Dec 30, 2008

good fences

make good neighbours. this use of geolocation and RFID tags to create virtual fences for voracious kenyan elephants is brilliant! but really it was just an excuse to put up an old saw:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
our man Frost.

Dec 29, 2008


my efforts to avoid working on these papers reach new heights of creativity almost on a daily basis. today, i took a short run out into allston and discovered an abundance of ethnic produce. most of it was slavic, because i found an emporium dedicated to foods and beverages of the former soviet union (bazaar, if anyone's interested). it was the first time i'd ever seen 5-gallon jars of sour cherry compote or 24-packs of 2-gallon bottles of orange-flavoured kefir. the kefir pack was so heavy it had a label asking purchasers to alert a store employee to come by with a forklift. mystifyingly, there was an entire wall of assorted salts and sugars, all of which the nice (ukrainian) shelf-stocker said were the normal, unflavoured variety, as well as an entire section of milk imported from poland (i checked). the deli department also had sizeable pile of smoked sturgeon sitting in a chillcase next to a stack of salmon slabs. then i stopped in a dollar tree and was blown away (again) by the buying public's seemingly-limitless capacity to consume cheap crap. does anyone really want 10 pairs of giant plastic scissors that don't cut, in your choice of obnoxious neon colours? or a 100-pack of disposable christmas mantlepiece reindeer ornaments made of styrofoam covered in silver and pink glitter?

Dec 28, 2008

tara donovan at the ICA

after pestering miscellaneous individuals for months, i finally made it to the ICA today with hila, ariel, and hammer--just in time to catch the tara donovan show before it closes on january 4. her sculpture is usually made of prosaic materials (toothpicks, straws, styrofoam cups) but deployed in sufficiently enormous quantities that they lose that prosaic quality. the effect is amusing, deeply appealing, and wondrous. (here's her macarthur award citation.) time has a decent photo-essay that shows detail shots of her work, though the full effect of seeing her large pieces from afar is absent--most of the joy of approaching these works comes from the alienness of these shapes and forms from a distance, their familiarity of material only resolving when you get pretty close. exploring the materiality of things is what R&D art should be all about (for which, also see robert irwin's stuff).

i can't remember any sculpture i've seen recently either where the affect of the piece changes so dramatically and effectively at different scales of approach, except maybe the moss wall in the olafur eliasson show at SFMOMA.

detail of moss wall. photo from twi-ny on flickr.

my favourite piece from the ICA was haze which is not in the photo-essay; it is a wall of over a million plastic straws arranged horizontally. they'd been set down in bundles and allowed to spread out, contained only by the walls surrounding them. from a distance, the wall looked like a sheet of haze or foam; only when approached at a distance of 4-5 feet did the surface of the wall begin to shift, responding to even the slightest change of perspective. it was mesmerizing and delightful in the best possible way.

haze. photo from ace gallery.
detail of haze. terrible photo courtesy of ace gallery.

there was a wall filled with sheets of polyester film that really just defies description. from the side, it looked like an expanse of sandy material, but looked at straight on, with the light from the water-facing glass wall of the ICA coming from behind the installation, it became a random geometric arrangement of dark and light tan with the shadows of people behind the installation moving gently across it. there was a coral-like piece made of translucent buttons of various sizes epoxied together. ariel observed, accurately, that the thing looked permanently out of focus.

the piece that is probably the most photogenic, though without the chameleon-like quality of haze, is a ceiling-mounted installation of undulating topography made of thousands of styrofoam cups hotglued together. it makes you (or anyway it makes me) wonder why she doesn't try to use recycled materials more for this kind of thing.

untitled (styrofoam cups). photo from pace|wildenstein.

and we also had dim sum this morning. it is difficult--but not impossible--to have dim sum with jewish vegetarians.

Dec 26, 2008

laser discs

when i was growing up, there was a regrettable phase during which my extended family invested heavily in karaoke, including expensive equipment designed to play laser discs, a sort of giant CD with video. we made do with VHS. (VHS! but recall that this was the late 1980s, when even CDs were new and exciting. my first CD was Doctor Who: Variations on a Theme, trance and electronica based on the music of the television show. even for me that was a frighteningly nerdy purchase.)

for anywhere between $30 and $100, you could purchase an LD featuring an assortment of music set to lingering scenes of scantily-clad women, assorted decolletage, and long, slow, shots of tourist scenery completely unconnected to the lyrics on screen (the locations would be international for the pricey LDs, local for the cheap ones). this is an exemplar of the form:

karaoke lounges, of which there were no shortage, would have rooms full of filing cabinets stuffed with these giant discs and copious supplies of slinky women of negotiable affection as well as hard liquor of questionable quality and exorbitant price. if you called it XO and put it in a hennessy bottle, someone would throw down a couple hundred dollars for a personal bottle to be stored in a glass-fronted cabinet just inside the doorway with his name (women never, ever did this) prominently displayed, for the benefit of patrons wondering casually who the real premium folk are. in every one of these bars i went to, the case was arranged not alphabetically but in order of bottle price. at the top of the case would be the decanters full of hennessy extra-special VSOP (running well north of $1000, given the lounge mark-up), their cut-glass facets glinting in the spotlight trained upon them for that very purpose.

ah, nostalgia.

Dec 25, 2008


merry christmas and other non-denominational greetings in addition. as usual, old masters can be relied on to save the day when predictability meets lack of inspiration. here is my seasonal sentiment, more ably expressed:

From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places. Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who can't eat clams! We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes don't fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists! Greetings to wives who can't find their glasses and to poets who can't find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word "How" (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who can't stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding houses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that think--plus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the air--the young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but aren't sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who can't think of a moral, gagmen who can't think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!
E.B. White; 20 December, 1952

Dec 24, 2008

laws and causes

i've been trying to articulate this thought for a while, and found someone else who did it for me (georg von wright, found in howard becker's tricks of the trade). there are two types of causal understanding: the predictive form, in which we understand the law that connects a set of causes with effects, and the retrodictive form, in which we understand how it was that a set of causes resulted in a given effect. the latter form is retrospective in nature and acknowledges that the relationship between cause and effect is probable, not determinate. this is intimately connected with weber's concept of elective affinity, where we retrospectively understand what currents of ideas and history combined to give rise to a particular outcome. as schutz points out, the past is determined but the future is always uncertain. in other words, it is as investment houses are prone, rightly, to saying: past performance is no indicator or guarantee of future performance.

From the fact that a phenomenon is known to have occurred, we can infer back in time that its antecedent necessary conditions must also have occurred, in the past. And by 'looking into the past' we may find traces of them in the present.
Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding

Dec 21, 2008

one down,

a few of us met on friday morning to review material for the hackman exam. around noon, a few flakes of snow began to fall. by 4pm, the ground was thickly covered, most businesses were shutting down, and FAS had decided to close all offices early. when i got home, as i studiously avoided reading for my exam in social behavior in organizations, sabeel came online and sent me a link to my ultimate downfall. it's true what they say, that when you fall, you fall hard. having not really watched any television in over 3 years, encountering firefly is a little overwhelming. firefly is particularly disarming if, like me, you're partial to country music and bad puns.

so it came to pass that, firefly having made it impossible to read anything all of friday night and much of the wee hours of saturday morning, i crammed in a bunch of reading on saturday in william james (totally deserted, far as i could tell), then ducked out for many hours to meet up with andrew and kris, both visiting from california, then gave up on reading and went home to watch more firefly.

this morning, still more snow, and the final exam. the rest of the house went outside to shovel outside and made a snow fort with a wall 9 feet tall in the front garden patch. finished the exam early afternoon with the snow still coming down, now in bigger clumps and wetly. people on the streets everywhere disconsolately shoveling out their cars, and damp dogs sniffing around on the streets.

now the sky is dark enough that the streetlights have come on and are gleaming wetly through the windows in the biscuit. it is particularly nice to be warm and dry with a mug of coffee watching snowdrifts get slowly but noticeably larger outside.

Dec 20, 2008


Above all, re-evaluation of group traits requires propaganda.
Roger Brown, Social Psychology (566)

Dec 19, 2008

the unknown

In carrying on my own humble creative effort, I depend greatly on that which I do not yet know, and upon that which I have not yet done.

Dec 18, 2008

recently in this space

there have been little other than hefty chunks from the stuff i happen to be reading. the last few weeks of term are always a stretch; everyone's just holding on for a few more days and then there's a collective sigh of relief on the last day of classes. on tuesday, i went to hackman's last lecture feeling distinctly strange, bumbled through a meeting with faculty, then threw in the towel and headed for home around 2pm. an 8-hour nap, a brief waking moment for beans with onions, garlic, and cilantro and a side-order of benadryl, and then a 14-hour nap. when i woke up again on wednesday morning, the house was empty and everything was back to normal -- testament to the power of sleep and alliums to knit up the raveled sleave of care. william james is now almost perfectly quiet every day; every hour or so, when i duck out to refill the coffee mug, the wash of sunlight in the couchspace outside has moved over a little more. the reading for social psychology goes, but glacially slowly and frequently interrupted by this.


Understanding evolves through three phases: simplistic, complex, and profoundly simple.
William Schutz, Profound Simplicity, 69.

Dec 17, 2008


An incredible number of dice, always rolling, dominate and determine each individual existence: uncertainty, then, in the realm of individual history; but in that of collective history . . . simplicity and consistency. History is indeed 'a poor little conjectural science' when it selects individuals as its objects . . . but much more rational in its procedures and results, when it examines groups and repetitions.
Fernand Braudel, "L'histoire, mesure du monde," (trans. Franco Moretti)

Dec 13, 2008


in the beginning of important things—in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work—there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.
W.B. Yeats, "William Blake and the Imagination"

[thx mnz]

Dec 11, 2008

intellect and intuition

There are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition, for it takes in the whole, whereas the intellect only takes in a part. Pattern is born reproducing intuitively-perceived essence.
Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, The Unknown Craftsman

the scale is significant

co-operation and democracy within groups do not necessarily lead to democracy and co-operation with outgroups, if the directions and interests of the groups are conflicting.
Muzafer Sherif, "Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict"

Dec 10, 2008

ferran adria, on texture

ferran adria was at harvard yesterday, speaking at the invitation of the school of engineering and applied sciences. so many people came that the organizers had to scramble to find first one, then another overflow room into which to simulcast the lecture. i arrived an hour early, loitered by the door, then snuck in while the police officer dude was dealing with an older woman insisting that her husband had saved her a seat.

adria's lecture was nominally about texture, but really about the philosophy underpinning the kind of work he, his brother albert, and their team do at el bulli. to some extent, the portrayal of the restaurant as a research and development facility for basic and applied research into cooking is a conceit, but el bulli is really only open 6 months a year, has 70 staff serving 50 people each night, and has way more space dedicated to the kitchen and engineering lab than to the serving area.

adria thinks of cuisine as a language for communication (similar to how japanese kaiseki chefs see their practice; the two worldviews seem to coincide with high precision). they had a translator, so i was able to extract some verbatim comments:

[having just shown a video clip of people eating at el bulli] what we see here is the dialogue between the person who cooks and the people who eat. cocina is a language through which we as humans can establish a relationship. the first relationship that ever was. therefore it must be a very ancient language. our work at el bulli has been to create a language.
if we consider language to be a system of shared understanding, then the creation of a new language is the creation of social knowledge. the question in his mind now is one which interests me quite a lot: what is the mechanism by which knowledge is produced and what mechanisms validate and distribute new knowledge?

the knowledge production part of it was illustrated by his account of their gradual development of the technique of spherification (encapsulation of liquids with a skin of calcium alginate); the account is fascinating, so you should definitely check out their self-described history here). this is interesting not just because of the serendipity with which (in adria's account) he visits a food products company and sees the gelling process but because of extensiveness of the el bulli historicising impulse: the el bulli publications by now constitute a sizeable stack of paper, the most recent being a day at el bulli (published by phaidon)--only this most recent publication might be considered a mass-market book; the ones previous are better classified as reference tomes (el bulli refer to them as general catalogues).

two passing thoughts:
  1. technique that disappears: in the crystal goblet, a classic reference on typography, beatrice warde talks about the evolution of design toward a state in which content alone is noticeable and design disappears. (there are issues with that statement, but let's leave it for now). adria discussed something similar in the context of the development of xanthan gum as a thickener. the R&D impulse in this case was that flour (a traditional thickening agent) has to be used in such quantity that the addition of flour becomes noticeable in the flavour of the thickened substance. xanthan, on the other hand, has more thickening power than flour per unit, such that it can be used in small enough quantities that it imparts nothing noticeable to the substance being thickened other than the specific change in texture--it constitutes a technique refined to the point of disappearance.
  2. mimesis and unfamiliarity: albert adria has been working on a new series of techniques and preparations that broadly fall under the concept of mimesis. into this category fall desserts carefully formed to look like the fruits from which they are made, yet with flavours amplified by dehydration and other (invariably labour-intensive) techniques. the element of surprise here (biting into a "strawberry" that tastes way more intensely of strawberry than you would expect) is enhanced because of the similarity of appearance and the gap between expectation and experience. thomas keller and gray kunz have also experimented with concentrating flavours, most notably in soups and waters.
in any case,

Dec 7, 2008


In other words, the scientific observer's decision to study the social world under an objective or subjective frame of reference circumscribes from the beginning the section of the social world (or, at least, the aspect of such a section) which is capable of being studied under the scheme chosen once and for all. The basic postulate of the methodology of social science, therefore, must be the following: choose the scheme of reference adequate to the problem you are interested in, consider its limits and possibilities, make its terms compatible and consistent with one another, and having once accepted it, stick to it! If, on the other hand, the ramifications of your problem lead you in the progress of your work to the acceptance of other schemes of reference and interpretation, do not forget that with the change in the scheme all terms in the formerly used scheme necessarily undergo a shift of meaning. To preserve the consistency of your thought you have to see to it that the "subscript" of all your terms and concepts you use is the same! This is the real meaning of the so often misunderstood postulate of "purity of method."
Alfred Schutz, "Interpretative Sociology"

Dec 5, 2008

a desirable plasticity

i wrote this in 2005, and found it again by chance today while attending a conference on organizational design. apropos now, given the degree to which incomprehensible instruments have devastated the economy (john lanchester has a nice new yorker essay about how postmodernism features in said devastation). thus:

it is only when the "4" key on your thinkpad breaks down that you realize how many things require typing either a 4 or a $. spent the morning going through miscellaneous and numerous credit card and service accounts to make payments and/or close them. more than ever before, the growing influence of service providers allows them to penetrate where the conditions of their service are not fully understood by their customer base. clearly, there should be some obligation to ensure a full disclosure but i cannot help feeling that overextension of development is partly culpable. it is not unreasonable to expect someone who grows up in the age of credit and electronic banking to understand the benefits, disadvantages, and conditions governing the extension of credit to private individuals (for example) yet credit card companies routinely are forced to conduct credit education for students who have dramatically overspent on their shiny new credit cards or who do not understand the detrimental side effects of not making a monthly payment. perhaps the complexity of these financial systems are beyond those who did not grow up with them? i certainly keep my accounts as streamlined as possible, and even then they frequently perplex and frustrate.

this is ultimately a question of how plastic human high-level behavioural patterns actually are, and whether or not a high level of plasticity is in fact desirable. the oft-quoted hugh of st. victor--who only became oft-quoted after edward said quoted him in Orientalism--argued that "the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." (he was talking about something else, but in these meta-times of post-post-modernism everything is evidence.) hugh (and said) are describing the tactical immersion and flexibility of michel certeau's bricolage and james c. scott's metis, the quality that odysseus has ("o! many-sided hero"). we could take this reading to imply a normative prescriptive path that edmund burke would doubtless criticize--essentially a glue-factory approach for the outmoded. i advocate rigorous segregation, for the new is always invasive, and the old seldom has the tools to fight back. like nietzsche and tocqueville both observe, segregation allows the joint existence (and slow replacement) of two (or more) systems where combination would rapidly dilute or destroy all but one.
the question now, of course, is whether or not to let the previous system persist and gradually be replaced, or to let it crumble. this week, richard hackman mentioned something connected: the idea of partial eradication, in which whatever you don't fully eradicate generally returns, stronger than before. this is the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," antibiotic-resistant bacteria argument, and i find myself increasingly convinced.

the atlas of true names

from the atlas of true names

oh, the romance. recall ursula le guin, the international barcode of life, and the true names of things.

Dec 4, 2008

today in william james hall

photo by ben snyder

Dec 3, 2008

transparent hummingbirds

photo by craig edelman, the obliging housemate

a long overdue birthday gift for the transparent hummingbird (see here and here), finally printed today at the bow and arrow press. set in bembo smallcaps (or maybe it is apollo, by adrian frutiger, of frutiger fame.* i used the gleanings of a bastard tray of type and forget what michael decided it was), with a debossed hummingbird** cut from linoleum block. printed in black on strathmore bristol board. while i'd previously imagined something mildly frivolous (a dark brown with a pale magenta bird), the state of the world calls for something more suitably severe.

* michael emailed almost immediately to let me know that i had misidentified apollo's designer. robert slimbach is too young to have designed a metal face, though he's been influential in the new adobe redesign.
** anatomically as accurate as a 2D silhouette can be.

Dec 2, 2008


Claudia said, "But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum."

"No," I answered, "I don't agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow."

e.l. konigsburg, the mixed-up files of mrs basil e. frankweiler

[thx mnz]