Monthly Archives: July 2011

Another Excerpt from John Haskell’s ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’

This is about an elephant, electrocuted one hundred years ago. Her name was Topsy, and she was famous at a time when people were still amazed by an elephant. Plus she did tricks. Wearing a gauze tu-tu she could stand on her back legs, raising her front legs up into the air. She was a star attraction at Coney Island and because of her fame she had her own trainer, a man named Gus, who fed her, bathed her, cleaned her stall and naturally a bond was formed between them. Love, you could call it. Gus knew that love was essential in the training of animals and so he encouraged that love. He gave her bananas when she was good as a way to reinforce their affection. He also had a stick, which he used, but because for Topsy the connection they had was paramount she loved him for the bananas and forgave him for the stick.

When she got older and her novelty wore off Gus drifted away. Other, more important animals required his attention so that by 1900 she was mainly used for heavy labor. He hadn’t exactly rejected her – he would still leave her some food – but he didn’t bathe her, he didn’t comfort her, and he certainly didn’t return her love. That was what she wanted; that was what she was used to. When a person gets used to a thing and then that thing is taken away, the person becomes destabilized, and in that state it’s not too hard to go a little crazy. Topsy didn’t go crazy, but she was hurt and she was sad. And she couldn’t talk about it. She didn’t have the language.

She could think and feel, but she couldn’t express herself because the language inside of her was elephant language, plus it was inside of her. And so, unable to communicate her thoughts and emotions, she started acting out. She was frustrated by her inability to affect her environment and so she became more difficult to work with. Elephants remember so well because their experiences are stored in their bodies, and they have big bodies, and her big body was filled with unpleasant thoughts and emotions. She tried to banish these thoughts and emotions but she couldn’t. She couldn’t deny them or ignore them because she was filled with them, literally.

One day two of Gus’s friends stop by after work. They’d been drinking and they were horsing around, teasing Topsy, and one of them, as a joke, throws a lighted cigarette into her mouth. Because of the structure of the elephant mouth she can’t spit it out; it continues to burn, like a fuse, until suddenly something explodes in her. From her face alone you wouldn’t know. She looks calm and peaceful. From her big, sleepy eyes you wouldn’t sense the rage, and she doesn’t know her own rage, and when she turns, she’s not aware of any particular desire to kill. She’s not actually conscious of hating the two men, one of whom is standing against the main support post. But she grabs the man with her trunk, lifts him up, throws him against the post and there’s nothing except the sound of the snapping of bones. A scream maybe because Gus, who’d been outside, comes into the tent. The other man, the one who threw the cigarette is on the ground underneath her foot and partly out of anger and partly out of her desire to communicate her unhappiness to Gus she raises her foot over the man’s face, and then she lets her foot come down.

First the man screams, and then the foot comes down. And then his head collapses, mixing in with the hay and the dung. Gus, over by the tent flap, is just watching, silhouetted against the light. The first man, still alive, limps away to the edge of the tent and it wasn’t just the cigarette, Topsy knows that. She watches Gus with her large eyes and she wants Gus to know what she’s feeling. There’s no recognition on his face but she’s hoping. Even as she’s surrounded by men with sharp poles she watches Gus to see if he knows what he’s caused. As she is led away in chains she keeps looking back to see if now, finally, he understands.

There was a silent film made of Topsy’s death. It was a one-minute short produced by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company. The camera was there, part of the semicircle of fifteen hundred spectators at the new Luna Park, on January 4. Topsy was standing, surrounded by people. The cameras started rolling. And then the six thousand volts of this new invention called electricity were sent into the elephant’s body. At first nothing happened, then the quivering, then the throes. The smoke rising out of the bottom of her feet. The film captures the muscles of the elephant going limp and lifeless, the elephant remaining upright after the muscles had gone, and then the muscles stiffen, and then the huge beast collapses into the dust. The whole event took about ten seconds and the camera captured almost everything. The difference between the film version and actually being there is that in the film, when the elephant falls to the ground, there’s silence. In 1903 at Luna Lark the earth momentarily rumbled.

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He Who Wants The World To Remain As It Is Doesn’t Want It To Remain At All

In East Berlin there’s a mile-long section of the wall that’s been preserved as a space for artists. I usually snap a few photos whenever I bike past it, since it’s changing so often. Here’s a few of the pieces I’ve seen from May til now:

 

 

 

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The Oslo Shootings: How Cable Networks Turn News Into Entertainment

Whenever something horrific happens, the cable news networks drop whatever they’re doing and devote all their airtime to this one event. Within hours, they’re on location, interviewing authorities and people who lived through the event. They give us information in real time, adding analysis and commentary as events unfold.

This was the case last night in Oslo. The news networks were there almost before the rubble hit the ground, interviewing survivors, politicians and historians, and investigating how something like this could have happened.

We watch coverage like this feeling like we’re being informed. The journalists come with their microphones and their graphics and their live-via-satellites, and we never wonder whether we’re actually learning anything.

And over and over again, we forget that the networks don’t actually know anything more than we do. They, like us, are spectators at events that are so scattered and fragmented that it will take weeks to put them back together again.

The fundamental problem with the ‘breaking news’ model as currently practiced is that in the first hours and days after a violent event (and it’s always a violent event that gets this coverage), there’s barely any information available. In most cases the police don’t even know exactly what happened until a few days afterwards, and even then they’re basically trying to put a ship together inside a bottle.

In the case of the Oslo shootings, the confirmed information available between 5pm and midnight last night could have filled up about three paragraphs of newsprint. The shooting and the explosion were confirmed, but no one had any idea of who orchestrated them or why.

But the networks have to demonstrate not only the gravity of the event, but their own. So they speculate. They discuss unsubstantiated rumors. They interview ‘experts’ who have no more information than anyone else. Could it have been al-Qaeda? Who are the extremists in Norway? Why was the Labor Party targeted? They have a surplus of attention and a deficit of information, so they bounce maybes back and forth.

In other words, they do everything you would expect from an organization interested in keeping you watching. An organization interested in genuinely informing you, on the other hand, would accept that without good information or context, the most responsible thing is to shut the fuck up and let the professionals do their jobs.

That doesn’t just mean the cops. If all the reporters CNN sends to Oslo had the time or the inclination to do some actual reporting, they might shed some light on an aspect of this event we didn’t know before. But under the current model, they’re too busy standing in front of the rubble with a microphone to find out anything we’ll remember past the commercial break.

It takes days and weeks for reliable information to come out of a tragedy like last night’s. Until we get there, what we’re watching isn’t news, it’s entertainment.

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American Employers See No Distinction Between Your Facebook Page and Your Resume

Charming:

A year-old start-up, Social Intelligence, scrapes the Internet for everything prospective employees may have said or done online in the past seven years.

Then it assembles a dossier with examples of professional honors and charitable work, along with negative information that meets specific criteria: online evidence of racist remarks; references to drugs; sexually explicit photos, text messages or videos; flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity.

So not only do our employers completely disregard our privacy, but they don’t see any distinction between our private selves and our employment qualifications.

Mr. Drucker said that one prospective employee was found using Craigslist to look for OxyContin. A woman posing naked in photos she put up on an image-sharing site didn’t get the job offer she was seeking at a hospital.

Other background reports have turned up examples of people making anti-Semitic comments and racist remarks, he said. Then there was the job applicant who belonged to a Facebook group, “This Is America. I Shouldn’t Have to Press 1 for English.”

I’m so mad I just want to take all my clothes off, light up a joint and shoot at some minorities.

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Why Don’t Journalists Collaborate With Their Sources?

Here’s the conclusions from a longitudinal study of diet, exercise and weight gain:

Within each 4-year period, participants gained an average of 3.35 lb (5th to 95th percentile, −4.1 to 12.4). On the basis of increased daily servings of individual dietary components, 4-year weight change was most strongly associated with the intake of potato chips (1.69 lb), potatoes (1.28 lb), sugar-sweetened beverages (1.00 lb), unprocessed red meats (0.95 lb), and processed meats (0.93 lb) and was inversely associated with the intake of vegetables (−0.22 lb), whole grains (−0.37 lb), fruits (−0.49 lb), nuts (−0.57 lb), and yogurt (−0.82 lb) (P≤0.005 for each comparison).

Aggregate dietary changes were associated with substantial differences in weight change (3.93 lb across quintiles of dietary change). Other lifestyle factors were also independently associated with weight change (P8 hours of sleep), and television watching (0.31 lb per hour per day).

And here’s the New York Times article summarizing the findings:

People don’t become overweight overnight.

Rather, the pounds creep up slowly, often unnoticed, until one day nothing in the closet fits the way it used to.

[…] The beauty of the new study is its ability to show, based on real-life experience, how small changes in eating, exercise and other habits can result in large changes in body weight over the years.

On average, study participants gained a pound a year, which added up to 20 pounds in 20 years. Some gained much more, about four pounds a year, while a few managed to stay the same or even lose weight.

[…] The foods that contributed to the greatest weight gain were not surprising. French fries led the list: Increased consumption of this food alone was linked to an average weight gain of 3.4 pounds in each four-year period. Other important contributors were potato chips (1.7 pounds), sugar-sweetened drinks (1 pound), red meats and processed meats (0.95 and 0.93 pound, respectively), other forms of potatoes (0.57 pound), sweets and desserts (0.41 pound), refined grains (0.39 pound), other fried foods (0.32 pound), 100-percent fruit juice (0.31 pound) and butter (0.3 pound).

There are a lot of limitations to this study. First, the population being studied appears to be entirely made up of ‘nurses, doctors, dentists and veterinarians.’ This is hardly representative of the public at large, and indeed the findings would seem less monumental if they were phrased as ‘nurses, doctors, dentists and veterinarians lose weight when they eat more yogurt.’

It’s also based solely on self-reported data. I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday, much less how much of it I ate or whether it was whole-grain. There’s at least some reconstruction going on in the answers to the questionnaires on which these findings are based

Third–and this is the problem with basically all research on health and diet–it’s purely correlational. This study gives no evidence that eating yogurt will make you lose weight, or that watching more TV will make you gain weight. The findings simply suggest that people who lose weight eat a lot of yogurt.

None of these gripes is a deal-breaker, and I’m sure the researchers are well aware of the limitations of their research. What’s interesting is that the New York Times article didn’t mention any of these limitations, and doesn’t give a clear accounting of the conclusions we can and can’t draw from this research.

Last week I came across some old Jay Rosen articles on bias in journalism. His point is that journalists aren’t  partisans to an ideology, but that they’re partisans to a viewpoint:

 Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.

Rosen’s talking about political journalism, but I think one of the wider consequences of this ‘church of the savvy’ bias is that it creates an opposition between journalists and their sources that doesn’t serve the interests of either.

Scientists are always complaining about how the press condenses and distorts their findings. This New York Times article, while it doesn’t do anything egregious, definitely slants the results toward ‘eat more yogurt!’ and ‘watch less TV!’, neither of which can be concluded by the research itself.

It strikes me that if either journalists or scientists were viewing this problem without any bias toward existing media structures, the solution would be simple: Write the article together.

Other than a perceived lack of savviness, what exactly is the problem with a journalist collaborating with her sources to produce an article summarizing their findings?

The journalist and the scientist share the byline. He contributes information on the study’s aims and methods, she frames the findings for a mass audience. She writes a draft, he corrects the areas where her conclusions aren’t supported by his research. They go back and forth until they have a draft that they both agree informs the public to the best of their combined abilities.

I know journalists find the idea of writing a story in collaboration with a source to be repellent, but in this case the scientist and the journalist share the objective of informing the public on a scientific phenomenon that affects their lives. This is the animating idea behind the wildly successful Freakonomics books: Snappy reporter teams up with maverick professor. One produces research, the other writes it up. This idea also produced The Wire: Ed Burns was David Simon’s source before he was his writing partner.

Given the importance of technical expertise in current-affairs debates such as sustainable energy, health and technology, the burden is on journalists to tell us why they don’t want to give up some of their savviness for a little more truth.

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‘He Spends His Evenings Like This’

This morning I finished ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’, a collection of short stories by John Haskell. I’ve drawn out my reading of it because I want to savor each one.

Each story is a collage of unconnected anecdotes from historical and fictional characters. They’re told as if they’re being presented to a child. This, for example, is about Orson Welles:

What he does is buy up boxes of plastic soldiers, gray or silver little men in uniform, and it doesn’t matter what war they were in, they’re all doing basically the same thing: throwing grenades, shooting guns, slicing something with a bayonet.

These are his people and what he does, he keeps a candle burning on the table and he sits at his table and takes a soldier and holds the little man over the candle flame, keeping the little arm or hand or gun close enough to the flame so that the plastic begins to thaw and melt and then drop, and he lets it drop; when it’s ready he lets a drop fall onto another soldier. He holds that other soldier under the first one and lets the drop of wet plastic fall on the breasts of the soldier below. He’s making breasts.

Very carefully, dripping the arms of the plastic men drop by drop, he creates the breast nodes, building up incrementally the rounded curve of the female breast. Each arm makes about one and a half breasts so sometimes he uses the head or the leg or a piece of artillery.

Parts like the head are hard to control, and sometimes from the head a drop falls and spreads over an entire chest. That’s not good. That recalcitrant soldier has to be thrown away. That soldier is a failure and he can’t stand failure.

Which is fine. He has plenty of raw material. On his table he’s arrayed a whole army of these little men, the finished ones.

To finish them he takes them by the heel and dips the body in a mayonnaise jar filled with creamy pink enamel paint that he’s devised for just this purpose, for the purpose of looking like flesh, or an approximation of flesh, the flesh of the skin of an actress or ballet dancer who resides in the back of his memory.

He spends his evenings like this, creating these figures, diminutive, naked-seeming and large-breasted, with traces of a molded soldier’s uniform beneath the painted flesh. They’re floating on his table, an ocean or sea of flesh-toned soldiers with protruding part like women. But not quite women.

This is bullshit, of course. Orson Welles never did this. Haskell’s just using him as a springboard to explore what it might have been like to be him for a few uneventful days at a time. Stories in the collection give similar treatment to  Janet Leigh, John Keats and Laika the space-dog, among others. All are similarly inaccurate and similarly gripping.

What I’m fascinated by isn’t just how the above excerpt manages to be funny and sad at the same time, but how the language sets such a sharp tone it’s almost a soundtrack. The constant repetition, the simplistic language, the technical descriptions, it reminds me of being read stories by my grandparents when I was a kid.

I’m not entirely sure that grandparents ever actually did that, or if I’m just importing memories from Friday-night sitcoms growing up, but either way, that’s what these stories made me think of. And I think that’s just what they were going for.

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Music Makes the Bourgeoisie and the Rebels

Today I randomly came across two reviews of Tim Blanning’s The Triumph of Music. I’m already convinced that I need to read it, but I think it’s interesting that both reviewers griped about the same thing.

Here’s the Telegraph:

For Blanning, all music is music, and the ‘triumph’ of his title is an unbroken ascent from the 19th-century composers to the 20th-century rock stars.

But a breach has surely occurred, and I wish he had said more about it.

The gap between classical and pop music is greater now than any equivalent difference in the other arts – between, say, highbrow drama andHollywood, or between Booker Prize novels and Mills & Boon. In those other cases, the highbrow and the popular form parts of a single spectrum.

In the case of music we now have two vastly different worlds; and only one of them, I fear, is ‘triumphing’.

Egads! People are listening to contemporary pop music, instead of the pop music of 300 years ago!

And here’s The New Criterion:

“When modes of music change,” wrote Plato in The Republic, “the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” But the author seems to have little patience for describing the mechanics of how music stimulated social and cultural change. He treats music as a commodity—classical music, Romantic music, and jazz are all one with the sole criterion for musical greatness being the ability to survive the passage of time.

It sounds radical, but I don’t see any reason to make a qualitative distinction between any two kinds of music. If you love opera, go listen to it. If you love trance, have at it.

Every generation sees its own musical expression as the default, and the following generation’s as a usurper. The Sinatra generation hated Elvis. The Elvis generation hated the Beatles. The Beatles generation hated Guns N Roses. The Guns N Roses generation hated Nirvana. The Nirvana generation hated Blink 182.

I have no doubt that that 30 years after the first caveman ever pounded his fists rhythmically on a rock, he and his friends were bitching about their kids banging on it with sticks: ‘It’s just noise!

Hell, the Telegraph reviewer even begins his review with an anecdote illustrating the same bias he demonstrates 600 words later:

In 1771 Archduke Ferdinand ofAustriaasked his mother whether she thought he should employ a 15-year-old musician called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

‘I can’t think why you should,’ replied the Empress Maria Theresa, ‘for you don’t need a composer or any other useless people for that matter. I don’t want you lumbering yourself with good-for-nothing folk.

I haven’t read the book yet, obviously, but I see no reason why historians—or politicians or listeners—should make a qualitative distinction between classical music and, say, Detroit house. Music makes people happy, it makes the world a better place and it inspires us all to build castles in our heads and fill them with waving fabric.

If you don’t like or don’t want to understand pop music, then don’t. But it’s a waste of time for every generation to fight for the recognition of its expression as legitimate.

Spending a night at the symphony doesn’t make you any smarter than a Justin Bieber concert. A musical instrument does not cease to be so when it includes the capacity to plug into the wall. And an opera house has no more inherent worth than a square of breakdancing cardboard on the sidewalk. If you’re lucky enough to find a cathedral, no one gets to tell you how to clasp your hands.

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Why Finding An Apartment In Berlin Is So Hard

So the reason I haven’t posted on this contraption the last few weeks is because all my free time and spare mental capacity has been tied up in my search for an apartment.

Now that I finally got one sorted out, I’m tallying the damage.

I can’t count the hours I’ve spent, but my gmail account tells me I sent 28 ‘I’m interested’ mails and inspected 12 apartments in the last three weeks.

There are a few reasons finding an apartment took me so much time and effort.

1. Language
‘Hallo?’
‘Hello, I’m calling about your apartment. Do you speak English?’
‘Was?’
‘No English?’
‘Nein”
‘None at all?’
‘Nein!’
‘… OK, I guess goodbye then’
*click*

2. Competition
Many of the apartment viewings are set up like open houses. The landlord sets a time and whoever’s interested shows up. Every one of these i went to had at least eight people checking out the apartment, and sometimes as many as 20. It’s really discouraging to write your name on a ‘I’m interested’ list with 14 other names on it.

3. Furniture
In a market with so many students and people moving around, I’m amazed at how hard it is to find furnished apartments. Most flats rented through agents don’t have anything,not even a sink or basic kitchen counters.

If they do have furniture, you have to buy it from the current renter. One of the apartments I saw was €460 per month, but the renter wanted €6,000 cash for the kitchen, appliances and the couch.

4. Fakes
All the apartment listing websites are lousy with scams. It’s always some variation on ‘I’m not living in Berlin at the moment, but my incredible apartment can be yours if you transfer the deposit to my bank account.’

Some of them are hilariously blatant, like the ad whose pictures still had the watermark from ‘MontrealLiving.com’ still on them. Another crafty lister literally took a picture of a two-page Dwell Magazine spread, and you could still see the fold between the pages.

Still, others were pretty convincing. Pictures of realistically cluttered apartments, nice but not silly-central parts of town, etc. I think I fell for three of them.

After awhile, I could tell the fakes by the longness and kindness of the replies to my letters of interest. For real apartments, typical replies looked like they were written by Cormac McCarthy: ‘The apartment is free. Come tomorrow 6pm’ and signed Mr or Mrs (I’m endlessly amazed at the German slowness to use first names. It’s like living in an episode of Mad Men!).

The fake ones were like ‘Berlin is lovely in the summertime! I miss my beautiful home and garden…’ and went on to specify all kinds of information (‘the washing machine works fine not too loud’) that no one would ever need to know on a first inquiry.

 

So that’s why it took me awhile. I’m still nervous about having to furnish a whole apartment by myself, but at least when I move out, I can apparently charge the next renter a few thousand euros for my trouble.

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No Wonder It’s On Sale

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Reluctant Nester Seeks Decorating Advice

This is my new apartment:

When I get it, it will be completely unfurnished. I, a 29-year-old man with two master’s degrees, am a mewling infant in the face of the challenge of decorating an apartment. I have literally been losing sleep the last week thinking about the process (what do I buy first?!) and implementation (I don’t wanna carry a sofa up the stairs!) of turning two empty rooms into a comfortable living space.

The furniture problem I’m attempting to solve by limiting my options. I’ll buy the beds at IKEA, but everything else I want to get from thrift stores. Berlin apartments are huge and sporadically abandoned, which creates a thriving market for used furniture. It seems like a waste of my new city to get everything all shiny and unpronounceable.

The problems I’m left with are how much furniture to buy and how to arrange it all. ‘Room layout’ is a term I had never come across before I googled ‘furniture where to put’ last night, and there’s apparently not only a science to it, but an art.

If left to my own devices, I’d buy a single bed and a yogurt spoon and call it a day. But I’m trying to take this seriously. Anyone who has any tips (or used furniture!), lemme have it.

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