Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Twitter fix

Dear Loyal Readers:

You’ve probably noticed a slower pace in this space recently; I’ve been immersed in a couple of projects, including getting MediaBugs off the ground. But if you’re on Twitter, you know how easy it is these days to keep the conversation going, at least 140 characters at a time, and indeed I’ve found it to be the best channel for sharing thoughts and links of interest in the interim. (I plan to return to more active blogging again soon.) Several times daily (on most days) you can follow my finger on the digital pulse here.

If you’re a Twitter user you also know how easy it is to miss a million things in the collective news stream you’ve let flow; to try to take in everything would be like drinking from a fire hose all day long. You may not even realize your own effect on the flow, and it can be illuminating to take a look back over your collective contribution. The sum of the parts can almost start to take on a flarf-like quality. Here are some recent bits from my adventures in micro-blogging, with lots of links for your browsing delight and/or distraction…

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well, there goes another “entire copy desk” at a major newspaper http://bit.ly/9wj5Sn about 3 hours ago

“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” http://nyti.ms/boSnGB about 4 hours ago

Seder at the White House sounds pretty cool http://nyti.ms/aKnvmv about 5 hours ago

Jesus was way hungry http://nyti.ms/diC4Hq 12:23 PM Mar 29th

war gaming Iran. Conclusion? Not a great idea. http://nyti.ms/a2cqsq 11:33 AM Mar 29th

vivid Jim Marshall photos: Jimi http://bit.ly/dD5ko3 … and Johnny http://bit.ly/b1Hcl0 10:09 PM Mar 25th

the dark side of nanotech? http://bit.ly/cHGvja 5:43 PM Mar 24th

global warming upshot: ocean swallows disputed island in Bay of Bengal http://bit.ly/chJyUr 4:21 PM Mar 24th

uh, not just anyone can hope to dodge home foreclosure with the help of PETA http://bit.ly/bhIXWU 4:13 PM Mar 24th

some say blogging is dead, respected bloggers included. @scottros says not so fast http://to.pbs.org/a94Cax 4:03 PM Mar 24th

you are watching your TV and surfing the Web at the same time, aren’t you. http://j.mp/aetKD7 11:09 AM Mar 22nd

finally got up the nerve to watch “The Cove” last night. Extraordinary film. Check it out, spread the word. http://www.takepart.com/thecove/ 10:02 AM Mar 22nd

7 years of war in Iraq today. Consider the names & faces of the dead: http://nyti.ms/c8p3tf 9:18 AM Mar 19th

Ailes to Fox staff unhappy w/insane Glenn Beck: “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent” http://bit.ly/9pzCFR 11:22 AM Mar 18th

RIP Alex Chilton http://bit.ly/9s6SGe 12:42 AM Mar 18th

from the dystopian California files: more than 23,000 school teachers get pink slipped http://dlvr.it/DRdg 6:00 PM Mar 15th

think twice before doing crimes at your keyboard http://bit.ly/bdIRVe 12:55 PM Mar 15th

French bread was spiked with LSD in CIA experiment: http://bit.ly/akIZn6 8:48 AM Mar 12th

Congrats to Haida artist Robert Davidson for receiving the 2010 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts http://bit.ly/dgXJVv 1:43 PM Mar 11th

the ultimate crime deterrent: San Quentin reviewed on Yelp http://tcrn.ch/dgDp8N (Indeed, the food apparently is “horrible”) 1:49 PM Feb 23rd

how many Tweets per day now? Oh, about 50 million. That is, 600 *every second*… (via @robinsloan) http://is.gd/8X8NI 12:56 PM Feb 22nd

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Go here to drink more from the fire hose!

Doguccino

A brief and irrelevant diversion: Yesterday afternoon when grabbing a shot of caffeine at Epicenter, I had no choice but to admire the barista’s foam styling skills — a doguccino unsolicited, but a fine one nevertheless, constructed simply using the tip of a beverage thermometer:


If doguccino doesn’t do it for you, perhaps Doga does.

Into the mind of David Foster Wallace

(First page of a handwritten draft of Infinite Jest by DFW, via HRC @ U of T.)

A year ago I explained why I thought it would be so rewarding if the world could get a deeper look at the personal correspondence of the late, great David Foster Wallace. Bravo to his longtime publisher, Little, Brown and Company, and to the University of Texas at Austin, who are making it happen. Many of his letters and other personal notes, annotations and scribbles will soon be available at the Harry Ransom Center, a research library and museum at UT. “David’s letters are delightful to read in themselves,” affirmed his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, “and we hope that scholars will benefit from finding his notes to his editors and copy editors in the same archive with his draft manuscripts, journals and other correspondence.” The archive opens in fall 2010; in the meantime here’s a taste of what’s in store.


A few years back when I was working on craft at USF, I found inspiration in the idea that writers work in perpetual dialogue with their fellow scribes — not just immediate peers, but also those across geography and time. The books whose authors spoke to you — the ones that you kept returning to and sat with and spoke back to — granted insight and spurred productivity as much as any workshopping of manuscripts ever did. That kind of literary communion was something David Foster Wallace knew well. The archive at UT has already put some of his on display, with this look inside some of DFW’s intricately annotated books. (Click on the images at the above link to zoom in.) Inside his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, for example, you can see his studied list of Cynthia Ozick’s diction, from “telluric” to “pullulating” to “fructuous.” Notes scrawled inside the cover of Don Delillo’s Players reveal traces of his thinking about The Pale King, a novel he had yet to complete at his death: “Guy hired as lawyer for IRS. Sent to Peoria, but no one ever complains or contests audits in Peoria.”

Even just visually, as his copy of “Borges: A Life” shows, it’s easy to see that DFW’s immersions went deep:

There’s also a poignancy to seeing these snatches of handwritten script, an intimate reminder of his tragic, early exit. May the scholars soon get to work at UT and take us even deeper into the mind and methods of one of the great writers of his generation.

UPDATE: Lots more on the contents of the DFW archive from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.

Postcard from Vancouver

A few snapshots from the final weekend here at the 2010 Winter Games.

The Olympic Cauldron at the convention center in downtown Vancouver, early Saturday evening:

The Olympic Rings on a barge just off Stanley Park in Coal Harbour, early Saturday evening. Every time Canada won a medal, the Rings changed color for a little while accordingly, to gold, silver or bronze.

By mid morning on Sunday, every single drinking establishment in the downtown area had a line around the block in anticipation of Canada facing off against the United States in the hockey gold medal finale. Some people were offering $100 just for a guaranteed spot to watch the game… in a bar. On Saturday night, some tickets to the game for sale online apparently were going for as much as $10,000.

A building at Georgia and Burrard streets draped in the Canadian flag:

Vancouver is an international city on a normal day, but for the past couple of weeks has transformed into a truly global village, with legions here from all over the world. It’s been fun just to walk the streets and mingle with the excited and friendly (and youthful) masses:

Bonus question: Is it really true that Russian skater Victor Plushenko was once an American rock star?

In the shadowy trenches of the Tea Party

America’s so-called Tea Party movement has been a fixation of pundits both left and right for many months now. It got considerable credit for one of the biggest electoral turnabouts in a long time. But elusive, it seems, is who or what exactly constitutes this gathering storm of grassroots rage. And is it worthy of serious attention?

If a recent spate of coverage digging deeper is an indication, the answer is yes, although nobody has quite been able to say what the movement portends. Angry populism is an age-old theme in American politics. What is intriguing about the contemporary manifestation is that it seems to be as incoherent as it is alarming.

A Tea Party rally in Washington in September. (Photo: Amanda Lucidon/New York Times.)

In a lightning rod of an Op-Ed this week, Robert Wright pondered whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax crusader who piloted a suicide mission into a Texas office building, could be considered “the first Tea Party terrorist.” He also wondered about how “purely conservative” the Tea Party movement actually may be. “Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts,” Wright noted. “Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives. And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.”

A lengthy dispatch from New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow earlier this month cast light on the rising fringe of the movement: “Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, [President] Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”

Maybe it’s just that tough times in America call for a tough kind of paranoia. As Barstow further considered:

A popular T-shirt at Tea Party rallies reads, “Proud Right-Wing Extremist.”

It is a defiant and mocking rejoinder to last April’s intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security warning that recession and the election of the nation’s first black president “present unique drivers for right wing radicalization.”

“Historically,” the assessment said, “domestic right wing extremists have feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States.” Those predictions, it noted, are typically rooted in “antigovernment conspiracy theories” featuring impending martial law. The assessment said extremist groups were already preparing for this scenario by stockpiling weapons and food and by resuming paramilitary exercises.

(Photo: Lucian Read/MoJo.)

Enter the Oath Keepers faction of the movement, a loose-knit group of military and law enforcement officials who vow to disobey orders they deem unconstitutional — and to mount violent resistance to the U.S. government if necessary. Reporting for the latest issue of Mother Jones, Justine Sharrock trailed the Oath Keepers for months, also encountering a murky organization and ideology. “Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate,” Sharrock explains, “but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion.” Yet, some of the group’s objections to federal power would seem to align them directly with the fiercest critics of the George W. Bush government. Oath Keepers keep a list of orders that they should refuse to obey, according to Sharrock — including conducting warrantless searches and holding American citizens as enemy combatants (e.g. José Padilla) or subjecting them to military tribunals.


“In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers,” she reports, “I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

“Bluetoothing” Iran’s revolution

Though it’s grabbing fewer headlines these days, the upheaval in Tehran that began last summer continues to simmer. Apparently the Obama administration has some evolving ideas about how to exploit the domestic dissatisfaction, which has been rising, along with the local price of tomatoes, for quite some time. How long can Ahmadinejad hold on?

I finally had a chance to read Nazila Fathi’s recent essay about her experiences reporting from, and then fleeing from, Iran, where she’d been working for the New York Times. It’s chilling at turns, but also uplifting, particularly with its focus on the regime-busting role that technology has played in the historic unrest. Last summer I focused at length here on the unprecedented ways in which digital technology was shaping events from Tehran to Tiananmen Square. With events in Iran, Twitter suddenly had gone from trendy social networking toy to subversive diplomatic tool square on the State Department’s radar. But until reading Fathi’s essay I hadn’t known about another fascinating technological application in the fight—the use of Bluetooth by dissidents to dodge the crackdown. As Fathi writes of Iran’s continuing unrest in December:

Last month, during and after the funeral of the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, one of the demonstrators’ most useful tools was the Bluetooth short-range radio signal that Americans use mainly to link a cellphone to an earpiece, or a printer to a laptop. Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can as easily link cellphones to each other in a crowd. And that made “Bluetooth” a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.

The authorities have tried to fight back against such techniques and the Internet itself, but have fallen short. In November they announced that a new police unit, the “cyber-army,” would sweep the Web of dissent. It blocked Twitter feeds for a few hours in December, and an opposition Web site. But other blogs and Web sites mushroomed faster than the government could keep up.

Also be sure not to miss Frontline’s compelling documentary on the infamous killing of Neda Agha-Soltan.

UPDATE, 1/28/10: According to the New York Times, Iran reportedly has just executed two men in connection with the election protests. Nine others have been condemned to death for same.

Buried by the Haiti disaster

Haiti’s devastation, now almost a week since the big quake, continues to saturate the media. It’s a lot to sift through and absorb; here’s where I’ve posted a handful of the most compelling links I’ve come across in recent days. For more, see Robert Mackey’s skillful curation over at The Lede blog.

One consequence of the historic disaster has been the burial of other developments that normally would’ve (and should’ve) been bigger front-page news:

Blackwater still gets away with mass murder in Iraq, despite that three of its security personnel present at the notorious events three years ago testified to what they saw as wanton killing and cover-up. “All three were horrified by what they thought was an unprovoked attack in 2007 that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead,” according to previously sealed court documents described by the Washington Post. Their testimony further confirms the war zone “horror movie” reported by others long ago. Five Blackwater guards on trial for the attack walked at the beginning of this month, acquitted on procedural grounds.

Wall Street’s top moguls sell Congress some shameless rationale for America’s historic financial meltdown. Testified Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase: “My daughter called me from school one day and said, ‘Dad, what’s a financial crisis?’ And, without trying to be funny, I said, ‘This type of thing happens every five to seven years.’ And she said, ‘Why is everyone so surprised?’” (Without trying to be funny: Who the f—k is he kidding?) Testified Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “Whatever we did, it didn’t work out well. We regret the consequence that people have lost money.” (Hear them in their own words, here.) Meanwhile, pretty much everyone working for their bailed out firms is making out like a bandit.

Vancouver wins a key battle in its progressive war on drugs, with a top court preventing the Canadian federal government from shutting down the city’s officially sanctioned injection site for heroin and cocaine addicts. Probably not top story material, but a development of great interest to me personally; I reported extensively on the cutting-edge project from the streets of Vancouver — first in 2003, when the Bush administration angrily declared the policy “state-sponsored personal suicide,” and again three years later, when they were proven dead wrong by Insite’s indisputable success.

Also don’t forget that today is Martin Luther King Day; here’s a video clip of Robert F. Kennedy announcing King’s death by assassination in 1968. And always worth rereading, MLK’s landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from 1963. It continues to resonate in new ways with Barack Obama presiding in the White House.

And the Best Album of 2010 goes to…

How uninspired, all the obligatory end-of-year rehash — the Best of 2009 This and the Top 10 Yada-yada of That. It’s all so… last year. But, the good news: This dog from the future just did a quick dash to December 2010, and I’ve brought back with me the easy winner for the Best Album of Next Year. It’s already here.

One of the benefits of having your own blog (aside from some capacity for time travel) is that you can favor whatever you want, with impunity. Even so, that the acclaimed psychedelic-country-folk-rock band I See Hawks in L.A. are good friends of mine has nothing to do with the fact that their forthcoming album, “Shoulda Been Gold,” takes the aforementioned honor. Hands down. It’s a dazzling collection from their deep trove of music produced and performed over the past decade — a greatest hits record, as they like to put it, that contains no hits. It comes out officially on January 26 from Collector’s Choice Music, but you can be one of the first to get a hold of it right now, right here.

And you most definitely should. The album contains 17 tracks of vivid aural history, its harmonies and insights drawn from an American decade of relative desolation. The Hawks are one of the great original bands you shoulda heard by now, if you haven’t already. Don’t just take my word for it, you can look ’em up on The Google: There have been volumes of critical acclaim for their four albums dating back to 2000, from the Los Angeles Times to Spin to USA Today. (The latter notably sidestepped cliché in praising the band’s “versatility, variety and power” and “intriguing dystopian science-fictional bent in the lyrics” — that is, this ain’t your garden variety country-rock band, folks.) There are cult favorite non-hits here such as “Humboldt” and “Highway Down,” but I’m particularly partial to several of the new and newly released tunes, among them the plaintive yet incandescent title track “Shoulda Been Gold” and the Cajun-inflected twirler “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet.” You’ll definitely start your new year out happy if you get your hands on this stuff.

The “Mcfarthest” spot, mass air traffic and a Minnesota-size memory

I’ve always loved maps. They reward the longer gaze. Especially in these digitally frenetic times. Whether depicting authentic truths or questionable claims, or one of many shades in between, they tend to provoke expansive thinking about the world. Or they zoom you in on something unexpected and compelling. Their borders inherently are porous to the imagination. And they can be just plain cool to look at — hand me a copy of Oxford’s Atlas of the World and I’ll be entertained for a healthy chunk of time flipping through those oversized pages. No iPhone necessary.

Of course, digital media allow mapmakers and collectors to take things to a next level. The Strange Maps blog is one great place to browse. A recent post featured the work of blogger Stephen Von Worley, who decided to chart America as fast-food dystopia by depicting McDonald’s ubiquity from coast to coast. The nagging question that was his point of departure: What’s the “McFarthest” one can possibly get from a Big Mac? Unsurprisingly, not very far at all, even in the relatively unpopulated West:

mapping-McDonalds

According to Von Worley’s calculations (per the summary at Strange Maps):

There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the [continental] U.S. geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s. If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac. (If you could fly, however, it’d be only 107 miles).

If you did decide to fly, you’d be contributing to some incredibly congested air traffic, especially if it’s during daylight. See this nifty depiction of 24 hours worth of planes flying the global skies:

Also worth watching is this feat of mapmaking by Senator Al Franken, who from memory composed one of the United States (while taking questions, no less) at the Minnesota State Fair:

Now if he and his comrades could only draw up a health care plan with such facility…

The world according to Flarf

After I posted about the strange poetry of search yesterday, I was happy to receive an email from my friend Alex Davis, a poet and former classmate in the MFA program at University of San Francisco, with some clarification about the realm into which I had stumbled. Turns out there is a whole literary “movement” built on search engine detritus. (Of course there is.) It’s known as Flarf. It dates all the way back to the beginning of the millennium.

Apparently the method of the flarfists “was to mine the Internet with odd search terms and then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.” This was hardly a new artistic impulse. But its digital extension — a kind of Cut-up 2.0, if you will — certainly seemed to capture the tenor of these times. According to flarf’s Wikipedia entry, “Early or ‘old-school’ flarf is marked by a certain distinctive tonal ‘dialect’: it is often peppered with phrases like ‘aw YEEEAHH,’ intentional typos, mildly offensive language (e.g., childish references to bodily functions), oblique political ‘statements,’ and incongruous animal imagery.”

Indeed. Or, as one early practitioner put it, the dominant tenor of flarf could be described as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.'”

(Lordy, I don’t really even want to touch the later breaking phenomenon of Twitter poetry: “Situations of stimulation often climax I just cant handle your seed Love is held like hidden treasure – 3:41 PM Aug 16th from web”)

"Eventual Slide" (SwBk, issue 3)But let us leap from the realm of theory. Back in 2006, issue 3 of Switchback, the fine literary publication from USF, featured “The Ways to Switchback,” which made flarfingly grand use of phrases that people had entered into search engines to reach the publication’s site. (The image to the left, featured in that issue, is “Eventual Slide,” by artist Jeremiah Stansbury.) See such points of departure as “japanese toilet noise disguise” and “addicted to picking ear wax” and the essay-inspiring “does a chimpanzee dream?”