Welcome to Digressions

You've arrived at the main page of Digressions, my personal blog. To leave a comment to a post (and please do!) click on the post title and you'll find a Comments box at the bottom of the post, or click on the Comments link at the bottom of posts on the main page. If you want to read about watches, clocks, and other mechanical diversions, I'm the US editor for Revolution Magazine, whose homepage is at www.revo-online.com.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Short Subjects Part VII: S=k x logW

Dramatis Personae: Myself, Oldest Heir

Scene: Walk to school one semi-brisk October morning

OH: . . .So, anyway, I think the way this could work is --theoretically, anyway --you replace each neuron in the brain one at a time with an artificial one.  That way you don't interrupt the continuity of consciousness and you eventually get consciousness in a completely artificial brain.

M: That's an interesting thought experiment.  What about the body?

OH:  Same basic strategy.

M: What about metabolism?

OH:  What about it?

M: Well, I mean --you'd need some sort of energy intake.  You know, an external source of energy.

OH:  Yeah.  I mean, look, what I'm going for here is really total self-sufficiency and physical immortality, OK?

M:  Uh, doesn't the law of entropy forbid that?

OH:  What?

M:  Entropy.  No closed system is a hundred per cent efficient, kinda thing?  So you need some external energy source.  Chemical, nuclear, whatever.


OH:  OK, you know what I'm hearing?  Quitter talk, that's what I'm hearing.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Film: What I Like About You

. . . You really know how to handle a wide dynamic range image especially if shooting in B&W (with apologies to the Romantics.)

Spotted on a photo forum:

" 'However, for dynamic range, film wins hands down. It is almost shocking to slave over digital raw photos on the computer for hours (or weeks, or months), trying to rescue highlights, then shoot a roll of film. It's like, "You mean, it's that easy?' "

I mean, yeah, film.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Inconvenient Truth, Part Deux

"“The luxury industry has changed the way people dress.  It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact with others. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury ‘accessible,’ tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special."

"Luxury has lost its luster."

--Dana Thomas, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Inconvenient Truth

"I think most journalists are pretty lazy, number one. A little lazy and also they're spoon-fed information, such as the weapons of mass destruction back in 2003....you have these people who create a package of news, develop it as a story line, a scenario, and they find, as Mailer once said about the press, that they're like a donkey. You have to feed the donkey. The donkey every day has to eat. So [special interests] throw information at this damn animal that eats everything. Tin cans, garbage." --Gay Talese

Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Update from "The Science of Scent" --Luca Turin's TED Talk

Thanks to Jon Edwards via Twitter for pointing this out.  Luca Turin's The Science of Scent was the subject of my first post ever on this blog and he's also done a TED talk on his theory and some fascinating subsequent developments.  Love his notion that a theory "is something that lets you do less work."

He is rather entertaining, as organic chemists go.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Loving Las Vegas

There is something about staying in a pyramid that inclines the mind morbidly, which is maybe the reason I was in such an awful mood for most of the time that I stayed at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. I was there for a trade show recently --just at the end of this last May --and it was the second time that I've stayed there. When you stay at the Luxor, you have a choice of staying in the pyramid itself, or in one of the "towers" that flank the actual pyramid, which also has an enormous replica of the Sphinx out front (I suppose it is one of the innumerable ironies you can see in Vegas that, with its intact and polychromed face, it is probably closer to what the original Sphinx looked like than the rather shopworn real thing.) Anyway, the Tower rooms are merely generically depressing --you are aware the whole time that you're among the felaheen, not the Pharaohs --but the rooms in the Pyramid are both generically depressing, and disorientingly bizarre.

 Mine, on the second to highest floor, had one wall (angled) facing outward without much to look at other than the forbidding glass curtain walls of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and its (apparently) slightly more upscale twin, yclept THE Hotel (why THE Hotel, I have no idea. As I have written elsewhere it is certainly a hotel. Maybe there is a chain of Definite Article Hotels I don't know about.) When you check into your room you have to go up one of the elevators that runs along the corners of the pyramid and it's here that the disorientation sets in.

 The corners are of course angled as they rise from ground to top, which means the elevator moves sideway --horizontally as well as vertically --so that you feel, as the cab picks up speed, as if you are on a ship about to capsize. If you are on an upper floor you are treated to a vertiginous spectacle as you walk to your room --you get from the elevator banks to your room via balconies running along the inner face of the pyramid and the view from the 24th floor where I stayed is actively upsetting.

 You can look straight down into the enormous interior of the hotel --the pyramid is hollow --and all that empty space, with a faux Cleopatra's Needle anchoring the jumble of cheap restaurants, bars, and entertainments below (there are two colossi of Ramses flanking the entrance to the casino floor as well) seems to urge you to precipitate yourself into it; I don't know what there is about the void that seems to summon so seductively but it's pretty good, if subjective, empirical evidence that when Freud got the notion that there was such a thing as a death wish, he might have been onto something.

 Being at a trade show has its occasional pleasures --there are always friends you run into whom you hardly see except at trade shows --but there are far more downers than delights and the truth is, despite the fact that it is a terrible cliché to judge Las Vegas --well, shrilly artificial, and depressingly frank in catering to some not particularly pretty human impulses, that is, in fact, how I find it. I've stayed at some of the nicer hotels as well and visited a few more --the Wynn can be a fun place to spend a few days; the Mandarin is a welcome, non-gambling retreat from the inescapably seedy feel of even the most luxurious casino hotels --but the truth is --and it took me a while to understand this --there is no real luxury to be found in Las Vegas.

 What there are, instead, are increasingly expensive and detailed simulations of luxury. The Wynn, for instance, is not so much a luxury hotel, as it is a carefully detailed simulation of one, designed to appeal to individuals who do not so much have any real taste of their own, but rather have money, and the conditioned expectations about what they are entitled to at their level of affluence. That you can get, in a restaurant at the Wynn, langoustines that have been brought at enormous expense from (one assumes) the Ligurian Coast (or something) does not mean that it is in excellent taste, or genuinely luxurious, to do so; it merely means that a great deal of money has been spent.

 As the days went by and I became increasingly depressed at the sheer crushing scale of the thing, I began to see things in an irredeemably bleak light. It is not hard, if you want to, to see things that reinforce a preconception of Las Vegas as a sort of Circle-of-Hell in training. Watching fleets of disabled, morbidly obese retirees in electric scooters, breathing bottled oxygen, working the slots; seeing mothers with crying children in tow doing the same; watching mobs of very young, very drunk, very underdressed young women weaving around like grounded flocks of inebriated flamingos --it's all there and all grist for the mill if you're one of those people who need little provocation to think you're seeing humanity at its worst. And, like the simulacra of luxury offered as the price of a room increases, the behavior is not fundamentally different at a so-called "better" hotel; it is merely more expensively (note: not better or more tastefully, just more expensively) dressed, and perhaps slightly more discreet. Vegas, to paraphrase William Gibson's Neuromancer, is basically a sieve designed to catch money; you pour people and money into one end and only the people fall back out.

 So I went, from one private but powerfully negative mood to the next, until the last night when at my traveling companion's insistence (Jay, my ad sales go-to guy and my magazine's new general manager, has just moved lock stock barrel and family from Europe and found Vegas rather more exotic and exciting than not, plus he was in a good mood from the feel of commerce well transacted) we ended up in the House of Blues restaurant on the casino floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Jay tried to charm the hostess into giving us a table right away but we got a beeper and got sent to the bar. Fortified by a Coors Light (Jay) and a Patron (me) we found ourselves at a table in pretty short order, and after a short chat with the server in which I affected to be appalled at the fact they make their jambalaya with orzo instead of rice (seriously, though . . . orzo?) we ordered some wings and ribs and settled in for what I thought would be a suitably grim last night in Vegas.

 At the next table there were a dozen or so people --I think, from the age distribution and snatches of conversation I overheard, that it was an extended family on vacation --and it gradually became clear that they were celebrating someone's birthday; she looked to be in roughly her early 40s. To my surprise the blues cover band that was playing was much better than it needed to be given the venue; they played a really tight set with both some standards and some more obscure tunes to keep things interesting --and at one point, the lead singer, who'd by then gotten the room nicely warmed up, called the birthday girl up on stage for a bluesy Happy Birthday and a little dancing. She was, obviously, having a great time, and the rest of the crowded room seemed happy to cheer her on, and I looked around and suddenly felt as if I'd been indulging myself in nothing more than sheer ill-tempered snobbery the whole week.

 People work very hard and life's full of disappointments and hazards. Sure, Vegas is a terrible fraud, all things considered. But it's also a place where, if the evidence of that night means anything, you can go and have a reasonably decent (if somewhat carefully calculated by the almighty House) good time, and forget whatever else is hanging over your head for a few days. That you can get yourself into trouble, gamble stupidly, or otherwise exercise bad judgement doesn't mean the whole thing is unspeakably evil, and in fact, Vegas these days in general goes to some considerable trouble to keep you from doing anything really genuinely damaging (after all, they want you back next year.) It just means that life can be pretty hard on most of us, and you can't fault Vegas for giving people of different tastes, purses, and inclinations a place to indulge in a few harmless (mostly) fantasies for a while. That luxury in Vegas is a simulation is not, by those lights, a flaw --it is, in fact, the whole point.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cindy Sherman at MOMA

I remember Cindy Sherman's work from the early 1980s, when I'd just moved to New York after graduating from Bennington and was trying to get some sort of a handle on what really, in retrospect, you couldn't get a handle on; or at least, I couldn't. There was simply too much going on. There seemed to be a new kind of art being invented every day, and the whole idea that there were clearly defined categories of activity which, entered into, clearly signalled that however one's intentions were to be read, they were to at least be read as those of an artist, seemed not only useless but probably risibly reactionary.

 In the context of all that ferment, and all the bombast that went with it, there was something about Cindy Sherman's photographs that appealed to me. In retrospect, I think at least one of the things I liked about her earlier work was its tentative feeling, its lightness of touch --there were no massive constructions, no space-gobbling installations, there was no pose of heroism or ironic exaggeration. Sure, there was appropriation --you can't hold that against someone --but there was a circumspection about it that made it possible to feel you were a part of whatever scene it was that Sherman was constructing. If her images were stills from films, they almost seemed films that Sherman had wandered into by accident; the look she had on her face was one of confused bewilderment; if her identity had been switched on her, she seemed still to remember who she'd been, or at least that before the camera started rolling she'd been someone else, and her discomfort at the novelty of the new self she was inhabiting seemed the viewer's as well. You and she were in, somehow, the same boat.

 It's difficult to imagine where to go from there. I suppose, essentially, there were two ways open to Sherman. She could have turned her eye outward, looked for the common experience of dislocation from oneself outside the artificial environments and pseudo-cinematic worlds she'd made; or, on the other hand, she could (much more perilously) have turned her eye inward, become even more hermetic, so that the distance between herself and the role she seemed to almost have been forced to inhabit disappeared.

 If the show up right now at MOMA is any indication, she's unfortunately gone the latter route. The diffident awkwardness of the work from the 80s, which created mindspace for the viewer, has become an opacity of surface and an overelaboration of decorative incident that, combined with the scale of the later work, are threateningly bombastic. The beauty of her earlier work was that although she took herself as a subject, the subject was always really someting else --her stills from films weren't one dimensional cine-fetishism so much as they were wonderfully meditated juxtapositions of the desire for a different identity with an anxiety over the assumption of a new one; they said: Be careful what you wish for. In the new work, there's luridly saturated color, a wild grand guignol vision of the disturbing senescences to which the body is susceptible, and a grim sense of mockery over the efforts we make to evade decay, but in some odd way it doesn't add up to anything.

 The most enormous works are a weird conflation of The Picture of Dorian Gray with the unreflective, bloated self-importance of Damien Hirst. I still don't think she's completely lost her sense of playfulness, and I think the lightness of touch is recoverable but an awful lot of the recent work is an illustration of the deadliness of satire without humor. In a strange sort of way, it reminds me of Anne Rice, who wrote one weirdly, leanly bleak, deeply angry, really wonderful book (The Interview with the Vampire) and who has since spent the rest of her career mistaking rhetoric for storytelling. Sherman's new work suffers from a claustrophobic obviousness; we already know the body rots, we know that let us paint an inch thick, to this pass we must come. It would be nice if Sherman broke a little through the marmoreal glaze of operatic sturm und drang that makes the new work so unapproachable, and showed us a little more of that wonderful ability to observe others through assuming their identity that makes the earlier work so successful. One used to feel the delightful inventiveness, in her work, of an actor who could conjur a world from a few sticks of furniture and an empty stage. One feels, now, the opressive overproduction of a Hollywood blockbuster that's all surface and no story.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Going Back to Aikido Class After 20 Years

Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, 8th Dan, Aikido
I think I was about ten when I took my first martial arts class.  It turned out to be the only one I'd take for another fifteen years, but I didn't know that then.  It was a judo class at the local YMCA in a small town in Pennsylvania --I was a small kid with a big mouth, and my father, who had studied judo in New York under the legendary George Yoshida, one of judo's pioneers in the United States, felt that if I were going to crack wise with kids bigger than me, I ought to have a surprise or two up my sleeve just in case.  As luck would have it that first day we practiced self-defense throws against a choke from behind, and the very next day another kid who'd been tormenting me sporadically during recess applied exactly that hold to me on the playground after lunch.  Without thinking, I executed the throw I'd been taught the day before, and he ended up on the ground in front of me, flat on his back, gasping for air.  I think I was actually more surprised than he was, but the event, as you can imagine, left me with a favorable impression of the fighting arts of the Mysterious East.

At 25 I took my first aikido class.  Aikdo is a very different kettle of fish from judo, despite both arts being rooted in traditional jujitsu.  Judo is a competitive sport as well as a system of self-defense.  Exactly what aikido is, is something even aikido pracitioners don't agree on; ask ten aikidoka and you're likely to get ten different answers.  The art was founded by a  martial arts expert --a professional, who learned in the (very) hard school of martial arts in pre-World War II Japan --named Morihei Ueshiba, who was also an adherent of the Omoto-kyo neo-Shinto religion.  Fundamentally the martial arts of China and Japan are rooted in techniques designed, quite simply, to kill or incapacitate an opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible.  The conflation of martial practice with Zen and Taoist philosophy laid the groundwork for the practice of martial arts as a spiritual path as well, though, and in Japan by the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, books like sword master Yagyu Munenori's "The Sword and the Mind" were already mature philosophical treatises on the relationship between Zen (Ch'an) philosophy and the martial arts.

Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

Ueshiba learned a form of what's called aiki-jutsu, a kind of jujitsu in which the concept of aiki, or harmonizing with the attacker's movements rather than resisting them, forms the basis for many techniques.  Aikido is a further extension of this philosophy.  Aikido is virtually always practiced, in the dojo, with a partner, taking turns throwing and being thrown as the role of attacker (uke) and defender (nage) are exchanged.  Every technique ends in a throw or pin.

I took my first aikido class at the suggestion of a choreographer I was working with at the time and got hooked very quickly --the circular, spiraling movements were beautiful to look at and even more so to execute, and for probably two years I practiced as often as I could.

Like many young martial arts practitioners, though, I was also shopping around for the Ultimate Secrets of Total Martial Mastery and did a lot of reading, quite a bit of which centered around some of the more esoteric Chinese fighting systems, including taijiquan (tai chi chuan.)  One of the teachers I'd heard of was a Chinese master named Wong Shujin, a massively built resident of Taiwan famous for being able to generate enormous power with very little visible external movement (he was also famous for being able to take a full power punch almost anywhere on his body without being affected by it.)  Wong's arts were the so-called "internal martial arts" (another term that seems to mean something different with every martial artist you ask) of tai chi, hsing-i (xingyi) and bagua.

(archival footage of Wang Shujin demonstrating Xingyi's Five Elements Linking Form.)

One day in the aikido dojo I found myself paired with a short, unprepossessing looking guy about my age, wearing a brand new gi and glasses.  A beginner, I thought, I'll take it easy on him.  After a few exchanges it was clear I had a ringer on my hands; my concern for him was obviously misplaced, which became abundantly clear when I tried to execute a jointlock on him.  He stood there with a bored look on his face while I huffed and puffed, trying to force him to the mat or even feel a little uncomfortable, and then finally, in a quiet voice whose tone clearly implied that I had been tested and found wanting, he said, "You know, you're doing that wrong."  "Really," I replied, irritated.  "What," I asked, sticking my head in the lion's mouth, "is it supposed to feel like?"

The next couple of seconds were a blur.  I somehow found myself more or less horizontal in midair, and hit the mat with all the force and grace of a bag of manure tossed from a tractor cart.  (As it happened, it turned out he was a black belt but had left his senior practitioner's uniform behind on an airplane and, wanting to practice, had just bought a new gi at the dojo that day before getting on the mat.  Another lesson not to judge a book by its cover.)  The rest of the class evolved similarly, but even through my frustration (and considerable physical discomfort; my question seemed to have annoyed my partner, who proceeded to perform all subsequent techniques with devastating accuracy) I sensed something odd was going on.  Trying to throw him was like grappling with air; being thrown was like trying to resist a tsunami.  At the end of the class I staggered over to the sensei.  "Oh, don't worry," the teacher said, kindly.  "That's Eric.  He does tai chi."

I was to eventually spend nearly a decade studying tai chi with Eric, during which time I was also exposed, through his connections in the New York martial arts world, to a lot of different systems and practitioners.  Eric's approach to tai chi was on the old-fashioned side; he taught it, as many do, as a practice for health and meditation, but also as a fighting system, and we learned that in application tai chi could be gentle, or it could be extremely nasty.  Along the way a lot of other things happened.  I went back to school to learn Chinese medicine, eventually practicing acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine; I got married and started a family, and I stopped practicing aikido in favor of tai chi.  When for various reasons we closed the tai chi school and Eric moved out of New York, I practiced xingyi for several years.  Xingyi was interesting. It shares some biomechanical principles with both tai chi and aikido but it looks much more overtly martial; while there's a meditative aspect to it, it's extremely brutal as well (my teacher told us, one evening after class, that one of the purposes of xingyi was to cause the opponent to die in such a state of terror that they would be unable to reincarnate in human form.  As the kids these days say, that's some messed-up sh**.)  The techniques in xingyi have bluntly descriptive names --"crushing fist," "splitting fist," "pounding fist" and so on.  My xingyi teacher's personality matched the characteristics of the system he taught (I often wondered which came first, the chicken or the egg --the sardonic sadism, or the study of xingyi) but his methods were unquestionably effective and also quite traditional, up to and including the traditional ritual humiliation of new students.  It wasn't Full Metal Jacket exactly but he did take great pleasure in offering observations like, "you guys aren't even good enough to suck yet," and refusing to call me anything except "hey, tai chi guy" when I first started studying with him.

Despite the sadomasochistic nature of the practice (or maybe because of it --many, varied and perverse are the reasons for studying martial arts) I stayed with him for several years, though eventually he stopped teaching as well. (To be fair, despite his abrasive personality --or maybe because of it --I learned a great deal and wish he was still teaching.)  In the meantime I found myself, with impeccable timing, deciding to get into the magazine business in around 2006, and had a great two years before the bottom fell out of the economy and the streets of New York ran red with the blood of fired editors.  Still, I stuck it out.  I still practiced the tai chi and xingyi forms occasionally but I spent a great deal more time sitting --at meetings, on airplanes, and in front of a computer --and as I approached fifty it became clear to me that I needed to find a way to exercise every day or I was going to start my second half-century looking like Jabba the Hutt.

And lo, what I most feared has come to pass.
I tried a few things other than martial arts --including a membership at a local gym, which was not a success.  Not for nothing is the word "treadmill" used as a metaphor for soul-killing boredom; lifting weights had all the fascination of enforced menial labor; the pool was crowded and I could never quite clear my mind of the suspicion I was paddling through a suspension of other people's filth.  No, I thought, finally, not for me, the rigors of the gym.

However, there was aikido.  A quick look at the New York Aikikai's website revealed that not only was it still at its old address (where in fact it's been since 1962 --the dojo and I are the same age) but Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, the legendary 8th Dan aikido master who had been a live-in student of aikido founder Morihei Ueshibal himself, was still teaching.  Thus it was late last year that I found myself stepping, not without a certain level of feeling, back onto the mat.

It had been twenty years.  My body remembered a lot of the movements but it was clear to me after only a few minutes that I had lost a lot of the ability I'd once had to execute them efficiently and I only managed to get through the first class thanks to the kindness of my partner, who'd been practicing there when I left two decades before but who, unlike me, had had the sense not to take a twenty year vacation.  (She also very kindly forebore to offer directions; her only comment, about halfway through the class, was a gentle observation that she wasn't doing anything very demanding and I really ought to calm down and breathe.)  Still, I felt euphoric after class, at least until I tried to go down the stairs, when I found that my legs were so on fire with post-exercise soreness that I could barely make it down the stairs to the subway.

The most interesting thing about being back, though, is that I don't necessarily regret the time away.  I was, I think, an awful baby in a lot of ways when I started and at least now I'm comfortable with the idea --more or less --of the value of regular daily practice that doesn't look for spectacular highs (which are, as I've begun to figure out at the ripe old age of 49, inevitably paired with spectacular lows.)  I've realized since coming back that one of the most valuable aspects of aikido is that you practice with all sorts of different partners, and part of the practice is to develop the ability to work with everyone from seasoned experts (of which there are many at my dojo; as one of the oldest in the US, with senior teachers who studied directly with the founder, there are an intimidating number of high ranking black belts on the mat every day --you can easily find yourself paired with a 4th degree black belt who's a thirty year veteran of aikido, which, if you think about it, is actually rather a good thing) to absolute beginners.  And practicing xingyi and tai chi was far from wasted time --both arts gave me an appreciation for the incredible sophistication of aikido.

Maybe the hardest thing about going back is also the best thing, though.  Having spent the better part of two decades studying other systems I have a rather large emotional investment in seeing myself as an expert, but at the aikido dojo, while the technical repertoire of both tai chi and xingyi are very valuable as background, it's still aikido that I'm practicing and I have to go through the experience of noticing the ego investment I've made in thinking of myself as someone who knows a thing or two, and letting it go.  It was very difficult at first, but it's gotten a little easier --perhaps not coincidentally, as my own stamina has improved and my practice has stabilized.  It's easier, now, to simply enjoy each day of practice for what it is, and to stop looking for a repetition of some experience I might have liked in a given class in the next one.

The strangest thing, though, is to think about those twenty years.  I know I lived through them, but on the mat they often don't seem real, or at least, the idea of twenty years passing seems unimportant.  I keep thinking about something the Zen monk Dogen-zenji wrote in his treatise, Being-Time, 800 years ago: Time seems to pass, when in fact it does not.