Archive | January, 2012

When technology kills art

29 Jan

"The Artist"


I never thought much about how technology can create art forms until I saw Laurie Anderson perform. I never thought much about how technology can destroy art forms until I saw “The Artist.”

In the movie, a popular star of the silent screen refuses to make talking pictures. He does so for artistic reasons. His protests aside, the studio and public really don’t want him anymore.

He’s out of work; out of a career; out of a life.

Laurie Anderson

The film’s main character is endearing, but vain and maybe not even a real artist. He is certainly not Chaplin, a historically great performer who for a time also refused to make talkies.

The old and new film mediums required such different skills. The new forced actors to give up almost everything. How could Chaplin, such a master, abandon everything he knew simply because someone invented a new machine? How does a person at the utter and absolute top of his craft retire an art form that not only made him rich and famous but defined him to the world?

It’s nearly impossible.

More important, how is it that the art consuming public allows a great art form to be retired?

Things Chaplin did are still being done by mimes and clowns and dancers and comedians. But they are not being done in such a concentrated fashion and they are not being delivered to such a mass audience.

I find this sad, as I found “The Artist” sad.

Still, the work of tech-art pioneers like Laurie Anderson makes me feel good, which is at least some compensation.

Invariably, if you give an artist a new form of expression, he or she will use it to create something so exciting that people will turn away from the past.

Ancient technologists, in pre-historic times, learned to make paint-like materials and then decorated caves with them. Since then, and perhaps even before, technology and art have been forever linked.

No one can really fault that. In a way, it’s life affirming.

Can the unexplainable be explained?

28 Jan

Ernest Rutherford




Ernest Rutherford, a great and historic Nobel Prize winning scientist, once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

As physics gets stranger, with the counter-intuitive Quantum mechanics and the many inelegant versions of string theory and multi-dimensional universes, the deep core of science almost seems unexplainable, perhaps unknowable.

How close to the shore of heaven can we get before light blinds us?

So, with a tip of the hat to Rutherford, I say:

All science is metaphor.

What do you scientists say to that?


The 16th Century’s version of the Colbert Report

27 Jan

“A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.”
Niccolo Machiavelli


I’ve made a lot of assumptions in my life, like thinking a rich man can get into heaven. Then I do something as simple as reading the Bible and learn he can’t.

Another assumption of mine was that Niccolo Machiavelli, author of “The Prince,” was a heartless cutthroat who would do anything to get ahead. “The ends justify the means” is how high school teachers summarize the book’s message. I recently read it (way too late) and don’t think that’s in there. To me, Machiavelli is a man whose spirit is wounded and disappointed by humanity’s inability to be human.

He recommends extreme harshness as a way to attain and keep power, but this comes across as a combination of satire and sarcasm. Machiavelli was the Colbert Report of his day, but no one seems to have gotten the joke.

At the end of “The Prince” the writing turns true and the author sadly pleads, begs even, for a savior who can unite and free Italy from foreign rule. Tears practically drip off the page.

I would love to hear from one other person who sees this great man as I. Without some small affirmation I’ll have to assume I am wrong.

Should hit men get medals?

26 Jan

Author Gay Talese

Mafioso Bill Bonanno












Like many Americans, and certainly many Italian-Americans, I have a mild fascination with the Mafia. So when I came across an old copy of Gay Talese’s “Honor Thy Father,” I started reading it. Talese was an early and very successful practitioner of something called The New Journalism. Now it’s just called writing, but it caused a big stir in the ‘70s.

The book was one of the first to take a human look at Mafioso, specifically Bill Bonanno, whose father was a New York don. Talese provides a somewhat sympathetic look at the Mafia. Talese says this about Bill:

When he went to ROTC camp, and later into military service with the Army Reserves, he was trained in the technique of legal killing. He learned how to use a bayonet, how to fire an M-1 rifle, how to adjust the range finder of a cannon in a Patton tank. He memorized the United States military code, which in principle was not dissimilar from the Mafia’s, emphasizing honor, obedience, and silence if captured. And if he had gone into combat and had killed several North Koreans or Chinese Communists he might have become a hero. But if he killed one of his father’s enemies in a Mafia war, where buried in the issues was the same mixture of greed and self-righteousness found in all the wars of great nations, he could be charged with murder.

In the post-Soprano age, I’m curious how people might react to such a statement. Please comment. Was Talese accurate in his analysis, or was he trying to sell a revisionist image of beastly men?

By the way, if you would like to sample a shorter-form piece by Gay Talese, I suggest: “Frank Sinatra has a cold,” said to be the best piece of non-fiction ever published in Esquire magazine.

Manufacturing: Ain’t what it used to be

25 Jan

When we think of manufacturing, we think of jobs. Unfortunately, that notion is outdated. Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column today, repeats a joke about modern textile mills. Here’s the joke:

The average mill has only two employees, a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.

But even without many jobs, America should still seek to lead in manufacturing. On a sort-of bright note, we probably have more manufacturing than most people realize. Here is an interesting tidbit:

A Chinese company called Wanxiang Group controls dozens of factories in the U.S. that serve the auto and mining industries in Indonesia, western China and – hard to believe – North Korea.

We’re not out of it yet.

In need of philosopher kings

24 Jan





Listening to President Obama give his State of the Union Address tonight, I heard the logical, rational, practical solutions to nearly all of America’s problems. One would expect Congress to rush back into session tomorrow and implement them. So why doesn’t it?

The answer may lie in an ancient Greek adage: Wise men speak; fools decide.

And if I may add something to that: They often are the same person.

Why America loses jobs

22 Jan

Jobs fair in China (NYT photo)

A noted columnist recently said that young Americans would like a 35-hour work week, as compared to young Indians, who would like a 35-hour work day.

The willingness of those in the developing world to labor hard and long is no longer commendable. In many cases, it represents an acceptance of a new form of servitude.

The New York Times today reports on why Apple can’t assemble its products in America. As an example, it mentions a case where last-minute design changes were made to iPhone, which needed to be on store shelves in two weeks. According to an executive interviewed by the Times, this is what happened at a Chinese plant.

“A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.”

The executive said: “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking.”

My question: Will those workers eventually become more like us, or will we become more like them?

A different kind of 1 percenter

20 Jan

A friend said he is rooting against the San Francisco 49ers because he doesn’t want the people who voted for Nancy Pelosi to have the satisfaction of a Super Bowl champion.

Three stories of race

16 Jan

Martin Luther King

For Martin Luther King Day I’d like to write about race, in three vignettes.

The first is about a family outing to a New Jersey lake resort. I was 8 or so, and we were going to one of my favorite spots. As our car stood in line at the gate, I realized something was wrong. The car in front was holding things up. There was an argument between the gatekeeper and the vehicle’s occupants, who were black.

My father went out to see what was happening.

When he returned, he seemed a little different, a little upset; certainly more reserve.

“They weren’t allowed in because they aren’t members,” my father said.

“Are we members?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I think they are going to let us in.”

The incident seemed unimportant once we were inside, although my father talked to other relatives about it. As I grew up and understood more, I never forgot the combination of guilt, sadness and, was it shame? that I had seen on my father’s face that day.

My second little story is about the only tip I ever received while working summers at a pizza restaurant. I was 20, and so good at making pizzas they let me manage the place. As a manager, I would try to remember what people normally ordered. For example, there was a theatrical-looking black man with a pencil-thin mustache and a fedora who always called in for a garlic and anchovy pizza.

One busy Saturday night the other pizza guy didn’t show up. This was a take-out place and the whole front of the store was packed with people either picking up food or trying to place orders. It was noisy and chaotic. I was trying as fast as I could to get people out so there would be room for those coming in. As I pulled a garlic and anchovy pizza from the oven, I saw its owner walk in. I boxed the pie, gave it to the cashier and pointed to the man with the mustache, who was way in the back, behind rows of impatient white people.  He walked forward, paid and left.

At closing, the cashier pulled two bills from her pocket and handed them to me. “From the black guy with the mustache,” she said.

Nice gesture, but I didn’t understand its depth until I lived for a time in a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. There was a deli next to my building that was always crowded with people – black people. It was nearly impossible for me to get a sandwich there. If someone behind the counter had handed me one as soon as I walked in, I would have been surprised and delighted. I would have thought better of mankind and the world and most definitely would have offered a tip.

And so, because of that, I better understood the man in the fedora.

The third story is one I don’t quite understand. I don’t understand the socio-economic forces at work. Perhaps someone can explain.

My aunt, now deceased, ran a dry cleaning business in Philadelphia and lived with her family above the shop. When she started, the neighborhood was white. That changed, but she stayed put. Years later I asked her son, my cousin, what it was like being the only white family for blocks and blocks. He said when the neighborhood first changed, everything was fine. The new people were good people, family people. Then they moved out, and the people who moved in destroyed everything.

 Those are my three stories about race. Taken together, what might they say about life in America and the quality of our humanness? Please share your thoughts.

What keeps a dictator in power?

13 Jan

“Mercy and truth preserve the prince.”

— Biblical proverb

Providers of order, not freedom

The Bible promises good things, mainly that the wicked will fall and the righteous will stand. It says the first shall be last and the last shall be first – but it doesn’t say when.

Prophecy, it seems, requires patience.


Please read on, then let me know the fallacy of my musings.

The Arab world and the Arab Spring are clear examples of a great shift in a once-passive acceptance of dictatorial princes. A change of will turned passivism into activism, which the princes could not withstand. Few things are more powerful than these kinds of mass movements.


Even so, less-demonstrative methods also can effect change.

A wide-spread lack of confidence in a leader, one it is exhibited, can be enough to challenge a regime. Roman emperors would go to great lengths and expense to keep public opinion on their side. They supplied free bread to all citizens, as well as entertainment (the famous “bread and circuses”) and built public works to garner love, respect and reputation.

Without strong citizen support, emperors, dictators and princes risk having an ambitious second-in-command engineer a coup or even assassination.

Of course, there is no guarantee the new regime will do better in the Mercy and truth department, but there usually is an attempt at some improvement.

The strength and permanence of a dictator often lies in his or her ability to maintain order. In so many countries, order is more desirable than freedom. I was once asked by a citizen of a totalitarian country, “Does you wife have the freedom to walk safely and unthreatened down a city street, alone, at 3 a.m.? Mine does.”

Excellent point.

It is said that during the panic of the Depression, America was willing to accept, and even longed for, the use of dictatorial powers by the chief executive. They wanted a return to order. Fortunately, FDR refused. Americans like order but appreciate freedom much more.

Perhaps one day the Bible proverb with become prophecy and no prince will rule without Mercy and Truth. Until then, Arab Spring or not, the world will most likely have many more dictators than it needs.

Your thoughts, please.

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