08 December 2012

To Be Felt

Keith Jarrett said about playing in the legendary Miles Davis's band:
"When I joined the band I didn't know any of the tunes, and when I left the band I didn't know any of the tunes!"
By all accounts Miles Davis was a genius of immense talent. He was also an iconic figure whose mysterious persona grows as the years pass. Perhaps none of his tunes were meant to be known or comfortably understood. Miles Davis launched many of his improvisational riffs with American standards - a familiar launch pad into the unknown.

Improvisation seems much too fluid to score with the sheet music of certainty. A Miles Davis tune was meant to be felt more than understood.

The Jarrett quote sums up what it feels like to be in the tribe of adulthood. For Keith Jarrett, being in Miles's band was like being in the universe.

Age has not tempered my reckoning of how little I understand. The truth is that I am just as existentially awed now as I was when I entered the tribe of adulthood.

Like some brilliant hard bop phrase repeated over a changing melody, the universe is to be felt more than understood.

01 December 2012

The Fiscal Rift

A Geologic Rift

Politics in the US is theater of the absurd. It's remarkably absurd theater particularly to pragmatic problem-solvers.
Goodbye to Yankee Ingenuity. Hello to Dixie Dogmatism
Many of the solutions to the problems we face are so blasted simple.

The Fiscal Cliff is the current sideshow featuring a spray-tanned Speaker and his unruly band of tea-bagging nitwits. The Speaker's theme is posturing over pragmatism.

The Republican majority in the US House is a profoundly inept body of ideologues.

The solutions to many of the nation's challenges seem so clear, so obvious, and so cut and dried, yet nothing gets done. NOTHING gets done. The hate-filled ideologues who dominate the Republican party have proven incapable of negotiating.

Informed, thoughtful people are compelled to discount much of what today's Republicans say because:
  • it's not well-reasoned (e.g., "the government doesn't create jobs"), 
  • it eschews analytic tools like basic arithmetic (e.g., goofball economic plans), or 
  • it's incoherent, hate-filled gibberish (e.g., "legitimate rape"). 
Prepend the phrase "Republicans claim" to any sentence and it sparks an steep asymptote toward scant credibility.

Many pine for the moderate Republicans of old. Moderates like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. were capable of critical thinking. And more importantly, they were capable of cutting a deal. Today's Republican party desperately needs an infusion of moderates capable of reasoned thinking and negotiation.

If the Republican party could somehow marginalize the intransigent right-wing ideologues, it wouldn't be so blasted difficult for Congress to agree on the most obvious groundwork for any negotiation -- the facts.

The Fiscal Cliff is really a Fiscal Rift - a rift between right wing ideologues and moderates.

28 October 2012

Human Judgment, Uncertainty, and Madame Marie

As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow, decades of academic research suggest we place too much confidence in human judgment.

Kahneman's thesis lays out the dichotomy between rapid, instinctive and emotional thinking, and slower, deliberative thinking. Kahneman enumerates various cognitive biases associated with instinctive and deliberative thinking. The distinctions in modes of thinking and the potential fallacies in believing in their validity make sense to me.

But what about our ability, or lack thereof, to divine the future?

Academicians don't put much stock in divination. And, rightfully so. It's the stuff of priests and boardwalk hucksters. Yet it interests me how much attention popular culture pays to predictions, prophesies, and divination.
"Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do."
- Bruce Springsteen, lyrics from "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
Attempting to foretell the future, putting forth prophesies, practicing soothsaying, and practicing a religious faith, all strike me as testament to human kind's primal need to contain, control, or spin uncertainty into order and predictability.
Madam Marie's Temple of Knowledge.
 Asbury Park, New Jersey
Madam Marie, fortune teller and psychic reader, was the longest running tenant on the Asbury Park boardwalk (1932 – 2008). Marie Castello (1915 – 2008) allegedly told Bruce Springsteen he would be a huge success. Springsteen later joked that she told all her musician clients the same thing. 
Beach fortifications in preparation
for Hurricane Sandy
Odd coincidences and serendipitous connections continue to amuse me.

I made the photograph of Madame Marie's "Temple of Knowledge" as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on Asbury Park.

Coincidentally Sandy is a part of the title of Springsteen's song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" - the same 1973 song with the lyric quoted above that turned Madam Marie into an icon.

The "Sandy" of Springsteen's song is, by popular accounts, a composite of girls Springsteen grew up with in New Jersey. Springsteen refers to this song as "a goodbye to my adopted hometown and the life I'd lived there before I recorded."

As it happens, I left New Jersey in the mid-1970s for college which was about the same time Springsteen was gaining national fame.

14 October 2012

Who Knows?

This is the season for retrospective contemplation. I find myself longing for what I might have lost. And I sense what I am about to lose. Yet I take comfort knowing I am part of earth's rhythms.

For me, earth's rhythms signal introspection. I feel sadness and solace knowing I am integral to these inexorable rhythms.
"There is a measure of serenity in earth rhythms, the seemingly friction-less spin of the earth, and the earth's reliable orbit around the sun."
Bunny Rabbit and Batman
Recalling Halloweens past, I feel a knot in my gut. I miss Batman, with his purposeful cookie eating, and I miss Bunny Rabbit, with her care-free floppy ears. I know we will be seeing our super heroes soon.

But I can't know time. Perhaps this is because time is confoundedly deceptive:
"When we are aware of it, it creeps along as if to defy us. When we are consumed by it, it vanishes."
I remember a wonderfully melancholic song from my teenage years beautifully sung by Judy Collins:
Who Knows Where the Time Goes
lyrics by Sandy Denny

Across the morning sky,
All the bird are leaving,
Ah, how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire,
We'll still be dreaming.
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad deserted shore,
Your fickle friends are leaving,
Ah, but then you know it's time for them to go,
But I will still be here,
I have no thought of leaving.
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I'm not alone,
While my love is near me,
And I know,it will be so,till it's time to go,
So come the storms of winter,
and then the birds in spring again.
I do not fear the time

Who knows how my love grows?
Who knows where the time goes?

25 September 2012

GOP Animus Outed

I concur with the GOP's unofficial ministry of propaganda that Mitt Romney is, at best, a sub-optimal Presidential candidate.

However, Mitt Romney's metastasizing campaign says more about the message than the messenger. The oft overlooked story of the 2012 election cycle is this:
Once the animus and vitriol of today's GOP party slithers into public scrutiny, whether by words or deeds, we find the GOP vision for the country is wholly unpopular.
Scott Brown's staffers making war whoops and tomahawk chops in apparent
reference to challenger Elizabeth Warren's Cherokee heritage
From Todd Akin's inexplicable legitimate rape statement to Scott Brown's campaign staffers tomahawk chopping to belittle their opponent's claim to ethnic origin -- these egregiously insensitive, tone-deaf spectacles are not gaffs. Rather, they are the unvarnished expression of:
The GOP's regressive, hate-filled, anti-people world view
Few would argue that the GOP has been hijacked by wing nut nincompoops like Grover Norquist and Paul Ryan, whose political philosophy and vision for the country, by definition, exclude the best interests of large blocks of voters (e.g., women, seniors, students, Latinos, gays, etc.).
The GOP animus has been outed in 2012.
It is not so much that "Thurston Howell" Romney is a coin-operated doofus, as it is that the GOP's vision does not serve a majority of the people.


15 September 2012

Metaphysical Gravity

There are phenomena I have observed that seem to defy the laws of nature. I visited Bannock, a abandoned town in southwest Montana, in 2004.

Something in the way life in Bannack seemed fixed in time like artifacts in amber, prompted this poem:

Defying Gravity
Bannack, 11 October 2004

On most mornings sunlight
Splinters ghost town curtains
Like dust dancing in a spotlight
Splaying warmth across bare wood

Sun swells the heartwood between grains
While its heat blisters window-well paint
Into a primordial cartography, giving us
Timely but transient navigation

Yet, if days are measured by sleeps
And the seasons measured by moons
How does the architecture of existence
Defy gravity?

By the mystery of poetry, the artifacts of Bannock defied gravity, but those same artifacts could have just as easily defied the conservation of mass.

The comforting lure of the laws of nature is that they appear constant and immutable, at least until proven untrue.

Buckmister Fuller said,
"Love is metaphysical gravity", 
which is unprovable, but I suspect is true.

Gravity outlasts us. So our defiance of gravity is unsustainable.

Perhaps love is like gravity. Love outlasts us. Those who love us continue to love us after we depart to the netherworld.

08 September 2012

Conduit for Discovery

Artists and writers have long talked about visits from the muse. Even as an unaccomplished poet, I have experienced the rush of strangely coherent words arriving to march through me into a poem. Others have talked about being a vessel or a conduit.
...there I was in my rented room with the wooden floorboards, getting up each morning and creating beautiful dancing prose, drinking buckets of tea, pacing about as the world in my head became brilliant, flashed, gave off sparks—sitting down again for lines that ran and flowed and surprised even me the creator. But that was the joy of it, I wasn’t the maker. It wasn’t me hammering it out, hacking at the reluctant material. I was the conduit for a magic energy. I was possessed of it, there to deliver it, deliver myself of it. The delivery boy. I was elated and humble. It was a holy time.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh on writing Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse

Artists and writers have also talked about making a deep connection with a physical place.
 Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.
 ~ Gary Snyder
I have wondered about the nature of discovery (cf., Discovery and Natural Wonder).

I am beginning to see a connection between the notion of a muse, in the conventional sense of the artist’s muse, and the the would-be muse of the discoverer. Perhaps scientists, anthropologists, and explorers also operate as a vessel for inexplicable insight and discovery -- insight and discovery that arrives unannounced as if broadcast from the great beyond.

Discovery is some combination of preparation and dumb luck. As discoverers,
"We cultivate the probability of discovery when we shed the baggage of expectations to meet the world with openness.” 
Many of us have an affinity to the Buddhist notion of beginner’s mind.

I have found
“When I am a beginner, everything is discovery.”
Perhaps there is something about vastness, whether a glorious horizon-to-horizon physical landscape or the vast landscape of inquiry into the unknown that renders one beginner --
  • always open, 
  • always fresh, and 
  • always present to experience and understand new phenomena.

05 September 2012

Arms Are The New Cleavage

Has there ever been a more eloquent First Lady? Intelligent and heart-felt, Michelle Obama's 2012 DNC opening night speech was one for the ages.

Floats Like a Butterfly, Stings Like a Bee

Without mentioning her husband's opponent by name, the much beloved first lady defined presidential hopeful Mitt Romney as a man who was born on third base, but thinks he's hit a triple.

Favorite Michelle Obama Convention Quotes
  • "...these issues aren’t political—they’re personal. Because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles."
  • "If you are fortunate enough to get an education and be successful, you don't slam the door on the others behind you."
  • "How hard you work matters more than how much you make; helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself."
  • "I have seen firsthand that being President doesn’t change who you are. No, it reveals who you are."
  • "...success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the differences you make in people’s lives."

Favorite Convention Tweet

On Michelle Obama's chiseled physique:
Arms are the new cleavage
Kim Bondy
Favorite Convention Picture

The Obamas watching the First Lady's DNC Convention Speech

31 August 2012

The GOP's Empty Chair

We all waited for actor Clint Eastwood to turn to the empty chair on stage at the GOP convention to ask,
"Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
41 years ago, Clint gave a memorable performance in Dirty Harry. Last night, the chair was more coherent. 

The GOP has become the most intellectually bankrupt band of small-minded, hate-filled people imaginable.

The GOP has become the empty chair of pragmatic fixes to a host of economic and social ills.

If it isn't a clean sweep for the Democratic Party this November, the fix is in.

19 August 2012

Degrees of Gray

I was fortunate to hear poet and teacher Richard Hugo read his poems on a Spring evening in 1980.

Richard Hugo discusses and reads Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg from
Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo.

Hugo was invited to read at Montana State by another favorite poet and teacher Greg Keeler.
“Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.”
― Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
Richard Hugo’s poems, and his peerless book of lectures and essays on poetry and writing, Triggering Town, have been influential in my approach to coaxing, writing and refining a poem.
Say Your Life Broke Down. The poet, Richard Hugo.
Painting by Greg Keeler
“In the world of imagination, all things belong.”
― Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

31 July 2012

Mitt Gaffe-ney?

Corporations are people, my friend
Many find Presidential candidate Mitt Romney petulant and secretive about his personal income, but at least the US electorate has a compendium of public statements to gather insight into his character:
  • Corporations are people, my friend…of course they are. (August 2011)
  • I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. (January 2012)
  • I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. (January 2012)
  • He [President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people. (June 2012)
  • Let Detroit Go Bankrupt (Romney's New York Times op-ed 2008)
  • I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this [automotive] industry's come back. (May 2012)
  • You can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye - i.e., if GM, Ford and Chrysler got a government bailout (Romney's New York Times op-ed 2008)
  • I'll tell you what, ten-thousand bucks? $10,000 bet? (December 2011) - Romney's wager following disagreement with Rick Perry about health care.
  • I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed. (2011) --- speaking to unemployed people in Florida (Romney's net worth is over $200 million). 
  • [My wife] drives a couple of Cadillacs. (February 2012 in Michigan) 
  • I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love. (January 2012)
Mitt, the Presidential candidate, has become a fount of tone-deaf gaffes. Mr. Romney seems like an automaton with intractable bugs in his communication software.

If elected, Romney hopes to further the interests of the 1%. The rest of...he'd like to fire. Evidence from his campaign suggest he will gleefully abandon the interests of the other 99%.

Question to @MittRomney on Twitter:
If corporations are people, what kind of a parent would name their kid Lockheed or Northrup Grumman?

22 July 2012

The Uncertainty Convention

A Facebook update alerted me to a local billboard for an Atheist Convention. With no ax to grind, my buddy Kurt wrote that this convention seemed...odd.

I imagine him asking in his whiny, Bowery Boys wise-guy voice, "What do they talk about at an Atheist Convention? Disgust with mono-theism?.

From his Facebook update:
If you went to a convention for people who didn't like Star Trek, what would you talk about? How much you hate Star Trek?
I suspect well-adjusted people would not bother convening to discuss something they hate. People convene for many reasons. People have to convene. It's animal nature to get together to shoot the shit. A geneticist could probably isolate a gene for packs, tribes, and cabals in animal DNA.

Like-minded people convene to connect, share stories, imbibe, and to feel the love of tribalism.

Atheists tend to be attuned to, and appreciative of, the physical world. As it happens, being attuned to the physical world gives atheists plenty to talk about. Ahem...starting with the known universe.

I dismiss certainty in most realms. I respect conviction, but only if it is conviction associated with ideas that make common sense, or support the common good.
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
 ― Albert Einstein
I am uncomfortable with dogmatic anything. I am uncomfortable with dogmatic atheists. And I am very uncomfortable with dogmatic theists. The people closest to me are not theists, but if a theist strikes me as otherwise simpatico, I cultivate common ground before I wave buh-bye at the edge of the superstition abyss. 
I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.
― Woody Allen
Human-conjured deities that take on the metaphoric image of man repulse me.

The whole of nature, the living world, is much more sublime than the human species. We are familiar with the shortcomings of man. It takes a lifetime to know the profound beauty, and ruthless efficiency, of the living world.

When atheists respect my uncertainty, they are, generally speaking, easier to converse with than theists. Like atheists, I too am attuned to, and appreciative of, the physical world.

My convention is The Uncertainty Convention. Would you attend The Uncertainty Convention?

I wouldn't want to go to the expense of a billboard if you weren't going to show up.

13 July 2012

Nobody in his Senses

SS Vallejo
I first read Alan Watts' The Way of Zen (1957) in the early 1980s. I was alerted to Alan Watts by my then future father-in-law who kept a picture of the SS Vallejo on the wall of his bedroom in Minnesota.

The Vallejo is a legendary ferry that was converted to a houseboat and moored in Sausalito. Alan Watts inhabited the Vallejo from 1961 to 1969. The epicenter of the 1960's counter-culture was centered around San Francisco, if not this venerable but dilapidated houseboat.

The Way of Zen became a seminal book that introduced a burgeoning youth culture to Eastern Philosophy, and specifically to Buddhism, throughout the decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The teachings of Alan Watts, and of my father-in-law, continue to guide me.

The video of Awareness Meditation (below) is from a KQED TV program called The Silent Mind  (1960 © KQED).

If we live in entirely in a world of thought, all the things we pursue in life tend in a way to become arid and unsatisfactory because we are living in an abstract world. In other words, nobody in his senses is going to eat a menu instead of dinner.
~Alan Watts (23:40)

26 June 2012

What Moral Authority?

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp
I'm loath to criticize President Obama when he's running against a coin-operated automaton like Mitt Romney, but the President's human rights record is abysmal.

President Obama, and by extension the US, has squandered the necessary high-ground for credible human rights advocacy around the world.
  1. The President didn't close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp despite a January 22, 2009 promise to close the camp within a year;
  2. The President did not immediately end the war in Afghanistan, rather he escalated troops; and
  3. The President has overseen the use of drone strikes.
In an Op-Ed called A Cruel and Unusual Record, former President Jimmy Carter says:
The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.
Carter is dead right.

US foreign policy, specifically its human rights record under the George W. Bush administration and continued under the Barack Obama administration, has cost the US whatever moral authority it had to decry human rights abuses around the world.

Pakistan furious as US drone
strike kills civilians
President Carter reminds us that in 1948 the US led the way in adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Fast forward 62 years -- Now the US targets people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens.

With little public outcry, drone strikes and assassinations have been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions. Controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division, the US has made hundreds of drone attacks in Pakistan alone since 2004.
As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.
~ Jimmy Carter
How does the world at large view these activities?  See for yourself -- this Guardian poll asks, Is Jimmy Carter right that drones have cost the US moral authority?

24 June 2012

Our Portraits

I finished a poem called Our Portraits. I started it last January after seeing the Francesca Woodman photography retrospective at SFMOMA.

The poem grew from notes I scribbled while processing Francesca Woodman's stunning body of black and white images. That evening, while hunched over the bar at Fino Ristorante on Post Street, I wrote a few lines that eventually grew into the poem. 

The poem was originally titled Dear Francesca because I had intended it to be written in the form of a postcard. I knew the poem would take time to emerge. In the marginalia of my notebook I wrote:
I've added the bottling sugar. I'll wait for it to bubble.
Francesca Woodman and I were photography students during the same years at different schools. We honed the craft of medium-format photography in opposite parts of the country. She at RISD. I at Montana State. 

My journey led me to the mountain west. I imagine Francesca, who went to Boulder High, wanted to go east to RISD. She was pedigreed in fine art. Her father George taught painting and art criticism at CU. Her mother Betty is an internationally known ceramic sculptor.

I was a fine art orphan, but latched on to a few life-saving mentors. I believe some of my more thoughtful images could have stood by Francesca's in a group show. She would have been a friend, although I imagine we would have competed for the attention of our teachers.

Francesca Woodman: House #3, Providence, Rhode Island

I was unfamiliar with Francesca Woodman's work before seeing the SFMOMA exhibit. Our work had obvious similarities -- black and white, medium-format (square) images that were soul-searching and achingly introspective.

Her photographs and life-story have etched a lasting impression. She built a large body of work with thematic consistency which is extraordinary for someone who died so young.

Perhaps she had more than me to prove.

Here is the poem:

Our Portraits
30 January 2012, SFMOMA, San Francisco
for fellow photography student, Francesca Woodman (1958-81) 

We made transient pictures of ourselves

our cable release hidden from view
no definitive light was ever found.

You fixed by suicide at twenty-two

left too few years for a double chin
your tits never sagged from gravity.

I became a sentimental gray beard
a flickering light with so few answers
to the same unanswerable questions.

22 March 2012

Ham & Eggs

None of us arrived to the present following a flash and a poof of smoke. Our insights, judgment, advantages, street savvy, social skills, and self-proclaimed uniqueness were directly, indirectly, or culturally bequeathed to us.

None of us created something from nothing. Many of us fail to acknowledge what’s been passed to us from peers, parents & predecessors.

This folly is the ham and eggs of hubris.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
~Woody Allen
Most everything has been served to us on a platter. We've earned little.

Redeeming Mission

Our mission is to pass on what - if anything - we've learned.

13 March 2012

Modifying Mindless Consumption

Do you give much thought to what you buy?

I have been thinking about the life-cycle of what I buy and about the ceaseless waste-stream to which I contribute.

It isn't pretty.

Considering some pre-purchase questions has set me on a path to modify a life-long pattern of mindless consumption.

I began to ask questions like, "What will become of this plastic container holding my iced latte?"
"In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy."~ Ivan Illich
Before buying an item, I have been trying to be mindful of:
  • How it is packaged?
  • What will I use it for? 
  • How long will I use it?
  • Who else might use it? 
  • How might it be re-purposed?
  • Where will it go when I'm done using it? 
  • Where does it end up?
  • How long until it's decomposed?
I am not trying to motivate myself with guilt, rather I am looking for rules of thumb to modify mindless behavior.

28 February 2012

This is American Music

The White House performances hosted on the Obama's watch have been nothing short of Milky-Way stellar. Last time, the First Couple invited Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to the East Room. This time, they showcased a fantasy blues team of substance and breadth that ranged from Susan Tedeschi to Trombone Shorty.

The celebration of a REAL, home-grown musical idiom like the Blues, with all its tribulations and slow-burning soul, gives me goose-bumps. To know I participate in an American experiment with all its lofty ideals and all its obvious warts, moves me.

Blues legend Buddy Guy paints the arc of our nation's recent journey:
"I was born on a farm in Louisiana. My family were sharecroppers, and I picked cotton by hand, not by machine. And all of a sudden you go to sleep, wake up, and you're invited to play at the White House. This is something so special, you know, I just close my eyes and say, thank you God."
~Buddy Guy at 0:37 below..

Jimi Hendrix said the Blues aren't hard to play, just hard to feel.
A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin', and that's the Blues.
~Otis Rush, Blues guitarist and singer
I don't know that there's a satisfactory definition of the Blues. But there's no other musical genre that so poignantly encapsulates hope and despair. The Blues is the narrative of the non-native American, but its hard luck themes and searing licks are universally resonant.

The Blues is quintessential American music.

18 February 2012

Manifest Destiny is Unsustainable

Manifest Destiny is the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined, if not sanctioned by supreme power, to expand across the continent.

Historian and author William E. Weeks (cf. Building the Continental Empire) characterized Manifest Destiny with three themes:
  • Virtue - the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
  • Mission - the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
  • Destiny - the destiny under God to do this work.

Manifest Destiny Revisited

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are heady themes. It is easy to imagine 19th century Americans full of hubris and hell-bent on pursuing their God-given destiny.

John Gast painted Columbia, an American pseudo-goddess in a flowing white frock, as a personification of the United States levitating above the frontier.

In Gast's 1872 representation of westward expansion called American Progress, we observe Columbia holding a school book and stringing telegraph wire, while Native Americans flee in terror.

Most Americans have a different vision of American progress than that depicted in Gast's allegorical painting.

Nevertheless true American progress is repeatedly retarded by those clinging to the fallacy of American Exceptionalism.

Contemporary Commentary

Conceptual designer Mark Reigelman and architect Jenny Chapman conceived the temporary installation Manifest Destiny! viewable at 447 Bush Street, San Francisco through October 2012.

Manifest Destiny! is a rustic cabin temporarily appended to the side of a downtown San Francisco building. The 19th-century style cabin was made from reclaimed 100 year old barn board from Ohio. The cabin recalls depictions of San Francisco's early settlements.

Reigelman and Chapman confront the notion of establishing a home front in the unclaimed and forbidding interstices of a contemporary city. The idealized homeyness of the cabin contrasts the contemporary streetscape.

The innocence of the cabin, and its precarious perch, is both tribute to the romantic spirit of Western expansion and critique of the arrogance of the westward expansion myth. A cursory review of American history reveals the genocide of native people and the pillage of natural resources.

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are indeed heady themes. Parasitic and dangerous themes. Dangerous for a myopically headstrong point of view dripping with an unwarranted sense of American Exceptionalism. Parasitic because American-centric thinking has cost untolled lives, good-will and resources.

The Manifest Destiny! installation reminds us of the buffoonish folly of American Exceptionalism. It also reminds us of the growing urgency to understand our ecological interdependence and to appreciate our ordinariness.

09 February 2012

Hand-Built Lament

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford rebukes the commonly held assumptions that limit our post-industrial conceptions of work, self-worth, and ultimately, happiness.

Crawford leaves a think tank gig to open a motorcycle repair shop. He learns the value of a tangible, hands-on skill, has the pleasure of connecting with customers, and sees first-hand the fruits of his labor. It is not the first book to revere the sublimity of motorcycle maintenance.

He laments the transition from skilled craftsman to the mechanization of the industrial revolution (e.g., from pride in craftsmanship to the interchangeable parts of a human assembly line).

Crawford also laments the disappearance of shop class from our high schools. It is true that high school students today are too far removed from the ability to make things. As a programmer I can say better to take wood shop in school than to learn programming. A monkey can learn to program a computer, but it takes some coordinated mastery to turn a bowl on a lathe.

Working with our hands certainly sharpens the mind, but also buoys our sense of well-being. Anyone who has built a cedar fence, thrown a ceramic bowl, or cobbled together a desktop computer from parts with a daughter or a son knows the life-lessons to be had and recognizes the strength of the bonds to be made through a hand-built, team project.

I wanted Soulcraft to touch a chord, but it simply confirmed with mechanical precision what many of us already know about being a knowledge worker buried by mindless bit-shuffling in people-unfriendly corporations -- bit-shuffling provides a living, but ain't very satisfying.

28 January 2012

Earth's Media Museum

The phrase:
Earth has a new profile photo 
makes sense only in the context of interactive social media like Google+ or Facebook.

Like museums, social media phenomena like Google+ allow for the observation of cultural artifacts and for contextual and conceptual art experiences.

Interactive social media might replace the need for museums in our lives. 

Unbeknownst to many of us, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Posterous, and the like, might soon be surrogates for museums; albeit museums without the solemn marble columns, the transient streams of school children linked as a human chain for security, and the intoxicating scent of cultural significance.

When we learn on Google+ that Earth has a new profile photo, we find that the photo is a close-up of an isolated ball. The ball mirrors the mottled head in our own profile photo. The ball reminds us that the isolation we feel is confoundingly reducible to the scale of the frame defining our reality.

Responding to Earth's new profile photo, a person with the fitting moniker of Cosmic Rob helpfully admonishes us
You only get Earth with the premium package.

25 January 2012

Romney Scrabble

US tax policy rewards Do-Nothing Income and penalizes Earned Income.

7,000 millionaires paid no income taxes in 2011.

Recently Republicans vetting would-be Presidential candidates had to reconcile a Do-Nothing Income candidate called Mitt, who made millions and paid a 13.9% tax rate on Do-Nothing investment income, and an Earned Income candidate called Newt, who made millions and paid a 31% tax rate on Earned Income.

Since most Republicans rely on Earned Income, the inequity of a significantly lower tax rate on Do-Nothing Income might have come as a shock. Particularly since Republicans historically support regressive tax policy that favors the super rich -- i.e., the fortunate layabouts who no longer have to work to earn an income.

Republicans consistently vote against their best interest as if it's a pesky flaw encoded in their DNA. By all accounts, the low Do-Nothing tax rate candidate should be the runaway 2012 Republican hero. After all, Republicans hate high taxes and the Do-Nothing candidate pays half the tax rate of most Republicans.

Perhaps it will dawn on the Republican faithful that the Earned Income candidate is ever-so-slightly more aligned with their reality - doing a job, getting paid for it, and paying taxes on earned income.

Few would begrudge a person who'd acquired enormous financial wealth to kick back on easy street, but what sense does it make for a billionaire to pay a lower tax rate his valet, his chauffeur, or his gardener?

Why not entertain the notion that a tax plan can be equitable across income levels (e.g., rules of thumb like The Buffet Rule)?

Thought Experiment - Romney Scrabble

Imagine you're approaching the end of a Scrabble game and by chance you find yourself with r-o-m-n-e-y on your tile rack.
Screw the r and place m-o-n-e-y on the board.  
Now take a moment to consider how US tax policy allows folks like Mitt Romney to make $21.7 million in investment income in a single year then pay a paltry 13.9% tax rate while ordinary Earned Income schlubs, like you and me, are on the hook for double that rate.

14 January 2012

PIPA is a Pip Mr. Franken

Dear Senator Franken,

As a supporter who has agreed with most of your progressive positions, the PROTECT IP Act (S 968), or PIPA, is ill-conceived.

Save The Internet
I was disappointed to learn that one of my US Senators had cosponsored this bill.

Many respected legal scholars agree that PIPA constitutes a prior restraint on speech with insufficient process. As such I am concerned that it poses potential damage to freedom of speech.

It concerns me that PIPA might stifle Internet entrepreneurship and perhaps damage Internet integrity (i.e., the stability and security of the Domain Name System) which many of us indirectly depend on for our livelihood.

The PIPA bill seems only to appease big media lobby groups, rather than to promote the common good.

PIPA would grant the US government the power to force Internet service providers and search engines to redirect users' attempts to reach certain websites arbitrarily deemed "dedicated to infringing activities."

Many organizations I respect have spoken out against this bill including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It is noteworthy that PIPA is opposed by Mozilla, Facebook, Yahoo!, eBay, and Google. PIPA is also opposed by Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. Not surprisingly, various civil, human rights and consumer rights groups, as well as many educational and library institutions, oppose PIPA.

Is PIPA an appropriate solution? To quote Google's Eric Schmidt,
"...the measures called for in PIPA are overly simple solutions to a complex problem, and that the precedent set by pruning DNS entries is bad from the viewpoint of free speech and would be a step toward less permissive Internet environments, such as China's.”
I urge you to Stop the Internet Blacklist Legislation. Please reconsider your position and support of this bill.

Bob MacNeal