Petty Gripes and Halloween Horrors

by James McGirk

Pic_990146001180991434A large pile of garbage has accumulated outside my front door. One of my neighbors is fighting with our landlord. She leaves bags of refuse just outside of the receptacle, untied and upside down so as to better disgorge their payload of soiled panty-liners onto the pavement in front of our house. The cans are in a wire enclosure a few yards away, very easy to access; convenience and squeamishness are not the issue here.

This mischief is intentional. I know it is. Each arrangement is more shocking than the last, the woman has a serial killer’s flair for the grotesque. There is motive too. She was once employed by our landlord as the garbage-minder but was suddenly replaced. I can only assume she is baiting the city into fining him for violating New York's sanitary code. So far it hasn’t worked. She remains a tenant in good standing and the area is horrific. Armies of cockroaches scurry over discarded pizza boxes and piss-soaked kitty litter. And anybody on the block who feels their garbage is too nasty to keep in their own bin will happily dump it on ours. They don’t even bother doing it under cover of darkness any more.

I tell you all this because the other day I opened my door and found a jack-o-lantern sitting on my doorstep: A shitty one. A disgusting withered one collapsing in on itself with rot. At the time I was wearing heavy boots and my first impulse was destroy the thing. I swung my foot back, and was about to punt the thing into the road when I stopped myself. It was almost Halloween, and this unhygienic squash seemed as a fitting a tribute to the horrors I had experienced in New York City as any I could possibly hope for. And believe me there are horrors-a-plenty in this supposedly spic-and-span city.

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The paradox of (some) conceptual art

by Dave Maier

All art is “conceptual” in the sense that it has a cognitive aspect: if it engages our senses but not our minds, it is mere eye or ear candy (not that there's anything wrong with same, but it's not “art” in the relevant sense). A work of art is usually called “conceptual art” if its sensory aspect is much less important than in conventional art, or even entirely irrelevant to it. In Sol LeWitt's definition (1967), for example, Wikipedia tells us, “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

That last part of LeWitt's definition seems specific to his own aims, as if we take the first part to be the essential part, there are plenty of other sorts of conceptual art besides his. More typical (as Wikipedia rightly goes on to note) is the idea that conceptual art is a particularly potent way for art to “examine its own nature.” This idea has arguably been an aim of art since the beginning, at least implicitly, but in conceptual art it comes to the foreground and indeed pushes everything else off the stage entirely.

Stuckists_Death_of_Conceptual_Art_demoAs much subject to Sturgeon's Law (“90% of everything is crap”) as anything else, most conceptual art is good for a chuckle at best, or maybe a “huh.” So it's not surprising that the lesson about the nature of art that most people draw from conceptual art is that conceptual art = lousy art. Even – especially – when we are trying to fair to it, it can seem that to appreciate conceptual art properly, we must ignore as irrelevant any (not surprisingly unexciting) sensory properties it may have, in order better to grasp its message about how to see or hear in artistically significant ways. For example, Tracy Emin's My Bed looks exactly like what it is (i.e., her bed), but to complain that it is not much to look at (which is true enough) would be to miss its point. However, if conceptual art is to comment on conventional art rather than replace it, it will at least sometimes need to leave in place the default idea that even when our concern is art's cognitive features, we approach it through experiencing its sensory qualities.

The paradox of conceptual art, then, is that in forcing us to think about the nature of art rather than simply enjoying it, it can shift our attention away from the very things we need to see or hear if we are to draw its conceptual lesson properly.

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Ways to Be American Abroad: A Working Guide

by Jen Paton IMG_0412

Every Sunday morning, over the simulacra of breakfast burritos, we have brunch. Sometimes, talk turns to language skills, our relative proficiencies in Russian. This one guy knows Arabic, used to live in Cairo.

“How did you learn Arabic?” someone asks him. “How” was the question, not “why,” nonetheless:

“I think for the same reason everyone in our generation wanted to,” this guy of my generation says, trying to catch my eye.

I’m not having any of this answer, I already know. “After 9/11, I think…everyone just wondered how the hell this happened.”

No, no. I don't speak Arabic, we're not even in an Arabic speaking country right now, but I'm still, like, NO.

*

Be too nice. Probably suspiciously so. Smile during all interactions. Say thank you at the end of every social interaction and in particular every service related transaction. Thanks for bringing me water. Thanks for giving me change at the grocery store. Thanks for handing me my bag of groceries. Thanks for moving out of my way on this crowded public transport. Thanks for allowing me to order at this restaurant without it being terribly complicated. Thanks! You do mean this, by the way, you can’t help yourself. Find that your niceness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.

Alternatively, be too rude. Sometimes by accident, because you actually cannot speak. Sometimes on purpose: get unreasonably annoyed and huffy when you get water with gas instead of still water, with no lemon, and when people cannot understand you, which is often. Complain often about the food you are eating, expecting other Americans to agree. Laugh too loudly, even when sober. You can’t help yourself. Find that your rudeness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.

Wear clothes whose appropriateness you have not fully considered. Wear military fatigues. Wear a suit. Wear shorts. Wear spaghetti straps. Wear long sleeves you think are modest but forget to consider the tightness of your clothes. Wear flip-flops – people will stare. Wear urban sportswear that makes local teens envious, or giggly. Wear workout clothes that make grandmothers glare. Wear freshly ironed shirts under cashmere sweaters with dark slacks. If under 30, cultivate a well-traveled stubble that highlights the fact that, actually, you have been traveling all over, not just in the capital.

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Permit Me To Protest

by Maniza NaqviTimeSquare2

“@Time Square.”

Brian texted back: “Also.” But we were on opposite sides of the street and the police barricades were making it impossible to crossover.

The police, in their blue uniforms, wielding batons and shields, wearing bullet proof vests and helmets and even mounted on horseback strutted up and down several block of Broadway at Times Square as though they were on a catwalk of power showing off to the crowds their latest toys for holding back the crowds. Why on earth would they be on horseback in this day and age if not to show that they were capable of trampling people the good old fashioned way? Beachwear!” Someone in the crowd shouted invoking the Wendy’s ads from decades ago which poked fun at the totalitarian State of the Soviet Union and its lack of imagination. I looked up at the hundreds of dazzling almost blinding electronic billboards over Time Square and realized the joke went even further. The Billboards overhead were selling only one product—discontent—eat this—drink this, wear this—listen to this, watch this—consume, consume, spend—spend–spend and you will be happy! TimeSquare1

The protesting crowd good naturedly teased the posturing of the police “Join us! Join us!”Some of the cops smiled back awkwardly others pretended to be unfazed and tough, while others in white shirts looked as mean and tough as they were. In age and anxiety they mirrored the protestors. Whether a protester or a policeman—it seemed clear here that everyone needed to earn a paycheck. The men and women constituting the police force and the protesters shared the same issues of eroding salaries, pensions, social security and rising costs of mortgages, taxes and health insurance. The cops in their blue shirts or white shirts—outfitted with guns, batons, taser guns, pepper spray, plastic and metal handcuffs, walkie-talkies and the protestors accessorized with cardboard placards, American flags, cameras and ideals seemed equally like puppets in an elaborate street theater: as if all were bit parts in an overwhelming landscape of billboards flashing, blinking and winking while the ticker tape circling above announced “Occupy Wall Street Protests Goes Worldwide.” Thousands of cameras were flashing along with thousands of cell phone and video cameras and cameras of all sorts. Security surveillance cameras were everywhere in probably the most densely monitored, square in the world. A giant billboard in fact was flashing back our filmed images on a screen across from us along with a clothing advertisement. In itself, it was a slogan for the privatization of the State’s writ on infringement of privacy.

People, protests, property, parks, public, private, police, prisons, press, politics and permits. To those who are tone deaf these sound like disparate slogans. But the Occupy Wall Street protest movement across the country and across the globe has shown that these are all issues that can be funneled into one or two over arching concerns.

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Waiting

by Stefany Anne Golberg

WaitingMeditations on waiting come in cycles. We’ve always waited—to live is to wait. It’s a devastating thought. To live is to wait.

We haven’t always known we’re waiting. For millions of years, we waited to evolve, we waited for ourselves, but we didn’t know we were waiting then. For millions of years after that, as animals, creatures of the land, we waited in the way that animals do. We waited for seasons so that we could eat, we waited for birth so that we had purpose. But still, we didn’t know that we were waiting. So we weren’t actually waiting. We were just being. And then, at some point, long ago but not so long ago that we cannot remember, we started to have consciousness, awareness. We learned that we could control the things we waited for, could plant what we most desired to eat, and so forth. And with this understanding, we stopped just being and started waiting.

The last time we really considered waiting may have been the 1950s and 1960s, when Existentialism was popular. Existentialism put thinking about waiting back on the menu, because it was primarily a philosophy that sought to understand Time and what we were supposed to do about it, this airy abstract concept that affected every little thing we did but yet had no control over.

In 1953, the world saw the first production of what is the greatest Existential work about waiting that I know—certainly the most famous—the play Waiting for Godot.

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Alice in the Kitchen

by Hasan Altaf

ReflexoesOne of the reviews of the 2010 film Reflections of a Blender (directed by André Klotzel from a script by José Antônio de Souza), in O Estado de São Paulo, describes it as “not a realistic film, but one that takes place in a real world in which poetic license is necessary for the development of the story.” My reading is slightly and perhaps only semantically different – to me, Reflections is entirely a realistic film (one interpretation would suggest that it is simply a story told by an unreliable, possibly crazy narrator) in which one small link to reality has been severed.

The poetic license, the severed link in question: The blender of the title (not all blenders, certainly not all appliances or objects) can think, reflect and talk to its owner. In every other respect, the movie is completely realistic – it takes place in a world exactly like ours, down to the way a man annoys his wife by slurping his soup. There is something particularly unsettling – I think the technical world might be “uncanny” – about seeing our own world become just slightly unmoored; it's as if the ties that hold us down are being cut, one by one, leaving us just enough time to make sense of the process.

Reflections of a Blender is not particularly unsettling, at least not in its conceit. It's very much a comedy, and the word that actually came to mind for its technique was “whimsy.” Talking animals, animate objects: Whimsy of this sort is a tempting technique, but also difficult to pull off; one false movie and you end up with Aishwarya Rai in The Mistress of Spices, begging her chilies to talk to her. As a technique, it is also probably less complicated in movies for children (anything Pixar), or in action films, where the robot's conversational abilities are less troubling than the robot's attempt to take over the world. In otherwise realistic movies intended for adults, whimsy of the kind embodied by an introspective blender might easily become “cute,” too precious to have any real effect. Klotzel balances the cuteness of the talking blender (voiced by Selton Mello) with darkness, an overall twistedness that pulls in the other direction.

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Monday Poem

Drawing

In my drawing a line moves
northwest along the edge
of a white birch
toward the top left limit of a page
like an inky contrail
tracing an idea of something
seen in a white sky
it banks up and right
along the dark underside of the shadow of a limb
until it branches again and again
retelling a tale of deciduous DNA,
limbs a matrix of lines
furiously scratched,
motionless,
without sound or scent,
a tree that can’t be touched;
an impression eery as a still ghost
in a closed room
unmoved by wind
untroubled by cold or heat
impossible to be climbed
even by Frost’s swinger of birches,
being abstract as many arts
……………………… .…. —and every art’s
a dependent clause in the narrative of genes
moving as it does
river-like
through lips and limbs
singing dancing leaping
until at its delta it reposes
not spent but
quietly seeping to the sea
it spreads the remains of its tale
leaving it to the furies
of what storms
come

by Jim Culleny
© Oct. 29, 2010

On an Architecture of Laundry in Tokyo

by Ryan Sayre

SentakumonoA few months back, a friend and I were in the underwear
section of a Tokyo area UNIQLO disagreeing over what kind of drawers she ought to buy for her imaginary husband. Boxers seemed the obvious choice to me. She was leaning toward briefs. I was in favor of solids. She was of the opinion that stripes would better suit him.

This friend of mine is among the not insignificant number of women in Tokyo who hang men’s clothes out to dry with their own undergarments to ward off would-be panty thieves, stalkers and/or peeping Toms. So here we were, scarecrow shopping at UNIQLO.

In the end, my gender wasn’t enough to dissuade her from what I thought was a fashion misdemeanor. But what could I say? She had, after all, been shopping for this imaginary man for a decade. The poor guy ended up with a pair of Size M briefs, blue with light grey stripes.

Hanging laundry out to dry on the veranda might seem a strange departure from the techno-domesticity that we like to imagine governs all aspects of Japanese urban life. Nevertheless, the obsession for washing clothes in Japan is matched only by an equally obsessional aversion to the use of clothes dryers. The Japan Soap and Detergent Association conducted a survey in 2010 that found as many as seventy percent of women do laundry seven days a week. When passing through a residential peri-urban neighborhood, overcrowded geometries of stripes, plaid, argyle and polka-dot come at the eye from all angles. Before the 1964 Olympics the government called on Japanese citizens to temporarily reel in these clotheslines. While Japan is supposed to be the seat of architectural austerity, cleanliness and orderliness rarely keep such distant company as they do on the exterior of a Japanese apartment block. The more an apartment dweller gives herself over to cleanliness, the more she throws her building’s facade into a savagery of colorful disarray.

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Cemeteries and Prairies

by Kevin S. Baldwin

One of the little-known delights of the Midwest is pioneer cemeteries. These are burial places dating from the late 18th century to the early years of 20th century, during the period of westward territorial expansion. Springgrove

Like many people, I find cemeteries to be places that promote contemplation at many levels, the most obvious being one's own mortality. Unavoidable, but perhaps best not to dwell on. Another level is on the mortality of the people buried there. The typical ages at death, and high child and infant mortality rates are major reality checks on just how unusual the period that we in the first world enjoy today is: But for vaccinations and antibiotics many of us would be under the sod ourselves.

I like to focus on how these people lived rather than how they died. As I read their headstones, I wonder, what events encompassed their lives? What, if anything, did they read besides the Bible? How did they prosecute a daily existence in this area, through subzero winters and blazing hot summers? If they were immigrants, what was their voyage to the New World like? What did they bring with them? What did they leave behind? There are a couple Civil War casualties. Sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, elderly, adults, teens, children, infants, and so on,…

At yet another level it is easy to get wrapped up in the craftsmanship evident in the carving of the headstones: The fonts, the epitaphs, and the iconography are all fascinating. The range of size and quality of the stones is also quite extraordinary.

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Airplanes, Asparagus, and Mirrors, Oh My!

A love of Flying- upside down (photo by robshenk)

by Meghan D. Rosen

Last month, I asked you to submit a science-y question that you'd like to have answered in simple terms. You asked about light, and mirrors, and spices and space— I was delighted by the scope of the questions posed.

This month my fellow SciCom classmates tackled three. Steve Tung glides through the mechanics of flight; Beth Mole spouts off about asparagus pee; and Tanya Lewis reflects on mirrors.

Enjoy!

If you have more burning science questions, just post them in the comments. We'll be back next month with more answers.

And if you don't have a science question, but do have a thought or a picture to share, check out www.sharingamomentofscience.tumblr.com

How can an airplane fly upside down?

Daredevil pilots execute stunning aerobatic maneuvers― loops, rolls, spins, and more― sometimes while upside down for a long time. How do they do it? It might seem that the force keeping a right-side-up plane aloft would push a flipped plane down.

The trick is how the plane is angled in the air. Pilots can adjust the tilt to lift the plane, even when it is upside down.

You may have stuck your hand outside of a moving car and felt the rushing air push it up or down. Tilt your hand more, and that force is stronger. Turn your hand upside down and it still happens, though it might not be as powerful.

Plane wings, flipped or not, work the same way― tilt them up more, and air lifts the plane more. There are drawbacks and limitations, however. Higher angles cause more drag, slowing the plane. Tilt too far and the plane loses its aerodynamic properties and falls like a rock.

But not all airplanes can fly upside down. Some depend on gravity to fuel the engines; some would break under the different stresses of flying inverted. Stunt airplanes use specially designed wings, bodies, and engines to be more agile, more durable, and more versatile.

Steve Tung once dreamed of designing airplanes and rockets. He now dreams of pithy, memorable prose. (He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in fluid mechanics from Cornell University) Twitter: @SteveTungWrites

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The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar

30worth-img-articleLargeAnother piece by Robert Worth in the NYT Magazine:

IN mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation.

Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring.

More than 10 months after it started with the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor, the great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.

The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other. Many were co-opted by their governments (or Persian Gulf oil money) or forced into exile, where they lost touch with the lived reality of their societies. Those who remained have often applauded the revolts of the past year and even marched along with the crowds. But they have not led them, and often appeared stunned and confused by a movement they failed to predict.

Pain is no more or no less profound than any other sensation

Lata Mani excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:

48b94dea-f8cc-11e0-983e-000b5dabf613It is often suggested that pain is beyond description, that language breaks down at the terminus of pain. It is certainly true that when one is in the midst of the cluster of physical sensations that we call pain, the last thing on one’s mind is finding the right words to make poetry out of one’s suffering. But there is nothing essentially mysterious about pain. It can, and for the body in pain must, be spoken of, even if only in the abbreviated cry to God, taking the form of a groan, curse, or a helpless “I don’t know how much more of this I can take”. No, pain is not beyond the horizon of meaning, beyond conceptualization. Rather it is squarely within the world of signification.

Pain throbs. Pain shreds. Pain darts. Pain weaves sly patterns across the length and breadth of the body. Pain stabs. Pain pulses. Pain plummets the body into a vortex unknown and at times fearful. Pain nags. Chronic pain drones repetitiously, monotonously, ad nauseam. Pain flays the surface of the skin, turning it almost translucent with frailty. Pain makes one so weak that the whole world is experienced through its omnipresent filter. Pain drains everything into its core. Pain can be focused as the point of a pinhead or as dispersed as one’s consciousness and, if suffered long enough, the pinpoint can seem to grow and swallow one’s entire physical being. Pain can be as hard as steel or as soft as a ripe pear. Pain shudders. Pain shivers.

More here.

Neuroscience and Justice

From Edge:

MICHAEL GAZZANIGA is a Neuroscientist; Professor of Psychology & Director, SAGE Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Human; The Ethical Brain; and Who's In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (forthcoming, November 11th).

BrainMICHAEL GAZZANIGA: What I'm going to do is talk about neuroscience and how it may impact justice. I had to give a talk recently to judges and lawyers, but it really is the same talk you would give anybody. It is a summary of four years of effort that I've put into this MacArthur Law and Neuroscience project. How that came about is there was a meeting in New York of lawyers, philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists. They met four or five years ago to talk about whether one should study the topic of law and neuroscience. I left the room to go to the bathroom or something, I came back and they said, okay, you're directing it. So don't leave the room when these things are going on because you get saddled with surprises! Since “basic neuroscience for judges and lawyers” was exactly the wrong talk for you at 3:00 o'clock this afternoon, let's say “perspectives on basic neuroscience” because the former one reminds you of your high school biology class which most of you probably didn't like. I'm going to give you the fastest three-minute review of neuroscience. As I said I just gave to the judges of the Second Circuit Court of New York. Many of you maybe have cases in front of the Second Circuit, and they have a retreat every year up at Lake Sagamore , New York. The idea is: You can't, obviously, for someone who's not in neuroscience, you can't communicate the wealth of neuroscience in a hundred lectures, let alone one, let alone a few minutes. But you can kind of get a feel for it. I want to take you through that feel and then take that into the question of how is this field of neuroscience going to impact how we think about the law and, more importantly, how we think about justice.

At the Met, a New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times

Robert Worth in The New York Times:

IslamOver the past decade, many Americans have based their thoughts and feelings about Islam in large part on a single place: the blasted patch of ground where the World Trade Center once stood. But a rival space has slowly and silently taken shape over those same years, about six miles to the north. It is a vast, palacelike suite of rooms on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where some of the world’s most precious Islamic artifacts sit sequestered behind locked doors. On a recent afternoon, Navina Haidar stood in these rooms as a wash of voices echoed up from the halls of the Greek and Roman galleries, far below. Only three weeks remained until the long-hidden Islamic galleries were to be unveiled to the public, and Haidar — an elegant 45-year-old who was raised in New Delhi by a Muslim father and a Hindu mother — still had decisions to make. She has spent more than eight years devising a vision of Islamic tradition that is far more diverse, and less foreign, than the caricature mullahs and zealots who have come to define Islam for much of the non-Muslim world.

“We’re thinking of putting the Koran pages right here, by the entrance,” Haidar said, gazing at two eight-feet-tall manuscript pages in sloping Arabic script that date to the 15th century, parked casually on dollies. “That would make a bold statement right up front about Islam.” Around her, ladders and scaffoldings stood casually alongside life-size Afghan figures in stone and curved Ottoman daggers in gold. There is far more at stake here than the overhaul of a permanent collection at the Met, itself a once-in-a-generation event. The museum’s directors are acutely aware that their collection will be unveiled at a time when Islam is a more inflammable subject than ever. That is no small part of what makes Haidar so nervous as she prepares for opening day. It is also one reason the galleries — closed since 2003 — spent so long in the dark.

More here. (Note: Congratulations to dear Navina on this magnificent accomplishment and to her parents and my dear friends Kusum and Salman Haidar on their daughter's spectacular success. The new galleries are an absolute must-see at the Met)