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?

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