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    Contact Monday
    True Grit
    Monday, January 3, 2011 at 12:41AM

    One of the great parts of seeing a film with a group of friends is the immediate post-viewing moment: the slow uncertain march to the exit and the emergence into the light of the lobby where opinions can be expressed. Certain films evoke more uncertainty than others at that moment. “Was it good? Was it bad? What will the others think if I take one stance or the other?” That’s exactly how I felt leaving True Grit.

    Those feelings were mostly due to the fact that I had organized the outing, and that I had even waited for an hour at the SoHo Mac store a week before to hear the Coen brothers speak about the film. The film was, in many ways, strictly a Western, and I felt that the directors stuck close to the Charles Portis’ novel. That’s a bold thing to say, as I haven’t read True Grit, but I have read The Dog of the South, and I could recognize the Portis’ humor, dialogue, and plot structure coming through in the film. Standing in the lobby afterwards next to an amazing life-size cutout of Nic Cage’s head, my friends admitted that they expected more, and didn’t really get the film. I gave weak, evasive responses because I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the film, which was probably the best thing to do at the time.

    Later that night the film returned to my mind, and I felt myself appreciating it and the Coens’ approach more and more. It didn’t have multiple dream dimensions or a ubiquitous social networking platform at its disposal (note: I liked both of those films), and I liked that fact. I really enjoyed how the film stuck to the genre and the book. This not so coincidentally matches the conclusion I came to after leaving the Coen brother’s Q&A at the Apple store.

    Basically the entire time they were onstage with the very John Waters’ looking Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, they kept an extremely low profile. This was a little perplexing at first, and I wondered if they felt that they were too cool for the Mac fan boy setting. You could tell that the audience wanted artistic rants—the “meanings” behind their films, how their personal histories intersect with the films, how the magic happens, etc. But the Coens imparted that there really isn’t any magic behind the films, that they just wanted to make films and get films done, that the pay was good and it was interesting work. I think at one point they likened their jobs to any other jobs, like “accountants.” The one question that really seemed to perk them up was, fittingly, a technical one regarding film choice.

    This approach was evident in True Grit. The assembled great actors, found breathtaking locations, and re-imagined the Portis novel while giving it the credit it deserved. Said and done.

    Maybe it’s just living in New York City and missing the West, but True Grit did exactly what I wanted to: it took me away from the city and into another time and place. Later that night, after the credits had rolled and the impressions were revealed, I thought back to the anachronistic dialogue, straight-forward revenge plot, and particularly the imagery of the night-ride sequence after Mattie gets bit by the snake, and I appreciated it all in a very true-to-heart movie experience kind of way.


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    tagged coen, film, review, true grit

    Exit Strategy
    Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 9:12PM
    Squarespace has been a nice home for over a year. It was like renting one of those new high-rise apartments with Centre somewhere in the name–easy and fast. But after some time I felt constrained, and I wanted to purchase a cheap lot where I could build my own eccentric mansion and do what I want, like buy a dirtbike and ride it in the backyard, or tend an organic garden. So lately I’ve been slogging through lots of HTML /CSS and a little bit of readymade JavaScript and PHP (everyone goes to IKEA now and then), slowly building a new site.

    The catalyst for changing from Squarespace came when I tried to add a “mini art site” that I created way too late one night to my existing site. Perhaps I missed something and it is actually easy to do this, but I tried to wipe the CSS from a new blank HTML page to implement the mini site, and proceeded to clear all styling from my entire site. I then couldn’t find a way to reset the CSS to what was previously in place, and I spent the next hour redoing my site design. The user interface that made it quick and easy for me to set up my site became at that point a huge barrier.

    There were also a few other factors, like the lack of an easy e-commerce solution on Squarespace, and also the enticing $4-5 price tags at other hosting sites. I like the idea of green hosting, although it seems that there’s some ambiguity with that industry and perhaps that’s a blog post for later.

    I’ve learned a few things through the process of building a new site from scratch. First and foremost, Squarespace makes it really easy to have a functional, clean blog embedded in your site. It takes a good deal of PHP/MySQL skills to create a custom blog, and even a bit of PHP knowledge to embed a WordPress blog into a site. One good thing is that Squarespace offers the ability to dump the content of your blog into a Moveable Type file (available in the Config section of the blog page), which you can then easily migrate to WordPress. Post content, titles, tags, and comments are all there after the migration–obviously images are not, which is a pain for me as my blog is very image based. Once you have the content and images into WordPress, you can then link to the new blog from your site, or follow instructions like these to modify WordPress php files and embed the blog into your new site.

    For those with photography/art sites, Squarespace also makes it easy to upload images into galleries with nice thumbnails and that fancy lightbox effect. That was one of the major selling points for me. However, if you have some knowledge of HTML/CSS and Photoshop, it’s fairly easy to recreate that exact setup. Setting up the “gallery” page templates and batch processing the images in Photoshop are the major hurdles. Once the thumbnails are in place, you can set that nice hover effect using this bit of CSS:

    {opacity:0.7; filter:alpha(opacity=40);}

    If this is all new to you, W3Schools have some great pages on image galleries and image opacity.

    The actual lightbox effect is free and really easy to implement. You can pick up all of the necessary JavaScript and CSS here, and then it’s just a matter of positioning the files in the correct spot in your site directory. The generous creator of the effect also offers step-by-step directions. One word of advise: be careful to place the included gif files in the right location in your directory, otherwise you won’t get the nice loading effect, gallery navigation, and the “close” option.

    I’m sure there are a few other aspects of Squarespace that I’ll miss, for instance the web analytics. But I would encourage those with suitable sites to make the transition–it will teach you some coding skills that may benefit you in the future.

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    tagged art, blog, css, html, image galleries, javascript, lightbox, migration, php, squarespace, web development, wordpress

    Bowery Mural Continued
    Friday, November 26, 2010 at 10:33PM
    The mural at Bowery & Houston is in the midst of another transformation. Gone is the impressive Twist piece that replaced the abused Shepard Fairey installment. Kenny Scharf in next in line–the beginnings of his work were up by nightfall just before Thanksgiving. I had not heard of Scharf before, but his website shows many decades of interesting work. Catch it if you can!

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    tagged Bowery, Fairey, Scharf, Twist, graffiti, houston

    Albums & Photography
    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 11:52PM

    Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children

    One of my favorites, this one was with me on a roadtrip through the U.S. that created the same kind of memories and nostalgia that loom throughout the album. The lo-fi retro image just makes sense, as does the eery faceless family–the nostalgia in this album can belong to anyone.

    Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

    Another album that deals with nostalgia, Deerhunter’s latest came with this arresting image. A mysterious, uncanny shot, it reminds me for some reason of this barn next to one of my childhood homes. I was always frightened by that barn.

    Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade

    This appears to be a photograph that was colored over, at least I believe. It’s sad to say that I don’t really know how this was done in pre-Photoshop days. But I know it’s badass and fits with the inspirational, DIY, Rust Belt aesthetic that Hüsker Dü so effortlessly embodied. Effortlessly because it was real, before this postmodern web 2.0 authenticity crisis we’re currently enduring.

    The Fiery Furnaces – Widow City

    “Hi, I’m Eleanor. I’m on the front cover of this album, and my brother is on the back. Because that just made sense.” I concur.

    Scissor Sisters – Night Work

    Before a life-size poster of this album cover was posted around the corner from my work, I didn’t know that much about the Scissor Sisters, and admittedly I still don’t know that much about them. But it’s clear that they don’t pussyfoot around, and I can respect that.

    The Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight

    Being a fan of jetties and sunsets (I grew up in Southern California) as well as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, I think this cover is pretty cool. This is also a tremendous album.

    Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

    When I was 15, I traveled with a friend’s family up to Lake Tahoe for a snowboarding trip. We took the 395 up the state and passed through the Mojave along the way. I remember being on the two lane highway in the middle of the desert and seeing these tiny settlements with 2-3 houses surrounded my derelict cars, buses, and trailers. The inhabitants of these settlements had constructed strange “sculptures” made out of junk–mannequins, life preserver rings, taxidermied animals, you name it. It was either creepy outsider art or the product of terrifying inbred insanity. These sculptures left a vivid impression on me, and this album cover reminded me of them. This is an epic album too. As my friend Nick said, “he’s really outdone himself this time.”

    U2 – Achtung Baby

    This is a cool collection of photographs with great colors–I can picture it sitting on a table in my dad’s place in the 90s, although I’m not sure if that actually ever occured (he was fonder of early U2). I like that, in the midst of this spattering of pastoral/urban/European/North African? images, Bono is of course mugging for the camera. If he’s not looking dark and pensive in grainy B&W, then he’s looking dapper as he enters the savannah.

    More importantly, and keeping with my brief California highway theme, have you ever listened to the first two tracks on this album while speeding down the 5? Well then, my friend, you haven’t lived.

    Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out

    I recently walked into my favorite coffee shop around the corner and saw that they had switched the photography on their walls. The new images explored the suburban night theme, and I was reminded of this cover. Suburbia in the evening can be very otherwordly. I like the blue hour aspect of this image, and off to the right (the image wraps around) there’s a young man being abducted–another theme I enjoy. This is one of Yo La Tengo’s many strong albums. I Can Hear the Heat Beating as One is the de facto soundtrack to my long-standing relationship, and I listened to Summer Sun–specifically Season of the Shark–for years everytime I drove to Bolinas to go suring, as a sort of happy-go-lucky death march tune. Tiny Birds is also an incredible track.

    Big Bear – Doin Thangs

    It’s affluent bears doin thangs in robes. Not much to say here except amazing.

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    tagged album covers, big bear, boards of canada, deerhunter, doin thangs, husker du, photography, scissor sisters, sunset rubdown, the fiery furnaces, the soft boys, yo la tengo

    Technologies of the Self
    Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 4:36PM

    Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not finally become confused.

    Of course, from behind the screen the usual answer, “I prefer not to,” was sure to come; and then, how could a human creature, with the common infirmities of our nature, refrain from bitterly exclaiming upon such perverseness — such unreasonableness. However, every added repulse of this sort which I received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence.
    –From Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

    Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
    — Nietzsche

    My current job demands a level of familiarity with technology on both practical and intellectual levels. I work for a professional computing publisher, where I manage the improvement and maintenance of the company’s system and the launch of hundreds of computing-focused titles. Through the course of my work, I have had a number of realizations regarding the current and future role of technology and capitalism in human affairs. These realizations connect in many ways to the my readings of major philosophers and writers, in particular, Michel Foucault, Herman Melville, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

    When I was hired, I was told that the goal of my position was not the mastery of the work detailed on the job description, but more so the creation of a system or clustered technologies that would perform those functions. In effect, the reason I was hired into the position was to, over time, make my position obsolete. I continue to enjoy this challenge, and have made much progress in replacing the former me. I felt that it was a unique mission when I was brought aboard. Yet, at a certain point, I began to wonder how unique of a mission it actually was. In this era of late capitalism, of knowledge workers and the paperless office, how many other individuals are creating technology to replace themselves? And, more importantly, what does this mean in a historical and philosophical sense?

    During the last few months I have been moving through a compendium of Foucault’s writings. Foucault’s concept of power is somehow both obvious and groundbreaking, radical. He shows that where there is power, there is a power relationship. Power flows between two opposing forces. Even when it appears that one force has all of the power, the reality is that both forces have power–even if it’s only the freedom of escape, or the power of refusal.

    The protagonist in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener provides an example of a seemingly powerless actor in a well defined power relationship. Bartleby, a low-level employee of a law firm, appears to have no power: he is cornered in a cubicle, his only window revealing a brick wall, always at the beck and call of his supervisor. His job entails only the most mechanical, drone-like of duties, such as the transcription by hand of court documents. It is also revealed that Bartleby has no home, and remains after closing hours to sleep at the office. Weak, forlorn-looking, Bartleby is the prototypical oppressed office worker.

    However, it is through his unwavering refusal to do work that Bartleby exerts his power. Bartleby “prefers” not to follow orders, he “prefers” not to have his own residence, and he ultimately “prefers” not to eat. These actions, while obviously passive, run head-on with the capitalist structure which he inhabits. Bartleby brings resistance to the rigid office hierarchy, distorted domesticity to the cold world of the commercial sector, and a refusal to nurture the body that is essentially a gear in the capitalist machine. He shakes things up, a passive agitator. This peculiar and radical behavior confounds his supervisor, also the story‘s narrator, who ultimately undergoes a transformation of sorts. The supervisor begins as someone obsessed with status and the trivialities of work on Wall St. In the end, he is haunted by the downfall and eventual death of his strange underling, bringing a very human element to his otherwise superficial existence. Through his actions Bartleby reveals the fragility of capitalism—it is, after all, dependent its subjects continuing to “buy into“ the game, whether out of fear, greed, or apathy.

    Melville’s novella was published back in the mid-nineteenth century, but its radical undertone is still relevant today. This leads to the question: where are the Bartlebys of of the 21st century? And that question leads back to a realization I experienced at my current job. It could be said that most of the Bartleby’s of today have been replaced by technology–applications, systems, “business intelligence.” Sure there are many people still performing routine tasks, stuck in shabby cubicles, with windows facing directly into walls, and with micromanaging bosses. But those people are rapidly being replaced. Lower-level office workers are no longer needed to copy and paste data–system interfaces do it for them. Businesses no longer need middle managers to digest the work of lower-level employees–reporting services and data mining offer more robust ways of handling the same work.

    It’s true that much of this “Bartleby-type” work is miserable. No one likes copying and pasting data all day. But, if viewed through the scope of Foucault and Melville‘s novella, what does it mean when technology rapidly replaces the work of humans? Technology does not have the power to refuse, or the freedom to escape. It’s the ultimate slave–an application cannot “prefer” not to perform a task, it either performs the task perfectly, or reveals a bug which is then corrected in the code. This replacement of human workers with technology in effect helps to speed up and smooth out the functioning of global capitalism. As more workers like myself improve business productivity by leveraging IT, we in effect help to remove power relationships that once existed between workers and corporations, subjects and institutions.

    The transformation of the human or “real” into technology or “virtual” is taking place on a much larger scale than the corporate office. In the last twenty years, both individuals and corporations have transformed. In terms of the former, a large portion of the social interaction and self-identification that once occurred in the real world now exists in online social networks like Facebook. People shed identities over time, leaving virtual skins in the form of long-neglected social networking profiles. People live and people die online. Moreover, all of our personal information–medical profiles, financial histories, tastes and preferences–reside in databases. Our lives are stored, analyzed, and data-warehoused. This trend will continue, especially as mobile technology allows for the dominance of not just the home and office, but all the time and space that construct our lives.

    It is obvious that corporations have also experienced a transformation from real to virtual. Using the company I work for as a case example, books move through the virtual machine line of the system until a final product is printed and released into the market. This product is represented by data in another system, where customers purchase the product using financial data stored in yet another system, and so on. Now with the replacement of the physical book with the ebook, it is really just data and text moving from concept to (virtual) reality, from the idea in the author’s head to the Kindle page on Amazon.com. This is the process that new workers like myself are creating and perfecting.

    I must pause to admit that this is an exciting process, and I take pleasure in being a part of this rapid transformation of both a particular industry (publishing) and modern life in general. Most days I march into work looking forward to learning more about systems and emerging technologies, to replacing my old job, the old me. This purpose of this piece, though, is to take a moment to ask where it’s all going.

    The disconcerting part is that these processes seem to form a seamless loop. As more workers replace themselves with technology, they help to squash preexisting power relationships between the worker and the corporation. This pushes technology–as well as predatory capitalism in the form of advertisements, marketing data mining, etc.–further, and with increasing effectiveness, into the lives of individuals.

    The problem with the interrogation of technology in this sense is that the discussion of the nature of capitalism looms over the debate–it is the elephant in the room. A great deal of good has come from technology’s emergence in various institutions–businesses offer better products, doctors are able to identify and treat diseases in new ways, and the military…well not much good there, except for perhaps protecting soldiers at war, but that would assume those soldiers should be there in the first place. No doubt capitalism has played an immense role in this emergence–providing the capital to develop technologies and the channels to distribute them to individuals. If one looks at the emergence of the PC–perhaps the defining moment in the history of modern computing–it was corporations like AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, and Intel that were creating the revolution.

    However, for as much as capitalism gives, it takes. Forced obsolescence, targeted ads based on email content, trends as data sold to marketing firms, these are all part of the game. Technology enables a light speed barrage of marketing messages. The best example might be viral marketing. Bloggers often talk about the death of authenticity–in the world of web 2.0, it becomes extremely hard to decipher what is real and authentic and what is the marketing carbon copy. It lends itself to the conclusion, “Does it really matter?” This fits with the postmodern concept of not being able to step outside of a dominant ideology like global capitalism. This is true–you’re not going to be able to pierce the veil of capitalism, especially when no one knows what’s on the other side, what’s next.

    A great case study might be biotechnology. Much good can come from technological advances in the realm, for humans, the environment, and the planet in general. However, there is a great potential for harm as well. As technology increases at a breakneck speed, capitalism will find a way to produce both good and bad. One can look at the pharmaceutical industry as a current example. And as humans literally fuse with technology through the biotech field, can we really afford to make the creation of living organisms subject to the malignant side of capitalism?

    And again we come back to the question, “Where do we go?” The first publisher I worked for specialized in the topic of socially responsible business–“business with a conscience.” These businesses do exist, and many are very successful. They are able to balance a degree of social responsibility–to their customers, their workers, and to society in general–with profit-making ability. But both the positive and negative effects of business are still by definition externalities in the majority of private enterprises.

    Enter Nietzsche…

    So, in the overall discussion of technology, business, and the individual, it remains to be seen if the disappearance of Bartlebys is a good thing or a bad thing. There will be less mind-numbing corporate positions, but also more steps towards the creation of a efficient monster–or will it be angel? Maybe it’s best viewed in the supermoral Nietzschean sense. Capitalism is neither “good” nor “bad,” just like nature itself, and it is humans that impose a morality on to the ideology. Perhaps humans created the “corporation” as a type of ubermensch figure who escapes the confines of morality imposed on humans and resides outside of justice, of right and wrong or good and bad. Hence the current trend of actual individuals “incorporating” themselves.

    If viewed through the lens of Nietzsche, this debate moves to a prophetic level. For it was Nietzsche, through the voice of Zarathurstra, who proclaims the emergence of the ubermensch, or overman. For Nietzsche, “man is a rope, fastened between animal and Overman–a rope over an abyss.” If Foucault and Melville (at least for this discussion) are concerned with the institutions and the role of the worker, or subject, Nietzsche ascribed to a historical philosophy of mellenial proportions. Nietzsche, to quote the late D. Boon, “lived sweat but dreamed light years.”

    Nietzsche points to some type of new being, the overman, that will make humans appear as a “laughing stock or painful embarrassment.” This concept lends itself to interpretation through 21st century fields like biotechnology. Capitalism might be used in conjunction with biotechnology as stepping stones to a “supermoral superhuman.” By embracing both capitalism and technology, humans could overcome these “limitations.” As I mentioned before, capitalism seems to embody both the life-giving and brutal aspects of nature itself. By leveraging capitalism and technology to overcome both our moral and biological limitations, we could wind up, conversely, in a state that is more true to earth or nature.

    What would this future look like? It’s very difficult to tell. It could be horrific, from a human perspective at least. After all, we talking about the emergence of something that is not necessarily human–we would be its chimpanzee. All knowledge, culture, religion–the triumphs of man–would lose value. This new being could build a hyper-intelligent, beautiful new world, all through indescriminate violence. One only needs to look to humans for this blueprint.

    In conclusion, maybe I don’t have the esteemed position of replacing the Bartlebys, but I am Bartleby. Bartleby was not resisting capitalism, an agitator, as much as a harbinger of what was to come. He was, as Nietzsche would say, one of the forerunners who “are like heavy drops falling singly from the dark cloud that hangs over mankind: they prophesy the coming of the lightening and as prophets they perish.” And as I work to replace my former self, to make what once was the human into the technological, perhaps I too am leaping towards this uncertain future of the overman–I am “a going-across or a down-going.”

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    tagged Bartleby, Foucault, Melville, Nietzsche, capitalism, overman, technology, virtual

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