September 29, 2008

a brief moment of levity to interrupt this crisis

As stocks plunge and hairlines recede, I suggest we all take a deep breath and consider the humble kiwi-berry:

"I'd like to think that the kiwi berry was the result of a cross-pollination accident between a kiwi and some sweet New Zealand berry. I hope it happened on its own in nature's strange glory, by adventurous bees or brisk spring winds. A more likely scenario is that the kiwi berry is the result of bored and overpaid New Zealand genetic-fruit scientists tampering with God's plan. The grape-sized lime-green fruits have all the punch and vigor of a kiwi fruit wrapped in the convenience of a berry. Gone is the coarsely haired rind and in its place is an edible skin not unlike that of a muscadine. The interior is reminiscent of the color and texture of a kiwi, only with tinier black seeds around a tinier white starburst. The taste is far less tart, though--somewhere between a fig and a blackberry. I imagine the mutation process providing many failed attempts before the current result. Surely somewhere there's a laboratory filled with nightmarish atrocities of fruits misshapen and foul. Like the scene in Alien Resurrection with all the horrifying failed Ripley clones, the kiwi berry, too, must have had several botched representations--each with a more grotesque and testicular appearance than the last. The kiwi berry might only be a gateway experiment, though, only a step in a process that will eventually lead to the discovery of some sort of ├╝ber-fruit, which will no doubt look like a peach but taste like a cheeseburger."

Real estate folks like to talk about the highest and best use of a parcel of land; I am fairly certain that the highest and best use of the internet (and possibly of computers, as well) is to read McSweeney's.

September 25, 2008

the late david foster wallace

I am a bit late to the late David Foster Wallace, unfortunately. I have not spent much time with contemporary authors (not out of prejudice against contemporary authors, because the few that I have read -- DeLillo, Eggers, Wolfe, Roth -- I have enjoyed; my prejudice is against fiction in general, which I find somewhat less interesting than non-fiction. Hence I thoroughly enjoyed From Bauhaus to Our House but never really got into Bonfire of the Vanities.), but I have taken the time to read a few things by Wallace in the past week, and I would like to recommend some of those things.

First, there is this piece on lobsters in Gourmet magazine, which begins by explicating the history of lobster as food, veers into a discussion of the nature of tourism, and ends with a consideration of the ethics of eating lobster, which is written in a way that reveals Wallace's undergraduate education in analytical philosophy. I would quote a piece of it for you, as it is really excellent, but the pdf is a scan and so I would have to type out the text for you, and it is really hard to quote Wallace in less than a couple paragraphs, because his thoughts take a bit of time to unfold and usually contain more nuance than can be easily captured in a line or two. Much of the excitement is in how he gets to the end of a thought, anyways.

The second is this adaptation of a commencement address Wallace gave in 2005 to Kenyon College, which I can't endorse exactly but I do endorse whole-heartedly:

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

September 23, 2008

one grows rich in a year but dies in six months

The Times has an excellent article from a couple days ago on the work of recent Rome Prize winner Alan Berger (whose books, particularly Reclaiming the American West, I can highly recommend) in Italy's Pontine Marshes.

[google map of a portion of the project area]

The article (and Berger's work in general -- see P-REX) -- focuses on the damages caused by contemporary land uses (farming and industry, in this case) and repairing those damages through landscape architecture -- the practice of reclamation, as guided by landscape architects:

Before Michele Assunto hauls in his fishing net from the banks of a reed-lined canal here, he uses a pole to push the garbage out of the way. "They really need to clean this up," he growls.

Where another canal empties into the sea here at the small community of Porto Badino, the only animals that can survive are giant rats, local officials say. Of course, the sea is not fit for swimming for 200 yards on each side of the outlet, they add with a shrug -- yet bathers splash in the Mediterranean nearby.

In many parts of this affluent coastal region southeast of Rome and northwest of Naples, canals dumping effluent into the Mediterranean from farms and factories coexist with fishermen and beachgoers. There is little doubt that this area would need considerable work to return to a more pristine state. For places as far gone as this one, however, a new breed of landscape architect is recommending a radical solution: not so much to restore the environment as to redesign it.

[the Agri Pontini, image by flickr user nikonphotoslave, creative commons license]

Berger's proposal, now being developed in conjunction with the local Italian government, suggests constructing a wetland machine, which would serve both as a mechanism for cleansing the water supply of the Agri Pontini and as a regional recreation area. (For more detail on the proposal, I recommend reading Pruned's summary, which features some higher resolution images than the P-REX website).

[the canals and pine-forests of ravenna]

This sort of transformative reclamation process, where natural and artificial processes are blurred in the service of renewing the land, has a great deal of currency in contemporary landscape architectural practice, but it is perhaps not as new or foreign a concept as it might seem. While the particular problems being addressed by contemporary remediation efforts have shifted -- strip mines, rivers clogged with industrial wastes, and so on -- the notion of employing designs on the land as a means to reclaim damaged land is nearly as old as civilization.

[map of the Pontine Marshes, prior to reclamation]

The Agri Pontini itself, after all, is itself reclaimed: disease-ridden marshland (the Pontine Marshes) transformed into productive agricultural land and settled city centers. Generations of Italians, from the Romans to Popes Boniface VIII, Martin V, Sixtus V, and Pius VI to Major Fedor Maria von Donat (a Prussian military officer) battled the marshes, concocting various failed schemes to drain the marshes (though they did succeed in penetrating the marshes with the Via Appia).

The 19th century historian Victor Duruy notes the way in which the marshes of the Italian penisula were regarded:

There is nothing so charming and so treacherous as those plains of the Mal'aria ; a clear sky, fertile land, where an ocean of verdure waves under the sea-breeze; all around there is calm and silence; an atmosphere mild and warm, which seems to bring life but carries death. "In the Maremma," says an Italian proverb, "one grows rich in a year, but dies in six months."

Fred Toelle, "P.O.W.'s draining in the Pontine Marshes"

Success came in the late 1930's, when Mussolini initiated a massive centralized effort to drain the marshes:

The Pontine Marshes were finally drained and reclaimed in works begun in 1926 under the responsibility of the Opera Nazionale Combattenti, a governmental institution reformulated under the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini that supported both rural development and war veterans. The government drained the marshes via three canals that intercepted runoff from the hills and pumped out low-lying regions, cleared the scrub forest, and placed about 2000 families (most from northern Italy and of unimpeachable Fascist background) in standardised but carefully varied two-storey country-houses of blue stucco with tiled roofs. Each settler family was assigned a farmhouse, an oven, a plough and other agricultural tools, a stable, some cows and several hectares of land, depending on local soil fertility and the size of the family. The project, constantly referred to in terms of a battle, was a huge public relations boost for Mussolini, fulfilling his long-term belief in the "rural vocation of the Italian people" and their triumph over nature, an epitome of the Fascist conception of progress.

The Times has more on the literal machinery of progress (presumably the parallel between this original machinery of progress and the new wetland "machine" has not escaped Berger):

Latina's prosperity is built on drained swampland, kept habitable by six pumps as huge and noisy as airplanes, put in place in 1934 by Mussolini. Each day they pull millions of gallons of water -- up to 9,500 gallons a second -- out of the soggy ground, directing it into an elaborate system of cement-lined canals that ultimately dump it into the sea.

The entire province would return to marshland in seven days if the pumps were turned off, Carlo Cervellin of the Pontine Marsh Consortium said. He is in charge of maintaining and regulating the immense machines, which are in a pump house at the lowest point in the province, in Mazzochio.

This history reveals that there has been another, more subtle shift in the practice of remediation: in what counts as damaged and what counts as remediated. Where once the marsh was viewed as the problem, as a sort of landscape whose presence is compatible with human habitation, Berger is now suggesting that the marsh -- in some form, in perhaps an altered or designed form -- is in fact essential to sustaining human habitation. Perhaps restoration is even cyclical: marshes are drained to eliminate the threat of disease and yet draining is found to create the conditions for pollution and contamination, necessitating the human reintroduction of marshes into the landscape. In three hundred years, will future landscape architects need the develop systems to remediate the landscape that Berger's design seeds?

September 22, 2008

Letters to the Editor

From the New York Times:

To the Editor:

Dear Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Paulson:

My student loans are too big and it is hurting the economy. Can I have a bailout, please? I need $92,000.


Nathan Kottke
St. Paul, Sept.
17, 2008

September 19, 2008

youtube jukebox m

Sera Cahoone, "Couch Song"

If it were on youtube, this would be "Only as the Day is Long" -- but there's no video for that (yet). Though you can listen to it here.

September 17, 2008

brian doyle: "no"

In which I quote at length from said essay without offering any commentary other than the suggestion that you will be rewarded if you read it in its entirety (unless you have a serious objection to run-on sentences, in which case you will probably not enjoy that essay, or, for that matter, anything I write, so why are you reading this?):

Sometimes I daydream of having rejection slips made up for all sorts of things in life, like for moments when I sense a silly argument brewing with my lovely and mysterious spouse, and instead of foolishly trying to lay out my sensible points which have been skewed or miscommunicated, I simply hold up a card (BRIAN DOYLE REGRETS THAT HE IS UNABLE TO PURSUE THIS MATTER), or for when my children ask me to drive them half a block to the park (GET A GRIP), or when I am invited to a meeting at work I know will drone and moan for hours (I WOULD PREFER TO HAVE MY SPLEEN REMOVED WITH A BUTTER KNIFE), or for overpious sermons (GET A GRIP!), for oleaginous politicians and other mountebanks (IF YOU TELL ONE MORE LIE I WILL COME UP THERE AND PUMMEL YOU WITH A MAMMAL), etc.

On the other hand, what if my lovely and mysterious spouse issued me a rejection slip on the wind-whipped afternoon when I knelt, creaky even then, on a high hill over the wine-dark sea, and stammered would would would will will will you you marry me? What if she had leaned down (well, not quite leaned down, she's the size of a heron) and handed me a lovely engraved card that said WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT WE CANNOT ACCEPT YOUR PROPOSAL, DESPITE ITS OBVIOUS MERITS? But she didn't. She did say yeah, or I thought she said yeah, the wind was really blowing, and then she slapped her forehead and went off on a long monologue about how she couldn't believe she said yeah when she wanted to say yes, her mom had always warned her that if she kept saying yeah instead of yes there would come a day when she would say yeah instead of yes and really regret it, and indeed this very day had come to pass, one of those rare moments when your mom was exactly right and prescient, which I often think my mom was when she said to me darkly many years ago I hope you have kids exactly like you, the ancient Irish curse. Anyway, there I was on my knees for a while, wondering if my lovely and mysterious paramour had actually said yes, while she railed and wailed into the wind, and finally I said, um, is that an affirmative? because my knees are killing me here, and she said, clearly, yes.

September 12, 2008

the election in charts

Ok, now I'm really violating my promise to myself. But I'll at least shy away from telling you who you should vote for. Instead, I will present you with some information that may or may not influence your vote:

1. Taxes
This chart comes from the Tax Policy Institute; the whole report may be read here. The TPI notes that:

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have proposed tax plans that would substantially increase the national debt over the next ten years, according to a newly updated analysis by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Neither candidate's plan would significantly increase economic growth unless offset by spending cuts or tax increases that the campaigns have not specified.

Perhaps also relevant is this morsel from John McCain's current chief economic advisor, via Joe Klein (italics are to show a quote in the quoted text, not to add emphasis):

If you do nothing on the spending side, you're going to have to raise taxes whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or a Martian," he tells Miller...and then he immediately makes it clear that the "spending side" part of the argument is nothing more than a political fig-leaf.

"It's arithmetic." Federal revenue today is 18.8 percent of GDP and federal spending is 20 percent. Holtz-Eakin observes that "the pressure are there" to lift spending [on entitlement programs, mostly] and taxes to 23 or 24 percent of GDP by around 2020, and to as much as 27 percent if health costs remain out of control.

Miller does the arithmetic: that's an annual tax hike of $550 to $700 billion, well beyond the range of any spending cuts that McCain has or might propose. (Those vaunted earmarks cost about $20 billion per year.)

2. Drilling

This chart comes via Grist. I'll also note that it looks to me like this chart is actually a bit distorted for readability and actually exaggerates the impact of drilling here, now -- 0.2 is 1/28th of 5.6, but it reads more like 1/12th on the chart.

But what do I know? Here's our Republican vice-presidential candidate on the value of drilling here, now, in an interview two months ago:

IBD: Some politicians and presidential candidates say we can't drill our way out of our energy problem and that drilling in ANWR will have no effect. What's your best guess of the impact on prices?

Palin: I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can't drill our way out of our problem or that more supply won't ultimately affect prices. Of course it will affect prices. Energy being a global market, it's impossible to venture a guess on (specific) prices. We never would have thought oil would reach $140. Only a few months ago, we thought $100 would be the peak. And here it is at $140 (with) no end in sight.

I think we should be charitable and assume she means not that "we can drill our way out of our problem", but rather that "drilling will have a significant effect on energy prices". Unfortunately, that's still wrong (though not as wrong!). And its really wrong if you think drilling here, now, will have a significant effect on short-term supply.

September 10, 2008

i know i promised not to talk anymore about politics

but I don't think this breaks the promise, because its not talking about politics, its mocking politics. Which, in a society where the term politics has come to mean "using words and facts without regard for their meaning or truth" (oh we could go on and on with a bipartisan list of examples of politicians demonstrating contempt for facts, though it seems to me that the McCain campaign has been considerably more given to this lately than the Obama campaign), seems an entirely reasonable thing to do. So go watch this video.

September 8, 2008

billboards versus trees

Heard another entry in NPR's fascinating "America's Shifting Ground" series this evening while cooking up some tasty quesadillas (the key is to cook them in as much butter as possible. and use good tortillas.); I haven't caught all the episodes (and didn't realize until now that the ones I had caught were part of a series), but the ones that I have heard have been fascinating. The series focuses on the intersection of numerous forces -- local zoning boards, evolving technologies, family, sprawl, private corporations -- and, often, how those forces affect the ownership of the land. The study of the ownership of land is particularly fascinating subset of cultural geography (which, if I were forced to choose an academic subject to get a Ph.D in, would probably be my choice), but NPR does a good job of keeping it practical and interesting.

Highway 192, Osceola County, Florida via GoogleMaps

The story I caught tonight was on the conflict between, on one side, residents and business owners along US Highway 192 in Osceola County, Florida (which is quite close to the epicenter of strip-mall-ism) and another set of property owners -- billboard operators. The good citizens of Osceola levied a tax on themselves to pay for infrastructural (sidewalks, bike lanes) and vegetative (trees) improvements to a portion of the highway. This all went well until the billboard operators (in this case, Clear Channel -- is there anything Clear Channel can't ruin?) realized that the trees were blocking motorists' views of their billboards:

""The billboards were there first, and the trees started popping up, and they were done so in a way that they would block the view of the billboard," he [the head of the Orlando division of Clear Channel] says. He argued that by planting the trees where it did, the government was acting unfairly. "It's like, 'Hey, we're going to give you a permit to be in business, but then we're going to take it away after you've already invested all this money.'"

Clear Channel and other billboard companies complained that beautification projects on a number of Florida roads threatened their business, so they lobbied the state Legislature for protection.

In 2006, lawmakers drafted a bill to outlaw the planting of trees on the public right-of-way in front of billboards. Each sign would be guaranteed a 500-foot-long view, uninterrupted by a single branch of leaf.

At the time, Randy Johnson was state representative for Osceola County along Highway 192. He supported the bill. "Those billboards are important, they feed lots of families," he testified at a hearing. "This is a tourism corridor. Tourism depends on billboards, not on trees."

The Highway, Pruned (Image from NPR)

A strong public backlash against the bill produced a compromise in which the trees along the sides of the highway were permitted to remain at the expense of the trees in the median -- though the county official carefully watches over the cut trees, keeping them inoffensively small in an act of guerilla gardening:

"Lizasuain thought that was the end of the story, but he's since made a discovery. It turns out the crape myrtles did not die as intended. They are now sprouting through a bed of low-growing shrubs on the highway median.

Lizasuain is quietly letting the trees live. He keeps them trimmed to a tiny size so no one notices they're there, but to him they serve in silent protest to the billboard law. Should those in power someday change the law back in favor of the trees, the crape myrtles will be ready to emerge and provide a canopy of flowers that, for now, remains illegal."

September 6, 2008

and everybody said yes

Unfortunately, I didn't see this until yesterday, but Pitchfork is (temporarily) hosting the documentary Awake My Soul. This is definitely worth seeing (I have only watched the first chapter, because I am waiting to see the whole thing on dvd, but I think that Pitchfork is hosting the entirety of the documentary). Its about the tradition of shape note singing, which is a rather old form of church singing practiced in the rural south.

photo by william christenberry

Jeffery Overstreet put up a review of Awake My Soul by Kenneth Morefield earlier this year:

"The technical proficiency of the documentary is fitting because the subject matter of the film -- shape note singing -- is a style of singing that developed in part out of a movement to train people who were going to sing in church to do so in a manner that was orderly and (musically) literate. Raymond Hamrick says of the church atmosphere that gave rise to Sacred Harp that "the church singing had disintegrated to the spot where it was nothing... it was chaos." One historian of the musical school adds: "The purpose was to have musically literate singers in churches so the church music would improve. The result was that musically literate singers wanted to sing something more elaborate and engaging..." It is significant, in that respect, that Sacred Harp singers still use the designation "singing school" to refer to the training of initiates in the style and that the hymns begin by singing the names of the notes ("sol," "la," "fa," etc.) all the way through before singing the words to the hymn.

Those origins may make Sacred Harp singers sound elitist or condescending. Nothing could be further from the image of them projected in the film. "Sacred Harp singers have a lot of love for each other...and it shows" says one singer. Indeed, it does. One of the interesting things about the documentary is how much footage it includes of people singing and how the people look genuinely engaged. They don't have that self-conscious constipated look that so many evangelicals do when they are filmed in their own worship services. The documentary makes the point that there is no applause after a leader's rotation is completed because neither the conducting nor the singing is considered a performance."

Here's the trailer, but, really, you should just go start it at Pitchfork: