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.