National Parks as “Breathing Space”

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As you may have noticed, I’ve visited quite a few National Parks over the last few years. Having just returned from yet another hiking trip (this time to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park), I found this Jeffrey Brown interview with author Terry Tempest Williams strangely moving, particularly at the end. Tempest Williams is eloquent, and her love for the land comes through loud and clear.

Time Is A Tool To Grow

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Binoche

At the end of a recent PBS NewsHour interview, Jeffrey Brown asked actress Juliette Binoche how she felt about the sorts of roles she can expect to be offered, now that she is older than 50. She gave one of the most positive responses about aging that I’ve ever heard. Here it is, rendered as verse-

I mean, I’ve aged, you know,
I have experience.
And so it’s not as if
I’m not facing it…
but it’s not a fear.
‘Cause time is a tool to grow!
If you don’t have that tool,
how can you grow?
How can you transform?
So, you have to believe that
time is your best friend!
Imagine if you had to die
when you’re young,
you’d feel like, wow!
You know, what I’ve learned
with time
is amazing!

Here is the whole (6 minute) interview. The verse above occurs at about 5 min. 30 sec.-

Liberal Arts: The Seed of Apple

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In this dark age of deep budget cuts to once-great public universities like the University of Wisconsin, and politicians who pander to their anti-intellectual base by demeaning liberal arts majors while hyping technology majors (see previous post), it may be refreshing to remind ourselves that Steve Jobs himself once stated that what made Apple Computer different from other tech companies was that its goal was to bring a “liberal arts perspective” to computing-

I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers. … You know, if you really look at the ease of use of the MacIntosh, the driving motivation behind that was … to bring beautiful fonts and typography to people … it was to bring graphics to people, not for plotting laminar-flow calculations, but so that they could see beautiful photographs or pictures or artwork. Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective, and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience. That’s the seed of Apple.

Here is the audio of this quote, from a 1996 Terry Gross interview-

Another often-quoted statement from Jobs on the same subject, which he gave after introducing the iPad in 2005-

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing — and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

By the way, since I was acquainted with Jobs when we were both students at Reed College, I’m looking forward – with just a wee bit of trepidation – to the new Sorkin/Boyle movie, “Steve Jobs” (even though it might have more to do with the artists who made it than with Jobs the man – something Steve actually might have approved of…)-

Update: Well, I saw the movie, and I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend it, at least if you’re interested in learning much about the major events it depicts: the release of the original Mac; the (apparently) intentional failure of NeXT; the release of the iMac following Jobs’ return to Apple, and finally the ambivalent Sculley-Jobs relationship (which, as the film handles it, is simply confusing). Nor can I recommend it if you’re more interested in learning about Jobs’ attitude towards his daughter Lisa: first he disowns her, then [spoiler alert!] he finally tries to make amends – a transformation that might have been worth exploring if Sorkin could attribute it to something deeper than Jobs’ merely growing up. The acting, as you might expect, is all fine (Fassbinder really nails Jobs’ persona in the film’s third and otherwise weakest act), and the dialog is certainly pithy enough (Sorkin’s trademark). But the kid I remember from Reed College was far more complex than the character I saw on the screen, and I can’t believe that he lost so much depth and subtlety over time. He certainly might have become as obsessive and inflexible as the film portrays him, but surely he continued to be more than that, at least when he was away from the high-pressure events the film focuses on. To achieve a more satisfying portrait of Jobs the man, a better film would follow him between those events, during many quieter moments, and track his development at a more leisurely pace.

“How I Got My Song” – Leonard Cohen

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So… it seems that I haven’t posted anything all month. Chalk it up to the summer doldrums.

In any case, I’m determined not to neglect July entirely. So, for your amusement, here’s a curious little acceptance speech Leonard Cohen gave at the 2011 Prince of Asturias Awards event in Spain. He won the prize for Literature, but his speech is mostly about how he came to be a songwriter. As you might well expect from Cohen, what he has to say is a little bit beautiful, a little bit tragic, and just a tad absurd (particularly in its opulent setting).

Enjoy!

R.I.P., Jack Bruce

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Photo of Jack Bruce,  2006Photo by Christian Sahm (2006); used under the Creative Commons license.

Of all the rock “icons” whose talents peaked in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Jack Bruce – bass player, songwriter, and remarkably polished vocalist – is probably one of the more under-appreciated. He certainly contributed more than one-third to the sound of Cream, the band he formed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. But his solo work during a slightly later period garnered him relatively little acclaim, as I recall, probably because it was so much subtler and harmonically complex than his work with Cream. His musicality was not lost on me, however, just a high school senior at the time of his 1971 release, “Harmony Row”. That year, if you remember it at all, was a time of high historical drama and, for some of us, personal lessons learned. Bruce provided part of our common soundtrack, in an uncommonly sophisticated way. Here’s one of my favorite songs from Harmony Row: “Can You Follow”.

 
Hey can you follow,
Now that the trace is fainter
In the sand
Try turning your face to the wall

Can you still read me
Now that the chase is wilder
In your hand
Try losing your place in the sun

All the praises of the dream
Turned to tangles in the trees
All yesterday’s fine chariots
Turned to buses in the street

Can you still hear me
Now that the songs are moving
Into night
Try sleeping with the dancers in your room

Political Microtargeting Alienates Supporters

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Have you been interminably microtargeted by political interest groups that you’ve financially supported in the past? If so, perhaps you can relate to the cynical attitude I’ve developed about the whole process, and why I’ve opted out of four or five overlapping political-interest email lists over the past few weeks.

I don’t have anything negative to say about the microtargeting of undecided voters in the months shortly before an election. This allows campaigns to maximize the efficiency of their operations, and since I’m almost always well-decided well before election day, I appreciate being passed over by the in-person hard-sellers (and so does Katie, our dog, who freaks out at the slightest hint of a visitor at the door). But what has increasingly come to irritate me are the endless email invitations I receive from movements I’ve financially supported in the past – invitations that are clearly seeking ever-more specific information about my particular interests in order to follow up with more specific pleas for funds. If I thought that my signing a petition or taking a poll authored by these groups would have any political impact whatsoever, including altering the priorities of the groups themselves, I might participate. But since the petitions and polls are so transparently merely ploys to gather more data about me for further fundraising purposes, they just cause me to lose interest in the entire political process.

A brief web-search on the topic of political microtargeting indicates that even those who agree with me that such microtargeting “dehumanizes” individuals (by treating them as mere data-points and potential resources to exploit) seldom condemn it. Rather, they cynically accept it as a political necessity. But political parties and interest groups, as well as commercial corporations, ought to beware of the long-term effects their marketing practices might have. Politically conscious individuals may at some point say, “Microtargeted-to enough already!”, and find alternative ways to form political and economic alignments.

Burger King Meets Sartre: To Be or To Have?

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File this under “odd confluences of marketing and philosophy”…

BK Question

As both a fan of the BK Veggie (at least when starving and passing through a small town with only fast food restaurants and no Subway) and a philosophy professor, I found this news item almost as interesting as it is just plain weird: Burger King, in its infinite corporate wisdom, has decided to change its catch-phrase from “Have It Your Way” to “Be Your Way”. BurgerBusiness.com apparently got the scoop

Fernando Machado, SVP_Global Brand Management, told BurgerBusiness.com that the new tagline is the result of a company reexamination of its brand and its relationship with its customers. “Burger King is a look-you-in-the-eyes brand, a relaxed and a friendly brand. It is approachable and welcoming,” he said. “So we wanted the positioning to reflect that closeness. We elevated ‘Have It Your Way’ to ‘Be Your Way’ because it is a richer expression of the relationship between our brand and our customers. We’ll still make it your way, but the relationship is deeper than that.”

Sure, Be Your Way: be obese, be diabetic, be wasteful, be oblivious (except, of course, when you order the Veggie). We’ll take your money, however you are. Of course, “Have It Your Way” has its own share of unfortunate associations: have a heart attack, have a stroke, have gastric distress… But what seems to be moving the advertisers here is rather this: since being indicates a “deeper relationship” than having, and therefore since what you are is likely to be more important to you than merely what you have, emphasizing being over having should lead you to desire a Whopper more than you would were you still stumbling into one their establishments under the less efficacious spell of their traditional catch-phrase. However, the relationship between desiring, being, and having can be tricky, as Jean-Paul Sartre made abundantly clear in his epic Existentialist tome, Being and Nothingness. Here’s a quick summary of his view on this, courtesy of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

For Sartre, the lover seeks to possess the loved one [or the loved burger – ed.] and thus integrate her into his being: this is the satisfaction of desire. He simultaneously wishes the loved one nevertheless remain beyond his being as the other he desires, i.e. he wishes to remain in the state of desiring. These are incompatible aspects of desire: the being of desire is therefore incompatible with its satisfaction.

So… do the advertisers really want to short-circuit the desiring process, and prematurely emphasize being over having? But wait… the plot thickens-

In the lengthier discussion on the topic “Being and Having,” Sartre differentiates between three relations to an object that can be projected in desiring. These are being, doing and having. Sartre argues that relations of desire aimed at doing are reducible to one of the other two types. His examination of these two types can be summarised as follows. Desiring expressed in terms of being is aimed at the self. And desiring expressed in terms of having is aimed at possession. But an object is possessed insofar as it is related to me by an internal ontological bond… Through that bond, the object is represented as my creation. The possessed object is represented both as part of me and as my creation. With respect to this object, I am therefore viewed both as an in-itself [an inert, untroubled thing – ed.] and as endowed with freedom. The object is thus a symbol of the subject’s being, which presents it in a way that conforms with the aims of the fundamental project [that is, the impossible project of being God, who alone can be conscious of something without being alienated from it – ed.]. Sartre can therefore subsume the case of desiring to have under that of desiring to be, and we are thus left with a single type of desire, that for being.

So, ultimately, if desiring to have is reducible to desiring to be, the advertisers might be wasting their time – much ado about nothing. Or is that much ado about nothingness?

Pannonica – Thelonius Monk

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I stumbled upon Thelonius Monk’s “Pannonica” leafing through an old collection of jazz standards about a year ago. I slowly sight-read through the 32-bar tune, finding the changes intriguing but mysterious, the often chromatic melody fluidly elegant. On paper, the composition is something of a conundrum; in the air, it is seriously playful. I was hooked immediately… but what did that strange title mean? Googling it revealed that ‘Pannonica’ – or ‘Nica’ for short – referred to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild (1913-1988). She was a well-known jazz connoisseur, and the musicians she supported and promoted seemed genuinely to respect her. She gained some notoriety when Charlie Parker died of an overdose at her house in 1955, an incident depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird (which I recommend). Monk lived at her house from 1970 until his death in 1982.

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

For months I struggled to find a way of soloing gracefully through those seemingly disjointed changes, not to mention ways of comping that did the tune at least minimal justice on guitar. Of course I listened to Monk’s solo piano rendition, and realized instantly that trying to emulate that masterpiece would be hopeless. So here’s the best I could come up with, given limited time and resources-

Hannah Rothschild, Nica’s great-niece, recently wrote her biography (thanks for the tip, Berry). Here’s The Guardian’s review. It follows by a couple of years David Kastin’s well-regarded biography. I’ll probably read one of them eventually. But for now I think I’ll just continue to relate to her through Monk’s masterful musical portrait – he knew his subject so very well.

David Simon On The “Horror Show” That Is America

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I’m a big fan of David Simon’s classic HBO series, The Wire, as well as his more recent project, Treme. He’s a clear-eyed, street-smart social critic who understands the limits of both capitalism and Marxism, and consistently avoids viewing individuals or groups as exclusively victims or victimizers. If Simon has an ideological commitment, it is to try to safeguard the intrinsic value of human beings against the devaluation that usually occurs when capitalists and capitalist institutions regard them merely as costs. His thinking isn’t particularly subtle, but it is refreshingly direct and to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column he recently published in the Guardian, which is worth reading in its entirety-

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

(Thanks Erik).

The Growing Social-Media-Corporate Complex

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When I visited Huffington Post today and saw this photo, I just wanted to leave a quick comment that hadn’t yet been left, namely to identify the beautiful setting as Kailua Beach on Oahu, one of my favorite beaches in the whole wide world. However, I then discovered that the Huffington Post no longer allows you to create an account just on it; instead, you have to log on via a social networking site. As my previous rants against Facebook make clear, I HATE SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES, not because they are social, and not because they involve networking, but because they invariably involve MARKETING. I don’t know about you (and don’t you appreciate that?), but I’d much rather have the NSA collect data on my every click around the web than have it done by some consortium of corporations whose only interest is to sell me products that I don’t want or need, and/or to sell information about me to other entities who might do whatever they like with it.

I searched to find other bloggers who might share my distaste for the growing social media complex, but (perhaps due to my impatience after spending several minutes trying to figure out a way around the HufPo requirement) all I found were pro-marketing sites whose authors view the growth as an opportunity rather than an annoyance or worse. In any case, if you haven’t considered the sheer size and interconnectedness of the social media marketing web, check out a larger, more readable version of Brian Solis and JESS3’s annual chart, which in miniature looks like this-

JESS3_BrianSolis_ConversationPrism4_Modified

UPDATE: Amusingly, as if to make my point, after tweeting a link to this post (Twitter is the one social networking site I’m on), I immediately received this marketing response on Twitter-

Making My Point

Donald Fagen: Hell In A Handcart

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“Hell in a handcart”.

That’s where Donald Fagen, in unabashed curmudgeon mode, thinks we’re all headed, thanks to the ubiquitous social media that keeps kids – by whom he means anyone born after 1960 and raised by television – staring at the gadgets in their palms instead of relating to each other in person. Or at least that’s what he told Tom Ashbrook – who seems to be developing more of an appreciation for quality music lately – at the end of his recent On Point interview, in which he was selling his recently released memoir, “Eminent Hipsters“. You can listen to the interview on the podcast or here. The book is near the top of my someday-I’ll-have-the-time-to-read list.

And while we’re talking Steely Dan, here is some recent concert footage of the band playing that old chestnut, Do It Again, featuring Michael McDonald (!) singing all but the last verse, when Donald chimes in. Enjoy some of the best pop-rock-jazz-r&b ever conceived of in this or any other universe-

And to just for the hell of it, here’s a short documentary about the making of one of my favorite tunes off perhaps Steely Dan’s most exquisite album Aja: “Home At Last”.

Shameless Hedonism On CNN: Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”

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I’ve recently gotten hooked on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series on CNN, now in its second season. So far this season, he’s been to Jerusalem, Spain, and New Mexico, with Copenhagen up next. Bourdain is a chef who has morphed into a world traveler and experience-gatherer extraordinaire. His personality is both appealingly laid-back and quirky, much like the folks he gets to know on his weekly explorations. He clearly has an insatiable passion for eating, drinking, and perhaps other drugs (at least off-screen). Given my own limited, semi-vegetarian palate, I find his willingness to eat anything occasionally nauseating, but his liberality in this respect is just a mark of his consistency. For it’s not just pleasant sensations that he craves, but unique experiences of all hedonistic tonalities. And in a world becoming increasingly homogenous and predictable, the fact that someone has dedicated themselves to luxuriating in the particular aspects of place is, well, particularly refreshing.

I would embed a preview, but the episode I found on YouTube has been taken down, and, as far as I can tell, CNN does not allow its video content to be embedded.

Guard Against Throat-Scratch

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Apropos of absolutely nothing, here is a 1952 ad from a Brooklyn newspaper that I stumbled upon while researching an entirely different subject. It, well, kind of startled me.

Guard-Against-Throat-Scratch

Click here if you’d like to read the fine print.

Funny as they may now seem, ads of this kind might well have influenced millions of people like my father, who would have been 32 years old at the time and destined to become a 2-pack-a-day smoker… one who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 57.

What Would MLK Jr. Have Said About The Trayvon Martin Case?

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At the risk of wading into the morass created by the media of late, here are my two cents about the Trayvon Martin case, which ended with George Zimmerman being found not guilty of both second degree murder and manslaughter. I’ll be as brief as I can, because even though I tried to avoid the 24-hour media coverage, I got a big enough dose of it to last me a long, long time, and I’m sure you’re feeling the same way.

The liberal pundits seem to have come to a consensus: the case is just the latest example of a long history of black victimization at the hands of racist would-be vigilantes.

The conservative pundits have also come to a consensus: the jury recognized that this was just a simple case of self-defense. Case closed.

Neither group of pundits have it right.

This clearly was not a simple case of self-defense, because Zimmerman initiated the confrontation by getting out of his car and following Martin. Martin had every reason to feel threatened by Zimmerman. There is no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman is largely morally and even causally responsible for initiating the chain of events that led to his killing Martin. However, the legal question focused on whether the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not justifiably shoot Martin in self-defense at the moment he pulled the trigger. The problem with the conservative consensus is that it ignores the questions of moral and causal responsibility in favor of the question of (mere) legal responsibility.

The liberal consensus, by contrast, at best downplays the legal question in favor of the moral and causal questions, and at worst conflates all three of them. Although I can’t blame liberals for using the case as a springboard to talk about general social ills, including the sort of implicit racism that seems to have led Zimmerman to single out Martin for suspicion, those social ills were not on trial in Sanford, nor should they have been. George Zimmerman was, and he was being tried on specific charges under Florida law. The jury decided that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty as charged. I defer to the jury’s opinion about that. I think that other liberals should do so as well.

It seems that the crucial fact revealed in the trial was that at least late in the confrontation, Martin was on top of Zimmerman and acting at least momentarily as the aggressor. We can argue about whether he was morally justified in reacting that way, or even possibly legally justified (I think it depends on further details that we will never know). But this apparent fact allowed Zimmerman to convincingly claim that he acted in self-defense. My contention is this: if Martin had not gotten into a physical altercation with Zimmerman, either Zimmerman would not have shot him, or else Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder. Hard as it might have been to resist the urge to punch Zimmerman in the nose, resisting that urge probably would have saved Martin’s life. Yes, his pride might have been wounded by his not striking out or striking back, but his pride could have healed.

I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would have agreed: Trayvon made at least a serious tactical error, one that ultimately led not only to his being killed, but also to Zimmerman being found not guilty. The wisdom of non-violence needs to be internalized.

There has been a lot of discussion on the web about what black parents should tell their children in the wake of the not-guilty verdict. Here’s a good example of it at a blog run by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I am not a parent and I am not black, but as a human being who cares about every person, I’d like to humbly offer some advice that I haven’t yet seen offered. Whatever else you tell your children, including all of the ugly history in the background, pass along this tidbit of practical wisdom that paid huge dividends during the Civil Rights era: if you get approached by someone asking offensive questions that don’t deserve to be answered – even by someone seeking to provoke you; even by someone physically lashing out at you first – don’t escalate the situation by striking back unless you absolutely have to. Hard as that might be, exercising such self-control puts you on the moral high ground, and if worse comes to worst, on the legal high ground as well.

Here’s a brief video in which MLK mentions the training in non-violence and non-retaliation given to children before exposing them to the hostility surrounding the demonstrations in the 1960s. (Of course, Trayvon Martin was walking home at night, not demonstrating, but I believe that MLK’s philosophy was entirely general, growing as it did out of his deeply held Christian convictions.)