September 29, 2005

Words To Live By

"Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance, it's about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it's about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence." -- from Don't Dumb Me Down in a recent Grauniad (thanks to John Wilkins's Evolving Thoughts for the link).

September 26, 2005

Short Shameful Confession

Whenever I stand on the platform at MacArthur BART I have a terrible urge to get down on one knee and start belting out MacArthur Park at the passing commuters.

September 23, 2005

The Great Indoors

"(To Californians, might being indoors feel tragic in and of itself?)" -- Peter Schjeldahl makes a playful aside in an article about Robert Bechtle in an old New Yorker.

Oh, where to start?! A place that's all exterior isn't necessarily all outdoors. Interiority might feel tragic for most Californians, but not because they're outdoorsy sorts (contemplating the Void gets a bit boring after a while; for others, it's an endless fascination).

But what could be more Californian than the idea of ostentatiously retreating indoors to contemplate oneself? And where better to do that than indoors in that great glass-fronted mirror-walled Church of Self, the Gym?

(Part of California).

September 20, 2005

Some Kind Of Monster

In retrospect it's obvious: Therapy and Metal were absolutely made for each other. Both make common currency of histrionic self-aggrandisement, making drama queens out of very ordinary people; both make sacramental rituals of empty slogans and exagerated gestures; and both make a virtue of impotent sound and fury (signifying nothing much at all). It's a creatively explosive mixture: Therapy's genius for suppression and deflection, and Metal's sublimated male rage and impotence. Manufacture a few crises, put it all together, and -- blam! -- we get to watch Lars, James, and Kirk -- basically decent guys -- struggle to make sense of the empty slogans and touchy-feelgood speeches of their highly-paid Svengali. I guess I expected more violence. Oh well. By the end of the film I actually cared about these guys...

(Part of Flix).

September 16, 2005

Brush With Fame

From the photos, she was uncommonly beautiful (maybe more accurately, beautifully uncommon -- a cool, odd, quirky sort of beauty), and the songs she wrote were always immaculately crafted alt-rock pop with sharp, allusive (even elusive) lyrics about relationships, the world, politics, whatever. Just the sort of singer-songwriter we were looking for: smart, thoughtful, successful on her own terms, but not successful enough to have ever broken into the mainstream Big Label world.

So we got in contact with her agent and flew down to LA for the day to explain to her what we wanted, and how she might benefit (or not) from what we were doing. What a shock. We sat there incredulous as this beautiful woman (yes, beautiful in real life, too) in front of us spent several hours barely following along as we discussed record deals, finance, the state of the world, etc. -- her world, her life, her bread and butter. It was excruciating -- she barely seemed to follow even the simplest ideas, and it didn't seem like a drug problem (the usual excuse in these circumstances). We waded on against the tide, and eventually pretty much gave up (by this point I would have used sock puppets or animated cartoons if I thought it would help). She just sat there blankly and occasionally asked the sort of question that made it clear she had no idea what we were talking about -- or anything much else to do with the real world, actually.

Later, after making our excuses, we sat slumped in the cab on Santa Monica Boulevard thinking, what a disaster... we suddenly turned towards each other and blurted out in chorus: "so where did all those lyrics come from?!"

Her next release was as sharp as ever.

(Peripherally part of the Punk (and Later) thread).

September 13, 2005

Idiot Proof

House-sitting in Mountain View I pick up Francis Wheen's "How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History Of Modern Delusions" (a.k.a. "Idiot Proof" in UnAmerica). A wasted opportunity: it isn't so much a short history as just a list. It's not even an archaeology or typology, let alone any sort of explanation. OK, it's fun reading this book, and I'm definitely not his target audience, but it's a shame that it doesn't really attempt to give you any sort of answer to why people believe this sort of stuff. It's never enough just to list beliefs and gently (or even caustically) mock them -- that way you're just preaching to the converted.

It's the need to believe, the great hunger to believe (or Believe), that's the issue, much more than the contents of those Beliefs. Wheen barely touches on this.

September 11, 2005

From Our House

Another of these Why Haven't I Read This Before? books: From Bauhaus to Our House: dated, wrong-headed, right-hearted, deeply unfair, very funny, right in its broad ideas and observations, usually wrong in the details (he picks Edward Durrell Stone as an exemplar of the decent apostates he wants to champion, but Stone's buildings -- especially the Kennedy Center and the Columbus Circle building -- seem mostly banal to me (particularly in the flesh), ordinary, uninspired, not really comparable to (say) the Seagram or Lever Buildings, at least to my taste). And stained concrete surely transcends the imperial Modernism he complains about (just look at Saarinen's Dulles).... In any case, it's rarely a building's style that's the issue; it's the use or abuse of the building, and that use's suitability to the surrounding context and society that matters; style may be a symptom or a distraction here. To me, the Seagram building looks pretty damn good in context, and who can complain about its use there? And the vast majority of the really depressing stained concrete tower blocks had no real (Capital "A") Architect, just a bunch of developers or bureaucratic committees trying hard to solve one social, financial, or political problem after another. But to be fair to Wolfe, his target is more subtle and obvious than that: imperial European Modernism, and the changed and more autocratic (promethean?) role of the architect in US culture and business. He's right, but not usefully so.

(c.f. Rykwert's "Questions of style and ornament, which may seem harmless, become dangerously misleading when they stop at the surface and consequently mask problems of social structure and context." -- The Seduction of Place).

September 08, 2005


Vortex Salvage, Oakland Estuary

A break from more serious things: just another snapshot view from my back yard in industrial East Oaktown (if I actually had a backyard, that is...).

September 06, 2005

Disaster Envy

California's used to being the centre of attention, and barely knows how to act when the world's looking elsewhere. This is particularly true for natural and man-made disasters, in which fields California tends to think of itself as a natural leader.

We in California have been suffering a lot of disaster envy in the last week or two. The local TV news has had a hard time trying to turn the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina into an occasion to focus on -- and talk endlessly about -- California, but a week on, we're starting to see the inevitable triumph of the Californian spirit. Last night's TV news basically spent a minute or two on the ground in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, then went on to spend at least twice that on how the Bay Area was helping. Never mind that we're basically doing very little (there's not a lot that we can do that can't be done better closer to the scene), and that the little we're doing seems badly misdirected (e.g. housing handfuls of bewildered and disoriented refugees in some of the most violently crime-ridden parts of the City) -- never mind all that, it's the thought that counts, no? And that thought is usually "we're so caring"....

(Part of California).

September 05, 2005

It's Just Desert.

An upper-middle-class (very) British friend of my parents heard that I now lived in California. She looked horrified and blurted out that she couldn't understand why anyone would want to live there. "California ... is just ...desert."

Yes. In the same way that London is just ... city.

(Part of California).

September 04, 2005


Expectations in the Woy Woy area when I was growing up there were fairly low: most kids' fathers worked for "the council" (a term that included any manual or semi-manual labour for any of the local councils) or somewhere in Sydney, often as semi-skilled clerks in the public service or for one of the outer-suburban councils like Paramatta or Bankstown (neither of which would be considered outer suburbs nowadays...). A lot of my school friends had fathers who drove garbage trucks, repaired roads, or worked for the Electricity Commission. Union membership was high; government pensions were universal (and pensioners were everywhere -- "pensioner" and "old person" were interchangeable terms); jobs were typically for life (so much so that in those times anyone with a lifetime history of more than a small handful of jobs was thought a bit suspect). Class was obvious, and obtrusive, but since we were mostly lower class and lower-middle class, there wasn’t a lot of obvious conflict (I stood out like a sore thumb). Outside -- at school, in the playground, out on the streets, at the footie -- the climate was strongly egalitarian and anti-intellectual. I was regularly beaten up in the early days for my residual UMC English accent; I also paid heavily for making the mistake of coming first in class once too often.

Most kids dropped out of high school either as soon as they reached the legal leaving age of 15, or when they got their School Certificate (usually 16, at the end of fourth year). Only about 10% of the local kids went on to the fifth and sixth years of high school to do the Higher School Certificate (leaving school at 18). Only about 10% of this 10% went on to University or to one of the Teacher's Colleges (and they never returned). Quite a large percentage of the 16 year old School Certificate holders went to various trade schools -- mostly to become machinists or mechanics or draftsmen. Quite a few more became apprentice carpenters, builders, etc., or just plain labourers. Some of the kids drifted north to the steelworks in Newcastle; the employers of last resort were the two local abattoirs, where the work was reputed to be sheer hell (and, in those days when dumping industrial waste into local creeks seemed like second nature, we all knew what the places smelled like, even from a distance...). The only people I knew with degrees were my father's colleagues (mostly doctors, dentists, or pharmacists) or some of my teachers (it was a big deal when Mr Smith got his B.A. after years of part-time evening study; this meant he could go on and become a high school teacher, or, better yet, work as a public servant in Sydney). University degrees were about as rare as the open ambition to get one....

Mothers usually didn’t work at all, or worked as shop assistants or similar, or, if they were skilled, as typists or secretaries in Sydney. Young pre-married women nearly all worked as shop assistants or for the Public Service in Sydney.

September 02, 2005

Stop Casting Porosity

Well, I was the sort of nerd who always knew what it meant... (one for the East Bay nostalgists).

September 01, 2005

The Mountains Of Mountain View

I stood on the corner of Castro and El Camino, and finally viewed the mountains from Mountain View. You don't go to Mountain View to see the mountains -- mountain views aren't really the thing in Mountain View, and they're not really very visible from most of the city. But they're there, back in the distance, brooding ("brooding"'s the word for a lot of the taller hills in the Bay Area), dark, rugged. I asked nearly a dozen Mountain View residents what the mountains were called. Most just looked blankly at me and admitted they'd never thought about it; the two authoritative-sounding answers I got were both wrong.

Mountain View: Palo Alto Lite, a Prius on every block, an easy sort of diversity that misses out the poor (and an almost-invisible Black and Hispanic underclass), a strollable shiny clean nerd heaven, everything Silicon Valley sees in its mind's eye when it thinks "living in 'Silicon Valley'".

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