Figured this collection of classic end credits would be the right image for the stroke of midnight:
It's been a week of exciting writing news, so why not end the year with another announcement? After a lot of work on and off last year, my long-in-the-works article has appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone. It is the epic tale of Master Legend, a "real life superhero" who is just one of the many people around the country who assemble homegrown Bat Man lives, with personas and costumes and utility belts and sidekicks. And yes, this is all true.
As in the pages of comics, there is a wide variety of philosophies as to methods among real life superheroes, from The Eye, who prefers using surveillance to compile information for the police, to Mr. Silent, the (now-retired) pioneer of the crime prevention wing who once made regular visible patrols with his mask, cane, and elegant homburg. A few self-proclaimed masked vigilantes say they stalk the shadows, lying in wait for bad guys, while at the other end of the spectrum are those superheroes who focus on charity efforts, showing up to community events or donating to good causes in costume. It is the classic Batman/Superman split: dark vengeance versus the beacon of hope, and Master Legend is a bit of both.
Master Legend began as a brawler, mixing it up on patrols out in Orlando, where he lives, but he and his Justice Force also mount peaceful missions as well, including visits to skid row, where they hand out supplies to appreciative homeless recipients. “I love to take on the criminals,” Master Legend says, “But we’ve got a lot more than that going on. We set an example by helping people and asking nothing in return.”
In short, just wants to make the world a better place. And he has succeeded at times, in his own way. A lot of the press coverage of real life superheroes sees at best the novelty, or at worst takes the opportunity to laugh at the people in costumes. This article is not that. Yes, the story of Master Legend can be very funny at times, because Master Legend lives life like he's in a comic book. He even has a band, also called the Justice Force, made up of his superheroes, and they get together to sing prog rock jams of Manichean struggle of good against evil. It's strange, but also strangely sympathetic. Spending time with Master Legend, who is willing to give a guy his last dollar, made me genuinely think about what I do to help people. And the answer is not enough. Take it from an enthusiastic reader who already saw the article and tracked me down to summarize as follows:
Everyone has a bit of Master Legend in them. But we don't have courage to let him out.
And also: check out the Master Legend Bonus DVD Extra Deleted Scenes! More thrilling tales from the real life superhero realm that didn't make it into the article. For the true fans!
Thanks for reading!
It was our old friend Pythagoras of Samos who declared "all is number," in which was included the seemingly non-quantitve realm of art. Pythagoras meant that artistic beauty and the mathematical forms of nature are correlated. What he didn't mean was that artistic value could be assessed by statistical models, which neither existed at the time, nor would not have likely harmonized with Pythagoras' harmony of the spheres aesthetic vision. And that's probably why Mr. Side Angle Side didn't wind up with a mansion in Greenwhich. Because what we modern whizzes figured out is that art can be valued like any other asset, which is what the hedge fund managers started doing in the 1980s. Such is the fascinating topic of my friend Andrea Hill's article in an art publication called The Highlights (not to be confused, as she notes, with Highlights, the children's magazine that adorns pedetrician waiting rooms nationwide).
The article looks at several web sites that attempt to quantify art vales by using "typically insider information—who is the most important artist in the world or whether contemporary or Dutch 18th-century painting is the wiser investment—and crunch[ing] the data through internal databases to translate their results into public information." The main sites are Artfacts, Art Market Research, Art Confidence Indicator, and the Mei Moses Index, the last of which is the trailblazer:
In the 1990s two Stern School of Business professors developed the Mei Moses Index, which uses auction prices to calculate annual returns. For the most part, it follows the S&P index fairly closely and has marginally outperformed it in the past 10 years and significantly surpassed it in the past 5 years, putting up 16.2% returns above the S&P’s 12.7% average. (Andrew Slayman, “State of the Art Market: Through Thick and Thin,” Art & Antiques, August 2008) Art investment funds have adopted the Mei Moses Index as supportive evidence to invest in art as an asset class.
Are you wondering, then, whether the art world's formulas predicted the empty galleries of the past two months? They're not exactly those kinds of models, but they do make numerical claims, and Andrea decided to put those claims to the numerical test. She gets into the R-squared and alpha and beta of it all via regression and the kind of detailed analsyis of someone who has recently been steeped in econometrics and still remembers it all. Among the results: when hip contemporary artists fall in rankings/value, the Old Masters rise, like safe hedges against risky stocks. But that's just one observation, with little power as an overarching statement. Damned economic models! Andrea points out several problems that plague such modeling: small n's (meaning, not enough data), and the fact that what data can be collected has a hard time distinguishing "between important institutions and galleries and lesser-known ones." Add to that the standard statistical disclaimer that correlation is not causality and you're left with the conclusion:
...an artist’s rank has something to do with exhibition history (or at least 47 percent of the rank has something to do with it—within a 5 percent error margin of course)
Super fascinating story about a "profound amnesiac" from the NY Times a little while back.
Short version: the man, previously known only as H.M., hit his head as a child, developed seizures, underwent experimental brain surgery (in the 40s!) to stop the seizures, and in the process, lost the ability to form new memories. Every twenty seconds, things were new again. Which made him a very important medical case:
And for...five decades, he was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science. As a participant in hundreds of studies, he helped scientists understand the biology of learning, memory and physical dexterity, as well as the fragile nature of human identity.
A neurologist named Brenda Milner spent decades with H.M., studying the nature of his memory loss. Everytime she walked in the room, it was like they'd never met. In 1962, Dr. Milner presented a breakthrough study.
...she and H. M. demonstrated that a part of his memory was fully intact. In a series of trials, she had Mr. Molaison try to trace a line between two outlines of a five-point star, one inside the other, while watching his hand and the star in a mirror. The task is difficult for anyone to master at first.
Every time H. M. performed the task, it struck him as an entirely new experience. He had no memory of doing it before. Yet with practice he became proficient. “At one point he said to me, after many of these trials, ‘Huh, this was easier than I thought it would be,’ ” Dr. Milner said.
The implications were enormous. Scientists saw that there were at least two systems in the brain for creating new memories. One, known as declarative memory, records names, faces and new experiences and stores them until they are consciously retrieved. This system depends on the function of medial temporal areas, particularly an organ called the hippocampus, now the object of intense study.
Another system, commonly known as motor learning, is subconscious and depends on other brain systems. This explains why people can jump on a bike after years away from one and take the thing for a ride, or why they can pick up a guitar that they have not played in years and still remember how to strum it.
Greetings Dear Readers!
As some people know, I have been working on a story for the past month or so for This American Life. That story is done, and on the radio this weekend. The sleepy, twinkling days around Christmas are fitting timing for the story, since it's Christmas-themed. Although it's a different side of Christmas. The story chronicles a bitter feud between rival factions of professional Santa Clauses. Yes, it's true, the Santa world was recently throwing into turmoil, and the feud has tragically created a schism in the Amalgmated Order of Real Bearded Santas, the guild of professional Santas:
Note: diligent observers will note that this version of the logo says Amalgamated Order of Real Beard Santas, rather than the original Real Beard-ED Santas, an extremely important note among Santas and a clue as to the nature of the schism. You'll have to listen to understand why such a thing can be vitally important to so many self-described Jolly Gentlemen:
As to be expected from such pictures, this is an epic tale, one that plays out over several years in the Santa world and half an hour on the show. To hear the whole story, from the glorious moments of the Discover Santa 2006 convention to the tumultuous destruction of AORBS, complete with a video confrontation between angry Santas, and on to today's seasonally-mandated detente, listen on the radio this weekend, or online thereafter (streaming or via podcast).
It's a fine line between diabolical and genius, as evidenced by this morning's Washington Post story about how American forces are using Viagra as incentives to win friends and influence the people of Afghanistan:
"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.
The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.
Among the noteworthy historical details is that during the height of the cold war, Americans traditionally used economic incentives to lure spies, while the Soviets figured out that sex was a better sell. Thus: foxy double agents were real. And, apparently, they were called "honey traps." So I guess we're finally catching up to 1960! Then again, that means going back to 1960, or much further really, to exploit the gender politics of Afghanistan tribal culture:
Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives -- the maximum number allowed by the Koran -- and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative position," the official said.
If you're like me, and you only just picked up last week's New Yorker, then you're in for a pleasant surprise in the form of David Samuels' epic, 10,000-word story about an amateur atomic age historian and engineer named John Coster-Mullen who figured out how the original atomic bombs were built while running routes with his big rig. It is one of those increasingly infrequent reminders of the New Yorker's onetime determination to publish massive inquiries on esoteric subjects, current events be damned. Like when the Brooklyn Bridge's 100th anniversary was met in the New Yorker by a long piece on the Holland Tunnel. Back then, this piece might have been 30,000 words, in two parts, but in today's magazine climate, I'll settle for this story and raise a glass to Remnick for keeping the flame alive.
Also to be commended is the purity of the story. Another magazine would have succumbed to the glossy editorial instinct to turn this article into a warning about terrorism, or dirty bombs, or state secrets, or a fearful combination of all three. Instead, it's a profile of a meticulous obsessive, who also happens to have to reverse engineered and published, in exhaustive detail, the still classified details on how Little Boy and Fat Man were put together. It's a detective story, basically, and Samuels recounts some of the eureka moments, big and small:
Coster-Mullen’s next big breakthrough on Little Boy came in 1995, when he obtained a curved fragment of the tungsten-carbide tamper from one of the dozens of test units built by the Manhattan Project. An engineer had saved the fragment from the Anchor Ranch test site, in Los Alamos. The purpose of the cylindrical tamper was to reflect neutrons back into the critical assembly, thus containing the chain reaction for a fraction of a second, until enough matter was converted into energy to destroy Hiroshima. The tamper fragment was half an inch wide, an inch long, and two inches deep. It bore a notable resemblance to the State of Illinois.
“It occurred to me that perhaps I could get some dimensional information by analyzing the fragment’s curvature,” Coster-Mullen recalled. He took the piece to a friend’s brother, who worked in the quality-control department of a large manufacturing facility in Milwaukee. “They have huge granite-block tables for making precise measurements of finished machine pieces,” he said. A spring-loaded probe touched the curved surface at twenty different points. Thirty seconds later, a number popped up on a screen indicating that the original diameter of the tungsten-carbide cylinder was 13.1513 inches. “That was a big clue,” Coster-Mullen explained. The diameter of the cylinder gave him a maximum distance of one inch between the cylinder and the outer casing. He was getting closer and closer to a full understanding of the inner workings of the atomic bomb.
David Samuels, whom I've met via his sister, a friend of mine, is one of my favorite magazine writers. I'm not breaking new ground there; everyone else loves his stuff too. Recently, he made waves by putting a story about Britney's paparazzi on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly, but I would point to his story a few years back, also in the New Yorker, about how one goes about becoming a dirigible captain. (It is available now in Samuels' own anthology.)
What I love about this particular piece is the motivational parallels between Coster-Mullen and the origins of the bomb he wants to recreate. It was the pure pursuit of knowledge that led to the atom bomb. Physicists wanted to understand how the universe worked at the atomic level, and there happened to be some very serious consequences to unlocking the secrets of the grand watchworks. Now, Coster-Mullen, has dedicated himself to understanding the secret mechanical watchworks of Little Boy. There is no motivation beyond knowing, but that pursuit too has some potentially serious consequences. And so it turns out to be, as with all science stories, that ultimately Samuels' (or Coster-Mullen's) tale is a parable about our old friend Faust and his verdammte bargain. You can't undo the human drive towards scientific knowledge and technology. And you can't undo those discoveries once they are made. Especially when the world is full of meticulous truck drivers.
I first saw the miniaturizing optical illusion of tilt-shift photography at a photo exhibition in Shanghai two years ago. The tilt-shift technique is when you manipulate the plane of the lens relative to the image plane, and it gives you, along with a wide aperture, to give such a shallow depth of field that the world turns into a tiny to land. I understand the mechanics of the camera, but not exactly how that translates into such a dramatic optical effect. I'm sure my dad could explain it. But it is dramatic:
At the show in Shanghai, the prints were particularly effective since they were printed on a massive scale. There was also tilt shift video, which was really nifty. Eventually that video wound up on Wholphin. And since then the tilt shift technique has become a craze. There are big repositories of the stuff online, along with lots of tilt shift moving imagery:
The rest of The Smoking Gun's Best Mugshots of the Year are here. The portfolio closes with a bad news Brady Bunch composite of people arrested wearing various Obama flair. But my favorite is this guy, who gets his own page, most likely because took the trouble to include Biden in his etchwork:
[Quick note to new visitors via viral poodle action: Thanks for coming! If you like these poodles and want something just as dramatic but even more awesome, check out my story on This American Life this week!)
On to the poodles!
Yes, that is a teenage mutant ninja poodle. Get it? I know, I know. Which one? Leonardo, obviously. Duh. I mean. Just look at the color of the mask.
More sings of the Simian Singularity. Although this guy clearly deserved it:
Angry monkeys turn on their cruel trainer and beat him senseless with his own stick after he handed out a vicious beating to one of the trio during a performance riding mini bicycles in a market in Sizhou, China.
Ha! I love that one. Never gets old.
But today the matter at hand is not the felid cheetah but the aging chimpanzee actor, Cheeta. Yes, that would be Cheeta from the Tarzan movies, with Johnny Weissmuller. Years ago, I drove out to Palm Springs, where, like all good golden age movie stars, Cheeta had retired. I dutifully wrote about his sunset years, painting, eating, and eating paint. Beyond simian celebrity, Cheeta was also supposed ot be the oldest non-human primate in the world -- 71 years old at the time. Fun times, fun times. Nothing like a celebrity animal profile to get a young writer started in the cutthroat magazine game!
Now, it turns out, I was had. As was the rest of the world. The shocking truth about Cheeta has come out. The other day a friend sent me an article in the Washington Post by a writer who was hired to write Cheeta's "authorized biography" but quickly discovered significant holes in Cheeta's story. Cheeta's original owner, Tony Gentry, turns out to have embellished his chimp's resume. Weismuller, Dr. Doolittle, Bed Time for Bonzo, the daring expatriation from Liberia in 1932 -- none of it was true. Cheeta is just a regular chimp, about 45 years old. He's not even the chimp from BJ and the Bear. But that doesn't mean he's not a funny, in that almost-human way:
Side note to the story. The definitive sourcing of Cheeta's pedigree came from two trainers who used to work at Jungleland with the man who sold Cheeta to Gentry. Jungleland was a big animal facility for Hollywood out in Thousand Oaks from the 1930's to the 1960s. It suffered an ignominious decline and went out of business, with the owner auctioning off the animals to pay the bills. (1968 street price in Los Angeles for a legal hippo: $450.) But just before all that, Jayne Mansfield had a birthday for her six year old son, Zoltan, at Jungleland. (Yes, Zoltan.) Zoltan was mauled by one of Jungleland's lions. He survived, a miracle that Mansfield supposedly credited to a ritual performed by Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan. Full circle: when Mansfield was killed (but not beheaded) a short time later, some people said it was due to a curse by LaVey. OK, that's not full circle at all. But it is entirely true.
BEIJING (Reuters) - A panda at a zoo in southern China attacked a student who snuck into its pen hoping for a cuddle with the endangered bear, state media said on Saturday.
The 20-year-old male student surnamed Liu jumped over the fence at the zoo in the tourist city of Guilin, ignoring warning signs not to, Xinhua news agency said.
"The panda, named Yangyang, was wide awake. Apparently scared by the intruder, he bit at Liu's arms and legs," it quoted an unnamed worker as saying after zoo keepers managed to calm the bear and rescue Liu, the report said.
"Yangyang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him," Liu was quoted as saying from his hospital bed. "I didn't expect he would attack."
Listen, brother, I feel you. Two years ago, I sojourned to China on a panda snuggling mission with my wife and some friends. We had seen panda snuggling on the internet and were determined to see if it was possible for ourselves. During that exact time, another Chinese guy followed suit and wound up like our friend Liu here; he saw pandas on TV, took a train to Beijing, went to the zoo, drank "four jugs of wine" (according to China Daily News), and was so moved by the sight of his new black and white friends that he jumped in their enclosure and put his arms around them. They put their teeth into him. Next thing he knew, the guy woke up in the hospital with a hundred stitches and fur in his teeth, due to some kinf of automatic self-defense response. Although I would never bite a panda, even in fight or flight mode, I understood this guy too. And I didn't even need four jugs of wine. I too have stood at the panda precipice. In China, we found our way to Wolong, a panda research facility on the Tibetan plateau. There we saw dozens of pandas. One enclosure had a dozen adolescent pandas. We saw them and needed them. We knew they needed us. Our communion was inevitable. Luckily, such communion was made in a controlled setting:
As self-explanatory as it is insane:
I want to make tacos! I want to live in a condominium! Cheetah Lady speaks to all our desires. Note: this is Cheetah Lady's only video. I love the purity of sole YouTube contributions. Make your statement, and don't dilute it. Forget that New York Times article about YouTube gold. Stay true to your artistic intentions, especially if that means howling at the camera in head-to-toe rosettes.
A while back I wrote an article in The Believer about the fantastic vision of the future Air Force, as dreamed up by military planners. Their master document, composed of theoretical systems to help the US maintain "Global Battlespace Dominance" in the 21st century, is called Air Force 2025, and it includes myriad theoretical science fiction combat systems, like Space-Based, AI-Driven Intelligence Master Mind System, Weather as a Force Multiplier, and, my favorite, Concept No. 900481: Destructo Swarmbots.
Well, back in September we learned that China already owns the weather. Luckily, our guys are busy with the Destructo Swarmbots. Or at least they're busy making motion graphics rendering of what the Destructo Swarmbots might be like:
That's my current favorite. And I say that with authority, having comprehensively surveyed the squirrel YouTube landscape just now. That's right: I do the slogging, so you don't have to. Gone are the days of being disappointed by all those mis-titled "beer drinking squirrels" or "kung fu squirrels" perpetrated by the YouTube on us eager believers. Allow me to be fooled for you. It is a quite a service, I know. Such is my generous character. And by the way -- how many "crazy barking squirrels" can there be in the world? A lot, according to YouTube. Except that none of them are actually barking. You want to know what selflessness is? Repeatedly clicking on "crazy barking squirrels" knowing full well there no real bark shall ever be found. The closest I got was this:
according to the National Endowment for the Arts, is about what an average writer earns in a decade — more than enough time to find a better job. If we multiply $400,000 times 92,500 — half of the 185,000 Americans the N.E.A. identifies as “authors and writers” — we get a total bailout cost of $37 billion. That’s about half of what the government paid for the first installment of the A.I.G. rescue. Should you still find that number too big to swallow, let me ask point blank: Whom would you rather bail out, a writer or an insurance executive?
Whoever said the ancient Greeks squandered their technology on silly toys? What they had was computers, 1800 years early. This device, found in a marine wreck, was a calendar, replete with quadrennial alerts for the Olympics. It showed, the time, the zodiac, and modeled the movement of planets, Ptolemaic epicycles and all. The original wheels within wheels -- in a tidy box! Now they've rebuilt that box, just to make sure they knew how it worked. Too bad Sharper Image is gone; they could have sold editions of the mechanism, with added functionality, like laser show projections!
Onward goes the senseless cultural-historical expedition!In junior high, we young denizens of Pasadena all felt very privileged in our proximity to KROQ. I mean dude KROQ you know, like, they broke punk rock and everything. Without them you would never have heard of the Sex Pistols or any shit like that. Hello? Rodney on the ROQ? And Loveline, when Poorman was still keeping it real. Or something like that. In reality, we were all one step, or several, removed from the station, and especially its halcyon days. Stories about people who had gotten free tickets to the Plasmatics at Perkins Palace by calling Jed figured large in my cultural mythology, even though such things, if they happened, happened when I was maybe seven years old. But some of us had older brothers, and those older brothers were enough to let the light shine in. Mark's older brother dated a girl who interned at KROQ. That was something. She did get us free tickest some times. But it was for, like, Howard Jones or something. Even better, Jun's older brother was the sound engineer. He had kicked it with Rodney on many a session with Sky Saxon or Red Kross. It was distant but tangible. I mean, he still worked there. But by the time it mattered, high school was upon us, along with the early 90s, and the window was closed. KROQ moved. The Spin Doctors happened. And then everything else. Like the internet! Recently, there has appeared a virtual repository for KROQ-in-heydey audio and other keepsakes. I'm not big on ironic nostalgia. What I prefer is genuine nostalgia. I was hoping to have some Proustian spark of recognition, but alas, I was probably farther from the great KROQ than my ten-year-old self knew. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy this:
If you grew up in the Los Angeles area, you know Nix, the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall check cashing chain. If you grew up in the Los Angeles area and listened to the radio, you know the Nix jingle: At Nix Check Cash-ing, You're Some-bo-dy Spe-cial!
Like most people, I always assumed that Nix was a very effective purveyor of high cost financial services to the poor; that they exploit desperation and the lack/distrust of real banking for high fees. A recent New York Times Magazine article by Doug McGray (an interesting writer whose Foreign Policy piece from years ago on Japan's cultural capital is a must read) says otherwise. He stipulates the problems with payday loans, and the $40,000 in fees a lifelong Nix customer might spend. Having spent some time in Western Unions in various states with my alcoholic mother, I can tell you first hand about the "poverty penalty." You have less, so you pay more, somehow, for basics like groceries and banking. McGray does make the interesting point that Nix fees are very clear, posted and confirmed at every step by cashiers, whereas the big banks, as we all know, try to sneak all kinds of fees -- overdrafts, late payments, account minumums, etc. -- on to our statements and hope we don't notice. (The fuckers.) More importantly, McGray says, is that the man behind Nix, Tom Nix, has always been devoted to his customer base. He started in the grocery business with his father, and started extending credit and cashing checks for customers. The article also suggests that Nix's jingle isn't just marketing:
Nix hires from the neighborhood and pays well enough that cashiers stick around. Word spreads, and in Watts or Highland Park or Pacoima, that reputation often carries more weight than some bank ad on a bus stop. “It’s social marketing 101.
I frequently saw cashiers address customers by name and ask about family or friends in common. One customer asked if the manager could come over, then broke the news that her husband had passed away. “What happened?” the manager gasped. Then, shaking her head: “He always came in with his pennies.” And Nix dresses up branches less formally than banks do — no suits, no office furniture, no carpeting — so a construction worker can show up straight from his shift, in dirty clothes, and, Nix says, not feel out of place.
And that customer service has created a strong brand loyalty. By way of example, McGray talks to a guy who is actually named Johnny Bravo. I imagined it was this Johnny Bravo, even though I know it wasn't:
Anyhow, Johnny Bravo, is an ex-marine and current delivery driver:
He told me he gets a payday loan every other Friday, pretty much without fail. Sometimes he needs it for bills. Sometimes it’s for gas — he owns a big, thirsty S.U.V. But mostly he described the loan as cash to enjoy his weekend.
“How much do you think you spend a year on payday loans?” I asked.
“Well, finance is about 45 dollars; add that up . . . ,” he said, and paused. “Comes out to a pretty good chunk of change,” he admitted. “But I don’t think of it that way.”
Bravo is exactly the kind of case consumer advocates bring up when they call for a ban on payday loans. But for better or worse, the guy loves Nix. “They treat me with respect, they’re really nice,” he said. He’s especially fond of the manager, Beatriz. She grew up in the neighborhood and has worked at Nix for almost 20 years now.
I find it to be a satisfying surprise that all these years Nix really did think we are special. At least someone gets something in exchange for the fees. Even more important, McGray says, is where Nix is headed. It was the persistent banking vacuum in poor communities that created today's Nix, whose size and reach may now enable it to fill that vaccuum:
Tom Nix’s life, and his work, is the story of how we got here, to a separate and mostly unequal financial industry for the poor. But it may also be the story of a new way out. Last fall, Nix sold his entire chain for $45 million to one of the country’s largest credit unions, Kinecta, which turned around and gave him an unlikely assignment: Put a credit-union window in every Nix store and help Kinecta take mainstream banking services to some of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods — by thinking less like a bank and more like a check casher.
Nix has started opening Kinecta credit union windows at its locations. Tellers ask customers if they want to open free savings or checking accounts. They answer questions. And they sign people up. McGray says that if Nix is successful at bringing basic banking back to these communties, the bigger banks will follow. Which would be a good thing, obviously. But then those banks would have to come up with an awesome jingle.
Perhaps it’s true that there are no new stories to tell—or ways to tell them—but certainly, innumerable combinations of the familiar still exist. In an ambitious new body of work, Los Angeles–based artist Marina Kappos blends references to ancient Greek vase painting, characterized by the same kind of flatness that seemed to crop up in much painting from LA a few years back, and the very current—and definitely invigorating—political scene. Aesthetically inspired by her Greek heritage, and creatively by the recent election and her attendance of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Kappos’s multipanel paintings feature a freewheeling parade of Americana that includes a portrait of the president-elect; the artist as a chorus girl wearing red, white, and blue; and sundry flags, oil rigs, and guns. The combination of sharply delineated figures and a rich, graphic palette leads one to the initial impression that this is yet another stream of highly saturated and fast-paced political ads. But another look at these carefully constructed paintings reveals something more mysterious: A deeply personal iteration of the public psyche, marked by the same dissonant simultaneity of confusion and enthusiasm experienced by a nation in the throes of war, economic crisis, and a historic election. The rampant mimicking of iconic words—hope, experience, change—and accompanying images that has resulted from the merging of a wary public with an intensely visual and media-heavy national campaign is on full, excitable view in Kappos’s imagery: a slick black silhouette of a fashionista in a burka, the doppelgänger of a Gap model wearing a tight T-shirt framed by the geometric abstraction of a home’s FOR SALE sign, and pretty young things in patriotic dress bobbing like jaunty sails on a sea of dislocated limbs and looming destruction. While it’s hard to comment with clarity on a history still very much in the making, and Kappos’s work suffers from a barrage of imagery with little room for pause, what is lacking in depth here is more than made up for in passion.
Ist heute abend! So sieht's aus in Oesterreich:
One question KRAMPUSFAQ:
Q: Who are these elaborate demons?
A: In Germany, Austria, and other parts of central europe heavily imprinted with pagan teutonic traditions, Santa Claus has a dark counterpart, a horned devil named Krampus. If you're not good on Christmas, it's not just that you don't get presents; Krampus leaves you a birch switch as a reminder of the corporal punishment you deserve. If Krampus is feeling especially Krampusmaessig, he might go ahead and kidnap you. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, is also when mischievous Germanic revelers have their Krampus processions, sometimes with torches for extra effect! Leave it to the Germans to make Christmas scary!
Accident de snowkite! This is easily the wildest snowkiting clip you will see today:
For those who also have long wanted to know what francophone action sports enthusiasts sound like when excited/scared, the answer is here: they sound like banshees.
This article tries to argue against the concern over "burrowing," the term of art for Bush's political appointees digging their way into the federal bureaucracy as permanent civil servants:
Senate Democrats called for a halt to the practice. Bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias (semi-seriously) suggested that "we'll have the top layer of the civil service filled with industry shills," while those at TPMMuckraker vowed to "see what we can find out." Their concern is that civil-service protections, ostensibly designed to insulate the bureaucracy from political influence, will instead safeguard the political appointees of a deeply unpopular lame-duck administration.
It's a valid concern—but in this case, it's misplaced. It's a valid concern—but in this case, it's misplaced. President-elect Barack Obama will find it easier to replace the Oval Office draperies than to replace officials who supposedly work for him. What the executive branch needs is more patronage, not less.
The article goes on to give an brief but interesting and informed history of the civil service, the Pendleton act which created it, and how it has become such a stubborn institution. Along the way, there is the obligatory Slate-ish contrarian point that the calcified civil service is the problem, rather than feckless, ideological political appointees. "In Praise of Patronage," as it's summed up in the article's title. But this misses point of the criticism of burrowing entirely. Sure, Obama's "change" would be more easily accomplished if more of the civil service was open to his political appointees, i.e. if he had more "patronage" at his disposal. But that doesn't mean patronage is a good idea. Not is it relevant to the very real problem of Bush's political barnacles sealing themselves into the civil service -- precisely because of the civil service history outlined in the article. After all, you can't make a case against the crusty civil service and not worry about the layer of crust Bush left behind.
Please enjoy the following missive from my friend Laura Krafft:
As is my wont, I was watching World Music Awards tonight. I'm sorry but you have to check this guy out. He's the most amazing performer in the entire world. His name is Filipp Kirkorov and I am now his number one fan. First, you have to explore his homepage.
I can't read Russian, but click on the gorgeous background and then click through the links in the gold bar at the top of Russian homepage and check out his different outfits.
Then check out this most fabulous video:
In it, he performs the song which first brought him to me. It's called "Tango" and it's basically what he's doing with my heart every time I watch it. (Probably going on approx., 10 or so...) When he performed it on the World Music Awards it was even better because he was wearing this amazing gold outfit. It's phenomenal. There's nothing like it in the world. The lip synching, the hair tosses, the feather fan dance circle, the babushka comedy sketch at 2:45, the false ending and then sparklers that announce the final ending and throughout, the awesome, awesome audience shots. Then watch his version of Hava Nagila. Interestingly, it's Hava Nagila as seen through the eyes of Doctor Zhivago:
Please enjoy inexplicable comedy sketch at 1:50 and 2:48. Then watch what can only be described as the most eurotrash music video ever:
My favorite part is when ever there's a crotch shot of a hot model, she looks like she's sporting a schlong. Proving what I always say: Russians are tricky.
I'll say! All this excitement got me digging a bit about this "Fillip Kirkorov" and it turns out the man of many wonderful faces is no stranger to controversy. He once told a reporter he was "bored with her pink jacket, tits, and microphone" and kicked her out of the room. Well, of course you're bored with pink jackets when your wardrobe includes lightning! Understandable. But then we did he have to send his bodyguards to destroy her tape recorder? What is Kirkorov hiding? And why did Laura Krafft not indicate this important bit of Kirkorov history in her email? What is she hiding? And most importantly, do his bodyguards have to wear their own flowing chemises and fur stoles?
My friend Brad Eberhard is the type of dude who will send me a YouTube video like this with no explanation:
No explanation needed, right? Brad just digs cable access performances by Confessor from 1988. He is a painter. And a musician. His band is called Wounded Lion. Brad once told told me that he was perusing detailed liner notes from an Adam Ant box set of some kind and was extremely gratified to learn that Adam Ant was the only white musician to play the Motown 25th Anniversary concert in 1984. This is the kind of information Brad has at his disposal. The other day, Brad sent me the following email:
re: jan van allen belt
I began learning how to use garageband yesterday. my socks were wet and it affected the computer. time was a circle and a line was drawn accross its face. the circle was 50 years wide. I followed he line and there was joe meek.
I am fairly certain some day I will be including this email in my "literature of (r)ephemeral electronic communications" seminar. In the spirit of Brad's message, that class will be taught at some university on the surface of Europa. Although I still don't know what the message means exactly. Perhaps Brad's song provides a clue:
Meaning aside, I can hereby declare that Garageband has just opened the Pandora's Box of Brad Eberhard.
So my friend Steven Kotler, a man of prodigious turnout, wrote a fascinating story about a former FBI agent who left the bureau for the ACLU. The agent, Mike German, was a once-politically conservative crack undercover agent, compiling evidence in two of the most successful domestic terrorism cases in history.
What forced German into the arms of the agency's rival? In German's last undercover case -- a conspiracy between natural pals: Islamic fundamentalists and American neo-Nazis -- the bosses tried to use his evidence improperly. He cried foul. They tried to transfer him. He said no. Thereupon began his descent into dreaded Whistlblower status, which if you work for the military or intelligence community means that you are not a patriot adhering to rule of law, but a crazy person. (Hey, it worked for the Soviets!) The spy who was left out in the cold found a new home at the ACLU, where he uses his insider knowledge to hold his former employer's feet to the fire. Surprisingly, German points out the similarity between his unlikely career paths:
After two years on the outside, he decided the best way he could continue being useful was to join the ACLU. “With the FBI, I saw a lot of very brave people do a lot of very dangerous things. At the ACLU, I see the exact same thing—but these people aren’t out there with flak vests and big guns taking on the bad guys. They don’t have the weight of the federal government behind them. They stand alone, unprotected, saying this will not happen on my watch. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Among German's projects at the ACLU is leading the charge against "fusion centers." These are repositories for "information sharing," meaning places where the government tries to collect data on its citizens from public and private sources -- doctors, credit card bills, financial information, shopping records, travel arrangements, gambling habits -- and look for patterns. This is the data mining that we heard so much about just after 9/11. Computers were going to help us find the next twenty hijackers. Or, as Rumsfeld would have put it, data mining would help us know those infamous unknowns. Remember all this? The Pentagon called it Total Information Awareness at first, and, reassuringly,their logo was an eyeball shining a light ray out of a pyramid, with the inscription Scientia Est Potentia. Well, it turned out people didn't like the idea of their scientia as the government’s potentia.Total Information Awereness was disbanded, but in name only. Data mining lives on as a key technological holy grail for the intelligence community. Now, after revelations about Bush's illegal warrantless eavesdropping and the revised FISA, data mining's inherent dangers to privacy seem even more notable. Especially because, as German points out, data mining doesn't work:
“The whole data-mining model doesn’t work,” he says. “We’re sub-contracting to companies who want to solve terrorism with technology. It’s pure snake oil.” Explaining this, German likes to point out that pro football teams use much narrower data sets to scout rookies than the government does hunting terrorists, but they still draft a guy like Ryan Leaf. “If this kind of predictive analysis really worked, these companies would be selling their services in Vegas or on Wall Street. Vegas and Wall Street aren’t buying it—only the government is.”
I did an interview in 2003 with Usama Fayyad, one of the world's data mining experts. Fayad is a data mining booster, with his own consulting company, DigiMine. He was also editor in chief of Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery, the primary technical journal on data mining technology. And he was very candid about the limitations of that technology for intelligence gathering:
UF: That’s true, and let me give you a tougher scenario. It’s one thing to rate a credit card transaction for its likelihood of being fraudulent. But as soon as you start looking for groupings of people, like terrorist networks, which is what Total Information Awareness needs to do, you now have an exponential problem. Because if there are N entities, there’s an exponential number in N of possible subgroupings. You’re looking for ten people, you don’t know which ten, among millions, and that’s an absolutely astronomical number of combinations.
BLVR: That’s a whole lot of evidence extracting and link discovering.
UF: Yes, but it’s not impossible. It’s just very challenging. It’s never been done on this scale. It’s like putting a man on the moon. If they really want to get it done, it will require a lot of resources, the best people in the country, and so on.
That was in 2003. And German is saying the same thing today. Fayad isn't saying its impossible. He just says it would require a commitment like the Apollo project. Which begs the question or whether those resources wouldn't be better spent on developing human intelligence rather than spying on our citizenry?
I don't know if these forty three pictures of monkeys will actually change your life, but I sure do love this little golden mini monkey man in the tree. Can you hear his special song? It's beautiful. No, you can't hear it. Because his is singing his special song just for me.