September 28, 2008

California Zephyr

Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Marysville, Yuba City, Chico, Red Bluff, Anderson, Redding, Lakehead, Castella, Dunsmuir… From the comfort of the vista dome, unstable little homeless cities of huddled tents, out of sight in the dry riverbeds and ravines of the Valley, dull blown-about trash strewn across thorns, levees, dead grass, the dry glare of desperation in backyards and dead cars, palm trees, clapboard, boarded-up brick, rusted rails, broken fences. Outside, an entire family looks up from picking over garbage next to the railway and waves at us as we pass by; inside, most seem to be incurious or untouched by the landscapes hustling past.

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September 22, 2008

Weasel Words

Sir Ian Blair on the de Menezes killing: "No-one set out with any intent to let a young man die." (see e.g. Blair call for Menezes 'humility').

Sir Ian Blair and the Met didn't let a young man die, they killed him, actively and with an unrepentant savage swiftness that will never be reflected in the pale imitation of justice that might — eventually — wend its way towards an early retirement here or bureaucratic admonishment there.

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September 19, 2008

Es Mi Barrio

Es mi barrio

Why I have tremendous mobile phone coverage in my studio… (the view from my front door).

(Click on the image to see a much larger version).

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September 14, 2008

Hurricane Sarah

In a rather tone deaf "why-oh-why" Op-Ed piece in yesterday's NYT, Bob Herbert rattles on about Hurricane Sarah, the Truth, and the various issues facing the country he thinks are being ignored. A key passage:
"With most candidates for high public office, the question is whether one agrees with them on the major issues of the day. With Ms. Palin, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing. She doesn't appear to understand some of the most important issues".
Surely this misses the point of her candidacy: in this low-lying identity-politics-drenched landscape, for many voters the question isn't so much whether one agrees with a candidate on the major issues of the day, but whether one identifies with the candidate.

For some people, what else is there? If you're unsure what issues will be important or will spring up unannounced in the future, or you don't have a clue what the "real" issues are supposed to be, you might reasonably look to the candidate's character; for many, that equates with "identity". And besides, the rush of having someone a lot like you up there on the big stage is undeniable (especially if there's never been anyone like you there before), and you're more likely to trust their judgement on issues close to your heart (and ignore the petty details to do with the issues Bob Herbert might think important). In identity politics, some sort of objective truth or knowledge surely doesn't really matter that much; more important is whether a candidate recognises or shares your truth, your knowledge, your experience. Identity not only shapes truth, it transcends it; Palin's identity sometimes just makes wider truths irrelevant.

(I'm on record in my real life for most of the past three months as predicting a big McCain victory in November — not even close — but I don't have the courage of my convictions, I'm often wrong, and I can't help wondering if this particular hurricane will peter out before making landfall (or wreak merry havoc for years to come…)).

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September 10, 2008

The Opposite Of Curiosity

Stephen Prothero, in his "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know — And Doesn't" (HarperOne, 2008), laments the lack of religious literacy in the US. I think he's right to do so, but what's really lamentable is surely the marked lack of religious curiosity in the US. Prothero thinks it's a paradox that a people as openly and aggressively religious as the inhabitants of the US should be so dismally unaware of their own and others' religions, but it's no paradox: on the one hand, so many religions as practiced nowadays in the US deliberately try to short-circuit or discourage the curiosity that underpins real literacy, and do so as an explicit part of those religious beliefs; on the other, the (public) self-absorption and belief in self as total authority that's become almost sacramental in this part of the world rarely makes for engaged religious exploration.

After all, True Belief is surely the opposite of curiosity; and in a nation as full of True Believers as the US, many of those believers probably take general religious illiteracy as a welcome sign of national religiosity and righteousness (though they wouldn't put it quite that way, I'd guess). In a nation where the slogan "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." is a working daily guideline for millions (including high-level politicians and officials), religious illiteracy is almost guaranteed — mostly because it's a greatly-valued part of their religion.

(The flip side of all this — the adoption of religions as lightly-worn lifestyle accessories (think Zen, yoga, etc.) — is a sign of a different sort of religious illiteracy, but one still often motivated or underpinned by a terrible lack of curiosity…).

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September 06, 2008

Aim Low

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf at Alameda, 2008

There's been a new Coast Guard cutter (the Bertholf) docked in the Estuary just down the road from my studio for the past month or two; I've taken a bunch of photos of it during that time (natch). It's a good-looking vessel, and I've rather admired what I've seen and read about it (neighbouring Alameda's a Coast Guard town and you see and hear these things as part of daily life).

So it's a little depressing to read in an article in a local rag that one of the ship's engineering officers claimed the Bertholf's "the Cadillac of cutters". The Californian in me cringes: so it's bloated, over-priced, inefficient, unreliable, proudly embodies mediocre design and engineering values, is a status symbol only for people who'll never have status — and seems to be driven mostly by old or poor people? I think I'd rather it were described as the Toyota, Honda, Porsche, or even Ford of cutters, myself.

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September 03, 2008


In his excellent Evolving Thoughts science blog, historian and philosopher of science John Wilkins delivers a rather mild but heart-felt rant against the PR industry for all its obvious and less obvious sins of commission and omission.

What I think he's really objecting to, though, (or what he ought to be objecting to :-)) is that PR itself became the subject of PR over the past few decades, and that instead of nakedly or brazenly referring to itself as propaganda or persuasion, it's all about spinning the spin, it's all about marketing the idea that PR's a public service or about presenting information, it's all about glossing the inversion that makes the consumer the product and "product information" information about the consumer not the ostensible product. Or something like that….


September 01, 2008

It's A Dirty Job…

Mars is telling me that "Space Is The Place" (come on guys, you did that one last year) but on Telegraph it's usually more of a void, and in Moe's remainders section I buy one of those unintentionally cute authoritarian tracts on Architecture (with a capital "A"), "New Architecture 5: Truth, Radicality, and Beyond in Contemporary Architecture" (capitalisation normalised for readability), published before-it-all-went-wrong to celebrate the radical future Architecture and Architects were planning for us all back in 2000 (one of the buildings discussed is metaphorically on my front doorstep, so it cuts close to home sometimes). It's got a foreword by Baudrillard (of course!) with whole paragraphs of things like:
Does architecture peter out in its reality, in its references, in its procedures, in its functions, in its techniques? Or does it go beyond all that and lose itself in something else, which is perhaps its own end, or something that might permit it to go beyond its own end? Does architecture exist beyond truth, beyond its own truth, in a sort of radicality that challenges space — rather than controls it — that challenges society in its obedience of its conventions and insititutions, that challenges the very creation of architecture and the creative architect with his illusion of control.
Super! Pure poetry!

Allusive words, meaningless in their ability to mean almost anything; in fact the whole foreword is a sort of densely-packed tar pit of phrases that evaporate when exposed (and that I just know I'm going to return to over and over…). The engineer in me wants to say that these are the words of someone in love with the sound of words (and in love with the sound of themselves); the architect in me says that both the foreword and the tract itself show that it's infinitely easier to construct whole shining cities full of seductive phrases than it is to create a single building worth inhabiting — and seemingly impossible to write simply and thoughtfully about architecture's products from the potential user's point of view….

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