Photo Thursday: Burning Man Exhibit at The Renwick

Took in the Burning Man show at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Craft, the Renwick. Not sure it was meant for me exactly, but I did find the inflating mushrooms pretty mesmerizing. A few shots…


The Broken Internet

Like many, I’ve encountered a spate of stories about the plagues of the Internet, easy to understand in this era of Cambridge Analtyica, trolling, fake news, and video bots.

New York Magazine rounded up a group of tech types (from within and without the Silicon Valley juggernaut, and with a range of political and economic ideologies).

A few quotes:

“Antonio García Martínez: I think Silicon Valley has changed. After a while, the whole thing became more sharp-elbowed. It wasn’t hippies showing up anymore. There was a lot more of the libertarian, screw-the-government ethos, that whole idea of move fast, break things, and damn the consequences. It still flies under this marketing shell of “making the world a better place.” But under the covers, it’s this almost sociopathic scene.”

Jaron Lanier: We wanted everything to be free, because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs, because we loved Steve Jobs. So you want to be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, which is absurd.

Tristan Harris: We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining why that’s true. Because that wasn’t an abuse by a bad actor — that was the inherent platform. The problem with Facebook is Facebook.

A long way from the idealistic global network of the Internet or the Web in the 90s, so hopeful, and in retrospect the briefest of golden ages.

Opera vs. Musicals

Read a great review of conductor John Mauceri’s memoir cum instruction manual, Maestros and their Music. It includes a quote I love, “‘Carmen’, he says, ‘is my favourite musical and Carousel is my favourite opera.’” –Something that has made me go off and buy the book.

I am in complete agreement with Carousel as a favorite opera (Carmen has always been more ‘meh’ for me, but as a musical it certainly is less of a bore). As examples to prove both points, here is the “If I Loved You” scene from Carousel (with appropriate Broadway and opera royalty respectively in Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn).

This is as beautifully crafted as any Verdi  scene and aria and gets me every time.

In contrast, Carmen almost never moves me. (My fault I fear.) But the odd, problematic, yet compulsively watchable film adaptation,Carmen Jones works as a musical in some sense that opera doesn’t. Both can’t dodge a certain campy excess, but the movie, despite its faults, doesn’t over stay its welcome like the opera, and has wit and spirit (something that most productions of the opera, at least the ones I have seen, sadly lack).

The thing they have in common? Oscar Hammerstein II.

Weekly Words: College Mania

The season of college admission insanity is upon us, and it is–like fights over Huck Finn in school, or more recently the White House Correspondents Dinner–a reliable, if not particularly illuminating conversational topic. The New York Times has a “did I go to the wrong college?” piece which has the advantage of being a candid riposte to the miles of copy, and hours of agonized conversation “getting in.” (Something I have contributed my bit to alas).

Some quotes on post-secondary ed (pro and con) to add a bit of perspective (including a few from Terry Pratchett’s spoof Unseen Academicals.)

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

“Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they’ll tell you it’s to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.”
― Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book

“Some people get an education without going to college. The rest get it after they get out.”
― Mark Twain

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
― Herman Melville

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”
― Ray Bradbury

“And yet not a dream, but a mighty reality- a glimpse of the higher life, the broader possibilities of humanity, which is granted to the man who, amid the rush and roar of living, pauses four short years to learn what living means”
― W.E.B. Du Bois

‘Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through’. –Terry Pratchett

‘Well, for the proper working of the world, said Lady Margolotta, ‘it is essential that ring binders are important to at least one person.’ –Terry Pratchett

Finally, on the nerdy side, there is research about how college affects students, and although this does not specifically reflect on the role of college choice, it does suggest that the advice your grandmother might have given you, namely, “that it’s what you put in to once you are there that matters most, not where you go” is the right approach.  Within college differences make matter more than distinction sbetween institution. Selectivity, meh!

Some relevant bits excerpted (with my comments) from How College Affects Students,

“In our 1991 review, we found that, across all of the outcomes considered, where students attended college had less impact than either the net effect of attending versus not attending college or of differences among individuals’ experiences during college (within-college effects). The more recent evidence underlying the present synthesis reinforces this conclusion. Clearly, the 3,000-plus post-secondary institutions in the United States differ substantially in size, complexity, type of control, mission, financial and educational resources, research-teaching orientation of faculty, reputation and prestige, and characteristics of students enrolled. Yet, with some notable expectations (for instance, 2-year vs. 4-year mostly, with 2-year students showing more development) the weight of evidence from the 1990s casts considerable doubt on the premise that the substantial structural, resource, and qualitative differences among post-secondary institutions produce correspondingly large differences in net educational effects on students. Rather, the great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth, although the “start’ and “end’ points for students differ across different institutions. Consistent with our 1991 synthesis (as well as with Bowen’s 1977 review), the post-1990 research leads to the conclusion that similarities in between-college effects substantially outweigh the difference.”

(As for “college quality” )—“Aside from these small effects, however, little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige, or educational resources had any important net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values.” “…we found that attending an academically selective institution has a negligible impact on knowledge acquisition or general cognitive development.”

“Similarly, we found little evidence of any appreciable effects of institutional selectivity on academic and social self-concept, self-esteem, or other psychosocial dimensions once adjustments were made of other sources of influence. When institutional quality appears to be a factor at all, its impact is small and occasionally negative. (Including less positive dispositions towards diversity which may increase mildly as institutions become more selective.)

The last word to Robert Frost, college dropout.

“What we do in college is to get over our little-mindedness. To get an education you have to hang around till you catch on.”

Funny Words: Philosophers Write Mysteries

Found this great column by philosopher Jonathan Wolff, who has the goods on academic writing.

“At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.”

Worth reading the whole thing if you are in the academic game.

Tech Friday: An All Green Screen Macbeth

Greenscreen (or more formally compositing) is way of combing video images to create a scene that combines a background and live action.  Wikipedia has a good explanation, and the video production company I work for has done some work in this way.

But I learned this week there is a new film of Macbeth that was done in green screen, meaning that the actors worked in a studio room, and the entire physical environment was created after the fact in post-production.

The trailer is here:

And I will admit that this offers some support the view that Shakespeare remains resistant film. (Works for opera for some reason.)

Yet, looking at the fascinating “making of” videos, I do wonder whether this one could get to the heightened reality of Shakespeare more than a traditional filmmaking technique (there is an artificiality to this world, perhaps with something akin to video games, which embody a digital aesthetic).

It is a work of heightened language and intense dramatic impulse, and there is something so bracing about using technology to match that. Whether it ultimately works or not is an open question, hope to see it later this spring, but perhaps they are on to something.

Art Wednesday: The Leyendecker Tom of Finland Connection

Okay, so this is more like illustration Wednesday, not art, but found by accident a bunch of illustrations from J.C. Leyendecker, a commercial artist,  notable for hundreds of Saturday Evening Post covers and illustrations, among much other work. The Post, which still exists, dates from the golden age of American magazines, serving as an aspirational guide to WASP middle-class life, often delivered through illustrations (and stories) that idealized one (homogenized) strand of the American story.

Norman Rockwell is perhaps the most famous name associated with this publication (and this style of Americana), and it is at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA where I first encountered Leyendecker, in an exhibit on great magazine illustrators of the first half of the century. From an American Studies perspective (something my gain is always on high for) these images of an imaginary America are fascinating, being as they are an elegant representation of propaganda for the ‘good life’ at the time that muckrakers were uncovering anything but good lives for many working people, and modern artistic trends were bucking traditional narratives, representational techniques, and embracing photography and film.

But what also caught my eye in the show (now some 20 years ago) was  homoerotic ‘dog-whistles’ that basically shout from the images: wholesome American 20th century masculinity that was gay-gay-gay if you were paying the least bit of attention. (More on that and a biosketch here.)

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Who knows how the artist really conceived this (and even the evidence for his own gayness is circumstantial–letters and papers burned by his longtime companion, after his death), but there is something so evocative about an immigrant, & most likely gay artist, illuminating American manliness in the same way that Broadway musicals of the era (also creations of immigrant others, such as the Russian-born Jew Irving Berlin).

That Leyendecker was creating shadow gay identity in his broad shouldered oarsmen and dapper shirt models seems at least plausible (although he also did many other subjects including iconic Santa Claus images and the ‘baby new year’.)

There is nothing in the shadows about the homoeroticism of Tom of Finland, real name, Touko Valio Laaksonen, born 1920, when Leyendecker was in his 40s). His men aren’t contemplating a game of golf or reading Proust, they are getting their ashes hauled. Some PG rated images below–they get much more explicit fast

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These images were the opposite of Leyendecker’s. For me at least, they felt like a secret and transgressive gay samizdat (particularly, if you were a young gay man growing up in a conservative southern town as I was).  It’s interesting that they are a fiction too; fantasizing a gay life–hypermasculine and um–endowed beyond belief– in the same way that Leyendecker imbues WASP manliness with a sort aloof nobility. Tom’s men are a little bit sly about their total carnality, and Leyendecker’s men are a little bit carnal about their elegant slyness. Somehow you can easily imagine Leyendecker’s Arrow Shirt man winking at Tom’s leather daddy.

Now, of course, Tom of Finland is practically mainstream, with a Finnish postage stamp commemorative among much else, and Leyendecker, remembered, if at all, for his stylish art, not the America in his mind’s eye. Both an interesting bit of evidence in the ongoing conversation about masculinity, and gay identity, particularly in the American imagination.


Amazon World Book Day: World Lit Giveaway

Although it’s almost over, thought I would give a shout out to the Kindle promotion at Amazon for World Book Day. Nine free downloads.

If you are e-reader user (or have the app of your laptop as I do), it’s worth a look (ends midnight eastern daylight saving time USA tonight). .

And more about the celebration here:


Quotable Words: Scott Korb on John McPhee

This McPhee quote caught my eye in this piece about teaching freshman English.

“Some lines from the great writer John McPhee have helped me consolidate these lessons over the years. Reflecting in The New Yorker in 2011, he wrote: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.”

That’s true of me too, but I’m honestly not sure it’s anything to be all that proud of.

In other communications news, Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders is out, among its other points, (also picked up by the NYTimes).
“Amazon doesn’t allow PowerPoint slides during meetings. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos,” then silently read them before meetings begin, Mr. Bezos wrote.”


Can’t believe that I agree with him, but I do.