Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The strange poetry of search

searchingWordPress.com, host of this site, has a pretty handy stats tool for tracking how denizens of the World Wide Web find their way to one’s little corner of cyberspace. It includes a daily rundown of search terms used to get there. On one level, this seems to provide a certain poetic measure of one’s blogging orbit. On another, it provides a peek into the human psyche of the digital age: Late at night, in the privacy of their homes, what do folks really go looking for when they type a few words into Google’s search box and click? (OK, beyond the most obvious.)

Here are a few odd favorites, a stanza of phrases that apparently led readers here recently. What it says about this blog and/or the people navigating to it, I’m not exactly sure.

air strike on own street address
tallest wave ever
of course i am sexual
caught smuggling weapons into mexico
computer damage marks
winter park beetlekill
journalism future truth
shi tzus no canada
images of torture of the grave
aerial marijuana national forest
unmarked s.u.v. at michael jacksons home
big english street signs
mumbai international airport pics
future cruise ships
hot mexicans
political power in the usa
thunderstorm
enlightenment

Roger Federer’s impossible shot

The dazzling play of tennis titan Roger Federer does not cease to amaze. Following his U.S. Open semifinal victory on Sunday against Novak Djokovic, Federer said in a TV interview that he had practiced the between-the-legs return many times, but that “it never worked.” In case you missed what he called “the greatest shot I ever hit in my life” — that’s a bit like Michael Jordan trying to point out his single greatest dunk — take a look:

It must be noted that Djokovic himself played rather phenomenally, and likely would’ve vanquished just about any other opponent in the hard-fought three sets.

But when Federer is on, he seems to reach a truly singular plane of performance. David Foster Wallace captured it artfully in his 2006 essay, “Federer as Religious Experience.” (Which I wrote about here recently.) After stating that a top athlete’s beauty is “impossible to describe directly” or “to evoke,” DFW did just that, in one of his most memorable pieces of nonfiction. With Federer on the cusp of his sixteenth career Grand Slam title, it’s worth (re)reading the essay in its entirety. One line that has always stuck with me: “Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip.” It’ll likely be on cracking display again in a couple of hours at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as he takes on 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the championship match.

UPDATE: Indeed, Federer hit no shortage of zingers in the five-set battle, but his serving fell short while the youthful (and towering, at 6-foot-6) del Potro dug deep to pull off one of the bigger upsets in U.S. Open history.

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
MF-Skidegate1


Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
MF-octopusdesign


The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
MF-GIt-hoan


Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
LF-Yakoun2

Desperate for some digital magic

It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?

JamesYangforDarlinNYTDarlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?

“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.

I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.

Brevity, brainpower… and Obama’s beer hour

If attention spans these days are indeed being digitally obliterated, you may not get very far past this sentence. But if you’re looking for a few good places where you might actually go a little deeper (besides this blog, of course!), here are a few recommended links — a quick rundown of What Else I’ve Been Reading Lately.

Benedict Carey continues an engrossing series about the human brain, with the latest installment looking into the science of gut feelings. What is it that might give some U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan exceptional ability to detect roadside bombs? It could be that cognitive abilities matter most — whether innate or gained potentially through training.

NPR has a look at how Bryant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old aspiring jihadi from Long Island, made his way pretty darn close to Osama bin Laden. According to terrorism expert Sam Rascoff, “Vinas’ experience tends to undermine the story we’ve been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard-core al-Qaida.”

In “The Kill Company,” Raffi Khatchadourian further investigates the dark side of U.S. military action in Iraq. In the fog of this long war, where is the line between killing and murder on the battlefield?

With a thought-provoking Op-Ed in the Times, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn suggests Barack Obama has blown it by not talking to Israelis, while just about everyone else in the world has been hearing directly from the Diplomat in Chief. “This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price,” Benn says, especially with respect to the incendiary issue of the settlements.

After spending a chunk of time back in June writing about the election upheaval in Iran, it was inspiring to read this high-quality exchange between bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey about the challenges of covering events in Iran. Would that this kind of open discussion, at the nexus of technology, politics and journalism, be much more commonplace.

RedStripeBeerAnd last but not least… Gates-gate. Since you made it this far, I’ll go a tad deeper here. Obviously, a bunch of media folks have no choice but to waste a bunch of time obsessing about and over-analyzing what brands will be consumed during the imminent beer summit at the White House. (How revealing that the black Harvard professor is going for a Red Stripe! Etc.) It’s not as if there’s an array of daunting issues in the world on which to focus. Nonetheless, CNN’s “Situation Room” today has been featuring a “beer chat” countdown clock onscreen, along with graphic deconstructions of where the gathering will take place in the White House rose garden, and with Wolf Blitzer practically beside himself teasing the event every 60 seconds. (Jon Stewart no doubt is hailing the cable news gods ahead of tonight’s sendup.)

In the end, I think Obama “acted stupidly” himself by getting so directly involved in this whole kerfuffle. He has done wonders to help push America forward on intractable issues of race. (His March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race was perhaps the high-water mark of his tidal wave of a presidential campaign.) But I agree with Glenn Loury that Obama spent his political capital poorly on this — even if, as Charles M. Blow recounted quite poignantly, America still has a long way to go.

SamAdamsUPDATE: An important twist in the paramount beer summit story: It turns out that Gates recalculated and went with a Sam Adams instead. We can only ponder the significance… also see Michael Scherer, on how the White House press corps got played on this one.

A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems to Kill Whales

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale — a threatened species in Canada — turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska:

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

Tragic, gruesome and strange — the size of the ship really begins to sink in when you realize that the dead fin whale pictured above is approximately 70 feet long, a magnificent giant cruelly rendered small. (More photos here in the Vancouver Sun’s report, and more here on Flickr.) Consider, also, that soon the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess won’t even nearly measure up to the largest, most consumptive recreational beast riding the seas. That’ll be the stupefying Oasis of the Seas.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will conduct a necropsy to determine if the ship struck the fin whale while it was alive or if the whale had already been floating dead at sea and got caught on the bow. The latter seems the less likely scenario. A fisheries spokesperson, Lisa Spaven, appeared to acknowledge as much: “Vessel strikes are a very real threat to fin whales,” she told the Sun.

Moreover, an account I heard today from a source in Vancouver appears to contradict a statement put out by Princess Cruises this weekend regarding whales in the vicinity of the ship.

“It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life,” the statement from the cruise company said. “We are not aware that any whales were sighted as the ship sailed through the Inside Passage to Vancouver yesterday.”

But according to my source, two passengers who arrived on the Sapphire Princess in Vancouver this weekend said that several passengers on the ship had seen whales swimming around and under the ship as it traveled the Inside Passage cruise route just north of Vancouver Island.

Spaven, the DFO spokesperson, told the Vancouver Sun that she believes the whale was struck north of Vancouver Island, since fin whales aren’t normally found in the straits closer to Vancouver.

The Inside Passage is famously rich with marine wildlife and is a crucial habitat and migratory route for whales. As the Sun also reports: “This is the second time in the last 10 years that a cruise vessel has come into the Port of Vancouver with a whale caught on the bow. In that instance, in June of 1999, the Celebrity Cruise vessel MV Galaxy collided with an adult male fin whale, which likely happened as the ship transited the Hecate Strait north of Vancouver Island.”

For some compelling related reading, I strongly recommend Charles Siebert’s article “Watching Whales Watching Us,” published recently in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a deep, enthralling account that dives into some provocative thinking among marine biologists today about our evolving relationship with whales — which may yet hold hope, despite our terrible history of assault on one of the earth’s most sublime creatures.

PART 2:
There is more to Princess Cruises’ history with whales. In the summer of 2001, one of its ships slammed into a pregnant female humpback whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska, killing it. As Mother Jones reported two years ago via a National Park Service report, in January 2007 “Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision.”

You can read the rest of the report at the MoJo link above, including details of the six-figure penalty paid by Princess in a plea agreement. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, “in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment.”

Pending findings on the Sapphire Princess and the fin whale’s death, perhaps that assessment needs updating.

I’m compelled to add that I feel a particularly personal sense of investment in this story. Exactly a decade ago, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel into Glacier Bay, along with three good friends, on a 10-day sea kayaking trip. I’ve explored deep wilderness throughout my life, and Glacier Bay was among the most memorable places I’ve ever been. On a couple of days during the trip, we spotted cruise ships on the horizon. We were thankful to be far away from them. In this photo I took from my sea kayak in July 1999, you can see a large cruise ship in the distance (at the right-center edge of the image) heading north against the backdrop of the Fairweather Range.

MF-Fairweather GB

We camped on nearby shoreline that night, where an exquisite sunset perhaps hinted at what was to come on day nine of our trip.

MF-GBsunset1 MF-GBsunset2

The next morning we paddled into the placid waters of Beartrack Cove to the east. We were sole representatives of humanity in a place that sees little of it. There were colorful marine birds, salmon returning to spawn in coastal streams… and suddenly that morning, one enormous humpback whale. It surfaced about 30 yards in front of our tiny, tiny boats.

The whale appeared to be feeding, its dark mass breaking the surface several times with its huge mouth open. We stopped paddling and tapped the rails of our boats gently to let it know our location. We watched in awe as it reappeared around us at various spots in the cove for about half an hour before it submerged for other waters.

It was the most glorious kind of nervous I think I’ve ever felt, a truly unforgettable experience.

Warning: Do not attempt to launch nuke using your MacBook

MacBookPro-13inchopenJust got a sparkling new MacBook Pro 13. This thing is smokin’. It handles like 007’s ride next to the ancient PowerBook G4 laptop with which I was barely coasting into yesterday. But this morning I stepped on the brakes when browsing the pocket-sized user booklet. While Apple’s branding gurus seem to have perfected the slickster-yet-friendly tone, buried in one of the snappy little chapters (e.g. “Ready, Setup, Go”) was quite a disclaimer. From “Last, but Not Least,” on page 68:

High-risk activities – This computer is not intended for use in the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communications systems, air traffic control systems, or for any other uses where the failure of computer could lead to death, personal injury, or severe environmental damage.”

nuclear_explosion

For real? I reckon the folks in Cupertino know too well that we dwell in an absurdly litigious society. Or maybe they’re just still haunted by Matthew Broderick’s fateful dalliance in 1983.

Medicine Bow: A tale of beauty and devastation

Late last week, as world leaders were again failing to make progress on the rising threat of climate change, I was hiking to the top of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming. An unusually wet June produced a stunning sweep of wildflowers high upon the 12,000-foot mountain:

MF-Medicine Bow wildflowers

Combating global climate change is a complicated matter, to say the least, but I suspect that most people, attendees of G-8 summits included, would view the imperative in a whole new light if they were to witness the ecological devastation hitting this breathtaking region of the Mountain West. The fallout can be seen in the lush forests ringing Medicine Bow and other majestic snow-capped ranges in the area and in nearby Colorado — in the bleak, sprawling signature of an ongoing bark beetle epidemic. Warmer winters and drought in recent years allowed the insect population to explode, bringing destruction to more than 1.5 million acres.

“By about 2012, beetles will have killed nearly all of the mature lodgepole trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” reports the USDA Forest Service, “affecting water flows and watersheds, future timber production, wildlife habitat, recreation sites, transmission lines and scenic views. Beetle-killed trees also present a fuels build-up situation that could result in catastrophic wildland fires. These events pose threats to homes and property and could cause adverse economic impacts to communities.”

According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist in Laramie, the beetle infestations have been roaring on unabated because of climate change. “These infestations take place naturally on 20- to 40-year cycles,” he said in a news article early last year. “In the past, they’ve run their course until a bitterly cold winter took place. Studies show that you need a two-week cold snap at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off the beetles. Nothing else works.”

For several years now, it hasn’t gotten cold enough.

The forests seen here in the distance from the top of Medicine Bow…

MF-Medicine Bow 2

… could soon resemble these seen in this recent aerial photo, taken in northern Colorado, from the USDA Forest Service:

USDA-beetlekill

Some other forested areas I saw last week in the vicinity of Medicine Bow (especially at lower elevations that stay warmer) are already riddled with dead and dying trees. The friends I was with, who’ve been coming to the area for the last decade, described the accumulating damage in dramatic terms — some pristine expanses that existed just a couple of years ago won’t be seen again in our lifetime.

It’s hard to know how bad it might get (it’s already bad), or whether anything can actually be done to slow or stop this particular disaster. But it’s one stark example of what climate change can bring, and why we have to pay attention. Over the weekend Timothy Egan argued that Michelle Obama should throw her political weight behind America’s increasingly marginalized national parks. Egan’s perspective was more cultural than environmental, but from what I saw in Wyoming, there’s no lack of pressing reason on the latter front, either.

Or perhaps, as Emerson suggested in his famous essay on nature, what’s ultimately at stake is an essential interdependence:

“The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.”

Postcard from Wyoming

Did Joe Biden just give Israel the green light to attack Iran? Is Sarah Palin completely cuckoo? Have we reached the saturation point on Michael Jackson yet?

Apologies, dear readers, but I don’t have a lot to say about current affairs at the moment. (Anyway, Palin’s baffling resignation speech more than speaks for itself.) What I do have are a few photos I took during recent travels with friends in the great state of Wyoming. Enjoy…

*

July 4th festivities in the town of Saratoga:
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Saratogaparade2

Saratogaparade3

At the bar inside the Hotel Wolf:
HotelWolfbar

Twilight commemoration involving ignition:
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Thunderstorm approaching over Laramie:
TstormLaramie

At the base of Medicine Bow peak:
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MedicineBow2

Sharp turn on Wall Street

My cover story for the July/August issue of Arrive is now riding the northeastern rails, a look at the nation’s economic crisis and the role of the financial media. CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel and others ponder the end of days on Wall Street and what the American economy will look like on the other side of its most vicious hangover in decades.

CNBC has taken some big lumps this year for the behavior of some of its on-air personalities, perhaps deservedly so. But during a lengthy chat for the story earlier this year, after pushing past a bit of canned stuff, I found Bartiromo to be quite knowledgeable, engaging and forthright. And I happen to agree with her take on Jon Stewart’s big beatdown of Jim Cramer and CNBC back in March.

wall_street_signWill America’s investment banking sector soon be a miniature of its turn-of-millennium self? (And would that be a good thing?) Who are the most deserving villains in the blame game? Read on… Meanwhile, during a quick ATM stop at a Chase bank branch yesterday I witnessed an exchange that seemed in some small way encouraging — perhaps an indication that America has started to move beyond the denial/anger stage, and into the acceptance/change stage.

A bank employee was walking out just as a long-time customer was walking in. The customer asked the bank employee if in the past few weeks it had gotten any easier to get a loan. (The specific type wasn’t clear, though it was obviously either a home mortgage or small business loan.) “No, it hasn’t gotten any easier,” the bank employee said, with a cheery smile. “As you know, they’re asking a lot more questions now.” The customer smiled back, unfazed, and headed into the bank, paperwork in hand.

Moonwalk for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The embattled Iranian regime couldn’t have dreamed up a better reprieve from scrutiny than the worldwide media frenzy over Michael Jackson’s death, only just getting underway.

How much Jackson coverage will be too much? (Whatever that is, we’re likely to find out.) His death is tragic but unsurprising given his condition in recent years. A great sadness for his family, friends and fans — and arguably a great relief, as the world can finally stop fixating on the downtempo horror show of misery and self-mutilation, and instead remember Jackson for the extraordinary music and artistry he gave, particularly in his earlier days.

youngMJ

Indeed, the postmortem coverage will be ceaseless for days to come, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sham of a reelection and attendant brutality recedes from the headlines. But what continues unfolding in Iran remains worthy of top billing. Prospects for the beginnings of rapprochement with the Obama administration now appear to be on ice. The regime is claiming the election was fraud-free. (The voting populations of various Iranian towns must have swelled overnight.) Clerics close to Ayatollah Khamenei are calling for dissidents to be punished ruthlessly and savagely. Veteran journalists anticipate that the country’s media lockdown will continue for a long time. (NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel: “We’re openly being called the instigators of a revolt.” More details here on the media crackdown.)

mahmoud_ahmadinejadDecentralized digital communications may become ever more critical to publicizing what’s transpiring inside Iran. As of Friday afternoon Michael Jackson commanded the top three slots for Twitter hashtags (#MJ’s; #RIP Mj; #michaeljackson), but Iran was still trending at fifth and sixth (#Iran; #iranelection). Also of note: The UK blogger whose Iran cyberwar guide mysteriously vanished last week is back online and has a second installment, an interesting rundown for tech and politics junkies alike. Meanwhile, this recently posted mash-up evokes the strange confluence of the historical moment, setting images from the Iranian election upheaval (some of them graphically disturbing) to Jackson’s controversial song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

The long goodnight

For a number of reasons Vancouver at this time of year is a great place to be doing some research and writing. Among them is that the sun doesn’t wink out entirely until about 10pm. This was Monday evening, overlooking English Bay.

EnglishBay