Friday, April 29, 2011

Arabic Graffiti

Brain Pickings has a review of Arabic Graffiti, "an ambitious new anthology by Berlin street culture tastemaker Don Karl and Libyan typographer Pascal Zoghbi exploring the use of Arabic script in urban context."

From Jersey City:


Note: I've been told that those Arabic-looking characters (at the upper right) are not Arabic.

Each a World


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Livin' in the Shadow


Winky Dink Interactive Media

Why back in the day, we too had interactive media. It was called Winky Dink, and you drew on your TV screen. Well, not directly on the screen. Rather, you took the transparent plastic sheet from your Winky Dink kit and put in on the screen and drew on that.

What I didn't know was that Winky was voiced by Mae Questel, who also voiced Betty Boop.


Here's a little piece at Print Magazine about Winky Dink. H/t Michael Sporn.

Hoochie Mama Tulip


The King’s Phallus: Gold or Lead?

It’s not a king I’m concerned about, of course. We in these United States don’t have a king. We have a president. The current president is named Obama.

Nor do I care about his phallus. Though it seems that a significant portion of the citizenry does. Well, not about his phallus as such, but about his authenticity, his legitimacy: gold or lead, real or fake?

And so we have this sorry business about his state of birth. Was he born in the USofA, making him a legitimate contender for the throne, I mean the presidency, or was he born somewhere else, Kenya perhaps, or Mars, or Alpha Centauri. So, he’s shown us an assay of his penis confirming that it’s gold – whoops! there I go again – he’s produced a certificate of live birth affirming that he was indeed born in Hawaii. That should settle it, no?

Well, not quite. In the course of taking credit for forcing the President to certify his purity, Donald Trump suggests that the certificate itself needs to be authenticated. And we know where that leads: Who’s going to authenticate the authenticators? And who, in turn, will authenticate them? And them? Ad infinitum.

It’ll never end.

Not until our mythology catches up with 21st century reality. And that’s going to take time, because it’s not at all clear how that reality’s shaping up.

This business of the King’s Phallus began when Clinton was president. Then it took the form of concern about just where Clinton’s penis had been. In that case the authenticating document was a little blue dress with a little white stain indicating that the Presidential Member had been where it shouldn’t have been. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Knowledge Packets

I’ve been having casual thoughts about how we keep our knowledge bundled up in packets, some little, some large, some in-between, and so on. The outside of each packet has some hooks and eyes we use to link the packets together. But the ‘real’ knowledge is inside. For any given packet, that ‘real’ knowledge may be detailed, complete, and accurate, or it may be deficient in various ways, and there may not even be much of anything inside. The user of a packet – that is, the person in whose mind the packet exists – may not even have a good feel for what’s in a given packet. We can pick the packets up on the basis of the external hooks and eyes without ever even looking inside.


As much as possible we try to get by without actually opening them. We string them together and toss them back and forth with the hooks and eyes on the assumption that, when the time comes to actually deploy the knowledge, it will work like we want it to. In fact, we may never actually have to deploy the knowledge wrapped up in a particular knowledge contraption. In that case we may never know whether the reconfigured knowledge works or not.

Why would I believe such a thing?

For one thing, year after year, for two or three decades now, I’d tell myself that this or that writing project will only take roughly X words or pages that will require Y hours of work. And time after time X turns out to be 3X or 4X and Y becomes 4Y or 5Y. Why am I always underestimating? Always.

Graffiti Goes Legit in L.A.?

Graffiti’s been around since, say, 1970 plus or minus, and has been dancing with the legit art world since, say, 1980 – or the legit art world has been dancing with it, whatever. Now the dancin’s serious. Last year Jerry Deitch was named director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and now he’s opened what the Venerable Grey Lady calls “the first major American museum exhibition devoted to street art, and a first for an occasionally controversial museum director making a debut.” So now it’s serious.

The exhibit
. . . tracks the great graffiti dispersion from styles first created in New York by Lee Quinones, Dondi, Futura 2000 and others and that soon enough made it to Philadelphia, Chicago, the West Coast and the world.

The Los Angeles Times termed “Art in the Streets” a “bombastic, near-overwhelming cavalcade of eye-candy,” a crowd-teasing pull-quote if ever there was one. And while it’s too early to know how the exhibition will fare with critics, there is little reason to doubt Mr. Broad’s assertion that it will likely pull the crowds in and engage a new public, most particularly “audiences that would not otherwise go to museums.”
Is this like Lincoln Center finally making a home for jazz in the 1990s?

Meanwhile, out in LA’s streets the writers are having at it:
An exhibition of street art that opened last week has been responsible, the authorities say, for a new wave of graffiti on buildings, lampposts and mailboxes in downtown Los Angeles, forcing a fresh crackdown on an activity that the police thought they had brought under control. And it has put them in the awkward position of trying to arrest people for doing something that is being celebrated by the city’s cultural establishment.
So, where’s the REAL street art? In the museum or on the streets? What’s the dif?

For what it’s worth, I think this Deitch character is, well, a character. But I don’t know much about him.

Meet Awesome & Crabby

There's a terrible consistency here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Academic Blogging

Natalia Cecire has a good post on academic blogging over at Arcade. Tne ensuing discussion is excellent.

Here's what I posted to the discussion:



What's Popular, and Why


One aspect of posting to the web is that you can get statistics on what stuff people like. Here's some light analysis of what's popular here at New Savanna and what photos are popular at my Flickr site.

Posts on New Savanna

[Counts as of 7 AM Tuesday 26 April 2011.]

The most popular post on this blog – by far – is "Sex, Power, and Purity in Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll". It was posted on 18 September 2010 and has 3,476 pageviews.. I wouldn't rate it as one of my best posts, much less THE best one. So why's it have more that twice as many views as the second most popular post? That seems obvious enough. Ninja Scroll is a very popular anime title and — the post is about sex in the film. "Naked Flickr Sex Erotic Bodies" is second, with 1,464 pageviews; it was posted on 16 November 2010. Again, not in my list of top 50 favorites, but it has its points. I assume its popularity is a function of its subject, sexy photos. Alas, no photos in the post itself.

The third most popular post is something of a surprise: "Secrets of Pink Elephant Revealed", posted on 25 October 2010 and having 1419 pageviews. It mostly analyzes and describes what happens in the "Pink Elephants on Parade" segment of Dumbo. I like that post a lot, though I don't know whether I'd put it among my very best. However much I'd like to think that the post's popularity is a function of how well I did the analysis, I suspect that much of the popularity is a function of the popularity of the segment itself. I wasn't aware of its popularity, but that popularity pleases me a great deal. It's a fine piece of film-making.

In fourth place we have "Sakaki Rides a Dolphin", another post about animation, this one being from a Japanese anime title of fairly recent vintage: Azumanga Daioh. It was posted on 19 April 2010 and has 733 hits to date. I like this post as well; I think there's a bit of analysis in there that's just splendid. But, again, I can't claim the all the hits for myself; Azumanga Daioh is quite popular.

The fifth-place post has nothing to do either with sex or with cartoons: "Higher Ed and the Rise of the Citizen Researcher", with 603 hits. It was posted on 16 August 2010. That post is about how the web is making it easier for ordinary folks to engage in research projects of various kinds, so it's about the social and cultural impact of digital tech, always a popular subject on the web.

Let's skip over 6th place, about two episodes in Fantasia, and 7th place, about sex in two novels, to number 8, which was posted on 26 March 2011, the only one in the top 10 to have been published this year. That post is "The Hottest Man in Siam", again, an analytic and descriptive effort I'm quite fond of. But I'm just a little surprised that it's gotten so much action, 534 pageviews, so quickly. I suspect I was helped by a recent story in The New York Times about a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, which also mentioned The Greatest Man in Siam, the cartoon I discussed in the post. The 9th and 10th posts are both about Fantasia; one asserts it's a masterpiece, the other explains why I like The Nutcracker Suite episode.

Now, a quick look back over the numbers: 1) 3476, 2) 1464, 3) 1419, 4) 733, and 5) 603. The most popular has more than twice as many views as the second, which is very close to the third. The third is roughly double the fourth, which is a sixth greater than the fifth. While the 10th trails the 5th by over 100 views (488 to 603) the gaps do seem to be closing up once we get out of the top four.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What we've got here is failure to communicate

Miles Dewey Davis III, Time After Time

Most jazz musicians adopt an existing style. The best of them find their own personal voice within the style they adopt; many among these are musicians with no more than a local reputation and following. A small number of musicians have contributed to the creation of a new style: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, and so on. A very few manage to make signal contributions to more than one style.

Miles Davis is one of those. He came up in the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and found his way to a so-called cool style. One. A decade later he went modal and even free. Two. And then he went fusion. Three.

That last move was the most controversial of his career. Many jazz fans and critics accused him of selling out. Of going commercial. Maybe.

Trouble is, he could still play like a mofo. And he did. Here’s an out-take from Beethoven’s Anvil about the electric Miles:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ecology without Nature: Fighting Modernity with Modernity? No Thanks

Ecology without Nature: Fighting Modernity with Modernity? No Thanks: "Do we keep on using tools from modernity's toolkit to fix a problem created by that toolkit? Or do we see that the toolkit is a rather confusing part of a much wider configuration space?"

The World


We weave a world from two infinities: Independently of us, the world is infinitely varied, with objects of all kinds on all scales entering into manifold relationships with one another. At the same time, our minds gives us infinite capacity to scrutinize, categorize and perceive even one object, not to mention countless many.

And so these two infinities weave themselves through one another, neither the master, nor the slave.

See also:

From this morning's catch



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Three Against Two: Splitting the Mind

Three against two is one of the most important rhythm ‘cells’ in all of music. What do I mean, three against two? You play three evenly spaced beats in one ‘stream’ in the same period of time you play two evenly spaced beats in another ‘stream.’ It sounds simple enough but, the problem is that three and two do not have a common divisor, making the ‘evenly spaced’ part of the formula a bit tricky. The two patterns coincide on the first beat, but the second and third beats of the three-beat stream happen at different times from the second beat of the two-beat stream. And if you think that’s a lot of verbiage for something that ought to be simple, when then you’re beginning to get the idea.

In some cultures, including many in Africa, young children are taught 3 against 2 at a very young age. For them it IS easy. That’s not the case, however, in European derived musical traditions. Three against two is not part of basic toddler pedagogy and, as a consequence, learning to do it is a bit more difficult when, and if, the time comes – for some, it never comes. Thus, within the context of the Western classical tradition, three against two is considered moderately difficult rather than being fundamental. Such rhythms are exceptional in classical music, but they are common enough that any moderately skilled keyboard player must know how to execute them.

Go Slow, Count it in Six

In playing percussion or a keyboard instrument it is easy to alternate notes from one hand to the other and it is easy to play notes simultaneously with both hands. It is also easy to play two or four or eight notes with one hand against one note with the other hand or, for that matter, three or six notes with one hand against one note with the other. And, of course, it is easy to repeat such figures time after time after time. It is, however, distinctly more difficult to play three notes with one hand against two with the other. The problem is that, once the first note is struck by both hands, none of the successive notes in the pattern line up nor are they equidistant from one another. The patterns are incommensurate, as we see in the following diagram:

3 against 2
Three Against Two
Let’s consider the advice Joseph Hoffman offered on this problem. Hoffman was a piano virtuoso whose career spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1909 he published a book of Piano Questions, which consisted of “direct answers to two hundred fifty questions asked by piano students” which he had originally published in the Ladies’ Home Journal over a period of two years. One of the questions he answered was “How must I execute triplets played against two-eighths?” — a typical 2-against-3 pattern. Here is the first part of Hoffman’s answer:
In a slow tempo it may serve you to think of the second eighth-note of the triplet as being subdivided into two sixteenths. After both hands have played the first note of their respective groups simultaneously, the place of the aforsaid sixteenth note is to be filled by the second note of the couplet.

No Mind on the Hudson


Friday, April 22, 2011

Ghee on a Saturday Evening

From the archives, 2003.

It was Saturday evening, two days after the blackout that shut down most of the Northeastern quadrant of the country. I decided to take a walk down by the waterfront. For me, living in the Hamilton Park area of Jersey City, the waterfront means the west bank of the Hudson River at the point where the Holland Tunnel crosses into lower Manhattan, an area given over to a concrete walkway, buildings of various sorts, some deserted tracts of scrubby land, and the Newport Marina. I first set foot in this area some five or six years ago when I went to meet Bill Doyle, an old friend and, at that time, a business associate in a small software company. He was sailing his boat up from Baltimore and docking it at the marina.

inner light.jpg
Newport in the early morning.
At that time there were perhaps three or four high-rise apartments at Newport – as the area was called – two office towers, a parking garage, a fitness club, several shops, and, a couple of hundred-yards back from the shore, the Newport Mall, with a Sears, a J.C. Penny, a Sterns (now Macys), a multiplex theatre, food court, and assorted shops, stands, and kiosks. Now the number of apartment towers had more than doubled, there were five or six office buildings, a half dozen restaurants – American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian – several bars, two hotels, more parking, a florist, a large drug store, and a (private) primary school will be opening in the Fall. One of my colleagues, Xiaohui Wang, from the (now defunct) software company lives in one of those apartment towers. He tells me that his young son, Eric, can recite 20 ancient Chinese poems.

There were, as one might expect, a lot of people out that evening; there usually is. Judging from the languages they speak and their appearances, most of them are not native to America. The majority of them appear to be from Asia while some appear to be of African descent. There are some, but not many in overall proportion, Caucasians of European heritage.

Most of the people are relatively young. Many are walking with infants of toddlers. All are relaxed.

Sex Organs


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Father and Son


Tezuka, Genius, Kids, and Stories

So here’s what I’m thinking: Yesterday I put up a post in which I talked about Osamu Tezuka’s science fiction trilogy, three manga that he wrote early in his career. In that post – which also included discussions of two of the premier texts of English literature, “Kubla Khan” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I argued that the trilogy emerged from a conceptual and emotional crisis brought on by Japan’s defeat in World War II. Yet – and here’s the thing – Tezuka wrote those stories for children. Not the youngest children, but certainly 9 or 10 year olds. The story had to absorb and interest them. Yet it also had to absorb and interest a sophisticated young adult, Tezuka himself, in the process of working through deep and fundamental issues in his life world.

How’s that possible? To create texts that speak to two such disparate audiences? Or are they that different? Where’s the point where the adult issues met the childhood issues? Tezuka’s texts – and many others. Obviously. But how’s that work?

See also:
The Robot as Subaltern: Tezuka's Mighty Atom
Ponyo for Adults
Universal Kid Space

Freedom & Stuff

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

One Two Three




Being in Crisis and the Ontological Text

"Kubla Khan", Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fantasia, and Tezuka’s Science Fiction Trilogy

Early in my career I was immersed in the ideas of a handful of Continental thinkers, including Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Piaget, and Lévi-Strauss, but, as I explained in an essay, about my encounter with Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, that poem forced me away from a more or less philosophical grounding toward the cognitive briar patch of the newer psychologies. The poem presented problems that simply didn’t register with Merleau-Ponty or even Lévi-Strauss, but that seemed more commensurate with the world of Chomsky, but also, though less directly, that of the neurosciences.

I have subsequently come to realize the “Kubla Khan” is what we might call an ontological text, and that I have an affinity for such texts. While all poems and fictions have an ontological dimension, not all of them focus on ontological matters. Most texts deploy an ontology in order to tell a story. Ontological texts ‘tell stories’ in order to deploy and ontology.

In the case of “Kubla Khan” the poem doesn’t tell a story at all, not in the way, for example, Coleridge’s so-called Conversation Poems do. It presents us with a succession of situations, each in a different world. In the large, the poem unfolds in two movements. The first is set in the physical world of Xanadu around and about a river and some marvelous structure; the second is set nowhere in particular, but is a tissue of thoughts and imaginings. The two worlds are connected only be an emblem: 1) “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” (l. 36), 2) “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!”. And the nature of that connection is mysterious and problematic. What is at issue in this poem is the stations of Being, if you will, that bind these objects and processes into a world.

So that’s one text I’ve pondered. And pondered.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another. The action moves toward the third part, which takes place over three days. Sir Bercilak goes hunting in the forests while Sir Gawain goes hunting in Bercilak’s bedroom – more accurately, he is the hunted. At the end of the day they exchange the spoils of their respective hunts. That exchange thus asserts an equivalence between two realms of being, that of the hunt and that of courtship. This action, of course, is framed by the larger action which has Sir Gawain journeying from Camelot, to Hautdesert, to the Green Chapel and then back to Camelot. As I have argued in an essay about the narrative, Hautdesert is an inversion of the ‘normal’ courtly world of Camelot: a woman presides at court, not a man; a woman pursues Sir Gawain, not vice versa. And the Green Chapel seems a negation of the world of human artifice, being but a mound deep in the forest. The narrative sets these worlds into interaction with one another and asserts that interaction through an emblematic object, the green girdle Bercilak’s wife gave to Sir Gawain, which saved his life at the Green Chapel (at the cost of a nick on the neck) and which, upon his return to Camelot, came to symbolize the fellowship of knights at court. (Did it really save his life?)

Another ontological text. A narrative, yes. But a highly ritualized one, one emphasizing different kinds of and modes of being.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Structural Instability: Two Examples and a Question

Once more, from The Valve. This post concerns two of my favorite texts, "Kubla Khan" and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And rounds things off with a parallel to music.
Structural instability is one of the things that interests me. What do I mean by structural instability? Consider these lines (17-24) from "Kubla Khan":
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragements vaulted like rebounding hail,
Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
We've got eight lines, rhymed as four rhymed couplets (seething-breathing, forced-burst, hail-flail, ever-river), though the rhymes are not all strong, which, of course, is fine. But look at the syntactic organization; we've got three large phrases, each consisting of multiple clauses. The first phrase runs for three lines (17-19), as does the second (20-22), while the last phrase is only two lines long (23-24). Those first two phrases thus correspond to three rhymed couplets. The syntactic grouping is different from, cuts across, the rhyme grouping. That's an example of structural instability.

Here we've got a string of 58 words. And we've got three ways of organizing that string into groups of substrings. First we break it into lines, eight of them. Now we've got to group those lines in units that are themselves smaller than the whole passage. One principle groups lines according to rhyme, another principle groups them according to syntax. These two principles produce different groupings. Hence, the two structural principles work against one another rather than reinforcing one another.

My larger argument about "Kubla Khan" is that there are only two places in the poem where we have this kind of structural instability. The second place is in the second part of the poem, lines 45-48 (as explained in this paper or this online article; see also this bit of intellectual biography, especially Fig. 2). I think that is an important feature of this poem. That is to say, if we want to understand how this poem works, we need to understand that instability.






Monday, April 18, 2011

Drama Queens B Us

Strange Friends and New Lands

This is a post about thought and perception. The central intellectual work derives from an article Dave Hays and I wrote some years ago, Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process, in which we talk of physiognomic and propositional processes, a terminology we adopted for a contrast that has gone under other names, such as analog vs. digital, or holistic vs. analytic.

But I’d like to take an oblique approach, one based on the following remark Tim Morton made about his recent trip to Taiwan:
For about forty eight hours I was in full on weirdness mode as I explored a country I'd never been in. Objects, from lights to smells, seemed to float in front of their usual resting places, leering towards me like characters in an Expressionist painting. . . .

Then things began to settle down and I started to see foregrounds and backgrounds again. I started to be immersed in a world. It struck me that the sensual ether of causality floats in front of the illusion of structure. That's why you don't see it. Because you are looking for something behind the structure. The secret is right out in front of it, in your face.
There’s nothing particularly strange about what he says. You go to a new environment and it takes awhile to acclimate. Just what does it mean, first to encounter new things, then to accommodate to them?

Strange Friends and Maggie Thatcher

Let’s start with a bit of apparatus, something I’ve called the “strange friend” phenomenon. As I’ve described it in that paper Hays and I wrote:
You encounter a friend and notice there is something strange about her, but you don't exactly know what. You scrutinize her and finally realize that, e.g. she changed her hair style. Or perhaps you don't figure out what changed and instead must be told.
How could you fail to recognize someone you know, and know well. How could a relatively small change in appearance impede recognition?

This phenomenon is similar to one known in psychology as the Thatcher illusion. Here’s the Wikipedia gloss:
The Thatcher effect or Thatcher illusion is a phenomenon where it becomes difficult to detect local feature changes in an upside down face, despite identical changes being obvious in an upright face. It is named after British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on whose photograph the effect has been most famously demonstrated.
In this case, nothing has changed about the familiar person. You’re just observing them from an unfamiliar perspective.

It’s as though basic recognition is holistic in such a way that a local change somewhere in the whole, or a presentation of the whole from a strange angle degrades or destroys the initial perceptual gestalt.

From today's catch


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sonet Detail


Paley’s Summa Quiltologica

I would like to perform the following experiment: Select two groups of people who are fairly sophisticated about the visual arts but who have never heard of Nina Paley nor know about her work. Each group will see the quilts in Nina Paley’s 4 Elements series. One group will be told that they are, say, an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) project by a student at a first class art school, say Cal Arts. The other group will be told they were by a cartoonist.

What will they say? In particular, will the conceptual framing – art student vs. cartoonist – elicit different kinds of comments? I’m fishing for a specific difference. Here’s a photo of the four together:

Image courtesy of Des Pickard
The most obvious thing about the set is that three are strongly colored (Earth, Water, and Fire) while the fourth, Air, is not. The second most obvious thing, at least to me, is that they are in distinctly different visual styles. Earth, the first one Paley did, is more or less early modernist, think of say, Matisse crossed with Rousseau. Water, the second one she did, is East Asian. The waves are reminiscent of that Hokusai print everyone knows (though, in fact, a bit different from it) and the dragon is East Asian, though a perhaps bit streamlined.



Saturday, April 16, 2011



Thread to Thread: Nina Paley's 4 Elements

At roughly the beginning of the new year, Nina Paley took up a new medium: quilting. She has now completed Air/Nude, the fourth in a series of quilts honoring the 4 Elements. The other three, of course, are: Earth, Water, and Fire. This post is just a short note about Air/Nude.

It’s 77 inches tall by 23 inches wide and depicts a life-size female nude. The fabric is white cotton muslin and the stitching is in white polyester thread: white on white. The figure is rendered without adornment while the background is densely stitched in a variety of free-motion quilting patterns, some standards, some by Leah Day, and some of Nina’s own. Consider this detail (photo by Nina):

Here’s what Nina says about it:
I had bountiful opportunities to try new stitches and patterns. As long as the negative spaces were densely quilted, it didn’t matter what was in them. I tried various hexagonal-based “snowlflake” patterns, like the one above. In the midst of my experiments, Leah posted this Icicle Lights pattern, which is much easier than hex-based ones. Below it is an homage to DNA molecules, and a “scaly micropebbling” experiment.
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, stitched into the background of a quilt that has a nude woman in the foreground. No artistic subject is more venerated and honored than the female nude. And for good reason, after all, women are the source of human life. And DNA is the source of all life on earth.

Source to source.

But also: Thread to Thread. DNA is the thread of life, and threads are the fundamental substance of quilting.

More later.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Look See: Photo Jazz

“The more you look, the more you see.” That phrase has been going through my mind recently, and in two contexts: 1) describing cartoons, 2) photography. The meaning is obvious enough, yet bears investigation. Since I’ve already addressed the first activity, I want to concentrate on the second in this post.

Get the Shot

Consider this photograph:


There’s a tree in the foreground. Or rather, there’s a part of a tree, since we can’t see the whole (above ground portion of the) tree. In the background we see the blurred outlines of parts of some buildings. One of which, the Empire State Building, is quite famous. I don’t know exactly where I was standing when I took that photo – though I could probably return to within, say, 50 yards of the spot. I took it sometime after 7AM last Saturday (9 April 2011), and the photograph itself is time-stamped, though the stamp is not very accurate (as I had to set the timer at some point, and I did so manually).

So, the photograph represents real objects as they appeared at a certain time and place. But that scene, as such, has no existence other than in the images I, or someone else, constructs from data taken out of the camera. In saying this I’m not setting the stage for some deep metaphysical argument about appearance and reality, though one could certainly go in that direction. I’m simply laying out the practical facts of photography.

I took a number of shots while I was standing more or less in the same location. I didn’t think about any one of them for more than a few seconds.

Let’s look at some numbers: Between 7:01:34 AM and 7:05:33 AM I took 16 shots. That’s 16239 shots in 239 seconds, or one shot every 15 seconds. Of course I didn’t take the shots at regular intervals, and I’m sure I was walking during that time. In fact, I was walking rapidly toward the bank of the Hudson so that I could get some shots of the cruise ship that had just passed in front of my location. Which meant that I was in conflict between the need to get to the river walk and the desire to take photos along the way. The time pressure was very much like that of jazz improvisation, and so with a similar mental process: lots of quick decisions made on an intuitive basis.

No time for deliberation, just get the shot. And the next one. And the next.

"I've been workin' on the railroad . . ."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Warhol Redux

How Now I and Thou: In Memory of David Glenn Hays

David Hays was my teacher. This is the eulogy that I delivered at his funeral in the Summer of 1995.
dave sp4

In 1973 the journal Dædelus published an issue devoted to Language as a Human Problem, a topic of much interest to me. The first article I read was entitled “Language and Interpersonal Relationships” by one David G. Hays. The first paragraph of that article contained a single question:
How DOES LANGUAGE engender love?
That question gets to the heart of Dave Hays’s intellectual life. He was much concerned with the intricacies of language and with the workings of love in human community.

His directness in asking about the the relationship between language and love tells you much about his intellectual style. But the article’s title, while accurate, is a bit obvious. The difference between that accurate but pedestrian title and Dave’s original title tells you much about the man and why he decided to leave the academic world.

I learned about that original title some years later, when I had become a colleague and collaborator. It was on one of the trips I took to Manhattan to discuss our work. These visits generally involved several rituals and this particular revelation came during preparation for the evening meal.

This ritual usually began about 5 PM or so when Dave observed that it was time to prepare the evening meal. He would go directly to the kitchen while I got the scotch and two glasses. When I’d poured us a few fingers of scotch, enough to float the ice, Dave would assign me a task, such a peeling asparagus, and we would begin peeling and chopping and simmering and cooking and drinking and talking. We talked of many things, and in one of those talks Dave told me the original title for “Language and Interpersonal Relationships.” He had conjoined the title of a book written by a very wise man, I and Thou, with a bit of pop culture flotsam having to do with a brown cow. The resulting cross-breed was “How Now I and Thou.”

No doubt sometime the next day our work took us into a very different kind of ritual, one we repeated often but not so often as food preparation. This ritual began when both of us were exhausted from the intellectual work, and frustrated because we weren’t making progress. Each of us would lie back and drop into fitfull reverie. Every so often one of us would make a comment or ask a question. The other would reply, to no mutual satisfaction, and the fitfull reverie would continue. Eventually we would work through it, begin talking and talking, and Dave would sit down to the computer and write up some notes on what we had accomplished.

Now that he is silent forever I will never again repeat these rituals with David Hays. That is a loss I have only begun to measure. But we have his words, those words through which he sought truth and engendered love.

How Now,
I and Thou,
David Glenn Hays.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

So Near, So Far

From today's New York Times, "Densely Populated, but No Shortage of Grisly Dumping Sites," a story of an uncanny New York City overlaid and entangled with mundane New York City:
Bodies have been discarded less than 100 feet from well-traveled highways and parkways. The dead are close, but not that close. “You just don’t think there’s any place that people can dispose of a body anymore,” said Robert Sullivan, the author of “The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City.” “You think every place is noticed. But it’s not. There’s so many places that are mysterious. There’s two maps of New York overlapping here. The map of places that are somehow forgotten and beautifully mysterious, and the map of people that are forgotten.”
The are, in fact, many such Strange Cities within the City. The homeless know some of them. Graffiti writers know others. Urban explores too. And kids. One stretch of land, many networks of paths, multiple cities.

Punching Cows

I’ve been thinking about my life situation, as I’m inclined to do. In particular, I’ve been thinking about my life situation in relation to a cultural trope or three. Such as the cowboy, hence punching cows.

But we’re not quite ready to go to the tropes.

Me first. I’m a single male pushing the upper end of middle age. I’ve never been married and I have no kids. And I’m all but broke, though not busted, not yet anyhow.

I’ve lived my life for my intellectual and artistic pursuits, with the intellectual taking first priority. It’s not at all clear to me that, living as I have, I could have accommodated the needs of a wife and children. It’s not merely that I’ve lived near poverty level so I could pursue my interests. Even if I’d been independently wealthy, I’d have still have been pursuing the cognitive networks, the literary texts, jazz, cultural evolution, graffiti, photography, and so forth. Would I have been willing to cut back on that so as to participate in family life?

I don’t know.

And that’s a conflict our culture has problems with. Call it a conflict between family and, shall we say, vocation (a calling). The culture works very hard to come down on the side of marriage and family. But the alternatives, the Others, they haunt our mythology.

Consider the cowboy, the cowboy and the schoolmarm.

The cowboy wants to roam the wide-open spaces, sleep under the stars, herd the little dogies, and punch cows. 24/7/365. He generally does this in the name of freedom: Don’t fence me in.

But don’t kid yourself, it’s his vocation. He’s committed to it. Some might even say it’s an addiction. And what’s free about an addiction?

Contextual Flux

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Exposure: What does the camera see?

I post photos at two or three sites on the web. At one of those sites, Iain asked me:

William, how did you control the exposure on those shots?

Here's referring to shots like these two:



The question arises because the light is very bright. I'm shooting in the direction of the sun, it's early morning, so the sun's low in the sky. Here's my response:

I don't, Iain. I let the camera does what it 'wishes' to do. One thing I will do for some shots, however, is that I will regulate just how close the sun is to the edge of a shot. I may shoot with the sun just off the edge, or slightly over the edge. And take several shots that are more or less the same except for just where I pointing with respect to the sun. You can, to some extent, control lens flare by just how close you edge the lens toward the sun.

But then, most of these shots aren't directed such that that's a consideration. I'm shooting generally toward the East, and that's where the sun is at that time of day, but the lens is generally 10, 15, 30 or more degrees away from the sun.

Now, I do have to do some photoshopping. The shots tend to be yellowish to orangish just out of the camera, but the sky may not have been like that at all. It may have been more whitish or light bluish. So I have to decide what to do. Do I keep the yellowish-orangish cast or do I back off from it? I'll often try several versions. Some very interesting this will show up in Photoshop by using Image > Ajustments > Auto Levels, Auto Color, or Equalize. I almost always fade the results of whatever Photoshop gives me in that way. And, of course, I'll use the various options in combination with one another.

I wouldn't say I do a lot of adjusting in Photoshop. But I certainly some. And I generally do more with these intense light shots than I do with 'regular' shots.

One general principle is to try to get something your eye might have seen directly. But there are problems with that. If I'm shooting close to the sun, or even into it, then I'm taking a shot that the eye can't look at for more than split second without some form of protection. So what's the scene REALLY look like? Does it have a real appearance? Otherwise, the eye is constantly adjusting as you scan the scene and compensating for variations in light flux. What you're looking at 'naturally' is always a 'composite' of several glimpses, each at a different focal point in the scene. The eye adjusts its 'settings' for each glimpse. Thus the overall scene looks well-lit in a way that's impossible for just about any optical system.

The fact is, the sense in which the camera records just what's there is, of course, straight-forward physics and engineering. But what the eye and visual system do are not straight-forward physics and engineering. Something more subtle's going on. The relationship between these two – what the camera registers and what the eye-brain sees – that is subtle as well. And is subject of manipulation and regulation through image processing.

ADDENDUM: 1) When you shoot into the light, every bit of dust in your camera's optical path is likely to show up in the photograph, magnified. My camera happens to be a tad dusty at the moment, so I had to touch-up those dust spots in Photoshop. 2) I've been doing this for awhile and so have developed a feel for what I can get away with. 

Yum Yum! Veggies!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Toward an Ontology of Light


Shamus Culhane of the Avant-Garde

An article in The New York Times reports the work of Tom Klein, of Loyola Marymount University:
In the March issue of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Mr. Klein relates an intriguing theory. He says that Mr. Culhane broke the boundaries of his craft when he worked on the Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the 1940s, going well beyond the kind of commonplace puckishness that supposedly led later animators to stitch frames of a panty-less diva into “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Mr. Culhane’s stunts, Mr. Klein posits, were of a higher order. He worked ultra-brief experimental art films into a handful of Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
What I find especially interesting is that we now know that all those phallic symbols in The Greatest Man in Siam, which Culhane directed, got there through conscious deliberation:
“We were just trying to put one over on them,” Mr. Culhane years later told Mr. Klein, who had asked him about the bawdy imagery in the course of a visit and correspondence shortly before Mr. Culhane died.

OOO! – So That’s What You Mean

Objects withhold themselves

This is about connections. It started – well, who knows just when it really started, but, in the immediate past, it started yesterday when I listened to a talk Tim Morton just gave at Temple. In the subsequent Q & A Tim made a remark about how he loves to return to London, his hometown, because he’s always discovering “strange pathways” affording him uncanny glimpses into his home turf. That reminded me of my early experiences photographing graffiti, and that, in turn, reminded me of a passage from J. J. Gibson, the ecological psychologist.

So I made a comment to that effect at Tim’s blog, and that was that. Except that it wasn’t. It never is, is it? I realized that Tim’s comments & the Gibson connection have given me a clue about what OOOists (object oriented ontologists) mean when they say that objects are ‘withdrawn,’ or they ‘withhold themselves.”

I slept on it, and more connections formed themselves in the meshwork that is my mind. And From Gibson I connected with one of my current hobbyhorses, and then to another, and ended up at graffiti, via ecology.

So that’s what this post is about. First I recap the comment I made at Ecology without Nature. And I jump to graffiti.

Strange Ways

On Thursday 7 April Tim Morton keynoted a symposium held at Temple University: GRID + Flow: Philadelphia and Beyond, Mapping and Reimagining Urban Ecologies through the Arts and Humanities. His topic: Ecology and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects. In the subsequent question and answer session someone posed a question about non-locality. After acknowledging that Philadelphia was real, yes, really real, Tim’s answer moved to the Airporter, an airport shuttle service. What he said was that the trip from his (familiar) home to the (by now familiar) airport inevitably went by way of unfamiliar routes, giving him a strange and uncanny view of his home turf. The capacity for reliable navigation is deeply embedded within animal nervous systems and that, in particular, this entails the capacity to move to and from one’s home base (nest, den, hive, as the species may be). The shuttle picked up Tim from his home base and then immediately set out on a strange route, thus causing some discomfort to millions of years of evolutionary work enmeshed deep in his brain.

From there Tim talked about coming back to London (1:03:40) and finding all sorts of strange little places that he hadn't seen before, “strange ways of going from A to B.” That’s when it hit me: Wham!

For I’d felt that very strongly when I first began photographing graffiti in my neighborhood. The graffiti itself aside – marks of paths taken by others through my 'hood – I walk obscure and hidden pathways through my familiar neighborhood. I'd walk for, say, a mile or so behind abandoned buildings and along a railroad track and take and turn and then another and suddenly, Bingo! There I am in this place I've been through time and again. But never by the route I just took. That place had become, all of a sudden, strange and a bit uncanny. 

Art as Commodity

Nina Paley hits deep with this one. See, e.g. Robert Hughes on Damien "pickled shark" Hirst.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Floating City


Speculative Engineering

Continuing with the design theme, here’s a passage from the introduction to Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. xii – xiii) where I talk about my intellectual method as one that is as much about engineering and design as it is about analysis and science:
This book is thus about building blocks. When I was a child I had an extensive pile of wooden building blocks: various sizes of squares and rectangles, with the rectangles coming in several different length-to-width ratios, round rods that could serve a columns or as logs, some triangles, some arches, various relatively flat pieces, and so it. It was a miscellaneous collection, building blocks from various sets, but also odds and scraps of wood my father gave me or that I found here and there.

I loved building things with these blocks. I particularly remember building gasoline stations and ocean-going freighters. I surely must have build forts and castles, and then rockets and space ports. I certainly spent time building the tallest possible tower. In some cases the challenge was primarily imaginative: How do I make something like this? In other cases, there was surely an engineering challenge, e.g. just what is the best way to create that tall tower? No matter what I made, I used the same set of blocks.

Beethoven’s Anvil is about the building blocks and design principles, not so much of music, but of the brains and societies that create that music. My argument is simply that these building blocks—mostly neural circuits and social structures—are necessary. I have no particular reason to believe that I’ve defined the complete set; in fact, I have some some small reason to believe that the set is not yet complete, nor ever will be. The nervous system is plastic, taking the impress of its environment. As culture molds the human environment, so it molds the nervous system. I see no end to culture’s possibilities. Thus, it seems to me quite possible that our descendents a century or two from now will have nervous systems that differ from ours in small but critical ways.

Thus I like to think of this book as an exercise in speculative engineering. Engineering is about design and construction: How does the nervous system design and construct music? It is speculative because it must be. The purpose of speculation is to clarify thought. If the speculation itself is clear and well-founded, it will achieve its end even when it is wrong, and many of my speculations must surely be wrong. If I then ask you to consider them, not knowing how to separate the prescient speculations from the mistaken ones, it is because I am confident that we have the means to sort these matters out empirically. My aim is to produce ideas interesting, significant, and clear enough to justify the hard work of investigation, both through empirical studies and through computer simulation.

Designing Minds

 Tim Morton’s been blogging up a storm about design issues, mostly, I take it, about architectural design and the environment (this link takes you to one of a blizzard of posts in the neighborhood). But architecture is hardly the only locus of design. The human world is filled with designed objects and processes. Some quite concrete, but some rather abstract.

I’m thinking in particular about computer software, which has spread its tendrils throughout the civilized and semi-civilized and hanging-on-the-edge worlds in the past half-century. The thing about software is that we don’t understand it very well. Hence it’s ‘buggy.’ Some bugs are merely annoying, but some bugs bring the system crashing down in ways that destroys hours, days, or weeks or more of work.

It’s commonplace in the software world to think that, in designing software for some particular application, you must design to the user’s view of the world. How does the user think and act? What’s the user want and desire? At this level design is a species of cognitive anthropology. But how many software engineers are trained in ethnology? What do they know about human perception and cognition – which, at best, are poorly understood.

The other day I was talking to a very experienced and very senior software designer, database architect to be more exact, who gave me a typical example. Consider a package shipping firm, such as Federal Express, UPS, or DHL. Who’s the firm’s customer? Well, to the route driver, the customer is the person or organization who receives shipment of a package and who may also turn over a package for delivery. To the clerk in a package shipping store the customer is the person who delivers a package for shipping. To the account executive the customer is the person or organization who pays for shipping, and that person may not be the person who receives the package or who turns it over to the company for delivery.

So we’ve got at least three different definitions of customer. Now, you might say that that’s a matter of mere definition. And, in a sense you’re right. But getting people to agree on ‘mere’ definitions is not easy, especially when they’re being asked to accede to a definition that doesn’t accord with their view of the world, however limited it may be. The software world is filled with such problems of mere definition.

Thus, it was not at all surprising when this architect starting talking about how one might take a Kantian view of the problem, in which one attempts to design the software to a given user’s view of it. Or, he went on, one might opt for a Platonic view, in which one attempts to design the software so as to reflect the world as it is, in essence. That’s how he thinks about the problems he faces in being a database architect. But, alas, he tells me, there aren’t many folks in the computer biz who can follow him when he talks in such terms, Kant vs. Plato. (I wonder what Nietzschean software would be like?)

And yet, at this point, we seem irrevocably committed to living in a world pervaded by software. By this stuff we don’t understand, can’t make very well, is buggy. And breaks down. Over and over and over.

Winter Crossing


Look Out


Friday, April 8, 2011

Neumes, Memory, Improv, and Composition

Tim Morton stages a post on Ontolojazz in the following way:
These are ephemeral objects indeed, these jams. It's quite precious to have records of them. Anyone can download an mp3 of some “live” performance, with an ease that smoothes over the strangeness and difficulty of playing together, let alone of simply coexisting.

Trying to figure out why jamming is different from classical playing will take me some time. There are obvious reasons. You're not reading music, you're “reading” your inner state and your instrument and the people in the room, and a tune that you may be working on, perhaps a standard that you're reworking. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion, which I hinted at below, that the configuration space of jazz includes “classical” music as a much smaller, rather oddly stabilized and crystallized island within it.
I want to speak to the difference between ‘jamming’ and performing music notated in the Western classical tradition.

Let’s start with the obvious: No matter how complete the notation, the music’s not there on the page. There is a difference between playing the notes and playing the music. The notation requires interpretation if it is to be realized in an authentic performance, a moving one, a charismatic one. Interpretation requires intuitive knowledge of the inner life of music. And so does jamming. But jamming can be just as empty as a classical performance that gets the notes but misses the music.

One of the things that needs to be understood, then, is how that could be so. What are the mechanisms in play? We don’t know.