking to conquer the whole peninsula, or gradually so to reduce its strength that one State after another must fall into her hands. But on a closer view it is evident that this complaint did not come from the people, but rather from the courts and official classes, which were commonly abhorred by their subjects, while the mild government of Venice had secured for it general confidence Even Florence, with its restive subject cities, found itself in a false position with regard to Venice, apart from all commercial jealousy and from the progress of Venice in Romagna. At last the League of Cambrai actually did strike a serious blow at the State which all Italy ought to have supported with united strength.”

Note that at no time prior to this does he describe the Venetian Republic, although he mentions other specifics about them. He assumes familiarity, as already stated, but also gives nothing to back his claims. Nothing follows this that lends insight into his assertion that apparently the common people of Venice didn’t want to claim the whole land. No ‘closer inspection’ provided. The very next paragraph discusses Naples, and Venice is only resumed later on.

It’s a poor way to write history, and as Almanac of ‘League’ attests, a poor way to write fiction. A passage from the latter:

“The Oxford baker who’d accompanied the expedition was not with the expedition when they were found, nor was his body subsequently recovered. Reverend Bellman could not give a clear account of what happened to the man, nor could the team’s other surviving members. For some weeks there was hot debate as to whether the reverend and his fellows should be tried for murder, but at last it was decided that their mental states made them unfit to plead…”

Mildly amusing, if you’re familiar with Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. But not as clever, or as enjoyable, as the original tale. Maybe if it had been handled more cleverly, the work would’ve been more to taste. As an example, when visiting the polar regions the queen of Toyland, not being truly alive, finds comfort with her king, Frankenstein’s monster, due to shared existential experience. That’s one of the rare gems that blended the known and novel in a way that gave back to the reader, rather than writing for own enjoyment, or amusement, of playing ‘see what I did there’.

Monday, September 24, 2012

American Architecture

My favorite American buildings.

1. Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. Quintessentially, uniquely American.

2. Space Needle by Edward Carlson and John Graham Jr. Likewise - only in America.

3. Chrystler Building by William van Allen. New York's best, and the best Art Deco.

4. Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. The finest building of the pre-industrial period.

5. Hearst Caslte by Julia Morgan. Only in America would someone build it. Love it.

6. Trinity Church by Henry H. Richardson. The finest sacred space, reflecting Boston's Irish heritage.

7. United Nations Headquarters by Oscar Niemeyer. Took the international style and perfected it.

 8. The Gamble House by Greene and Greene. Arts and crafts, a British movement, mastered in Pasadena.

9. Weisman Art Musem by Frank Gehry. I think in time this will be seen as his most fully realized structure.

10. Mesa Laboratory by I.M. Pei. Very innovative for the time, an excellent modernist piece.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Two Years Gone

I write more than I publish here. We're not talking volumes - just some stuff. Here's a nice example I just ran across browsing: a letter I wanted to send Obama back in 2010. While never intended for the blog, I think it's not a bad addition, and an interesting reflection of where I am now as compared to two and a half years ago.


Dear President Obama,

            I'm concerned. I am a teacher.

I'm twenty-three with a Masters from Bennington college in Teaching. Yesterday I learned that 23,000 teachers were laid off in California. Tens of thousands more have been laid off nationwide.

My best teacher in college was excellent because she was fearless. She was never afraid of being fired for teaching what she believed and teaching to a higher standard. This cost her many jobs, and a permanent off-on relationship with coffee vendors and bookstores to pay the bills.

My job situation is far from ideal, yet I have a job. I am one of the lucky ones. Our charter's administration is disrespectful and rude to faculty, salary cuts are promised for the next year. I have every desire to leave – but what jobs are there for me? Simultaneously I am over- and under-qualified. A degree that requires a higher salary, coupled with a lack of years' experience.

Your salary is $400,000 a year. Mine is $30,000. We're both poor compared to Barry Bonds who made  $20,000,000 this year.

Can you address this? We need as a country to prioritize education. Local control over education leads to the horrors of the recent Texas Board of Education's decisions. A lack of understanding from Washington can lead to No Child Left Behind. My proposal:

  1. A national standard in teacher salaries that reflects the challenges of being a teacher.
  2. More rigor in teacher training and qualification. You should see the tests they give us. If you can't pass them, and frighteningly many don't, you should probably not be allowed near a blender, much less students.

We can't have a nation of low standards and low achievement. If teachers were paid more and had more rigorous examinations and qualifications as they do elsewhere then our schools will improve.

And perhaps we should put a cap on athlete salaries.

Thank you. I voted for you, and hope to do so again.
I sincerely hope this reaches you.

~ Ross Dillon, High School History Teacher

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Plato Revisited

For my philosophy electives I’ve started the year, as any good teacher should, by dragging out and dusting off Plato. I’ve not bothered to read him since I was in college, five years ago this September. At that time I was taking Ancient Greek Philosophy, which was rather silly since I’d already taken some rather advanced courses, and read most of Plato and much of Aristotle on my own.

In previous years I’ve had my students read two selections of Plato, it’s true. They’ve tackled part of the Meno, which is tricky, and the Apology, which details Socrates' trial, and is not.

So I started the semester with the Euthyphro, which asks what is pious and what is just. The Apology I’ve now done in full, and the concept of being a martyr for truth has been established in the classroom.

My ethics were carefully manipulated in my high school experience. Here’s a list of books we read for Western Civ, taught not coincidentally by the fellow who also taught Philosophy:

Apology (Plato) – About dying for the sake of the truth
Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare) – About killing for what you believe is right
Barabbas (Par Lagerkvist) – About Barabbas’ struggle to do right after being freed in place of Jesus
Becket (Jean Anouilh) – About the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket standing up for his beliefs
St. Joan (George Bernard Shaw) – About Joan of Arc’s quest to do what is right for country
Galileo (Berthold Brecht) – About Galileo’s choice not to die for what he believed in
A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) – About Sir Thomas More’s execution for what is right


And now I’m passing it on to a new generation. It’s a very dangerous, and scary, belief. As the Apostle Rufus said: “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…People die for it. People kill for it.” The willingness to die for something must be a belief. As Socrates himself affirms, we have no idea what to expect for the life hereafter, if anything. Brutus understood it. Henry II understood it. But Meletus, the young man whom history would despise for his precedent, did not understand. He only believed that his indictment of Socrates was right.

This makes Meletus, now on my third pass of the Apology, a very interesting character. We only see him in glimpses, and he is clearly an ignorant and brash young man. He tries Socrates for things he didn’t do. But he thought it worthwhile to take the time to condemn a seventy year-old man. Did he think he was doing right, or did he believe it? Either way there must have been a powerful conviction to choose such a course of action.

As Paul Tillich begins his powerful book on the subject, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” He goes on to distinguish between faith and belief, the latter of which is simply holding an unsubstantiated claim as true. Fifty-five years later I’ve not seen anyone write a better set of definitions. Experience after death is the realm of belief for most. We can't substantiate it. For some it is their ultimate concern, the ancient Egyptians are a nice example, but this is not the typical case. Meletus' desire to see Socrates put to death - what drives this, then?

Meletus could not know the repercussions of his suit, or even its outcome. That his actions were right must have been a belief. This reframes the Apology’s trial in a new light: It is not the grandstanding of Socrates to show how he is right, and will sacrifice himself for truth. It is a clash of beliefs; one that truth knows no boundaries, the other that the well-being of the many outweighs the invective of a societal gadfly.

Plato’s dialogues are often laughed off as simplistic intro stuff. A hook to get people interested in philosophy, and then, once the secrets of the upper castes are learned, rejected and despised. Yet the struggles between Meletus’ and Socrates’ views is no different, in essence, than whether or not you think Bradley Manning should be tried for leaking uncomfortable state secrets.

When in high school I began saving my written works. An essay I wrote for Western Civ, eleven years ago as a young Sophomore, compares Jesus and Socrates, asking which is more courageous. I reached the following conclusion at the time:

“If Jesus was actually just the historical Jesus and not a divine entity, then Jesus may indeed be the more courageous, to be killed by his followers. But wasn’t Socrates killed by the people he was trying to teach as well? What is the difference between the two? Socrates, however, had a message that was never heard before and attempted to let the people he taught figure out the deeper meaning for themselves. Jesus’ message was radical and told them what to do. If both are mortal and both achieved the same tasks and suffered equally and had similar personalities; it is my belief that both were equally courageous.”

It’s a cop-out. I don’t think I got a great grade. Suggesting crucifixion is the same as the convulsions and vomiting from drinking hemlock…not an apt comparison. But it shows where my mind was at the time, that I thought Socrates to be essentially an equal of Jesus.

That’s a heavy worldview to pass on to kids. For years I’ve wanted to teach philosophy. I thought starting with Plato would warm me up, and be easy – a prejudice of my initiation into the philosophic upper echelons. I knew the students would go through a weighty experience. I never realized how much of the weight is placed on the teacher for introducing such ideas and beliefs to young minds, even if it's just Plato.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Distinguished Lists

If I Ran the National Endowment of the Arts

The highest award bestowed by the nation on an artist. Rather inconsistent, compared to when achievements took place: Aretha Franklin got hers before Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis before Sonny Rollins, Ray Bradbury before Harper Lee. Here’s who I would give it to for 2012:

Sid Caesar, Television pioneer and comedian (88 years old)
Gary Snyder, Poet (82 years old)
Toni Morrison, Novelist (81 years old)
Gordon Willis, Cinematographer (81 years old)
Oscar de la Renta, Fashion designer (80 years old)
Wayne Shorter, Jazz saxophonist (79 years old)
Philip Glass, Composer (75 years old)
Carollee Schneemann, Performance artist (72 years old)
Liza Minnelli, Actress and singer (66 years old)
Annie Leibovitz, Photographer (62 years old)

2012 Nobel Prize Predictions

They're a month away!

Physics – 2:1 odds on Peter Higgs
Literature – 3:1 odds on Haruki Murakami, BONUS: 6:1 odds on Bob Dylan
Peace – 3:1 odds on Mursi, El-Keib, and Jebali, individually or any combination thereof
Chemistry – 7:1 odds on Richard Zare or W.E. Moerner, or combination
Physiology – 5:1 odds on Joseph Vacanti and Robert Langer

American Scientists Who Should Have Statues Made of Them

Sometimes a statue is needed. Only those without statues were considered (unlike Goddard, Millikan, Tesla, the Wrights, etc.) Maybe we could have these guys in the Capitol? Or a science park?

Jonas Salk – Cured Polio
Linus Pauling – Chemist and Peace Advocate
Thomas Hunt Morgan – Geneticist
Edwin Hubble – Cosmologist
Gregory Pincus and Margaret Sanger – Contraceptive Pill and Revolutionary
Rachel Carson – Environmentalist
Willis Carrier – Air Conditioning
Richard Feynman – Physicist
John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, William Shockley – Pioneers of the Information Age
Glenn Seaborg – Chemist
Willard Libby – Radiocarbon Dating

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Elihu Root

One hundred years ago Elihu Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He ended his plea, “Towards Making Peace Permanent,” with the following words:

“The hero-worshipper is gradually changing from the savage to the civilized conception of his divinities. Taken all in all, the clear and persistent tendencies of a slowly developing civilization justify cheerful hope.

“We may well turn from Tripoli and Mexico and the Balkans with the apocryphal exclamation of Galilei, ‘And still the world moves.’”

Mexico. Tripoli. The Balkans.

In the 1990s the Balkans were still being fought over – but a peace both incongruently tenuous and tenacious has persisted. Root, an American, must have been appreciated that Tripoli was the site of the fledgling nation’s first foreign war. And so a century later Tripoli has fallen from Qaddafi to rise up into liberal democracy. Mexico, on the other hand, is thwarted by a monstrous war, fuelled by drug lords. Around 40,000 have died in six years of ever-increasing violence.

From darkness and despair I return to these prizes, these individuals, to nourish and strengthen my resolve and purpose. Of the entries on this blog the one which I am most proud was from 2007, regarding September 11th. I focused initially on all the wonderful things, and then recognized all the horrid things that happened that day. The day is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but also of the inauguration of the World Parliament of Religion, a peaceful movement designed to further inter-religious dialogue.

There are those who speak of revolution. Yet they do not know of what they speak.

The word, ‘revolution’, the very meaning, connotes a cycle. Revolutions are sexy. Revolutions are inspiring. The American Revolution brought forth democracy upon a continent. But we must always recall that the following French Revolution brought forth subjugation, terror and a continental war. Revolution exists to ensure that someone new ends up on top. Even disregarding the many failed revolutions of history, the successes are not always so heartening. Lenin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mao all rose to the top.

Last year’s most intriguing Nobel laureate was Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni Arabic woman. Her speech ended with the following words:

“Finally, I ponder myself standing here before you, in this moment, which every man and woman aspires to reach because of the recognition and appreciation is contains. As I do so, I see the great number of Arab women, without whose hard struggles and quest to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men I wouldn’t be here. This supremacy has caused a lot of injustice to both men and women. To all those women, whom history and the severity of ruling systems have made unseen, to all women who made sacrifices for the sake of a healthy society with just relationships between women and men, to all those women who are still stumbling on the path of freedom in countries with no social justice or equal opportunities, to all of them I say: thank you ... this day wouldn’t have come true without you.”

The Arab Spring has been lauded for its potential to bring human rights to the region. The most notable of these rights, to many minds including my own, is the treatment of women. Saudi Arabia allowed women in the Olympics for the first time this summer. Three countries have held elections – Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – but Yemen is yet to be amongst them. Fighting in the Syrian civil war is a part of daily news.

It is our historical privilege to consider revolutions to be sexy. We have seen many succeed since WWII that bore out positive consequences. We do not concern ourselves, with enough frequency, with those that did not. We choose to look at Mandela, rather than the nearly fifty year still-ongoing Colombian Armed Conflict; the rise of Polish Solidarity instead of the coup that ousted Ghana’s great leader Nkrumah. How lucky we have been since Root’s day to see the number of democracies with full suffrage (then only three by a generous count) extend to the majority of the world’s countries. Yet the peace and rights that are commiserate with democratic principles are still being fought for, as Karman’s lecture reminds us.

Should revolution again reach our American shores we may not be so lucky as to get Adams, Washington, and Jefferson. This is why we must, all of us, commit to democratic principles at all costs. It is easy to look at the Arab Spring and be inspired by the march of rights. I understand and acknowledge the frustrations we have regarding the broken system. Washington is broken. Corporations have too much power. Thus it was in the 1890s, and then, too, was a spell of anarchistic violence and assassination. But from this wretchedness we emerged, the stronger, with Theodore Roosevelt and a new age of American prominence. The robber barons were stopped, the trusts busted, law and order restored. After the lawlessness of the Prohibition gangsters, economic misery of the Great Depression, and strain of two wars we emerged as a new superpower. Our trials make us stronger. It is easy to criticize the imperfections and moral failings, the internment camps and suspension of habeas corpus, the continued wiretapping and continued operation of Guantanamo Bay. But to simply criticize is to lose sight that after each of our great times of trial we have emerged stronger, if only for one reason: a commitment to democratic freedoms. It is not always exercised properly. And we must point out, as free citizens, when it lays abused and run-down. Yet the answer to these losses is not to forsake democratic ideals for revolution. The Civil War was a last resort, when all else had failed. From that, too, we emerged stronger, again owing to tenacity for democratic ideals. Still, over 600,000 of our own lay dead. We should not, then, lightly engage with such grave issues as revolution in America.

True, there may come a time when all other means of change are exhausted. “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies” Obama said in his Nobel lecture. “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Indeed it is. While I concur that ‘revolution’ implies a cycle, I hope, if it does come, I will be remembered as one of those who fought for as long as possible against it happening here. Root hit upon the idea a century ago: revolutionaries are only heroes when the winners share our high-minded ideals – otherwise they are monsters.

To wind down consider the ever-prescient exchange, from ‘A Man for All Seasons’:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that! 
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake! 

That is why trials following rule of law, not bombs, will always be the answer. Why, if I had a chance to pull the trigger on a war criminal in their home I’d be no better than James Earl Ray (who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.) or Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated President McKinley). Do not let your passions lead you astray. When darkness and despair come, when cynicism blinds us to all but the most seemingly stark and brutal choices to make, consider the work of those who strive always for the ideal, and consider whether you wish to walk in their footsteps, or march, voices raised high, with the mob.