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Monday, June 30, 2003

Flooding A Thousand Years Of History After decades of talking about it, planning and construction, the giant dam on China's Three Gorges section of the Yangtze River has finally been erected. "Once completed, the dam would be the largest in the world—as high as a sixty-story building and as wide as five Hoover Dams. The official price tag was more than twenty-one billion dollars, roughly half of which would be funded by a tax on electricity across China." And after evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents who lived along the river, the river rose in early June, flooding villages and thousands of years of history... The New Yorker 06/30/03

Sunday, June 29, 2003

A New Enlightenment: Cultural Lifeline or Western-centric Hoohah? Ever since 9/11, various social and political commentators have declared flatly that the only hope for global peace is for the Islamic world to undergo an "Enlightenment" of the type the West experienced a couple of centuries back. Such an Enlightenment would overturn religious misconceptions, dispel ethnic hatred, and bring the Islamic world into harmony with its neighbors and with itself. Sounds good, hmm? One problem: many highly intelligent people don't see what was so great about the Western Enlightenment, and make a compelling argument that it caused at least as many problems as it solved. Boston Globe 06/22/03

Friday, June 27, 2003

Blockbusters - A Real Conversation-Stopper "While more people are going to the movies than ever before, they're talking about them less than ever before. It was not always so. Once upon a time, even popular movies were the subject of vigorous conversation. A generation ago, proto-blockbusters like The Exorcist, The Deer Hunter, Annie Hall and Dirty Harry were as hotly debated as they were repeatedly seen. Discussions of movies — their meaning, quality, morality — were the stuff of entire talk shows. Today, the only thing that passes more inconsequentially than the movie is the media gab it generates." Toronto Star 06/27/03

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Do Computers Slow Us Down? "Computers are tremendous labor-saving devices. They give us power to accomplish extraordinary amounts of work in extraordinarily short intervals of time. But they also give us the capability to do things like play solitaire. Or send instant messages. Fiddle with fonts. Futz with PowerPoint. Twiddle with images. Reconfigure link rollovers. Large investments in computers and communications seem necessary for rapid, industry-level productivity growth. Still, there is a strong sense that computers are less of an asset to the economy than they might be if we truly knew what they were good for and how to use them." Wired 06/03

Monday, June 23, 2003

Enough With The Potter-Mania Already "What's behind this Potter-mania? Clearly something other than the quality of the novels. When reviewers finally get to read the new Potter, no doubt there will be the predictable backlash of claims that it is not that good - but who cares? The discussion has gone beyond all that. Since it began, Potter-mania has represented a cultural infantilism, that only grows as the years go by. It is about what we expect from our kids, our books, our value system and ourselves. Whatever happens in The Order of the Phoenix, the story of our obsession with Harry Potter is unlikely to have a happy ending." spiked-online 06/19/03

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Brain Jolting Scientists have discovered that stimulating the brain with a "transcranial magnetic stimulator" enhances brain function and creativity. "You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us." New York Times Magazine 06/22/03

How The World Solves Big Problems (But They Don't Work) The world has lots of big problems. But at present there are only "four types of mechanisms to finesse the world's world-sized problems. Unfortunately, none of them are of much use."
Wired 06/03

Looking For New Direction In Iraq With Saddam Hussein out of power, and Iraq facing an uncertain future, Iraqi artists are beginning to stare down the barrel of a hard question: without tyranny to rail against, what is our function? "By his own authoritarian standards, Hussein was a supporter of the arts," with a stable of state-sponsored playwrights, poets, and other artists directed to churn out a constant flow of product which could be compared to the Socialist Realist works of the USSR under Stalin. It was a repressive, hateful system, yes, but it was at least a system. In the post-Hussein Iraq, where American troops roam the streets and the future is on hold, one Baghdad playwright sums up the new paradox: "Whatever is around me is vague, unseen. We don't know our country's future; it is hard to write." Boston Globe 06/22/03

  • After Saddam - The Inspiration's Gone Some artists did well in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Now that he's gone, they have more freedom to create, and there are galleries ready to show their work. "But painters and sculptors say that for now, the inspiration is gone - stifled by sweltering days with no electricity, snaking gas station lines and sleepless nights defending galleries against looters and arsonists. 'I ask the artists to make something new, and they tell me they are tired'." The Globe & Mail (Canada) 06/21/03

Thursday, June 19, 2003

The Art Of Mobbing It's called the Mob Project and it works like this: Someone writes an email with a date, time, place and random activity, then sends it to people to forward to whomever they want. At the appointed time, dozens (hundreds?) of strangers converge at the appointed location. "The Mob Project has a particular New York twist - you have to know someone to get invited. There's no website to go to for information, no ads in local papers - the mob forms from e-mails that are forwarded from person to person. 'Everyone loves a mindless mob! I was so stoked when I got my invitation - no action, no protest, no needing to review my political stance on a particular issue. Just be there or be square." Wired 06/19/03

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Fan Fiction - Is It Stealing? "In the past few years, a curious literary genre known as 'fan fiction' has been flourishing. The term refers to all manner of vignettes, short stories and novels based on the universes described in popular books, TV shows and movies. Similarly derived works are appearing in music, where fans are using their computers to mix songs from popular artists into new works that they call 'mashups.' Movie fans are taking digital copies of films such as the 'Star Wars' epics and creating alternate endings or deleting characters such as the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks. The explosion of these part-original, part-borrowed works has set authors of fan fiction against some media companies in a battle to redefine the line between consumers' right to 'fair use' and copyright holders' rights to control their intellectual property." Washington Post 06/18/03

Destruction of An Historic Culture Iraq was once a center for art and culture. But it has been in "steep decline for twenty years. The loss into exile of three million people, among them many of the country's most gifted, has arguably been far more destructive than recent wartime damage. The reduction of the entire middle class to deep poverty, one result of the international sanctions imposed since 1990, compounded the misery. The sanctions — or, as Iraqis say, the siege—had the further effect of sealing them off from advances elsewhere in the world, and even from the hope of catching up. In the past decade a kind of rottenness set in. When I saw Baghdad in 1990, with its neat, palm-lined boulevards, it looked not unlike Kuwait or Riyadh. A decade later the city looked more like Khartoum or Kinshasa, a place of brownouts, grasping bureaucrats, and leaky drains, its broken streets packed with the aimless unemployed." New York Review of Books 07/03/03

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

What If They Could Read Your Mind? Researchers believe that advances in microelectronics and medical imaging are "bringing us closer to a world where mind reading is possible and some blindness is overcome with visual prostheses." But as alluring as some of the possibilities may be, the capabilities of such technology may very likely have a nasty downside. "Researchers may one day find brain activity that correlates with behavior patterns such as tendencies toward alcoholism, aggression, pedophilia, or racism." If so, what will that mean for those so labeled? Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (UPI) 06/03/03

Monday, June 16, 2003

Universal Translator "In the era when it is proposed that computers translating machines will soon be able to perform most translating tasks, what we call literary translation perpetuates the traditional sense of what translation entails. The new view is that translation is the finding of equivalents; or, to vary the metaphor, that a translation is a problem, for which solutions can be devised. In contrast, the old understanding is that translation is the making of choices, conscious choices, choices not simply between the stark dichotomies of good and bad, correct and incorrect, but among a more complex dispersion of alternatives, such as good versus better and better versus best, not to mention such impure alternatives as old-fashioned versus trendy, vulgar versus pretentious, and abbreviated versus wordy." Times Literary Supplement 06/12/03

Note To Historians: Travel, Open Your Minds! There was a time in mid-20th Century that American historians and critics set American culture in the context of the rest of the world. "In the global contest with Soviet films and ballet companies, America's most eminent historians and literary critics found themselves writing about the United States from a transnational perspective. They also served as guest lecturers and visiting professors overseas, confronting audiences and points of view different from the ones they were used to at home, even as they tried to spread the word about the virtues of America's culture and civilization." But "starting in the 1970s, it was no longer fashionable in academic circles to write about 'America' as a community of shared beliefs and values." And over the next few decades, that sense of transnational perspective was replaced with more provincial perspectives. Chronicle of Higher Education 06/16/03

Sunday, June 15, 2003

TV Disrupts The Himalayas "In June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on television. The Dragon King had lifted a ban on the small screen as part of a radical plan to modernise his country, and those who could afford the £4-a-month subscription signed up in their thousands to a cable service that provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment, much of it from Rupert Murdoch's Star TV network. Four years on, those same subscribers are beginning to accuse television of smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own, and of threatening to destroy an idyll where time has stood still for half a millennium." The Guardian (UK) 06/14/03

The Art Of The Virus "Last December, Daccia Bloomstone, a 25-year-old Toronto artist, worked with a friend to set up up a commercial art gallery in downtown Toronto. They called it Virus Arts." This, of course, was before the SARS epidemic hit, making the whole art-as-infectious-virus notion quite a bit scarier. Still, says Liam Lacey, it may be time to lay aside the old canard that human culture, and indeed humanity itself, is a virus upon the earth. "The life-threatening viruses that have hit this country recently, severe acute respiratory syndrome, mad cow and West Nile, with monkeypox threatening, are a reality check for the pervasiveness and elasticity of the extraordinary widespread viral analogy in popular culture." The Globe & Mail (Canada) 06/14/03

Ideas Wanted Toronto's IdeaCity conference, which gets underway this weekend, is an intellectual celebration without direction, and that's exactly how organizers want it. The hope is that, by bringing together some of Canada's greatest thinkers for the mental equivalent of a jam session, great ideas will emerge, and walling in such broad-minded folks with a single 'theme' would seem to be antithetical to the effort. "But the event is still trying to find its feet conceptually. Some of the participants are genuinely 'ideas' people, but others are pop singers and wilderness adventurers." The Globe & Mail (Canada) 06/14/03

History For Hire? "A scientist financed by, say, the tobacco industry, is expected to declare whose wallet is behind his research. But what about a historian? The question may seem odd, but it has suddenly become more urgent as medical historians are becoming witnesses in some of the country's most important — and expensive — lawsuits. This practice is causing a fierce debate among historians over the ethics of testifying for industries accused of endangering the public's health." The New York Times 06/14/03

Thursday, June 12, 2003

The Greatest, Whatever, Uh-huh What is it with critics pronouncing this or that artist the "greatest" of a generation? Laziness, that's what, writes Peter Plagens. "A critic’s pronouncing somebody 'the greatest/most-important sculptor/bassoonist/director/novelist/cheesemaker/whatever of his generation' says much more about the critic than the anointed artist. It says that the critic has reached a state of fatigue and impatience with taking forward-looking, right-now judgmental chances on quirky 25-year-olds who probably won’t pan out over the long haul, making the critic look misguided. It says that the critic is more comfortable looking backward. It says the critic has reached a plateau of self-importance on which he wants to go around conferring cultural knighthoods on artist-commoners who’ve managed to rise above their making-clever-baubles-for-the-rich stations to become, almost, big thinkers. And it says that the critic wants to get the authoritative-sounding but actually sonorously empty words 'greatest' and 'generation' together in the same sentence." Newsweek 06/12/03

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Are We Losing Our Sense Of Distance? Our Ability To Reflect? Have we lost our critical distance from the cultural things with which we interact? "American culture as a whole has grown increasingly spellbound by electronic media to the point where now every other person we see wears a headset, has a cell phone to one ear or eyes fixed on some porthole of cyberspace. The critical distance that once appeared to be a virtue, or at least an advantage, now appears to be one more illusion, or perhaps a mere spasm of arrogance on the artist's or the critic's part." San Francisco Chronicle 06/08/03

Should Politics Be Like Reality TV? Is voting someone out of the Big Brother reality TV house much different from voting out politicians? "Television has always been a problem for politicians, but never more so than now, when it is questioning their very ethos and raison d'être. Politics is going through the biggest change since the emancipation of women. It is massive, what could happen in the next five to 10 years, in the meshing of direct and representative democracy. It is something new. Television has picked up on interactivity in the telecommunications world. That is driving it." The Telegraph (UK) 06/08/03

The Web - How Audiences Work? "There are hundreds of millions - perhaps more than a billion - websites out there. If the normal distribution applied, then we would expect that most of them would cluster around an average in terms of size and link density. But this is not what is observed: although the web has a huge number of very small sites, the probability of encountering a big site is nevertheless quite high. up to now we have argued that the concentrations of media power and audience share that exist in the real world are the product of capitalist accumulation or inadequate regulatory regimes. But the web and the blogging culture are completely open. Yet, even in those ideal conditions, we see concentrations of power and audience emerging. Deep waters, eh? And is that curious noise the sound of Rupert Murdoch laughing up his sleeve?" The Observer (UK) 06/08/03

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Decades Of Media Consolidation Media mergers and ownership consolidation aren't just a recent phenomenon. Back "in the late 1960s, during a flurry of media-industry mergers, The Atlantic published several articles that pointedly asked, Who controls the media? and How big is too big?" Some of the questions the magazine explored then seem applicable once again. The Atlantic 06/02/03

Art Or Cruel Exploitation? Santiago Sierra creates "art" that uses people - exploits them, actually. They make powerful messages, but are they really art? He has "created pieces that involved workers from the local underclass being paid to do meaningless tasks: support a piece of Sheetrock at a 65-degree angle for an entire day; sit inside a cardboard box; or push around two-ton blocks of concrete. By designing such deliberately pointless 'jobs,' he highlighted the disjunction between such workers and their work, showing labor as an imposed condition rather than a choice one makes. 'The remunerated worker doesn?t care if you tell him to clean the room or make it dirtier. As long as you pay him, it?s exactly the same. The relationship to work is based only upon money'." ARTNews 06/03

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Creativity - An Overused And Abused Idea Everyone seems to talk about creativity as if it were this force innate to every person, and that some sort of spigot is all that is required to cause it to gush forth. Barbican director John Tusa's new book explores what it means to be creative. "Creative, creation, creativity, as Tusa says in his introduction, 'are some of the most overused and ultimately debased words in the language', which are liberally applied by everybody from bureaucrats to politicians to thinktanks..." spiked-culture 06/04/03

Whatever Happened To Art Reflecting Reality? Russell Smith is tired of being overwhelmed by the surreal world of modern movies, books, and art. Events that should be spread over a year happen in a day, bullets slow to the speed of land tortoises, and the whole experience is simply exhausting. "I'm wondering if naturalism is well and truly dead in all the arts, in entertainment and academic art equally. Fantasy, surrealism and downright implausibility have been the 21st century's dominant artistic modes so far." The Globe & Mail (Canada) 06/04/03

Where Science And Humanity Meet "Scientists are working in the emerging field of biomimetics, in which machines are designed to function like biological systems. They have only the foggiest idea of how the human brain perceives and acts on information from the body's sense organs, even though they've known the mechanics of those organs for many years." It's all part of the grander struggle for what is sometimes called Artificial Intelligence - the seemingly Quixotic quest to build a machine that can think, learn, and react like a human - and it's as not as much about building robots as it is about understanding basic functions of humanity. Wired 06/04/03

Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Higher (Blogger) Education Blogging is catching on with academics. "In their skeptical moments, academic bloggers worry that the medium smells faddish, ephemeral. But they also make a strong case for blogging's virtues, the foremost of which is freedom of tone. Blog entries can range from three-word bursts of sarcasm to carefully honed 5,000-word treatises. The sweet spot lies somewhere in between, where scholars tackle serious questions in a loose-limbed, vernacular mode. Blogging also offers speed; the opportunity to interact with diverse audiences both inside and outside academe; and the freedom to adopt a persona more playful than those generally available to people with Ph.D.'s." Chronicle of Higher Education 06/06/03

Monday, June 2, 2003

The Limits Of Knowledge? Are there limits to what it is possible for us to know? "The last century brought the first hints of fundamental, inherent limits on the knowable. Kurt Godel discovered, to everyone's shock, that some statements in mathematics can be neither proved nor disproved. And physicists showed that the laws of quantum mechanics prevent us from knowing simultaneously both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. Will the world continue to yield to man's curiosity, or will we encounter evermore Godelian limits?" The Wall Street Journal 05/30/03

Sunday, June 1, 2003

How To Be A Critic So what makes art good? How about music? Or movies, or books? Most anyone who reads a newspaper spends a fair amount of time being told what's good and what isn't by supposed experts in the field, but how do the critics draw their conclusions? What's the frame of reference? The Denver Post's critics get together to offer readers a look into their world, and the results are as diverse as the writers themselves. TV critic Joanne Ostrow sees occasional quality as a welcome relief from the broadcast wasteland. Art critic Kyle MacMillan says that all great art, even the topical kind, can withstand the test of time. And rock critic G. Brown thinks that, in an industry dominated by fakes and puffery, real quality is found by looking for the musicians who make you believe what they're singing. Denver Post 06/01/03

Amateur Poets Must Be Stopped! Barney McLelland is sick to death of bad poetry being churned out by untrained hands in the misguided name of self-expression. "Numerous surveys, declining SAT scores, and classroom anecdotes have established that many... young Americans can barely read, cannot spell or do arithmetic, and know next to nothing of their own history; but they do not let mere ignorance get in the way of self-expression." People are free to write whatever they like, of course, but just as we would not buy a handmade wood cabinet from an amateur, McLelland says we should stop encouraging every moron with a word processor to set his personal neuroses to verse. Butterflies & Wheels 05/03

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