March 17, 2010

Oirishry

As a front-page headline in one of today's local rags blares out something like "How To Have An Authentic St Patrick's Day!" it's hard not to respond with a morose little vignette about sitting in a gloomy church somewhere in Cork having the priest note in passing that it's St. Patrick's day before passing on to more pressing things….

Authenticity? Overrated. Especially in a context of no context at all.

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March 10, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

In some probably long-forgotten "Why Oh Why?" Grauniad commentary on the US culture wars I re-read recently, Timothy Garton Ash says "this war will not finish with a victory of blue over red, or vice versa. It will finish with the accepted, peaceful coexistence in one society of different faiths, value systems, and lifestyles — along the line laid down centuries ago by the classical liberalism of John Locke and others […]".

Well, he got the first part right in some ways: the US culture wars really aren't about left vs. right or red vs. blue (or green) — they're a struggle between people who believe in Timothy Garton Ash's tolerant liberalism and those on the right, the left, or wherever for whom that tolerance is the enemy, for whom True Belief is all that matters.

But the rest of that sentence is, for most of his opponents, equivalent to saying the culture wars will only be won when they lose — the whole point of most cultural warriors is to impose intolerance, to ensure that coexistence is impossible, to kill off or at least suppress the people who don't believe what you do. It's equivalent to TGA's saying "the culture wars will only be over when my side's won". Which may or may not be true, but it's not useful.

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February 17, 2010

I Can Do That!

Technology's promise: any idiot could do that!! Technology's curse: every idiot will do that...

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January 03, 2010

That Totalitarian Democracy

With all the bipartisan furor about the missing intelligence oversight of the Christmas Underpants Bomber we're rushing slowly towards the consensual totalitarian democracy. But the real scary and destructive scenarios involve things like a suitcase bomb on BART's trans-bay tube, random truck bombings in the heartland, or DNS root server subversion; those are the sorts of things that have me reaching for my shades….

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December 27, 2009

North State




It's a state of mind, really (I-5 south somewhere a little below Red Bluff).

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December 22, 2009

The Wisdom Of The Mob

(Or Dense Pessimisms, Take 3…)

The internet's about immediacy; immediacy fosters instability (it implies no moderation). The net therefore discourages stable grand-scale narratives — like science or government — that are based on a sort of reasoned consensus, but encourages those based on True Belief and revelation (such as religious or political fundamentalisms). The net fragments, it destroys structure; or, rather, it destroys permanent structure. On the one hand it's the great leveler; on the other it encourages dynamic fundamentalisms in response to that lack of structure. Truths wash over the net in waves; it's Postmodernism without the twee irony, and with the power to spill over into real life (not that the net isn't a fundamental part of real life) with catastrophic effect for the sort of Postmodernist sensibility that probably applauds the lack of grand narrative.

The net privatises truth generation and reception; it's like the way the transistor radio and then the iPod privatised the experience of listening (or not listening). In some ways the internet's effect has been like the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate to the vulgar: the unmediated word for everyone, the Truth is in your own reading, not that handed down from the Church. But it also introduces writing for the masses, a universal platform to proclaim those little private Truths very publicly.

The net's the Wal-Mart of truths — you can get anything you want, but like shopping in Wal-Mart it's easier to trust a familiar brand when looking for a particular product. Brands structure the world — the Word, for that matter — and become essential in the world of a million choices. And fundamentalisms are brands; and surely successful brands flirt with a sort of fundamentalism…. We're headed for the Society Of The Brand, not that of the Spectacle.

The unmediated wisdom of the crowd? Just another way of saying the wisdom of the mob.

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December 05, 2009

Decency

One of the words I often feel driven to retake from the hard right is "decency". As in, "a minimally-decent society is one that strives to ensure that the circumstances of one's birth, upbringing, and genetics — the things you have no control over — do not determine your access as a member of that society to the basics: health care, education, and justice (the things that most affect the course of your life)".

Fat chance, of course. It's a word that's as loaded and tarnished in this country as "liberty" or "patriotism".

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December 01, 2009

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Seamus Heany on his experience selecting students at Harvard: "What I wanted was evidence of their artistic doings [rather than] the plenitude of those essays of self-introduction that American students are so good at" (quoted in a recent LRB review of Dennis O'Driscoll's "Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heany"). Perfect.

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November 25, 2009

Hams

"Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, [Nicolas Cage's] performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: 'Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding.'" — from a recent LA Times news item on "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans".

Well, yes. Like Kinski himself, Cage is another of those actors (or overactors) you watch in order to watch the actor — Nicolas Cage (or, rather, "Nicolas Cage") in this case — rather than the character they're playing. Or rather, in my case, don't watch — I find both Kinski and Cage generally unwatchable in all their showy look-at-me intensity and hamminess. They're performers, not actors; and the performance is so often about their performance itself. It's all about (say) watching James Dean playing James Dean playing yourself (were you an American of a certain age), for example, or Nicolas Cage playing yet another variant of Nicolas Cage playing another twitchy quirky mannered variant of "Nicolas Cage". Tilda Swinton does the same in a rather different context. I doubt I'll be watching this version of Bad Lieutenant any time soon.

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November 01, 2009

If You Say So

My eye catches some sort of roadside public service billboard looming over the outskirts of Bakersfield with the slogan "You are someone!" in huge letters next to the standard image of a generic schoolkid. I don't hang around to read the small print.

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October 20, 2009

East vs West

Watching the excellent Whitehouse-hosted "Fiesta Latina" on TV the other evening, I'm struck by just how Mexican my Latino music experience is compared to the more usual conception of "Latino" in this country (and especially Back East). Say "Latino" and I suspect most Americans think Cuban or Puerto Rican music translated through New York or Miami (Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Papa Yankee, etc., or Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, or the Afro-Cubans if they're older), but around here it's more likely Flaco Jimenez or Los Tigres or even Selena. You can't walk far in my neighbourhood without hearing Norteno or Tejano or Conjunto leaking from the bars and shops, or a burst of Mexican pop, or Mariachi in front of St Elizabeth's. Country vs. Jazz, in so many words.

(The program's high-profile music director was actually famously-local Oaklander (born-and-bred) Sheila E. (daughter of Pete Escovedo), which makes the disconnect a little more pronounced).

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October 13, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Today, another early first rain. At least this time it tries to be convincing, but it's never rain enough to match the media hype, the scrolling "Stormwatch!" crawls on the TV newscasts, and the breathless live news reports of sundry battening-down and sandbagging across the region after the long dry season. But at least it did rain, and while (as always) there was no "storm" in any sense recognisable outside coastal California usage, there was a bit of wind and low cloud with the rain, and the puddles were fun to walk through. In my experience early first rains tend to presage a dry wet season; we've had three or four dry seasons in a row, and if I have to go through another rainless wet season with people cheerily commenting on the "beautiful weather" again, I think I'll scream. Water crisis? What water crisis?

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September 27, 2009

Little Scotland

It's starting to look like Scottish independence referendum time again, and, as always, I'm forced to think about where I fit into things like this. Not about the Big Picture (the Union's been pretty good for Scotland over the centuries, despite the latter-day wingeing, and the push for independence often has a faint whiff of belligerent self-pitying Little Scotland Scottishry about it), but about my own nationality. I'm that deeply-unfashionable thing, a Briton, and "British" is probably all you could really call me (you could have plausibly called me a Londoner as well in the past, but not nowadays). I still have no idea what I'll do if I'm forced to chose a specific nationality rather than leave it "British". (On the other hand, if I were forced to chose between California and the US, that would be no choice at all: I'm unequivocally a Californian, but not at all an American).

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September 18, 2009

Less Than Zero

"The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years," predicts Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of alliance partners Renault and Nissan in a BBC interview. "It is time for zero emission motoring."

Indeed. But electric cars don't typically have zero-emissions: the emissions just happen elsewhere, usually at the (massive) power plant that supplies the energy to power the car. That may be a reasonable tradeoff and a real improvement (in the absence of the more useful cutting back on personal mobility and energy consumption in general), but in the usual way of these things, sometime down the line we'll wake up to the fact that all these electric vehicles require more and larger power plants… with more and larger emissions and transmission lines. And more and larger protests at the building of such power plants and transmission lines. All together now: "Not In My Back Yard (or Garage)!".

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September 15, 2009

Who He?

Today's San Francisco Chronicle made front (business) page news out of local company Chevron's Gorgon venture off Western Australia with an above-the-fold article and a photo of "Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd" and a Chevron functionary in hard hats looking at plans on-site. But they identified the wrong guy in the pic as Rudd, an easy error in a newspaper that probably doesn't have a single editor or staff writer who'd know what the Australian Prime Minister actually looks like. But as always, why should the Chron know something like that? Maybe that other Australian, our Governator, might care, but to the rest of the US, it's all a bit of a puzzle, I guess.

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September 04, 2009

What's Going On?

In the hot dawn air on that ragged block of East 7th up past 23rd, someone's playing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" loudly through the open windows of a parked car, that smooth deliberate fluid propulsive drive and repeated gunshot crack reverberating off the idling trucks and half-lit cinderblock workshops and ramshackle houses, sending shivers up my spine.

One of those Oakland moments, I guess…

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August 25, 2009

There's A Riot Going On

"What are we to make of a scientific materialism which formally accepts the findings of physics about matter, yet makes so little effort to link these findings with the class struggle, revolution, or whatever. Does not the abyss between proton and the proletariat conceal an unacknowledged metaphysical conception of man?" — Benedict Anderson in a footnote to Imagined Communities (p10 in my edition).

At first glance this is an absolute riot of category errors (and the context doesn't save it). At second glance it's hard to make enough sense of it to know whether they're really category errors or not. But never mind: this is a frustrating book, but one I keep reading. And reading it is like reading a map prepared by someone who navigates to a completely different (even hidden) set of stars (Marx, Gellner, et al); it's like unearthing a time capsule from a long-vanished era and having to struggle to remember some of the cultural, philosophical, and political references that Anderson must have assumed we'd all get or at least recognise as Important and Relevant (itself a word of its time…). In short, a book that seems colonised by the time and place of its writing.

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August 18, 2009

Encounters

I sit across the desk from the friendly-but-reserved sales guy trying to sell me a new car (he succeeded), dying to ask him the obvious question while he rattles on about accessories and options: what was it like growing up black in the suburban Arizona of the sixties? Instead, we smalltalk about local politics (a much safer topic). A few minutes later S. (from Ethiopia via London) finalizes the finance deal with a quiet but heart-felt rant about Americans and their (our) idiotic health care system and our self-destructive populist politics; it's all I can do to stop myself from asking how a ruthless uber car salesman and finance guy like him can profess such views in an industry like his. He shakes my hand and tells me I'll like my new car (I do). Damn the car, though — it's much less interesting than the stories lurking in the salesroom….

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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July 11, 2009

Moe Day

Moe's is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today. It's sobering to think that I've been going there at least semi-regularly for nearly half that time, and first bought a book there in 1985. Moe's and the Milano (and Cody's before it went belly-up) have defined my Saturday mornings for twenty years now….

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July 06, 2009

Organization Man

Robert McNamara dies (I can just see the SF Chron's headline: "San Francisco Man Dies; Attended University of California at Berkeley").

"When the [Vietnam] war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder." (The Washington Post). What US obits like this are consistently leaving out is the number of Vietnamese dead, and what happened to the Vietnamese national social fabric, but that's surely of little concern to the Post, let alone to the US population as a whole. Even nearly fifty years later the US's endless self-absorption and self-pity on the war hasn't completely faded; and McNamara's a handy touchstone for the US's view of the whole disaster, unfairly or not (as typically happens to any complex and interesting person connected to that war).

McNamara became retrospectively wise (as opposed to being seen to be wise in retrospect) about the war; but he said a lot of things about other topics that were wise at the time:
"In 1966, even as the buildup of U.S. forces continued and Cold War tensions gripped Europe, [McNamara] said it was 'a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word . . . The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.'" (from the Post's obituary, again).
Well, wise enough; that last clause of his seems diagnostic: the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first often seem defined by the US's inclination to believe it's on a mission from God (or mammon) to police the world; and for a short while, McNamara was deputy chief of police whether he could bring himself to admit it or not. Time to round up the usual suspects, I guess.

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July 05, 2009

Endangered Species

In the Milano this morning a studious old guy in a tidy denim jacket and half-moon glasses, surrounded by overflowing shopping bags of belongings on the floor around him, makes laborious notes while reading a hardback King James bible, a paperback copy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks on the table next to the bible.

It's such a blast from the past, it stops me dead: twenty years ago you saw sights like this all the time in Berkeley coffee shops (except it was more commonly an old hippy ostentatiously reading Marcuse while bending the ear of anyone unlucky enough to sit within a metre or two of him), but nowadays it's like the reappearance of the Spotted Owl or Bald Eagle. Not sure what to make of this isolated sighting amongst the clacking laptops and the wordless mumbling homeless slumped over the benches…

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June 11, 2009

Australialand

The NYT's Gail Collins made a joke in an editorial column the other day about how good it feels to have a US president who knows that Australia and Austria aren't the same country. Yes, on an old joke in US and other intellectual circles — I suspect every modern-day president has (probably wrongly) been accused of not knowing the difference — but it brought back some mildly funny memories for me, for sure (yes, I've had surreal conversations where it slowly (or even quickly) became obvious that the person I was talking to to didn't know the difference. It does actually happen, you know). But in my experience it's actually surprisingly difficult to come across an American who doesn't have some idea what and where Australia is (that idea may not be particularly accurate, but it's usually at least based on fact); it's just also quite difficult finding Americans who have any idea what or where Austria is.

The sobering thing is, of course: why the hell should the average American — or even the president, for that matter — know or care about either Austria or Australia? Our Governator might, I guess, but who else?

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June 04, 2009

Can't Someone Else Pay For It?

Huero

"'It shocks the conscience that we have to throw sick children off of welfare to satisfy Wall Street,' said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), the budget committee chairwoman. She added: 'This used to be the Golden State, and now it is a sorry state and it is not my California.' (from a recent article in the LA Times on our Governator's plan to cut a mere 5 billion dollars from California's budget).

California's been living so far beyond its natural and financial means now for so long that when it's time to pay up and face the consequences, I guess it's no surprise that we Californians turn to blaming anyone else but ourselves, and to bemoaning how badly the Golden State has lost its way. But California hasn't lost its way — it's right on track for a course set decades ago by the anti-government whackos, and helped on with varying amounts of gleefully-populist and self-satisfied gusto by voters over the years. And pace Ms Evans, it's not (primarily) Wall Street that got us here; the current deadlock and paralysis aren't an act of god, but the fairly predictable results of California voters quite deliberately voting to tie the hands of politicians with mandates for this, mandates for that, super-majorities for budgets and tax increases, etc. — and then sitting back and saying they (the voters) just aren't going to pay for it all when the bills come due (i.e. now). And then blaming the increasingly powerless politicians for not being able to do anything about the results. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians are useless money-grubbing bastards, so let's tie their hands with impossible voter-mandated propositions, then wait for the inevitable failure, then blame the politicians even more and restrict them further, then blame the politicians again… all while furiously denying any responsibility as voters for getting themselves into this mess.

(From the cozy confines of arty Little Jingletown, things sometimes still seem OK, but walking through the landscape of garbage-strewn streets, burned-out cars, and graffitied trees of my greater neighbourhood, or slinking past the shambling mentally ill and the homeless beggars on (and off) the sidewalks in Berkeley, or driving past the boarded-up malls and empty construction sites in suburbia, and negotiating the unrepaired roads and axle-breaking potholes of local streets, or waiting through the unanswered phone calls to City Hall and the two hour delay (yes) on the police response to the 911 call for last month's serious car accident near my place, it's hard not to think it's the long-awaited California Apocalypse. Hollywood's always loved the California destruction trope in movies, but giant quakes and alien invasions taking out LA to the squealing enjoyment of audiences everywhere doesn't quite catch the banal reality).

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May 31, 2009

Punch Up

"The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight, […] a lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles" — Bruce Nauman, quoted in the latest New Yorker, on the SF art scene he once escaped from years ago.

It's still a lot like that, at least for older San Franciscans: I don't think establishment San Francisco's ever really got over the fact that in the last few decades LA's become the cultural heart of California, the place where interesting art happens, a place where music and culture go their own merry way without so much as a nod to mother San Francisco. Those older San Franciscans seem fixated on LA (and, to a lesser extent, NY) as cultural rivals, but there's really no contest: San Francisco might have punched well above its weight fifty years ago, but looking back lovingly at the 1960's doesn't in itself a vibrant culture make, and neither New York nor LA see SF as much of a rival — gallingly for us here in the Bay Area, they don't see us at all.

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May 15, 2009

SSC

Swanning around the bright spacious well-peopled aisles of Fry's in Fremont on a Friday evening in search of NAS drives and eSATA cables: what else is there to do in the Valley? I'm such a nerd.

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May 11, 2009

Imagine That

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination," Mr. Obama said. "It is happening right now, it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here." (Quoted in a recent NYT news article).

A long time ago (the late 1980's or early 1990's), while working as a recently-transplanted Londoner in Silicon Valley, I remember seeing a poster near the front door of the company I worked at that compared Old Tech very smugly and unfavorably to New Tech by comparing railway (railroad, I guess, this being the US) technology and companies to the then-nascent PC and workstation companies (like the place I was working at then). One had a Future, the other only a Past; QED, I guess. The poster had whole diagrams and columns devoted to explaining why train technology died out in the twentieth century (and why PC technology had a glorious future). Those lumbering old trains, heavily-engineered steel dinosaurs in the last gasp of extinction, roadkill on the way to the future…. Good riddance.

Two worlds, for sure — but not the two the poster writers (and the company's founders) probably had in mind, I'll bet. The world I'd just come from had fast, convenient, and relatively-cheap train travel (in fact until I moved to California I'd never really owned a car because public transport was so much cheaper and more convenient); trains in that world didn't just have a future, they were (and still are) the future (or a part of it, at any rate). From my point of view back then, it was cars that looked like a long-term dead end, at least in their current guise.

The world I'd just moved to, though, seemed completely oblivious to the reality elsewhere: didn't they know trains worked? Didn't they know that modern trains were marvels of hi-tech engineering and efficient use of resources? No, they basically didn't. Trains were these slow old things that almost no one used; I didn't know anyone in The Valley who took trains anywhere (there weren't any trains to take, in any case). Trains were The Past. I remember a front-page article in a local newspaper (the old SF Examiner, I think) that patiently explained to its readership train basics (such as how to get on and off trains) in preparation for some trek or other in an antique train up the coast. I used to joke that when cars became less desirable in the future, at least in California there'd be enough space to use the freeways as train right-of-ways. And now California's starting to pitch itself as ground zero for new (green) railway technology, which can't be a bad thing, for sure. Get that hi-tech on the rails again….

The US's transport infrastructure: so well-prepared for the twentieth century. And that's just the way so many Americans like it….

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May 01, 2009

City of Light

It's easy to get all huffy about the tawdriness and inauthenticity at the heart of Las Vegas, but immersed in the crowds on The Strip late at night, it can seem a bright and cheery sort of place (watching the Bellagio fountains do a brassy "Hey Big Spender" really did it for me), and from the 26th floor of the Flamingo, with the lights out towards Nellis twinkling in the desert heat and distance, the neon reflections in the windows arrayed around the immediate high-rise horizon, the helicopters shuttling above the strip, the lights of the planes turning final into McCarran, and the palms swaying in the breeze between the parking structures, it's easier to take Vegas at face value, an authentic sort of context for the genuinely inauthentic. Who cares whether the palms in front of the Eiffel Tower are fake or not?

But the drive in the from the desert, the long struggle to get through the traffic in suburb after suburb of huge pastel developments, empty garage Mahals, strip malls, sandy hills and clogged freeways, the permanent impermanence of everything much beyond The Strip or Downtown, the flinty Los Angelisation, the endless stream of billboards that seem to advertise only personal injury, DUI, and traffic offense lawyering, the taxis with rooftop ads for automatic weapons, the way almost every built surface looks instantly worn in the same way so many local faces do… all that's the ugly heart of Las Vegas. It's just hidden in that vast periphery that few get to see on their five-block ride in from the airport.

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April 22, 2009

Dr Pangloss, I Presume

"'I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, the hospital, the health plan of his or her choice,' Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said before the [Sebelius confirmation] vote." (from a recent AP story).

I'll bet he also believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. If there's one thing that the vast majority of Americans don't currently have — and, by design, would never have under most proposed extensions of current schemes — it's any real choice in things like health plans (or even the choice of having any health coverage at all).

There's an absolutely surreal air about American discussions about health care, a mixture of denial and an inability to understand that choices don't have to be as claustrophobically limited as they are here at the moment. Americans by and large seem dead set against medical services rationing, but ruthless rationing is at the heart of the current system (it just happens to be based on your income or financial state or past health record), and few Americans feel it's their duty to pay for any unrationed system. Health care insurance is one of the few things that unequivocally works best with social insurance (as opposed to individual insurance), where risk is spread across as many people as possible, but any mention of the word "social" or "socialised" brings out the pitchforks, and we get the current bizarre situation where you pay insurance for decades, only to be (quite legally) dropped from a plan as soon as you get seriously sick; at which point you face bankruptcy because no other insurance company will insure you. In effect, the current scheme is "insurance until you're sick; pay-as-you-go thereafter…". The worst of all possible worlds, in other words.

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April 18, 2009

Cal Day



It's Cal Day at the university, and Berkeley's being overrun by good cheer and sunny futures. At one of the stands a young guy's hawking silly hats with floppy ears and a big Cal bear on them: "Cal Hats! Cal Hats! Get your Cal hat here! All proceeds to charity!" He locks eyes with me as I wander past and says "Sir! A Cal hat for you?!" I can't help smiling and responding with "Do I look like the kind of person who wears a silly hat?!" He squints at me, pauses, then grins back, doing a pretty good imitation of my Anglo-Australian accent "Yyyyeeeeeessssss... why yes you do, mate! You could wear it while lecturing!"

A decade or two of being mistaken for a professor while walking through Berkeley does the ego a lot of good; I buy a hat. Surely the right thing to wear while reading Baudrillard at The Milano; an Irony Hat in mufti, I guess.

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March 01, 2009

Power To The People

Reading Peniel Joseph's "Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" (Henry Holt, 2006), I'm often struck by just how central Oakland was to the Black Power movement in the late 1960's and 1970's, and vice versa: you keep stumbling over sentences like "[Eldridge] Cleaver [in exile in Algeria] lashed out at [Huey] Newton [in Oakland] during a televised international conference call [...] which had been originally designed as a show of unity between Oakland and Algeria.", and there's the detritus of those years all around Oakland, the attitudes, the power structures, the odd little murals and shopfronts in West Oakland or downtown, the ghosts of Huey and Eldridge in West Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland as it is now really doesn't always make much sense without knowing about the Panthers and the whole Black Power struggle. And it's not just the lost, broken legacy of the Panthers' social activism (as Joseph points out, in Oakland as with so many other places, Black power (lower-case "p") became a reality just as the associated cities descended into dire financial and social straights, and became identified with failure), it's the attitudes (and attitudanalising) behind so much City Hall politicking and cultural pushes.

If there's ever a place that once took — and still takes — the idea of "unity between Oakland and Algeria" (where Algeria is being used in a broader sense than just shorthand for "the Black Panther camp currently exiled in Algeria") seriously, it's Oakland. Never mind that, inevitably, Algeria's a place most Oaklanders couldn't locate on a map of the world, and that the African touches here are so confused and, well, American.

But as for many Oaklanders (and as with California at large for many decades now), my Oakland is largely Hispanic and Asian nowadays, at least on a daily basis, and that's a fact that's caused increasing resentment in Oakland's black communities. Oakland's on the verge of no longer really being a Black majority town, and we're starting to see the same sort of politics of resentment playing out in local politics in particular nasty and coded ways.

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February 22, 2009

Alien At Home

Whenever I drive out into the hinterlands, into sub-suburban and rural California, I’m always struck by a bunch of things, mostly contradictory: how familiar this landscape and culture is, how at home I am in it, how much an alien it makes me feel, how changed it is from when I first drove out here, how vast the landscape and so much in it is (the huge agricultural machines, huge truck stops, huge SUVs, huge freeways, huge mountains…). It so often just reduces me to lists….

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February 02, 2009

Rudderless Oakland

An already-tainted and overwhelmed police force under FBI investigation, with the police chief suddenly resigning in a hissy fit; a huge and unexpected budget shortfall (over and above the normal recession problems) due to incompetence or fraud (no one's quite sure which just yet); continuing destructive riots and civil unrest downtown in reaction to a brutal shooting that's got almost nothing directly to do with Oakland; the predictable (and predicted) bungling of the case against the alleged assassins of Chauncey Bailey; a deepening recession that not even the Port can help us with now; a drought that's breathing hotly down our necks; allegations of rampant nepotism in the city's workforce; and an ineffectual mayor who doesn't bother to come in to his office except when he feels like it (tying up business for days on end)… at least the homicide rate is down compared to last year.

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January 26, 2009

Horse Trailer Day

Celebrate! I'll be doing my bit by taking fairy bread to work. Thanks to the ever-reliable Spike for reminding me of that great Oz (and NZ, I suspect) delicacy….

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January 08, 2009

14th and Broadway

Massed TV news helicopters in the skies over Oakland are never a good sign; especially when they're over your neighbourhood. Last night, sporadic rioting, arson, vandalism, and protests in response to the Shooting (it's increasingly being capitalized around here); tomorrow? Who knows. What I think I most worry about is what's going to happen when the officer either isn't charged or is found not guilty after trial. That won't be sporadic….

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December 20, 2008

JUNK

Upstairs in the Milano a skinny young junky with stereotyped glassy eyes, greasy hair, and tats down both arms twitches in the corner badly out of place bent over a weeks-old newspaper. After a while he starts trying to hit up the nearest tables for money for a bagel, people look the other way or move downstairs, he slowly makes his way my way until he's close enough that I can see the letters "J U N K" tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in gothic script. Just before he gets to me he stumbles and knocks someone's glass onto the floor, looks around startled, and flees past me downstairs and out onto the street. Upstairs we start relaxing again. Outside, the vendors on Telegraph keep on setting up the stalls for the holiday bash. In Moe's there's a row of art books on urban graffiti; one of the covers has a photo of a 1980's New York subway train, the graffiti along its length looking like the tats on the junky's arms, right down to the gothic script of one of the tags.

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November 26, 2008

Ta

It's one of those familiar little cultural rites for Britons and Australians in the US around this time; it happens to me every year without fail: some friendly well-intentioned American (usually a checkout clerk or someone like that) asks me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia or Britain. I'm always tempted to reply with something glib and unpleasant about how we all give thanks for not being American, but it's easier to just smile and give some sort of non-committal response and ask them how they'll be celebrating their Thanksgiving. It's just one of those things here that you learn to play along with, like the assumption on pretty much every official form that everyone has a middle initial (and only one middle initial), and that every address in every country has something called a "zip code", or that all phone numbers world-wide are exactly ten digits long…

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November 22, 2008

Game Day

In The Milano the radio's playing a glacial rendition of the third movement of the Brahms violin concerto; it's the sort of thing that gets called stately, but it sends me out early onto the street, where a surly-looking guy in a wheelchair is begging on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign saying "Family kidnapped by ninjas need $$$ for karate lessons chop chop". You do what you can, I guess; most in the red-and-gold crowd streaming up Telegraph for the Big Game just turn away. On lower Sproul the cheerleaders gather in the gleaming cold surrounded by beached sousaphones and trumpets; one day I'll finally capture the surrealism strewn around so casually here.

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 14, 2008

The Big Country



The grandly-named Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (actually a nook in the mall at Orlando Airport) sells (amongst a large array of other merch) plush cuddly little official NASA space shuttles. I buy one; it'll go nicely with the friendly over-fed knitted pink and white Dalek I have back in Oakland.

At Denver we land in the teeth of a bitterly-cold strong northerly wind that's sending tumbleweeds rolling across the runways and ramps; it's snowed here earlier this morning, but it's blowing dirt and sand and stray bits of scrap paper right now. The crowds hanging around the gates waiting to board West Coast flights always seem visibly different to the rest of the vast mass of people that flows through this huge airport every day (this has often been the first sign of home for me over the past decade). At the western end of the long concourse you can see the beginning of the Rockies through plate glass picture windows; at the other end there's no view at all of the Great Plains sloping invisibly back through the haze towards the Mississippi and Back East. It's a state of mind, I guess, along with the "Tornado Shelter" signs pointing to the reinforced toilet structures every few tens of metres along the way.

Later, Boulder, the Front Range, snow-covered oilfields, the scoured scarred badlands of Western Colorado (a place with unlikely family connections for me), mesas, the Wasatch, Great Salt Lake, the endless sharp ranges of the Great Basin desert, snowcapped against a desert of rilles, craters, dry lakes, power stations, and mines in the middle of nowhere, Mono Lake and the Sierras (at last!), Mighty Modesto, State Route 99, Interstate 5, Mt Diablo and the Bay… we land into a very dry but mild mini Santa Ana that's turned the twilight bright orange and purple and the brush fire danger to bright red. Back to reality, I guess.

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November 13, 2008

The Natural



Fierce sun, hard rain, towering clouds, dark shades, Caribbean accents, sandy soil, scrubby trees, standing water, filmy lakes, sprawling malls, thrusting resorts, empty plazas, big food, ubiquitous obesity, unsustainable lifestyles…. Outside — somewhere — Natural Florida, a place I suspect I'd like a lot, a place I've never visited in twenty years of having to come to the Real Florida for conferences and business.

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November 11, 2008

Exotica



So you fly a few thousand miles non-stop across the country to a smallish city in the middle of what seems like a very flat nowhere and approach the rental car counter at the airport. You can't help noticing that on the wall behind the counter there are three large posters, one from each of what you think of as your home towns — London, Sydney, and San Francisco — enticing you to travel to these distant locales (and rent cars there, presumably).

It all seems so exotic. Especially when the guy behind the counter cheerily greets you with a thick Brummie accent.

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November 10, 2008

Soundtrack For A Future Short




Click here for a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up mp3 I did of an Ivesian short stroll around Sproul Plaza last Saturday while the University of California band warmed up for a game (listen to it with headphones and loud to get the full effect).

I take my surrealism where I can get it, I guess.

(There's a much larger and higher-quality audio-only Quicktime version here for those of you with the bandwidth).

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October 22, 2008

Helter Skelter (By Any Means Necessary)

It's difficult to convey to outsiders just how paranoid, oppressed, and alienated you can feel during an election like this in this God-washed country, a place where Belief often breeds a breezy contempt for thoughtfulness or fact, where brightly-polished lies are the much-traded currency of an artificial economy of fear, where semi-official campaign robocallers slime your voicemail with racist or borderline lunatic conspiracy theories viciously demonizing people who, you quickly realise, are stand-ins for yourself, where TV spots attack you and your beliefs every few minutes with a sustained seething haze of brazen smears and deniable innuendo (all done with a polite authoritative tone), where your mail box is soiled day after day by anonymous coded attack mailers full of cowardly insinuations or outright lies, where every second email is a naked appeal to put thought and reason aside and take up arms (real or not) to defeat some enemy or other… all that and a third term still seems a distinct possibility (the real local and personal tragedy will be Proposition 8 passing).

It's easy to say the electorate gets the election it deserves, but what did the rest of us do to deserve this way of choosing a president?

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October 18, 2008

Gods Of Little Dreams

"Pegana has gods of dust, of silence, and of 'little dreams and fancies', but no gods or goddesses of the harvest, of war, or of love — pretty much the core curriculum for heathen deities." — Laura Miller on the Fantastical Writings of Lord Dunsany, in an old New Yorker.

A refreshing universe of gods — a god for each of the inexplicable things beyond human control, ceding the important things — harvest, war, etc. — to human agency. Which is as it should be. (Too often we describe as "inhuman" exactly that behaviour that most marks us as human beings — war, murder, rape, torture, etc.; too often "act of god" is a euphemism for human negligence).

(C.f. Herodotus's "[Hesiod and Homer] were the poets who composed for the Hellenes the theogony, assigned to the gods their epithets, defined their particular honors and skills, and described what they look like." (2.53 in Purvis's recent translation, ed. Strassler) — that nicely-inverted echo of Adam naming the animals in Genesis…).

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October 12, 2008

What A Difference A Month Makes…

I had lunch with a bunch of techie friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley late last week; as usual with these things, none of us was US-born, and I was the only native English speaker (and, for that matter, the only white boy (or girl)) in the group. A fairly diverse set of people, in the way of the Valley, and (given the middle-class Indian, Asian, and African immigrant experience), a fairly conservative bunch as well (more so than me, especially). What amazed me was that everyone in that group supported Obama; no one could manage a good word for McCain (and some went a lot further than that, with some serious scorn for McCain and his more rabid supporters). Almost no one there could imagine McCain as an enlightened and effective president; everything in this discussion revolved around "character" (rather than identity), and about seriousness, credibility, and believability — Obama has it all, if you listen to this bunch (even if many of us believe it won't make much short-term difference just how good the new president will be). I was astonished: even four weeks ago this lunch would have had a very different tone to it.

But then none of us at that lunch lives in "America"; we live in the Bay Area, a very different place. All of us have founded or helped found startups or businesses (successful or otherwise), but for all the financial conservatism that tends to go along with that, most us around the table are pretty comfortable with things like gay marriage, socialised medicine, or government-led anti-global warming initiatives.

In other words, we're not typical. Nobody out there beyond the Valley cares less what we think. And in any case, it fundamentally just doesn't matter how we vote: we nearly all live in some of the most Obama-centric electorates in the nation. And what scares us isn't what scares the US populace as a whole Out There: stupid scare stories about Obama's supposed connections to aging domestic terrorists don't scare us nearly as much as the feeling that out there beyond the bubble, the US has lost the plot completely, that the US populace just doesn't understand what's hit it (or what it hit itself with again and again over the past decade or so). What scared us most at that lunch was the idea that the US electorate as a whole might actually fall — again — for all the same sort of idiotic scaremongering that produced the real problems in the first place. What scares us is the still-prevailing attitude Out There that things will just go back to the way they used to be and everything will be OK again without anyone having to make any sort of real sacrifices or changes to their lives. Now that's scary.

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October 04, 2008

Waiting For Rain

Another early first rain, even earlier than the previous earliest I can remember, the first rain at all in at least six months. Big news: it topped the local broadcast TV news last night with dramatic scrolling "Stormwatch" graphics and even beat out the Bailout for the first five minutes. As always, there was no storm, just some light overnight rain; but we need every bit we can get, and self-absorption tends to be its own reward. Early first rains here tend to be harbingers of dry years; we shall see….

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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 03, 2008

Meta-Spin

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….

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August 24, 2008

Gualala

On the beach, Gualala

Thick fog creeping across the cliffs, dark sand, driftwood, poppies and thistles, sequoias and ghost gums, turkey vultures, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, oases of floating kelp, furtive abalone divers, surfers shivering in wetsuits… and hordes of aged geezers on ear-splitting Harleys stopping to have coffee at places with slogans like "Not just a cup of coffee — a just cup of coffee", or dropping in for dinner at Pangaea.

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August 17, 2008

Stunt Ballet

"Once again The Crucible sets the dance scene ablaze with a fusion of classical ballet, fire performance, aerialists, acrobats and break dancers to create a fiery and funky interpretation of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. It’s definitely ballet with an industrial edge provided by Crucible artisans, a cameo appearance by a Pontiac Firebird, and a ballerina’s graceful pas-de-deux with a motorcycle stunt rider." (from a flyer promoting local arts and craft outfit The Crucible's latest song and dance).

In other words, NASCAR in drag for hipsters who wouldn't be seen dead at a NASCAR event (both demos have tats; it's just that one group thinks of them as pictures, the other as "art"; and for one group, "industrial" is an edgy aesthetic; the other, a way of life). That great herd of independent minds, again, I guess. See you at Burning Man. Boom!! Bang!! Crash!! Dude, the Flames…

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August 13, 2008

Buying The Dream

Obama confronts America with a successful living out of, and (crucially) a strong belief in, the traditional American Dream, at least as evangelised by the usual sellers of the Dream. It's interesting to watch conservative America react to the reality of that dream coming true for such a, well, different figure: the most interesting response being an engaged recognition of the fact but a (healthy) skepticism that merely believing in and fulfilling the American Dream isn't in itself sufficient qualification for being president; more commonly, it's just angry denial or a squirming sort of let's-change-the-subject deflection.

Even more interesting is the reaction on the left: quite often denial that there's any such thing as a valid American Dream, or that if it exists, that anything good could come from trying to live it. But in any case, for many Americans, what they think of Obama is what they think of the American Dream — and its applicability to Americans in general.

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July 22, 2008

Dedication

A brazen, sneering, strutting, petulant, contemptuous arrogance, an absolute dedication to putting an unnacountable executive branch above the law in the service of big business and big government, chickenhawks in search of enemies to fight vicariously, a commitment to exclusionary faith and ideology tempered only by boundless cynicism, the preening hypocrisy of the self-righteous, a penchant for speaking power to truth, a history of sticking up for Big Brother against the little guy — um, where was I? What else was there?! Lord I'm tired of this regime….

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July 10, 2008

Everybody Loves A Parade

For a little good-natured state-sanctioned surrealism, check out the eight minute video take on Alameda's 4th of July parade I did last weekend. You'll need a quicktime player (your browser probably already has one), and the soundtrack's kinda crucial (so don't turn it down), and it's probably a little large for some tastes, but other than that, what's to say? Amazingly, it's the first 4th of July parade I've seen in all the years I've lived here, and the strange mixture of NRA floats, Peace Now pink ladies, the Oakland Back Cowboys Association, and the various Mexican dancing horses all felt about right to me, but I guess I expected more marching bands and whackos on floats. Still, it's not so bad for a small urban town still struggling with the loss of the military and rapidly-changing demographics. (Alameda is just across the Estuary from where I live).

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June 16, 2008

Carrots Scream Too

"It's hypocritical, too, to pretend that existence is not violence. It's hypocritical — the way vegetarians are hypocritical. They think they aren't harming anything, but a carrot screams too." — from "Let us hold high the banner of intercommunalism and the invincible thoughts of Huey P. Newton minister of defense and supreme commander of the Black Panther Party", in one of the interminable official Panther communiques / newsletters collected in a recent celebratory history.

You can't go far in Oakland without hitting a living ghost of Huey or the Panthers, especially if you've got more than a smattering of local historical knowledge. Even if (like the vast majority of Oaklanders nowadays) you have only a vague idea who Huey or the Panthers were, you can't miss the murals and the place names, and, above all, the surviving attitudes. And that mixture of mordant realist humour and strident turgid authoritarian self-importance, especially, still marks so much of Oakland's African-American and "Progressive" politics, serving much the same purpose it always has: to mask powerlessness and to make damn sure nothing actually gets done (or at least to ensure that nothing gets done without referral to a massive round of self-important committees). But history and demographics seem to be passing Old Oakland by, and, in common with a lot of inhabitants nowadays, my Oakland's largely Hispanic, and the politics and culture don't refer back to the golden age of the Panthers (who, to be fair, had some truly positive social programs in West Oakland, especially), but to something maybe a little sunnier and more forward-looking. And in a part of the world where identity is so often defined in terms of resentment, that's leading to a deep backlash from the older identity politicians as Oakland slowly turns from being a black-majority city to being a hispanic town. A subdued Viva la evolución from me, I guess.

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June 12, 2008

Wall and Piece

Kennedy Street, Oakland, CA


I've got a real soft spot for Banksy. (Assuming "Banksy" is a "he", and is just one person, which seems a dangerous assumption, but never mind) his stuff is smart, witty, funny, thoughtful, clever, well-targeted, visually appealing, and (for me, anyway), motivated by just the Right Stuff. As he puts it in Wall and Piece, "Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought". And that's kind of the key, no? Living in a neighbourhood increasingly suffocated by gang (and wannabe-gang) graffiti, his stuff often makes me ache for something other than the omnipresent thoughtless scribbled dog-piss graffiti 'round here.

He says "People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access." (in his "Advice on painting with stencils"). Well, maybe. Of course, 'round here people look at graffiti and wonder whether it means they're in norteño or surreño territory, or whether that little bit over there is E14th gang graffiti or A-town Runners graffiti, or wonder whether the huge gang sign graffiti repeated endlessly along the wall on E 7th means there's a hope in hell their car won't be graffitied the next night, or wonder why they have to clean the graffiti off their windows every damn week for the rest of their lives...

"Crime against property is not real crime." (ditto) But a lot of graffiti isn't resented by the graffitiist's targets because it's a property crime (the most graffitied neighbourhoods rarely have many property owners who are directly affected by it), it's because it's a visceral reminder that most of us have little control over our external visual environments, and a scary sign that gangs control the streets late at night (I'm guessing Banksy doesn't live in a place where gang-related gunshots are heard every night, but never mind, it's the thought that counts, right?).

Graffiti's no more inherently subversive than painting (or, for that matter, Frisbee golf). Graffiti's a medium, not a coherently-motivated and targeted act. It's OK to take a positive or at least indulgent attitude to graffiti when it's either thoughtful and clever (think "Banksy", of course…) or somehow subversive, but when its intention is simply to make us feel unwelcome or intimidated in our own environments, or to mark territory, it's a little disingenuous to proclaim it as a revolutionary or liberating thing as such. Sure, there's graffiti and there's Graffiti, and I sometimes long for the witty (or at least provocative) political and anti-commercial graffiti that used to pop up in inner-city Sydney and London, but that's not the reality most of us live.

(There's just no way to write something like this without sounding Pooterish or school-marmish, is there?).

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May 19, 2008

The Battle Of Algiers

What better time to watch a film about an occupying Western power that uses torture and brutal hypocrisy in the service of civilisation and democracy? The first time I saw "The Battle Of Algiers" was as some sort of tenth-generation samizdat copy in the same City University film course that got me to see la Jetée. It seemed more remote then, something to be studied as a self-conscious artefact of the 60's or of self-important European Cinema, like some sort of cross between a French gangster movie and half-forgotten black-and-white TV newscast footage of the Vietnam war from my childhood. Now it also seems more like a humane and generous attempt to show the human face of dehumanisation, to show in simple terms the deadly and deadening complexities of occupation, terrorism, "authenticity", and resistance.

Will there ever be an equivalent for Iraq? Probably not — whatever you might say about the FLN and the pieds-noir, there was a strong strain of Western influence and history underpinning the FLN, and a basic level of (wrong-headed) understanding of Algeria in the pieds-noir that few Americans are likely to be capable of in Iraq (there just isn't the shared history, for one).

(There was one jarring scene in the film where Colonel Mathieu off-handedly comments on how he'd like Sartre even less as an enemy (or something similar) — did the old windbag ever have that sort of influence?)

(Part of Flix).

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May 11, 2008

Four Years

Four years of Tight Sainthood so far, a century in blog years (well, by some counts — even the most ardent bloggers rarely last more than three years with a single blog). Unlike the last few years, this year most Googlers ended up here searching on the term "justified terrorism", which brings up this rather anodyne posting. That article also turns out to be the single most-read posting based on this year's stats, which is surprising, to say the least (no one ever reads things like this, for example :-)). Last year (and the year before and the year before the year before) the word "pudenda" was what got most Googlers here (for this article). The term "Woy Woy" is now (less surprisingly) a strong second in Googling here (which reminds me that I must write some more Woy Woy articles — I've been meaning to do one on Woy Woy food (it did exist, honestly) for years now). I still know of only a handful of regular readers, nearly all of whom I've met at one time or another in real life (and most of whom are not in the US), but there's definitely a few lurkers Out There.

I can see continuing Tight Sainthood another year, perhaps; we shall see….

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May 09, 2008

Graphic

Death and destruction in Oakland: the SF Chron's map of homicides in Oakland, 2007 and 2008 (so far, anyway; you have to check the 2007 box to get the 2007 icons to show up as well).

As one of the news items linked to a North Oakland shooting on the map for this year puts it, "[Oakland] Police on Monday were investigating a string of weekend shootings in Oakland that killed seven men, and authorities tried to reassure residents that the city is a safe place to live and work". Riiiight. At least there was only one homicide in my immediate neighbourhood, a very recent and rather unusual once-off, luckily enough (I walk past where it happened almost every day). There hadn't been any before that since the Brinks guard shooting in 2006 (which was big news even in Oakland), then none before that for quite a while, at least on this side of the railway.

Just to (once again) put this into perspective: the area covered on that map is physically about the same size as inner Sydney.

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May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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April 20, 2008

Come To Your Happy Place

The wildlife of West Oakland


Local wildlife, West Oakland.

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April 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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April 07, 2008

Reach Out



UC Berkeley's administration has put up a bunch of those irritating self-congratulatory inspirational marketing slogan flags along the pleasant little pathway next to the bluegums and the Campest Sculpture on Campus that I walk along several times a week on my way up to Moe's and the Milano.

They're (presumably real) quotes from (presumably real) students (and obviously picked with an eye to visual diversity). One of them says: "Berkeley has taught me that the world is mine: all I have to do is reach out and take it." I'd sort of hope that Berkeley might teach exactly the opposite, but never mind; California's always been the Promised Land for the self-entitled.

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April 02, 2008

Brooklyn West

Last Sunday's NYT had a typically lightweight and slightly twee piece on the cultural and social parallels between Brooklyn and the East Bay (especially, funnily enough, Lovely Industrial East Oakland), and even the personal connections between the two. I've long claimed that Oakland plays Newark to San Francisco's Manhattan, but Brooklyn's a more positive role model, no? The truth is, pretty much only rich kids or Boomer Grownups who got in early can afford to live productively in either Manhattan or San Francisco now (with the emphasis on "productively"), and while people looked at me a little strangely all those years ago when I first started rabbiting on about Oakland being the new art centre of the Bay Area, no one seems to think it's odd now. I don't so much feel vindicated as apprehensive: when your neighbourhood gets mentioned favourably in an NYT Styles section article, and the phrase "Arts District" gets bandied around unironically, you just know you won't be able to afford the rent in a few years' time, and you'll join the long (and already started) exodus of artists in search of new pastures further afield.

San Leandro, here I come….

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March 28, 2008

Westside Story

Highway 33

Highway 33


Derrick Avenue, The Coalinga-Mendota Road, Highway 33, Utica Avenue, Highway 99, The Stockdale Highway, Buck Owens Boulevard, Coalinga, Avenal, the Lost Hills, Kettleman Hills, McKittrick, Taft, Maricopa, Oildale, Weedpatch... Bakersfield, again.

In the Lost Hills area you drive for miles along rural two-lane blacktops through surreal treeless landscapes of rounded near-desert hills scarred by pipes, pale tanks, rutted tracks and the usual rusted twisted junk strewn around forests of nodding donkey pumpjacks, a stinging smell of burning. Everywhere, driven dust, tumbleweeds, pale willy-willies against the haze, and mountains looming in the murk just off stage. Everything natural in this harsh hard-edged landscape is in soft subdued pastels; everything else glints or flexes in bright colours or black. This landscape defeats my attempts to photograph it; it'd work much better as video shot from a truck.

At Vons on the Stockdale Highway, there's a bunch of "Jindabyne" DVDs on special near the checkstand. Outside in the parking lot, huge dark-painted SUVs and pickups with tinted windows, ostentatious crosses, Raiders logos, assault stereos, raised suspensions and oversized tires, "Jesus would bomb the Cr*p out of the Iraqis, That's what He'd do" stickers; what did I expect?

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March 19, 2008

A Trip To The DVD Store

The local Borders had "Blackadder III" in the Documentary section this evening; Koyaanisqatsi, Man Of Flowers, and Anton Corbijn's collected video works were lurking in the "Foreign Language" section (Koyaanisqatsi is at least plausible, I guess); and a new reissue of Battleship Potemkin sat in the "Comedy" section.

Easy targets, for sure; the really striking thing, though, is that they actually had those DVDs.

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March 08, 2008

Truth In Advertising

Ogilvy quotes Claude Hopkins thundering "People don't buy from clowns!" (on humour in advertising). But how else to explain Western Culture?

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February 27, 2008

Short Shameful Confession

I wouldn't miss the TV version of TMZ for quids.

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February 23, 2008

Research Shows…

Spurred on by a recent posting on That Convoluted Marketing Romance I finally got around to reading David Ogilvy's "Ogilvy On Advertising" the other day (yes, it's another of those "I can't believe I haven't actually read this book" books).

Like its author, the book unwittingly evokes a disappearing Jet Age (of both Western culture and advertising in particular) with nearly every word or picture, and does so in a jaunty patrician tone that won't suit everyone. It's a book that famously starts:
"I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"
Begin as you would go on, I guess — this is not a book that's going to spend much time on self-reflection or deconstructing the ad industry, but I think we already knew that.

Just look at that paragraph — a classic Ogilvy sleight of hand: he uses the word "information" when he means "rhetoric" or "disinformation", just as he uses "interesting" when he means "persuasive". Advertising isn't about product information in any way we lay people might recognise; it's primarily about consumer information; and the medium involved is increasingly mostly about getting information from you or about you as the target of a particular ad rather than getting information to you about specific products (which is why consumer tracking technologies like Web 2.0 are such a godsend for advertisers). A good advertising man like Ogilvy will not release pure unedited and unmediated information about the product to the potential consumer, especially if that product is more of a lifestyle or image (it would be a typical Ogilvyism to deliberately conflate "image" and "information"). And since Ogilvy's product in this book is advertising itself (and himself, of course — pity the title "Advertisements For Myself" was already taken…), what else would you expect? He's trying to sell advertising as a business, a concept, and if that means "informing" with Doublespeak, well, you've been warned, you know the territory. As Ms Natividad puts it, Ogilvy's got "a PhD in elegant bullshit, braced by decidedly supple morals." In other words, he'd like us to think that he's unashamedly and unapologetically an advertising man (in the Jet Age sense), but he can't publicly articulate what that means without resorting to, well, bullshit.

He adopts what I suspect is supposed to feel like a no-nonsense conversational tone in a lot of the writing, but that's as much a front as the rest of it. Large parts of the book also seem to be written in a rather self-satisfied and slightly arch way that can't quite hide the insecurity and combative self-pity that seems behind some of it (what is it with ad execs and design creatives wanting to be Bad Boys up against all those Nasty Left Wing Academics or politicians and do-gooders who doubtless held them back so long from greater glories, anyway?).

What I do like about the book, though, are the bits on the thinking behind and / or effects of a lot of (sometimes dated) "timeless" ads (many, but not all, of them his), and the sound (or, at least, sound-sounding) and reasonable advice on everything from getting a job to what makes a successful ad (and what "successful" might actually mean in this context — he's big on "research", without always being able to either define it or to do more than wave his hands distractedly with another flourish of his "research shows…" mantra). But it's difficult to take even this discussion at face value: the man's constructing a story to go along with the image, after all, and since the image is always infinitely more important than unmediated information, well, the narrative might have to bridge a few factual swamps or detour smoothly around inconvenient truths here and there, no? And a lot of the example ads are famous for being, well, famous, but did they sell the associated product well? "Research shows" that research on such things is typically either inconclusive or anecdotal, I'd guess, especially reading between the deliberately deflective lines in this book.

But as I said earlier, the book's really an artefact of, and a bible or manual for, the fast-disappearing Jet Age of advertising (and Western culture in general), and taken on its own terms, it's actually a lot of fun to read and contains enough wisdom and quotable quotes to make it a classic.

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February 17, 2008

Exotica

Doing my grocery shopping in Berkeley at Andronico's yesterday I stumble across something called a "Woolloomooloo Bar", and just have to buy it. It's an upscale self-described "exotic candy bar" apparently made in Chicago with a bunch of unlikely ingredients that don't immediately bring to mind the down-at-heels Woolloomooloo of earlier times, or the New! Improved! Woolloomooloo of today, let alone the University of Woolloomooloo (still remembered with affection in this overgrown college town). "Looks like something from down your way…" the checkout clerk says from the other side of the checkstand with an ironic smile (I'm sure she's thinking "Bruce!").

Well, maybe. I seem to have a studio full of American Australiana or fake Australian products now, from the Aussie Land "Blue Mountains" shampoo I found in Oakland a few years ago to the plastic boomerang I bought at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta a decade ago, through the Wallaby Yogurt in my fridge (every time I see it I struggle with the temptation to mutter the obvious slogan "made from real wallabies!") and the "Aussie Sun-Touched Shine" conditioner in my shower ("Add some Roo to your do!", as it says on the container (Urgh! I'm not making this up, you know)), to the very Californian-looking (read: clean, lean, fat-free, organic) pies advertised as "Authentic Aussie National Food!" in a local deli the other day. It all seems so exotic.

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January 26, 2008

Blood And Soil

Mt. Shasta


I keep returning to this place, this river-strewn high volcanic landscape that's so different from the rest of Northern California, this Southern Oregon that's not the Oregon that seems to look towards Seattle (or at its own organic navel). It's a state of something, for sure, something that makes me feel deeply at home in the same way that the Mojave or the Owens Valley do.

But to acknowledge the State Of Jefferson as anything more than whimsical history or sentimental icon, you have to get past the cringe-making scrappy driven boosterism and inferiority complexes so often behind the idea, the right-wing rewrites of history and coded shibboleths that come with the gun racks and pickups or the creepy newage crystal shops glinting in the malls. It's a States Rights thing, basically, with all that that phrase can mean.

It's like a certain strain of Australian nationalism: motivated by a sort of charming or disarming bad faith and an inability to speak its mind because it's really all Id. It's no accident that the great State Of Jefferson is so often identified by its boosters as a state of mind.

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January 22, 2008

Identity Is (Not) Destiny

Obama may get lost in the confusion of identity and identification: his attraction for so many Americans is tied up in his identity (in the pervasive US identity politics sense) and the way he and his identity seem to redeem American racism and history, and the way he comes off as able to wear that identity lightly and unthreateningly. But identity's a fickle thing (largely because it's imposed and / or chosen, not especially inherent), and at best a double-edged sword, and once you go beyond the irritating vagueness of his policy messages, it sometimes seems that all you've got is symbolism, projection, and voter identification with a certain shifting transcendent identity (raceless, American). So many who share Obama's (underplayed) identity don't identify much with him; and those who identify strongly with him don't typically share his imposed identity.

All of which doesn't seem likely to go up well against the practiced policy-mongering and well-honed (primary) colour-coded identities of the rest of the field….

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January 18, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy...

"LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - London's Heathrow airport, the busiest international airport in the world, struggled to return to normal on Friday, one day after a Boeing 777 crash-landed, causing travel chaos but only minor injuries". (in a recent Reuters news article).

When I lived in London, there wasn't a Londoner on earth who didn't "know" that Heathrow was the busiest airport in the world. In Britain it's a "fact" that's repeated casually in news stories, conversations, documentaries, etc. over and over without the slightest doubt that it's true. But Heathrow isn't the busiest airport — or even international airport — in the world, not by a long shot (that would be Atlanta, followed by Chicago and sundry other US airports; even — sacre bleu! — Paris's Charles de Gaulle is usually busier). Sure, Heathrow might have the most international flights or passengers, but that's only because you really can't fly more than a short distance from Heathrow without crossing an international boundary. For a short while in the late 1990's even the airport I learned to fly at (Oakland International) was busier in terms of aircraft landing and taking off (etc.) than Heathrow (flying a small Cessna on busy approaches shared by 747s, 777s, etc. surely gave me a rather warped perspective on GA flying, but it's served me well over the years).

(I passively collect bogus instances of the "biggest | busiest | fastest | etc." things I see around me like this; the whole obsession started when, within a month or two, I passed signs advertising "the biggest IMAX screen in the world!" for cinemas in, respectively, LA, Sydney, New York, Denver, and Atlanta (if I remember correctly). My guess is they were all exactly the same size…).

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January 14, 2008

Buy Design

The late, great, Tibor Kalman (1989, quoted in number 47 of Michael Bierut's Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design) on the role of Design and designers: "We're not here to help clients eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We're here to make them think about what's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce. We're here to be bad."

That sounds more like a manifesto for selling Design to designers, for selling self-importance to the insecure, than a serious attempt to answer the Big Question. Face it Tibor, Design's for selling, for deflection, for distraction. Design is aesthetics and visual rhetoric in the service of sales — selling a product, an ideology, a state of mind, an idea, an individual's weltschmerz, a corporate image…. If a design's not tugging you by the cuffs and whispering (or screaming) "Buy! Buy! Buy!" in your ear, it's just not doing its job (or it's Art).

(Bierut's book's a lot of fun, and he gently rips into the rather fatuous Adbusters manifesto of some years back, but he's pleasingly elliptical about his own answer to the question, "What is design for?". He seems most engaged when discussing what we might call Heroic Design, i.e. design selling the idea of Design (to clients or to other designers); but that may be a little unfair).

(And Kalman's mini rant's actually an ironic breath of fresh air compared to Cheryl Towler Weese's recent muddled, earnest, and unintentionally funny Design Observer piece "Is Apple Soft On Crime?", a piece that's likely to pass into history as a classic of its type. Danger and unpredictability are all very well until it's by design, right?!).

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December 27, 2007

The Big Question

As half the world seems to know by now, a day or two ago a Siberian tiger escaped from its cage in San Francisco zoo and killed a visitor before it was itself killed by police (it also badly injured two other visitors). Even today the local media is full of stories asking what almost every commentator calls the puzzling question: how did the tiger get out of its cage, cross the moat separating its pen from the larger zoo, and break through various fences to get to its victims? But the real puzzle is why on earth anyone would cage an animal like this in a zoo like that (or anywhere as cramped and cold as San Francisco). Zoos are some of the most depressing places in earth for me; I usually can't bear to visit them.

In other news, several people were killed by guns around the Bay. They were barely noticed.

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December 17, 2007

Moonstruck



Accidentally caught mid-flight on a local arts channel while skimming between Simpsons episodes and PBS pledge breaks, one of those fortuitous chancy Postmodern collisions between a familiar overheated shriek of Modernism and the self-conscious Postmodernism of late 90's Manhattan (I'm amazed I haven't seen it before). Made for each other, you'd think, in a place where the irony is arch (and the "i" in Irony most definitely upper-case), and where (mirroring the respective sins of their eras) the cliches both drip a hysterical earnestness and simultaneously preempt any criticism (and where the WTC sill stands). But I'm seduced by the cooler visual lyrical rhetoric as a sort of visual sprechstimme mirroring the music, and if you can't hear the Schoenbergs on the streets of Midtown, you'll miss seeing the Rothkos in the surfaces surrounding you. And dreams go forth to greet the distance….

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November 16, 2007

St. Herbert

Herbert Muschamp died recently. I can't top Michael Bierut's article on him in Design Observer: he was required reading, but not always for the reasons he wanted to be read, all those "outré movie references, inappropriate sexually-charged metaphors, sweeping incontrovertible declarations, and, of course, the requisite roll call of the moment's hottest names" (as Bierut puts it). I think I've always much preferred Paul Goldberger as an architectural critic.

About the only thing that surprised me in the various obits was Muschamp's age: hardly young (59), but much younger than I'd mentally pegged him as. He seemed to be a holdover from the Europe of the immediate post-War, if not maybe even Weimar; my mental image of him was of some sort of cravatted roue in his eighties or even nineties, holding forth to the entranced younguns about pre-War European Modernist pioneers and artists. Yes, too cruel, I know; but nothing I say here can detract from his overall influence or effect, and hell I enjoyed his writing (if not always his message).

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November 10, 2007

Back To Normal

It's a home game day at Berkeley (a lopsided USC Trojans vs. The Bears game up in the stadium, apparently), and in the Milano some sort of American Modernist classical piece on the radio competes with the Asian drums out on Sproul and the marching band warming up nearby. The effect's like Ives coliding with a gamelan, something Our Charles would approve of, for sure.

Outside, in the drizzle on Telegraph, a young homeless guy asks me for change for coffee. He looks like he'll actually get coffee with it, so I give him four quarters and terse smalltalk, and a minute later he's disappeared into the Mediteranneum. Me, I disappear into Moe's and end up with Luca Frei's "The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg — An interpretation", a book full of the sort of throwaway apercus like "Sleeping: is that also part of culture?" and "Of all the insults and the accusations that have been thrown at us, that of parasitism fills me with joy [...]" that I suspect will either quickly get very tiresome or will suck me right in (there's a thin line between attitude and ambition)

Back on Telegraph, Mars is now saying "Fabulous clothes for naked people". With Mars it's not so much an ad as a proclamation, or even a command. I wish I could comply. On the other side of the street the coffee guy's sitting on an abandoned doorstep drinking coffee; he sees me and waves. On my side a tall skinny guy in a yellow hoodie under an immaculately-tailored and buttoned-down dark blue Cal sports blazer topping ironed jeans and a pair of docs sweeps by to great effect. I don't have the guts to take his photo.

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