Thursday, April 29, 2010

Question, Loaded for Bear, Boar, and Bull

Are gargantuan Wall Street bonuses a gross perversion of our gifting instinct*? It's perverse because the executives bestowing the gifts didn't earn their gift-goods in any obvious way. They simply get to distribute the largesse back to the people who, on a generous interpretation of their activities, actually did the earning. In the case of the recent financial scandals it's clear that the gift goods were stolen and that we, the tax payers, are on the hook for them.

*Ah, yes, I know, "instinct" is a tendentious word. But I'm sticking with it for the moment. I'll consider mounting a rigorous defense of the usage when those executives come clean about what they've done. Meanwhile, it might be interesting to re-read Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, which is about perverse gifting.

Johnny Don't Study War No More

The New York Path to Peace has another video out, based on a traditional tune, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Arranged by Steve Swell, it features Roswell Rudd on solo trombone. The photographs are from the Library of Congress and depict the battlefield at Gettysburg. A good many of these photographs were prepared in stereo-pairs, implying that they were intended for home viewing. Given the often grisly subject matter in these photos, that, I believe, makes them “war porn.”


Members of The New York Path to Peace, August 29, 2008

(video below the fold)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Natural Geometry




You can see larger versions of these images on my Flickr site, top, middle, and bottom, respectively.

Gifting in the New Economy

Having recently learned that Adam Smith divided income into wages, profits, and rents, I asked to myself: What about gifts? Well, I suppose they aren’t income; but gifts and gifting have been enormously important in human life. Nina Paley’s been arguing that gifting is the fundamental social dynamic of art, but it’s more general than that.

Consider these passages from an old (1995) article by Gifford Pinchot:
The first step toward a sustainable sense of success is taking pride in the value of our contributions to others rather than taking pride in the value of our possessions. By extension this means striving for quality in the use of whatever power we have rather than working to get more power over others as an end in itself. In this view, profit and wealth may help us to contribute, but they do not themselves constitute business success.
After mentioning the potlatches of Pacific Northwest peoples, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property (a Paley favorite), Pinchot talks about chemical-giant DuPont:
Companies that use sulfuric acid end up with a hazardous waste. DuPont, instead of distancing itself from the hazardous waste generated by its customers, saw this problem as an opportunity to differentiate its offering in one of the most basic of commodities. The company took back the spent sulfuric acid, purified it, and resold it. This was good business because once DuPont got good at it, recycling turned out to be cheaper than creating from scratch. It also gained the company market share and margins in what had become to others a low-profit, uninteresting commodity. In this case, DuPont does well by doing good, thus winning both the exchange and gift paradigms.

The sign of excellence in a new world of the larger self is not vast profit or possessions, but sufficient material success to allow large and thoughtful contributions to society.
In a world where business success increasingly depends on highly skilled employees
Employers must curry the favor of their talented employees who increasingly have an ethical agenda. Employees who can easily find work elsewhere are refusing to work on projects or for companies that offend their values, even if they would be well paid to do so. As this trend increases, as people take a stand for sustainability in choosing their work, even public corporations seeking the favor of bloodless institutional investors will find that sustainable companies have the best future because they have the best talent. In fields where creativity counts, sustainability is a competitive weapon.
He concludes by arguing that “The real game in the business world of the ecological age is running a business or a career so as to make a contribution to the community, the nation, and even to the planet as a whole.” And that required that we once again making gifting central to our economic life.

Chimpanzees Grieve

I’m not surprised. Both the BBC and Discover Magazine are reporting accounts of how chimpanzees deal with deaths of the old (Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Stirlingshire, Scotland) and the young (Bossou, Guinea).

I am, of course, glad that this behavior is being documented. But I’m a bit dismayed that it is being reported as news. Of course, chimpanzees grieve. They’re only human, no? Well, I suppose that’s the problem. We mustn’t anthropomorphize. And so we have to study and verify.

Still, I have this vague memory of having read that not so long ago doctors believed that neonates had no sense of pain. And so surgeons didn’t use anesthesia when operating on them. Did the little ones not scream?

Department of What?


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Urban Minimalist

Hoboken, NJ, mid-afternoon 4 April 2010


Moynihan Was Right

Back in the day, 1965, Patrick Moynihan published a now infamous report, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, which opened as follows:
The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.

In the decade that began with the school desegregation decision of the Supreme Court, and ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the demand of Negro Americans for full recognition of their civil rights was finally met.

The effort, no matter how savage and brutal, of some State and local governments to thwart the exercise of those rights is doomed. The nation will not put up with it — least of all the Negroes. The present moment will pass. In the meantime, a new period is beginning.

In this new period the expectations of the Negro Americans will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made. . . .

The fundamental problem . . . is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. There are indications that the situation may have been arrested in the past few years, but the general post war trend is unmistakable. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.

The thesis of this paper is that these events, in combination, confront the nation with a new kind of problem. Measures that have worked in the past, or would work for most groups in the present, will not work here. A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the Federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.
The report kicked off a firestorm in which Moynihan was lambasted for empty-ump sins of misunderstanding and racism. In this 12 minute Bloggingheads.tv conversation John McWhorter and Glenn Loury argue that Moynihan was right, but he was the wrong color to say what he said.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Peace Now! - First Mix

It's time to get psyched for the anti-nuke demonstration coming up this Sunday. Here's a jivometric music video that should do the trick.



Music by The New York Path to Peace
Photos by Xanadu Jive (Bill Benzon aka STC4blues)
Full credits below the fold.

Race in the Symbolic Universe 1: Caliban

The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

There's a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can't tell whether he's coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats—you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
—Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney, Drylongso

This is a series of short pieces dealing with the representation of race in American culture:
  • Shakespeare's Caliban
  • Sam Clemens at the Cotton Club: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Inter-Racial Sex: A Passage to India and Light in August
  • The Hollywood Version: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  • The Funkified Standard Version of the American Dream: The Cosby Show
The first follows immediately in this post. I’ll post the rest over the next week or three.

Shakespeare's Caliban

The symbolic universe of white America originated in Europe. And Europeans had, by the late Renaissance, developed an image of blacks. In The White Man's Burden, Winthrop D. Jordan showed that Europeans were disposed to see blacks as strongly emotional and sensual, qualities they were coming to reject in themselves. In the late Renaissance blacks were likened to beasts. In Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) the "Spirit of Fornication" was depicted as "a little foul ugly Æthiop" (Jordan, p. 19). Jordan notes that Englishmen "were especially inclined to discover attributes in savages which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves". Thus before the European settlers of North America had any substantial contact with Africans, they had a lascivious place prepared in their symbol system through which to understand and interact with them.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Guardian Spirit

Bleg: Copyright (over-extension) as rent-seeking

I've merely glanced at the Wikipedia article on "rent seeking," a phrase which I've read dozens upon dozens of times in the past two or three years without knowing what it means. I found this sentence very interesting in the copyright context: "Rent-seeking behavior is distinguished in theory from profit-seeking behavior, in which entities seek to extract value by engaging in mutually beneficial transactions."

Note that Adam Smith divided income into three categories: wages, profit, and rent.

Here's an article that brings game theory into the discussion.

My question: Has anyone used the concept of rent-seeking in analyzing the current highly-conflicted status of copyright" Or IP generally?

Pretty Please

Me: She's at it again.

You: Who?

Me: Nina. That's who.

You: Uh oh!

Me: That's right.

You: Playin' with words. #@&! [indignation]

Me: (sigh) Playin' with words. [resignation]

You: What's she done this time? [exasperation]

Me: See for yourself: [indication]


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Urban Pastoral: Post-Industrial Buffalo

The dictionary on my Mac defines “pastoral” as an adjective “used for or related to the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle: scattered pastoral farms.” As an extension of that meaning: “(of a work of art) portraying or evoking country life, typically in a romanticized or idealized form.” A few years ago I wrote an essay (with links) on the urban pastoral:
It was in graduate school, I believe, that I heard someone call Hart Crane a poet of the “urban pastoral,” referring, I believe to his long poem, “The Bridge” – which I’ve not read. That was the first time I heard the phrase, “urban pastoral,” and it has stuck in my mind. But it hasn’t done much until the past year when I began wandering my Jersey City neighborhood, camera in hand, in search of wild graffiti. I photographed the graffiti, of course – lot’s of it – but that’s not all. I photographed other things as well, close-ups of bees and flowers, panoramas of this or that neighborhood view, of the Manhattan skyline from Jersey City, and even sunrises and sunsets.
It’s not at all clear to me just what the urban pastoral is, but, as they say, I know it when I see it. And I see in in Bruce Jackson’s wonderful photographs of Post-Industrial Buffalo. When you’re done with those, check out his astonishing w-i-d-e, very w—i—d-e, photographs of Cummins prison – not urban pastoral, not at all, but you’ve never seen anything like them. While you’re there, check out all his photographs.

"Beam me up, Scotty"

23 April 2010, 7:45 PM. Washington & 11th, Hoboken, NJ.
Real or Surreal?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Canary Fainted: Growing Pains in a Young Software Company

After I left the university some years ago I went on to co-author Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution, did some freelance business journalism, played in a rhythm and blues band, and eventually took a job as a technical writer at a local software company. I'd never written software documentation, but I was comfortable with computer tech and could write a fly off a horse's tail at fifty paces. I figured this was a good career move. And it was. But, like all new moves, it was a bit rocky. Here's a story from those early days. While there's nothing particularly secret about any of this, I've disguised the identities of the company and the people in it.
* * * * *

High-Tech Inc. started as a student project in a university course on entrepreneurship.  Working as a team, two or three students prepared such a convincing business plan that  the instructor told them they might actually be able to make a business of it  They availed themselves of the university’s mechanisms for turning student projects into businesses, recruited another friend or two,  and set out to turn research into development.

An administrator with an interest in business staked our guys for a year while they developed the software described in their proposal.  When, a year later, they had the software ready to roll, Iron Mike (as we'll call him) quit the university and joined High-Tech Inc. as CEO and one of the Founders (along with the four former students). The business became successful and a few years later they decided they needed a full-time technical writer.

I applied for the job and was granted an interview.  I arrived at noon on a Saturday in full business dress, knowing full-well that it would be extraneous.  I was met by one of the student founders, James Gilroy, in jogging shorts and T-shirt.  We clicked, and I got the job.  I was employee number 66 (or 67, somewhere in the upper 60s).  This puts the company at the upper margin of the size of the typical  day-to-day living unit among hunter-gatherer peoples, like the first humans.

At that time the company was way behind schedule on a major software release, having already missed a year's worth of ship dates. I had to learn their software product and produce a user's manual in less than two months in order to meet their absolute drop-dead ship date.  I did my job and the product shipped on time. 

Silver 2 (& friends)

A week ago I posted a photo of a “silver” – a type of graffiti executed with silver paint. The photo didn’t show the whole piece, just a detail, a detail where you see nothing but silver paint and the surface on which it is painted. I thought I’d post another such detail. Notice that this one isn't entirely silver. You can see bits of green and orange and lots of black, but the silver predominates:


No, I don’t intend to post one of these every Friday, but I’ll post one or three more.

Why?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'Sploding Head

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Hope, Obama, and Health

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggan has a post on President Obama. While acknowledging that he’s “instinctively a pragmatist and centrist” who was unlikely to work for “radical policy action in the short run,” he asserted:
Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction. . . . after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. . . . What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics.
This reminded me of a passage from Health of Nations (Basic 1987, p. 184), by Leonard Sagan:
The history of rapid health gains in the United States is not unique; the rate at which death rates have fallen is even more rapid in more recently modernizing countries. The usual explanations for this dramatic improvement—better medical care, nutrition, or clean water—provide only partial answers. More important in explaining the decline in death worldwide is the rise of hope ... [through] the introduction of the transistor radio and television, bringing into the huts and shanties of the world the message that progress is possible, that each individual is unique and of value, and that science and technology can provide the opportunity for fulfillment of these hopes. [emphasis mine, BB]
Hope: intangible, not sufficient, but necessary. Without it we wither and die. With it, we can change and grow.

Urban Geometry 1

From Hoboken, shooting across the Hudson River at the Chelsea are of Lower Manhattan. The bluish building at center-left is a new apartment building designed by Jean Nouvel. The whitish building at the right edge was designed by Frank Gehry and is the headquarters for IAC / InterActiveCorp. Dame Chaos designed the scene.

In Jersey City, looking East on 12th Street toward the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. I haven’t got the foggiest idea who designed all those signs, but I’ll bet some agency was paid big money to design, test, and vet the logos. Set design by Frank Fractal.

From the Eastern edge of Governors Island, looking, I believe, NNW at the southern tip of Manhattan. The sleek skyscraper to the right of center used to house the offices of TIAA-CREF; now it’s just an elegant office building with gorgeous views of New York Harbor. The concrete structure at the right edge is a ventilation tower for a tunnel connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. The tug in the foreground is berthed on Governors Island, off the Southern tip of Manhattan.

Larger versions of these images are available at my Flicker site; top, middle, bottom, respectively.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cultural Evolution and Human Progress

Thank you Robert Wright.
Why am I thanking Robert Wright? Because he wrote Nonzero, a book that unambiguously says that we, humankind, have advanced since the early days when we were little more than clever apes who’d figured out how to talk. We’ve made progress. No less a figure that Bill Clinton has praised the book (YouTube video clip) – yeah, I know, he’s not a scholar, but he’s smart, which  counts for A LOT at his level of smart.

Now, you may have thought, “But isn’t progress obvious?” The answer: not quite. The terrible wars of the 20th Century have, for some, taken the shine off any notion of progress. And then there’s the ethnocentric and racist underpinnings of 19th century notions of progress, in which the lifeways of upper-class Europe are the pinnacle toward which humankind has been evolving lo these many centuries. Is this so-obvious progress real, or just cultural narcissism?

Nonzero argues that the progress is real and has occurred because ever more sophisticated forms of social organization have increased the “density” (not Wright’s word) of cooperative relationships among people, and thus allowed more people to live better lives. I believe Wright is correct and that human progress has been real. Since the late 1970s I have worked with the late David Hays to articulate a model of cultural evolution that explicates the psycho-cultural terms of that progress. Our audience, however, has been largely academic and, thus, largely deaf to our work. They don’t want to hear it. Wright has put an argument before the larger intellectual culture, and it is for that that I thank him.

But, if progress is still anathema in the academy, the notion of cultural evolution itself is not. Inspired by the neo-Darwinian revival, a number of thinkers have been writing about cultural selection, memes, gene-culture coevolution, and such things (see Tim Lewens’ article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an overview.) And these thinkers have avoided any intimation of progress, any notion that culture is evolving in some direction.

Distant Empire

(it's not all graffiti)

(big iron at dawn)

(the glory that was Rome)

Triumph of the Will

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

AWESOME! Two iguanas, two people, and a cast of billions. Who could ask for anything more?

Last, night I went to a party by/with/for NYC’s Awesome Foundation. They gave a thousand bucks to a pair of iguanas. Well, not to the iguanas themselves, but their two handlers from the Brooklyn Zoo, who’ll use the money to build a new cage for the iguanas so the public can see them. Photo of iguanas here.

They do this every month, Awesome I mean, not the handlers. A thousand bucks to a worthy project. In a paper bag. But only if the idea is AWESOME! Details here.

The two people?

Steve Rosenbaum. I met him in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. He was DJing at the Metro and I played trumpet in the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, which gigged at the Metro. Steve then started OurTown, a video production company that did a cable TV magazine show. OurTown did a little piece on Out of Control. That was Steve’s first company. He’s now on his fourth, magnify.net. He’s also a trustee of the Awesome Foundation.

Reihan Salam. I’ve been quite impressed with his commentary on bloggingheads.tv, but I’ve not read any of his prose. He’s identified as a conservative and, who knows, he probably is. I’m not. But we both fear that the West is out of innovation. Will India emerge as the leading nation on the New Savanna?

The cast of billions? You figure it out. Remember, this party was held at hip (anyone use that word these days?) bar on NYC’s lower East Side, a few blocks away from the 2nd Ave. stop on the 7 train: d.b.a.

Why Graffiti?

In a word, because it’s new, transnational, and did the world tour in less than 30 years. Will it continue to grow? Who knows.

What’s an Aussie writer doing in the middle of freakin’ Jersey City, USA?

What’s all to the good is that, despite attempts to co-opt it by the Chelsea Art Industry, graffiti has remained – not pure, no, never pure – on the outside looking it. Yes, there’s the merchandising deals, designers for extreme sports, all that, not to mention hip-hop stylz – as I said, not pure – but graffiti still regenerates itself on the streets – though developers are destroying some of the prime spots in Jersey City. Damn!

I mean, why’s the best stuff hidden away where no one can see it, except other writers? And what’s up with the acceptance of the ephemeral? Sooner or later it's all GONE OVER. Yet this art on walls regenerates itself with a vengeance? It's reptilian, that's what it is.

Urban cave art in the 21st Century: An old Themo in a tunnel in Jersey City.

Evidence: In Grooves, Grafs, and Toons: Transnational Culture Forms I argue for an international youth culture that shares styles and motifs around the globe and that is, at best, in an uneasy truce with cultural forms with roots prior to WWII. In Graffiti Aesthetics 4: The Space of Writing I argue that graffiti’s insistence on the name as its foundational space is fundamentally different from pictorial spaces heretofore (what an archaic word that is!) proposed in art’s history, East and West, North and South. That new space, that’s where we find hope.

Is the line not impossibly elegant?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Green Triceratops by Japan Joe

Once was in Jersey City about a mile from the Holland Tunnel. Now it's painted over. Roughly 18 feet wide, and 7 feet high.


A detail:


With train:


More at my Flickr site.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mimi & Eunice go East


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Raels Tag

This tag is by Raels. It's in the Bergen Arches aka the Erie Cut, a mile-long trench in the middle of Jersey City. It's now deserted save for homeless people, graffiti writers, and hikers, but it once took four railroad tracks down to the Hudson River.

Culture, High, Low and Other

Pascal Boyer recently had a post, Cognition under the high brow, in which he posed the issue:
True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?
He goes on to mention Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which he was unable to read, but nonetheless proceeds with caution, suggesting there might be more to the high/low distinction that the need of one group to hold themselves above another.
More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres. For instance, a lot of popular music (in which we may include a lot of Vivaldi but not all Mozart, all Glenn Miller but certainly not Duke Ellington) strives for harmonic simplicity, for the repetition of identical harmonic progressions, for fewer modulations or departures from the tonal centre. By contrast high-culture Western music, e.g. Beethoven’ quartets or Chopin’s Etudes or all of Ravel, strives for more complex, unpredictable resolutions, fewer cadences, surprising harmonic progressions, variation rather than repetition, etc. I only mention Western works because they are more familiar to most of our readers. But the difference may well be more general.
A long and lively discussion ensued, with particular attention to flamenco: high or low?

Readings in Culture and Cognition

The International Culture and Cognition Institute (ICCI) has a useful page of readings on cognition and culture. The list includes links to books and links to downloadable PDFs. General topics:
  • Arts and artifacts
  • Cooperation (morality, norms, sympathy)
  • Cultural transmission
  • Emotions (expression, recognition, variation)
  • Family (kinship, sex, gender relationships)
  • Language
  • Living beings (taxonomy, teleology, physiology)
  • Mathematics and Physics (number, space, object, causality)
  • Minds (agency detection, theory of mind)
  • Religion, ritual and magic
  • Social life (social norms, reputation managment, coalition formation)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Motion in Hokusai drawings

At Neurophilosophy, on how Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai created a sense of motion in his manga: "The simple line drawings in his Manga strips lack all of the commonly-used motion effects, yet give a strong impression of movement by depicting the human body in highly unstable postures. As a new study just published in the journal NeuroReport shows, the figures in the sketches are perceived to be moving because their gravity-defying postures activate regions of the visual cortex that are sensitive to motion."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Silver 1

This is a moderately close shot of a bit of graffiti in Jersey City, NJ, so close that you can't see the design at all. It is of a kind known as a "silver" because, obviously, silver paint is used.

Conference: Language Evolution

Language as an Evolutionary System: a Multidisciplinary Approach, Edinburgh, 12-13- July 2010
Summing up, this workshop is concerned with how Darwinian thinking can be applied to the cultural evolution of language. A multidisciplinary collection of contributions form the fields of linguistics, psychology, biology and philosophy will help construct a clearer picture of the state of this field. Additionally, the workshop will hopefully identify empirical ways to solve conflicts and inconsistencies which may inform future research and collaborations.