January 4, 2011
I refer to a phenomena so common, terrible, intriguing and mindless that it not only pegs you down in quick sand, but causes divorce, brain discoloring and smug neighbors? For instance, why do I waste my time writing this blog? Is it the public masturbation shared with all the other jerks writing blogs about subjects no one cares about? Or is it trying to sadistically poke your brain? Perhaps it is the frustration knowing that both of us wasted another day without furthering society, our morality, world peace or truth in advertising? How about the waste of lost dreams? You get it? Do I have a point or not?
“What point”, you ask. The point is the point about waste. Waste such as the leaves floating about in a lifeless desert. Waste such as the rats in your toilet making you flee to your backyard. Waste such as throwing up because today it is yet another day bringing you that much closer to death. Look around and there is plenty of waste to be seen by your yellowed, blood shot eye or smelled by a smashed in nose. But the waste you see, smell or feel is just the tip of the ice berg. The biggest waste is within, below periscope depth, slippery, unseen and without control.
“Within what”? “Within my bread box”? Certainly. “Within my donations to Sudanese kids”? Canceled years ago. “Within that pledge to lose weight”? Don’t remember that one. No, no, the scope is wider than any of those little things. I’m thinking about the waste within you, within all of you, the waste that makes becoming a contributor to humanity very unlikely. The black hole in your soul. The garbage can in your heart.
“Yeas”, you hiss. “I got no black hole. My garbage can is over by the garage, not my heart. They pick up my garbage every Monday.” Well, good for you. I guess I did not make myself clear. I’ve seen you around for years. I’ve seen you bombarded by every worthwhile idea, initiative, law, advance, passion, plea and joke. Nothing brought a reaction of any kind. You seemed to brighten at the tea party crowd but that lasted only a brief moment. Everything went into that black hole you seem unaware of. Gone. Nada. Dead quiet. Not even an echo, splash or ripple. Have another Valium and all will be well.
You could be Scrooge except he’s got initiative and you don’t. He says no but you mumble. It’s much easier to enumerate what you are not than to pinpoint the qualities that you possess. Mention any characteristic and you’ll find it does not quite apply to you. Are you generous? Honest? A good father, wife, mother or child? Are you a party pooper, embezzler, insider trader or shop lifter? A civil rights activist, a recycler, a doctor without borders? Stop crying, you fraud. Get used to the bad news. Pretty much, you’re not really anything. You’re like a playing card without a face. All you know is how to pack it all into the garbage can in you heart. They’ll pick it up on Monday and you are free again, temporarily. Then the smudge starts to accumulate again.
You know the slogan “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” (1). Perhaps you remember Dan Quayle who contributed an imaginative paraphrase: “What a Waste it is to Lose One’s Mind. Not to Have a Mind is Being Very Wasteful.”(2) Dan hit it right on, didn’t he? Dan may not be the brightest speller but he could cover his tracks with the best of them. Yet the marketing guys know a good thing that they can waste, turn around, plagiarize and destroy. Here’s a few: “A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(3), “A Stimulus is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(4),” Intelligence Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(5), “A Lifestyle Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(6), “A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(7) and “Trash Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”(8). Bush contributed “And There’s no Doubt in My Mind, not One Doubt in My Mind, that We Will Fail” (9) which may be his only insight during eight long years.
In turn, the slogans above refer to (1) educational wake up calls, (2) a politician’s customary fogginess, (3) learning lessons from bad stuff such as the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, (4) experts claiming that Obama’s $837 billion stimulus package was and is gigantically wasted, (5) the TV show Entourage’s fan book, (6) a song title, (8) a Canadian promotion of recycling with the related “Land is a Terrible Thing to Waste” and finally (9) a 2001 Bush pep talk to the Labor Department.
Slogans, one liners, battle cries, jargon, lyrics, catch phrases and mottoes are just words stapled together to penetrate you skull. They are of as little consequence as sand penetrating your shoes, yet are as unavoidable as the baby on the air line seat next to you. Slogans are spam on the way to the black hole of the Delete folder. By now, we perceive almost everything as spam, regardless if the message comes from Sarah Palin, the Pope, the IRS or that poor Nigerian statesman. The Nightly News are spam. Beethoven’s Ninth is spam. Mona Lisa is spam. Your partner’s blabbering are spam. You boss leeks spam like the Mississippi. This blog goes straight to the black spam hole.
Slogans make up 95% of the communications we receive and give (I made up that number). “Have a Nice Day”, “You Look Well”, “I Feel Great”, “I Love My …”, “How’s that…?”, “I Bet …”, “I Hear That …”, “Keep Up the Good Work”, ” My … Says That …”, “Come and Get It”, “Yes We Can”, “Can I Get You Another?”, “Did You Find Everything?”, “Will That Be All?” and “Come Again”. Comfort words fill any gap left open in circular lives without start or finish. They swirl around in our mouths and spit out like mustard gas, filling the air with clouds sticking to your hair and shoes. The clouds wander up your nose, becoming cog web around your brain. No response is ever generated, nor expected. It’s the white noise of loneliness. It is the knee-jerks of empty minds.
“Empty minds?”, you say. “That isn’t me. I see through all of that. Doesn’t bother me. No, Sir. No fog to report”. Excellent, excellent. You are right. There are people who do not suffer from cob web or discolored brains. Frankly, of those, most suffer terrible damage to the inner self. They do not understand the significance of “Have a Nice Day”. No Prozac can bring them to the ranks of the mindless masses because the damage is so severe that not even Dr Phil can sort it out. Which leaves the last crowd for the last.
Some people just don’t get it. They seem unaffected by the slogans. They refuse living the mindless life. They shake off the boredom, loneliness and the brain cob webs. The slogans make up 5% of their reception, not 95% as is the case with the wasted mindless. Who are these people? That is hard to tell. We may all have ideas but, being mindless, it is difficult to be sure and most mindless aren’t likely to even try. Who are the mindful? What made them mindful? What made the difference? You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you? Only the mindful can answer things like that. The mindful have not told me their secrets. Maybe some day.
December 10, 2010
What’s your tolerance for controversy? What kind of controversy, you ask? We suffer controversies all around us so what do I have in mind? The color of a tie, a barking dog, e-mail spam, people eating veal, Michael Jackson’s nose, BP’s cover ups, Osama bin-Laden’s muffled threats on tape, Wikileaks releases of semi-truths or maybe the origin of cosmos. These are all valid controversies that many if not all of us suffer, cherish or ignore.
Once in a while something pops up that hits you in some special way. I’m referring to Harold Pinter’s 2005 lecture called “Art, Truth and Politics”. If you don’t know, Harold Pinter was a British actor, screenwriter and playwright. His works were somewhat mysteriously labeled “absurdist and realistic while displaying despair and defiance about the human condition”. If you, like I, didn’t quite catch that, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was one of his movie credits. Moreover, he won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. He got the French Legion d’Honneur as part of a mile long list of awards and honors. He was a controversial, outspoken leftist political activist.
The Nobel Price lecture was pre-recorded, and shown on video on December 7, 2005, in Börssalen at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden. Pinter, 75, suffered major health issues and could not attend in person. Death is one of the controversial themes in the lecture and clearly on Pinter’s mind but did not lessen the fury, passion and personal honesty displayed By Pinter. He died three years later, in December of 2008.
Pinter was controversy personified. He was and is the left-winger that right-wingers love to smear. The US and British post WWII policies in the Middle East and Central and South America gave Pinter the political platform he needed. Yet he is also a keen observer of the phobias of mankind on an individual level. Therein lays the greatness of his lecture. He bridges the gap between the national horrors and our personal sphere of “lies, lies and lies around us”.
The lecture ties our personal, moral culture to the corrupt top level political arena. In the latter, he targets the two Bushes’ wars in Iraq, extending it to the US deadly meddling in Central and South America. You may or may not agree with his leftist views – that is not the main point. It’s not about whether or not Pinter hates America. It is about whether you and I have the courage to see and react to what is around us. That’s the point missed or ignored by his critics.
You will find plenty of controversy; as good as it gets in civilized circles. Take the time to sit through the lecture (link below). It probably won’t change your life. But the lecture will make you think. It may anger you or it might make you jump up and cheer. In either case, the real point is how we personally relate to a world of violence on the highest level. It is about opening one’s mind. I know. That’s a hard one.
The lecture ends with a poem by Pinter. Labeled “Death”, it pinpoints the gruesome reality of death with a question about love. “Did you wash the Dead Body”?. “Did you kiss the Dead Body”? The macabre horrors of the world are not distant events but events that affect us morally, ethically and personally every day of our lives. His final point is about our loss suffered from the “lies, lies, lies”. We have “lost the Dignity of man”.
Below is the link to the 46 minute lecture as presented to the Swedish Academy on December 7th of 2005.
The Official link: http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=620
Here is one of the responses, as merciless as the lecture itself:
“Christopher Hitchens, a US-based British polemicist alerted American conservatives to the full horror of Harold. He warned, in The Wall Street Journal, that the new Nobel laureate was “a thuggish big mouth who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage for far too long”. Hitchens also declared he had experienced more wit and enlightenment on the walls of a public lavatory than he had by attending Pinter’s plays.”
And here is the other side as expressed by the price awarders of the Nobel Prize:
“Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honor available to any writer in the world. In announcing the award, Horace Engdahl, Chairman of the Swedish Academy, said that Pinter was an artist “who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”.
September 24, 2010
Is the Storm Seattle’s best ever team? Is it the best sports team or perhaps the best community contributors? Is it the best ever or is it just the best ever hype? If best, how come the good people of Seattle largely ignored them for years? Why are the players paid so frugally if they are actually the best? How come the chauvinists among us get away with sexist comments about the sexual orientation of whoever involved, not based in any known facts? To my knowledge, no one claims the Seahawks and fans are all gay. And those sissies don’t even win games.
We are members of teams of our own, be it Team Mariners, Team Microsoft, Team Teamsters or Team Smith Family. Teams include Team Nazi Lowriders or Team Cosa Nostra. There are teams representing interests from A to Z, however insignificant in the greater scheme. Some are mandatory, others are looser. Mandatory or not, members generally view their team as the best ever. Thinking differently is treason.
What kind of a team is the Seattle Storm? Stupid question, you say. They are the Seattle Storm, what else? That is certainly true. The question is whether or not they are the “best” team. First, the team concept is quite complex. It is a misused and an overused concept – as in this very post. Second, “best” is a loaded descriptor. Is the Storm a better team than the Team Smith (or whatever) Family? Is the Storm superior to Team Mother Theresa? Are they better than Team Lance Armstrong winding its way, year after year, up bone breaking Alpine and Pyrenees Mountains?
Take the Sonics for instance. I’m old enough to be sitting in a New York bar, sipping a brew or two on the eve of June 1, 1979. The Sonics crushed the Washington Bullets 4-1 to win the NBA title. Remember that team? Sikma, Silas, Johnson, Williams to mention a few. They are legends indeed. Here is another great team effort. I sat in a pub, sipping a pint or two, in Oxford, England when Team NASA put a Team on the Moon on July 20th 1969. “”That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”
Those are the good teams.
Earlier, I was a sailor, not sipping beer, on a naval ship on November 22, 1963. Team Navy took on a completely different outlook right then and there on that day. A recent high school diploma provided no guidance in a World turning violent. Team US Army under William Calley raped and murdered My Lai on March 16, 1968. Team MLK lost their leader on April 4, 1968 to a deranged nobody. The murders of Bobby Kennedy, John Lennon, Israeli athletes and countless others followed. The Sixties and Seventies were not just about Team Free Love. Team IRA blew up the London Hilton, missing yours truly by a few hours. Later they blew up Harrods with me a block away. These kinds of teams can get personal.
Team America woke up on September 11, 2001, a date more familiar to many of you. Team Bush, recognizing an opportunity, declared war (“Bring’m on!”) on Muslims, human rights, the US constitution and nail clippers. Team Bush also led the rescue (“Heck of a job, Brownie”) of New Orleans, drowned by Katrina on August 29, 2005. Recently, Team Lehman Brothers met its Waterloo on Sept 1, 2008, (“We were just told in the last hour not to come back tomorrow”) but only after screwing you and me royally.
What has Bush to do with the Storm? Not much, to be true. But the Storm is not the only Team in town. By nature, teams are competitive, ready to let their jugulars go for your throat. Innocent as the Storm might be, they compete for your attention in a chaotic world. How do they succeed or fail in that quagmire? Can they, or are they, distanced and isolated from the bad guys? What precisely does the Storm influence and how from mere marketing can they reach?
There are bad teams.
Teams change over time. The hippie teams of the chaotic seventies evolved into teams of Wall Street money jugglers. The eighties till today saw greed fuel economic disasters, over and over. Team Free Love led to Team Insider Trading. Works by Dr. Spock and Julia Child replaced Commie Manifestos. Bond Investing For Dummies and Investing Online For Dummies became instant hits as Mao’s Little Red Book hit the skids.
Team participation fell as we as individuals in wolf packs fought over the short-lived spoils of IPOs. Some invested in Icelandic banks that soon went belly-up. Others went for Russian mutual funds showing phenomenal growth until they mysteriously disappear to fund the expansion of child prostitution into Bend, OR.
Much earlier, the 1917 Team Bolshevik overthrow and knocked off a tyrant tsar. The early, relatively moderate policies changed into Team Gulag and Team Terror. Team CIA started as a rather glorious Team OSS in the 2nd World War, dropping agents into Nazi Europe with huge radios that rarely worked. That team’s glory evolved into a huge powerhouse hidden from public and political oversight. At times, details leaked out, revealing the disgrace of Bay of Pigs and countless other scandals. In other developments, every self-respecting community salivate over their SWAT Teams dressed up in black Waffen-SS styled uniforms. Somewhat like mini-CIAs, these outfits ensure the bad guys become dead and stay that way as long as possible.
CIA’s Soviet nemesis of Team KGB is no longer alive. Their agents are now security consultants rather than murderous goons. One man rose from the secret, shadowy KGB cellars to become the Premier of Russia. Relatively peaceful farmer teams in Afghanistan, Columbia and South East Asia were told to switch to a different and very deadly crop with a combined dollar volume beyond the total industrial output of many countries. Americans of every kind raved for higher highs than what Team Jim Bean could provide. Meanwhile, the Catholic Priests crossed lines no one should cross with repercussions coming far too slowly from a witless team of old men, irrevocably out of touch, from the Pope and down.
Jonestown cultists had a last drink of Kool-Aid on November 18, 1978 after years of unremarkable activity.Team FBI et al shot out the Branch Davidian in billowing smoke and fire on April 19, 1993. By then, the little known Davidians had been in the church business since the 1950s with roots going back to the 1930s. Few knew these teams existed. They were faceless failures until their Big and Last Moment. By chance, I was within miles of Waco that morning. My next encounter with madness: on March 26, 1997, I flew into San Diego. The news of the Team Heaven’s Gate mass suicide that day greeted me with too much deja vu feelings.
We need to be thankful for the Storm. They play to our innocence, isolating bad teams from our tortured minds. There is no worry about mass suicides, lawmaker betrayals or abuse of our kids. The Storm could have been just another entertaining venue. The Storm is more than that. They inspire, lead and teach. They show what a role model is to our kids. Other teams do the same, but the sight of Sue Bird showing up at some gathering of kids is impressive indeed. After all, they are not therapists, they are professional athletes poised to win basketball games, not the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are really bad teams but the Storm isn’t one of them.
What else about the Storm?
Of course, so far we considered only the Storm’s last season. They took a title in 2004, but then nothing till 2010. Perhaps, then, the Storm isn’t quite the only shooting star. Other teams, in sports and not, has matched the record. Team Taliban have their successes, for instance. So does Team Tea party to everyone’s astonishment, resentment or joy.
Thursday, September 16, 2010, the Storm won their WNBA championship. It was a gritty, relentless campaign from eliminating LA, then Phoenix to the end, Atlanta. I have not seen the intensity, focus and determination in any team ever before. It seemed to me that they shot better, ran better, defended better, hit more three pointers, fouled better and won better than any NBA team I remember
No other Seattle team comes close, on the court or off. Consider his off the court fame, Shawn Kemp was the guy hanging out in the late night bars and showing up for the game, if not drunk, with a royal hangover. Ruben Patterson and Dale Ellis are two guys not quite in control. Gary Payton went brawling in a Toronto strip club. Kobe Bryant got his pleasures in Colorado. How about Mel Gibson and Tiger Woods? I don’t know of a single WNBA player with similar reputations. Should personal behavior off the court count? In my book, yes indeed. Who would you buy a used car from? Those guys or Lauren Jackson? I would be happy to buy the Brooklyn Bridge from Sue Bird. Wouldn’t you?
Thursday, September 16, 2010, the Storm won their championship. Yes, I know I just said that. After watching the game – man, was that some game or not – I turned to the usual Internet news sites, eager for more detail and more celebration. I checked the newspapers. The usual coverage consisted of a single canned report, repeated here and there. Two days later, there is no coverage at all and so it is. As far as news go, the Storm does not exist. Now, American Idol is back in charge.
The players are gone, heading to Europe, Russia and other places, joining other teams in the WNBA off season. Not only are the players ignored by much of the public, they are also paid a fraction of what any mediocre NBA punk shovels in. Working year-around for several teams, a WNBA player is far from pay parity with the NBA, NFL, AFL, MLB, PGA, NHL and other crowds. They just work three times as hard for much less money. But that’s the American Way.
A FIBA world championship that just got going in the Czech Republic, did you know? Sue, Swin and Lauren are there but not on the same team. Both Australia and the US teams are heavy favorites. Both crushed their opponents in the first games. So either Sue and Swin will add to their bags of glory or it will be Lauren racking it up. That assumes the team of Senegal doesn’t pull off a spectacular upset. Who can tell? Check it out.
Did you watch the men’s version of the same championship, held in Turkey a little while ago? Me neither. As is just about mandatory, the US men’s team cruised to the title with Kevin Durant dragging the rest of the gang along. In general, the real stars are absent from these events, being too busy counting their money and sipping Pina Coladas. After all, it’s off season, a time for rest and party.
Is the Storm the best team ever? Scratch out the ever part, they were the best of the best for some glorious moments,. they rose to the top spanning a few months in 2010. No one can ever argue that away. They achieved something very precious. They rose to Greatness. Greatness is better than best. Greatness does not go stale; it is neither forgotten in minutes nor disputed by inferior minds. Greatness lasts. That’s what we’ll remember. Lauren, Sue, Swin and the rest are now in the league of Mohammed Ali, Babe Ruth and Lance Armstrong.
Thanks for your attention
July 7, 2010
Pete Bethune will not serve additional containment in Japan. He will shortly be deported to his homeland New Zealand after some five months in captivity. A Japanese court sentenced him to a suspended sentence, thereby getting rid of a major political embarrassment and a potential martyr.
Who is Pete Bethune? To many of us he is the guy skippering Earthrace to a World Record powerboat circumnavigation a few years ago. To us, he is an inspiration who overcame tremendous odds to not just to win a boat race but to do so serving humanitarian goals. He is a man to whom personal sacrifice means little.
To others, he is a hero standing up to illegal Japanese whale killing in the Southern Ocean. That effort almost killed him and his crew as the Japanese whalers rammed his boat which subsequently sank. Miraculously, no one was killed. Assigning blame for the sinking is a hot potato no official wants to touch. To any seaman, the evidence is clear in that the Japanese whalers took the game of chicken too far. The Japanese whalers were not the only party playing the game, but the fact is they went too far almost killing a crew of six. In truth, the so called whale war is just an immense sample of poor judgment and lousy seamanship, no matter the commercialization of Reality TV, providing junk to a junk-hungry audience.
To Admiral Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd, Pete was a massive PR scheme for a year or so, but of no actual worth as a person, activist or fellow seaman. Luckily, Pete and Watson will part ways, perhaps not in the most amiable way. After all, the sinister ways of Watson do not leave many of us with a good taste in our collective mouths. Denouncing a fellow companion in the mid of a crisis, no matter the implausible excuses, simply is not the way to go. Yet that is what Watson did.
As you may have missed, the International Whaling Commission recently met in Morocco. At the top on the agenda were the whaling activities of Japan, Iceland and Norway. In essence, all recognize a 1987 moratorium on killing whales is a complete failure. Thus a “compromise” was circulated eliminating the moratorium in return for a “controlled, smaller” commercial harvest. The talks soon broke down. Status quo prevails. This Commission is comprised of many nations, most without any presence of whales within their borders or any obvious interest in whaling. Rumor has it that Japan buys the national votes through “foreign aid” which apparently includes luxurious travel arrangements such as the services of ladies of the night. Lucky them, those impartial delegates. Let’s do it again, next year.
Yet to others, including even some right wing US nut cases, Pete is a bona fide terrorist. Astonishingly, some of his fellow Kiwis agree, self righteous and of debatable sanity, no matter what the known facts are. To a cowering NZ Government caring more about dollars than decency and morality, Pete is simply of no consequence. God help the Kiwis if the price of Hondas go up. But then, does morality and Government ever sit on the same bench?
To yet others, Pete is a misguided fool who’s got it coming. He became the icon of many fractions of a diverse society. Most really couldn’t care less, the story never hit the headlines anywhere. The news of Pete’s verdict stayed up on Google’s top news site for less than a few hours. In a day or so, this whole affair will be gone from the World’s attention. Even the Japanese demonstrators who loudly denounced him as a terrorist earning capital punishment or worse will head for new adventures. After all, eating whale meat is a cultural right, don’t you think?
To his two daughters Danielle, 15, and Alycia, 13, he is a devoted father. To Sharyn, his wife of many years, he is a husband and companion since high school. Perhaps as a husband and father, the last five plus years of absence have taken a toll. Few families have gone through more sacrifices than this one. Perhaps the last five months have proven too much. Let’s hope, with all our hearts, not so.
So here is the bottom line. No matter what you opinion is regarding Pete and his activities, do wish him and his family all the best in whatever is next for them. They all are the best this Earth has to offer.
Good Luck, Mates
March 17, 2010
It’s easy to dismiss global warming. Florida is not under water. Record breaking snow storms howl down the US East Coast. Africans have not invaded Europe in search of agriland. Hurricanes aren’t the super disasters forecast. Parisians freeze to death. Pictures from Copenhagen show top politicians from Obama to Reinfeldt in climatic defeat. Data suggests temperatures have plateaued. IPCC reels from scandals. Himalayan glaciers will not disappear by 2035 as stated. Emails suggest scientists fake data to scare the innocent public and law makers into exorbitant spending.
The Troubles Of An Activist
It’s harder than ever to be a global warming activist, patron, believer or scientist. One has to endure sneers, shaking heads, raised eye brows from the ever present deniers. U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) boosts a premature “I told you so” into your weary ear. Thus Inhofe keeps Bush’s flame alive in the tradition of the 2003 declaration of victory in Iraq (“Mission Accomplished”). No longer is one is likely to be the life of the party, pouring out statistics on Antarctica’s ice cores. IPCC pay is nonexistent and the perks are stale. Neither Leno nor Letterman is calling you. Pushing this most boring subject won’t improve one’s sex life, driving one’s depression into uncharted waters.
This is far from the glory days of 2006 and 2007. Then global warming was almost hip. Now, though, one’s neighbors, spouses, bosses and therapists no longer believe one’s mission to save mankind is critical, sexy or hip. It is possibly slightly amusing in a patronizing way.
Comrade demonstrators pack their bags, heading for new horizons and fresher barricades. Nervous scientists switch seats. Lacking the people’s pressure, politicians do nothing to the joy of lobbyists. Perhaps you thought a Democratic President plus a predominately Democratic Congress would live up to the rhetoric splattered along the campaign track? Think again. Credibility and urgency vanishes and ignorance rules.
What happened?, the oh-so-out-of-date activist wonders.
Another Forced Fed Lecture
Are you old enough to have experienced the 1960s and early 1970s? Did you attend or embrace any of the following: Berkeley, Kent State, Chicago Democratic Convention, counterculture, social revolution, anti war, bra burning, Woodstock, LSD, Janis Joplin, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, May 1968 French upraising, the Prague Spring and “I have a dream”. MLK was not the only one with a dream. Wilderness Rights, Voting Rights, Civil Rights all came to or matured. The Sixties spelled energy, experiment, emotion and exorbitance. Real change actually happened.
Then, being an activist almost surely improved one’s sex life. In fact, people actually had sex lives after the constricted Fifties. The pill shook the World. The party scene didn’t care about conversation paralysis. Many were too stoned to know where their mouth was. No need to be the life of the party. No longer was it necessary to know which fork went with the soufflé or how to dab one’s lips after taking the caviar. Instead, decibels, drugs, dripping sweat and drum beats filled the communication channel of the cults.
Dreams Die Too
It did not last. The spirit burnt out. Hair was cut, suits were bought. Microsoft stock taught us how riches beyond imagination were available without any effort whatsoever. Class action lawsuits blossomed to save us all from credit card fees, gas additives, video games, bad language, marijuana and prescription contraceptives. Welfare mothers bloomed. Welfare kids did not. Housing booms, one after another, financed glorious retirements in Florida, Arizona and Santa Fe. Hand me the riches without effort, sweat, payment or skill. How cool is that?
The spirit of the Sixties became just a mirage. Gains were lost. Idealism was stomped on, laughed at and out it went with the bath water. Revolutionaries grew fat, rich and now worshipped Reagan, the Bakkers and Fondue. Purpose was replaced by Surf and Turf, All-you-can-eat smorgasbords and Infinite Salad Bars. Bras were no longer burning. Damn the poor, mentally ill and homeless. Hail Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Exxon and Eight-Tracks. Polyester was the coolest thing after Afro hair, Barbie and ABBA. The Commies mellowed. America became the Number One terrorist organization.
We all have issues to deal with beyond global warming. Finessing money from the government is perhaps the top issue. Dumping clunkers, getting subsidies for this or that, building bridges to nowhere and enabling GM to remain the last dinosaur standing is the tune of the day. Americans become millionaires at a record pace. The Japanese kill whales. The Canadians kill baby seals. Africans kill Africans. Thy neighbor steals from you just as you steal from your neighbor.
Grim, isn’t it?
Why bring up ancient history? It’s because not only do dreams but so do causes that sometimes are very significant. The war to end all wars – the First World War of 1914 to 1918 – led to several far reaching developments as peace was restored. Democratic governments spread, even in Germany. The League of Nations was formed. Civil rights made some inroads. But in just a few years, any gain was demolished, directly leading to World War II that killed 75 million people. To say that idealism disappeared is an understatement. The result was devastating.
In the Sixties, there was idealism. Today, idealism is not among the top characterizations of our life style. That’s why we run into Internet crazies, housing bubbles and financial disasters. It is the reason we can’t deal with global warming, health care or poverty. We let Bush and Cheney rape most human rights for eight years with close to zero protest. Most think polar bears and whales are cute but let the killing go on.
Hope Is Not For Sissies
Then, once in a while, a reminder pops up to suggest realities are, after all, more significant than ignorance. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse what could be if we simply let it. Credibility of a lost cause can be restored if the effort is spent. A spot of hope lights up, suggesting truth can prevail over laziness. These little signs surface when we least expect them. Antennas need to be perfectly tuned to pick out the good from the trash.
I am referring to an article about ice breaker maintenance, not exactly on the front page. The story covers a press conference about USCG Polar Star’s refit to upgrade crew quarters and dump an ancient computer at a cost of $62 million over 2 1/2 years. The Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle, WA, will employ 250 workers on the project.
Both Seattle newspapers carried this rather mundane story. Some of you wonder why a basically ice free United States of America needs heavy duty ice breakers that cost $750 million each. That’s another debate, not due here or now. Suffice to say the US possesses only three of these babies dwarfed by, say, Russia’s seven nuclear super breakers.
It Ain’t Charity
The melting Arctic exposes enormous deposits of energy, minerals and ore as virgin land is freed from ice. Vital interests, strategic values and suddenly discovered traditional heritages must be defended vigorously. Grab what grab you can. Santa, drop dead. Buy a Manhattan condo.
The ice breakers of today and the future do not just break ice but practice gun boat diplomacy. Gun boats intimidate opposing parties with its mere presence in some disputed area without using weapons per se.
The US famously practiced gun boat diplomacy in the Taiwan Strait at several occasions in the Fifties, protecting Taiwan from invasion by China. Of course, the overwhelming might of today’s US Navy acts as an everyday form of global gun boat diplomacy. But aircraft carrier groups are useless in the far North, hence the need for the ice breakers.
On My Command, Turn Left
Somewhere the focus of the Coast Guard press conference changed. The subject of global warming popped up, not really to the pleasure of the Coast Guard brass. But ice breakers go where the ice is. Ice is easily found in the Arctic and the Antarctica. Given the mission, these guys carry a great deal of on-location, unique credibility about the far North and South conditions.
Ice breaker crews enjoy spending some eight months out of the year in ice. These guys generally carry a reputation of sobriety, reasonably clear minds and a relative lack of political ambition. They have seen, broken and smelt more salt water and ice than other men or women on Earth. They are not scientists eager for grant money. They don’t act in reality shows or receive Nobel Peace Prizes. They are sailors who break ice and cruise the seas. That’s it.
Finally, A Point Of Sorts
Back to the press conference and the actual point, you plead. Impatience rears its head. Suspicion blinks its pink hateful eyes. Here goes. Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard, declared himself agnostic on the subject of climate change. Not surprising since military leaders are required to be agnostic on almost any subject. Those turning non-agnostic soon take up golf and discover they have kids, one or more wife and assorted dogs. Suddenly the dreams of another eight months in polar resorts are gone. Take the General Supreme of all WWII Generals, Douglas MacArthur who was summarily fired by Harry Truman because the General was not sufficiently agnostic on the subject of nuking Commie China.
This particular admiral, Thad Allen, may not have spent much of his 38 year career surrounded by breaking ice in favor of a more normal sailor life. But he is, as an example, one of the few officials emerging from the Katrina disaster with an elevated reputation. That, certainly, is quite an achievement.
The admiral continued to state:
- “Over the past 3 ½ years more ice-diminished every year in the summer. And that’s changing how the Coast Guard looks at the region. For a long time, all we did in the Arctic was science,” he said.
- But now with more open water, there is increased viability for eco tourism and shipping. Further, “the fact that 22 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves are in the arctic region — this has become an area of extreme focus.”
- Asked if the Coast Guard is operating on the premise that climate change is a certainty, Allen said, “Well, you know I’m not a scientist, I’m a sailor. And the most PC way for me to say this is I’m agnostic to the science. There’s water where there didn’t use to be and I’m responsible for it.
- “Certain things are undeniable. The Arctic ice cap is shrinking. The parameters of our oceans are changing. Temperature is changing. Salinity is changing. We have carbon dioxide that’s entering the water column right now making carbonic acid that has a significant impact on shellfish and the food chain. These are all undeniable.”
There you have it. One single key word: “Undeniable”. Spoken by, according to eye witnesses, a sober, clear minded and sincere admiral with far more real life blue water credentials than scientists in their labs, amateur skeptics in their parka lounges, brain-dead senators from Oklahoma and an ex-president finally able to let someone else deep-six this climate change thing.
Two Alaskan Republicans
It may be that some of the admiral’s comments were inspired by the opinions of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who also has some firsthand knowledge of the North. A moderate Republican, she was a major sponsor of the Polar Star refit. She wants to build an Arctic deep water port to serve the military, the offshore oil and gas industry, general shipping and tourism. Exploitation, here we come. Stand aside, please. We got holes to drill.
There is nothing moderate about Sarah Palin. This most Northern of all global warming deniers manages to stand to the right of even Dubya. “We need to drill, drill, drill,” she told the Wall Street Journal. Ecology be damned. This gal’s wildlife policy centers on the right to shoot wolves from the air. In fact, shooting anything is cool with her. Polar bears, drop dead. Caribou, get lost. Her attachment to the Arctic is spelled Arctic Cats, a brand of snow machines that she promotes no doubt out of charity. How does she spell the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? “Drill, drill, drill”. Did I mention the slyest of ignorance?
Hails To The Chief
The Coast Guard admiral knows well that his “Undeniable” statement will not create a better world any time soon. If we are lucky, eventually someone will show up with the will, the answers and the power to tackle the quagmire swamp labeled global warming. That someone will yell “Which part of “Undeniable” don’t you get?”
After all, some manipulate the “Undeniables” to look like “Deniables” and vice versa. Either way, to cynics it is just the means to suit one’s goals. As any skeptic knows, denying the undeniable is a game that can be played as long as it pleases you. Ask Dubya and other sellers of snake oil.
Undeniable Means Undeniable. Get Used To It.
Wait, There Is More!
If the concerns about ecology are the good news, there is also bad news. Global warming is not the only threat tilting the scale. The Arctic may the next Ultimate Border to be as exploited as, once about a time, the US West. More recently, Alaska is the Far Border undergoing massive exploitation.
Consider, say, Love Canal just by the Niagara Falls with polluting roots going all the way back to 1890. It took 26 years of FEMA Super Funds to clean up some of that mess. If Exxon Valdez had done its thing in any of the Northern Passages, that oil would have circled Earth, bourn by prevailing currents that do not exist in the relatively protected Prince William’s Sound. Twenty years after the disaster, 26,000 gallons of oil remain on and inside the close-by shorelines.
Thad Allen’s first point concerned global warming. Ice is disappearing, salination is changing and species are dying or migrating. As tundra thaws and ice melts, billions of tons of methane and other gasses are released. Inuit villages sink in mud. Roads disappear. Scientists can’t decide if this is the end of the world or not. Ask the inhabitants of Banks Island in Canada’s High Arctic what they think.
Steer North, My Lad
Allen’s second point is not to be missed. He mentioned 22% of Earth’s oil and gas reserves are located in the Arctic. That is quite an understatement. Both the Northeast and Northwest Passages above Russia and Canada, mostly, are becoming navigated. Historically, both passages were almost completely closed year around. Many a brave explorer saw his ship caught in an iron grip of ice that slowly crushed the vessel, leaving the men to a cold and deadly ice level existence.
Currently, both passages are open part of the year as the sea ice retreats. Neither passage is easily tackled even today. Ships need reinforced bows to avoid the fate of the explorers whose trails they follow. There is no doubt, though, that there will be commercial shipping in the far North passages.
The impact of the Northern passages opening up is almost beyond comprehension. The first major impact concerns shipping. Some of the shipping through the Panama and Suez canals would move to the passages with possibly major savings in fuel. As shipping routes change, the political issues explode. With the passages frozen over, political concerns were minor. That will not be the case in the future. Allen addressed this when he said the North not would but IS an “area of extreme focus” and it is the real reason Polar Star gets a $62 million to take up station in the North.
The military value of the Arctic Ocean all the way to the North Pole is long established. It has long been the hide and seek confrontational grounds of US and Russian/Soviet nuclear subs. In the summer of 1958, the USS Nautilus reached the North Pole under the ice, entering from the Bering Sea and surfacing just north of Greenland. Nuclear subs have trafficked the area ever since.
Then there is the matter of huge values being exposed as frozen ground retreat. With the passages becoming navigated, it is feasible to reach these new resources and retrieve them. Oil and gas will be the first target. Fishery and wild life will follow. Eventually, there will be agriculture and forestry. Tourism will blossom according to breathless cruise directors.
Mining is possibly the greatest ecological threat as well as one of the most irresistible resources. There are known deposits of diamonds, gold, coal, nickel, lead, zinc and uranium. Some of these resources are already exploited, usually at a low level and with mixed results. But the vast areas suddenly exposed will change conditions dramatically. The full impact isn’t known but is likely to be huge.
Who owns the Northern riches? The Inuit? Fat chance. Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the US and Canada are not giving any possible claim away. A traditional 200 mile limit leaves huge areas unclaimed. No one owns the North Pole although the Russians placed their flag at its bottom, 14,000 feet below the surface.
China recently entered the race. “China is slowly but steadily recognizing the commercial and strategic opportunities that will arise from an ice-free Arctic,” said SIPRI researcher Linda Jakobson of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “China is at a disadvantage as it is not an Arctic state but is still keen to have the right to access natural resources.” Beijing has decided to build a high-tech icebreaker for polar expeditions to be operational near 2013.
The territorial claims are not well established since till recently they were mostly worthless. Suddenly awakened governments now compete to extend the claims. The matter is negotiated in several multinational bodies, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Arctic Ocean Conference. Meanwhile, the Exxons and Statoils of the world will rape what they can without thought to the consequences or obscure national claims.
Just Don’t Drink The Water
Unfortunately, these areas, so likely to be exploited to the limits, are extremely vulnerable ecologically, being stripped of protection. An industrial attack is sure to cause catastrophe not only locally but in your neighborhood. Currents will carry the disaster from the Atlantic to the Pacific and then back to the Atlantic, picking up poisonous strength by the mile.
The Arctic Ocean controls the climate in most of the Northern Hemisphere. Upsetting that utterly complex balance is not a good thing. At the present, much of the Arctic is pristine but highly toxic pockets are spreading. The Russians, for instance, dump their nuclear waste in Arctic waters.
The Arctic haze at high altitude is the main reason Arctic temperatures are on the rise. The heat trapping haze is made up of pollutants originating in CO2 producing sources thousands of miles away. Humans and animals suffer from PCB accumulations.
One Day After Allen
The obscure Polar Star announcement by Thad Allen didn’t go as unnoticed as its modesty suggests. The next day, Canadians raised an eye brow or two. William Rompkey, a Liberal senator, said the U.S. government’s $62 million plan to reactivate the 34-year-old, 130-metre Polar Star shows the emerging urgency in the Northwest Passage.
Canada need more ships in the region quickly, or faces “chaos” in the Northwest Passage. “If we’re saying this is our territory, we’ve got to be there,” Rompkey said. “Or we’ve got to stop saying it’s our territory.”
The Canadian government announced plans in 2008 for a new, $720-million polar-class icebreaker. But a contract for such a vessel has not been signed. At best, this polar class ice breaker will be operational by 2017. Canada does not have the equivalent of the Polar Star. Both the US and Canada have far less capabilities than Russia or even Finland.
Here is a curious fact. Both Seattle web papers (The Times and the PI) carried at least three different versions of this not very remarkable article, published within hours. The later versions consistently downplayed the admiral’s statements on climate change. You tell me? Is this a coincident or not? In the bad old days, one would need to check for Cheney’s presence. Or is Palin lurking behind that corner over there?
Meanwhile, stay cool.
January 8, 2010
Two days ago, the Japanese whaler Shonan Maru No. 2 rammed and severely damaged Earthrace, the World Record Holder for fastest powerboat circumnavigation. Earthrace sank this morning in the Southern Ocean after salvage efforts failed. She was currently named Ady Gil after its Hollywood mogul beneficiary. She is owned by Sea Shepards and was part of the anti whaling activism.
For details about the collision event, see the blog post below “Japan Whalers Destroy Earthrace Trimaran”. The blog argues that videos show that the Japanese vessel instigated the event and failed to obey legally established maritime rules of way.
Some reports argue that Earthrace share responsibility by not maintaining proper course. Those reports fail to recognize that it is the Japanese vessel’s responsibility to avoid creating an incidence in the first place. Once they created the incidence, the Japanese did not take effective evasive action to avoid collision. They steered a course too close to Earthrace, whether or not the intention was to ram and sink Earthrace. Any last second actions by Earthrace are irrelevant. The damage and the violation was already done.
Maritime rules state that the Japanese vessel should have either stopped, slowed down or turned to pass BEHIND Earthrace in order to manage a safe passing. The Japanese violated the rules by steering a course of passing AHEAD of, and very close to Earthrace. The Japanese vessel was required to use its horn, radio or other means to communicate her intentions. Instead, the Japanese used acoustic weapons and water cannons to block communication. And, finally, the Japanese vessel should, by any moral standard in not legally, have assisted in saving the crew of Earthrace and in salvaging her. The Japanese vessels neither responded to Mayday calls, nor provided assistance of any kind.
Sea Shepard and the Japanese trade insults about who is a fault. The news media and Internet crowds voice opinions and interpretations about the incidence, the videos and statements. These rhetoric in all but a few cases ignore the fundamentals. Nautical life consists of rules, conventions, morals and responsibilities that go with the seafaring job at all times.
The fundamental nautical principle is to maintain safety at all times. Whaling pros and cons are not part of those principles. Belittling maritime principles and laws by stating some other issue is more important is simply not acceptable. Nor is the insistence to maintain some obscure cultural right to kill fellow mammals a valid excuse to sink vessels. Those arguments boil down to risking lives to no end except flexing macho muscles.
The bottom line is that maritime law does not permit cat and mouse games as played by both the Japanese and Sea Shepard. Both sides violate not only laws but play games with human as well as mammal lives in extremely dangerous waters. However, the current tragedy was caused by the Japanese overplaying the cat part of the game. May international law prevail. May some sense of responsibility spread to the Southern Ocean and its two deranged opponents.
Earthrace, Pete and Sharyn together with the Earthrace “vortex” will be remembered for past glory. We cheered her during the race against the clock and enormous odds towards final success. Few or any of us identified with the Ady Gil, its Hollywood namesake or with Sea Shepard and its lunatic “Captain”. That part and those people will sink into obscurity.
January 6, 2010
A Japanese whaler caused severe damage to the NZ powerboat Earthrace in what appears to be a flagrant violation of age old nautical rules of way. The event was captured on video, showing the Japanese vessel ramming the much smaller Earthrace. The two vessels were on a collision course with Earthrace moving slowly on a steady course. The Japanese vessel accelerated, steering straight at, or even turning towards, Earthrace and ramming her. Earthrace (currently named Ady Gil) was severely damaged and was possibly in danger of sinking. There were no severe injuries reported so far with the exception of broken rib.
The Japanese whaling vessel (Shonan Maru No. 2) hit Earthrace’s port hull and sliced several feet off Earthrace’s bow. The damage it first appeared catastrophic but may be manageable according to the latest news. At best, Earthrace may be towed to safety and major repairs. The Southern Ocean is a bad place to be injured.
The Japanese whalers used a high pressure water cannon aimed at the Earthrace crew during the whole episode. They also used ear shattering noise equipment designed to confuse anti whaling activist crews. There are two videos: the video taken from Shonan Maru No. 2 and the video taken from the Sea Shepard vessel Bob Barker. They are easily available on the net and not included here. The videos are only part of the real story. The net is crawling with opinions about what people think they see. These comments are generally totally irrelevant.
Videos such as these are not perfect witnesses of what actually happened. Lines of perspective, wave action, distance, water spray and much else distorts actual events. Most armchair observers overestimate their marine investigative skills.
The videos show that the Japanese vessel failed to “keep her starboard (right)side clear”. This rule is illustrated in the graph. Imagine that the Japanese vessel is the one of the bottom of the graph, Earthrace being the one towards the top right.
This nautical rule states that a vessel must stay clear of vessels on her starboard side by, for instance, passing to the rear of such vessels. Any port side vessel (Earthrace) must maintain a steady course while the first takes the evasive action.
Sailors are acutely aware of this rule since it is crucial in avoiding accidents. Violating the rule is likely to cause immediate danger and a risk of massive destruction. The nautical rules are similar to those of traffic on land and in the sky. These rules are known by most people worldwide. A difference is that a supertanker weighs up to 650,000 tons compared to about 2 tons for your car. An Airbus 380 is designed to carry as many as 850 people. Thus, sailors and airmen may be more aware than the average motorist.
A famous event illustrating the danger occurred in 1956. The Swedish ocean liner Stockholm collided with its Italian counterpart Andrea Doria in dense fog and darkness off Nantucket. Each vessel misunderstood the intentions of the other regarding how to pass safely. They ended up running into each other while taking evasive action designed to do the opposite. Andrea Doria, the 29,083 ton pride of the Italian shipping industry, sank. 46 were left dead. Some 1,700 people were rescued. No legal blame was assigned, but law suits prevailed for years.
Another fundamental nautical rule states that in case of danger of collision, both vessels must take evasive action, with or without intention. From the video, the Japanese vessel appeared to take no evasive action, possibly doing the opposite. Earthrace may have gunned its engines in a last second evasive act, although too late.
Some argue Earthrace may have contributed to the outcome by gunning her engines forward to hit the Japanese. Even if true, it wouldn’t make any difference in marine practice – Shonan Maru would still be guilty of violating the rules of right ways. Moreover, the turbulence at Earthrace’s stern started only seconds before the collision. The Sea Shepard video shows Earthrace backing away from the impact after it occurred.
What is clear to anyone with seagoing experience is that both sides engage in acts of extremely poor seamanship, ignoring whatever purpose either side claims. Both sides play a game of chicken in the most dangerous seas on Earth. It’s worse than Road Rage. Whatever your views are on whale killing, or on eco-terrorism, no real sailor can endorse the events down under. Peace time sailors of different camps help each other by long tradition. Most seamen go to great effort to rescue of any sailor in trouble. They do not go about ramming each other. Nor do they throw rancid butter at each other. No real sailors use lasers to blind each other or water cannons to spool others overboard. Using acoustic toys to deafen others is a bizarre way of greeting each other on the high sea. Rarely do true sailors try to snarl each others’ propellers and rudders in the frigid waters of Antarctica.
Finally, of course, the issue of whaling is again highlighted. Killing whales is about as acceptable to the vast majority of us as is clubbing baby seals to death. Thousands of animals are killed, not to feed starving humans, but to save national face. The Japanese whale killing program is notorious and condemned by most countries.
The sad fact is that a great many countries and cultures carry out similar atrocities. Humans cause the extinction of thousands of living creatures through farming, pollution, greed, stupidity and cruelty. My mother enjoyed her fur coat until PC happened. Russians today ignore such PC, favoring fur coats, hats and probably underwear made from exotic, endangered furry species. Countless fishing banks are depleted, lifeless and destroyed by overfishing and pollution. Game hunters and poachers kill not just a few animals but whole species. African gorillas and other wildlife are practically gone. So are many kinds of tigers. Global warming causes not just the demise of polar bears but the accelerate the death of the globe. In some countries, people species/ethnic groups are made extinct by genocide by their fellow neighbors.
The Earthrace crew, including skipper Pete Bethune, was saved without major harm. Apparently, the Japanese vessel offered no assistance, nor did they suffer any obvious damage. After all, the Shonan Maru No. 2 weighs about 750+ tons compared to Earthrace’s 18 tons. Sea Shepard’s Paul Watson seemed to suggest the loss of its Ady Gil, permanent or temporary, meant little.
Those engaged in or following the three or four years of Earthrace campaigns racing around the World might differ. Earthrace meant a lot, showing many of us what a few can accomplish against great odds. At the time, Earthrace was an inspiration as she set a World Record. She was running on something called the Earthrace vortex, essentially meaning Earthrace was a people’s project. Ady Gil is not a people’s project. The campaign for ecological geofuel is no more, it seems. Ady Gil, in its absurd black stealth paint job, is just a deranged victim in a distant, deranged war. That war is fought by deranged people committing deranged acts. No whale ever engaged in acts as insane as those performed by their “researchers” and their “saviors”.
This is the battle David lost to the brute force of Goliath. Yet, it is another war the Japanese will lose, just as surely as Captain Ahab did. It’s too bad the work and idealism of Pete and Sharyn Bethune became victims in a senseless war. Earthrace is no more. Long live Earthrace. Good riddance, Pete.
November 30, 2009
Why should anyone care about the wackiness of a few deniers of Global Warming? What’s the big deal about a few morons dragging a big issue into a morass of non-truths, voodoo and plain boredom? These fools succeeded in turning the potential life-and-death issue of Global Warming into pettiness about Al Gore and, more importantly, about scientists in general. They hail the lunacy of Senator James Inhofe and bless the ignorance of George W. Bush. They echo the saintliness of an oil industry deriving massive, record profits from raping Earth. They applaud the smokestack plants burning cheap coal, as long as such plants are not in their backyard. They are the deniers.
Vague, irresponsible and stereotype statements by the skeptics challenge the existence of Global Warming. Never mind their statements lack any objective support. They still make possible the foot dragging of the US Senate and Congress. Most deniers camp out in the Republican Right wing. They should be out in the cold, but aren’t. The Democratic dominance in the Senate and Congress produced nothing substantial. Even the Supreme Court rulings are ignored. Nothing, nada, nichts, ingenting, rien.
The Siberian tundra is no longer frozen but spews untold, catastrophic tons of green house gasses into the air. The Northwest Passage is suddenly navigateable. Antarctica will calve ice sufficient to raise ocean levels by a meter or so. Florida may not like that. Alp ski resorts stand without snow. Glaciers disappear. Coral reefs die. Intuit villages sink in mud as perm freeze melts. Greenland becomes an agricultural Mecca rather than an ice chest. Untold masses of species disappear, under the water and above. Hoax? Not so.
The Bush administration deep-sixed Global Warming by lying to the World about the findings of its own scientists. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and scores of others joined the US in putting the perceived threats to limitless economic growth before the safety of the world. Let nothing stand in the way of more SUVs for the lucky. Support your local gas station. Surely we must thirst for mineral water from far-away Italy or France.
The Copenhagen Climate Talks are fast approaching. Expectations have moved up a few degrees from absolute zero as Obama promises to show up in person, as will, maybe, the Chinese Premier. Obama carries a lunch box of toothless promises to reduce to US green gas emissions. China generously may promise to release some data on its world leading pollution. Observers announce such data is likely to contain more lies on top of current lies. The EU dispatches a Global Warming denier as its representative.
No one expects progress any time soon towards progressive action. An agreement to replace the flawed Kyoto agreement is not in the stars. After all, Kyoto is wildly profitable to some of the worst polluters. Obama’s hoax proposals aim at reducing criticism of US foot dragging. They mean nothing as the Senate and Congress remains locked up in its deepfreeze of Global Warming.
A fair share of the pessimism expressed above comes from the might of the deniers. They managed to put sufficient scare into the American people and government. Every argument put forward by these crackpot rednecks has been disproved over and over but keep popping up like a California brush fire. Lunatic misfits keep throwing lighted matches at the brushes. California burns at the will of a few token arsonists. The World might burn at the will of token deniers. Never mind logic, science or sanity. Let it all burn.
On this day of November 30th, 2009, Scientific American published “Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense“. You owe it to yourself and your kids to read this article. Do it now. Then read the comments associated with the article. Almost all comments appear to be written by core deniers. Let it burn, no matter why, where, when, who or how. For example (SA is Scientific American):
- “Global warming has been demonstrated to be a hoax with fabricated and fraudulent data. SA knows this, but instead of dealing with the MAJOR issue of widespread scientific fraud and corruption, instead decides continue to pretend the hoax is real. It is obvious that SA is nothing more than a political propaganda publication.”
Like the above, unsubstantiated non-truths and self serving distortions have swept the world many times before. Africans are born to be slaves. Women are unfit to vote. There is but one God. The rich are better than the poor. I am better than you. I am not an ape or fish. Kill thy neighbor. Inferior groups – be it Jews, gays, gypsies, bloggers or scientists – should be whacked once and for all. Burn the books. Let it all burn. Help us all.
July 31, 2009
We’re all happy to own, sort of, a share of GM or whatever it’s called today. Buying, sort of, Detroit, Wall Street and many a bank will no doubt be the greatest thing since sliced shoes. Some of us would have preferred to keep our house, job and car but that’s the way the buck rolls. There is no use whining. Remember “Yes We Can”? Of course we can. What is happiness anyway?
The financial crisis resembles a black hole. Black holes possess a gravitational field so powerful that nothing can escape its pull. The hole has a one-way surface into which objects can fall, but out of which nothing can come. By fall, Obama will have plugged this particular financial black hole by dumping all your money into it, or so he says. Time flies and fall is almost upon us. Obama in his tower may be more clairvoyant than you and I, but my pocket book still complains about an empty stomach. That hole is still here in spite all the good work by Obama, shoveling your money into it by the trillions.
Not every genius agrees with the generosity of Obama. I don’t mean ever-moaning, fat cat Republicans. Of course they disagree. I think of the prevailing, foggy as always, opinions of Nobel Prize (or not) economists. Generally, they point out that any bailout or relief effort, no matter how big, will be much too small to have an impact while being insanely too big, causing disastrous events such as hyper-inflation, fascism, divorces and reduced grants for Nobel Prize professors. In other words, the relief package is too small while being much too big. Got that? Me neither. That’s why we’ll never get that Prize.
Obama wants you to trade-in your old clunker for a brand new Eco-Green vehicle. Clunkers include your Cadillac Seville, BMW 8, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 968 and Toyota Supra. Obama recommends super-green replacements such as Cadillac SRX, Chevrolet Express Cargo, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Dodge Ram Pickup 2500, GMC Savana and the Toyota Tundra. A mass of rules apply to clarify this eco-friendly initiative.
The old clunker faces immediate execution though crushing or shredding at a designated disposal facility, at the pleasure of the dealer who in folly accepted your poor old car. Maybe more than a few clunkers jump the fence and gain a new life as NYC or Cuban cabs. Perhaps your kid will buy it back with a McDonald’s paycheck. Often, killing off the old and the frail doesn’t quite work out as expected. Ask any Cuban driver. Remember the fate of Heinrich Himmler.
Of course, you will have to pay with taxes for this generous and forward looking idea to the tune of $4,000 a clunker, and up. To be sure, you’ll watch your neighbor trade in all six of his Cadillac’s, gaining some $25,000 at your expense. Meanwhile, you’re stuck with the full lease on that brand new Toyota Prius you patriotically bought last year. Timing is everything, Obama mentions, “Yes We Can”. Of course we can, but it would be nice if perhaps we had a say in the matter.
Incidentally, the $4,000 clunker trade-in could buy you two (2) Tata Nano, fully paid for. The same money could also pay for two all-electric 4-seater Tara Tiny (top speed 43 mph, range 62 miles, operating cost 1/5 of gas fueled cars). Why not one of each? Unfortunately, such as deal won’t be available for a while – the Indian manufacturers are scrambling to meet Indian demand and aren’t currently looking towards the US market. One might wonder why GM is completely incapable of producing a $2,000 car. Considering higher labor cost and higher standards in general, what about a $5,000 vehicle? I guess not. The tiny Smart Fortwo goes for almost $12,000 which is about as cheap as it gets in the US. A Segway (12 mph top speed, 20 miles range) sets you back $5,500, air conditioner not available.
In short, you sell the clunker while actually buying the thing through taxes. Then you pay so the dear old thing can become a tangle of shredded recycle materials. Top it off with a brand new, overpriced car from some company unable to grasp the basics of plus and minus. Are we all chasing our tails?
Here’s to success, sort of. In six days, the clunkers program chewed up $1,000,000,000.00, reaching the approved spending limit. 225,000 clunkers go to clunker heaven and an equal amount of green cars will hit the road. The program is on hold at the moment (late July 2009), looking for more funding.
Convert 225,000 clunkers to new green cars. It affects only less than 0.1% of the US car inventory. There may still be 10 million clunkers on US roads. Don’t look for a meaningful reduction in pollution, safer traffic or better looking parking lots. Things will look pretty much the same, except in the eyes of Obama and his spin machine.
Letting those clunkers die in peace, here’s a reality check. A recession is generally defined as two or more successive quarters of negative growth. Presently, that applies to many countries around the globe. A GDP drop of 10% or a recession lasting for several years is called a depression. Here is a Wikipedia description of a depression:
- “Considered a rare but extreme form of recession, a depression is characterized by abnormal increases in unemployment, restriction of credit, shrinking output and investment, numerous bankruptcies, reduced amounts of trade and commerce, as well as highly volatile relative currency value fluctuations, mostly devaluations. Price deflation or hyperinflation is also common elements of a depression.”
That is depressing, to be sure, and unfortunately very real. Recessions are common and happen about every 3-5 years. Depressions occur every 20-40 years on the average. As an exception, the last hundred years only produced one major depression: the great depression of 1929 -1939. Two World Wars starved off further depressions. We may all be excused for being out of touch.
Only history will tell whether the current crisis is a mere recession or a full blown depression. At worst or best, depending on your point of view, it could mark the end of capitalism, democracy and many a marriage. Covering the issue, the observant elite, such as Conan O’Brien and 360 Anderson Cooper will amuse us for years to come. Clever, or not, bloggers will pipe in with great enthusiasm. The rest of us will not care about the fine print which may not be the best game plan. After all, this is your chance to get a subsidized Kia Soul or to dump your mortgage to end all mortgages on your neighbor.
The US GDP shrunk by 6.3% in late 2008, followed by a 5.5% drop in early 2009. The 2nd quarter of 2009 continued down by 1%. The US economy has declined for four quarters, a continuous drop last seen during the Great Depression of the thirties.
Many other countries share the same deep hole: UK is off 5.6% year-over-year. Germany was down almost 4% early 2009 but may be recovering. Spain is suffering an unemployment rate of 18%. France, Italy and Spain are down by 1% or so. Ireland is off 6%, Sweden down 5%. Japan GDP is down almost 13% and Iceland is off 12%, Lithuania off 24%, Ukraine down 9% and Russia down 2-3%. Asia is slowing drastically but is perhaps still in the black. OPEC and oil and gas producers see huge declines.
Dubai and East Baltic house prices are off about 40%, worse than the crushing 24% drop in the US. Real estate prices in central London are down by 15-20% with more than a few owners wishing they never had heard of Notting Hill. With financial fat cats scrambling to get out of town, Manhattan real estate is in for a beating. Sales of $5 million homes are reportedly slower than watching grass grow in Antarctica.
That is an astonishing array of synchronized red. Often in the past, recessions have been localized or at least lagging each other. One country is up, the next one down but smoothing the overall effect. This time the house of cards is tumbling down simultaneously all over the world. Just about every major economic indicator around the globe has hit record lows at about the same time.
Every one of those indicators affects our lives, one way or another. It might be hard to believe that the melt down of Icelandic banks and the catastrophic state finances of Lithuania will affect you. Not so. It does affect you in a confidence driven world. That Hong Kong fund manager will see the headlines of Iceland crashing and promptly dump every UK share in his portfolio. Then the Pound will drop and the dollar go up, hurting wheat exports from Western US, dropping the peso considering the money inflow from migrant workers in the US West took a dive.
To some, the effect is more dramatic. 1.2 million Swedes placed their savings in fast growing East Europe funds. Today, those savings are off 60% in value. The overall value of Icelandic stocks is down by 90%. The cost of the Icelandic meltdown is close to 75% of its GDP. Perhaps 300,000 UK savers see their Icelandic assets disappear as do 120,000 Dutch, all pending actions by various governments far beyond that of Iceland.
Recessions, depressions, famines, swine flues and Katrina’s are hardly unique events. The swine flu related influenza of 1918-1920 killed about 75 million and infected 500 million more. Bengali cyclone flooding kills 100,000 on a regular basis. The 2004 tsunami death toll was 225,000. Katrina is hardly in the same league with a toll of about 2,000. 9/11 killed 2,974. By contrast, the Rwanda tribal war of a few years ago killed almost a million. The recent Darfur war killed 400,000 and displaced 2,000,000.
In 1923, Germany issued two-trillion Mark banknotes. Postage stamps had a face value of fifty billion Mark. In 1946, the Hungarian National Bank issued bank notes in the amount of 100 quintillion pengÅ‘ (100,000,000,000,000,000,000). Recently, Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate reached 89.7 sextillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)) percent.
On the other hand, green gas emissions from some fourteen GM plants will shortly go to zero. Titanic’s New York docking fees are null. Unemployment instantly went to zero in Hiroshima on an August day in 1945. So did employment. Trade Center elevator maintenance cost is zero. In one single day, some 26,000 Lehman Brothers employees walked out the door, never to return. Their employer declared they could not pay back the $770 billion they owed and walked out the door, never to return.
As you see, real time events progress far faster than the responses, bailouts and clunker programs devised by governments, homeland security forces, local police and Greenpeace. Events are crushing, sudden forces. Officials such as FEMA (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) can only react to the unexpected. They never seem to be on top of anything, whether providing disaster relief (“Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”) or dressing properly (“Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?”). All Quotes, thanks to Michael Brown, were made as thousands died in New Orleans.
Your financial woes are sure to disappear. Your beloved wife will stop nagging you. A husband will end his obnoxious ways. IRS will stop harassing you. Parking tickets may be excused. You won’t have to get up in the morning to face that hopeless job. One day your troubles will be over forever.
A really bad recession hits the pocket books of all of us. Unemployment will hit tens of millions of Americans and multiples more around the globe. Untold masses of house owners face disaster that Obama’s trillions will not cure. Some will freeze and starve. Others will lose their health, families and self respect. Production of babies will skyrocket while the manufacturing of crappy cars will nose dive. Widows relying on GM stock won’t dine on truffles anymore.
Even the rich suffer – with or without an end to Bush’s tax subsidies. Bill Gates is almost poor by historical comparison. Microsoft stock price is half of its former glory. Saudi royalties, sultans, princes and Halliburton kings walk on slippery ground as oil prices went from almost 150 to below 40 bucks a barrel. The Kuwait Central Bank was about bankrupt. Middle East palace production is way off. Foreign workers are fleeing, abandoning their mirage Hummer windfalls in the airport parking lots. When it is over, it’s temporarily over. Luckily for the Kuwait Bank, oil prices are scrambling up towards $70 as Americans hit the vacation trails.
As for myself, a rather obscure web site informed me I rank at about 700,000,000 in the list of the richest people on earth. Frankly, I’m not real sure if my fortunes are up or down. I do know that filling up my Mini with gas is a lot cheaper than a year ago. But then my rent is way up, mysteriously. What else changed? I don’t see too many bargains beyond the norm. Do you?
Government isn’t really any better at figuring out how to tie shoelaces than Joe the Plumber. What might be obvious to you and me rarely is evident in Washington and other capitals. Government tends to spend their trillions of recovery bucks too late in the cycle and thereby causing the upward cycle to overheat, which leads to the next crisis. The result is unfinished bridges, mysteriously enrichment Florida sugar kingpins, more awful Detroit Hummers with no buyers, luxury school buildings with no students, hyper inflation and untold other disasters.
Governments aren’t real good at managing their affairs. Consider the “-gates” incidents, each one casting a bit of doubt not only on management skills but on the general sanity of those involved. Here is Wikipedia’s list which covers 106 known cases only. The real list is no doubt miles longer:
- “Angolagate, Baftagate, Bandargate, Bertiegate, Betsygate, Billygate, Bingogate, Bittergate, Blagogate, Bonusgate, Boozegate, Buttongate, Camillagate, Cheriegate, Chicanegate, Coingate, Colegate, Comet Watergate, Contragate, Contragate, Corngate, Debategate, Dianagate, Dijongate, Donnygate, Ettehgate, Fajitagate, Fallagate, Fiascogate, Filegate, Flakegate, Gatesgate, Gerstmanngate, Grannygate, Guzzlegate, Hookergate, Hot Coffeegate, Iguanagate, Indygate, Irangate, Iraqgate, Jerezgate, Jerseygate, Katrinagate, Kazakhgate, Lewinskygate, Liegate, Lipstickgate, Mabelgate, Macacagate, Manuelgate, Monicagate, Monkeygate, Monstergate, Muldergate, NAFTAgate, Nannygate, Niggergate, Nipplegate, Noemigate, Officegate, Paintergate, Paragate, Partgate, Passportgate, Paternitygate, Peppergate, Petrogate, Picturegate, Pizzagate, Plamegate, Railgate, Rathergate, Reutersgate, Rinkagate, Sexgate, Sexy Photo Gate, Shawinigate, Shilpagate, Shreddergate, Sirengate, Slapgate, Smeargate, Spygate, Squidgygate, Stepneygate, Stormontgate, Strippergate, Strippergate, Strippergate (CA), Suitcasegate, Tailgate, Tasergate, Tevezgate, Tiregate, Toallagate, Toiletgate, Travelgate, Troopergate, Troopergate, Tunagate, Utegate, Wardrobegate, Watergate, Waterkantgate (Watergate an der Waterkant), Wheatgate and Whitewatergate”.
The government will occasionally get things right, by mistake most often. For instance, Hitler fixed the German unemployment problem in the thirties by massive investment in autobahns, Stukas, U-boats and black uniforms. Unfortunately, once he built all the autobahns and flooded the “flight clubs” with Stukas, what’s for dessert? World War II took over as employment source for the Aryan masses. The black uniforms were put to deadly use.
Stalin decided farmers were too uppity, especially in the Ukraine. By hiking tax rates in the form of wheat and barley deliveries to well over 100% of actual production all the Soviets suffered famine, killing millions. Mao in China did much the same thing. Today, the same story is repeated in Africa. The Beloved Son in North Korea also experimented with famine to show who is in charge. These are bad government programs.
FDR got it somewhat right with the Great New Deal but millions of Americans nevertheless suffered greatly. Some criticize the Deal, claiming it set out to rescue the Capitalist system that caused the depression in the first place. That’s a good point with relevance to the Obama rescue plans. Many agree with Obama that his deal is saving the day. Does the following ring a bell, in spirit if not in details?
- “When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the nation was in deep economic trouble. State governors had shut down every bank and every bank account was frozen—no one could get a bank loan or cash checks or get at their deposits. Unemployment was 25% and higher in major industrial and mining centers. The agricultural sector, with a fourth of the nation’s population, was in worse shape than industrial areas.
- Deflation was raging—prices were falling, making future planning difficult and raising the burden of existing debts. Mortgages were being foreclosed by tens of thousands. Worst of all, many people seemed to have given up hope for a better future and were desperately holding on. Unemployment was still high in 1939, with the tide only turning in 1941.”
FDR’s New Deal was a great political reform but it did not rescue Americans or others from the depression. It took 72 million dead in WWII to finally put that beast to sleep. GM’s tank business boomed. Boeing’s bomber business flew high. The unemployed millions found solid employment in the Armies. Women became riveters. Ship builders scrambled as U-boats drove shipping demand way up. The University of Chicago rode high with the A bomb as its star. All at a profit, you might add.
With another World War unlikely at the moment and only small time wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s trillions won’t do the job. It will require something real to pull the World out of the hole. Damn if I know what will do the job. Maybe housing, consumers, iPods, Bruce Springsteen or the NBA will save us all. One thing is certain – it will be the common man and woman that charges ahead and beats down the dragon.
You see the world fall apart. Fortunes disappear without a trace. Age old institutions are gone, leaving a tiny cloud of dust soon dissimilated. Surviving financial institutions, car dealerships and hot dog stands will never again be the same. Perhaps you will never be the same either. At least some of us will pay more attention to an elusive quality called happiness.
Happiness is a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. Scientifically, human happiness correlates with safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. There is little or no correlation between income and happiness. The amount of spare time people have, and their control over how much spare time they have, correlates with happiness. Feeling in control of one’s own life leads to happiness. Losing control can be a great source of unhappiness.
The Eightfold Path leads its Buddhist practitioner to Nirvana, a state of everlasting peace. Aristotle stated that happiness is characteristic of a good life. The happy person is virtuous. Happiness is “the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason”: happiness is the practice of virtue. According to that idea, Conservatives are more virtuous and thus happier than Commies, Gays and Liberals, according to several scientific studies:
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to state that they are “very happy.” The gap, unbroken for almost four decades, has been unaffected by political fortunes. Republicans place a higher value than Democrats on marriage, children, and religion. They are more likely than Democrats to be married and attend religious services regularly. Shame on you Democrats.
The old satyr Silenus had been drinking wine and wandered away drunk, later to be found by some Phrygian peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas. Midas recognized him and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness. On the eleventh day, Midas brought Silenus back to Dionysus in Lydia. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wished for. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched an oak twig and a stone; both turned to gold. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. “So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold; but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane.
Mammon is a term describing material wealth or greed, most often personified as a deity. Here goes : Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Plutos was the personification of wealth. Blinded by Zeus, Plutos could dispense wealth without prejudice. He is often portrayed with a horn of plenty. Aristophanes in 380 BC wrote a play called Plutus. At first, Plutus did not distribute wealth to the virtuous, or necessarily to the non-virtuous, but instead it is distributed randomly. If Plutus’ eyesight is restored, these wrongs could be righted. The world would be a better place. Plutus’ eyesight is finally restored. He hands out riches to some and removes riches from those he sees as not being virtuous. This gives rise to rancorous comments and claims of unfairness from those that have had their riches removed. The rich audiences in Athens were not amused.
Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet since 1959, recently said (slightly edited): “The ongoing global economic crisis is an opportunity to re-think values related to finance. This unfortunate crisis can be a lesson to start to think about other values of human beings, not only just money. In money matters we need truth, honesty — transparency is very essential. My knowledge, experience in the financial field is zero but money is important. Without money you can’t survive. But there are other values, happy family, happy community and more content. The crisis is rooted in greed and speculation and a lack of transparency in the financial world. All those business people should learn is that all their business work should be transparent and clean and honest”.
Greed is the selfish desire for or pursuit of money, wealth, food, or other possessions, especially when this denies the same goods to others. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism. Buddhists believe greed is based on incorrectly connecting material wealth with happiness. Happiness economics point out that acquiring material objects has less impact than we imagine on our feelings of happiness. Assuming a basic level of material comfort, more wealth does not increase happiness. That point is generally lost on many. We never pick our nose, fart in public, steal from supermarkets, rage at fellow motorists or lie to our spouses. As with these examples, greed does not fit one’s preferred self image, thus denied but acted on in secret.
The latest bout of naked greed started with Ronald Reagan. Remember him? He’s the guy who slept through various cabinet meetings concerning illegal US deals in Iran and Central America. He graciously allowed an obscure Marine Colonel by the name of Oliver North take the fall. Reagan soon retired to Santa Barbara. Digressing for a minute, Oliver North was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term, two years probation, $150,000 in fines, and 1,200 hours community service. All convictions were later vacated. North became a celebrated Fox News political commentator and a NYT bestselling author. The FOX channel produced and aired a television episode in which Oliver North was elected President of the United States. No doubt Oliver is one of those happy Republicans.
Reagan pushed Supply Side Economics, also called Reaganomics. Oddly, the elder Bush labeled the thing “Voodoo Economics” which did as much for his election chances as the “Read My Lips” gaffe. The Reaganomics is a simple enough idea. Reduce taxes for the rich. The rich will invest in jobs for the poor. The idea is still a favorite in any Republican town meeting. Unfortunately, the job creation part didn’t quite work out. The rich bought Microsoft stock instead of building new factories. Thus no jobs materialized but the rich got a whole lot richer. Then, as covered to exhaustion here, along came dotcom and dothouse, followed by the current dotmeltdown. Mammon is still alive.
Greed is not a new phenomenon. The previous paragraph on old mythology proves that point. Here are a few other, more recent examples: the Panic of 1857 – Speculative bubble in United States railroads, the Panic of 1873 – Civil War speculative bubble, the 1919-21 Depression due to a Post WWI speculative bubble, the Great Depression 1929-1939 and the total collapse in inflated stock prices, the 1973-75 Oil Crisis – Speculative quadrupling of oil prices. And so on.
See a pattern? Greed makes you personally unhappy. Yet, most pursue greed like the heroin it is. “Greed is a virtue, serving me all I ever want”. “Keep the cake that you eat forever and ever”. “Whatever you touch turns into gold”. “The day of reckoning is never”. Greed and speculation may not be the only cause of recessions but is frequently a major part, making all of us addicts unhappy. The question remains – who are the deplorable speculators? We don’t really know yet, do we?
To be continued.
July 22, 2009
One day, out of the blue, huge black holes moved into the neighborhood. It had something to do with pay checks, mortgages and your home that you foolishly thought were yours. Suddenly the concern was whether or not the black hole would swallow or spit you out. Are you with one of the dying, dead or possibly reborn Detroit auto behemoths? You put your retirement money in Icelandic or East Europe funds. Some of you are customers or employees of dead banks. Were you foreclosed? Are you a realtor searching for non existing listings or a Buick dealer looking at an empty lot? Then you know the pain.
Billions have yet to experience such pain. After all, a 10% unemployment rate means 90% of us have jobs. So for most, all is well? Maybe, but the lucky will find there is no place to hide. Governments pump incomprehensible amounts of money into who knows what. You’ll pay for that, others will get rich. Whole countries remain on the brink of collapse. Are those high risk funds gone? Hell no, investing by the common man into spectacular risk Russian funds not only continues at an unprecedented level but grows at frenzying rates. Who can resist 60% gains in mere months? Guess what will happen.
Are you angry, furious or resentful about this mess? You should be although the “who, when, why, where and what” is sketchy at best. Huge amounts of money rush around the globe in a manner making drug cartels gasp in envy. Desperate governments feed the fever with major league pay outs, relief programs, bailouts and general flag waving. Will those fortunes end up with blood thirsty Russians, Canadians, Chinese and Italians stealing GM? Outsource IRS to India, save trillions. License DEA to the City of Tijuana. Can the Albanians really buy Bank of America? The LA Lakers may become Moscow Lakers. Obama can buy Iceland, Zimbabwe and Lithuania and merge them with already owned Michigan. Joe Biden mentioned the other day – “there will be some waste”. How much is that?
Billions of bucks head to some neighborhoods turned into a gleaming World Trade Center II or pit stops (think Disneyland) by new Autobahn from Houston to Wasilla, Alaska. Have your backyard house the Grand New HealthCare Agency Headquarter, named after veteran health care reformer Hillary Clinton (“USS Hillary R. Clinton”), co-chaired by Sanjay Gupta of CNN and Aldemar Rojas Mosquera of Colombia, pioneering huge leaps in modern medicine.
Most of you may not have noticed the riots, murders and domestic violence beyond our hazy horizons. The capitals and major cities of China, Russia, Bolivia, Greece, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, France, Italy and Ireland have already witnessed riots or major protests over skyrocketing unemployment. Iran, proving anger is still a factor, could have gone up in flames but perhaps for different reasons. In the US, there are no protests in spite of being in the deepest of holes among the big guys. Ask yourself why silence prevails. Are you angry? Why not? How come your gearbox no longer engages in the slightest degree of emotion?
Angry or not, finding out who is to blame may seems vital. Stomp out the bad and the ugly. Rip their freezing hearts out, beat their deviant brains in. Feet in a cement block, let’m ride to the bottom of the Hudson, the Thames, the Seine or Lake Michigan. Well, for one thing, no one seems sufficiently upset for such measures. Second, the moral of this tale is that the ugly, bad and guilty includes you. Yes, you. And third, perhaps the real culprit is not the common foolishness of all of us.
Perhaps this System doesn’t work anymore. Capitalism, democracy, United Nations, the World Bank, G8, borders, quotas, poverty and riches may well be mere relics of the past. If Communism could die, so can democracy. The sorry fate of Wall Street’s bankers, brought down by the fury of you and I, can signal the end of Capitalism. India and China are the next leaders until perhaps they wipe each other out. The US will not be part of that club. Germany or Britain won’t be invited to the center table. You and I may find life turned upside down with the view deteriorating quicker than the One Minute Waltz.
Digressing from the financial nightmare for a second, the collapse of the American Dream started with the Vietnam War. Then the energy crisis of 1975 and the birth of Opec brought it home to Americans that no longer were they in charge. The Watergate disaster and the shame of Nixon showed how far south the system had gone. Iran and its US embassy hostages brought Carter to his knees. Reagan presided over the Contra scandal. Clinton suffered MonicaGate. Maybe he enjoyed it.
America could suddenly be challenged successfully, safely and violently. Modern day vandals blew up American soldiers in Beirut, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. USS Cole got a hole to prove it. US embassies in Africa were pulverized. Then along came the climax of 9/11. President Bush, a relatively harmless fool till then, turned into a viscous destructor of whatever claim American still had for greatness. Bin Laden won not only the battle but the war because Bush lost.
Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden won because America was and is lost. America didn’t pay attention. Not to the screams of terrorists. Not to the loss of that moral idealism that once was present. America was in the grips of greed. Riches were suddenly a right without the effort. America was lost to the Land of Oz where reality didn’t matter. Bush contributed greatly to the decline but you went along with it. Greed ruled the day.
Forty years ago, almost to the day, America went to the moon. “A great step for mankind” to be sure but the other shoe never dropped. 1969 marked the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York. That’s the good news. 1969 saw Richard Nixon take office, leading to Watergate and national disgrace. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published explicit photographs of dead villagers from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, a practice still in place. The secret bombings of Cambodia began. The United States held its first draft lottery since WWII in to supply soldiers to Vietnam, where the 1969 war cost 163,000 dead. 9,414 were Americans.
In 1969, the Beatles gave their last public performance. AIDS arrived in the United States. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Sirhan Sirhan admitted that he killed Robert F. Kennedy. 14 Chicago police officers shot to death Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their sleep during a raid. Edward M. Kennedy’s Presidential hopes died with Mary Jo Kopechne as he drives off a bridge on his way home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Charles Manson and his cult murdered Sharon Tate and six others.
The late sixties and early seventies changed the world. The relative innocence of the fifties and the heroics of the forties faded away. The great social experiment of the sixties lost its teeth. The “I” generations of yuppies replaced the hippies and the protesters. Long hair was out, air blown was in. Universities spewed out MBA’s heading to Wall Street and lawyers moving in on Washington. Sit-ins, demonstrations and communes disappeared. The New Age and Prozac replaced Led Zeppelin and LSD. Dreams changed.
George and Dick
Most of us love to blame Bush for all things evil, but the Texas swaggerer wasn’t clever enough to create as massive a mess as we suffer today. The Bush regime thrived on a doctrine of Fear. Create Fear and you shall have Power. Plots here, WMD there, cut of the head off one or another enemy of something or another. Fear is a sickness, easily exploited. Bush and gang exploited fear to make possible outrageous and generally illegal policies. Fear of Muslims, such as Muslim limo drivers. Fear of non existing WMD. Fear of Central American nannies and Mexican gardeners. Fear of environmentalists, gays, actors, journalists and scientists.
Almost no one effectively challenged the crimes of a president or the corruption of his vice president. The deployment of hundreds of thousand soldiers into illegal wars met only scant opposition. Congress mumbled, the highest court fumbled and “the masses” stumbled. Human rights, international law and plain common decency gave way to greed, power frenzy and moral confusion. Bush did not create the financial meltdown. Neither did the elderly Bush, Reagan, Carter or Clinton. The crimes of George W. Bush are more about killing people than about impoverishing them.
The current news about George W. Bush, according to Google News, is not about Bush at all. The Rangers will name a suite after him. Laura Bush tells us about being out of the killing lime light – having to go to the hardware store – about borrowing chairs for dinner parties. Dubya picks up after Barney the Scot terrier on neighbor’s lawn. Score one for Barney. This is about the guy causing a million deaths according to authoritative sources. That is 1,000,000 deaths – six zeroes and a one.
Even today Cheney says: “I don’t believe we engaged in torture. If I had it to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing. I’d be just as tough and aggressive as I could to make certain that those individuals . . . who were prepared to kill thousands of Americans to achieve a political objective got what they had coming to them.” Good night, Cheney. Find another undisclosed location, please.
The stories about Dick Cheney mainly concern the possible prosecution of his (and his boss’s) war crimes over the last eight years. After all, sanctioning torture, ethnic cleansing and the like is quite illegal under US and International law. This most stubborn, selfish and scheming bastard in modern politics is trying for a foothold in the Republican power fraction of Palin, Limbaugh and, she wishes, Coulter. Bush allowed, but Cheney masterminded, the deaths of a million people – six zeroes and a one.
To date, the elderly Cheney’s comeback dreams haven’t come true but then; neither have those of Limbaugh and Palin. Out pops Liz Cheney, making the oddest remarks in public interviews. She seemed to claim, for instance, that Obama being born in Kenya should be stripped of the Presidency. Official records show Obama being born in Hawaii, then and presently not part of Kenya.
No question GOP in a crisis. With self destructive leaders such as those above, who needs democrats, feeble as they are. GOP has a long way to go. Having embraced marketing approach “selling a product”, the size, color and shape of that product is a well kept secret. No doubt making round pegs square overwhelms even the stoutest of designers, flying around the circus without a safety net. Moreover, the brightest of the GOP figured out, to their amazement, that Hispanics, black and young voters do not go GOP’s way at all. Now, all of those segments are growing at rates far exceeding the segment driving Cadillac with white walled tires. Unless the GOP can design the product speaking rap in Detroit, Spanish if Southern California and Greenspeak in Berkeley, they may never again reside over state dinners.
Many ask why the powerful elite allowed this mess to develop with so many common sense signs dancing in front of every one’s eyes. That’s a key question. How is the high up rot cut out? Smokey Bear, where are you?
What about the icon of financial genius, Alan Greenspan, and his 1987-2006 tenure of the Fed? The 2008 meltdown is a consequence of many of his policies. The dot-com disaster of 2000 taught him nothing as he allowed the housing bubble to develop. Greenspan believed a national decline in house prices would, could not happen. He kept interest rates low, fueling the subprime mortgages. Thereby criminally shortsighted, self-destructive and super ebullient gamblers in their mahogany corner offices could go for the home run to ruin the rest of us. These players were not all Wall Street insiders. Just about any bank or financial institution had fingers in the pie.
The nitroglycerin style derivatives markets took off during Greenspan’s watch. Derivatives grew by 1,000 percent in the past decade and now represents a contract value of 4 (four) times the combined wealth of this planet. Any sane person should scream and run like hell for that old A-bomb shelter. Suppose you have a $400,000 house and a $100,000 retirement fund. Use it as the down payment towards $2,000,000 worth of lottery tickets, due in a week. Perhaps you’ll win. Most likely, you’ll be $1,500,000 in the red. Even your cat will hate you.
Such was the gamble of AIG, suddenly requiring $85 billion of your money. Shortly before, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disasters robbed you of $238 billion or so. Société Générale, Amaranth Advisors, BAWAG, CITIC Pacific, Groupe Caisse d’Epargne, WestLB, Sadia, MF Global, Morgan Stanley and Carnegie Investment Bank all found out high risk trading can end up as billion dollar eggs on one’s face.
Greenspan retired in 2006 and others took over. The new Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke found the ship to be sinking and frantically started bailing. He and a few associates tried to plug the creaking hull as one torpedo after another drove in, while being “overwhelmed, exhausted, beseeched, besieged, constantly second-guessed”. The pivotal event of Lehman Brothers crashing on September 14, 2008 finally exposed the dirty laundry to a confused, alarmed and panicking world. Lending froze, and the world economy sank like a rock with fortunes vanishing like yesterday’s meringues.
Bush was an uninvolved spectator to the potentially biggest loss of American prosperity in history. Concerned only with avoiding blame, he obsessed about teaching Wall Street a lesson for troubling him. His White House staff was looking for new jobs, gleefully pushing what they could into Obama’s lap.
Greenspan, Bernanke, Bush, million buck Bonus Bankers or Stone Age Detroit Big Shots may all be confused about which century they live in and whose wallet they so carelessly throw around. They collectively contributed to you and me down financial and moral black holes. But you are the one walking up to the rim of that hole.
Then who else might we blame? What gruesome faults are we trying to pin on some one? To many a common man or woman, the ghost story is about a job that disappeared. Others lost their house. Owners of selected stock and fund assets are wiped out. Owners of SAAB cars may or may not be screwed but trading in your ’77 Saab 99 for a brand new Koenigsegg super car won’t be easy.
Disgraced CEO’s, CFO’s, Presidents, Secretaries, Ministers and other dignitaries might be in jail or living in the Manhattan Subway tunnels or beach front Malibu by now. No question, scores of rats are leaving the ship, voluntarily or not. Heads are chopped off, tumors removed and bad breath cured.
Who else? Rounding up the usual suspect doesn’t do the job either: Can we blame Terrorists, Columbian drug lords, Philip Morris, the Russian Mafia, Japanese “research” whalers or even Ann Coulter? Sorry, they are not exclusively to blame. Saudi royalty, Oprah, abortionists, Dr. No, North Korean Great Leaders, Noble Sons and Glorious Fathers are likewise unable to claim all the glory.
The International Communist Conspiracy is more concerned with Ensure and Attend than with toppling democracy. The Armenian International Conspiracy only exists in the brain of a madman, thus probably not guilty. Google, Bing or even Wikipedia do not provide the unsavory answers. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the New World Order, CIA, the Military-Industrial Complex may have a lot to answer to, but perhaps not in this particular case. The Area 51/Grey Aliens conspiracy and OJ are certainly suspects if just someone could pin down why. Bigfoot and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion nowadays seem to be lost, thus are off the list.
The real enemy includes you and me. We bought houses, then refinanced as prices went through the roof. We merrily bought Hummers with the windfall. We were temporarily rich, buying stocks such as InfoSpace, The Learning Company, Lycos, Flooz.com, Boxman AB, Netscape, Pets.com, theGlobe.com and, yes, Microsoft. All were hot shots around 1999, but are not so hot today. Fortunately for many, those losses were covered by house prices continued to boom. It was great fun while it lasted.
Tale of the Sand
Here are some clues. First, we all knew the policies of Bush were dead wrong. Oh yes, you did, but you didn’t really care. Second, didn’t your mother tell you about borrowing a lot more than you can afford against your home, for Christ sake? Third, to paraphrase Obama, the remarkable balloon of wealth was a mirage similar to that of houses built on sand. Eventually, sand will shift, toppling the house, no matter how many lines in the sand someone hangs their hat on. Migration to houses built on solid rock will be painful, long and full of sacrifice. Eat your broccoli. Pay for the bailouts. Smile bravely.
That tale of the shifting sands is a great metaphor except it in no way addresses the issue. That is, “why did this black hole exist in the first place and is it by chance repaired, filled in and plugged tight”? Never mind plugging holes, the Obama metaphor justifies massive government intervention in the opinion of Democrats. According to Republicans, let the Great Father in the sky work his magic for those of the right credentials, i.e. registered Republicans and hell with the others and let’s not rob the rich of their hard earned windfalls. If the Great Father drags his heels, there is always Sarah Palin to do the honors.
Enter trillion dollar programs to “reach high ground, “to rebuild on solid rock”, to “revive America”, to revive “Reelection Chances” and to “Paint Lisbon, ND, Pink”. We all know this is just a mad gambling streak. No matter how many trillions are thrown out the windows like a New York confetti parade, it’s not going to save the day. Those trillions are a continuation of what was, and is, wrong in the first place. Why expect change if all you do is to repeat the past? If your kid ate too much candy, do you give him/her more candy? If you are on life support, will twice as much life support cure you or kill you? As Obama advisors put it, “we are not soothsayers”.
In fact, we are approaching six months of bailouts with no evidence of any positive effect. Obama begs for patience, claiming fall will be glorious. Which fall is that? Obama’s spin machine is the mightiest ever in the annals of American politics. Not even that machine can cover up tens of trillions in deficits is bad news to any sane person except a few Voodoo economists. Just ask mother.
The Conservative in you will say “Nothing wrong here, that’s the way the buck rolls”. Your Socialist ego says “Shoot the bastards and let’s split the cake”. You Commies will relocate everyone except the chosen few to Prudhoe Bay to learn farming, thereby eliminating greed and providing food for starving auto workers and poverty ridden airline crews having only peanuts to eat. Democrats will remain confused, requiring endless debates and another trillion to make ends meet while waiting for The Answer. Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Rod Blagojevich, David Duke, Ann Coulter and Ralph Reed all have ideas about what should be our future pads. Fortunately, few agree.
Throwing a red hot trillion bucks at creepy bankers and Detroit mammoths, building bridges (over what?) and new roads (to where?), closing an American concentration camp or two, stopping some torture, possibly embracing a few friendly Muslims, executing tax cuts and providing health care for every one – sounds good but is it real, enough or even wise?
This is the first in a essay series on current events, attempting to understand why so many wrongs over the last decade has met with so little concern, protest and anger. The world of today with its instant, massive and global coverage of important as well as unimportant issues makes it very hard to distinguish between hype, hymn and heroics.
And that’s the way it is
July 17, 2009
Eatless in Seattle – Hell Yes – more often than not applies to dining in Seattle. Dreadful to be sure considering Seattle is a place of more culinary opportunities than those endured by many other spots such as Fargo, North Dakota or Death Valley. To the West, the Pacific rolls uninterrupted to Japan with whales moving North, then South in relative peace. To the East, you’ll find some of the most fertile farming grounds anywhere. Up North, BC and Alaska provide the freshest seafood in the World. South of Seattle, markets from Astoria, Oregon to California’s Napa Valley to Chile’s regions X to XII supply everything a chef can dream about, only an airplane ride away.
Midtown Seattle,you find many of these products at Pike Place Market. You might get bombed by flying Sockeye salmon straight from Bristol Bay or an 85 pound King salmon out of Kenai River. Veal sweetbread, Cajun sausage, giant octopus and obscene looking geoduck clams are yours at quite a reasonable cost.
You name it, Seattle has it. Lacking are Chinese penis restaurants proudly serving goat’s penis, bull’s penis tip, deer-penis juice or donkey vulva with a sauce choice of lemon and soy, chili and soy, and a sesame-seed paste. These special treats require a trip to Beijing. Less risky, chocolate versions of the above are available from the local erotic bakery right here in Seattle.
Other absentee culinary experiences include meter-sized Danish smoked in-skin eel, Canadian baby seals, NYC subway rats, bats, camels and Southeast Asia poodle stews, all hard to find in Seattle’s neighborhood groceries or local farmer’s markets. Local organic, wholesome, green places such as Whole Foods prefer to sell seeds and nuts rather than net caught tuna and North Atlantic cod. The latter two are, of course, on all endangered lists for one or another reason.
Seattle may be, or was, more famous for music than for extraordinary culinary experiences. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Corbain, Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Fats Navarro, Kenny G or Marc Seales famously beat out local chefs such as Ba Culbert of Tilikum Place Cafe, Tom Douglas, Robin Leventhal or Ashley Merriman. Truly famous chefs such as the “F” word Gordon Ramsay or Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck, the Soup Nazi and Paul Bocuse seem to have no interest whatsoever in Seattle.
No Michelin stars hang by the doors of Seattle diners. Top 50 restaurant lists never mention Seattle. Still, Seattle has the ever popular Dick’s Drive-In burgers where the Deluxe version sets you back a little over two bucks or as little as a buck+ for the Regular kind. Happily, Seattle still has some of that laid back atmosphere.
To many, Seattle dining means heading to ancient places such as the Spice (sic) Needle Revolving Restaurant, aka “Eye of the Needle”, straight out of the World Fair of 1962. The menu changes at the speed of molasses flowing down a ten story wall. I visited the Space Needle “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle” in 1976 with no urge to return. The Canlis (“cooking with abandon or not at all”), a nearby dress-up joint, celebrates 55 years of fine dining. For 15 years, Canlis was only a few blocks away from my home. I never went there since dress codes don’t thrill me. $72 Australian lobster or the American tenderloin at about the same price don’t really fit my wallet. I never figured out if or when they were in a state of abandon sufficient to peel the onions and cross the carrots. You better call ahead to find out the state of abandonment before you decide to try them.
The all night 13 Coins is the veteran where the menu is straight out of 1970. French Dip, Eggs Benedict, Chicken Liver Saute and Steak & Pan-Fried Oysters can be had for a modest investment at 5 am if it so pleases you. Try the Banana Cream Pie for dessert.
The Metropolitan Grill is another fast route to coronary troubles that will delight your surgeon far more than you. One frightening offer is a 38 oz Prime Porterhouse for $69. Add the Béarnaise sauce at a reasonable four bucks. A side order of Twice Stuffed Potatoes might calm that tummy so depraved of saturated fat. Try the Surf and Turf at $82 or the Châteaubriand for Two weighting in at 115 bucks. Ain’t America great? Your leftovers would feed a Sudanese family for a week or two, you bastard.
Hurricane Cafe, 5 Spot and 5 Corner Cafe have been around forever. All three are relatively merciful on your wallet but remain just as deadly. Extra charges might apply if you drop dead while on the premises to pay the cost of stuffing you into an XL size doggie bag. 5 Spot provides eternal weekend breakfast queues possibly easing the exposure of last night’s lovers to each other (“what’s your name again?”). 5 Corner Cafe, where no one cares to know your name, serves a killer grease burger at 3 am or 3 pm, your choice. Absolutely no personal checks, you dumb shit. As to the Hurricane Cafe, a recent review states that “the food is always half-assed, but who gives a fuck? It’s 4:00 a.m. and you want to eat”. Indeed so.
Ivar’s Restaurants feature perhaps the best known chef, folk musician, maverick, major drunk and general legend – Ivar Haglund, by now dead for 24 years but still kicking and still beloved by all. You find Ivar’s name on various Seattle waterfront eateries. That alder smoked “Indian Style” coho salmon was enjoyed by your grand daddy, daddy and will likely be around for whoever survives Global Warming, Korean missiles or the GM bailout. A $25 bargain.
The Paul Allen monstrous Seattle Center creation serves little food as far as I know. In my book, this pile of colored sheet metal is known as Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. The Experience Music Project is about as popular to most of us as, well, the mere thought of Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. See the nearby pictures. Decide for yourself. Moreover, featuring Bing Crosby in almost the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Queensrÿche and The Pudz is odd even by the standards of a Seattle suffering acute depression derived from a heritage of long, howling winter storms at Lofoten, Norway. Paul’s pal Bill Gates is arousing twin mini towers for his and Melinda’s foundation across the street that seem to fit the testicle idea quite well. Look for yourself.
Skipping EMP, try out the slightly psychodelic Seattle Center ‘s Center House. Eat there if you dare from an abundance of odd little stands in the house’s shadowy corners. The culinary experience is quite overshadowed by the free for all action on the Center Stage and Dance Floor. That’s right. No charge for trying out Participatory Folk Dancing, Square Dancing, true Ballroom Dancing or plain old rollerskating. You might enjoy the Tuxedo Junction Band (“Stardust, Begin the Beguine, You Gotta Be a Football Hero, That Old Black Magic and Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye”), the Microsoft Orchestra (“String players at any level are always welcome”), Peace on Earth, Womanipura with Mind Craze, Lelavision “Physical Music” or the Magic Mystery Show. And you though there was no Culture in Seattle.
Other Seattle notables include eateries that are cute, popular and heavier on marketing than on salt and pepper. You go there to be seen by envious neighbors, thumping your nose at furious exes and (unwittingly) at IRS agents. Dahlia’s, Etta’s, Wild Ginger, Sorrento’s and The Herbfarm are a few examples of such wonders. You won’t be disappointed unless your neighbor in raging madness drives over your dog after watching you and company break out the third bottle of 1966 Dom Pérignon ($1,200 or so). The ex calls you back to court with sudden proof of that secret Bermuda account of yours. An enraged IRS suddenly sticks its nose into that business meeting at Seattle’s premier strip club Lusty Lady, “where everyone can see your heels”. You watch it. Your credit, marriage or worse might suffer.
I happen to live downtown Seattle, quite close to the Space Needle. Apart from that “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle”, there are some 10-15 restaurants of various kinds within a block or so. One is the 5 Corner Cafe mentioned above where you might find me very late when the drunks have collapsed, vanished and quieted down. Seattle outlawed serving booze after 2 am which is a good thing indeed.
There are Greek, Italian places, Mexican and American fast food, a wine and cheese place, a French organic bakery called Boulangerie Nantaise run by a delightful lady from Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc, France. I might be there having a light breakfast with an espresso or two. The Shallot Bistro is the best of several Asian outfits. The local sports bar is doing whatever sports bars do now that the Sonics are gone. Sadly, no Norwegian, Zulu or Romanian affairs are present so far. In all fairness, some of these places may not tickle yours or mine tongue but it’s nice to have them around.
A few blocks away, the Belltown nightlife district beckons the innocent suburbanites to occasional shootings, frequent drug trafficking, bloody noses, hot spots, loud music, drunk kids and one of the best of jazz clubs – Tula’s. Tula’s isn’t famous for their menu but feature mostly local talent of great ability at very reasonably prices, compared to the better known Jazz Alley which isn’t known for great food either. At Tula’s, tell Michael I sent you as you settle down a foot or so from the stands of the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, some 16-18 strong of considerable db’s, Greta Matassa, Jay Thomas, Susan Pascal, Hadley Caliman, Kelley Johnson, Beth Winters and many more. Believe these guys are good.
Closer to Lake Union, there is the Swedish Club. The famous Swedish pancake breakfast is presently on hold but will apparently return in September, lingonberries and all. With luck you may share the breakfast with a hearty dose of folk dancing. I visited the place in 1975 and haven’t returned. But that is just me. I never warmed up to polkas, lutefisk or cod roe cakes. In any event, the Northwest heritage of Swedish loggers and Norwegian fishermen is deader than all-you-can-eat salad bars, karaoke and turtlenecks.
Ballard isn’t what it used to be. The last Scandinavian restaurant is now Indian. The Armani suits infested the place, Rolexes, BMW’s, Hummers and Blackberries are everywhere as are personal trainers, nannies and investment crooks. The last Scandinavian food store closed its doors recently, perhaps to be replaced by yet one more organic juice outfit.
Fremont is a lost Seattle soul. Once hip and funky, condos, giant Getty’s and Adobe office complexes dragged that neighborhood down to become your average Redmond or Silicon Valley trash can. On the culinary side, a not bad Greek stalwart named Costas Opa is still operating with very reasonable prices. Service used to be a drag but might be better now. A decade ago, I ran a business down there. Costas fed me more often than not together with the legendary Red Door Alehouse, now displaced to an undisclosed location by Suzie Burke, Land Baroness or Goddess of Fremont, aka the female Godfather of Fremont. She owns just about everything in the area, including the Red Door Alehouse. She wanted another million condos where that poor tavern happened to do business. We all know who’s the boss down there. Condos up, tavern gone.
Tilikum Place Cafe
Now, let’s get to the point of this little message to all of you around the globe. Eatless in Seattle? Not so. Late in 2008, a new place opened up in my neighborhood after what seemed to me and my neighbors to be years in the making. My hair guy Kevin shared some pre-opening rumors, being next door at the Sublime Place. Taped up windows added to the mystery. So and so mentioned some sort of bistro was coming to town. Then it opened – Tilikum Place Cafe.
On the second or third day of the opening back in the very last part of October, I tried them out. Duck Confit, it was. Terrific. The the mussels appetizer followed, oddly off the menu nowadays. Outstanding. I’ve been back once or twice a week ever since. You’ll find me at the bar counter, the guy trying to look like Hemingway with zero luck. I’ve spent more time there, lately, than with this blog, perhaps to the relief of many. My budget may be bruised more ways than one, but so be it. Don’t get me wrong, the Tilikum Place Cafe is a bargain compared to, say, Canlis.
I’ve been through their tiny Spanish sardines, Alaskan char from way north, sturgeon, salt cod and mussels. I had rabbit, duck, pork, beef and all kinds of salads and veggies. Desserts such as homemade ice cream and truly made-to-order strawberry shortcake caught my sweet tooth. World class coffee that is as superior to the Starbuck’s junk as Google stock to the Lithuanian Lita. Dutch babies, smoked paprika butter, special this and that. Spirits galore. The menu is short and to the point. The dishes are unique partly because Ba and staff makes just about everything fresh to order from scratch, creating distinct taste clusters played off against each other. Or something like that. The pate isn’t bought from some sweatshop slaughter house in Bronx or Shanghai. It’s coming to you fresh from the Tilikum Place Cafe kitchen at 407 Cedar Street, Seattle.
My dad’s gold standard for food was boiled pig parts with boiled potatoes. Anything different was treason punished by his plate thrown across the dining room. If that’s your game, then perhaps Tilikum Cafe isn’t for you. The Tilikum Place Cafe culinary experiences are neither ordinary nor short lived. You really can’t put a label on the place. Some things come close to being vegetarian but meat isn’t lacking. Other dishes are hearty, most are on the light side. Some of the prevailing opinions pin a European label on the place but that works only if you don’t know what European cooking is. For instance, not even Ba seems to go for the braised cow’s lung in tomato sauce that the Italians love. Few Parisian chefs offer buffalo burgers but Ba does. Suffice to say that the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe is the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe. Enough said.
By now, the place has been reviewed and dissected by newspapers, bloggers, the “neighborhood business guides”, know-it-alls and word of mouth to universal acclaim. You look it up. Real critics already picked apart every menu option so I won’t. Blessedly, the business seems to boom now after some gloomy, rainy days this winter and Spring. That’s good because I would very much regret if they went away. Know that Japanese saying? “Do the right thing long enough and you will succeed”. Add a qualifier such as “if you have what it takes” and the Tilikum Place Cafe qualifies royally.
Over the months, like any regular, I got acquainted with owner/chef Ba Culbert, her business partner Paul Dormann and the staff that one reviewer described as “flying around the tables like humming birds”. After all, there are only some ten people on staff so the flying might be called for. I’ve witnessed the back breaking effort required to make the place a success. I’ve seen the artistry of creating world class dishes. The kitchen is open. Seeing Ba and the others in action makes you realize that this kind of cooking is art.
Here is my second point. I don’t really go back to the Tilikum Place Cafe because the food is great or I happen to like the people working there. I go there because the place makes me feel good. It’s one of those personal things. Most of us have retreats, memories or places, occasions or people that we cherish. Our comfort zone. The security blanket. A picture of mother, the cat or Michael Jackson. Some adore a bottle of Armagnac a day, others live to climb Mount Everest or raise ants. A few smoke BC Bud, smuggled in by someone’s grandmother in a 1930s handbag. Some obsess over Italian shoes, recently married Robert Redford or UFO’s. A hair blown breed needs that Hummer, a next-generation spouse and a lakefront property to feel properly comforted. In my case, I head for the ambiance of a neighbor eatery.
Here’s to people, their fallacies, blemishes, talents and occasional heroism. Sarah Palin, the astonishing narcissism of a not quite sane quitter. Ann Coulter, the modern day Goebbels. George W. Bush, criminal and failure. Michael Jackson, the medical wonder who finally lost the magic. Muhammad Ali, the wonder who has yet to lose the magic. Boris Yeltsin, the winner, dead drunk or not, currently simply dead. The senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and dog catchers caught with their pants down or pocket books open. The CIA torture specialists. Pratibha Patil, Asif Ali Zardari, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu, almost all with thumbs on the big bang button. Corrupt bankers. The drug cartels, OPEC and Iranian strongmen. Mother Theresa and Gandhi heroics. The sad hysterics of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Neighbors riding 200 db motorcycles at 4 am. Horatio Hornblower, Homer Simpson and Forest Gump. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Terrorists, the Religious Right and the Arrogant Left.
So many get their moment of fame but with little to show for the effort. Here is part of the reason: none of these cats above made art, or at least not art of lasting value. Thus they disappear as time passes – there are exceptions but not many. On the other hand, the few that do produce lasting art will themselves last. That’s why I write about artists. Fellow photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, the Westons, Robert Mapplethorpe or Jeff Wall. Here you’ll meet Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and Georgia O’Keeffe . Geniuses, from Picasso, Gustaf Mahler, Miles Davis and Mozart to da Vinci, frequent these pages. As a contrast, monsters such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin lurk behind the scenes, together with scores of other political rascals.
Art is good because it survives no matter what. Stuff such as democracy, human rights, the Beatles, Antarctic krill, polar bears and ozone layers come and go. So do birthdays. El Niño follows La Niña, making water flow this or the other way across a vast Pacific Ocean. The Big Bang and Black Holes are irreversible but when did you last worry about that? Now check out the Bach Concertos ignored by dead, forgotten despots. What about the cave paintings in France and elsewhere that are still alive after 35,000 years? The liturgical songs by Hildegard of Bingen are with us after 850 years. Mozart was belittled by some emperor or another (“Too many notes, my dear Mozart”) but who is laughing now?
Consider the string quartets coming out of Auschwitz some 55 years ago after their creators joined untold others inhaling Zyklon-B gas. You get my point. People come and go. Art remains. One day the bomb may drop or global temperatures might hit a hundred or more degrees, shutting down that last CO2 spewing smoke stack. The concertos, rock paintings, Bruno Walter recordings, Thriller albums and Star Wars DVDs will still be there, somewhere under the debris of human bones.
This blog and Tilikum Place Cafe aren’t likely to have a major say in the end of the World or the start of a new Paradise. Perhaps we’ll leave some trace somewhere. For now it’s a matter of strawberry shortcake and a tracer of Armagnac served with the World’s best coffee. So say hello to Ba and the Tilikum Place Cafe is where “everybody knows your name”, or at least my name. It’s a neat place. Go there. Tell Ba I sent you. Here’s how: Tilikum Place Cafe. Facebook is a lively source for Ba and the Cafe. Enjoy. Do fly in from Zagreb, Paris, Hanoi or Bellevue if necessary. It’s worth it. Try the Spanish sardines.
All the best,
June 25, 2008
Say Hi to the four Ms, all famous for their music, but for vastly different reasons. Millions find great joy in the art of the four although few like all four. Billions more do not appreciate or even recognize any of the four, possibly leaning more towards Grunge Metallic Slacker Sludge, Christmas Carols, Mexican Hat Dances, AK-47s or Tibetan chants.
Why are these Ms considered important? Are they really even artists? Do they truly produce art, whether or not they are artists to begin with? The features of their trade share little: Symphonies versus Ragtime. Lieder versus Solos. Form versus Adlib. Opera versus Gigs. Black tails or Headbands. Liberia versus Libretto, Joy versus Angst. Technique against Creativity. Brooklyn versus Berlin?
How can four so different practitioners of music all be famous? Should they be? What about Culture, Racial and Generation Gaps? How about Snobbery, Elitism or simple Ignorance? Are such items factors in this mystery? Add all into the pot, stir and suddenly one might feel a) is there really a thing called art, 2) if so, what is it and 3) what’s for dinner? Such questions are hard to face after a long day at work. Not to despair. Art is real. It’s just hard to understand at times. But then, that is part of the secret.
Mozart toiled at his legacy in the late 1700’s in the remarkable city of Vienna. Gustav Mahler followed suit in the early 1900s in, mostly, Vienna and Austria. Miles (Davis) is mostly a mid 1900s guy. Wynton Marsalis lives his glory moment as we speak. Mozart was an early Classicist, Mahler a late Romantic and Miles a little of jazzy everything in an introvert manner. Marsalis is also a little of everything but in a very different extrovert way.
Music According To Ms
>Mozart is the legend of all legends to most of us – the true artist, the wonder kid, the greatest of geniuses and the master practitioner. At the time, emperors and dukes solemnly nodded their heads (or not) while Burghers applauded, silver coins clinking. Today, record companies know him as a sure, positive ROI. His personal life was a romantic mess – no money, starvation, illness over and again. He completed the fairytale by predictably dying prematurely. Luckily, he got off to a good start around the age of four or so, producing six hundred works that apparently won’t by surpassed till the end of time.
Not liking Mozart is as unsocial as beating kids, kicking your dog, picking thy nose (or worse, someone else’s nose) or missing Mother’s Day. Some might wonder, though what is real and what are myths such as Robin Hood, King Arthur or Babe Ruth.
Mahler wrote his hour plus long, grandiose symphonies, vastly orchestrated, while suffering from all the angst so popular at the time. He started dying as soon as he was born and it didn’t ever get better. He did eventually die after producing around fifteen hours of symphonies and, mostly, lieder about Angst and Death (KindernTotenLieder). Some claim his music basically is a poor copy of Alpine cows roaming over the mountain sides, their bells clonking and loudly producing masses of green house gases. Critics happily find all kinds of technical problems. Maybe so but Mahler made art. Perhaps he went over the top at more than one occasion in a technical and emotional sense. Don’t we all?
The picture to the left is from the US premiere of his 8th Symphony. No, that is not the audience you see. Those are the performers. It is not known if they managed to squeeze an audience into the hall.
The last 60 years of jazz produced only a handful of truly great jazz artists with a lasting legacy. Miles is one of them. Not only that, he was an artist never standing still. He worked his way through late swing to bebop to cool to the best quintet and sextet music ever recorded, followed by fusion, free style and what have you. Other true artists in the same vein include Picasso and Stravinsky. Lead, don’t follow.
Perfection not Desired
Was Miles as great a trumpet player as he was an artist? His early recordings with Charlie Parker lacked the confidence, flair and excitement of Navarro and Gillespie. Later, he tended to play with his back to the audience, walking off stage when others soloed. Like Mahler, the angst level was high, yet he delivered just about every time. Nothing belittles his legacy – it only shows that superior skill is not required if artistry is big enough.
Miles is not the only case where the art genius beats the stiffness of lips and the speed of a few fingers. Ellington’s piano solos are series of three-finger chords that only a composer can love. Chet Baker couldn’t tell a chord from a Ford, much less read any kind of score. Louis Armstrong was a teddy bear of a singer but technically perfect? Not quite. Yet all are Hall of Famers.
Leni Riefenstahl debuted as an Alpine sex symbol of great beauty (above). She clawed her way up to become Nazi Germany’s most prominent film maker. Her immense talent, flawed, naive and self-serving as it was earned her the friendship of Hitler and a jail term by the Allies after the thousand years Reich vanished. Following that, she fled to Africa and became a distinguished documentary photographer of steppe tribes. In her seventies, she switched again and learnt to scuba dive. Her underwater photography ranks with the best. She was not a nice person but possessed an immense talent. She also was an artist never standing still until her death at 101.
Compare that to Rolling Stones still living off their 1960s tunes. Think of Mel Gibson playing the same role in every film. Many of us go through life never changing or even considering change. “She was a 3rd grade teacher all her life”. “They were married for seventy two years”. “He never wrote that novel”. “Her mother was a nurse so she followed the family tradition”. All of which may boil down to nice, comfortable lives. You will not find many true artists in these bourgeois neighborhoods.
Sanity – Way Overrated
Another school contains those with above average sanity challenges. Bud Powell was a brilliant pianist when his madness was somewhat controlled. The same goes for Glenn Gould of Bach fame. Van Gogh and the ear business come close. Robert Schumann was locked up in his mid forties and soon died. Charles Mingus was not mad to my knowledge but had a temper issue that resulted in smashed bases and screams at audiences. Keith Jarrett also has an audience problem. Do not sneeze in the presence of the master.
Charlie Parker left recordings amply proving that having your brains on fire does your artistry no good. So did Billie Holiday, Zoot Sims and Lester Young. Ben Webster went nowhere without his pocket flask. No one can fault the brilliance of these cats. No one can deny the artistic disasters all produced at many a time. You won’t find technical perfection here.
There is the phenomenon of Outside Artists, a phrase coined in the nineteen twenties discussing (academically) the art of the insane or severely disadvantaged artists mostly residing in asylums. At the time, there wasn’t much of a splash. But the last ten or twenty years awoke the World of Art to yet another way to make money, especially since by now the Outsiders were often dead with little need for royalties or income. Today, museums and galleries from Tokyo to Toronto feature the original Oursiders as well as an inflow of others. I have covered the artistry of these Outsiders several times in these essays.
We have the complete artistry and skill of Mozart, the fatal emotions of Mahler, the imperfect genius of Miles Davis and scores of others – sane, angry or not. Put it the other way. Mozart wasted his genius faster than his money could fly. Mahler does sometimes in fact sound like roaming, self pitying cows. Miles Davis was one of the great but blowing his horn was not flawless. But artistry and adversity are not the only ways to create music.
Practice makes Good
Wynton Marsalis is at the other end of the spectrum. He is the current self declared high priest not only of jazz but music in general. His brilliant technique flashes everything a trumpet can do in polite company. Cool, urban, the Obama of Jazz, his repertoire stretches from (the) baroque to big bands with lots of lecturing.
My problem is that his work leaves me out in the cold. No engagement – it’s like looking at the blueprint rather then the basilica. Of course, his nine Grammy’s and a Pulitzer (all earned, not nominated) probably indicates I’m the one with a problem. Little do I care. Miles Davis matches the nine Grammy’s. He even has a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star. So there.
Marsalis is not the only technical supremist. Yo-yo Ma punches his way through reinventing Bach to fiddling along in the Appalachians, South American Tango bars, Silk Roads, Tibetan monasteries, Brazilian beaches or Japanese gardens, sometimes on the same day without losing his stride as he jets from Vienna to Vermont. Technical brilliance and an odd need to explore what perhaps doesn’t need exploring, but who can argue with fifteen (15) Grammy’s, a carbon fiber cello and first class upgrades for life on every airline currently in the air?
On the piano, technicians such as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and John Lewis battle it out against the belly laughs of Fats Waller, the gyrates by Ray Charles and the off the beat beats from Errol Garner in Concert by the Sea. Errol was about as technically challenged as Chet Baker. The only good sheet is a dead sheet, they said. No Academies needed. Juilliard, go home.
Artistic Black holes
The Grammy’s is possibly the most boring TV show ever invented, surpassing the Oscars, CSPAN, Traffic cameras and Community TV. Endless hours are spent on Best Polkas, Best Studio Lavatories and the Most Recent Tattoo Screamer. Imported celebrities snort and snore while practicing looking alert while asleep. Grammy’s, needless to say, are a lousy way to understand artistic accomplishment.
Several modern day performers mentioned here have in the order of ten awards each. Others do not for undisclosed reasons. Ellington has eleven; Oscar Peterson seven and Ella Fitzgerald received thirteen. Kenny G trails with only one with Louis Armstrong at a miserable single one for Hello, Dolly. John Coltrane also missed the trane with only one. Errol Garner lost out completely. U2’s twenty-two is the best score, Michael Jackson got thirteen and Tony Bennett fourteen.
Another measure: Record sales shows who got rich and prove bad music can sell very well. The toppers are the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. None of the Ms are best sellers. Kenny G ranks around 120 together with high octaners such as Hibari Misora of Japan and Luis Miguel of Mexico. The opera crooner Luciano Pavarotti ended up in the mid-seventies, close to Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. O Soli Mio doesn’t stand a chance to White Christmas by Bing Crosby.
Categorizations such as the Grammy’s, Emmy’s and Tony’s never were intended to provide artistic judgments. They are more like voting for “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best Dog Catcher in Town”. That does not tell us which success story or dog catcher will make the most significant contributions to mankind. Snooze with the Grammy’s if you like. Grammy’s might claim to know who is the best Tango Flutist in Western Argentina. They will not tell you whether such a flutist possesses any artistic talents whatsoever.
Let’s turn to the fakes, jokes, pests and bores mercilessly ambushing us in the largest abundance bad money can buy. This illustrious gang comes at us blaring from our TV sets, out of the supermarket and elevator PA systems, in Town Hall meetings, party alliances and church action groups. They are plastered on bill boards and buses. They predict the weather, read the news, write to the editor (or rather blog writers), investigate community antiwar groups, combat abortion clinics or practice white, black or Compassionate Conservative power. Many like to prohibit art, burn books while others promote sending artist commies to the nearest reeducation camp for a little tough love. And God help the Jaywalkers and those spitting on the sidewalk.
The Jokes and the Losers
Sadly, we suffer the charlatans or, as I’ll call them, the jokes. Capable of some obscure publicity trick, they hail utterly forgettable causes. A few examples – Ann Coulter in the world of fascism, George Bush in the nonexistent world of compassionate conservatism (as practiced in Guantánamo??), Jerry Springer in “entertainment”, Geraldo Rivera as the brave war correspondent. In music, you have Britney Spears, Kenny G, various Jacksons and Mantovani. “Men in lace panties and the women who loves them”, to quote Geraldo.
Billions are untouched by Mozart, Mapplethorpe, Miró, Mailer or Mahler, correctly caring not at all that these five survive the cruelty of time. Surviving is not enough. Hitler will be remembered. Our memories are infested with Charles Manson with his crazed troops, Reverend Jones of Jonestown serving up Kool-Aid or Reverend Koresh in Waco playing with matches, Teddy the Unabomber giggling in his windowless shack, peace in our time by Chamberlain on the eve of the WW II 73 million dead, Tricky Dick Nixon chatting with Checkers by the fire, neither being crooks, where’s the meat by Mondale (who?), the spelling of Dan Quayle, the grammar of Dubya, the line in the sand and no new taxes according to his Dad while Bill Clinton never had sex (define sex).
Twelve Tone Music seems like a loser as are the USSR sculptures of worker heroes. Cubism doesn’t have much of a future – been there, done that. It’s hard to believe Pierre Boulez’ bird songs will be in much demand a hundred years out. Art Nouveau is hardly Noveau any more. Fauvism no longer resembles Wild Beasts. What about the minimalistic school? Is it minimalistic in terms of art or just far too tiny to care for? Smooth jazz, snooze jazz. Is rap crap? New Age is more Truly Boring Age. The Road Less Traveled might be just that. Prozac for the devoted fans. All two of them.
Most of us are more concerned with the famous of today. There is no real way of predicting who will be remembered in 2108 but here are some wild guesses. Will anyone remember Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton, Norah Jones, Jay Leno, Harry Truman, Burt Bacharach, Mel Gibson, Ralph Nader, James Inhofe or the Princess of Wales? I surely don’t know but certainly have an opinion which says none of the above. On the other hand, Michael Jackson likely will have his picture in a few medical journals as will Cher and Joan Rivers. Muhammad Ali will be there but not Kobe Bryant. Pele will kick around but David Beckham will not.
The Artistics of Artistic Artists
An artist is a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination, a character who creates or builds the new, who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value. And so on. Others say an artist is skilled at some activity, who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry. According to sources in Kansas City, a practicing fine artist may not necessarily be a resident of the Kansas City metro area.
Leo Tolstoy defined an artist as someone with communication skills allowing the audience to be “infected” with the artist’s point of view. I suppose that means most self help gurus, TV evangelists and politicians must be artists rather than mere con artists.
In most of history, an artist was viewed as a craftsman. That is certainly true of, say, Haydn who lived at the mercy of various aristocrats. Bach served the mighty church as an organist during most of his career. His 200 cantatas played to the glory of the masters. At the time, his Goldberg variations, Brandenburg concertos and other secular works were mostly ignored. His contemporaries found him a tolerable organist, not a composer.
Mozart, at his arrival at the Salzburg court, found he ranked between the valets and the cooks. By then he had about 35 symphonies and a dozen operas to his name, together with a resume covering many European Courts. Emperor Joseph II uttered his classic put down, ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart’ following the premiere of the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
More recently, the Soviet Union practiced a policy of art being a political tool to con the masses into higher production of tractors, vodka and tanks. Artists were servants of the proletariat (aka the Politburo), expected to follow detailed guidelines. This practice lasted till the fall of the Soviet some seventeen years ago. Lately in the symbol of freedom, Rudolph W. Giuliani made an ill-fated attempt to reinvent censorship. Joe McCarthy favored going after artists in general and those associated with Hollywood in particular. Republican congressmen would like to disband public radio and TV together with the National Endowment for the Arts in favor of drilling holes in the Arctic.
Art survives. Artists never die. Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev both kept a degree of artistic integrity in spite of Stalin’s ever-present threat of having both join the millions of others executed. The Soviets are not alone. Turkey, for instance, is not far behind: “Individuals are being harassed and threatened with imprisonment simply for speaking or writing about aspects of Turkish history or culture that do not conform to an imposed nationalist ideal”, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty itself is under constant criticism from Russia, China, Vietnam, Congo, Israel, the United States and other nondemocratic governments.
Art objects, of course, are easily destroyed. In WW II, the Allies pulverized the Italy Monte Cassino Monastery which dated back to te year 529. Today the Monastery is rebuilt. Militarily, the strike was a disaster. The destroyed buildings provided the Germans with plenty of new defense positions.
The historic center of the German city of Dresden, filled with art treasures and historic buildings was completely wiped out by the British Air Force in 1945. This was only a few weeks before the end of the war. The raid was plain revenge without any military benefit whatsoever: the Dresden military targets were not hit at all. Much of the Dresden centre is rebuilt to the historical standard, except the Russian occupiers bulldozed into oblivion the wreckage of treasures such as the Gothic Sophienkirche, the Alberttheater and the Wackerbarth-Palais.
Art gets stolen, in particular paintings. This rather limits its access to mankind in general and its rightful owners in particular. The Nazis with Goering in the lead stole the art of the occupied territories on a massive scale. Approximately 20% of Western art disappeared into Nazi hideouts. Some 100,000 items remain unaccounted. The value may approach billions of dollies. The hunt is still on.
Historically, music and literature were harder to steal. Today, that is no longer true. Computers in everyone’s hands and the Internet makes theft not only possible through copyright infringement, but also so easy few bother to consider the impact. Copyright owners all over the world struggle with this and so far it is mostly a losing battle. How can you prosecute millions of kids?
Bach and Haydn are remembered today. Their masters are long forgotten. Yet these masters, depots, Fuhrers and kings of this and dukes of that may have made the rest of us an unintended favor of immense value.
Art does not just come from individual creativity. It’s often dependent of and based on controversy such as war, terror and the many 9/11s of history. One of Picasso’s most famous works is based on the Nazi bombing of a Spanish town. Robert Capa’s pictures of D-Day slaughter and Jewish artists producing masterpieces in Hitler’s concentration camps also make the point.
Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony dedicated to the millions who died from hunger and cold as Nazi troupes watched. Shostakovich wrote most the symphony on location as Leningrad died around him. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books about the Gulags are based on personal experience. In 1945, he upset Stain so that, under Soviet Criminal Article 58, he spent the next 11 years in various camps and exiles. Here, in his own words:
- I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the “charge”, there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case. These, however, were not sufficient for a “prosecution”, and in July 1945 I was “sentenced” in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was considered a mild sentence).
- I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such “SPECIAL PRISONS” (The First Circle).
- In 1950 I was sent to the newly established “Special Camps” which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundry man. There I contracted a tumor which was operated on, but the condition was not cured (its character was not established until later on).
- One month after I had served the full term of my eight-year sentence, there came, without any new judgment and even without a “resolution from the OSO”, an administrative decision to the effect that I was not to be released but EXILED FOR LIFE to Kok-Terek (southern Kazakhstan). This measure was not directed specially against me, but was a very usual procedure at that time. I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5th, when Stalin’s death was made public,
- I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956. Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death. I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumor. However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured (The Cancer Ward, Right Hand).
- During all the years of exile, I taught mathematics and physics in a primary school and during my hard and lonely existence I wrote prose in secret (in the camp I could only write down poetry from memory). I managed, however, to keep what I had written, and to take it with me to the European part of the country, where, in the same way, I continued, as far as the outer world was concerned, to occupy myself with teaching and, in secret, to devote myself to writing, at first in the Vladimir district (Matryona’s Farm) and afterwards in Ryazan.
Through his punishment, he kept writing, hiding the notebooks, defending it with all his cunning, seeking publication. The Soviets kept suppressing him but eventually, all of Solzhenitsyn’s work is published, first in the West, later in the Russia that replaced the USSR. At this time, his old adversaries are dead,
Art also survives through cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, madness, wrecks and early death. Scott Lafaro, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Christian, Eric Dolphy are some examples of early death and lasting art in the small world of jazz.
In the world of classical music, Mozart died at the age of 35, Robert Schumann at 46, Kurt Weill at 50. But in general classical music is a safer environment than that of jazz and rock. Few classical composers spend their time in obscure clubs in strange little towns with a wheezy old bus running through the night to the next gig and another grease pot burger. Classical soloists are sometimes treated as royalty – rock punks and jazz cats are not.
Goliath versus David. Hillary versus Obama. Marsalis and Miles. Yo-Yo Ma versus Jacqueline du Pré. Oscar Peterson versus Bill Evans. Kenny G versus John Coltrane. Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. Anita Baker against Billie Holiday. Diane Krall compared to Shirley Horn. Britain versus Thirteen Colonies. Jedi Knights versus Hobbits. Kojak versus Philip Marlowe. Miami Vice versus Sam Spade. Ronald McDonald battling The Colonel battling homemade porridge. Technicians versus Artists.
The Lure of the Technicians
A technician is someone who might service your car. They fix machinery and appliances. There are chief, expert, assistant and bad technicians. Some deal with maintenance, testing, forensic, x-ray, optical, nuclear, food, brakes, shark, toe nail, nose, lice, cat and dog matters. They make the World tolerable. They are licensed, bonded, illegal or shy, loaded or pretty much like all the rest of us. Some say a technician is generally someone active in a technological field (Gee!).
Few descriptions of today’s technicians mention art although historically, artists were viewed as technicians or craftsmen. Society today is complex indeed, requiring an army of experts to run it. The true technicians are very visible. We need the doctors, plumbers, mobile phone gurus, Redmond enablers (“Your potential. Our passion” which currently translates to xBoxes) and hairdressers. Torturers, lawyers, snipers, SWAT teams and concentration camp guards are desperately needed.
Way back, people just hunted down some animal for dinner so they could return to painting pictures of the same animals on their cave walls. Few technicians were needed. Fire and the concepts of shelter were already in place. What else could anyone possibly need? How about a little art to liven things up? At the time, stealing art was not a big issue. Time changed. War was invented. Money came along. Al Gore came up with the Internet. Art became steal able.
Few laws prevent changing original art to whatever the nimble technician desires. Famous people find themselves starring in sex videos. Fake Hillary videos have her say the most astonishing things. Fox Network changes those graphics ever so slightly and yet another liberal commie walks the plank.
US Senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe doesn’t need computers, skills or technical fakers to make up his own fake reality, a talent shared with George W. Bush, Michael Jackson, OJ, Saddam Hussein, Kim il-Jong and Anderson Cooper. Global Warming deniers ignore science. Creationists ignore their own bodies. Spiderman reinvented human flight. King Kong went from chauvinism to sensitivity in just an hour or two.
The Joy of Technology
Today we have entertainment technicians manning the porn stages and sport technicians dunking basketballs at an unbelievable price tag each time. Other technicians fiddle with mp3s, MIDIs, Photoshop, YouTube and online sharing of art. Ansel Adams images now exist in thousands of versions, cropped here and adjusted there. Mona Lisa might bear the sneering face of Dick Cheney. That Glenn Miller tune may be all coming out of some computer. For a while, a decent printer and basic computer allowed you to print your own money. Today’s PDAs can design your very own nuclear bomb if you’re technically inclined.
Industrial CAD and robots can easily reproduce Aztec temples, Chinese walls, Zeppelins, Pharos tombs, the Hiroshima bomb and the Model T automobile. Add a bit of cheap video and Battleship Potemkin becomes a Ben Affleck flick. We already have fake Gettysburg battles, fake moon landings and man made UFOs, interactive alien invasions and fantasy versions of killing thy neighbor, spouse or pet alligator. Or yourself. We now enjoy video games about video games. Inventors experiment with whole body rubber devices that can simulate remote Internet sex at the annoyance of many a motel owner and to the joy of divorce lawyers.
What I Think
Artists are the ones who touch me emotionally. They make me see, learn and experience more than is obvious. Technicians may make me a bit envious but they leave me cold. No Marsalis solo will engage me as those of Miles Davis do. Yet Marsalis beats Miles technically every time. I don’t care.
Not that emotions are the only ingredients in Art. Dazzling highs, darkest lows, wild exaggerations, cold blooded cynicism, racism, chauvinism, greed, betrayal, you name it – all parts of the deal.
I was about fourteen when I first heard Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the Abschied movement on the radio. Many years later I still remember that evening and how music was never again the same. I discovered that emotions drives artistic experience. And few can play on emotions like Gustav Mahler could. Couple that with Thomas Mann’s books from the same time and you have a world class melodrama on your hands, easily beating the suffering of Hollywood any day.
Another memory from the same time finds me home from school sick in bed. Based on my pains, I managed to blackmail my father into believing an album by a mysterious Charlie Parker might cure me. I became the naive recipient of my first Parker experience. I hated the bloody thing. The sound was terrible. Every track seemed like weirdness galore. The harmonies could raise your hair in panic. It was one of those radio recordings with Parker, Davis, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell. There was weird stuff like Round Midnight and Ornithology. Considering myself as a fellow alto player, I kept at it though. Suddenly it dawned on me. The hump disappeared. The anarchy of bebop and modern music suddenly became part of me. The emotional discovery happened and nothing was ever the same.
In the early 1970s I experienced a concert by Jacqueline du Pré, a cellist and a remarkable story. As with Mahler, some saw her as emotionally over the top. Perhaps she was. She also at the time suffered from MS that would kill her some 15 years alter. Her illness brought a brilliant career to an end by the mid seventies. On our trail of emotions, her most famous recording is that of Elgar’s Cello Concerto made with the London Symphony in 1965 when she was 20. Two years later she married Daniel Barenboim in a remarkable artistic partnership that was brought to a close far too prematurely.
Experiencing de Pre’s Elgar Cello Concerto is as much an emotional high as anything can be. It is the basis for her today being viewed as perhaps the greatest cellist ever. The technical skills and travels on the roads less traveled by Yo-Yo Ma will not approach the impact of that scratchy old de Pre recording.
There are, of course, other significant experiences. A first hearing of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat or the Rite of Spring ballet ranks high. Here is to prove others are gripped by emotions as well at the 1913 premiere of the Rite in Paris:
- “The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon’s opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order.”
- “Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.”) allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars. Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail, and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra.”
Cool huh? Moving along to other discoveries, eye openers, emotional highs and just great artistry, Coltrane’s Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, the Mingus Ah Um album, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie and I Say Farwell (he really did), Ellington in 1928-1931 and 1940, Kind of Blue by Miles (much as I hate to admit it given the gross commercialization of the album), the 1955 Clifford Brown and Max Roach album, Charlie Parker in 1947 and Sonny Rollins in The Bridge and Saxophone Colussus both rank high.
In the classical area, add in anything by Martha Argerich, Keith Jarrett and Villa-Lobos. Argerich, a publicity shy Argentinean who may or may not show up for concerts, consistently produces fabulous records. Her Prokifiev and Bartok Piano Concertos are very, very good. Keith Jarrett is many a thing. He is mostly a jazz pianist of real originality but also a truly great classical performer. His 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich are fabulous. He made a mark with his jazz solo recordings with hour-long free form improvisations that to me are a bit trying.
Hector Villa-Lobos, a Brazilian composer of the first half of the 1900s, is mostly associated with Bachianas Brasileiras, a takeoff on Bach that includes a train trip and other fun features such as scoring for no less than eight cellos and voice. He also composed a series of really great string quartets.
The artists, records and works above all are time tested, well known, critically acclaimed and safe bets. Some of them are a little less well known but the selection is by no means adventurous. It is unforgivable to pass over the equally talented artists as well as letting so many jokes off the hook. On the practical level, there are thousands upon thousands terrific artists out there – I manage an artist database that in a very short time passed 100,000 records. Unfortunately, not all can be covered in a blog like this.
Leo Tolstoy said in the 1897 book “What is Art”: “Art must create a specific emotional link between the artist and the audience. The link “infects” the viewer. Art embraces any human activity in which the artist transmits previously experienced feelings to the audience. Tolstoy offers an example of this: a boy that has experienced fear after an encounter with a wolf later relates that experience, infecting the hearers and compelling them to feel the same fear that he had experienced—that is a perfect example of a work of art.”
Tolstoy is mostly right except for claiming the audience must share the fear of the boy. The audience rightfully may react any way they wish, be it amusement, fear, pity or what have you. The aim is to get the reaction, not to dictate what reaction is allowed.
Artists quite often are victims both of their own devices (the madness of van Gogh, the starvation of Mozart, the addictions of Charlie Bird Parker) as well as the persecutions by the Goebbels, Stalins, Bushes and many a local chief. Technicians, in the narrow perspective of this essay, are not so often victims as they are victim makers. Yet Mozart, Haydn, Dostoevsky, ancient cave painters, da Vinci, Michelangelo are Hildegard von Bingen are even more present today than in their own days.
Art expands us. Art without a point is not art. The artist may strive for a specific point but the interpretation is really in the minds of the audience, not the artist. Experiencing art is an individual undertaking where the next guy may see things very differently. That is how it works or as it should work. Art is the most democratic of all ideas surrounding us.
Mozart taught me about joy, Mahler pointed at death and thus life. Davis proved sketches are more powerful than billboards. John Coltrane built the grandest of architectural music monuments. Tomas Mann showed me what despair really is while Dostoevsky made me understand suffering. Ellington is all about color and light. Bird rose into the skies with a path towards new horizons. Beethoven was made of courage, anger, heroism and superiority. Leni Riefenstahl proved Art can be immoral while Jacqueline du Pré showed it is immortal. Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn made me see how suppression and prosecution can not beat down Art. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chet Baker and Errol Garner relied not on technical wizardry but on a gigantic inner artistic spirit.
That’s how it is, how it should be and how it will be. Lucky us.
Thank you all and happy listening!
May 8, 2008
Probably most of you wonder “What on Earth is Earthrace”, a more fundamental question than the “Where” question. Yet another quite relevant question is what on Earth does something like Earthrace have to do with a blog devoted to lofty stuff like art, photography, ethics and political ramblings? After all, Art has a time horizon of thousands of years. Ansel Adams will live forever. Earthrace will not. So why bother?
All of which are very good questions. Not only that but what does Earthrace have to do with the by now oh-so-boring subject of Global Warming, the total madness of the America’s Cup and, as if that isn’t enough, the farcical battle of Oklahoma City versus Seattle in the quest for the Seattle Supersonics – currently close to the title of the Worst Team in the NBA? The team is the worst in the 40 years of its Seattle franchise.
What’s the common factor? Wait and thou shall see. First, what is the Earthrace fuss is all about? Earthrace is a New Zealand powerboat that is currently under way to set a World Record circumnavigating Earth in less than about 75 days. The boat will do this on a Zero Carbon Print using biodiesel – similar to the vegetable oil you buy in supermarkets – and purchased Carbon Credits. Thus it tied itself to Global Warming and various Environmental Issues.
Where on Earth is Earthrace?
By the time you read this, no doubt the mystery causing the question above is resolved. But as of this moment, the onboard GPS system places Earthrace at a position just north of Puerto Rice. The GPS position claims the boat went the wrong direction for the past 24 hours in open Caribbean waters at a speed of some 15 knots. Not only that, but the actual position did not changed during that time. That, of course, makes no sense.
Clearly, some unplanned event is underway, be it the transponder washing overboard, the boat’s infamous head blowing up, Caribbean pirates boarding the vessel or the crew agreeing to start new lives in Haiti. Perhaps the Bermuda Triangle or Roswell UFO’s are involved.
At the moment of writing these lines, there is no official or inside reaction to this mystery. Earthrace is silent, news is silent and even Clinton or Osama have nothing to say on the subject, being unduly preoccupied with “pivotal” primaries in North Carolina and Indiana.
Maybe they simply ran out of cooking oil, aka biodiesel. The regular oil price is now well over $120 per barrel, so Earthrace’s point is really important. As you see the oil price pass $150 on its way to $200 and beyond with a $10 gas price, you’ll be painfully aware why that is so.
Biodiesel – Smells Better Than Your Mercedes
Even George Bush seems to know about biodiesel. As always, his point of view differs from that of every one else. He thinks it will save us from being fried by hot air which may be slightly plausible. Then he translates that into a need to redirect precious American Greenbacks from Muslim Terrorist States such as Norway and Russia to Deserving Republican Christian Farmers in Minnesota. Lastly, he opinionates that this brave initiative absolves the US guilt as the baddest Global Warmer on earth. That’s where he really goes over the edge.
Others, such as economists, point out that biodiesel will more likely fry our wallets for no better reason than making those few (Republican) farmers stinking rich. Environmentalist claim that making a few select farmers rich is rarely good for the environment – look at the sugar industry in Florida filling the Everglades with fertilizer runoff, killing most life. Not only that, but the farmers won’t get rich from their own efforts but from public subsidies courtesy of Dubya – that is, you and me pay to get more expensive gas. Lucky us. Of course, George W. finds this all hilarious.
Lastly, agricultural gurus mention that switching food farm land to gas land might starve us (or more accurately, starve Africans, Indians and the Chinese), while others remain fried by Global Warming or choked by bad air. Simultaneously, all kinds of species go extinct due to, among other things, the runoffs of biodiesel related pollution into rain puddles, streams, lakes, your tap water and oceans. Starvation or your health won’t benefit. The nasty effects of continuing to cut down the Amazon and Indonesian forests in order to feed your Hummer and air conditioner remain.
Do you really want to pay for this biodiesel thing? Controversial, nasty, silly, even stupid? Wait a minute – before answering, before rejecting – ask yourself – Do I Have a Better Idea? Well, some of us might have better ideas but none of those are without some controversy. There are no simple Cinderella answers to the issues of Global Warming, the Environment, World Energy, World Starvation, your Hummer, your personal Airline Miles and undisputable right to a chilled environment.
The issues are not answered by the Forest Gump attitudes of George Bush, Tree Huggers, ExxonMobil, Global Warming Skeptics, World Bank Reactionaries, Whale Lovers, Florida Sugar Farmers, Stern Reports, Huge Computer Simulations, the Number of Hurricanes This Season or the Depth of Snow on My Driveway Yesterday, Democrat Senate Hearings about going-nowhere questions, Al Gore, EPA revolts against the White House, WTO Haters, the Supreme Court, Kyoto Protocols or CRT’s.
Around the Globe They Go
Consider the kerosene bluish exhaust clouding the sky when thousands of well chilled Climate Scientists fly to Important UN IPCC conferences, working groups, technical presentations, dinner tables, resorts and safaris in business oriented locations such as :
- Nairobi, Paris, Kyoto, Bangkok, Bruxelles, Geneva, Helsinki, Lubeck, Budapest, Manila, Washington DC, La Reunion, Rio de Janeiro, Cairns, Addis Ababa, Sao Paulo, Oviedo, Lima, Beijing, Laxenburg, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Montreal, Churchchrist, Sydney, Merida, Cape Town, Port Louis, Bergen, Paris, Exeter, Saint Agustine, Doha, New Delhi, undisclosed locations in Colorado and the Netherlands, Victoria, Valencia, Amsterdam, Colombo, Maynooth, Tokyo, Tucson, Honolulu, Seville, Potsdam, Nadi (Fiji), Trieste, Boulder, Vienna, Marrakesh, Bali, New York City, Bonn, Davos, Oslo, Johannesburg, Wembley, Shanghai and Accra. Excuse me if I missed a few spots.
That’s not to imply biodiesel is the only Important Issue pondered by the Scientists and Politicians of the UN and the IPCC as they suffer from jet lag and loss of sleep in Fiji. Far from it. But the travel of these guys on their undisclosed quest costs literally billions of bucks, not to mention generates untold tons of CO2. Has it reduced Global Warming, saved the Environment or resolved Global Hunger? Did they reduce the anguish of Intuits, polar bears, Antarctic krill, Swedish lemmels or Peruvian skiers? Of course not. The Arctic heat wave, the thawing of Siberian tundra and the vanishing of Alpine glaciers is accelerating, not abiding. Bush remains stoically unengaged and sees no need for action.
here is Earthrace
Nor is biodiesel the only issue facing the Earthrace people. The Earthracers are quick to point out they do not promote biodiesel but simply aim at informing the World about alternative fuels. Fair enough but probably not quite the way their sponsors see it. All in all, it is a better idea to run this diesel guzzling race horse on biodiesel than on ordinary oil if indeed it is necessary to do so in the first place. But the circumnavigators have other crucial issues to consider.
For instance, lately they’ve had a fatal breakdown of the onboard Head (aka toilet), gushes of biodiesel showering them and the autopilot giving out while trade winds mysteriously changed direction 180 degrees, much to the crew’s discomfort. In earlier adventures, the Head gave out (again), food went missing, the Salvadorian Navy shot at them, Guatemalan courts and navies detained them (rightfully), EC Customs and Indian Harbor Masters blackmailed them, propellers went mushy, biodiesel disappeared, shafts behaved like spaghetti, bearings burnt, parts ended up wherever Earthrace was not, 1,065 horsepower engines jumped off their foundations, the hull eventually broke up while waves continuously knocked the crew silly.
Such trials notwithstanding, the Earthracers managed to touch on quite a bit of geography in their quest. Here is a list of past and future ports of Promotion, not counting the 12 ports of refuel for the Around the Worlds Record Attempt:
- Auckland, Tairua, Whitianga, Tauranga, Paihia, Opua, Keri Keri, Whangarei, Whangaroa, Whitianga, Whangamata, Napier, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin, Half Moon Bay, Bluff and Raglan, Maui, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Morro Bay, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Newport, San Diego, Oceanside, Redondo, Long Beach, Marina Del Ray, Fort Lauderdale, Wilmington, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Indian River Marina, Baltimore, Hilton Head, Key West, Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, Miami Boat Show, St Petersburg, Tampa, Houston, New Orleans, Mobil, Pensicola, Destin, Cork, Halmstad, Gothenburg, Oslo, Karlskrona, Bornholm, Rostock, Copenhagen, Helsingor, Kiel, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dublin, Waterford, Cardiff, Bristol, Fowey, Jersey,Rouen, Paris, I’lle de Re, Porto, Lisbon, Vilamoura (Algarve), Benalmadena, Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Barcelona, London, England, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Bundaberg, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Coffs harbour,
Newcastle, Gosford, Sydney, Woolongong, Melbourne, Launceston, Hobart, Opua, Whangaroa, Russel, Paihia, Kerikeri, Whangarei, Gulf Harbour, Milford, Auckland, Whitianga, Tairua, Whangamata, Tauranga, Mount Maunganui, Whakatane, Opotiki, Tolaga Bay, Gisborne, Napier, Picton, Nelson, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Oamaru, Timaru, Dunedin, Bluff, Milford, Westport, Greymouth, Kapati Coast, Wanganui, Kawhia, Raglan, Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, Cornwallis, Hokianga.
Oh, That Earthrace Vortex
Here is the clincher. The IPCC people spend billions of your and my money to pursue an unattainable goal of curing the ills of the World. The Earthrace people spend practically nothing – or, correctly, they do not spend your dollars, crowns, pesetas, yen or even Euros. There are some sponsors but that does not include George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Gates or Bono. More likely the sponsors include small manufacturers of bio friendly, slippery boat bottom paint or mysterious equipment such as carbon fiber steering wheels.
The big spender is the soul behind Earthrace – a New Zealander named Pete Bethune. He mortgaged his home, friends, relatives and no doubt every cat, cow and banker in New Zealand to build a 78 foot power boat with which he intends to set a record almost no one has ever heard about. While supported by a tiny but enthusiastic army of unpaid volunteers, Pete IS Earthrace. Not only that, he is still married to the same wife he was when this all started. My own exes took off on far smaller issues.
The tiny armies of supporters include the Boat Crew to drive the boat around the Globe in less than 75 days, a Ground Crew to stay a bit ahead of the boat to ensure the Head will work, biodiesel gets loaded, harbor masters bribed and food is both purchased and actually loaded on the boat. They will straighten bent shafts, replace bearings, patch holes in the hulls and perhaps arrange for showers for a rather smelly boat crew.
All the Comforts of Home, They Said
Earthrace does not have a shower. Nor is there air conditioning or even normal ventilation due to weight restrictions. The rebellious ($10,000) head is a somewhat controversial afterthought only recently equipped with a door. There is no kitchen (known as galley) or gourmet cooking. The venture’s operating standard says that one pound of soap, Foie gras or spare socks means one less pound of biodiesel which does not compute in the minds of record setters.
Broken ribs, bruises and other injuries are not uncommon. Sleep time consists of being tossed around on and sometimes off a tiny berth. The panorama windows are all of a few inches high, perhaps reminding you of the Maginot Line Bunkers of the 1930s. The Promenade Deck is several feet long but usually indoors as the boat actually travels underwater part of the time. Wearing hearing protection is highly recommended during passage as the noise level is a steady 85 dB, which is loud indeed – similar to a lawnmower or heavy truck next to your pillow. The Doctor is not in, nor is the cruise director, cabin steward, bingo caller or chef.
Incidentally, you can enjoy this luxury by purchasing a berth as a guest of the crew. You’ll dine with the Captain, do the dishes and pay around ten times the price of that boring cruise on Queen Elizabeth II. You will get a copy of Pete’s book to make you remember this splendid occasion and the bragging rights of a life time. Perhaps they’ll throw in a t-shirt as well.
There are 12 refuel/repair stops as the team roars around the world. The goal is to get the boat underway in less than 4 hours at each stop. That means the Earthrace Boat Crew will have a total port time of 48 hours during their 70-75 day trip. Not even WWII uboaters or Vikings had to put up with such nonsense.
The Ground Crew relies on miracles rather than ordinary money to fly or swim themselves and a few tons of spares to the next port of refueling and repairs. When they by chance get to that port of call, they rarely have food and beds waiting for them or paid for. They rely on a secondary army of local volunteers and school kids to make just about everything work. There is a small London based crew to handle the big task of contributions and public relations on, perhaps, the standard Earthrace employment contract of eternal glory but no pay, aka known as the Earthrace VORTEX.
The Low Point
The number of times these guys have been out of money would boggle the mind of even my banker. Somehow they manage and the saga goes on. You see, this is the second attempt to win that record. The first one ended in June of last year after “almost” getting there bar a suicidal gash in the hull and a great many other misfortunes. Perhaps they suffered a bit from mismanagement, inexperience and plain bad luck. Either way, the boat ended up in Valencia, Spain which is far away from New Zealand indeed.
They did, however, bag the speed record passing through the Suez Canal to the joy of both the Suez people and the crew.
By coincident, Valencia hosted the America’s Cup at the time, a subject we’ll spend some upcoming time on. Earthrace tried to vitalize their dwindling fortunes by hiring out as a spectator boat for the races; quite a change from their own World Record Race pursuits. Seemingly, that venture did not add much to the coffers and largely the World gave them up for dead. Pete Bethune headed for the airport and was unheard of for the next six months. As it turned out he wrote a book about the misfortunes which is selling quite well in New Zealand. It is not currently available on Amazon but I hope it will be.
Somehow the venture revitalized itself. Early this year, Pete was back in full racing gear with an almost completely new cast of characters around him. On April 27, Earthrace crossed the Spanish starting line for its second record attempt.
Is there a point?
When it is all over and finished with, pivotal people get associated with specifics. Ralph Nader is the miser complaining about just about everything. Michael Jackson is the front guy for plastic nose jobs. Britney Spears is the juxtaposition of parenthood (shared with the good Michael). Sylvester Stallone is Rambo.
Dick Cheney will be remembered for undisclosed locations and loyalties to strange and mysterious friends and pals. James Bond is forever married to shaken, not stirred martinis. Hugh Hefner cornered the market for circular beds. Martha Steward is the Queen of Who-Knows-What. Bill Clinton is the Monica Guy, Hillary, as we are all aware, is not some little woman, standing by her man, like Tammy Wynette.
On the balance, George Bush will be the Top Gun on the issues of Global Warming, Energy and the Environment. The judgment will be a harsh one unless somehow the twisted, ignorant, uninformed, naive, plain wrong, lethargic, uninterested views of this midget turns out to be true, chance of which is similar to hell freezing over.
Of course, Georgie will be remembered for other items too. He blew a couple of Wars, committed all kinds of War Crimes. Violated Civil Rights, ignored the Supreme Court, did a heck of a job with Katrina, while missing out on Fairness, Compassion, Decency, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Israel-Palestine, Budget Deficits and English Grammar. He even miraculous missed out personally on the Vietnam War.
On the other hand we have Pete Bethune, the guy that put just about everything he owned or could lay his hands on for a personal dream and then pursued it to the very limits of what he calls Kiwi grit. He has spent some four years (or more) with little reward from the rest of the World except for a handful of dreamers drawn into the Earthrace “Vortex”. Or perhaps it is simply the adventure of circling this globe doing cool stuff.
It is of course folly to compare George Bush and Pete Bethune. They have nothing in common except occasional strange grammar. But let’s go on to some other interesting people. Let’s tackle the America’s Cup in all its not so spotless fortunes by all its not so snow white contending millionaires and – these days – billionaires. Ladies and gentlemen – scandals, backstabbing and intrigues galore to make a mark on the ugliest trophy in history using multi million dollar boats with a zero lasting value.
The Most Expensive Demolition Derby in History
Don’t get me wrong. I love the America’s Cup. I think the races are truly thrilling. I gloat over the ruthlessness of the “competition”. The personalities often are as absurdly self centered eccentrics as any James Bond villain. Remember Goldfinger going after Fort Knox? Or the treacherous Dr No? How about Blofield or the evil SMERSH or SPECTRE?
In America’s Cup we have a bunch of people whomay not quite be out to destroy the World but rather to demolish whatever competition there is. Nathanael Herreshoff (Naval Architect of the Fabulous Herreshoff Period 1893-1920), Harold Vanderbilt (Railroad fortunes, a viscous bridge player), Ted Turner (Ex of Jane Fonda and CNN), Sir Thomas Lipton (Yep, the Tea Guy), Charles E. Nicholson (Secretary of The Navy and the Dean of American Helmsmen), Sir Peter Blake (Creating the Golden Era of the New Zealand Cup Races), Baron Marcel Bich (The Pen Guy from France), T.O.M Sopwith (Father of WWI Sopwith Camel Fighter), Bill Koch (Koch Industries), Thomas Egerton (2nd Earl of Wilton, who effectively created the Cup in 1851 and immediately lost it to America and various courts in New York), Alan Bond (Australian Riches to Rags Business man winning the Cup but ending up in jail) and finally Dennis,
Conner, a San Diego occasional business man, sailor and the man losing the Cup not only once but twice.
Here is the common factor of almost all of these Cup hopefuls. They are self made rags to riches industrialists with far too much money matched only by huge insecurities. The true blue bloods – the Kennedys, Rockefellers, Queens and Princes, Wallenbergs, Carnegies, Vanderbilts (with an exception) or Bernadottes wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as the vulgar upstart sharks.
More recently, the Main Honchos include Louis Vuttion of handbag fortunes with his own little Cup. Other fanatically rich competitors include Patrizio Bertelli of Prada fashion riches, John McCaw of Telecommunication billions and now two of the biggest, baddest egos of them all: Larry Ellison of Oracle and Ernesto Bertarelli of Swiss biotech money.
Apart from having billions of US dollars and Swiss francs, what about these guys? Both spent mega money to win a silver cup of questionable value. A main difference is that Larry won nothing in two challenges over close to 10 years of efforts while Ernie took the cup twice. Having won nothing on the water, Larry recently turned to the proven basic business tactic of suing Ernie. Larry’s fortunes soared – he won his cases in court and can now race the nasty Swiss in a private Cup event without having to lose to other challengers as has been his history so far. Larry’s most recent record is a 1-5 loss to the Italian Prada billionaire. The Italians then went on to a 0-5 record to the New Zealanders who, in turn lost 2-5 to the Swiss. In other words, the score is Larry 3, the Swiss 15.
Such a score did not sit too well with Larry who went on to shrewdly steal Ernie’s best sailors. In fact, Ernie himself had previously stolen the same guys away from the then winniest teams – New Zealand. By stealing the sailors, Ernie won the Cup but egos flared, the biggest New Zealander brain left Ernie and immediately joined Larry’s team. Things looked up for Larry. Not to be beaten that easily, Swiss Ernie forgot that he himself won the Cup by the same people stealing tactics. Using shady rules and a court of his own, Ernie introduced his own rule prohibiting Larry from actually use his expensive New Zealanders. Larry lost again and Ernie kept the Cup, which to this day remains in a Geneva vault.
As you might gather, there is little love between the New Zealanders and their former Swiss employer. Larry and Ernie complete the picture by mutually hating the other’s guts and acting accordingly. Meanwhile, lawyers congratulate themselves on new fortunes as do the New Zealanders. It’s nice to own something billionaires fight over.
Of course the all out war continues. Did any of you see the movie “The War of The Roses”. Danny deVito, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner stars in a perfect introduction to the spirit and tactics used in America’s Cup racing. Meanwhile, normal people looking at this mess see only two fools doing nothing but whining and wasting money that would keep an average town in food and shelter for scores of years.
You see, it takes around $100 million to raise a credible America’s Cup challenge and about the same to defend it. Apart from the costly people stealing and court battles, the money is spent on building racing machines of zero value outside the America’s Cup race courses. The total budget for a typical America’s Cup series easily runs into billions.
These overpriced, over designed and overfeed vessels are hardly able to get around a few miles of racing in one piece. The last New Zealander defense sailed the finals in a multi million dollar boat that continuously filled up with water due to a rather basic design problem (“keep the sides of the boat above water”). The crew bailed rather than raced around the course. After all, you have to stay afloat to win a race. Earlier, an Australian boat broke in two and sank in minutes. An unlucky crew member pumped the mast hydraulics a tad too much, folding the boat in half. No one was hurt; the Aussies coolly called for a second boat and went on from there. Grit in the face of foolishness.
They can sail in neither light air, nor in anything beyond moderate weather without sinking, losing masts, keels or $100,000 spinnakers. The sails are made from exotic stuff that tends to literally explode. The hulls have odd bulbs and hollows designed to fool the system and the competition. The keels are made of spent uranium but occasionally break off or down. The boat crews, wearing layers of white gooey to save themselves from skin cancer, have private chefs, personal trainers and munch potent energy bars.
The hosting cities spend billions on new marinas to accommodate Larry Ellison’s modest 452 foot “Rising Sun” yacht (82 cabins on 5 decks). The cities arrange opening galas, closing galas and intermediate galas. New, dedicated “America’s Cup villages” are subject to security worthy of JFK on a good day to protect against the Muslim suspects of Bush’s War on Terror, sometimes confused with the Italian team. Shoes are examined for explosives and care is taken to ensure the possibly radioactive keels do not fall in Iraqi or Iranian hands. Or the hands of Larry Ellison as it may be.
Some people claim America’s Cup is not only Big Business but Good Business. Who on Earth do they kid?
The Fundamental Rule of sports
Any sport is a curious mix of fan devotion, money, politics and immensely talented players and competitors. The players provide entertainment to a devoted and loyal audience, capitalizing on local and or national pride. Some are compensated for their efforts at a mind boggling rate. Still, Seattle people take immense pride in their Sonics, Storm, Sounders, Mariners, Seahawks and UW teams. So do the people of New Orleans, Los Angeles, Manchester, Turin, Barcelona and Nome, Alaska (“The Nome Nanook Basketball team”). In Europe and Latin America, pride may extend into violence, riots, hooliganism. In the US, the beer and hot dog industry as well as broadcasters, commentators and bookies benefit greatly.
But sports would not exist without the fans. Here is the curious thing. While Seattle, say, loves their Sonics, with few exceptions the Sonics organization has only a superficial connection with Seattle. Seattle is a place for the team to play “home” games, cultivate their fan base and show off a dance team while doing some of the practicing in a home facility. Sonics owners, players, coaches and other dignitaries have no links with Seattle. They may be from France, Croatia, Idaho, China, Nome, Alaska or Oklahoma City. Yet, somehow, they represent “Seattle”. Really?
As a matter of fact, it only takes only some hours to load up a few buses and hightail out of town as some Seattle fans will recall actually happened a few years ago. Links to the community? Loyalty? Nah.
Most professional sports work the same way. Canadian hockey clubs are made up by Swedes, Russians, Czechs and the occasional Finn. The picture is similar in European soccer or American baseball. The players are a worldwide commodity traded back and forth on the whims of rich owners. The fans that actually pay for the whole thing have no say whatsoever.
The picture is a bit different in major international sports, say the Olympics. Suddenly, nationalism becomes important. The international player commodities head home to compete for the national teams. English soccer stars return from Italy or Los Angeles to play for England, the Queen and Bangers. The American basketball team might include Shaquille O’Neal or Allen Iverson, but not Yao Ming, Vladimir Radmanovic, Steve Nash or Dikembe Mutombo.
America’s Cup is certainly an international event but does not build on the nationalism of the Olympics or World Cup soccer. Instead, there are some arcane and somewhat hilarious rules that the boat is built ground up nationally in all its exotic materials. Those materials, of course, are not national at all but worldwide commodities. High end sailing technology is not a national industry although America’s Cup claims it is. Yet the idea is that the boat is what counts, not the people sailing her.
The crew of an America’s Cup boat is a revolving door variation of the mix, buy and trade of Italian soccer clubs or the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Swiss team is headed by an Italian billionaire living in the French part of Switzerland. The “Swiss” sailing team of 2007 included New Zealander Brad Butterworth, German Jochen Shuemann and Peter Holmberg of the US Virgin Islands. Paul Cayard, another key Cup personality, skipper and helmsman competed for the United States, Italy, Spain, Sweden and no doubt others. Son, go where the money is.
Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team was headed by Chris Dickson who competed for New Zealand, Japan and Germany in previous events. The Oracle Team also included Bertrand Pace of France. Russel Coutts is the controversial and notorious America’s Cup Winning Machine from New Zealand. He logged Cup victories for the Kiwis, then gave the Cup to the Swiss and now is set to do the honors for Larry.
The short of it is that America’s Cup has little or no connection to the concept of fans or national pride. The Cup exists to satisfy Nouveau Riche owners using the ordinary production factors of money, sailors, designers and secrets traded back and forth. Much more fun than curing cancer. No means of possible success are ignored. Midnight dives to pry loose competitor’s hull and keel secrets, bribes, courtroom tactics… the list is long. Sportsmanship is not in fashion. Winning in money spent, the court room or on the water is all the same.
Imagine extending some of the America’s Cup ideas of sportsmanship, such as the Lakers suing because the Maverick’s scalp wax is clearly more slippery than rules allow or the Trailblazers hitting the Sun as O’Neal’s girth now seems clearly above 59 1/2 inches without O’Neal compensating by removing 2 1/4 inches from his height. Daily protest meeting would be needed to resolve issues such as whether or not Steve Nash illegally overtook Kobe Bryant on a starboard tack without securing a proper overlap while Bryant was steering a proper course. Or perhaps Kevin Garnett would show up in a skirt to hide from the opposing team his revolutionary new legs made from kevlar and plutonium? Fans would be thrilled.
A look at Earthrace reveals a parallel pattern. That effort is based out of New Zealand on mostly Kiwi money, as far as can be deducted. Yet the current crew includes only one person – Pete Bethune – of that country. The PR team is British. The Boat Crew is made up by Pete, a Swedish navigator and two Brits. The Ground Crew consists of an Irishman, a Hungarian and a Portuguese.
What is the Common Ground?
Biodiesel, whaling, ExxonMobil, Global Warming, Money, Intrigue, Egos, National Pride, Fans, Mix and Trade, Boating, Records…. Larry Ellison, Russel Coutts, Ernesto Bertarelli. George Bush and Al Gore. Shaquille O’Neal, David Beckham and Yao Ming. Various supporting casts; A few hundred major league sailors, maybe a thousand supreme basketball and soccer players. In the case of the politics of Global Warming and the Environment – again, perhaps a few thousand key politicians and scientists.
Cutting it even closer, big time politics such as war and peace, global warming and mankind survival is, will be and always was decided by just a few people, most with no qualifications to decide such matters. Hate it or not, George Bush’s absurd ideas may well determine life for generations to come. Out of the past, Adolf Hitler’s influence is still in plain view. So is that of Joseph Stalin. Harry Truman started the Cold War when he wiped out two Japanese cities. Mankind will forever suffer the consequences.
America’s Cup directly involves thousands of participants and, they claim, billions of spectators. Yet only two people actually count. Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli call the shots to their mutual and exclusive joy, mistrust, hate and anguish, if any. On a more local level, the fate of the Seattle Supersonics rests with an Oklahoma guy named Clay Bennett who is no stranger to backdoor politics. He alone is likely to end the longest lasting local professional sports franchise in America. Millions of Washington fans – stand back. All three Oklahoma fans will be thrilled.
Earthrace is not quite as sinister a case as is politics and professional sports. But the venture does borrow many features from those other cases. It has few roots on a local or national level – certainly not in its native New Zealand – the crews are dominantly European. Sponsors are from all over. It is the brain child of one and only one person – Pete Bethune, filled with Kiwi determination and grit. What Pete says goes.
So you take a look around and you will perhaps realize that this world is run by a very small number of people. Most of those are in place not because “the people” approved them or their aims but because of ego driven, personal power trips. Many if not most of these cats are not very nice. They certainly do not have your best in mind. I’d hate to walk into Larry Ellison’s office and ask for my disability payment or food for my kids. Or to awaken Harry Truman to find out why we needed to spend trillions on the ability to wipe ourselves off the face of Earth a thousand times over. Some have asked George Bush why hundreds of thousands have to die in Iraq. Few get the chance to ask such questions twice.
And this we call, with pride, a compassionate, democratic world? Hah.
Where is Earthrace?
Well, that mystery is cleared up. No controversy, no UFO’s or Bermuda Triangle at this time. The Earthrace GPS system now says the boat is back on a reasonable course doing good speed towards the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean legs. Still, there is little explanation for over 24 hours worth of disappearing act. The word is there was a delay in biodiesel delivery but that does not tally with the GPS track. So be it. I’m pretty sure, that no billionaires are tampering, spying, trading secrets or generally stabbing each other in the back in this case. Not even does it seem likely it’s Bush’s fault. Earthrace is back on track and that is a good thing.
Pay them (literally) a visit at >> their site <<, filled with all kinds of videos, blogs, GPS stuff and info. But do take care – you may end up with the Earthrace Vortex!
Thanks to all of you! Karl
March 4, 2008
Hillary Clinton had her share of bad news. But in early March 2008, last minute momentum changed in her favor. Over the first four days in March leading up to the Texas and Ohio challenges, Mrs. Clinton made some significant inroads nationally. Obama and McCain lost some. Glancing at this morning’s headlines, some others suspect the same shift. Might she make her come-back?
If all you care about is the poll results, follow this link. After all, who needs small talk. Busy times.
Obama’s lead is so huge her gain probably won’t matter. A month ago, his standing was well entrenched as the front runner not just over Hillary but over any other competitor. In February, his lead strengthened further as he won the 11 state straight contests.
The attention level Obama has generated is probably unprecedented. The support for his front runner standing is easily traced to two factors – he is eminently newsworthy and holds a commanding lead in news publicity. Second, bloggers piggy tail on the same paparazzi quotient. In other measures, he is generally not in the lead, losing to Hillary and others in several areas.
As this is written, some 12 hours remain till the outcomes of the races in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont are known. It’d be crazy to forecast the outcome this late but this SANITY index suggests that Hillary will do just a bit better than expected. Given that the races appear to be close, this may be significant.
Incidentally, I’m not associated with any candidate or political movement. I have no axe to grind although I do have personal convictions of no bearing to the current proceedings.
SANITY or What?
Here is the SANITY index. It stands for Substance, Attention, Noteworthy, Interesting, Trusty and, say, You. It’s not your average poll calling 1,409 Americans in their homes asking dumb questions. It is a computerized “no human hands” survey based largely on the Internet, data mining and proprietary algorithms. The SANITY survey tracks 168 subjects providing insights into today’s real life issues. These issues range from the Presidential race to Hollywood to health.
The unique feature of this survey is that it can run on a 24/7 continuous basis with full tracking available down to minutes. The other unique feature is that attention is focused on essentials and not meaningless detail, keeping with a “keep it simple” basis.
The survey measures what issues we care about and what people we find worthy of attention. For instance, we measure how much press coverage an individual, such as Barack Obama, gets or how much health care insurance is on the minds of bloggers. There is no judgment of whether that coverage is positive or negative. We just measure the attention levels. Keep it simple.
Only one thing matters in an election. That is who won. Details do not matter except to TV commentators who have nothing better to do. The two things that matter before the election are, first, the absolute standings and, second, whether or not those standings are going up, down or nowhere.
The Presidential Race
Rudy didn’t really want it, preferring mega consulting bucks. Edwards was so smug no one cared. Mitt being too slickly CEOish and a Mormon on top of that couldn’t make it. Ten wives and fifty kids, no doubt, as some perceived it. Billy Robertson is a funny guy and very reasonable but who wants a slightly overweight Hispanic when Hillary is around. In the past, we saw maniacs such as Ross Perot and his great sucking sound, Dean with the scream versus mama’s boys such as Dukakis and a not quite presentable wife.
Not even Viagra worked on Bob Dole. Pat Buchanan can be as mad as he pleases on TV but not in the White House according to the occasionally sane American public. And Al Gore – what can you say? He’s the guy that couldn’t beat the worst presidential candidate (and horrifying President) in modern times. Neither could wobbly Kerry who never knew when to shut up and get on with it, thus becoming a sitting duck. Nader the spoiler is again making noises with no apparent benefit to anyone. Maybe Jesse will sit this out. Thanks God.
All of these people share not winning. Relying on polls, donors spent mega money on them with no or little return. The American people endured listening to meaningless chatter. Enthusiastic volunteers sat through that election night becoming gloomier and gloomier. All because some pollster shyster managed to sell the idea that so and so might win something or another. Pollster turns out to be the financial winner big time. Hey, why not. Here I come.
Here are three graphs showing the very core of the race. The first graph highlights Obama’s crushing lead. With an election today we’d have our first black President without doubt. It is sure hard to see anyone overcoming the massive publicity advantage of this guy. McCain trails big time as does Mrs. Clinton.
The graph includes a few other political figures as seen by a mostly American public. The three main Presidential candidates totally dominate. Romney is riding into the sunset. George W. Bush is down in the pack keeping company with bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. America’s favorite Fascist Ann Coulter lumbers close to Hitler and Limbaugh. Ralph Nader stays in obscurity but made a nice gain following his latest threat to join the race.
The next graph details how Obama gained in February at the expense of not Hillary, but McCain. Obama is the front runner without question. His share is a whopping 70% higher than that of Hillary Clinton. How do you beat that? He is clearly in the driver seat. McCain doesn’t look close either.
Lastly, here is Hillary’s big glimmer of hope. There is a change in momentum in her favor over the last few days before Texas and Ohio contests. Her share is up 4 percent with minor losses for both Obama and McCain. Is it significant? We’ll know in a few hours.
Hillary’s Glimmer of Hope
That’s where things are this Morning of the possibly decisive March 4th, 2008. Many of you will know the outcome by the time you read this and I may have an update by then.
Perhaps this billion dollar election is all a huge joke. Maybe it’s one of the biggest scams around. But that really is irrelevant. “Never in the field of human endeavors is so much spent by so many on so little” to paraphrase the one truly great politician in (or just before) our time.
A few billions is a lot of dough to spend on caucuses in Iowa, endless town hall meetings and negative advertising on issues no one cares about, such as gun boats in Vietnam, silly pictures of candidates crying at the wrong (or right) moment, riding tanks, landing on aircraft carriers, being soft on rape, nannies, immigration or fast food.
Here are some more quotes from the most quotable politician in history: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”; “Eating (my) words has never given me indigestion. “; “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”; “Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.
Sir Winston Churchill also said “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.” Now, to get back on track, is the pollster the monkey or the organ grinder? Great question. Please let me know.
December 3, 2007
Don’t we just love to assign labels to people? We have famous people and those unlucky unfamous people. There are winners and losers. Some are rich, others poor. You have heroes and creeps. Cops and robbers. Good guys, bad guys. Pillars of society and scorchers of earth. Then the whole deal morphs into crime and punishment, Bible versus Koran, Red versus Blue, Cancer versus Hangnails and Canon versus Nikon shooters.
This is the story about the rich and famous, the not quite rich or famous and, most importantly, those not famous at all. It is also a story about art. It touches on some shameful facts but there are good things too. Nothing is black and white only. Something for everyone, I think.
It has long been a desire of the powerful to classify people into useful categories. Consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble owes considerable debt to market research which divides the World into those using Prell, Tide, Bounce and the infidels that do not. TV evangelists, politicians, NPR and Greenpeace split people into Donors and Parasites.
The Census Bureau classifies us in microscopic detail to the delight of the marketing and advertising gangs. The political districting gurus have a grandiose sand box of devious tactics. Some become crooked enough to drive legislators into neighboring states to avoid being railroaded. Starbucks drill into the data to determine the address of the next overpriced java dump.
I’m happy to learn there are 984 Slovaks and 89 Sioux in the City Of Seattle. Sadly, no Navajos appear to live in my city. 2,447 females require less than five minutes to get to their workplace. Some are my neighbors, no doubt. Of those working at home, 1,271 are not US citizens. 4,767 leave for work between 5 and 5:29 AM, which oddly is about the same number as those leaving between 11 and 11:59 AM. All data is downloadable from the Census Bureau for your entertainment unless, of course, you already have a life.
Then there is something called data mining as practiced illegally by various US government agencies such as NSA in the name of the holy War on Terror, aka the Religious Right War on Muslim. It’s purpose, in the eyes of the George W.’s of an unfortunate world, is to gain insights in as many aspects of your personal life as possible, thereby supposedly proving you are a Muslim and thus a terrorist. Never mind that you may actually be a Slovak, Sioux, Navajo or, worse, a Democrat.
Data mining is largely done by deep diving into the Internet, tapping emails and listening in on phone calls. When it gets more than lukewarm, your phone specifically is tapped, with or, most likely, without court approval. Big Joe demands all your private records from record keepers such as banks, online services and your veterinarian. Naturally, banks, airlines and others such as Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft and Google, have caved in to Big Joe. Joe McCarthy would be green with envy if he were to live in these joyous times. Many wonder why 250 million Americans buy into this horse manure. This is the people fanatically defending their right to bear assault rifles. Over their dead bodies as the saying accurately goes. That line in the sand stand, of course, defends the right to carry an assault rifle to the supermarket, not those Commies’
If you are like most people, data mining is not close to your top priorities. It is a subject almost as boring as Global Warming. No doubt you will ignore both of these issues until 1) your house is permanently under carbonized ocean water and 2) Big Brother decides you are no longer allowed to fly on US of A airlines to visit Grandma in Florida. Your charitable donations are suddenly terrorist money laundering. Your favorite cruise ship vacation is replaced by a prolonged stay in Cuba where no laws are pertinent.
Will data mining stop terrorism? It absolutely, definitely and assuredly will not. Data mining and the War on Terror will fail because George Bush has no idea what or who he is allegedly fighting. Winning means you have to know who and what to beat. It helps if you also know why. Ask any athlete. Tim Duncan does not play against some vague demographic segment. His job is to beat the heck out of Yao Ming and Shaq O’Neal.
Data mining, on the other hand, will generate gigatons of absolutely useless data, not winning a single game. It is pointless to wiretap 250 million Americans to gain insights into the minds of five or so terrorists located in Kazakhstan this week and in Lille, France next week and then possibly in the Sears Tower with a suitcase full of radioactive weapons of mass destruction and a smart looking suicide belt. The CIA will blame FBI who will tear into The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office who sends it off to NSA/CSS after which it is never seen again.
This is all due to the idea people can be classified, pigeonholed and dumped into categories, risk segments, code orange traps and hard drive locations. It is, to be true, all fantasy.
George Bush splits the World into those with him and those not. Those against him include everyone not with him, that is, Terrorists aka Muslims, Scientists, Environmentalists, anything French or German, Gays, his Dad, Hollywood, the Press, Fancy Food, Alzheimer victims, Math Teachers, ACLU and Anyone making less than a million bucks a day. He also dislikes journalists, doctors, lawyers, actors, his own cabinet and members of previous cabinets as well as any past, current or future members of Congress.
Hitler divided the World into mythical Aryans and those not, such as Jews, Gypsies, Hungarians, Poles, Cabaret performers and Homosexuals. Stalin divided his constituents into evil peasants versus loyal commissars. His Generals split their troops into those shot by Germans and those shot in the back by fellow soldiers for not advancing fast enough. The Generals too usually ended up shot by a jealous Stalin.
None of the three gentlemen above cared or cares at all for “different” people. That is a tragedy led by the powerful and directed at the powerless. People are split into categories resulting in the loss of freedom, rights and heads. The rules of the splits can be pretty much anything. Here are a few examples from the last 8 years or so, sorted by casualties:
Iraqi Wars, Afghan Wars, Ethiopia-Eritrea War, Somali Civil War, The First and Second Chechen Wars, Sudanese Civil War, 9/11, Algerian Civil War, Israel-Lebanon War, Sierra Leone Civil War, Waziristan War, Cote d’Ivoire Civil War, al-Qaeda misc. Murders, Turkey-PKK Conflict, Beslan School Siege, Bali Bombings, Madrid Terrorist Attack, Moscow Theatre Siege, Guatemala Civil War, Bojaya Massacre, Super Ferry 14 Bombing, Iraq Fuel Tanker Bombing, London Terror Attacks, Passover Massacre, USS Cole Bombing, Varanasi Train Bombings, Janupur Train Bombing, Karachi Bus Bombing, Indian Parliament Murders, Podujevo Bus Bombing and the Anthrax Attacks.
There is a different kind of prominent split that most of us like to ignore. That is the split of those that are Disadvantaged or those who are not. This includes the Mentally Ill versus us Sane. The physically disabled versus us fit. The oppressed, discriminated against and persecuted; the homeless, stateless, limbless, jobless or not. Anyone not fitting the orderly picture favored by those claiming to be Normal. Once you had Hippies and Beatniks. Now you have welfare mothers, suicide by police, walled suburbs, security cameras, phone taps, road rage and high school murder. It’s them versus us. Take no prisoners.
Perhaps one way to make the distinction is that the Outsiders are those that frighten the Insiders. The Insiders deep down know that the transition to Outsider is just a breath away. That is not a pleasant thought. You might suddenly and involuntarily join the damned, those fucked over one way or another. Jobs, status and security come and go.
Walk into any nursing home and you will not just find the elderly – you will find plenty of people that by their age and physical condition should be out there laboring away as us normal persons do. These people – traffic accident victims, punched out boxers, short-circuited CEOs, born “that way”, victims of violence or natural disasters – are institutionalized because a) they should be and b) someone or something is paying for their keep which is lucky indeed.
The US VA hospitals are filled with those suddenly Disadvantaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam or the dozens of other conflicts deemed worthwhile by brave leaders. Iraqi graves are filled with those permanently Disadvantaged by cluster bombs, religious leaders, Bunker Busters, Precision this or that, lack of milk, neighbors, drugged out Blackwater “security guards” not to mention Syrians, Saudis, Iranians, Egyptians, Kurds, Turks and Jordanians. Perhaps an Israeli or two play their game too.
I live in downtown Seattle. As in most downtown areas, human misery is close at hand. Screams in the night, mental illness, drugs, pan handling and all the other urban invisibles are all quite visible in my neighborhood. Being on a busy street close to a major fire station, sirens topple the normal noise level at a frightening pace. The major TV stations are close by and their remote units come and go, recording misery somewhere else. Their helicopters constantly head for some disaster or another.
Listening to the nighttime screams, the anger of those stuck out there is very obvious. It is true rage I hear. That rage is rarely specific and usually aimed at “it”. “It” isn’t you or me. But it leads to fear among the shop owners, the Yuppie condo people and the city officials. Rage on one side, fear on the other side. Careful demarcation of boundaries: them versus us, day versus night. It is remarkable how loud voices are at 4 AM when the traffic is gone. Perhaps it is despair I hear rather than anger. It might be both.
I have yet to see the rage of the disadvantaged turn into violence although it certainly happens. It does not, though, approach the violence created by even an average American President. Some of “them” I know by now. Others I recognize. Being an insomniac, I see both sides of the fence. Some of “them” are artists with great talent although the chance of a gig or exhibition is slim indeed.
Here is what I’m driving at. You’d be astonished how much art is created by the Different or those Disadvantaged. Take Hitler’s concentration camps and ghettos. A different post of mine included the harrowing, remarkable art produced by camp inmates. Some of those images are repeated here. Extraordinary music was composed in the camps. Only a small proportion is preserved. Hitler’s envy of real artists sentenced them to extermination. Here are just four of the names: Mendel Grossman – photographer, Leo Haas – painter, Alfred Kantor – painter, Paul Morgan – entertainer.
In recent times, the fenced paradise of Singapore banned, censored and prosecuted local press, local artists, theater performances, international press and magazines, pornography and music of various kinds. Sex and the City was only shown recently after much hand wringing. They call it Social Engineering.
The people of Singapore feel they live in a nice place which might be true in the mind of some. Certainly Singapore is record clean. There are immigrant ghettos in Paris and many other European cities that are not as clean or socially engineered. The various zones, authorities and partitions in the Middle East are in the daily news. The Baghdad disaster, parts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. If you live in one such area, Art may not be in the front yard of your life. Yet Art lives on everywhere – even in the Green Zone of Baghdad. I bet.
Many of us saw the glorification of the Soviet Worker’s Paradise: workers rising, workers working, workers marching or worker warring. It did not include workers drunk, workers departing for Siberia or workers suffering from AIDS. Apparatich, KGB and aging leaders were artistically invisible. Artistically, the World became one-dimensional.
The Soviet System demanded conformance to “Soviet Realism” which was neither realistic, nor had much to do with art. Lenin in 1920 denounced “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” as non worthy elitist deviance. Dissidence meant gulags as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Ginzburg found out. Major artists such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in music and, in literature, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Platonov, Mandelstam, Trifonov, Babel and Grossman all walked the thin line of becoming “Different” and rebelling against the state line. But check out some of Shostakovich’s works – there are plenty of semi hidden revolts against the dictations. All of which were at the mercy of Stalin and others. “Different” meant living a very miserable life.
In the US of A
Billie Holiday was banned from performing in New York as was Thelonious Monk. Joe McCarthy destroyed some 140 victims – many were artists. Rudy Giuliani unsuccessfully censored the Brooklyn Museum and its “Sensation” art show. Some five years ago, the New York State corrections commissioner announced that he banned the sale of artwork created by prison inmates to reduce the anguish of the victims of said inmates. Considering over two million people in the US enjoy free room and board, it stands to reason there should be a rather lively art scene. Certainly many artists were in jail for some or another offence in their past.
Let’s compile another list: Emily Araki, Asao Handa, Mobu Hashimoto, Taye Jow, Yoshiko Ushida and Richard Kanazawa. All were Artists, different and residents of American concentration camps during WWII. There were many more, all of Japanese origins. Yet the sons fought in Italy and elsewhere. On the American side.
NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts are perpetual Republican targets for extinction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, All the Pretty Horses, the Harry Potter series, The Catcher in the Rye, Sophie’s Choice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Inferno (Dante) all share the honor of being banned from schools in, for instance, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Texas. The same schools usually favor school prayers, various patriotic pledges and creationism. They tend to agree with Lenin on “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” being dangerous elitist deviance usually leading to pre marriage sex or worse.
Then we have the racial issues. It used to be those were viewed as mostly a shameful American problem. Today it is a global issue that will get worse. Global Warming will force relocation of hundreds of millions of people from tropical areas into developed areas on top of the current labor market flows. Politicians gamble it will not happen on their guard. But Nicolas Sarkozy of France already knows the score as do his riot police.
Racial profiling is yet another example of discrimination practiced by air lines, police and New Jersey Turnpike State Patrol. United Airlines throw Assem Bayaa off a flight claiming that because of national security, they don’t have to obey civil rights protection laws. Racial profiling is blamed for the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the New York City Police Department. London Police killed Jean Charles de Menezes because he looked Middle Eastern. Menezes was Brazilian. US Airways removed six Muslim imams from a flight after fellow passengers expressed fear.
My favorite fascist Ann Coulter jumped in on the US Airways act: “US Airways is my official airline now. Northwest, which eventually flew the Allah-spouting Muslims to their destinations, is off my list. You want to really hurt a U.S. air carrier’s business? Have Muslims announce that it’s their favorite airline.” Would Ms. Coulter like to fly Middle East Airlines on her next trip to Beirut? Maybe she’ll have to connect using Syrian Arab Airlines after crossing the Atlantic on Royal Jordanian out of JFK. No doubt service would be impeccable.
Mortgage lenders, insurance companies and the retail industry have their own version of profiling known as redlining. It means ethnic factors determine the availability of services. Blacks cannot obtain loans or insurance. Retailers refuse to serve certain ethnic neighborhoods. The late 1980s saw the emergence of the phrase Environmental Racism. It covers issues such as urban decay and excessive pollution in minority areas and the unavailable health care for, say, AIDS.
“Us or We” stand for Tide and Dell. iPods, SUVs and cell phone ring tones. A precious few are happy, well adjusted and always productive. Most of us are not. We cherish majestic homes, exercise clubs, personal trainers. Airline miles, first class upgrades, airport club rooms and special floor in hotels. Foie Gras, Beluga Caviar, Kobe Beef, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, stirred, not shaken martinis on Bombay Sapphire and a spot of BC’s finest. Prozac, Prada, Nike, Viagra.
Illegal gardeners, cooks and nannies. Insider trading, child porn, spousal abuse, congressional pages. Cancer, heart pacers, redone faces, improved waistlines, hairlines and butt lines. The Sundance Cirque Lodge, The Causeway Therapeutic Center or perhaps the Sunset Malibu when things get out of hand? “We” congest the streets, cause global warming, kill thousands of species, make wars, snort cocaine and generally don’t care for one another.
Only the most stupid of us believe in useless stereotyping as shown above. There is not a single individual fitting the portrait. Some may come closer than others but labeling just does not work. Not all enjoy Beluga Caviar. Some prefer ballpark hot dogs and drive a Chevy Aveo. Others like Iranian Caviar better. Personally, I like spaghetti. I’m not much of a Prada guy.
Let’s consider the “Us” camp and some of its members. By most standards, membership includes strange individuals such as Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, Jerry Springer, Kobe Bryant, George W. Bush, Howard Stern, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Boris Yeltsin, Ann Coulter, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Flintstone and George Karl. All defy classification. They are different but have one thing in common. These people do not produce Art.
The “Us” segment contains untold numbers of serious, legitimate artists. Writers, painters, composers, topless dancers, photographers and maybe a blogger or two. Occasionally well adjusted, safe and sound, they go about the business of art. Some art may be a bit bland compared to the far corners of expressive power. It truly takes all kinds. Take Smooth Jazz and New Age Flutists – great companions with Prozac. No wonder the true Disadvantaged scream in the night. Their art is rarely bland.
To see the spread from the bland to the somewhat adventurous and, by exception, the truly original, compare, say, Perry Como and Janis Joplin. Doris Day compared to Eve Ensler. Miss Marple and John Barth. Rock Hudson and Sean Penn. Tom Clancy and Kurt Vonnegut. Amy Grant versus Eminem. Norman Rockwell against Pablo Picasso. John Grisham versus Norman Mailer. Burt Bacharach and Arnold Schoenberg. Ebert against Susan Sontag. Ricky Martin versus John Cage. David Sanborn versus John Coltrane. Janet Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Anita Baker against Anita O’Day. Danielle Steel versus Andrea Barrett.
Perhaps not all of the above are well adjusted. Some are or were addicted to various things. Not all are nice people. Some of the art is truly awful and most is very bland. None of them live on the street or reside in mental institutions. Some may feel at home in rehab centers but that’s not quite the same thing. This essay is not about these guys. This article is about the other ones: “them”.
“They” stand for poverty, rage, illness, irresponsibility, insanity, and screams in the night. They are institutionalized, discarded, feared, deep-6ed, 86ed, banned, ignored, hidden, driven out of town. They look bad and smell bad. They are drunk, high, low, infected with lice, AIDS or TBC. A few are violent. They annoy, panhandle and give us evil eyes. Many are in jail, asylums or various concentration camps around the World. Or they would be if we establishment types could find the time to round them up. Being parasitic, they deserve no care, no breaks and no respect. Politicians safely can ignore them. They carry no political weight, do not lobby much of anything and receive no DC pork.
Mental illness, in particular manic-depression and creativity go well together. Famous examples include Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Diane Arbus and Lord Byron.
“Outsider Art” refers to the work of self-taught mentally ill or disadvantaged artists such as Delaine La Bas, Adolph Wolfli, Nek Chand, Ferdinand Cheval, Henry Darrger, Madge Gill, Alexander Lobanov, Martin Ramirez, Achilles Rizzoli and Judith Scott. The 1922 book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” by Hans Prinzhorn identified the Ten Schizophrenic Masters: Karl Brendel, August Klotz, Peter Mogen, August Neter, Johann Knupfer, Victor Orth, Herman Bell, Heinrich Welz, Joseph Sell and Franz Pohl.
The six images close by in this section represent works by Outsider Artists. The top pencil drawing of a woman is by Madge Gill, an English artist guided by a spirit. She did thousands of drawings like the one shown here. The woman in the drawing may be Gill herself or a stillborn daughter.
Martin Ramirez, a Mexican who lived in California, did the Man on a Horse. Ramirez suffered from schizophrenia. After his death, the painting became quite valuable. This is unusual: most of these artists are or were institutionalized with their work neither shown publicly nor sold. Even after death, when often their work first came to light, little is made public.
The drawing of a huge dog with his tiny master is next. No doubt based on an accurate view of the world according to most dogs, the artist is Bill Traylor. He was born a slave in 1856 on a plantation near Benton, Alabama. He remained at the plantation till 1934, described as an illiterate farmer with some English vocabulary. He then worked on road gangs and was essentially homeless. So how come this man is viewed as one of the most important American artists?
From 1939 to 1942, Traylor worked the streets of Montgomery as a street artist. He was 83 when he started this artistic career, eventually producing around 1,800 drawings. Friends brought him drawing materials and others provided small favors such as food and an occasional roof. His first show was held in 1940 – ignored by Traylor who was busy drawing. His next show was held in 1942 at a local high school. By chance, his work caught the attention of the NYC Museum of Modern Art. The Museum attempted to buy some of the works but was angrily rejected. By 1943 Traylor moved north to his children. He died in 1947 and his work fell into the shadows for thirty five years.
In 1982, he was part of a landmark exhibition of Black American art. His work was rediscovered and he is now a regular feature of the art scene. Exhibitions include about some twenty across the South in the last 10 years. He recently was featured in England, Germany and Switzerland.
Adolf Wolfli, Resident Artist, Waldau Mental Asylum, Switzerland 1895-1930
Adolf Wolfli is perhaps the best known of the Outsider Artists. Born in 1864, he was a farmhand, a laborer and a convicted sex offender by the age of 31. At this point he was committed to the Asylum where he remained to his death in 1930. He was violent, subject to hallucinations and diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
He started drawing in 1899, but nothing is preserved till about 1905. Over the next twenty five years, he accumulated a remarkable output of an imaginary 25,000 page autobiography and some 3,000 drawings and collages. Supported by some of the hospital staff, here is his established routine:
- “Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else.”
- “He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night.”
- “At Christmas the house gives him a box of colored pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.”
He achieved a bit of fame in 1921 when he was the subject of an attention getting publication stating a mentally ill person can be a serious artist. In 1922, he was one of several subjects in Prinzhorn’s book mentioned above. The publicity allowed him to sell some drawings.
Yet that ripple did not last long and it was not till 1972 – forty two years after his death – that he was discovered by the world of art. His work started a remarkable tour through the world that included well over a hundred fifty exhibitions at locations such as the Museums of Fine Arts in Basel and Bern, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Universities of California in Berkeley and Santa Barbara, Musee Picasso, Antibes, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Kunsthalle, Kiel, Scottish Art Council, Edinburgh, Berliner Museum, Berlin, Centre de Cultura Contemporania, Barcelona, Museum of Kyoto, Kyoto, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo and the Katonah Museum of Art, New York. This is just a sampling;
add many more museums, exhibition halls and galleries.
What about his work? Well, think an enormous collection of newsprint papers completely covered with text, drawings, symbols, poetry and musical annotations. Meticulously organized into volumes: Nine volumes of “From the Cradle to the Grave”, Seven volumes of “Geographic and Algebraic Books”, 3,000 pages of “Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation (allowing his nephew to conquer not only Earth but the entire Cosmos), six books of “St Adolf II” (his alter ego), six books of “Songs ands Dances”, four books on “Dances and Marches” and sixteen books and 8,404 pages on his “Funeral March”. Most of his drawings were part of the volumes but some, called bread art, were single sheet, occasionally sold and the basis of his modest early following.
The drawings are exhausting, epic, complex, grandiose, geometrical, adventurous, labyrinthine, mysterious, startling and based on an incredible imagination. He spent most of his mature life in an isolation cell, yet provided views on far reaching subjects he could not have observed through anything but imagination.
Here is a bit of trivia: Wolfli did his Campbell Soup Can (above) in 1929. Andy Warhol did his Can in 1964. It seems both of them liked the Tomato Soup. Warhol is the pop artist of fame. Wolfli is known for insanity. May the best man or image win.
Also interesting is the inclusion of musical annotations and hints. Recently, these annotations have been interpreted into actual performances. He is said to have inspired a range of musicians and composers. Here are a few words on the musical aspect of his work off his web site:
- “Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s music can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music.”
- “How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well.”
- “More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.”
Another curious aspect is that he apparently incorporated a detailed vocabulary into his work. This vocabulary included graphics such as birds, faces, decorative borders, snakes, musical staves and mandela shapes.
Adolf Wolfli’s creativity is only the beginning of his startling abilities. It is hard to even imagine what must have been going on in that isolated mind that astonishes a world about which he directly knew very little. There is only room here for a few of his drawings (above). Given the uniqueness of his work, I’ve prepared a short multimedia show of samples from his work, accompanied by his own music as interpreted recently. Hit the “Wolfli” button in the next segment and let the show roll.
Sometimes, Outsider Artists are referred to as “Folk Artists”. Other descriptions include “brutish, rural, untrained, intuitive, menial, peasant, marginal, clumsy, naive, primitive, extreme, mental, elaborate and fantasy driven”. Personally, I don’t quite agree with any of these classifications. Considering that Outsider Art has become a commercially viable art form, some recent output might be described as opportunistic, simply bad or exploitative.
However, in the case of Wolfli, his music as interpreted in the show below is decidedly Swiss Folk style. Perhaps not all of us favor that particular music legacy but few among us can claim to simultaneously be writers of autobiographies, adventures, poetry, algebraic and geographic text books and symbolic essays plus be accomplished visual artists, draftsmen and illustrators plus be composers.
Hit the button for a rare glimpse of a long ago Outsider Artist and his quite strange world and who beat Andy Warhol to the Campbell Soup Can:
There are Outsider Music and Outsider Photography artists. Perhaps we have Outsider Postmen, Outsider Plumbers, Outsider Accountants and Outsider Neurosurgeons. Outsider Bloggers most likely are quite a large group. It depends on how you classify people. I suppose my point is that classifying people is a futile exercise. There are some trivial classifications that are real. If you lost a leg you are a one-legged individual. If you were born in Moscow, Idaho, you are an American citizen. But if you claim such classifications can be extended to your credit rating or artistic ability, then you are on a slippery slope.
November 20, 2007
Visions aren’t the simplest of all things we have to deal with. Commercial visions are Big Business in a confused, surreal sort of way. Conglomerates, corporations, companies, politicians, police chiefs and postal workers seemingly can’t live without those pay-per-view mass market visions. Creating, making, faking, enforcing, stealing, distorting, maintaining and hiding behind visions can be an everyday task.
Visionary consultants enjoy visions of corporate money mountains to be liberated. Visionary self-help authors improve us while cashing our checks. Famous visionary seminar personalities smile at us from the podium, counting heads and the evening’s take. Visionary leaders can send us to war, death and hunger, chanting poll numbers. Other visionaries bore us to death. Visions are not easily shared and not always friendly companions. It’s a good thing there is help available to sort things out. Check out the small list below – if you don’t find the right choice – just keep looking. Someone will knock on your door.
How about getting expert advice by hiring Andre Agassi, Bill Clinton, Bob Costas, Jay Leno, Lance Armstrong, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michelle Akers, Magic Johnson, Big Bad Voodo Daddy, Alec Baldwin, Dave Barry, Neil Armstrong, Angela Bassett, Ken Riley, Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Wolf Blitzer, Paul Reiser, Dr. Phil, Mick Fleetwood, The Zippers, Paula Zahn, Ann-Margret, the B-52’s, Asleep At The Wheel, The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Goldie Hawn, Drew Carey, George Foreman, Jerry Seinfeld, Shaquille O’Neal, Tom Jones, Yao Ming, Barbara Walters, Ellen DeGeneres or perhaps Tina Turner. You will end up delighted, motivated, reborn and very broke.
Enron had a vision – hit California widows as hard as inhumanly possible. Microsoft had and has a vision of invincibility as did IBM and Saddam Hussein. Harley-Davidson (“HOG”) has a vision of stopping those darn oil leaks. George W. Bush has many visions – none good, legal or comprehensible. Oil companies envision new holes in the Arctic, pumping the heck out of them till nothing is left but pollution, garbage and extinct species. British Prime Minister Chamberlain declared his vision of peace in our time in 1939 after giving away Europe to the evil visions of Adolf. Bill Clinton had and probably has visions that we won’t talk about in this family friendly medium. I’m not sure about Hillary’s vision or those of Monica, Kathleen, Gennifer, Elizabeth, Sally, Dolly or Paula. Etc.
There are religious visions, often referred to as miracles, such as the awakening of the dead – Jimmy Carter being a good example. Sometimes dreams are viewed as visions. Other times they are nightmares – such as the images of Ann Coulter or Geraldo. Some visions are expressed by speaking in tongues – consider Donald Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara or Alan Greenspan. Perhaps it is the mystical experience of seeing the supernatural, such as Elvis still being Big in Las Vegas, or being a supernatural being, such as Michael Jackson or the Alien II monster. It might be a person or thing of extraordinary beauty, such as Howard Stern or Paris Hilton. Some say it is the mark of unusual competence in discernment or
perception; intelligent foresight: a leader of vision, such as Michael Brown of FEMA (or his bosses), Ken Lay or Kim Jong Il.
How about the visions of sub prime mortgage companies of recent fame? Tobacco companies? Alberto Gonzales’ vision of US sponsored torture? IRS visions of you and your returns? The dreams of Iraqi refugee women serving as prostitutes in Syria? Al Gore’s vision of immortality? The Giuliani vision of no jay-walkers, no decadent art and a Disneyland America? The aspirations of Homeland Security. The Visionary Wars on Terror, Muslims, Immigrants, Gays, Science, Pot Smokers and the Teletubbies. There is no end to bad and misguided visions. Just look around you.
The Goodness of Visions
There are other kinds of visions than the bad, the ugly and the many. Those of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, John Steinbeck, Lord Byron, Jimmy Stewart and Norman Mailer (always remembered). Bono envisions an AIDS free Africa, a vision not shared by Drug Companies. Here are some more such suspects: Rubens, Miro, Aristotle, Miles Davis, Gustaf Mahler, Jack London, Fjodor Dostojevski, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There’ll be more about the two last names as we go along, this being a photo blog. These visions are not bought in a parking lot like some already mentioned. Nor are they brought on by grandiosity, greed, confusion, mental deficiencies, crack cocaine or troubled childhoods as some others are.
Some things are different.
Here is one such difference. Visions associated with art tend to survive much longer than the others. Many value related observations of art versus the more mundane visions of toothpaste manufacturers exist. Art does carry a special banner. Art visions, for instance, outlast most cheese burgers, cheese burger consumers and their makers. Art may remain alive for thousands of years. Take that, Letterman, KFC or Rudy G.
Creativity is our second mini subject. As with visions, it is a slightly suspect subject. G.H.W Bush did not favor it and his mighty son does not consider anything as far out as ten letters (or so; 9? 11? duh). The subject of creativity is just not quite as distinguished as “visions”. There are creativity consultants – some bearded and smelling of pot – that usually can’t demand as high fees as the visionary celebrities. Not that they don’t try. But somehow creative thinking or activity ranks way below the vision thing. It doesn’t have quite the ring to it.
In some cases, creativity leads to unorthodox, independent and hence dangerous thinking. Rarely is “different” a good thing. Microsoft Office, for instance, is a given part of almost any organization. That Open Source stuff is not to be trusted except by creative and visionary accountants. Where is the business model? What’s that insane “free” price tag? What if some one expected me to work for free? Damn Commies and Deviants. And how about those crazy blog writers and their silly for-free thoughts. Free is madness. Madness is bad. Obviously, blog writers are mad. A few are creative, making them even badder.
Of course, the above are just some examples of feelings running amok. It can go the other way, too. Just consider the “Creative Writing” classes of many fine institutions that possibly are anything but creative. What about the 281,524 book titles listed on Amazon as “creative”? Bring your reading glasses for treasures such as “Creative Abundance: Keys To Spiritual And Material Prosperity”, “Right-Brain Styles for Conquering Clutter, Mastering Time, and Reaching Your Goals “, “The Tongue: A Creative Force “, “Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain”, “Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden: Making Pots, Planters, Birdbaths, Sculpture & More”, “Creative Whack Pack”, “Creative Recycling
in Embroidery” and “Creative Interventions for Troubled Children and Youth”. Here are some naturals: “God’s Creative Power Gift Collection; God’s Creative Power Will Work for You; God’s Creative Power for Healing and God’s Creative Power for Finances”. If that doesn’t do it for you, there are 281,510 other titles to enjoy and prosper from.
There are Creative Investments, Labs, Commons, MP3 players and sound cards. Singapore has singapore.creative.com, complementing their vision of a spit and butt free society. How about Creative Advertising, Interactive Media, Multimedia and Creative Linux. Creative Good, Screen writing and Adobe’s Creative Suite. Most are quite creative in taking your money but perhaps not in much more than that.
There’s some evidence madness and creativity go well together. Van Gogh certainly was both. Idi Amin and Bébé Doc Duvalier were both quite nuts but not creative except perhaps in murder. Lennie Bernstein – quite sane as well as very creative. Boris Yeltsin – mad but reasonably good at conducting large orchestras without falling down too often, pulverizing his own Duma and occasionally, creative dancing. By comparison, Putin seems neither-nor everything. Sort of like a pair of empty shoes. Like those of Mitt Romney, Keanu Reeves, Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Goofy and Dick Cheney. Anyone home?
We’ll return to the subject of madness in art in a later post.
French chefs create meals worthy of Michelin stars but not your cholesterol count. Cops create an illusion of safety. Insurance companies claim you are in good hands while envisioning saving you 15% in 15 minutes. Reality shows, thieves and politicians demonstrate creativity in lying, cheating, stealing or writing blogs. Democrats are creatively adding taxes for those not giving them money; Republicans are creative in reducing taxes for whoever gives them money.
Creativity and vision have some things in common. One is that the combination can produce great art. Another is that no one knows exactly what either is. There are scores of definitions of both vision, creativity and, let’s throw this one in – innovation. These definitions are all less than adequate. Many are simply self serving.
But most of us recognize creativity and pure vision when we see or otherwise experience it. Such recognition is personal, biased and not always logical. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of creativity in just about ever one’s mind. But for what? His airplane thing never flew. He is not the one that invented the Camera Obscura. Already mentioned – Leonard Bernstein certainly was creative but how many of us still sing “Maria” in the shower? How many really admire the creativity in the unusual minds of Mel Gibson, Anderson 360, Martha Stewart, Larry King, Dean Martin, Victoria Beckham, Twiggy or Tom Cruise? Yet we somehow know what creativity is. Just don’t look too closely.
In previous posts, I’ve preached how nothing is what it seems. Light is just a perception, colors don’t exist; cameras lie, eyes and brains fool us, themselves and others. Our familiar three dimensional world isn’t actually three dimensional. Al Gore did not invent the Internet or Global Warming. Hitler was not the first practitioner of genocide. Bush did not create state sanctioned torture all by himself. Elvis is really quite dead. Romance does not lasts forever. O. J. is guilty. Churchill was not a teetotaler. This blog may not exist – you think you read it as I believe I write it. Fool’s Paradise.
Visions, Light, Distortions and Dimensions
Here is the crudest possible perception of a photo: It is a static two dimensional image of a scene as it existed in the briefest moment in time. Those characterizations are not true in the simplest amateur point and shoot cases, much less in any photographic piece of art. The amateur may well successfully capture something of precious value to the intended audience. The fine art photo will probably be viewed by a wider audience, presenting a sophisticated, multidimensional and unique experience.
As part of a series, this essay contemplates what makes a great photo. What does it take to make one? I’m writing as a photographer, not a viewer. Viewers will get something out of it as well. This is not a technical how-to article. Look elsewhere for ideas on f stops, flash settings, rules of thirds, the zone system or Photoshop secrets. Instead, enjoy some rather unconventional ideas that reduce the mysteries of shooting great photos (for you) while preserving the magic (to your audience):
- Understand your very own vision. Explore it. Let it happen. Persist. Ignore the gurus.
- Photography is about distortions and abstractions, not reality. Break the boundaries.
- Light is the basis of all photography. Understand light. Knowing about color helps too.
- Photographs are multi-dimensional. Use that. Think beyond two or three dimensions.
Simple, isn’t it. I’m just kidding. It’s really, really hard to shoot a good photograph. It’s really, really absurd to reduce the magic of art into a few simplistic “rules” as shown above. As you will find out, these simplistic rules are not simple at all. But they are doable and real. Try it.
Success in any endeavor depends on self knowledge. In art, self knowledge defines the artist’s work and is reflected in vision statements and the work processes. Some people require formal vision statements, detailed plans, rules and so forth. To others, it’s all an intuitive process. Right or left brain, there is a process. The photographer who understands visions and methodical executions is much more likely to shoot and produce great and lasting photos.
Take wedding photographers, often following a written script: shoot bride; then bride and mother; add brother; add step father, grandmother and former boy friend…. Do Ceremony, Chicken Dinner, First Dance, Wedding Cake, Uncle Ben Ejected, Limo here, Limo there, Collect Fee and Get Out. Not much of a vision but certainly a partial plan.
Another extreme case is the amateur’s random path without a plan but with plenty of heart and soul. Masterpieces are not likely but it may not matter. A fine art photographer may spend years coming up with an original vision, acting accordingly in a consistent manner. The sports photographer follows the script. Portrait makers deep-six the wrinkles. The paparazzi covers the beat, avoiding bodily harm if possible. Guess who has the greatest chance of shooting something worthwhile to a knowledgeable audience. All do, of course – that’s who. Most photographers are quite similar to the monkey hammering away towards the Shakespeare play. That random path without a plan is more common than any admits. So what?
Many of us look for the middle ground as we deal with the “process thing”. Formalize some aspects to keep on track, be flexible in other aspects to encourage new ideas. The process is vital; the form it takes is personal. It pays to be a bit weary of the random path. Expecting no effort is the true loser.
Whether on paper or in one’s head, the creative process depends on a few basics. I’m sure Ansel Adams (who had to write technical books about his processes and thought patterns) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who neither wrote technical books, nor volunteered to verbalize his processes) both, consciously or not, considered many of the points to be covered in this series.
Artistry contains two uniquely personal components beyond that vision thing. The first is creativity. Creativity hangs out with that artistic vision. The second is innovation. Innovation makes creative ideas become real, actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic creative thought patterns tend to be similar. Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson created art with almost nothing in common except cameras were involved. But read some of their thoughts and you will find great similarities, not in everything but in spirit:
Ansel Adams said:
- In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular…. sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.
- All I can do in my writing is to stimulate a certain amount of thought, clarify some technical facts and date my work. But when I preach sharpness, brilliancy, scale, etc., I am just mouthing words, because no words can really describe those terms and qualities it takes the actual print to say, “Here it is.”
- When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
- Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Do these subjects move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
- I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term – meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said:
- They asked me: “‘How do you make your pictures?” I was puzzled and I said, “I don’t know, it’s not important.”
- I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life -to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
- This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.
- If the photographer succeeds in reflecting the exterior as well as interior world, his subjects appear as “in real life.” In order to achieve this, the photographer must respect the mood, become integrated into the environment, avoid all the tricks that destroy human truth, and also make the subject of the photo forget the camera and the person using it. Complicated equipment and lights get in the way of naive, un-posed subjects. What is more fleeting than the expression on a face?
- To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values.
It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.
To both photographers, the making of a photograph was a spiritual act, an inner conviction and a desire to abstract essence beyond the material world. Neither of them mentions tools or techniques except to say those are not important. I’d imagine they would not agree on whether a particular photograph is great or not. They had vastly different approaches to just about any lower level photographic technique. But the basic creative thought patterns are quite similar. Let’s consult some other photographers:
Other Photographers Said:
- “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”; “What moves me about…what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.”-Diane Arbus
- The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework – that to me is the art of photography. -Berenice Abbott
Here is some more wisdom:
- Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term – selectivity. -Berenice Abbott
- “I discovered that while many photographers think alike when it comes to equipment and chemistry, there are seldom two who agree on anything when it comes to what constitutes a good image.”; “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”; “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” -Peter Adams
- “What is right? Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer have significant spiritual stakes… spiritually driven work constitutes the core of a photographer’s contribution to culture.”; “What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”-William Albert Allard
Vastly different personalities, drastically different views of the world and what makes a good photo, the creative thinking remains quite similar. It got to be a point in there, somewhere.
So what’s the fuzz?
What makes art special? Somehow art is more powerful than your average concept, be it Mission Impassable IX, Chicken McSluggets, Senator Hillbilly Clanton or the new Ford Swahili or motivational celebrities. The Ford Swahili is concept tested for years, rolled out on national TV, O% Financed, Traded in, Traded out, then disappearing into a final life as Haitian cabs. Millions may be made and sold, congesting highways, polluting the air and killing some of its owners. Then when it is over – it really is over.
The art of Ansel Adams has a permanent home of sorts in San Francisco. Not many of you have a clue where that is located. Some of his photos hang in museums around the world; others are in private hands. The University of Arizona safeguards the treasure. There are no trade ins, financing campaigns, concept tests, TV ads, marketing budgets or salesmen in smart looking Kmart suits. Occasionally some Adams collection hits the road, visiting Spokane, WA; Saarbrucken, Germany and La Rochelle, France. The local newspapers may cover the event in, say ten sentences filed next to the dog show listings. Most TV reporters never heard of Ansil Adam. Yet the people show up in droves.
Some time ago, I spent a weekend trying to get into a particular Chicago Art Institute exhibition. I never made it – too many lined up in front of me, day after day. It would have been far easier to get into a Bulls, Bears, Whitesox or Cubs game or the Jerry Springer & Winfrey Shows. The Rush Street Clubs or lunching with Richard Daley – much easier, I imagine. Dinner reservations with Charlie Trotter, Rick Tramonto or Grant Achatz – piece of cake by comparison. I’m sure the Art Institute spent some marketing money but that’s not what created the draw. The art created the draw.
Ansel Adams is a name with considerable recognition. Hillbilly Clanton would love his numbers. Now, Adams did most of his famous work in the 1940s and 1950s. Do you remember which was the best selling car in 1954? The top chart song of 1942? The 1938 Senator from Indiana? The dominant fall fashion colors of 1948? The favorite milk shake in 1935? Me neither. Most of us recognize an Ansel Adams picture, though. At least I do.
Adams survived the wear of time together with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig who died in 1941, Coca Cola (there are always exceptions), Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Winston Churchill. Adams’ 1941 Moonrise, Hernandez, NM photo coincided with the premieres of Citizen Kane, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Dumbo. Bob Hope started his USO shows lasting the next fifty years. 1941 saw Hasselblad opening up a shop in Sweden. The Wehrmacht used plenty of Leica III’s. Joe Louis held on to his title six times. Those are some of the memorable events.
But did you know that Cecil Brown won the 1941 Peabody Award for reporting the news, that Jimmy Dorsey did Green Eyes and Bing Crosby crooned Dolores. Other forgotten songs include “It’s So Peaceful in the Country”, “The Hut-Sut Song”, “Cow-Cow Boogie” and “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi”. Packard Clipper cars sold well as did the Hudson Coupe and Cadillac’s 2-door Convertible. The Cheerios brand was introduced. The radio show Melody Ranch with Gene Audrey, Hopalong Cassidy and the Grand Ole Opry shows all did just fine. The Emerson Phonoradio ($49.95) was enjoyed by many but is long gone. Few of us ponder the Ecuador-Peru Border War considering Pearl Harbor, the Germans just outside Moscow and U-boats sinking everything afloat. So much gone without a trace or regret.
Perhaps it is real simple. Things that deserve to last over time do indeed last. All the junk deserving nothing receive nothing and go away. Surely it’s not that simple. If that was true – would we have to suffer macaroni and cheese, Strauss waltzes, grits, yodeling or Jerry Lewis? I think not.
November 12, 2007
Digital cameras snap, shoot and process some 15 billion pictures a year. Most likely, only a few hundred of those will survive the lapse of time. The rest will quietly retire to the big photo paradise in the sky. What’s the difference between those long forgotten pictures resting in the sky and those few that live on to tell the story of our times?
Digital cameras sell at a rate of about 100 million a year. Cell phone cameras may sell at 5 times that amount. Say a combined total of 600 million per year. Say the average camera has a life cycle of three-four years, indicating there are maybe 2 billion cameras in use world wide. Say the average owner snaps 5-10 pictures a year. That’s about 15 billion photos created a year, give or take a few billions.
Incidentally, isn’t it nice to know that the suicidal driver next to you on the road may not only have a head wrapped around a cell phone but could also capture the last earthly moments of either of you in panoramic, full color, no red eye high resolution jpegs automatically uploaded to YouTube, MeTube and ThemTube? Admired by millions before you even cool down? Ah well, that would never happen to me but it might happen to you.
Out of those billions of pixs, most won’t stand a chance to make it through history or even the day as your spouse/significant other/what-ever might gleefully point out. They’ll be lucky to survive a 1 second glance (the pictures, not the spouse etc.). Let’s be eternally grateful for that. The great big photo place in the sky is awaiting those hoped-for but not achieved master pieces.
Also disappearing are some $20 billion out of your and my pockets. I don’t know about you but after the first few billions, I hardly notice anymore.
Perhaps a success rate of a few hundred winners out of scores of billions seems pretty miserable, especially considering the enormous cost in $. But the flip side is that these few winners may provide a distant future with understanding and perhaps admiration of today’s world and its terrific photographers. Not a bad thing for a lucky photographer.
So it is good that most everyone in the developed and soon the entire world owns a camera, similar to possessing a phone, TV, dog, iPods, fresh socks or perhaps a card board box for a new roof. Any camera may produce the treasure picture. Some professionals may own several quite expensive cameras with lots of accessories. Others don’t.
Many of us discovered that some like to own the cameras we own. Thus, the rip-off business is very much alive, keeping eBay profitable. No one ever stole my socks but my cameras is a different story. Attach thou self to thy art, not the cameras. In this case, it is good to know it is the artist (owner), not the camera, that makes the great pictures.
The moral is that photography is big business, both to businesses and to individuals. It’s so common that perhaps we do not appreciate the miracle that actually creates a photo from some scattered, distorted and unruly light. Maybe it’s even harder to realize the magic that creates a good photo. This post serves to look at that issue.
Good photography has nothing to do with money spent on equipment. Your social standing, fame or skin color matters little. A $40,000 Hasselblad or the all-plastic #20 Holga both can make art. Democrat, KKK member, Silent Majority, Maoist, Country Singer – who cares – art is for everyone. In many cases, the more money spent, the less the value of the photos – the focus is on the wrong thing.
You can make a great camera out of a shoe box using a little 5c needle. There are many great photos coming out of that shoe string operation. You don’t even need film or digital backs – the image can be viewed at the back of the shoe box as a plain projection. Scaling up, one can view such an image on a wall. No $3,000 F.5 lens required.
Fame and Money
Owning an expensive car does not make anyone a good driver. A big house does not make us better neighbors. Our ever bigger pay check does not produce a better society. Photoshop won’t create Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo. Smart bombs do not create peace nor will the $2 trillion cost of the Iraq war. The corner office does not cure divorce, heartache or cancer. Microsoft Word doesn’t make you Shakespeare. The biggest industrial base in the world doesn’t create the biggest land of happiness but the largest source of pollution.
Selling 85 million albums didn’t do Britney Spears much good. Michael Jackson apparently hides in a desert somewhere. Tom Delay, Richard Nixon, Bernard Ebbers and Ken Lay are just examples of the mighty taking hard falls.
W. A. Mozart was never rich – he fought poverty most of his life by spending every schilling he made. So did Rembrandt. Robert Capa mysteriously lost his Leica whenever he was broke which most of the time was the case. Haydn was a poor and humble court servant much of his life. So was Bach. Beethoven didn’t do much better. van Gogh and Monet never reaped to riches their works demand today. Mother Theresa didn’t lunch in Beverly Hills. My art teacher didn’t hop to London on the Concorde. Untold artists never made or make a decent living. Yet they have in common a collection of art unmatched by anything in the world of, say, Karl Rove, Ann Coulter, Bill Clinton, the Bush Clan or Alberto Gonzales.
My main “On Photography essay” mentions the artists belonging to what’s called “Outside Artists (or Art)”. These artists never achieved recognition in their life time. Most spent their lives in mental institutions. Some were homeless. They never had exhibitions reviewed by New York Times. The Art Institute of Chicago did not pay attention. Of course, neither one of these two fine institutions is at fault for this, they claim. Today, several of the Outside Artists are exhibited world wide. “Outsider Art” now is a money machine, catching new interest from dealers and curators.
None of this is new, of course. Artists always were poor, misunderstood and treated unfairly. No doubt that was true of the cave artists of the Chauvet Cave in Southern France 20-35,000 years ago. Yet their art is about all that remains from those very distant Ice Age days. This is precisely the way it is supposed to be! Art has this stubborn, wonderful ability to survive even the harshest challenges such as Ice Ages, the Religious Right, Rudy Guiliano and his various wives, police chiefs and investment buddies.
We have, of course, always been fascinated (envious? disgusted?) with famous persons. Any numbers of businesses know that and exploit it to their little merry, greedy hearts. But what exactly is “fame”. For whom, or what, will it last beyond the next blockbuster of whatever medium?
Here’s the deal: a little poll Choose no more than four of the names, things, events below. Two of the items are your selections of the two least likely to be famous in 100 years. The other two are the ones you believe will at least retain most of their current fame. It’s a simple choice – those without lasting fame, those with lasting fame. For the heck of it, I added extra categories to the names: Foods, Events and Stuff. Select your choices from any category.
In the low tech spirit of this post, here is how: use the comment box at the bottom of this post to submit your vote in any fashion that communicates your choice. Here and below are links to that spot There is another link returning you to the beginning. I’ll do my best to keep up with your busy and eager responses. After all, on normal day, well over a thousand of you deeply honored readers pass through these pages. Bless you all.
Here are the names, in seven favorite groups – Politics, Arts, Entertainment, Misc. and to change the pace a bit Events, Food and Stuff ” – America’s Fastest Growing Poll:
- Politics: George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Tom DeLay, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, J. F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Boris Yeltsin, Barney the Scottish Terrier, Bob Packwood, Kim Jong-Il, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan & sister Bay, Sonny & Mary Bono.
- Arts: George Gershwin, Andy Warhol, Louis Armstrong, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, Susan Sontag, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Igor Stravinsky, Bill Haley, Norman Mailer, Luciano Paverotti, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Cage, The Beach Boys, Liberace, Woody Allen, Doonesbury.
- Entertainment: Tom Cruise, J. K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Adam Sandler, Judy Garland, Jimmy Steward, Madonna, Donald Duck, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Howard Stern, Snowwhite, Paris Hilton, Laurence Olivier, Conan O’Brien, Batman, Greta Garbo, Bruce Lee, ABBA.
- Misc: Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, King-Kong, Ken Lay, Marie Curie, David Beckham, Albert Einstein, Martha Steward, Muhammad Ali, Princess Diana, Osama bin Laden, Al Gore, Billy Graham, Mike Tyson, Karl Marx, Bill Maher, Groucho Marx, Snoop Dogg, Riverdance, Superman, Marge Simpson, PacMan.
- Events: 9/11 2001, O. J. Simpson Trials, Global Warming, Exxon Valdez, Hurricane Katrina, Bill Clinton Impeachment, The A-Bombing of Hiroshima, The Internet, AIDS, The Moon Landings, Watergate, Tom Cruise@Oprah, iPods Releases, Playboy debut, Janet Jackson@Superbowl XXXVIII, Yahoo birth.
- Food: French Fries, Brains and Eggs, Steak Tartare, Beluga Caviar, Macaroni & Cheese, Big Macs, Surf & Turf, Onion Rings, Caesar Salad, Puffer Fish, Béarnaise Sauce, Lutefisk, Broccoli, Sushi, Snails, Liver & Onions, Veggie Burgers, Smorgasbord, Liverwurst, Fishsticks, Coleslaw, Kobe Beef, Kippers, Herring.
- Stuff: Chevrolet Corvette, YouTube, Cell phone Ring tones, Microsoft Word, GPS-In-Your-Car, TiVo, The American Express Platinum Card, Boeing B52, Alien I, II, III, Soprano Reruns, The Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Reagan’s Star War, NASA, Hum-Ve, Cocaine, i-Anything, e-ThisAndThat, Maze.
Enter your choices by using the comment box at the end of this post. Hit the “Poll” button to get there quickly. Then return here using the “Return” button. And – hey – if you don’t like my choices, make up your own.
High Tech Anxiety
If being rich and powerful does not guarantee great photos any more then using an expensive lens – what would? Surely the fantastic new wonders in our ultra technology world is an answer. Take groundbreaking technologies such as DIGIT III, USM, FlexiZone, AiAF, iSAPS, SELPHY, VariAngle, TriCod, Elph, CyberShot, Super HAD, EXILIM, Genie, DA C, DNG, IAA, Phocus, GIL, IPTC Core and XMP Plus. These allegedly major advances come from current catalogs of Canon, Sony and Hasselblad. You have no idea what this stuff stands for? Me neither and I’d like to keep it that way. If you think TriCod is the way to go, by all means spend the dough. It’ll match your BetaMax collection and that ABS training system you purchased a while ago.
High Tech creatures as we may be, utter madness is a healthy part of life. We are living in the utopia of intelligent garbage compactors, mood sensitive lighting, paperless (and people less?) offices, secure and safe computing, no-spam email, painless surgery, eHarmonized spouses, nuclear umbrellas, terrorism cured climate controlled eHouses. Well, the truth is – none of these much talked-about technologies are real. All of them have or will join the failures of Microsoft Bob, Ford’s Edsel, Dubya’s War on Terror, Apple’s Pippin, and the Tacoma Bridge, Alberto Gonzales’ war on US Attorneys, the Maginot Line, the Dean Scream, FEMA, the Domino Theory, Homeland Security, New Coke, G. H. W. Bush’s tax policy, Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Plans and just about everything ever touched on by G. W. Bush & Entourage. Or,
- As H. M. Warner, founder of the famous studio put it in 1927: Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? Or as Ajhan Chah mentioned: Looking for peace is like looking for a turtle with a mustache: You won’t be able to find it.
- To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality; to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality. The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth. Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. Hsin Hsin Ming
Of course not everything is a failure, fake or fraud – it’s just a matter of perspective. Michael Brown did a heck-of-a job in New Orleans. George W. successfully was landed on an aircraft carrier and declared his job was done. Ken Lay never went to prison. Reagan felled the Berlin Wall but never heard of Nicaragua. Record companies successfully dragged grandmothers and underage kids into court. Oil and Tobacco companies survived the adversity of various overeager zealots. Global Warming is kept an obscure, unproven and invisible rumor by George W. and other visionaries – just a part of the George W. Bush War on Science. Genocide here, famine there, nukes spreading like wildfire and Guantanamo’s popping up around the world: all are made subjects unworthy of attentions.
Drug companies enjoy fair and well earned profits from Prozac, Celexa, Zoloft, Lexapro, Esipram, Effexor, Cymbalta, Avanza, Zispin, Remeron, Esronax, Wellbutrin, Zyban, Emsam, Manerix, Tryptan, Buspar, Seroquel, Klonopin, Rivotril, Zyprexa, Risperdal, Adderall, Ritalin, Lithium, Tegretol, Epilim and Lamictal. That’s just to mention a few of the mind altering drugs on the market. It used to be that booze and opium did the job but no more of that.
Meanwhile, there are few drugs available to African AIDS victims. Countries such as the US dispose of their mentally ill by putting them on the streets as police gun practice targets. Polar bears and Arctic seals, krill, cod, lemmings, foxes, reindeer and walruses are obsolete and of no consequence. So are textile workers, aluminum workers, telecom workers, steel workers, cab drivers, sex workers, whaterveryourindustryis workers – depending on where you live and rare fortunes.
So life is tough. Artists starve. Sickos die. Bad products flop. Fortunes flip. Jobs go elsewhere. High Tech fails. Bears perish. Pills keep you happy. Pills make you sleep. Pills wake you up. Pension funds robbed. Coral reefs bleached. Bush remains President. Spouses fight, kids disappear, dogs panic. On it goes.
Remember the Chauvet Cave artists? Come on – it was just a couple of paragraphs ago. Pay attention. I mentioned them for a reason. Art survives. Almost all that is known about prehistoric human conditions comes from the art of a few cave artists in Southern France. Everything else is dead and long forgotten. We don’t know the ancient status of Gay Rights, Equal Employment Opportunities, Balanced Budgets, Wars on Terror, Evolution, Abortion and so on. We do know just how important animals were to those people. Just look at the art.
Art survives. Species go extinct. Jobs are gone. Gods, no gods, one, several, none. Chemistry here, pollution there. No morals, too much morals. Evolution, yes, no, maybe. Holocaust, starvation, killing fields. Clausewitz, Mao, Sun Tzu, Mickey Mouse. Abortion, yes, no. Bombs – nuclear, smart, dumb, too big, too small, stealth, B-52s, vested, worn, exploded by females, students, kids and Generals. Unfairness, violations, crime, corruption and high fever. Ice Ages come and go as do Global Warmings. Art survives it all. Eventually the rest dies. Art survives. The cave artists are still with us. Their contemporaries are not. Art is about us, by us, for us and will eventually be all that is left.
Cave Drawings are Art. Photography is art. Lenses are not art, neither are brand names, pixels or ISOs, ASAs, DINs and UFOs. Canon, Nikon, Hasselblad, Leica or Kodak do not make art, they make stuff. Art is people, at least in the case of a selected few. Photographers create the art – some to be immortal, others very much mortal. The few, the proud, the artists. The survivors.
Less is More
Now, let’s consider the Leica M3 rangefinder camera. It was introduced in the early 1950s and remained in production till about 1968, succeeded by a few very similar models. No batteries, exposure meters or gadgetry. Three lenses did the job. Possibly a flash but usually not. Today, these cameras catch top dollars. So do the lenses and the few accessories.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Ralph Gibson, Alfred Eisenstadt, André Kertész, Yousuf Karsh, Fred Maroon, Jim Marshall, Joe Marvullo, Sebastiao Saldago and Robert Frank were or are more or less exclusive Leica shooters. These guys produced masterpieces that will be famous as long as there is a human race.
They did it without the help of electricity, buzzwords or mindblowing features such as White Balance: Auto, Preset (Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Underwater), Custom and Scene Modes: Portrait, Landscape, Special Scene (Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Night Scene, Aquarium, Underwater, Indoor, ISO 3200), Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, Stitch Assist (From the specs of Canon’s PowerShot A650).
As far as I know, they did it without the assistance of Prozac or Wellbutrin. I’m not sure about opium and booze but I’ve never heard about anyone needing Zoloft to operate an M3. In photography, less tends to be more.
A camera is a pretty simple mechanical object. It consists of a lens, a shutter system and a back end device such as a digital chip or a film. The back end catches the light remaining after passing through the lens and the shutter system. Then the back end stores a representation of the light by chemically altering the loaded film or by writing to file a digital representation of the energy hitting the sensor chip. That’s about it. Of course there are additional elements supporting the three basic ones – light meters, flashes, digital software and much else for the gadget happy photographer. As you might have noticed, my advice is to stick with the basics as we will in this essay.
Expensive Lenses or Not
A lens is just a few pieces of glass or, occasionally, plastic mounted in a tube. It gathers light to be recorded by the back end of the camera. Engineers discovered, over the last 150 years or so, that it is not possible to build an accurate lens. Today’s lenses are incredibly complex in pursuit of the fewest inaccuracies and/or the most pleasing distortions. Even so, a lens does not pass on what it sees but its distorted version of what is in front of it. Each brand with its focal length, f-values, focusing system and even individual lenses of a particular specification/brand have different and, to some extent, measurable characteristics.
Hence, no matter what you pay, lenses are not perfect from a scientific point of view – the light coming through the lens is reduced in intensity and the light beams hitting the back end are distorted due to the optical imperfections of any lens. There is no way around that. Most of these distortions are correctable, either in a darkroom or in Photoshop (or similar software).
Here are just a few of the possible imperfections: pincushion or barrel distortion, image corners out of focus, image corner light falloff, vignetting, ghost images, flares or the curvilinear effect from fisheye lenses. More generally: there are out of focus optical distortions (monochromatic aberration) such as tilt (perspective changes), defocus (sensitivity to focus changes – related to depth of field and focal length), spherical (imperfect refraction resulting in “circular” blurs of light points), coma (off-axis points are rendered wedge-shaped), astigmatism (certain images appear doubled) and field curvature (this stands for barrel and pincushion distortion). Then, there are the optical lens color shifts (chromatic aberrations) that may be axial or lateral. Finally, we have lens stabilizers – a fairly new feature that Robert Capa and everyone else managed without until marketing geniuses decided otherwise..
The wise photographer learns to live with and benefit from the characteristics of a set of favorite lenses. Realizing the full benefits of a lens consists of long and intensive use in typical shooting situations. Some photographers claim the only way to understand the strength and weakness of a lens is to exclusively use it for a year.
Aesthetically, what is pleasing given the distortions to one photographer is deplorable to another. Lens snobs (connoisseurs) often concentrate their attention on the “bokeh” of the lens – how the out of focus parts of the image are rendered. Bokeh is generally not measurable but subjective. In a digital world, bokeh of a lens is easily manipulated in Photoshop.
Adding to the imperfections of the lens are the human errors – using the wrong lens and the wrong settings. Then the problem of low light and handheld shooting often results in handshake blur, in some cases reduced by built in image stabilizers. What about a mind stabilizer?
The Mechanical Wonders of Shutters
Then we have the shutter system. Better yet, we might include the aperture device and call it the light control system. While we are at it, let’s add the light meter present in most cameras. There are endless engineering variations of these systems. All of them share one characteristic. They are inaccurate.
Accuracy is a relative concept. The shutter and the light system may actually be quite accurate except it is not doing what you tell it to do. Say that you set a shutter speed of 1/500 second. The shutter will actually give you 1/400 (say). Typically, every time you set 1/500, you will consistently get 1/400. Shutters will most likely not randomly jump around from 1/250 to 1/700 and everything in between. Likewise, the light system may consistently set you up for 1 stop overexposure. These issues are not fatal as long as you calibrate the camera or at least identify the issues. This is not very hard to do.
Potentially a much worse issue is that of relying on automation – auto exposure, auto focus and in digital cameras, auto white point. Both work efficiently only in trivial shooting situations and actually encourage bad or at least boring compositions. Consider auto focus which requires you to point the camera at the subject and then expose. That composition is not likely to be very exciting. Of course, you can point the camera at the subject, lock the focus and recompose. But if so, why not manually focus which is faster, easier and more accurate?
A few cameras allow you to use off center focus points. My Canon has that ability and that works quite well although even the nine or so focusing points are not enough in my case. How about a continuously adjustable focus point? Is that too much to ask for?
Then, there is auto exposure which works great if you shoot even surfaces of 18% grey. If not, trouble soon pops up. Try this on: grab your camera, go out on a dark night to a nearby well trafficked road, making sure you don’t get run over. Try to take a picture using auto exposure of the oncoming traffic. First, point the camera in the vicinity of the headlight coming towards you and expose. Next, place the headlights off center and expose. The first image will be way underexposed while the second will be overexposed. The correct exposure is somewhere in the middle and only some intelligent guess work will save the night.
To help exposure issues, many cameras can bracket the shots automatically, up and down a few stops. That is quite helpful but won’t work in the roadside example – that variation in exposure far exceeds the typical bracketing settings.
Back ends – Film or Silicon
In a film camera, you load a particular film. That film possess unique features: brand, batch, age, overall sensitivity (ASA or DIN) and the more precise spectral sensitivity over wave lengths all the way down to the individual roll and how it was handled and stored from manufacturing and on. Many photographers overlook the importance of handling and storing film correctly and are punished by color casts and other unexpected issues. High temperatures and any kind of radiation make bad news. Film may be over or underexposed, either by mistake or by purpose, in which case the film is pushed or pulled, which, then, is compensated for in development.
In a digital camera, the back end consists of a chip, onboard memory and software. The chip possesses various unique characteristics ranging from resolution and sensitivity to size. The onboard software takes the raw input from the chip, massages it and converts it into an image file of some standard format, usually JPEG. RAW images may – or not – bypass the onboard software to produce an “accurate” image. Some digital cameras allow you to modify the onboard software for white balance, shooting what the manufacturer considers typical situations (”Hawaiian Sunsets”, “Cathedrals” etc.) and much else. Removing “red eyes” has become quite an industry because most camera manufacturers knowingly put the flash in the wrong place.
Of course, the image produced by the back end – film or digital – is not accurate at all. Consider the journey of light from the sun towards earth, bent and hammered as it flies along. Then the atmosphere with reflections, refractions, collisions and lots more does its trick or treat act. The treacherous lens adds to the wounds, the shutter and light system adds to the insult and the back end lets everyone down. Then add this little element to the pot:
If you are a Photoshop affectionate, you may have played – or even used – some of the fancy plug-ins that attempt to change the characteristics of various back ends. There are plug ins that “compensate” for or “emulate” all kinds of film brands. You can make your digital photo look like it was shot with HP 400 black and white film. Or Velvia color film. Or anything else you may fancy. There are other plug-ins making your film images look like they were digitally shot. Other filters make your image look like it was shot in 1853. Of course, all you do is to add more distortions to your image.
The Ultimate Camera
All we can expect of a camera is for it to give us images we like. Or images we can “improve” using various tools. We must have sufficient control over the shooting session. We can’t get bogged down in technical gadgetry. We can deal with the distortions produced by the camera. Just accept the unavoidable fact that the camera gives you a highly distorted view of the light from the subject you’re shooting. Then keep shooting.
The Ultimate Camera is the one you are happy with and gives you images you like without too much fuss. It may play nasty tricks on you once in a while but that’s life. Do be aware that automations and gimmicks will generally make your life harder. Keep it simple and shoot as much as you can afford. Equipment prices have little to do with this – $20 Holga cameras have quite a following and artistic acceptance because of the extreme amount of distortions produced. They aren’t as great if you want to be a basket ball sports photographer.
This post surfaced a lot of issues about cameras and photography – sources of untold inaccuracies, distortions and fallacies in almost every step on the road. Some may think that digital technology will make all that hassle go away. The answer is no. The reason for that is that most of the issues have nothing to do with photography. The behavior of light and how our brains process color information are items completely outside our control and do not change no matter what the camera is doing or if it is digital or film based.
The few remaining professional film cameras are marvelous technical machines, built from 60-80 years of crucifying development. They survived anything from nuclear blasts to World Wars to landing on the moon. They even survived Uncle Ben and the punch bowl. They have been used to punch out muggers, stop bullets and to drive down nails. They are stolen, fenced and stolen again. They remain faithfully capable of taking great photos as long as there is film to load and a live finger to press that shutter release.
Professional digital cameras build on that tradition but have not quite been through the hazing of their film brothers. Yet they are the result of terrific technology advances that won’t stop for a long time. But no matter how big a sensor or how smart the auto focus, physical laws do not change. Digital technology faces exactly the same issues as does film technology but is nowhere closer to overcome such issues. That is because these issues go beyond cameras. A $40,000 digital Hasselblad system does not reduce pollution in Shanghai. Nor does it correct for ice cave blues. It can’t cure color blindness. Compositions with the Hasselblad are no better than those from my father’s old mechanical monster.
Cameras give us an image frozen in time. You press the shutter button. The shutter fires for a given period of time. The back end records the light received in that period of time. The raw image is done and reflects only that slice in time. This leads us to the next subject and two very different devices – our eyes that record images in an analog manner and our brain that processes those analog images in real time. This is way more complex and sophisticated than that camera. But first: some words from the wise.
- I like to watch the person viewing my photographs to see if their eyes twinkle or cloud with tears. Does the smile sneak out when they were not expecting it to? Then I know I have captured emotion that can be shared. -Marsha Cairo
- A big shot is a little shot that kept shooting. -Amanda Caldwell; The mystery isn’t in the technique, it’s in each of us. -Harry Callahan; If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. -Robert Capa; Rules aren’t any good if they don’t work! The only real rules are the laws of physics and optics. -Dean Collins
- Images at their passionate and truthful best are as powerful as words can ever be. If they alone cannot bring change, they can at least provide an understanding mirror of man’s actions, thereby sharpening human awareness and awakening conscience. -Cornell Capa
- (Professional) photographers are like hookers: at first we started doing it because we liked it and it felt good, then we kept doing it but only for our friends, and NOW we’re still doing it but are charging money for doing it! -Dean Collins
- Pictures, regardless of how they are created and recreated, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the eyenology (seeing). -Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Success depends on the extent of one’s general culture, one’s set of values, one’s clarity of mind and one’s vivacity. The thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived, the contrary to life. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Our eye must constantly measure, evaluate. We alter our perspective by a slight bending of the knees; we convey the chance meeting of lines by a simple shifting of our heads a thousandth of an inch…. We compose almost at the same time we press the shutter, and in placing the camera closer or farther from the subject, we shape the details – taming or being tamed by them. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
- ..throughout the history of art it has been art itself – in all its forms – that has inspired art… today’s photographs are so geared to life that one can learn more from them than from life itself. -Van Deren Coke
- The camera is a killing chamber, which speeds up the time it claims to be conserving. Like coffins exhumed and pried open, the photographs put on show what we were and what we will be again. -Peter Conrad
- Photography is like fishing. You go out in the morning with no idea of what the trip will bring. Sometimes luck is on your side and all your crab pots are full of prime Lobsters. Other times you get nothing. -Bob Croxford
- …There are too many people studying it [photography] now who are never going to make it. You can’t give them a formula for making it. You have to have it in you first, you don’t learn it. The seeing eye is the important thing. -Imogen Cunningham.
The Poll – Repeat from Above
Here’s the deal. Choose no more than four of the names/things/events below. Two of the items are your selections of the two least likely to be famous in 100 years. The other two are the ones you believe will at least retain most of their current fame. Simple choice – those without lasting fame, those with lasting fame. For the heck of it, I added extra categories to the names: Foods, Events and Stuff. Select your choices from any category.
In the low tech spirit of this post, here is how: use the comment box at the bottom of this post to submit your vote in any fashion that communicates your choice. Here and below are links to that spot There is another link returning you to the beginning. I’ll do my best to keep up with your busy and eager responses. After all, on normal day, well over a thousand of you deeply honored readers pass these pages. Bless you all.
Here are the names, in seven favorite groups – Politics, Arts, Entertainment, Misc. and to change the pace a bit Events, Food and Stuff ” – America’s Fastest Growing Poll:
- Politics: George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Tom DeLay, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, J. F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Boris Yeltsin, Barney the Scottish Terrier, Bob Packwood, Kim Jong-Il, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan & sister Bay, Sonny & Mary Bono.
- Arts: George Gershwin, Andy Warhol, Louis Armstrong, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, Susan Sontag, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Igor Stravinsky, Bill Haley, Norman Mailer, Luciano Paverotti, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Cage, The Beach Boys, Liberace, Woody Allen, Doonesbury.
- Entertainment: Tom Cruise, J. K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Adam Sandler, Judy Garland, Jimmy Steward, Madonna, Donald Duck, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Howard Stern, Snowwhite, Paris Hilton, Laurence Olivier, Conan O’Brien, Batman, Greta Garbo, Bruce Lee, ABBA.
- Misc: Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, King-Kong, Ken Lay, Marie Curie, David Beckham, Albert Einstein, Martha Steward, Muhammad Ali, Princess Diana, Osama bin Laden, Al Gore, Billy Graham, Mike Tyson, Karl Marx, Bill Maher, Groucho Marx, Snoop Dogg, Riverdance, Superman, Marge Simpson, PacMan.
- Events: 9/11 2001, O. J. Simpson Trials, Global Warming, Exxon Valdez, Hurricane Katrina, Bill Clinton Impeachment, The A-Bombing of Hiroshima, The Internet, AIDS, The Moon Landings, Watergate, Tom Cruise@Oprah, iPods Releases, Playboy debut, Janet Jackson@Superbowl XXXVIII, Yahoo birth.
- Food: French Fries, Brains and Eggs, Steak Tartare, Beluga Caviar, Macaroni & Cheese, Big Macs, Surf & Turf, Onion Rings, Caesar Salad, Puffer Fish, Bernaise Sauce, Lutefisk, Broccoli, Sushi, Snails, Liver & Onions, Veggie Burgers, Smorgasbord, Liverwurst, Fish sticks, Coleslaw, Kobe Beef, Kippers, Herring.
- Stuff: Chevrolet Corvette, YouTube, Microsoft Word, GPS-In-Your-Car, TiVo, The American Express Platinum Card, Boeing B52, Alien I-III, Soprano Reruns, Cell phone Ring tones, Maze, The Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Reagan’s Star War, Cocaine, i-Anything, e-ThisAndThat, NASA, Hum-Ve.
Enter your choices by using the comment box below. Then return to the top of the post using the “Return” button. And – hey – if you don’t like my choices, enter your own.
November 6, 2007
Your brain is located in your head, according to Wikipedia. After this astonishing discovery, Wikipedia states that the human brain contains more than 100 billion neurons, each linked to as many as 10,000 other neurons. Let’s see, that means the poor thing has to deal with 10 quadrillion neurons. I really have only a dim idea what neurons are and know even less about what quadrillions of them might do to me. Apparently, they look like this:
So now you know what’s in your head: quadrillions of tiny worm look-alike things. Somehow, these worms deal with light, color, visions, creativity, math and all the rest of the stuff we believe we “know”. Moreover, these things can be several feet long, stretching from the base of the spine to the feet. They communicate with each other through various electrical and chemical means, all of which sounds like a Hollywood horror C movie.
They allow us to drive cars, walk, make love, hate the boss, watch “Police Academy III” and have opinions on photography. They tell us we are lonely, hungry, horny or just bored. Busy little things, those worms in your head. More complex than an O. J. Simpson murder case or a George W. Bush statement on Global Warming, the War on Terror and Progress in Iraq, there is no hope of understanding how the brain really works. Only politicians can deal with quadrillions of things, especially in regard to your tax bill and Air Force toilet seats. Humans can’t.
Yet for all the mystery, even a few quadrillions eager little worms don’t do the job that well. The brain is easily fooled as many simple little pop science graphics can prove. Lines that look bent but aren’t. Dot’s that rotate bur really don’t. That is in spite of consuming most of the human energy requirements and thus being responsible for Global Warming.
The brain might get sick and cause all kinds of problems. Even when healthy it can cause completely irrational things to happen. Example. I live in Seattle but every weekend I eagerly await the UK Times Sunday magazine and its reviews of London restaurants. There is close to zero chance I’ll ever visit any of these restaurants but apparently some little worm in my head suffers from Britophilia. Perhaps this is due to how the Brits endured the Blitz, David Beckham, Prince Charles and “The Office”. Who knows.
Even more amazingly, I know others suffer from the same irrational phobia. People write these Times critics from all over the World, having opinions on meals they will never have. Just last weekend, a fellow Seattlie commented on the alcoholism of one of the critics who also received a “thatta Scot” from someone with a Spanish name in Texas. Another critic receives criticism because he tends to mention his girl friend too often. The third critic (yes, the Times have three restaurant critics) is frequently called an old goat and perhaps he is. Every week this old goat publishes a photo of himself with some recent girl friend.
The Times also features a chef more famous for his record setting use of the f_ _k word on TV than his cooking. There is also a “motor” columnist who probably should be locked up as well. Said critic recently declared that “he likes cars to telegraph their intentions through the fabric of his underpants. He likes them (the cars? the intentions? the underpants?) to be crisp and responsive and loud and powerful. He confesses: “But I am unusual”. Indeed.
Of course, brains are associated with all kinds of things. Brainpower stands for a Dutch Rapper. Eggs and brains are a popular breakfast item many parts of the World, including Britain and Portugal. The Honorable US Congressman from North Carolina, Howard Coble’s web site headlines his favorite recipe for Brains and Eggs. The French like their Tete de Veau, the Mexicans their Tacos de Sesos. The US South eat squirrel brains, Indonesians like brains with coconut milk. The Mad Cow Disease might sober the demand for some of these delicacies. 3rd Rock From the Sun aired their Brains and Eggs episode in 1996 (Voted 9.0 or Superb).
There are the Brains of Bahrain – a chess match – and the former TV show of Brains & Brawns, nowadays referring to downloadable cell phone ring tones. Braintree is a city in Mass., USA. The Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble makes Mozart recordings. Brains is a popular brewery in Wales. Mad scientists dream of Brains in a Vat. Let’s not forget the No Bra movement of the 1960s.
So this occasionally irrational brain and its electric worms handle our visionary system. Not only does it allow judgments on wide reaching subjects such as Michael Jackson’s nose, Britney Spears’ hairdo and the girl friends of English restaurant critics., it also permits judgments on our photography. It makes us claim one photo is better than another. It declares that some photos are obscene. Or romantic, revolutionary, boring, charming or the like. It ignores the fact that it is the brain that not only creates the opinions but also the images themselves. The brain worms receive electrical impulses derived from the amplitudes and frequencies of light and then fools us into believing we see reality. There is no reality.
Some of this post is an update and extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography” as well as On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On Photography – Trick and Treat of Light and On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited.
Light’s in Your Eyes
Superficially, our eyes share some characteristics with a camera. Eyes have lenses, irises and corneas that work like aperture and focusing controls. Eyes understand and adjust for different light levels. There is a retina back end consisting of seven layers of light sensitive receptors that pass information to our brains. The eyes’ focusing, aperture and light controls are infinitely more sensitive and fast than those of any camera, however costly or “digitally advanced”.
Do our eyes accurately record the Truth and pass it on to the brain? No. Eyes have limitations. Some of us are near sighted; a few are far sighted or perhaps color blind. Others are blind, or nearly so. Not to forget crossed or wandering eyes. To older people, focus muscles are worn out. The eyes may contract illnesses. The lenses and corneas are easily damaged. Many lenses are shaped in an inaccurate way, resulting in distortions. The receptors may get temporarily blinded by sudden surges in light levels.
There are big businesses involved in fixing your eyes. Eye glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses eat up billions of our dollars while introducing even more distortions. Many of these devices change the focus and color of the light reaching your eyes. Some even change to color of the eyes themselves. Surgery chains happily operate on your eyes at a remarkably low price, changing your point of view again.
The eyes and the rest of the visual system do not operate on light or colors the way a camera does. The human system transforms the light entering the eyes to initially straight lines that eventually combine into curved lines and contours. Colors and light levels are judged by comparing the curves. Colors are no longer represented by K values or any other ordinary system. Light is no longer measured by absolute levels, as is done in the photo cell of a light meter. The process of interpreting all these lines, contours and relative levels introduces yet another level of inaccuracy. It is the basis of the many illusions with which some (such as psychiatrists) like to work or play.
It really is just plain weird. The brain tells us something is blue. Yet the information it based this opinion on has nothing to do with “blue” – not even the abstract “real” representation of amplitudes and wave length. The eyes and the brain have its own way of “colorizing” our world. In the external world, blue is represented by that vibration deal. Internally – in your brain – blue is associated not with vibrations but some other poorly understood collection of lines, form, chemicals, tiny electric impulses and no doubt stuff like enzymes and ultimately DNA. Beats me.
Add the analog feature of our eyes and visual system. There is no such thing as one view of our surroundings. The eyes constantly receive new information. They react to the information in an eternal cycle of adjustments. Most of us have two eyes. Each eye receives a two dimensional view. The visual system combines the two dimensional views into a three dimensional view. Take that, you one-eyed, two dimensional cameras.
Think about it. Your tiny eyes have incomparable power and flexibility relative to any camera at any price and size. But accurate – don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
Fooled by your Brain
The brain does fix it all, in a manner of speech. It is in complete charge of our perceptions. It even adds a whole emotional dimension to the information from the eyes. Of course, the brain controls the eyes themselves, not to mention all of you. A regular control freak, your brain is. But whatever the brain decides to present to you is the truth because you have no source for a second opinion.
The trouble is we don’t quite understand what our brain does with that relatively straight forward stream of distorted light entering the eyes. We can’t control the process. We do know that what we see is an interpretation created by the brain. What are the rules for this interpretation? Here you enter a real complex issue studied by many very clever people with lots of theories, some of which are contradictory.
One theory states that the brain creates an interpolated view that is based on incomplete information from the eyes. This, again, explains the visual illusions mentioned earlier. Manipulate the incomplete information reaching the brain and it makes predictably bad decisions. There are various theories how this interpretation works, such as the one claiming the brain uses the complex math of Bayesian science.
Most theories agree that the brain is not an impartial recorder or interpreter of truth. It receives input from the eyes and all our other sensors. It examines the input, compares it to prior input (“experience”, “knowledge”) in its database and modifies the original input to make it more understandable and safer. Take, for instance, the novice 911 medic. The first job experiences are extremely traumatic but become routine fairly quickly. The work isn’t getting easier but that the brain distorts the reality to protect the worker. The same goes for novice soldiers entering their first battle. Later they become seasoned veterans as their brains and experience database kicks in its protective circuits.
In a more peaceful world, how many times have you used the expression “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” as applied to practically anything. The brain learns from experience and applies it to any similar situation in the future. The phenomenon of “deja vu” is similar. A new input is suddenly associated with a previous experience that may or may not be real. Theories abound on how this works, but suffice to say that the brain is quite prepared to play games with you.
The brain also makes basic assumptions such as that light is usually coming from above. It relies on prior experience to produce a predicable, safe interpretation. It is almost like the old (very outdated) saying in IT circles: You will never go wrong by buying IBM. The brain produces an image that it thinks you will like. It even goes as far as making sure that image won’t hurt you too much.
Then there is the “Gestalt” theory. It states that the brain receives a bunch of sub components of the visual image. The brain then combines these sub components into the whole according to a set of rules. This theory claims the brain uses six distinct rules to achieve its goal: perhaps, perhaps not.
Other theories claim the rules depend on personality, race, gender, occupation, education, age, attitudes and values and so on. I suppose that makes intuitive sense. A different theory discards most of this theory: the brain receives sufficient information and does not make interpretations.
The brain is not really concerned with accuracy the way most of us erroneously take for granted. I already mentioned that the brain distorts the visual input as it tries to protect us from the ugliness around us. This is similar to how the nervous system shuts down to shield us from the effects of a serious injury. The brain goes beyond that mechanism. It adds an emotional context to the picture we might be looking at. Stuff look differently depending on our mood. It adds impulses from our social context or internal data base as mentioned. It also considers the current context – time of day, weather, stress level, alertness, cosmic cycles, UFOs – on and on it goes.
Here you are: a full circle and total confusion. Does this sound like the visual system capable of presenting Reality? Is it even designed to show Reality? The simple answers are No and No. On top of all the other distortions, the brain adds/filters out its own version of Reality. It’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry. Jack Nicholson cried out to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth”. How true.
What about Photography?
Art such as photography is occasionally (often? always?) just a game of manipulating a viewer, client or buyer. We, as artists, wish to interfere with that brain mechanism that the world perceives as “reality”. We want to provoke an emotional response. We wish to show something being not quite what others expect. We use our own emotional and social contexts and experiences to provoke interest. We try to picture and present the World based on our own perceptions, biases and pet opinions. Given that, us artists should be very happy our brains help support these illusions. Or whatever.
October 16, 2007
The impact of color on the art of photography famously is enormously enormous. We live in a color filled world, so we shoot in color. It’s got to look real – right? So we think. Color can accentuate a mood. So we romantically believe. Colors are pretty. Of course they are. Eventually we realize things aren’t that simple. Colors are not real.
For starters, take Picasso’s blue, rose and monochrome periods or van Gogh’s wildly yellow sunflowers. Nothing real about them but masterpieces nevertheless. Or what about something as mundane as food photography with its color distortions making us hungry. Then, shooting in black&white is another extreme form of color manipulation. What about gray granite sculptures or the white marble ones? Many of Rembrandt’s works are relatively dark toned compared to the vivid colors of Paul Klee or the light water colors of Carl Larsson.
Colors have nicknames. The 2008 Toyota Solara comes in Blizzard Pearl, Ivory, Dark Stone, Dark Charcoal, Classic Silver, Magnetic Gray, Absolutely Red, Cosmic Blue and Blue Streak. Does that stand for Blue, Red, Gray and White? Are Yellow, Green and Black no longer in fashion? On the other hand, the specs of Honda’s HR Series HRS216ODA lawn mower leave colors alone – apparently still following the Model T marketing strategy. John Deere’s 770D Motor Grader specs do not mention colors either but seem to come with tinted windows. But your bed sheets may be Ecru, Cameo Pink or Cinnabar colored.
Speaking of fashion, how about this: “Layers of haze, clouds, water and air create delicate variations of non colours next to white. Those tints are diffuse and innocent, with an iridescent shale tint contrasting the fragility of those diaphanous and bleached pastels.” Or: “In a season moving away from the bling, cheerful brights work as accents invigorating the season’s harmonious and subdued colour mood. Midtone lilacs, greens and blues compliment zesty red, orange, yellow and cyclamen”. Huh?
Some of us like pink cars, Pink Floyd and Pink Gins. Australia, Oregon and Jamaica have Blue Mountains, Bavarian forests are Black. In the 1950s, some men preferred blondes. The Irish favor green. Some US states are blue and others are red. There are Red Necks, White Trash and Blue Blooded Aristocrats. We used to have the Red Menace and the Yellow Peril. Today, we have Green Parties, Greenpeace and Glitzy Copper lipsticks. Scarlett O’Hara did history as did Jerry Brown, Red Skelton, Rosie McDonald, Karen Black and Goldie Hawn. Let’s not forget Rosie the Riveter, the Red Baron and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Colors are just energy things that vibrate. Lots of other things vibrate without us paying attention. What’s so special about colors? There are vibrating beds but we rarely name our kids after them. In fact, the world around us is filled with vibrations of various kinds. Some of those vibrations have been vibrating for billions of years. Do we care? Still, we have an endless curiosity about colors.
There were Black Panthers, Black September and Red Armies. White means marriage to some, funeral to others and Racial Supremacy to a few. Color Racism remains alive. There were the Dark Ages, the Age of Enlightenment, the Bronze Age, Black Death and Yellow Fever. Khmer Rouge murdered millions. How about Grey Eminencies, Dark Princes, White Princes, Kingdoms of Light, Red Cardinals, White Knights, Old Blue Eye, Red Communists and Hitler Brown and Black Shirts.
Some like blue movies or head for Red Light districts or Moulin Rouge. Others prefer Yellow Submarines. We have the Redskins, pink panthers, the Whitesocks, not to mention the pink and white elephants we occasionally chase. Off Color Jokes are frowned upon. It was a dark and stormy night. We are afraid of the darkness and of white sharks. Some worship the Sun and its light. Some days we are blue. Others, we are black, pink or maybe red. We eat Brownies, White, Red or Yellow Potatoes , Green, Red or White Onions, Red Beans, Red , White, or Dark Meats and Red Hot Chili. Some wear White Shoes in the Summer, Black after Labor Day – perhaps they dress in Black for Dinner.
It’s all fantasy. We let colors symbolize ideas and feelings where we largely make up the connections. Then we can’t agree on what those connections are. Asian connections and perceptions differ from those of the Western Word. In America and elsewhere, the perception of color vary significantly depending on you skin color.
We watch Men in Black, A Clockwork Orange, Blue Lagoon, Black Orpheus, White Christmas, The Color Purple, Red Shoes, A Red Violin, The Hunt for Red October and GoldenEye. We listen to Paint it Black, Brown Eyed Girl, I’m Blue, Purple Haze, Blue Monday, Black and White, Little Pink Houses and Pale Blue Eyes. We read Devil In A Blue Dress, Blue Light, Blinking Red Light, The Red Moon and Wearing Purple. Gershwin had his Rhapsody in Blue, Miles Davis was Kind of Blue, Ellington composed A Black and Tan Fantasy, Mood Indigo and the Black, Brown and Beige Concerts, not to mention Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
It’s all in our minds and nothing is what it seems. Contrary to reality and reason, colors have powerful connections to our minds. The thing is colors aren’t real. Artistically we distort them for, well, artistic reasons. Photoshop rules. We invert, bend, mix, translate, multiply, XOR and erase colors, having great fun. Why not? Perhaps we don’t understand that all we do is fool around with light beams and particles vibrating at various frequencies and amplitudes. Then we might even see that colors aren’t real. We just think they are.
Consider the simple color wheel above. Those colors aren’t real. They are the result of preparing the surface of paper, or in our case, manipulating a computer monitor. In the case of paper, you coat the surface with stuff that reflects electromagnetic waves at different wave lengths and amplitudes. In the case of a monitor, all you do is watch transistors going off and on, or seeing light guns fire away at a metal screen with little holes in it. Either way, it’s just frequencies and amplitudes.
Mother Nature is the most powerful manipulator of us all. Light and color is under constant attack. Dark colors dominate at night, while mysteriously it is light during the day. How so? Consider colors during a thunder storm versus colors on the beach or in Shanghai on a bad day. Climb to the top of Earth or dive deep into the oceans. How come the colors are so different?
Then we have ourselves and our poorly understood human perceptions of color. Our brains play a real trick on us. They make us believe that colors are real. They have found ways to generate brain waves in response to mere vibrations. They try to fool us into believing that things have colors. Things do not have colors. It’s just energy trying to be something more.
This post is largely an extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On Photography – Trick and Treat of Light and On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited.
A Bit of Theory
Light is characterized by three components: amplitude (intensity or brightness), frequency or wave length which relates to color and polarization (angle, vibration, reflection). Light may come in the form of a beam emitted from a light source. If the beam is aimed straight at you, it is visible as a point of bright light. From the side, that beam is not visible till it is scattered into a spectrum of different wave lengths. Our retinas and brains map the spectrum of wave lengths to perceived colors.
I’m sure you have seen the standard graphs of wave length and associated colors. It goes like this: the lowest wave lengths are associated with sound as heard by humans. AM radio, TV and FM waves are next up in frequency (lower in wave length), followed by kitchen, radar and signal transmitting micro waves.
Then comes infrared light which is associated with heat – the burning logs in your fireplace emit infrared “heat”. The TV remote uses infrared waves. So far nothing is visible to us. A very narrow band of visible light, split into colors, follows. This spectrum goes from red, yellow, green, blue and magenta to violet.
After the band of colors, we return to invisibility: ultraviolet light causes sunburn. It can’t be seen by humans but is visible to bumblebees. UV light is real important in astronomy – distant galaxies and stars often only emit UV light so the Hubble telescope and some satellites are very sensitive to such light. Then X-rays follow. Finally, gamma radiation can kill, very important both to space travel and astrology.
Have you noticed I sometimes talk about frequencies and wave lengths as in an analog beam (scattered or not) and sometimes about light consisting of particles bouncing around in some pattern? Both ways to look at light are correct but how light consists of both waves and particles is a bit mysterious. An issue of quantum physics, debated by many from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, this unresolved subject is a bit beyond this essay.
But think about it: why would an electromagnetic pulse (light beam) be split or scattered by an atmospheric particle unless it too is a particle? On the other hand, are our eyes really letting in all these dirty particles that have traveled space and bounced off all kinds of pollution? I’d hope not. How do light particles penetrate a camera lens? This mystery will remain unsolved in this essay (as it is in science).
Colors from Happiness to Madness
So much for theory – electromagnetic waves, infrared this and gamma that, particles, amplitudes…. Let’s switch tack a bit. Visions are emotionally driven, inner convictions. Colors, in psychology, not to mention advertising and web design, associate freely with emotions. I’m blue today. He was red hot. She was green with envy. Here is one opinion (of many) on how colors associate with emotions:
- Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love. Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a color found in many national flags.
- Orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics. Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation. To the human eye, orange is a very hot color, so it gives the sensation of heat. Nevertheless, orange is not as aggressive as red.
- Yellow is the color of sunshine. It’s associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy. Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy. Yellow is often associated with food. Bright, pure yellow is an attention getter, which is the reason taxicabs are painted this color.
- Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Dark green is also commonly associated with money. Green has great healing power. It is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance.
- Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.
- Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. Purple is associated with royalty. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance. Purple is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic. According to surveys, almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors. Purple is a very rare color in nature; some people consider it to be artificial.
- White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. White can represent a successful beginning. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity.
- Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery. Black is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor, ‘black death’). Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color (black tie, black Mercedes). In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.
Some claim colors guide our lives in a sublime mix of emotions and realities. Personally, I’m not so sure. I believe we all are more complex than that. Form, harmony and discord, for instance, seem important as well. Probably context, such as being fired, getting married, suffering from depression or winning the lottery, emotionally overrides any color setting. Colors as emotional impacts are nevertheless legitimate parts of the magical toolbox but not at the exclusion of other factors.
Unreal World Color
AA Gills of the London Times recently visited Tasmania and filed the following observation (italics mine). Rarely have I seen so many unusual wave lengths covered in so few sentences:
- The rocky shore is tortured into a macabre and dramatic beauty. The waves stand up on their hind legs and lunge at the land, to be flayed into bone-white shreds by the black rocks. In the late afternoon, the sky is glowing pale gold, dark mauve clouds are filigreed pink, thousand of mutton birds (sheerwaters) fly low over the silver water, and we hurry back in the teeth of the wind to our hut.
Now, that is the drama of colors, if somewhat tortured. I’m sure Conrad had not been able to put it better. AA Gills actually is a restaurant critic and feature writer for the Times but seems to have his hands in plenty of pots. Good for him.
Take that sun beam traveling through space towards you. At high noon, that beam will hit the atmosphere straight on. Since the atmospheric particles are much larger than those associated with the beam, the beam is scattered into predominately short wave lengths – blue. Thus the sky is blue during the day. As the sun sets, the angle of the sun beam is to close to 90 degrees. Now we see more of the longer wave lengths – red.
Colors depend on altitude – the higher you are the bluer the scene and the sharper the shadows. A higher altitude means, mostly, less pollution and more unhealthy radiation from space ranging from UV to gamma energy. Sun beams are less scattered, hence the scene is lighter. There are fewer clouds if you go high enough. Perhaps you are high enough to encounter snow which reflects enormous amounts of light. Or, returning to zero altitude – sea level – you better consider a similar high reflection of light from the sea surface. In this case, polarization becomes yet another tool. Keep this in mind next time you climb Mount Everest.
As a side line consider Global Warming. Color, together with light in general, plays a powerful part. As temperatures go up due to CO2 content in the atmosphere trapping the Sun’s energy – some in the form of ordinary light – ice packs melt, the ground becomes darker, reflecting less energy back into space, making temperatures increase even faster in an evil circle that may be unstoppable at some point. Simple color properties may extinct mankind. Perhaps.
The color spectrum varies tremendously from one location to the next. You have monochrome environments such as deserts, ski slopes, some beaches, polar ice areas, tundra, oceans, mines and tunnels. Next, there are monochromes with occasional color items, such as many parts of an inner city or fireworks. Low light photography is usually close to monochrome, wherever you are. Intensive colors are found in many tropical locations. Specific places such as the Dutch tulip fields in the right season or Brazilian Samba festivals are colorful. You choose your film or white balance (or other settings) with that in mind.
Colors Ain’t Colors
Colors aren’t real. They simply are associated by your brain with light particles vibrating at certain frequencies. As humans, color processing follows a complex path through the eyes, to the retina with its three basic sensors (blue, bluish-green and yellow-green of all odd compositions) and on to the brain, where it is all sorted out according to a set of rules. A given wave length is translated into a “color”.
Put an 80A blue filter on your lens (or simply look through it) and colors change. This particular filter changes light emitted from reddish tungsten sources back to “normal” daylight color spectra, given daylight film or white balance. Here is what actually happens: the filter is manufactured so it absorbs vibrations in the 1800-2500K range (perceived as red) while letting the shorter wave lengths through. The result of applying the filter is that the scene appears to emit relatively more short wave length rays, correcting for the excess emission of light in the 2800K range typical of tungsten light. It’s all a matter of wave lengths, not “colors”.
Walk into a color darkroom and twist the color correction dials a bit and the color print comes out quite differently. Play with color settings in Photoshop and the image changes accordingly. Put on your sunglasses and colors shift. Color blindness changes how wave lengths are mapped in your brain due to some part of the system being damaged. Several other deficiencies change our perceptions of color. Colors are what you make them to be.
Next, we need to represent color in print. Now we deal with a totally new set of representations. CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is the traditional print representation which has absolutely nothing to do with how we humans perceive or process color. Pantone’s system of six colors for increased precision adds orange and green to the CMYK system. So we invent these systems of classifying colors. All that actually happens is that various materials with different light energy scattering properties are applied to a piece of paper.
Do Computers See Colors?
Computers use their own concepts of color representation. Colors are associated with an RGB (Red, Green and Blue) model. This model assigns trios of numbers from 0 to 255 to the “colors”. Red, for instance is coded as (255,0,0) and blue is (0,0,255). (0,0,0) means black, (255,255,255) stands for white. These numbers are used not only to describe colors internally but also to control the electron gun of an analog monitor or the transistors in flat screen monitors.
The RGB model does not actually represent real colors but are simply some numbers that could represent anything or nothing. The numbers do not automatically result in accurate colors. The computer and the monitor need to be told what an “accurate” color is. This information is held in one or more arrays that say “apply this correction when sending info to the monitor or printer”. You are responsible for keeping those arrays up to date, using available tools. Many of us don’t do that and hence get used to strange colors and fail to understand why others complain.
Monitor color guns or color sensitive “dots” must also be carefully calibrated to some standard color space. Such calibration uses elaborate color management tools. The standard monitor color spaces come in many flavors of RGB (red, green, blue): sRGB, Apple RGB, Adobe RGB and ColorMatch RGB. On the printing side (CMYK), we have a set of US standards together with corresponding (different) European and Japanese variations.
A simple but crucial monitor setting is the brightness, referred to as the “gamma” setting. Just for fun, Apple uses a different gamma standard than PCs. A Mac calibrated image looks darker on a calibrated PC and vice versa. Great, isn’t it?
It’s not over yet. Next is the coordination of color spaces and calibration across devices. The digital camera, the scanner, the monitor and printing using external labs or the onsite photo printer must be calibrated accurately to compatible color spaces. This is not a trivial undertaking although special software may reduce the pain a bit.
Computers have no understanding of colors – to them it is just a numbers game. Perhaps by now you wonder in what way all these classifications, standards, rules, adjustments and measurements are relevant. Nature itself makes far greater adjustments without blushing or asking for permission.
Colors, Oh Those Damn Colors
Maybe you conclude things were simpler in the old days of taking your color film to some lab or retailer, accepting the result – perhaps grudgingly but with little chance of being heard. Heck no. In the “old days”, a good print meant endless darkroom exercises tinkering with enlarger settings, which doesn’t even start dealing with the external viewing or printing issues. Color management was not easier but merely overlooked in many cases, or more accurately, achieved in a different way.
Colors and photography are a true mess. Technology makes it all harder instead of easier. Truly managing colors in photography is a massive undertaking that many photographers avoid or ignore. The bright side is that if you make the effort to master color and its management, you are far ahead of much of the competition. The bleak side is the hours you spend on tinkering with calibrations, devices and standards. Many of us end up with a compromise. One compromise is to let specialists deal with the whole issue. That is expensive. Another option is to wing it. You learn what makes a nice print on a trial and error basis. You learn that a bluish tint on the monitor results in a great print on your Canon printer. And you get on with life.
Let’s jump into yet another issue. Different films as well as different digital chips have unique sensitivities to the wave lengths of color. A particular film (or sensor), black&white or color, may be more sensitive to blue than red. Another film or sensor may behave in the opposite manner. Each film is associated with a sensitivity profile ranging over the wave length spectrum. This spectrum sets the film apart from other films. The same is true for sensor chips in a digital camera. The difference is that the chip is permanently in place while, in the film case, you can simply change films to match the shooting situation and your vision. The back end (film or chip) may be sensitive to waves beyond the visible spectrum. In the case of film, that may be X-ray waves.
The latest Leica M camera, the first digital version, suffered (suffers?) from an abnormal sensitivity to infrared light. This resulted in strange distortions that were visible in the images under some circumstances. Given a price of around $4,500 for just the camera body, that is a bit embarrassing. Is it a unique case? I think not.
Now you know one major reason I love black&white photography. Not that any of the color issues magically disappear (they surely don’t since you have to manage the color to gray scale transition) but dealing with a gray scale is a lot more natural to me than tinkering endlessly with scores of color standards. And in my mind, b&w has an artistic impact unmatched in any medium. That, of course, is just my view.
Using Color: The Magical Toolbox
Color work splits into two events: Before Exposure and After Exposure. Colors are only a form of light or, precisely, they come from light beams split into color waves. Everything in the previous section about light applies to color waves as well. This section expands on the special form of light referred to as colors.
The Before Exposure considerations include:
You have an artistic vision. You developed a photographic style. You are on assignment. Let’s say you’ll shoot color. The first consideration is that your vision most likely favors certain color combinations, mood and overall light. It may be in-your-face harsh light and strong, exaggerated colors. Or perhaps it is calm muted colors with a minimum of shadows. It might be a mix of the two. Next, mesh that vision with the requirements for the shoot (if any). The vision rules, the requirements are the handcuffs.
Then, find the location that matches the vision and requirements. You are, of course, familiar with all the ways in which colors and light vary depending on a great many, but often predictable factors (excluding weather in the case of outdoors shoots – if you need sunshine and it’s raining hard, you’re out of luck).
Now you have advanced to the chosen location. It is a matter of setting up the actual shoot. The dominating consideration still is color and light. Even with the most informed choice of location, there will be color and light issues to deal with. Things are always just a bit out of sync. Sometimes they are way out of sync. The exception, of course, is if you maintain your own control over light and color by supplying you own lighting setup. Jeff Wall can spend weeks or months waiting for light and colors to be just right.
Your vision, of course, favors certain compositional elements, including color preferences and associated moods and balances. Now faced with the real world, perhaps the scene does not match the vision perfectly or, maybe, not at all. It is time to reconsider and improvise. Or walk away which might be costly.
So a particular dance starts up, similar to the “As Time Goes By Can Can” already mentioned for exposure and composition. Let’s call this dance “The High Noon Two Step”. You run around the location, checking out shadows, highlights, midtones, light ratios and color shifts, perhaps wishing you were free to move around the country instead. You’re adjusting this and moving that. You tinker with the camera, fitting filters, changing film, moving the white balance this way, then that way. You’re pre visualizing like a mad man. You snapping test shots left, right, up, down and possibly upside down.
Eventually, you have to admit you used all the tools and excuses, the scene is OK and it’s time to actually start shooting. The madness actually followed a path (although no one else may believe it). So the “As Time Goes By Can Can” compositional dance is about to start. The color work is temporarily on hold. Actual pictures are about to happen.
After Exposure, there are more opportunities to screw up or to enhance the images:
Development strategy or initial Photoshop corrections: You did, of course, pre visualize the image which should define the steps to take in development and printing. But sometimes the initial result isn’t quite what you expected. Maybe your white balance setting was a bit off. Perhaps the color film wasn’t quite to specs or the development chemicals a bit too old. So don’t be too surprised you have to apply some initial corrections to get the colors back on the intended track.
Alter the color balance and related features: Your pre visualization may well include corrections to the original image. Perhaps you shoot digitally but the plan is for a black&white image. Maybe you planned to enhance the original image to fit into your vision or work spec: apply more vivid or muted colors, shift the colors to some off beat point, add some special effect or combine several images. There are literally infinite possibilities to make your vision come true, whatever it is.
End use adjustments: Most likely the image has to be adjusted fit the particular color (and other) requirements of the intended end market, be it a photo album, web site, print advertisement, gallery show, museum purchase or a shoe box. Each end-use has different requirements, usually radically different: the color capabilities of the web are very different from an offset printer as an example. Typically, your image must be adjusted into several versions: perhaps one to show to clients in your carry-around portfolio, one for your web site portfolio, one for your long term hard drive storage, one containing your printing instructions, another for off-site printing, low resolution versions for Flickr, MySpace and the hundreds of other promotional web sites.
The final image and follow ups: You’ll produce the actual high resolution image in all its glorious colors to be used, published, shown or exhibited. Hopefully you’ll reap the well deserved rewards. Then you’ll consider documenting and protecting all the color (and other) work you have put into not just this image but the perhaps thousands of other images in your portfolio. This is a real management issue – how do you keep track of all these versions of a single image and all its unique settings for different purposes? Especially considering you own thousands of images? How do you keep them safe over long periods of time? How do you record color (and other) settings so you can repeat them? There are many solutions available – I’ll have to leave that part to you.
That’s it for the discussion of colors. Together with the light discussion, you have a pretty good foundation for dealing with these two critical elements. The idea was to alert you to some of the intricate details of these basic components of your magical toolbox. Next, we’ll examine the two other fundamental components. That is the camera with its lenses and backends followed by the human system of eyes, retinas and the brain in processing the images.
October 2, 2007
Photography is a dangerously gadget friendly environment. Stocked with hundreds of cool camera bodies, lenses and miscellaneous equipment, camera stores happily sell thousands of accessories. Add chemicals, development materials, printing accessories, computers, memory cards, special monitors and you end up with an empty wallet and far more headaches than you deserve. Or as some partners put it, all those headaches you do deserve. Often stated, boating is a hole in the water into which you throw money. Photography is a hole in the sky into which you throw not only money but perhaps your marriage, career, cat and sanity.
The first camera I used was one I liberated from my father. Equipped with a bellowed fixed lens, zero batteries and no focusing assistance, it sure was a curious little machine. Using medium format film in a body smaller than a Leica rangefinder, it took remarkable photos. Not only that, the absence of any modern convenience resulted in complete freedom from gadgets. In fact, available accessories numbered exactly zero. Those were the days.
The basic idea here is that gadgets don’t make photographs – not bad nor good ones. Photography is made possible by light. Light is preserved and eventually becomes viewable as a photograph. No gadget ever changed this basic notion. Light is about photography and photography is about light.
This post is largely an extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality.
Light is not a simple matter. Here are some of the theories dealing with light: Optics, Particles, Waves, Magnetics, Electrics, Relativity, Quantum, Wave-Particle, Electrodynamics, Radiation, Radiation and Light Pressure, Spectral, Ballistics, Photometry, Spectrometry, Lasers and much more. Yet the basic idea isn’t that complex.
Light is energy. This energy is emitted by sources such as the sun. Light energy consists of magnetic and electric waves traveling through space, atmosphere and some other media. The human eyes are sensitive to light waves. Our brains interpret the light energy as representing the world around us. A photograph captures the light present in a particular moment in time.
Nothing is more important to a photographer than light. No light, no photography. As a photographer, you must love light. You better love how light bends, creates color, enters a lens, refracts, reflects, bounces, scatters, disappears, enters eyes for processing in the brain and how it is affected by sun spots, black holes, cosmic rays, global warming, atmosphere, clouds, rain, weather, pollution, dust and much else.
All of the factors above are distortions. The original light source, the sun for most practical purposes emits “pure” light. By the time that light reaches some place on Earth and your camera lens or eyes, it is very different compared to that original “pure” light. Light from space is distorted even before it reaches our atmosphere. Then the atmosphere adds its set of oddities. The camera is a virtual snake pit of distortions. Manmade light adds other distortions – its light is differently colored than the “norm”. Our eyes and brains add more layers of distortions.
In the beginning, people assumed one saw by emitting light beams out of one’s eyes. Pythagoras, 500 BC, assumed light traveled from the eyes and a sensation of seeing followed as the beam hit some object. Plato, 400BC, supported the same theory. Around 300BC, Euclid questioned that eyes were the only source of light and formulated quite a bit of light related mathematics. Still, the view of the eyes beaming light prevailed. The Bible mentioned “And God said, let there be light, and there was light”, associating light versus darkness as a good versus evil issue.
Around 1000AD, al-Haytham of Egypt finally voiced the idea that light entered the eyes rather than the other way around. He concluded the sun was the source of light. He also invented the Camera Obscura although Leonardo da Vinci received some of that credit 500 years later. Unfortunately, our gentleman resided in jail, so his findings were not immediately available. Most of his ideas were based on the sun light coming into his cell through a tiny opening or crack.
It took over 500 years before al-Haytham’s theories reached Europe, inspiring Kepler to formulate some fairly correct theories late in the 1500s. Galileo, Descartes and Newton added tremendously to the understanding of light over the next 100 years. The wave theory came along through Euler in the mid 1700s. Other contributors include Fresnel, Poisson, Faraway, Planck and Maxwell, leading up to the late 1800s and pretty much the way we understand light today.
A Simple Theory of Light
Light is produced by light emitters, reflected by certain objects and consumed by others. Light is radiation energy affected by combinations of photons, atoms, molecules and other low lives. It has characteristics such as wave length, frequency and intensity, all of which vary tremendously with quite spectacular results. Most light originates at the sun and manmade processes. Light may be a single beam or scattered in a collision with some obscure molecules.
Radiation is a form of energy with intensity and wave length, vibrating around us constantly. Low frequency waves represent sound. There are TV and radio waves, visible and invisible light, radar waves, cellular phone radiations and X-ray emissions. Light as we see it and as used by a camera is only a small part of the energy waves around us. In some cases, invisible wave lengths affect film or memory cards in undesirable ways. Don’t X-ray your films. A rather extreme example is the HEMP bomb that can fry all electronics within a large radius; including your camera (unless you use a camera similar to that of my father, but even so, the film is probably a goner).
Light is created in many ways – the sun maintains a controlled nuclear explosion emitting lots of radiation energy, some in the form of light, other in the form of quite deadly variations such as gamma rays. Light bulbs, neon lights and many other manmade devices emit light on demand. Such light is usually created by the combination of energy in an enclosure containing suitable gases. Other light sources include computer, radar and TV screens which operate using cathode rays and energy sensitive coatings or by turning transistors off and on. Nuclear reactions produce lots of radiation, some of which is visible.
Heat generates light; increasingly hot temperatures transform light from the original color to a glow of red, white and eventually blue – think about your stove, fireplace, kerosene lamp or volcanic lava. Military night sights use slight heat variations as emitted in the infrared spectrum to “see” a battle field. Chemical processes generate light in some organisms: fireflies, glow worms, krill and others. Lightning produces a short burst of light based on heat.
When light falls on an object, some waves with a specific length are reflected and others absorbed. Light emitted by an object also have a specific set of wave lengths. We perceive the light of a specific wave length as a color. We thus “see” the object having a color. The reflected light is not a constant since it depends of the wave lengths of the incoming light. Reddish sunset light makes any object look reddish while the same object is bluish at noon.
Photographers and light meter manufacturers make a big deal out of incident and reflected light. Incident light measures incoming light only and then make assumptions about correct exposure. Reflected readings do the same for reflected light. The problem is that different object reflect light very differently – snow, water and any light object reflects much more light than dark soil, a black cat or any dark object. That means that neither incident nor reflected light measures result in a correct exposure. In the case of snow, an incidence measure will overexpose the scene while a reflected metering will underexpose the same scene. The only time you get a good measure is when the scene is a uniform 18% grey – a very rare occurrence.
Auto exposure cameras use only reflected light as does the Zone System. Popularized by Ansel Adams, the Zone System attempts to correct the ambiguity in light measures. In fact, that is the major point of the Zone System.
Meanwhile, the auto exposure camera relies on you to override its automatics to produce a correct reading. Nothing automatic about that, is it?
Most objects are not producing light at all. They are only visible because they reflect light. A chair does not normally emit light. The moon does not produce light – it solely reflects light mostly from the sun. There is a bit of a fallacy here because heat produces light. Heat the chair up and it will produce light. Humans do not produce light but we (and animals) have a body temperature that does cause light emissions in the invisible infrared spectrum. If we actually turned into visible light emitters we are very dead because that implies heat sufficient to make us glow red – blue – white. That would not be healthy. However, it is possible to photograph people in total darkness. All you need is a readily available sensor or film sensitive to infrared light.
Light intensity declines rapidly with distance. Most photographers use a simple formula stating: double the distance from a light source and the intensity is down to a 1/4 of the original intensity. That is an approximation that serves photography well in most circumstances but is actually wildly inaccurate. If you get close to a light source, then light intensity to distance is almost flat regardless of distance. Nor does the rule hold up when the light is focused with some sort of reflector as you may have noticed using a flashlight, driving at night or watching the beam from a lighthouse.
Light never dies. As time goes by and the light travels great distances, the intensity goes down but it never reaches zero. We are surrounded by light originating billions of years ago. Unfortunately, the intensity is way down making it impossible to see for us humans. The Hubble telescope is extremely light sensitive and can pick up very distant light originating a long time ago.
There is no such thing as “seeing” an object; our eyes only receive light emitted and reflected by the object. The light waves reaching our eyes are quite distorted. The eyes introduce more distortions due to various imperfections. The brain then makes up a “view” of the object, introducing additional distortions. The brain is easily fooled into providing false or biased views. What we “see” is not an accurate representation of the object, it merely is one deemed safe by our brain.
Light Traveling Space
The sun is our major source of light. This light is comes from a massive nuclear reaction that has been going on for billions of years. Sun light affects human health and climates. The current Global Warming crisis is caused by sun energy being trapped by CO2 concentrations rather than reflected back into space, which causes temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. Sun light produces Vitamin D and fuels millions of energy requirements. It also causes skin cancers and ultraviolet radiation aging us. The sun will very certainly cause the demise of mankind, possibly through Global Warming but for sure as its energy runs out.
Stars, clusters, galaxies and nebulae provide some light. Polar lights (Aurorae) are clearly visible in high latitude areas and seasons. The moon reflects sun light. Magnetic fields in space bend light, space storms distort light, black holes does who knows what with light and sun flares send out a lot of unpredictable and usually harmful energy.
Cosmic “rays” refer to Earth being bombarded by energy containing particles. These particles originate with the sun but also exploding stars, novae, galaxies, quasars and black holes. These generally low energy (unless you are an astronaut) particles have some limited effect on climate by affecting lightning and cloud formation. Solar cosmic rays can affect electronics on Earth such as communication devices and possibly digital cameras. Then there is the Oh-My-God particle (really) traveling around the Universe at extreme speed and containing enormous energy, given its tiny size. But that is another story.
Photography in space is quite different than on earth. The radiation levels are harmful to film. NASA tests film extensively to reduce fogging and color shifts – they tend to use film specially made for them by Kodak. Today I’m sure they use digital cameras with similar quality considerations.
Light in space is either on or off with photography taking place when light is on. With the light is on, it is very constant – no clouds, haze, rain storms or shadow. There are only two basic shooting scenarios: close or far. Shooting earth from the space station means using one standard exposure (reflected light is quite constant) and the lens set at infinity. Shooting “close ups” such as space walks require a similar standard exposure and some focusing. Photography inside the space vessel is similar to that on earth.
Space light is much bluer than on earth. There is far more ultraviolet radiation which is not visible with eyes but may impact images. Contrast ranges are extreme – consider an astronaut in a white suit against a pitch black background. The seasoned space photographer must also consider speed. Everything moves way faster than earth speed limits. The shuttle moves at 17,500 miles an hour (5 miles per second or 110 feet a typical exposure of 1/240 seconds) so panning is a necessary skill. The Cartier-Bresson Decisive Moment takes on a different meaning. In space, a photograph doesn’t freeze a moment in time. It records a sequence of movement
Atmosphere and Time
The atmosphere greatly impacts light from space. Distortions include seasonality, clouds, storms, humidity, dust, pollution, inversion layers, refractions and reflections. Other factors include time of day effects and temperature distortions.
When light beams reach the atmosphere, they scatter as they collide with atmospheric particles. During the day, this results in a blue sky because the light is coming from a high angle. In the early morning and evening with a low sun, we see a reddish sky because the angle of the incoming beams is low. Without clouds, we experience a mix of sun beams and scattered light. Snow, water and beach sand reflect light more than dark objects. That elevated light level reaches your camera and confuses the light meter. You better reduce the exposure. Ice also reflects light but amplifies the blue wave lengths. Thus, photos of ice bergs usually have a deep bluish tint.
Seasons display unique light effects. Snowy landscapes require special attention to exposure. Fall foil colors can overwhelm a landscape. Some enjoy the Christmas feeling and warm toned nostalgia. Seasonal sports and graduations are popular events. Some regions suffer extreme weather seasons such as the Arctic winter, the hurricane plagued Southeast US coasts, the mid US Tornado Alley and the Asian Monsoon and Cyclone season.
Clouds reflect the direct sun beams and all we see is the scattered light waves – shadows disappear or dilute. The water content of the clouds scatter light in a way that produces no particular color, hence the grayish feel with a complete cloud cover. The thicker the cloud, the less light passes through. Extreme weather can lead to almost total darkness and a general loss in color. The red rose is suddenly grey.
Bounces and Refractions
Refraction of light is the bending effect that happens when light passes through certain media at certain angles. The straw in a glass of water is the classic example. Refraction is, for instance, the cause of rainbows. The atmosphere provides refraction of sun beams: the lower the sun, the more the refraction. At sunset the refraction can be as much as half a degree or about one sun diameter. This explains the “oval” sun at sunset or dawn. Another effect of refraction is the “floating mountains” or “elonged islands or ships” seen on hot days (Fata Morgana). Other special effects include mirages and the common illusion of distant pools of water on hot roads. Refraction also makes it possible to see beyond the natural horizon.
Refraction in a vacuum is exactly 1.0, which means there is no refraction. The atmosphere has a refraction of 1.0003 while ordinary water refracts 1.33, quite a bit more. Acrylic glass has a refraction index of 1.49 and diamonds are at 2.42. Silicon has an index of over 4 although that probably won’t be much of a photography issue.
Refraction also is important because different wave lengths of light have slightly different refractions in different materials. This causes dispersion of the light into colors. Diamonds, for instance, are very high in dispersions causing their extraordinary “fire”. One moment you see blue light reflected from the stone, then perhaps green or pure white. Rainbows are another example of this phenomenon. Reflection, dispersion and refraction are the mechanisms by which many different kinds of prisms work – very important design aspects of your camera’s lenses.
Pollution and Dust
Atmospheric pollution affects light. Compare light in a smogged Los Angeles, Mexico City or Shanghai to that experienced on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Broadly, there are three kinds of atmospheric pollution agents. Some reflect solar beams back out into space, resulting in less light and cooler temperatures. The sulphur dioxide crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s is a good example. Other pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, do the opposite – they allow the sun energy to pass to the surface of Earth but disallow the required reflection of excess energy back out into space. The result is Global Warming. Yet another pollutant, typically Freon, destroy the ozone layer allowing ultraviolet light through at levels threatening health.
Here are the smoggiest cities: London, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Houston, Toronto, Athens, Beijing and Hong Kong. Smoggy areas include the Ruhr Area and Silicon Valley and many places in China, Southeast Asia and India. Forest slash and burn practices in Indonesia cause severe smog and smoke in much of surrounding countries. The disastrous 1952 smog in London killed 4,000 people in four days, followed by another 8,000 in the next six months. On a happier note, both LA and Mexico City have made substantial advances in controlling smog.
Apart from the health issues, heavy smog can easily make any normal photography impossible.
Dust in the atmosphere typically reflects sun energy back out and thus has a cooling effect as well as a darker sky. Sunsets tend to be tremendous. Volcanoes cause massive emissions of dust, particles and ashes into the atmosphere. The eruptions of Mount St. Helen and Mount Pinatubo spewed out ashes that traveled the world for several years. Dust storms due to drought are another major source. The Oklahoma storms of the 1930s, today’s Sahara storms and those of China affect all of Earth. Global Warming will amplify dust storms due to extreme droughts. Yet another source of particles in the air stems from forest fires due to deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia and, above all, Indonesia. The uncontrolled fires in Indonesia cause severe health problems in not only Indonesia but all of Southwest Asia. The particles circle the
Natural light is terrific to photographers. Manmade light is a pain. Hundreds of different devices, lamps, bulbs, processes, materials, gases and energy sources result in the strangest of light spectra. Add that manmade light is generally there because the natural light is not available. You are stuck with the darn thing. True, you can set up your own light version with all kinds of expensive photographic lighting devices. That’s fine but really what you do is to replace one manmade environment with another manmade environment.
K (Kelvin) values and wave spectra are important to photographers. A K value is an average of a light source’s color spectrum. A spectrum provides much more information about the scene than does the K value. For instance, the spectrum may have a high wave length peak and a low peak – a ‘U’ pattern. The K value will fall between the peaks and not really mean a thing. What you need is, perhaps, double filtration to correct for the two peaks.
The K value of sunlight is about 5,800. Typical daylight is either 5,000K or 6,500K depending on if you go for the US standard calibration or that of Europe. Computer monitors are calibrated to between 5,000K (reddish yellow) and 9,300K (bluish). Digital cameras often display white balance settings in terms of Kelvin values. In the spectrum of colors, red is around 1,800K, the average is 5,000K to 6,500K and blue starts around 12,000K continuing up to 16,000K. Examples of low Kelvin light: Match flares, candles and ordinary (tungsten) light bulbs. Here are some high Kelvin items: Xenon light, analog TVs: “the bluish flicker from you neighbor’s window”.
Unless going for abstraction, photographers compensate for the local K value/spectrum to bring the image back to “normal”. For instance, you try to make skin tones similar to those recorded in regular daylight. That may be accomplished through lens filters, white balance adjustments or post production trickery. When you do that, obviously the original scene is distorted – the ugly manmade light was, after all, the real thing.
Most fluorescent and gas discharge lamps have “interrupted spectra”, meaning the spectra are not smooth curves but a series of narrow peaks over the frequency band. Such irregular peaks, often in the yellow to green range, are very hard to filter away. The only real solution is to use alternative lighting such as flash. Gas discharge lamps include neon light and high intensity lights (mercury vapor, metal halide and sodium vapor) as used in light streets, stadiums and factories.
Then there is another issue. Film or sensors react quite differently to odd light situations than do your eyes. Your eyes and brain compensate for strange light to make it more consistent with your built in database on how a face “should” look. A camera has no such database or ability. It records incoming light according to its fixed sensitivity to different wave lengths.
Are shadows the opposite of light? Of course not, shadows are light just as is present elsewhere. They are a bit darker, that’s all. Zone system proponents know all about shadows being as important as high lights. The old film saying is: “expose for shadows, develop for high lights”. Or, in the case of digital photography, do the reverse, i.e. shoot for high lights and balance shadow detail in Photoshop.
The dynamic range of light in photography is typically measured in f stops. If the ratio of light intensity in high lights compared to minimum light is, say 1024:1, or 2 raised to the power of 10, then the range is 10 stops. There is a huge difference in the ranges different media are capable of recording or displaying. Your eyes are amazing in that not only can they cover the largest dynamic range, they also are self adjusting in real time. Other devices don’t even come close.
On a cloudy day a scene may display a dynamic range of as little as 3 stops. On a sunny day, the same scene may display a range of 12 stops. That is well within the capabilities of most eyes. Eyes can dynamically adjust to a 24 stop range although a more static range of 10-14 stops is more realistic. Most cameras (film and digital) can handle a range of about 8 stops, a considerable reduction. A typical print covers about 6 stops and a monitor slightly less. Newspapers can only display a range of 3-4 stops.
Several techniques and technologies exist to extend either the original or the displayed range. One recent example is High Dynamic Range Photography. In traditional photography, special development techniques coupled with corresponding exposures can do the trick. Consider the Hubble telescope and its ability to record and then enhance the dimmest of light.
In practical, everyday photography, the biggest factor in getting a decent dynamic range is simply to use correct exposures. Over or under exposure quickly destroys the dynamic range. One stop overexposure loses one stop of range on the high light side. Please note that correct exposure is not the same as pointing your camera at something and letting the built-in light meter (or for that matter an external meter) blurb out some numbers. Light meters are very stupid about measuring light. Practice, practice so you truly understand exposure. Otherwise, your shadows or high lights are off, were off and will stay off, blowing you out of the water every time.
Now that you know a little bit about light, how do you use that knowledge? In generic terms, the benefit of this knowledge is that you know more about what to expect. Make that an element in your photographic execution. Photography in big cities usually means polluted air which produces a different light than that on top of Mount Everest. If you shoot in an ice cave, the light is blue, while if you shoot in a sand cave, the light is reddish. Indoor shooting at, say, Christmas, will probably produce warm, reddish photos. Shooting on a lit street may produce very strange color casts.
We do not know all there is to know about light – much remains a mystery. The current knowledge is recent or no more than a hundred years old. Yet we speak of light with deep convictions, especially in photography. An image “captures” the light, a print contains the “full range” of light, the light reflected from a face “accurately” captures the skin tones. Professional critics have a language, of their own but incomprehensible to many of us, classifying and judging light and how a photographer deals with it in his art.
A photographer can use tools to analyze light. The intensity of light falling on a subject or reflected from a subject into the lens is easily measured. He/she can even determine the color of light falling on the subject. Once the picture is taken the image can be analyzed either with software in the case of digital images or by a densitometer in the case of film. That is all fine, but no meters will ever tell the full story and in fact they may even hide the real magic.
The true story about light is not one of analysis. It is about the creative use of light presented at a particular shooting event. To create that vision, you need to realize light is not just one thing. It is a combination of many different kinds of effects and distortions. Once that is clear, here are a few ideas that you might use to figure out your very own creative toolbox. A tool box is an individual treasure chest. What is a trap to some is an opportunity to others. We are all as different as are our visions. So take the following as nonexclusive ideas, not sinister laws.
- History and Theory: The history of our understanding of light is long, colorful and by no means finished. The “seeing” interaction of eyes and brain is only partially, and very recently, understood and no doubt inaccurate. Think about the significance of all those tricky images designed to fool the brain – where straight lines suddenly look bent. Or where stationary images impossibly start to move? In your fooled brain, that is.
- Space: Most natural light comes from space. As light travels through space, it undergoes transformations, most quite subtle. It bends, gets malformed, disappears, reflects, is colored and ends up differently than expected in largely a random, uncontrolled manner. Light in its “cleanest” form is quite variable even if you reside on the International Space Station. The atmosphere is then doing it’s best to make matters even more complex:
- Atmosphere: The atmosphere shields us from a quite harmful space environment. The ozone layer filters out UV radiation. Space is filled with particles harmful to humans that have come close to killing astronauts. These particles luckily do not penetrate the atmosphere. As the atmospheric filters do their work, light from space becomes even more modified. Then local conditions change light again, either by less filtering or more. A photograph taken in Australia or in Antarctica may be subject to a lot more UV light than elsewhere. A picture shot from an airplane at 37,000 feet is subject to more bombardment of essentially radioactive particles than one taken in Times Square, New York.
- Refraction: Light bends as it passes through certain media such as water or a lens. This leads to many special situations and opportunities, whether you appreciate oval suns, mirages, Fata Morgana, rainbows, floating mountains or tilting buildings. You figure it out. Make a list of the special situations created by refraction in your shooting environment.
- Reflections: We all have many so-so shots of tall buildings reflecting wobbly images from their glass walls. And those self portraits using a mirror belong deep in that shoe box in the garage. We realize how reflections from snow and water may be controlled by polarizing filters. Portrait photographers use reflectors to create a pleasing light. Film and TV crews do the same. Daylight may be modified by fill flash to create an illusion of reflections. Reflections, in any type of photography, represent huge and under used opportunities for creativity. Think about it. Create you own sun! Make your own shadows!
- Time of Day: Time of day is an essential tool. Most photographs can only be successfully shot at very specific light conditions, whether it is due to the light intensity or its color balance. Examples: Rarely is noon light the best for nature photography. Long shadows may accentuate the emotional impact of a scene. Some animals are only reachable at certain hours. Downtown traffic is busier at rush hours. Indoors, the uses of ambient light through windows depend not only on time of day but also on the angle to the sun. At noon, light from a south facing window is quite different from a window facing north.
- Seasonal: Many of us associate seasons with specific events. You shoot fall colors as leaves fall. Or delicate spring colors as leaves return. Cherry trees bloom. Whales, salmon and birds migrate. Grizzlies wake up or retire. Frozen lakes thaw. Change your wardrobe. The barbeque is manned. The car gets its annual wash. The first strawberries show up. Taste the Beaujolais Nouveau or fresh halibut. Eat your heart out at Thanksgiving. Do the Christmas shopping. Snowmobiles, motor cycles or power boats roar. Sailboats tack. Dust off the camera after its winter slumber. Wash the windows, cut the lawn. File April tax returns. Harvest the apples, wheat and oranges. Does you vision include such items and more?
- Weather: Nature gives us hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, fog, heavy rain, soft rain, clouds, thunder, lightning, sunshine, snow fall, heat waves or cold spells. The impact on your creative situation and challenge is obvious. Weather not only impacts light, it affects the range of possible or desired subjects. Some like shooting close up pictures of tornados. Most of us prefer to run like hell.
- Pollution and Dust: Imagine grabbing your camera, crawling into your bed and under the covers. Try taking a photograph of your left foot. That’s not real easy, is it? The bloody covers filter out the light. So do pollution and dust, both of which consist of airborne particles (and perhaps gases), covering earth like a blanket. Both reduce light coming through and both modify the color of light. Dramatic pictures from hazy Shanghai are perhaps interesting but not real artistic in most cases. The thing is, not all light effects are desirable in the sense they create creative opportunities. Some are simply bad news to most photographers. Here is another example:
- Manmade Light: Speaking photographically, manmade light is a pest unless specifically created for photographic purposes. Blast that sodium light. Darn that fluorescent office light. Curse those wave length peaks and valleys. Green faces, orange hair. What is fun about lobster red skin? Well, nothing much. Maybe useful in some artistic visions, manmade light is a curse to most photographers.
There you are – you have a shopping list for your magical light tool box and a list of features to think about. This discussion of possible opportunities could go on much longer. It won’t, at this moment. The main idea still is that you are the one to create your own box, preferably by thinking outside the box. Try it on. Now, let’s check out colors which are just one form of light.