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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Probing The Middle Mind Curtis White's new book on what ails our cultural life is a sharply aimed critique. He writes that "our films, our news media, even the academic world of which he's a part, have all conspired to eliminate the space for imagination and thought, the space in which people could envision a better life or any alternative to the status quo. The creations of Spielberg, Disney, and their ilk, "are pre-emptive efforts to saturate the field in which the imagination might do its work. This is the televisual deluge. This is communication as domination. We drown at the bottom of Hollywood's ocean, and all we ever wanted was a single glass of pure water." Seattle Weekly 11/28/03

Inspiration By Design "Ever since the Romantics, we have thought of artists as following their muses and of designers as chasing the market. An artist preoccupied with sales will risk being written off as a mercenary, while a designer neglectful of his audience will soon be out of work. In reality, designers and artists aren't separated by so sharp a line. When a designer sets out to improve an existing product, or to create a product that fills a newly perceived (or fabricated) need, she does not usually call in a focus group. She thinks, she tinkers, she reassesses - much like an artist." New York Times Magazine 11/30/03

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Defining Race - Can You? "How valid is the concept of race from a biological standpoint? Do physical features reliably say anything informative about a person's genetic makeup beyond indicating that the individual has genes for blue eyes or curly hair? The problem is hard in part because the implicit definition of what makes a person a member of a particular race differs from region to region across the globe." Scientific American 12/03

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Eco: Books Trump Computers Any Day Umberto Eco is a fierce defender of the printed page: "In the course of many interviews I have been obliged to answer questions of this sort: 'Will the new electronic media make books obsolete? Will the Web make literature obsolete? Will the new hypertextual civilisation eliminate the very idea of authorship?' As you can see, if you have a well-balanced normal mind, these are different questions and, considering the apprehensive mode in which they are asked, one might think that the interviewer would feel reassured when your answer is, "No, keep cool, everything is OK". Mistake. If you tell such people that books, literature, authorship will not disappear, they look desperate. Where, then, is the scoop?" Al Ahram 11/26/03

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Study: There Are Too Many Humans To Be Sustainable A new scientific study concludes that there are about 1000 times too many humans on the planet for us to be sustainable as a species. "Our study found that when we compare ourselves to otherwise similar species, usually other mammals of our same body size, for example, we are abnormal and the situation is unsustainable." Discovery 11/25/03

Monday, November 24, 2003

In Touch With Genius "Until recently, much of what we knew about savants came from the observations of clinicians like Treffert and neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Now researchers are probing the savant mind from the inside, using tools like gene mapping and PET scans. As these two paths of investigation converge, many of our long-held notions about the limits of human potential are being overturned." Wired 12/03

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Why The Guardian Takes Arts Coverage Seriously "Between them the Guardian and the Observer now employ about 60 critics backed by a similar number of editors and subeditors. The Guardian arts desk has about a dozen commissioning editors and subeditors to call upon (about twice the number of 10 years ago). The largely literary Saturday Review, which did not exist 10 years ago, has a similar number. There are good reasons for the high level of commitment to the arts." The Guardian (UK) 11/22/03

We All Like Books... Same Books?... Hmnnn More books are being published than ever before. But. "The book has become a product like any other - that is the price of the marketization of culture. Unwilling or unable to put time and effort into educating ourselves about the options, we end up buying what everybody else buys. Worse, we start enjoying the books we are manipulated into buying - even defending them against pretentious jerks who dare criticize them. In exactly the same way that we slowly become Ikea-people, we also become Booker Prize-people, Harry Potter-people, Stephen King-people." Boston Globe 11/23/03

Assassination As A Cultural Flashpoint "Had the assassination of John F. Kennedy not happened 40 years ago today, it's hard to imagine the writing of Six Degrees of Separation, the making of Bonnie and Clyde, the career of novelist Don DeLillo, the apocalyptic music of the Doors or the popularity of 'Grand Theft Auto' and other violent interactive games... After Kennedy's death, the world became bleaker, stranger somehow. The culture -- the arts it produced and the audiences that absorbed them -- turned suspicious, became less respectful of government, more prone to what some would call 'paranoiac flights of fancy,' flights that were alternately sinister and playful." The Globe & Mail 11/22/03

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The End Of History? Hah! "Francis Fukuyama proclaimed 'the end of history' in 1989. The triumph of the western idea of markets and democracy would bring about a boring kind of bliss for all. Somewhat in parallel grew the concept of globalisation. Economic interdependence and the internet were creating a single world community. Some looked forward to a new law - or rule-based international society. Common to all three was the thought that we had entered a historically unprecedented era in which peace, prosperity and justice might be sustained without the old power relations, which as often as not had brought war and impoverishment." But it hasn't quite worked out that way... New Statesman 11/20/03

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Let's Have More Art Without Explanation Why do museums/orchestras/theatres feel like they have to try so hard to explain their art, asks Rupert Christiansen. "In an era when television, radio and recorded music function as a constant hum in the hinterland of our daily activities, we have become increasingly unable to concentrate on only one of our senses. This restlessness takes several forms. Popular culture relies on masturbatory stimulation of a combination of eye and ear: action movies are accompanied by deafening soundtracks, the rock song has been transcended by the rock video - and the more weirdly extreme the imagery, the more headbangingly hard the beat, the better. Higher culture, on the other hand, is always anxiously explaining itself, with the help of another medium." The Telegraph (UK) 11/19/03

Where Have All The Artist/Scientists Gone? At one time it was said that "the most innovative scientists are almost always artists, musicians or poets. But is it still true today, in the first decade of the 21st century? There are some distinguished scientists who are very appreciative and knowledgeable about the arts. But where have all the artists who are also scientists gone - are the likes of Da Vinci just one offs? There has been a rupture between science and the arts in modern times, indeed between the arts and many aspects of society, and all the video installations in the world cannot repair it." The Independent (UK) 11/18/03

Monday, November 17, 2003

Lost In Translation - Why Americans Don't Translate Less than three percent of all the books published in the US are translations from other countries. As for translated literary books, the number probably amounts to about 150 out of the 150,000 books published in the US each year. Whose fault is this? Let's move beyond the cliche explanations, writes John O'Brien: "There is no hope whatsoever that philanthropy in America is going to get smarter, nor are the book review editors and other media going to become more interested. If change is to be set in motion, it will have to be through the foreign governments themselves." Context 11/03

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Progressive Art - Dead End Conversation? American artist John Currin doesn't think much of American art. He's also tough on the ideas-over-technique crowd. "Progressive ideas are just a machine for ruining art. I believe in the old idea of technique. I believe you need it if you're going to have magic and genius and masterpieces. No one would question the value of technique in any other field. No one would say that a tennis player would be better if only he could stop hitting the ball.''
New York Times Magazine 11/16/03

Is Tolkien Too Popular For His Own Good? "JR Tolkien's staying power is unprecedented. That a spotlight-shunning Oxford professor, dead for three decades, who specialized in the rather mundane field of philology still casts such an enchanting spell over contemporary culture is a remarkable achievement. But amid this unharmonious convergence of forces clambering for some acreage of the Tolkien empire, there is also a literary reputation at stake. Can the words of Tolkien, the serious author, be heard above the din of Middle-earth's ravenous strip development? Should Tolkien's heirs safeguard the family name? Will the movies bring critical acclaim to the books, or will the combination of fan devotion and marketing savvy prove lethal and taint Rings as mere 'adolescent fantasy' forever?" Boston Globe 11/16/03

Friday, November 14, 2003

Shock Of The New (Good?) "Audiences and institutions have long believed that anything that unsettles is intended to provoke. The provocation hardly needs to be sexual. It can be childlike ("My 5-year-old could do that!") or primitive (Gauguin) or political (Grosz) or distorted (Cubism) or conceptually unsettling (Duchamp's urinal; Cage's "4' 33' " of silence). For a long while, when people raged against such provocations, I would take the defiant position of assuming, unless authoritatively informed otherwise, that the artist had no intention to provoke. Of course, there are deliberate provocateurs, sometimes for overt careerist ends. But what counts is the art. Great art is always shocking." The New York Times 11/14/03

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Where Virtual Law Rules The virtual gaming community gathers to discuss the laws of cyberspace. "A host of questions are on everyone's minds: Are virtual worlds the new Wild West or a legitimate province of the courts? Is game play equivalent to speech as defined in the First Amendment? Is there such a thing as fraud in a metaverse? As the game universe becomes intricate, as transactions start to cross the boundary between the game world and the real world, it becomes more complicated as to what you're going to call defamation."
Wired 11/13/03

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

A Whole New Way To Be Shallow We've all heard about the way Apple's iTunes music download service is revolutionizing the industry. But could it revolutionize our social interactions as well? "Thanks to the ability of Apple's iTunes to share music collections over local networks, it is now possible to judge someone's taste in music -- or lack of it -- in a way that previously required a certain level of intimacy. The ability to examine the music collections of co-workers, neighbors or fellow students is akin to peering into their souls: Someone who appears cool and interesting from the outside is revealed as a cultural nincompoop through the poor sap's terrible taste in music." Wired 11/12/03

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Vonnegut: Careful Of Those Hermaphroditic Semi-Colons Kurt Vonnegut has advice for the artist-afflicted: "I realize that some of you may have come in hopes of hearing tips on how to become a professional writer. I say to you, 'If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college'.” In These Times 11/03

Monday, November 10, 2003

Company's Coming A new book asserts that the company as an organizational model is indispensible to progress. "The most important organisation in the world is the company: the basis of the prosperity of the west and the best hope for the future of the rest of the world." The Guardian (UK) 11/10/03

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Critical Juice - Why Taste Should Be Personal John Rockwell goes to a concert and hates the performance. This despite the praise of a fellow music critic, who finds the musician's playing intensely interesting. Is one critic right and the other wrong? No, writes Rockwell. There ought not to be an "objective" standard for art. Sure there are "norms" but critical taste is intensely personal and ought to be celebrated. The New York Times 11/09/03

The Music Of Life (That's Why We Sing) Why is music found in every culture? It has something to do with our relationship to the physical world, says new research. "Human musical preferences are fundamentally shaped not by elegant algorithms or ratios but by the messy sounds of real life, and of speech in particular -- which in turn is shaped by our evolutionary heritage. Says Schwartz, "The explanation of music, like the explanation of any product of the mind, must be rooted in biology, not in numbers per se." Boston Globe 11/09/03

Work As A Game A new study reports that allowing workers to play games at work might increase their productivity. "The results suggest that, instead of games being a waste of time at work, they might help personal productivity and make people feel better about their jobs. A round of Solitaire could be used as a strategy to break up the day and help people work more effectively because it gives their brain a break from complex work tasks." BBC 11/07/03

Thursday, November 6, 2003

We The Network Should we stop thinking of ourselves as individuals and ponder our place in networks? It's a "move from virtual reality - the old 90s idea of the net as a separate, alternative realm - to 'augmented reality' (AR), in which ubiquitous computing and mobile wireless networks are used to reconnect us to the real world. One theorist suggests "we should no longer think of ourselves as "fixed, discrete individuals", but as nodes in a network. 'I am part of the networks and the networks are part of me. I am visible to Google. I link, therefore I am'." The Guardian (UK) 11/06/03

An Aesthetic Protest? Can We? "There has always been a certain incommensurability between political activities that depend on mass mobilization and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the aesthete — even the public-spirited, politically active aesthete. For every argument that aesthetic concerns are a luxury in the face of political injustice, there is the rebuttal that aesthetic freedom is as necessary for the human spirit as any political right." NewMusicBox 11/03

Enough With The Subheads, Already! There seems to be a belief on the part of newspaper and magazine editors that the people who buy their product hate to read, writes Jim Walsh. This would seem like an inherent contradiction, since the consumer who buys a periodical must presumably know that s/he will have to read it to really get full value for her/his money. But the creeping use of subheads - those little in-story boldface descriptors that only exist to tell you in advance what the words in the upcoming paragraph will say - is an unquestionable assault on serious writing, and serious reading, and Walsh isn't going to stand for it. City Pages (Minneapolis/St. Paul) 11/05/03

Wednesday, November 5, 2003

If Not Reason, Then... "The human mind is not adapted to solve rarified problems of logic, but is quite refined and powerful when it comes to dealing with matters of cheating and deception. In short, our rationality is bounded by what our brains were constructed - that is, evolved - to do." Chronicle of Higher Education 11/03/03

Ideas 10, Writing, 0 Why is academic writing so bad? "One reason academic bad writing is evergreen is vocational. The bad writing in question is not the merely quotidian clunkiness and hack writing that's inevitable in a vast profession under constant pressure to publish - it's the notoriously opaque, preening, self-admiring, inflated prose of 'theory.' And for the moment, for whatever bizarre reason, 'theory' is what gets promoted and given tenure, therefore aspiring Assistant Professors and adjuncts have to crank it out, whether they actually like doing the stuff or not. But another reason, and one with a more malign effect, is the easy availability of an array of defense mechanisms." Butterflies & Wheels 11/03

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

A Rant Against Multi-Culturalism "Only two decades ago, the central principle of anti-racism was that all individuals in our society should be treated equally, regardless of ethnic origin or religion. Yet through multiculturalism, the malign ideological spawn of anti-discrimination, we have moved far away from that stance. We are now told that, in the name of ‘celebrating diversity’, we must respect every aspect of every culture in our midst. Not only must we act correctly in word and deed, but, more importantly, we must also be trained to harbour no negative thoughts about the behaviour of any other ethnic group. This outlook is utterly inimical to personal freedom and equality before the law, the very pillars of our civilisation." The Spectator 11/03

Who Wants Talent? Really! "My theory is that in all areas of creative human endeavor, the presence of true talent is almost always the kiss of death. It's no accident that three people who were tragically forced into bankruptcy late in their lives were Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain. It's no fluke of fate that Schubert died shortly after giving the world the Unfinished Symphony. You probably wouldn't have finished it either if you had syphilis and twelve cents in your pocket. Or how would you like to have died at age 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac? If you're Hank Williams, that's what talent got you. But what is talent? And why would anyone in his right mind want it? As Albert Einstein often said, 'I don't know'." Texas Monthly 11/03

Monday, November 3, 2003

Measuring Up - Is Greatness An Absolute? Terry Teachout ponders Charles Murray's attempts to statistically analyze "greatness." "The question of whether or not it is possible to demonstrate objectively the existence of absolute standards of aesthetic quality will probably always remain open. That such absolute standards do exist, however, seems to me indisputable. No matter how aggressively postmodern thinkers may deny the significance of the consensus of judgment—or the overwhelming dominance of Western culture—the whole of human history and experience is arrayed against them. It cannot be coincidental that, as Clement Greenberg observed, 'the people who try hardest and look hardest end up, over the ages, by agreeing with one another in the main'." Commentary 11/03

Sunday, November 2, 2003

Spanglish For Official Language? "Spanglish, the chaotic collision between the two most widely spoken western languages, is in part an “intra-ethnic” dialect designed to allow its users to communicate with each other in a sometimes hostile dominant culture. In that sense, as Ilan Stavans points out in this engaging book, Spanglish is akin to Yiddish, the mixture of Hebrew and German that evolved into the tongue of eastern European Jewry. But, Spanglish is also a transitional stage in the integration of Latinos into mainstream American culture. Since there are now 37m Latinos in the United States, Spanglish is also a fashion and, the implication is, a powerful linguistic force which will alter English and Spanish alike." The Economist 10/30/03

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Culture Of Sweets "This year, confectioners expect to generate Halloween sales of $2 billion in America alone. Last year, the country’s total confectionery sales were $24 billion—the highest anywhere. Behind all the fun, the business is fiercely competitive—and consolidating fast. Worldwide sales of confectionery and chewing gum in 2003 are estimated to reach $112 billion, according to Euromonitor. The industry is led by Nestlé, Cadbury Schweppes, M&M/Mars, and Hershey." The Economist 10/30/03

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