Let Them Eat Tweets


Published: April 16, 2009

Twitter — the microblogging service that lets you post and read fragmentary communications at high speed — is fun, but it’s embarrassing. You subscribe to the yawps of a bunch of people; they subscribe to your yawps; and you produce and consume yawps for the rest of your days. The me-me-me clamor brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem about the disgrace of fame, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”: “How public — like a Frog — / To tell one’s name — the livelong June — / To an admiring Bog!”

Now that I inhabit the Twitter bog, though, I don’t complain. Twitter can be entertaining, and useful — and, really, who doesn’t like the illusion, from time to time, of lots of company? I have only lately begun to wonder whether I’d use Twitter if I were fully at liberty to do what I liked. In other words, I’m not sure I’d use Twitter if I were rich. Swampy, boggy, inescapable connectivity: it seems my middle-class existence has stuck me here.

These worries started to surface for me last month, when Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk writer, proposed at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin that the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on “connections” like the Internet, Skype and texting. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” he said.

In his speech, Sterling seemed to affect Nietzschean disdain for regular people. If the goal was to provoke, it worked. To a crowd that typically prefers onward-and-upward news about technology, Sterling’s was a sadistically successful rhetorical strategy. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” had the ring of one of those haughty but unforgettable expressions of condescension, like the Middle Eastern gem “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”

“Connectivity is poverty” was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling’s bold theme. Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Nice, right? The implications of Sterling’s idea are painful for Twitter types. The connections that feel like wealth to many of us — call us the impoverished, we who treasure our smartphones and tally our Facebook friends — are in fact meager, more meager even than inflated dollars. What’s worse, these connections are liabilities that we pretend are assets. We live on the Web in these hideous conditions of overcrowding only because — it suddenly seems so obvious — we can’t afford privacy. And then, lest we confront our horror, we call this cramped ghetto our happy home!

Twitter is no longer new. It’s nearly three years old. Early enthusiasts who used it for barhopping bulletins have cooled on it. Corporations, institutions and public-relations firms now tweet like maniacs. Google has been rumored to be interested in buying the company. The “ambient awareness” that Twitter promotes — the feeling of incessant online contact — is still intact. But the emotional force of all this contact may have changed in the context of the economic collapse. Where once it was “hypnotic” and “mesmerizing” (words often used to describe Twitter) to read about a friend’s fever or a cousin’s job complaints, today the same kind of posts, and from broader and broader audiences, seem . . . threatening. Encroaching. Suffocating. Twitter may now be like a jampacked, polluted city where the ambient awareness we all have of one another’s bodies might seem picturesque to sociologists (who coined “ambient awareness” to describe this sense of physical proximity) but has become stifling to those in the middle of it.

A typical hour on my Twitter account, which I use to follow the updates of about 250 people, has some wonderfully cryptic tweets from Murray Hill, a drag-king entertainer, and Touré, the novelist and critic, alongside some less-inspired posts from P.R. people and cultural institutions trying to pass as normal Twitterers. I myself mostly post links to this column, hoping that the self-promotion is transparent enough that people can easily ignore a link or click it if they’re curious. But don’t get me wrong: I’m also just shouting my name the livelong June to a subscribing bog.

If this way of using Twitter bothers you, never fear: people like me get their comeuppance. If you hang out in the bog, a Twitter search might turn up commentary about you like this: “X might be the dumbest person I’ve encountered in print” and “X writes like a dog about to be gassed at the shelter.” (X here equals, sadly, “Virginia Heffernan.”)

I used to think that writers on the Web who feared hate mail and carping bloggers were just being old-fashioned and precious. But now, while I brood on the maxim “connectivity is poverty,” I can’t help wondering if I’ve turned into some banged-up street kid, stuck in a cruel and crowded neighborhood, trying to convince everyone that regular beatings give you character. Maybe the truth is that I wish I could get out of this place and live as I imagine some nondigital or predigital writers do: among family and friends, in big, beautiful houses, with precious, irreplaceable objects.

If I’ve come to be wary of social networks, which I once embraced with zeal, maybe it’s because I take my cues from those very networks. In the old days, Facebook updaters and Twitterers mostly posted about banal stuff, like sandwiches. But that was September. It’s spring now. Look at Twistori, a new site that sorts and organizes Twitter posts that use emotionally laden words like “wish” or “hate” or “love,” thereby building an image of the collective Twitter psyche. The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter.

“I wish I didn’t have obligations,” someone posted not long ago. “I wish I had somewhere to go,” wrote an other. “I wish things were different.” “I wish I grew up in the ’60s.” “I wish I didn’t feel the need to write pointless things here.” “I wish I could get out of this hellhole.”

And finally, “I wish I was rich and had personal assistants.” Right on. And those assistants, presumably, could do our Twitterwork for us.

April 27th, 2009
End the University as We Know It


NY Times Published: April 26, 2009

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.” My hope is that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive.

Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming “Field Notes From Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and

April 27th, 2009
What Happened to the Ban on Assault Weapons?

NY Times Published: April 26, 2009

THE evolution in public policy concerning the manufacture, sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons like AK-47s, AR-15s and Uzis has been very disturbing. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and I all supported a ban on these formidable firearms, and one was finally passed in 1994.

When the 10-year ban was set to expire, many police organizations — including 1,100 police chiefs and sheriffs from around the nation — called on Congress and President George W. Bush to renew and strengthen it. But with a wink from the White House, the gun lobby prevailed and the ban expired.

I have used weapons since I was big enough to carry one, and now own two handguns, four shotguns and three rifles, two with scopes. I use them carefully, for hunting game from our family woods and fields, and occasionally for hunting with my family and friends in other places. We cherish the right to own a gun and some of my hunting companions like to collect rare weapons. One of them is a superb craftsman who makes muzzle-loading rifles, one of which I displayed for four years in my private White House office.

But none of us wants to own an assault weapon, because we have no desire to kill policemen or go to a school or workplace to see how many victims we can accumulate before we are finally shot or take our own lives. That’s why the White House and Congress must not give up on trying to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, even if it may be politically difficult.

An overwhelming majority of Americans, including me and my hunting companions, believe in the right to own weapons, but surveys show that they also support modest restraints like background checks, mandatory registration and brief waiting periods before purchase.

A majority of Americans also support banning assault weapons. Many of us who hunt are dismayed by some of the more extreme policies of the National Rifle Association, the most prominent voice in opposition to a ban, and by the timidity of public officials who yield to the group’s unreasonable demands.

Heavily influenced and supported by the firearms industry, N.R.A. leaders have misled many gullible people into believing that our weapons are going to be taken away from us, and that homeowners will be deprived of the right to protect ourselves and our families. The N.R.A. would be justified in its efforts if there was a real threat to our constitutional right to bear arms. But that is not the case.

Instead, the N.R.A. is defending criminals’ access to assault weapons and use of ammunition that can penetrate protective clothing worn by police officers on duty. In addition, while the N.R.A. seems to have reluctantly accepted current law restricting sales by licensed gun dealers to convicted felons, it claims that only “law-abiding people” obey such restrictions — and it opposes applying them to private gun dealers or those who sell all kinds of weapons from the back of a van or pickup truck at gun shows.

What are the results of this profligate ownership and use of guns designed to kill people? In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 30,000 people died from firearms, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all injury deaths. In 2005, every nine hours a child or teenager in the United States was killed in a firearm-related accident or suicide.

Across our border, Mexican drug cartels are being armed with advanced weaponry imported from the United States — a reality only the N.R.A. seems to dispute.

The gun lobby and the firearms industry should reassess their policies concerning safety and accountability — at least on assault weapons — and ease their pressure on acquiescent politicians who fear N.R.A. disapproval at election time. We can’t let the N.R.A.’s political blackmail prevent the banning of assault weapons — designed only to kill police officers and the people they defend.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

April 26th, 2009
Drug-Sub Culture


Bigfoot, a drug-smuggling submarine, is now on display at Truman Annex, Naval Air Station Key West in Florida.

NY Times Published: April 23, 2009

THE CRAFT FIRST surfaced like something out of a science-fiction movie. It was November 2006, and a Coast Guard cutter spotted a strange blur on the ocean 100 miles off Costa Rica. As the cutter approached, what appeared to be three snorkels poking up out of the water became visible. Then something even more surprising was discovered attached to the air pipes: a homemade submarine carrying four men, an AK-47 and three tons of cocaine.

Today, the 49-foot-long vessel bakes on concrete blocks outside the office of Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich in Key West, Fla. Here, at the Joint Interagency Task Force South, Nimmich commands drug-interdiction efforts in the waters south of the United States. Steely-eyed, gray-haired and dressed in a blue jumpsuit, he showed me the homemade sub one hot February afternoon like a hunter flaunting his catch. “We had rumors and indicators of this for a very long period beforehand,” he told me, which is why they nicknamed it Bigfoot.

This kind of vessel — a self-propelled, semisubmersible made by hand in the jungles of Colombia — is no longer quite so mythic: four were intercepted in January alone. But because of their ability to elude radar systems, these subs are almost impossible to detect; only an estimated 14 percent of them are stopped. And perhaps as many as 70 of them will be made this year, up from 45 or so in 2007, according to a task-force spokesman. Made for as little as $500,000 each and assembled in fewer than 90 days, they are now thought to carry nearly 30 percent of Colombia’s total cocaine exports.

These subs are the most ingenious innovation in the drug trade. But as Joe Biden told Congress last July, that’s not the only reason they pose “a significant danger to the United States.” In late January, a Sri Lankan Army task force found three semisubs being built by Tamil rebels in the jungles of Mullaitivu. “With this discovery the [Tamil] will go down in history as the first terrorist organization to develop underwater weapons,” the Sri Lankan ministry of defense declared.

Nimmich said, “If you can carry 10 tons of cocaine, you can carry 10 tons of anything.”

Bigfoot isn’t just a trophy. It’s a reminder of the ever-escalating cat-and-mouse game of drug interdiction. Before the subs, the battle focused on fishing vessels and “go fast” boats. In 2006, improved intelligence and radar detection from helicopters and cutters helped remove a record 256 metric tons of cocaine from what is estimated to have been more than a thousand metric tons that moved through the U.S. and Central and South American transit zones that year. But that led to the next wave of smuggling vessels. “Like any business, if you’re losing more and more of your product, you try to find a different way,” Nimmich said.

Early drug-sub experiments date back to the mid-1990s. In 1995, an émigré from the former Soviet Union was arrested in Miami after trying to broker the sale of an old Soviet sub from the Russian mafia to the Colombian cartels. In 2000, the Colombian police found Russian documents scattered in a warehouse in a suburb of Bogotá alongside a half-built, 100-foot-long submarine capable of carrying 200 tons of cocaine.

Building a fully submersible submarine is complicated and indiscreet, requiring highly skilled workers and a manufacturing facility that’s too big to be easily hidden. The alternative: semisubmersibles that, though considerably smaller than the sub found in the warehouse, can carry five times as much cocaine as a common fishing vessel. Nimmich said the rise of semisubs has been traced to two unnamed men, a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan, who in early 2006 provided plans to the Colombians for building semisubs quickly, stealthily and out of cheap, commonly available materials. One of the biggest concerns when making a drug sub is that a laborer will reveal its location before the work is done. For this reason, the 15 or 20 people brought in to build a craft remain on site for the duration. They set up a campsite in the dense brush, relying on generators for electricity and make the ships by hand. When I asked Nimmich if he was impressed by their craftsmanship, he arched a brow and said: “You ever try to build something in your backyard? They’re building these in the jungles.”

AT THE BEGINNING of last September, a 44-year-old fisherman named Padro Mercedes Arboleda-Palacios left the town of Buenaventura for a two-day trip upriver into the Colombian jungle. After staying in a small hut for several days, he was led by four men with rifles on another boat to a vessel in the woods surrounded by six armed guards. It was el ataúd, the coffin, the nickname Colombians gave to semisubs after a few were rumored to have disappeared at sea.

The subs’ dangerous reputation hasn’t stopped crew members — a captain, a navigator and two workers like Arboleda-Palacios — from taking the job. “Generally they don’t have much of a criminal background,” Adam Tanenbaum, an assistant federal public defender who has represented several drug-sub crew members, says. “They don’t do it because they’re in criminal life. They’re doing it to survive.” Arboleda-Palacios hadn’t worked on a drug boat before, but when a friend said he could make $3,000 at it, he accepted.

In early September, according to the lawyer who would later represent him and shared his story with me, Arboleda-Palacios squeezed into the cramped boat. He and the three others stood in the middle section, the navigation room — barely 12 feet across by 6 feet wide. There was GPS gear, a couple of mattresses on benches and a splintery wooden steering wheel from a fishing boat. The engine was in the stern. Two hundred and ninety-five bales of cocaine, weighing more than seven tons and with a street value of $196 million, were crammed into the bow. Packages of dry noodles and bottled water were the crew’s only provisions.

Two small, go-fast boats guided the semisub downriver and released the ship into the sea. As it crawled at barely seven miles per hour, water splashed over the porthole, making it all but impossible to see outside.

The captain called the base with his coordinates twice a day to get directions to the rendezvous point. Miles off the destination coast, a semisub is typically met by go-fast boats, which then take the cocaine to shore. Once their trips are complete, the subs are scuttled and abandoned — the cheapest and least conspicuous way to dispose of them. The crew then get the rest of their pay and are taken back home, if all goes well.

Two days after Arboleda-Palacios set out in the sub, his crew lost communication with the base. So they cut their engine and waited for contact as they drifted at sea.

IN THE DRUG-SUB hunt, one of Key West’s top figures is a 28-year-old Naval Intelligence officer who spent years in the Navy on nuclear subs and is unabashedly earnest about taking on the cartels. “It sounds corny,” he told me, “but I want to help make a better society.”

The officer, whom the government does not want identified because it says doing so might jeopardize future missions, was standing atop the rocking surface of Bigfoot II, the only working semisub that has been captured, which now resides at the Joint Interagency Task Force South. The 59-foot-long ship bobbed off the docks of Key West like something from the world of “Mad Max.” Two fat pipes in the aft twisted up from the flat top. There was a small square section raised in the middle with a thin rectangular window on each of the four sides. A hatch revealed the cramped navigation quarters inside that reeked of diesel — along with a snarl of cables and a faded wooden wheel for steering.

As Arboleda-Palacios was drifting elsewhere at sea last September, the U.S.S. McInerney spotted Bigfoot II 350 miles off the Mexico-­Guatemala coast. When the McInerney crew boarded the vessel, the smugglers inside Bigfoot II reversed direction to try to knock them into the sea. But the McInerney crew broke in and found four Colombians and 6.4 tons of cocaine worth $107 million inside.

Catching, let alone spotting, the drug subs is difficult. The Naval Intelligence officer compared it to patrolling the entire country as a sheriff with three cars. “So if there’s someone in Texas holding up a 7-Eleven, and somebody’s in Baltimore mugging somebody,” he said, “you have to move.”

The cocaine packed inside provides a built-in ballast, giving the boats, which are painted the color of the ocean, about a foot of freeboard above the surface. With little or no steel, the fiberglass-and-wood boats have a low radar signature. Some semisubs use lead pads to shield the hot engines from the military’s infrared sensors. Bigfoot II is among the newer models that have piping along the bottom to allow the water to cool the exhaust as the ship moves, making it even less susceptible to infrared detection.

“It’s amazing what they can build in the mangrove swamps,” the officer said, as he walked across the ship. “They take basic ingenuity and engineering and sculpt it to meet their needs.” He went on to say, “To underestimate their intelligence is a mistake.” Indeed, military and civilian researchers are racing to improve detection capabilities. In February, the officer spent a week driving Bigfoot II through the waters around Key West to test sensors used to identify the vehicles.

Daniel Stilwell, an engineer at the Autonomous Systems and Controls Laboratory at Virginia Tech, told me he is doing work for the Office of Naval Research on a small robotic boat that may one day be able “to operate 1,000 miles upriver and find the drug subs before they’re ever deployed.” But the Navy declined to reveal more. “Providing clues about new capabilities would encourage the traffickers to make tailored improvements that oppose these efforts,” Peter Vietti, a spokesman, said.

THREE DAYS AFTER Bigfoot II was seized, another semisub was detected at sea, and the Coast Guard cutter Midgett was sent to intercept it. “It was like ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ ” said the boarding officer of the Midgett.

The Midgett crew seized Arboleda-Palacios and the other smugglers, along with the cocaine, though the sub sank as they did so. Frequently, drug subs are scuttled by crews facing capture, taking the legal evidence down with the ship. But confiscating the drugs is no longer as crucial as it once was. The Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Assistance Act, which became law in October, now allows the United States to prosecute someone for merely being on board a semisub. Earlier this month, the first semisub crew members were convicted under this law (Arboleda-­Palacios was sentenced under older drug laws to 108 months). Such a law does not exist in Colombia. But Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told me that one is in the works and could be enacted as early as June. He said the country is also looking to ban certain plastics used in semisub production. “We’re trying to detect small factories of these semisubmersibles,” he said. “We have to be also as audacious in terms of inventing a way to detect them.”

Legal and technical audacity may be required. As John Pike, a defense expert and the director of GlobalSecurity.org, told me, “If Al Qaeda decided they wanted to attack the homeland, or Iran decided they can attack the American homeland, this might be the way of getting in.” Then he added, “This is the 21st-century equivalent of German U-boats.”

How semisubs will evolve is difficult to predict, Nimmich said as we walked outside his office. Nearby, workers were putting up American flags and bleachers to celebrate an anniversary: the task force had been fighting the drug wars for 20 years. At some upcoming anniversary, it may be fighting fully submersible subs far underwater. Nimmich wouldn’t put it past the cartels. “If I was in their business,” he said, “it would be a technology I would be exploring.”

The crew quarters of Bigfoot II, which was captured last September, had a repurposed wooden steering wheel from a fishing boat, above. Cocaine was stored in the bow, opposite page.

David Kushner is the author of “Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb.” He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Wired.

April 26th, 2009
No, You Can’t Get an Upgrade


Ny Times Published: April 25, 2009

We are not going anywhere.

That is what we learned from a report last week by the Census Bureau which found that fewer Americans are changing residences than at any time since 1962, back when there were 120 million fewer Americans than today.

The numbers are yet another worrying beep from the array of gizmos that monitor our economic coma. But the report also signals a profound, if barely noticed, change to our national psyche, one that goes far beyond the way we think about housing.

For decades, Americans have been known as epic consumers, but it would be more accurate to call us epic upgraders. During all those years of packing up and moving, we were headed to a bigger house, at a better address, perhaps for a higher-paying job. We were trading up, and that urge — to acquire something bigger or better, preferably something bigger and better — is a quintessentially American urge. It is so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it.

When we buy a television, it’s rarely because we lack a TV. We want a thinner TV, or a bigger TV, or a TV with features that sound beguiling even if we have no idea what they do. Like the DynaLight Dynamic Back Light Control on the latest Toshiba high-definition set. What is that? We don’t know. But we’ll take two.

Or we would if we could afford them. To fully understand our collective shock over our pulse-less economy, take a good look at the upgrade cycle that we’ve been gleefully riding for at least three decades. Until last year, if you were living the 2.3 version of Life, you had your eyes on version 2.4 and odds were pretty good that you’d get it. Maybe on an overextended credit card, or from a loan that you really couldn’t afford. But you’d get it.

Now, if you’re living Life 2.3, your ambition is to avoid Life 2.2.

Forget the upgrade. The game now is avoiding the downgrade. This is grim and troubling, in part, because so much of our consumer culture is built around the enticements of the Better.

Entire corporate strategies target the bottomless American appetite for the upgrade. Holders of American Express’s regular old green card might eventually get an invitation to upgrade to a gold card. (More privileges, more perks! For a fee, of course.) And once you’ve swiped that baby for a while, you might get an invitation to upgrade to platinum. (Yet more privileges, yet more perks! And higher fees.) If you behave yourself with the platinum card, you could join the purportedly exclusive ranks of black card holders, who pay a one-time initiation fee of $5,000 and then $2,500 annually.

All of these slabs of plastic do basically the same thing — help you acquire stuff — but they also confer ever larger increments of cachet on the holder. This allows you to upgrade your material life while signaling, to anyone who can see you in midpurchase, just how upgraded your material life already is.

No company has exploited America’s upgrade fever quite as deftly as Apple. The company is one of the very few that has kept most prices at prerecession levels while managing to report profits, as it did last week. Of course, Apple makes wonderful computers, software and gadgets, but is also brilliant at making everything you bought from it nine months ago seem slow, fusty and passé.

The compulsion to upgrade is most glaring in cities — particularly New York and Los Angeles — which are filled with the upwardly mobile who relocate in search of upgraded opportunities surrounded by savvier, richer, trendier people. These transplants are constantly trading up not just their jobs but their group of friends. Everyone in New York and L.A. has had this experience: you make a plan for dinner with a buddy, which he cancels with a lame, last minute excuse (“I’m just exhausted”). What you both know is that he got a late-breaking better offer. He upgraded his dinner.

The cities themselves are constantly being upgraded; there is scarcely a block in Manhattan that is far from a construction site, or a building that’s just been knocked down to make way for a bigger, better building. The upgrade-seekers of the city intuitively understand the city’s own upgrade addiction and are remarkably tolerant of the noise and inconvenience. Contrast that with Paris, a city that radiates a contentment with its present state. You can walk for miles without seeing a crane, hard hat or jackhammer.

In the United States, upgrade-mania has bred a sense of entitlement, which has only stoked upgrade demands. In recent years, when anything went wrong in any transaction — the airline misplaced your luggage, Little Caesars sent you a medium with pepperoni and mushroom and you hate mushrooms — you were owed an upgrade. A business class ticket, an order of crazy bread, something.

Perhaps the sense of being owed an extra won’t go away any time soon.

But there has long been an on-again, off-again war in the American soul between the forces of consumerism and the countervailing force of austerity. The consumers have had the upper hand for decades, but we might have little choice now but to find comfort in the words of the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Obviously, this man didn’t live in the age of Canon Elph, or the XBox 360 or the Range Rover LR3. But we can’t afford that cute new, teeny weeny digital camera in the Best Buy insert, so we’ll have to stick with the now ungainly looking model we bought a year ago. We can’t afford the Elite Passes and Gold Club memberships that were the open sesame to spiffier rental cars and bigger hotel rooms, so we’ll have to get used to compact vehicles and the double at the Motel 6.

And the house you own? Well, if you can still make the mortgage payments, learn to love it. Because for the time being, it will have to do.

April 25th, 2009
In a digital age, vinyl albums are making a comeback


Origami Vinyl is one of three new vinyl-only record stores opening next month in Los Angeles.
Sales of such albums were up 89% in 2008, which has fueled a mini-boom in neighborhood record stores in L.A. At least one member of the Who seems to approve.

By August Brown
LA Times, April 25, 2009

Neil Schield knows the grim state of the music business as well as anyone; last May, he was laid off from a company at the vanguard of digital music distribution.

But this month, Schield began an unlikely second act: He opened a brick-and-mortar record store in Echo Park, with racks of tasteful inventory carrying price tags as high as $100 — all presumed liabilities in an age when “digital” and “free” seem to rule the day. For added chutzpah, Schield’s shop, Origami Vinyl, exclusively stocks new vinyl LPs, presumed not long ago to be as dead as eight-track tapes.

Moreover, Origami is just one of at least three such shops opening in L.A. this spring; the others are Vacation in Los Feliz and Little Radio, a downtown storefront operated by an Internet radio station and concert promoter. The small boom is the result of a commercial rediscovery and appreciation of vinyl records among collectors and more casual audiences.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Schield said. But “it’s the only corner of the physical music business that’s growing.”

If Schield needed any assurance that he was on the right track, it came even before Origami opened. As his staff was preparing the store one day, Pete Townshend, the legendary guitarist of the Who, paid a visit. Townshend had read a blog item about the shop and dropped by to see if it was open.

The return of the scruffy neighborhood record shop is as unexpected as the revival of vinyl. After CDs first hit the U.S. market in 1983, LPs were deemed largely obsolete. Later, consumers’ shift to file-trading and online retail outlets such as iTunes and Amazon.com gutted the storefront music business. Between 2003 and last year, more than 3,000 record stores closed in the U.S., including such Los Angeles landmarks as Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. Independent shops such as Rhino Westwood and Aron’s Records in Hollywood accounted for nearly half the losses, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a database and marketing firm. Today, there are 185 record stores in the L.A. area, down from 259 at the beginning of 2007.

But as mass marketing of LPs faded, some listeners began rediscovering vinyl. It’s not just older fans who grew up with the decades-old format who attest to its tangible pleasures — the arresting artwork, the labor of love that goes into flipping LP sides and the fact that many audiophiles say vinyl sounds better. Younger listeners raised on torrent files can see LPs as a kind of talisman too.

“I’ve always marveled at every new generation of 15-year-old boys who go to the Doors vinyl section and say, ‘Wow, an original Doors LP!’ ” said Marc Weinstein, founder of Amoeba Music, the three-store chain whose Hollywood branch is among the largest independent retail record stores in the U.S. “Major labels should have capitalized on this years ago.”

Slowly they are, by pressing a growing list of vinyl catalog reissues and new albums by marquee artists such as U2. Nielsen SoundScan reported 1.88 million sales of new LPs last year, an 89% increase over 2007. And that figure is almost certainly conservative, as many independent retailers do not report their sales to SoundScan; the service says that more than two-thirds of vinyl albums are sold at indie operations.

Of course, to play a record, you need a turntable — and the market has responded with low-cost models that are more versatile than their earlier counterparts. Crosley Radio, for example, specializes in retro-styled record players sold in stores such as Target, Macy’s and Urban Outfitters. Its basic model retails for less than $80; for a little more, there’s a version with a USB port that allows music to be downloaded to a computer. (In addition, many LPs come with free digital download cards.)

“By the end of 2008, over 50% of our business was in new vinyl, which amounts to millions of dollars a year,” said Matt Wishnow, founder of the New York-based online music retailer Insound.com. Its turntable sales increased 200% in 2008, with the company shipping dozens daily during the holiday season.

But online retailers are not the only ones profiting from the market for new LPs. Now, it may have reached a point where it’s self-sustaining for the kind of small independent store once done in by downloading.

Trying again

Origami Vinyl is far from the first attempt at a record store in Echo Park. In 2007, Sea Level Records shuttered soon after a car drove through its Sunset Boulevard storefront — a metaphor not lost on many in the neighborhood. But Schield is hoping to fare better, with a new stock of blog-hyped indie rock and the classic hip-hop, folk and world music, set amid a minimalist-vintage décor featuring tungsten-filament lightbulbs and a spiral staircase.

Origami, which opened April 3, also does more than just sell records, serving as the daytime box office for the nearby Echo, Echoplex and Spaceland clubs.

Likewise, Little Radio founder Dave Conway is counting on income from booking concerts at the adjacent Regent Theatre to help pay the rent at his shop, where the windows are decorated with rotating LPs as varied as vintage soul and new local acts like the alt-country band Everest.

“I don’t think this is all that crazy,” Conway said of his latest venture, opening in May. “Just putting these records up in the windows, you can see how excited people are. With all the cafes and bars here, a record store fits right in.”

Over in Los Feliz, Vacation falls squarely in the area’s tradition of impressively bearded young men hawking exotic imported albums. “We’re banking on people liking vinyl for the long haul,” said co-owner Mark Thompson, who also co-founded and runs the experimental-metal label Hydra Head Records. “With CDs, you have an obligation to keep a low price tier. But with vinyl, if you do awesome work, you don’t have to worry so much about the cost.”

A high price

Though that is true for some collectors, others might think a $25 180-gram double-gatefold LP is more an indulgence than a necessity, especially in today’s economy. And the high price of manufacturing, shipping and stocking vinyl won’t be dropping any time soon.

Most of the equipment used to manufacture LPs is antiquated, and that limits potential cost-saving competition, said Don MacInnis, owner of Record Technology Inc., a Camarillo-based vinyl pressing plant that handles independent labels such as Sub Pop as well as major projects like U2′s new album “No Line on the Horizon.”

“I don’t see the market ever getting large enough to start making presses again. Our newest machine was purchased in 1984,” MacInnis said. “A big part of this resurgence will be temporary. Many people will soon realize the big pain factor of being a vinyl aficionado. You can make money at it if you price your records high enough, but it’s not going to be big dollars.”

Even some local devotees are skeptical about the new stores’ prospects, given their lack of offbeat used vinyl (though Vacation carries a small selection). “It’s all well and good to go out and buy the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Iron & Wine, but you need to have something different and exclusive going on to keep people coming back for that unknown quantity,” said Scott Tarasco, an L.A. collector who spends hundreds of dollars a month on LPs. “Quality used vinyl flies out the door. There’s got to be something in there that’s going to throw me for a loop.”

At Amoeba — whose size and clout give it chain-store competitive advantages alongside its indie credibility with music fans — new and used vinyl makes up no more than 20% of sales, according to founder Weinstein.

And even with the recent uptick in vinyl sales, the general outlook for music retail still looks grim. In the last year, total U.S. album sales were down 14% from 2007, a figure that includes a 32% gain in digital album sales, according to SoundScan figures.

But such dire statistics don’t dampen the enthusiasm of the new retailers, who have faith that the crackle of a vinyl record is one of the few things music fans can rely on.

“To me, it’s just awesome that there are all these other new stores,” Thompson said. “It reassures me that I’m not doing something totally stupid.”

April 25th, 2009
A Director Content to Wander On


The director Jim Jarmusch with Gael García Bernal, left, and Isaach De Bankolé, center, two of the stars of his new film, “The Limits of Control.”

NY Times Published: April 23, 2009

THIRTY years ago, when he was a student at New York University, Jim Jarmusch used some scholarship money meant for tuition to make a movie called “Permanent Vacation.” Like many first films, it is a little awkward and more than a little precious. But viewed today this imperfect debut also sums up the themes of his career: it gets across the sense of being a stranger at home and the empathy for life on the margins, and it even offers a kind of manifesto about the art of storytelling. “What’s a story anyway?” its protagonist muses, “except one of those connect-the-dots drawings that in the end forms a picture of something?”

The largely plotless movie ends with an image that now seems neatly symbolic: its hepcat hero is on a boat pulling out of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline receding into the distance. Since then Mr. Jarmusch has found his place as a poet of travel and a global ambassador for downtown cool. His protagonists are typically solitary adventurers, and his stories are usually mere clotheslines on which chance encounters and running gags are hung. His career, while not exactly a permanent vacation, has been consecrated to the romance of wanderlust and the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange.

A true independent who insists on final cut and who even owns all his negatives, Mr. Jarmusch has long been a world-cinema brand name, especially popular in Europe and Japan. Except for parts of the taxicab anthology “Night on Earth” (1991), however, his films have been set in the United States, which he has a particular knack for depicting through the eyes of outsiders. But with his 10th feature, “The Limits of Control,” which follows an impassive man of mystery (Isaach De Bankolé) on a lethal mission through Spain, Mr. Jarmusch, no less than his protagonist, is the stranger in paradise.

“Being in a place where you don’t understand certain things is really inspiring for your imagination,” Mr. Jarmusch said in a recent interview in the Manhattan office of Focus Features, the distributor of “The Limits of Control,” which opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and never thought I would get out,” Mr. Jarmusch said, reflecting on the importance of travel in his films. It could also be, he added, because his first trip abroad, as a college student in Paris, reading André Breton and watching movies at the Cinémathèque Française, had such a mind-expanding effect.

Mr. Jarmusch has made a specialty of the deadpan odyssey, starting with his breakthrough film, “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984). “The oldest narrative in the world is the journey,” he said. “I don’t really believe in originality. Art and human expression are about variations. There’s an ocean of possible ways, but they don’t ever come in the same configuration.”

The road movie is certainly not the only genre Mr. Jarmusch has tailored to suit his needs. “Dead Man” (1995) is a western with both cosmic and political dimensions. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) cross-pollinates the rituals of the samurai film with those of the Mafia movie.

“The Limits of Control” harks back to the existential crime films that enjoyed a golden age in the late ’60s with Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Samourai” and John Boorman’s “Point Blank.” Mr. Jarmusch summed up his intentions with typical dry perversity: “I always wanted to make an action film with no action, or a film with suspense but no drama.”

In keeping with his fondness for repetition and episodic structures, “The Limits of Control” takes shape as a series of interactions and transactions. The lone man runs into a series of colorful types (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray and others, making the most of minimal screen time), most of them envoys of a sort, who dispense gnomic instructions and presumably less pertinent ruminations. Matchboxes branded “Le Boxeur” are exchanged. Some contain a piece of paper bearing coded inscriptions, which the De Bankolé character dutifully folds up and swallows, washing down the clue with a gulp of espresso.

Mr. Jarmusch’s previous film, the melancholic “Broken Flowers” (2005), in which Mr. Murray played a graying lothario who goes in search of his former flames, seemed like the product of a mellowed middle age. But “The Limits of Control” affirms that at 56 he remains open as ever to experimentation, perhaps even to new ways of making and seeing movies.

There are obvious affinities between “The Limits of Control” and Mr. Jarmusch’s most adventurous film, “Dead Man,” which received mixed reviews when it was released but found its way onto many critics’ lists of the best movies of the ’90s. Each film undertakes a journey that is as much metaphysical as literal: a trip in more than one sense. By opening with a quotation from the Rimbaud poem “The Drunken Boat,” with its hallucinatory visions of being lost at sea, “The Limits of Control” even picks up where “Dead Man” left off, with Johnny Depp’s character being pushed out to sea and into the spirit world.

The title comes from an essay by William S. Burroughs about mind-control techniques. “I like the double sense,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “Is it the limits to our own self-control? Or is it the limits to which they can control us, ‘they’ being whoever tries to inject some kind of reality over us?”

But the title also registers as an acknowledgment that control, while unavoidable in the messy collective endeavor of moviemaking, runs counter to Mr. Jarmusch’s free-form approach. He starts with specific actors, gathers up seemingly unrelated ideas and settles on situations and moods before filling in what passes for a plot. “I work backwards,” he said. “That can be dangerous, and it can take a while.” For “The Limits of Control” he had even fewer starting points than usual: an actor, a character and a place, the curving Torres Blancas, a Madrid apartment tower that he first visited in the ’80s.

Location scouting was critical, since the movie, as Mr. Jarmusch saw it, was very much a matter of finding evocative spaces and landscapes and responding to them. The film came together as a connect-the-dots exercise. He sketched out the character’s itinerary, beginning in the cosmopolitan capital, Madrid, then heading south to the Moorish city of Seville on a high-speed train that traverses the olive groves and almond orchards of the Andalusian countryside. The eventual destination is the southeast, the lunar desert terrain near the coastal town of Alméria (where many spaghetti westerns were shot).

Mr. Jarmusch started filming without a complete script; instead he had what he called “a minimal map,” a 25-page story. The dialogue was filled in the night before a scene was shot. “With Jim it’s always about what’s between the lines,” said Mr. De Bankolé, who has appeared in three of Mr. Jarmusch’s previous films.

The odd little totems and fetishes embedded throughout the movie may seem arbitrary, but mention any one of them and Mr. Jarmusch will riff at length about its personal significance. He had received the Boxeur matches, which are common throughout Africa, as gifts, first from the musicologist Louis Sarno, then from Mr. De Bankolé, who was born in Ivory Coast. The black pickup truck that transports Mr. De Bankolé’s character to his ultimate destination, down to the slogan emblazoned on it (“La Vida No Vale Nada,” the title of a song by the Cuban singer and revolutionary Pablo Milanés), is modeled on one owned by Joe Strummer of the Clash, who appeared in “Mystery Train” and, before his death in 2002, lived part time in the south of Spain.

The clearest sign of Mr. Jarmusch’s commitment to a looser way of working was his decision to team up with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his seat-of-the-pants collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. “I wanted Chris’s wild side to find things I might not find,” Mr. Jarmusch said.

Music was the most important key to the rhythms and textures of the film. Mr. Jarmusch’s soundtracks are the height of hipster connoisseurship: Neil Young’s feedback-choked guitar vamps on “Dead Man,” RZA’s sinuous hip-hop on “Ghost Dog,” Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz-funk on “Broken Flowers.” For “The Limits of Control,” which called for a soundscape that he described as “layered, big, sort of damaged,” he relies on distortion-heavy epics by ambient-noise bands like Boris and Sunn O))).

Mr. Doyle, who has worked extensively in Asia, said there are ways in which Mr. Jarmusch’s methods are more East than West. “There are certain aspects of Asian filmmaking where you’re always looking for the essential in the picture,” he said. “We’re not sure what the film is until we find it.”

Like Forest Whitaker’s urban samurai in “Ghost Dog,” Mr. De Bankolé’s character is an apparent adherent of Eastern philosophy. The lone man practices tai chi and has a deliberate, Zenlike air to him. (At museums he takes in only one painting per visit.) Mr. De Bankolé said he got into character by reading the Japanese martial-arts manual “The Art of Peace.”

“It would slow me down,” he said. “He should be almost floating when he walks.”

Mr. Jarmusch is not a practicing Buddhist, but he said, “it’s a philosophy that speaks to me more clearly than others.” He does tai chi and qigong and has come up with a concentration exercise — “a cross between meditating and taking a hallucinogenic drug” — that requires him to pay close attention to all noises within earshot. (In a lovely sequence Mr. De Bankolé’s character lies on his bed in a Seville apartment as the light changes and the sounds of the neighborhood wash over him.)

To the extent that “The Limits of Control” is a puzzle, Mr. Jarmusch said he drew inspiration from Jacques Rivette’s films, where the pleasure often lies in disorientation in the accumulation of cryptic clues and resonances rather than in solutions. Accordingly, he was more eager to hear interpretations of the film than to offer his own.
“It’s not my job to know what it means,” he said, adding that the Juan Gris painting seen at one point could be taken as a hint to the movie’s Cubist nature. “It’s interpretable in different ways, and they’re all valid.”

The other day his friend the actress Ingrid Caven told him she had assumed the little pieces of paper that Mr. De Bankolé’s character swallows are tabs of blotter acid. “She said each time he eats one of those, he gets perky,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ll take it.”

April 25th, 2009
A Label of Pride That Pays


Ny Times Published: April 22, 2009

In a timeworn factory in Sausalito, Calif., 67 workers turn out Heath ceramics, doing everything from mixing the clay to applying the finishing glazes. Twenty miles away, a Japanese robot called Ziggy works day and night in a converted brass foundry in Berkeley, making precision-cut office furniture.

What the two neighboring factories demonstrate is that it is still possible to manufacture high-quality products in one of the most expensive locations in the United States — even in the grip of an economic recession.

And while both are being forced to adapt to the tough times, the two businesses have been helped by the fact that their products are made in America.

“In hard economic times, a slogan built around ‘Buy American’ is going to resonate a little more,” said Steven J. Davis, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “People read stories about unemployed Americans and they want to feel good when they make consumption decisions.”

Professor Davis said manufacturing was generally moving outside wealthier countries like the United States. “Only an outbreak of protectionist policies or a sharp rise in international shipping costs could slow or temporarily reverse manufacturing’s declining share of employment in the United States,” he said.

Still, there still seems to be an appetite for products from high-end, craft-based manufacturers in America. That proved to be the major reason that Robin Petravic and his wife, Catherine Bailey, bought Heath Ceramics six years ago even though competition from abroad had forced most artisanal potteries across the country to shut down.

They said that when they first walked into Heath’s factory in one of Sausalito’s former shipyards, they decided that Heath’s idiosyncratic way of doing things and its geographical roots could prove to be its salvation. They said they were struck by the fact that every part of the manufacturing process was under one roof. “Many of the employees had worked there for decades and knew everything, including how to fix the machines if they broke down,” Ms. Bailey said.

The company was founded in the mid-1940s by Edith Heath, a ceramicist and creative spirit, and her husband, Brian, an inventor. The company quickly earned a reputation for durable, finely crafted tableware and tile whose clean, modernist lines signaled a break from the more fussy designs of the past.

It would seem at first glance that little has changed at Heath’s dusty, 30,000-square-foot factory in the time since — the tableware and tile are made in the same sustainable, labor-intensive way they have always been. Some lines, like the Coupe pattern, have been in constant production since 1948.

But change has come with the need to make the manufacturing more efficient, cater to the current design aesthetic and respond with agility to the economic downturn. New production systems have been introduced, and dusty pink has been removed from the palette in favor of more contemporary glazing hues like persimmon and cocoa.

In January, Heath introduced a line of less expensive tile. While previously all of Heath’s tile was made to order, the Modern Basics line can be bought off the shelf in a limited selection of colors and shapes. It is about 40 percent cheaper than the custom tile.

Heath’s mix of sales channels has also been adjusted, with wholesale taking a backseat to more direct routes, like the company’s Web site, its factory store and a new retail outlet, which opened in December in Los Angeles. “That’s where we can be most effective and react most quickly,” said Mr. Petravic, a former product designer who developed the business plan.

The factory store, he said, helps them learn which new designs work and which ones do not. It has also reinforced the couple’s commitment to manufacturing in the United States. “We can test the market and avoid suffering from our mistakes,” he said. “If we try something that turns out not to be popular, maybe we have made 100.”

In 2008, Heath’s sales increased fivefold and its profit margin was about 8 percent. The company increased its employee roster to 67 from 25. This year the goal, Mr. Petravic said, is simply to stay flat.

Reinier Evers, founder of Trendwatching.com, which tracks consumer habits, agreed that Heath seemed to be benefiting from consumers’ renewed interest in homegrown products. How products are made is on consumers’ radar, he said. “There’s a story that consumers can tell themselves, or better, the ‘status story’ they can tell their peers to gain recognition.”

Michael Goldin, an architect and industrial designer, has also tied his company’s fate to that trend. For the last 14 years, Mr. Goldin has been contributing to the rejuvenation of a light-industrial district in Berkeley. He transformed an abandoned model airplane motor factory into his office and has designed and outfitted streamlined, open-plan office spaces for lawyers, architects and dotcom start-ups in Berkeley and neighboring Emeryville.

Mr. Goldin’s company, Swerve, has also been making furniture, seeking out the technology required to produce precision-cut aluminum taper joints and machine-tooled, eco-friendly work surfaces for the desks, workstations and shelving systems.

For Mr. Goldin, outsourcing was never an option. “Ever since I was at grad school I have felt very strongly about having my hands in what I am making — actually feeling materials and how they work,” he said. “It all started with my desire to make things and to have a shop where I could do that.”

Outsourcing, he said, would also make it difficult to ensure high design and craftsmanship standards. “How do you keep track?” he asked. “How do you make sure your product comes to you as you specified it? Overseeing the process would require constant traveling back and forth.”

In any case, having Swerve’s pieces made overseas would compromise the company’s just-in-time manufacturing model. “We always make our products to order. We can’t afford to keep items in stock,” Mr. Goldin said. “If we went overseas we would have to order huge inventory ahead of time. And we’re not ready for that.”

The company’s labor costs are kept low because of its reliance on computerized cutting machines, including a new canary yellow robot from Japan, nicknamed Ziggy by the employees, which works 24 hours a day. Of Swerve’s 15 employees, only four work on the shop floor.

In the last few months, Mr. Goldin has had to make some hard choices to ensure that Swerve rides out the economic crisis. A recent order for 500 aluminum-framed chairs will be completed at cost.

He and his administrative staff have vacated the factory’s sleek offices and some income-generating tenants have moved in. And his employees have all agreed to salary cuts. But he believes more strongly than ever that outsourcing would be the wrong choice. “Of all times, we need to do what we can to keep jobs here,” he said.

Both Mr. Goldin and the owners of Heath say they hope what they have achieved will stand as a model for other small- and medium-size businesses facing the critical question of whether to locate production locally or in low-cost offshore sites. As Ms. Bailey put it, “The craft of manufacturing has to a great extent been lost as a value in American culture, and we are striving to retain it.”

via the arm

April 24th, 2009
Violence Embodied in a Boxer’s Rise and Fall


NY Times Published: April 24, 2009

The first thing you see in “Tyson,” James Toback’s powerful and troubling new documentary, is an old television clip showing Mike Tyson, on Nov. 22, 1986, defeating Trevor Berbick to win the W.B.C. heavyweight title. Just 20 years old, Mr. Tyson was the youngest fighter to win that belt, and to see him take it is to recall, especially in light of the shambling, thuggish caricature he would later become, what a dazzling and ferocious boxer he was in his prime.

The only thing more astonishing than the speed of his combinations was their force, and his ability to blend quickness with brute strength quickly overpowered his early opponents, not many of whom lasted very long in the ring with him. Mr. Berbick, a taller, heavier and more experienced fighter, was done before the second round was over, and what the slow-motion video shows most indelibly is the terror on his face before the referee mercifully called a TKO.

The essence of boxing is violence, but few fighters have refined it — have embodied it — quite as effectively as Mr. Tyson has; he sometimes speaks to Mr. Toback’s camera about the murderous clarity he took into the ring with him. He says he used to imagine his fists smashing through his opponent’s faces and out the backs of their heads. The pure terror in Mr. Berbick’s eyes (and in those of most of the other fighters Mr. Tyson met during his rapid rise and brief reign) suggests that he might well have been capable of wreaking that kind of damage.

But the damage surveyed in “Tyson” is mostly self-inflicted. Fear is certainly one of the film’s motifs, but it seems that Mr. Tyson suffers from at least as much as he inspires. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid,” he says at one point, giving voice to his state of mind in the moments before a bout. He also remembers being bullied and humiliated as a child in Brooklyn, but in listening to his moody, rambling and frequently thoughtful disquisitions on his own life you are struck by intimations of a dread much deeper than the fear of physical harm or loss of face.

With a single exception — his relationship with his trainer and mentor, Cus D’Amato — Mr. Tyson’s experience of the world has been marked by mistrust and suspicion, by a view of other people that is hard and pitiless. They are users, operators, “leeches,” he says, but he rarely claims to be any better. He is only human.

Most of the movie consists of the former champ sitting in a house near the Pacific Ocean, speaking into the camera as if no one else were around. This produces an effect of almost unnerving intimacy — it is a bit scary to be so close to him — but also an upwelling, perhaps unexpected, of compassion. It is hard to imagine anyone more radically alone.

Whether or not he deserves our sympathy is a fair question. It is easy, and not entirely unjustified, to look at Mr. Tyson, his left eye ringed by a Maori tattoo, his head shaved clean, and see a self-pitying, self-justifying man who squandered his talent and good fortune and caused much more hurt than his brutal profession required. He started out as a street criminal in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and was plucked from juvenile detention by Mr. D’Amato and his associates, who disciplined the young man’s natural volatility and turned him into a fighter.

But Mr. Tyson never learned to control his brutish, self-destructive instincts. His brief first marriage, to the actress and model Robin Givens, was marked by accusations of abuse, and in 1993 he went to prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a beauty pageant contestant in Indiana. By now he may be better known for ranting and press conferences and for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear during a 1997 fight than for the mighty pugilistic feats of his youth.

And a lot of people, even passionate boxing fans, might prefer to forget about Mr. Tyson rather than spend 90 minutes in his company. But “Tyson” is worth seeing even if you have no particular interest in the sport or the man.

It may lack the detachment and the balance that Barbara Kopple brought to “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson,” the 1993 documentary she made for NBC, but Mr. Toback’s film, partly because it restricts itself to Mr. Tyson’s point of view, offers a rare and vivid study in the complexity of a single suffering, raging soul. It is not an entirely trustworthy movie, but it does feel profoundly honest.

From time to time the screen is divided into two or three almost identical images, and the sound is edited to make it sound as if Mr. Tyson is in dialogue with himself, his words echoing and overlapping. These effects emphasize the film’s main point, which is that Mr. Tyson is too mercurial, too self-contradictory, to be easily summed up.

He is by turns boastful, angry, remorseful and bewildered, choking up when he recalls Mr. D’Amato, whose death in 1985 remains the central tragedy of Mr. Tyson’s life. He relates the details of that life with candor and feeling, and also with an analytical ardor that is moving because it reveals his struggle to figure himself out.

Without the sympathetic presence of Mr. Toback, whom he has known for many years, it is unlikely that Mr. Tyson would have opened up in this way. And it is also likely that without Mr. Tyson’s presence, the director would have been unlikely to restrain his own self-indulgent impulses.

Mr. Toback’s fascination with hyperbolic visions of masculinity predates his filmmaking career, going back at least to a notorious 1967 essay on Norman Mailer. As a screenwriter and director — from “Fingers” to “Harvard Man” — he has been preoccupied with brutality, vanity and sexual conquest, and with the interplay between those elemental impulses and the refinements of art and culture.

His protagonists tend to be variously romanticized versions of himself: intellectuals seduced by fantasies of crime, risk, sexual wantonness and violence. Even in his most interesting projects he frequently loses track of the difference between exploring such fantasies and indulging them, but in “Tyson,” his first nonfiction film, he is held in check by the irreducible, excruciating realness of the man in front of the camera. The transaction between them is charged with a strange kind of magic. The filmmaker allows the fighter to have his unchallenged say to justify, condemn and contradict himself. In exchange Mr. Tyson has enabled Mr. Toback to make his best film, which is also, paradoxically, his most personal.

“Tyson” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity and violence.


Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by James Toback; director of photography, Larry McConkey; edited by Aaron Yanes; music by Salaam Remi, with the song “Legendary” by Nas; produced by Mr. Toback and Damon Bingham; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 30

watch trailer here

April 24th, 2009
MoMA Pushes the Envelope in Works on Paper


Ele D’Artagnan’s “Tetradattilo con vegetazione (65)” from 1975.MoMA Pushes the Envelope in Works on Paper

NY Times Published: April 23, 2009

The Museum of Modern Art is deeply divided. It wants to run wild and kick up its heels, but it can’t imagine a world without fences. It wants to open up to new work, young art and different ways of being a museum, but it often ends up doing things halfway, hedging its bets. That way lies mediocrity of a most tortured sort.

This exhibition is the first attempt to make sense of the largest gift of drawings the Modern has ever received: a collection of 2,500 drawings by 650 artists given to the museum in a single lump in May of 2005. The actual exhibition contains only 354 works by 177 artists, but it is still the largest exhibition of drawings ever mounted at the Modern. It has been selected and installed by Christian Rattemeyer, associate curator in the museum’s department of drawings, working with Connie Butler, its chief curator.

Over the course of this show the Modern considers life without the comforts of an established canon, but it still clings stubbornly to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Either way, it also expands that canon with the work of overlooked women, among them Jo Baer, Ree Morton and Adrian Piper in her abstract phase. It is curious about the new and often quite supportive, but it has trouble venturing outside the accepted Chelsea gene pool — except in the area of outsider art, which is becoming one of the Modern’s strengths.

A near-fatal attraction to drawings by famous artists who don’t make especially good drawings is indicated. So is an approach-avoidance relationship to a flexible, imaginative use of daring connoisseurship. Driving home the point is the show’s especially plodding organization, with works arranged primarily according to styles, nationalities and even local geography. Why devote a gallery to artists who live in or near Los Angeles? This means that once more we see Mike Kelley, Jason Rhodes, Raymond Pettibon and Paul McCarthy grouped together, although here their fairly noisy efforts are upstaged by Frances Stark’s imposing patchwork of typewritten patterns.

The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection was assembled, starting in March 2003, by Harvey S. Shipley Miller, the foundation’s sole trustee, working with Gary Garrells, at the time the chief curator of MoMA’s department of drawing. Mr. Miller’s original idea was a yearlong shopping spree during which he and Mr. Garrells would amass, in his words, “a cross section of a moment in time” as reflected in drawing. The collection would emphasize young, unknown artists and be given to the museum.

The project aroused plenty of art world skepticism about the speed of assembly and Mr. Miller’s relative inexperience with contemporary drawings. It had a stuntlike quality: collection-building as performance art. The average rate of acquisition was an exhausting four to five drawings every day, five days a week.

The project changed. One year expanded to two. The cross section of a moment in time grew to several decades. The collection became an occasion to fill gaps in the Modern’s collection. A group of 101 Minimalist and conceptualist drawings from the late 1960s and early ’70s formed by the New York collectors Eileen and Michael Cohen, was snapped up. Older artists became part of the moment, as indicated by the recent works of Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly that greet you in the show’s opening gallery. So did Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986. His drawings serve here as precedents to validate the nervous lines of Matthew Barney and Chloe Piene; together or alone, none of these three artists make a strong impression here.

Still, despite the gap-filling, an astounding 340 of the 650 Rothschild artists are new to the Modern, which undermines its unwritten policy of not accepting gifts of work by artists who are not already represented in its collection. But — more ambivalence — emerging artists are not the point of this exhibition; only 28 of the 177 artists represented here are newbies.

It would have been more in the spirit of Mr. Miller’s original intent to show all the newbie artists, or all the works from after 2000, skying them salon style up the walls and, if need be, even spilling over into the atrium gallery outside, onto the walls that the Kippenberger retrospective isn’t using. It is these works, found mostly in the show’s second half, that provide the most juice.

As the best parts of this exhibition demonstrate, drawing remains art’s most universal and forgiving medium. Its ability to absorb new ideas and collaborate with other mediums is evident in installations like Kelley Walker’s digital layering of bright cabochon shapes and news images of disasters, which form a kind of wallpaper for further works, or Jim Lambie’s relatively low-tech wall piece, where appropriated images of eyes held in place by black tape form networks of alien, nodelike clusters that challenge and deflect our gaze with the horrors of mascara gone mad.

Yet the show also proves the enduring ease and intimacy of paper and pencil, pen or brush. Time and time again this basic combination is reinvented by the urgency of the individual. This is evident in the quietly insistent pencil portraits of Paul P., which have never impressed me until now; the fanciful creatures depicted by Ele D’Artagnan, an Italian self-taught artist who appeared in some of Fellini’s movies; and the lurid image of Hannah Wilke’s ravaged right hand, depicted by her left during her long fight with cancer.

Other standouts include Rosemarie Trockel’s rendering of a Jacqueline Kennedy-like beauty with horns; a stunning early drawing made of soot by Lee Bontecou; Franz West’s postcard-size depictions of the vaudeville stage; and the art-and-artist-filled collage drawings on which Lucy McKenzie and Paulina Olowska collaborated.

There’s a quiet innovation in both the mutant creatures that Christian Holstad makes by erasing and redrawing newspaper images and his discreetly homoerotic collages. For something less discreet, consider the sleekly ribald drawings of Tom of Finland, who turns the tables on Alberto Vargas and his girls.

This show’s dead zones reflect different kinds of inattention and conventional thinking, most of it in line with the popularity charts of international biennales. It contains poor drawings by artists who supposedly specialize in the medium but frequently succumb to generic rendering, most prominently William Kentridge.

There are undistinguished efforts from well-known artists whose best work has nothing to do with drawing — for instance, Anish Kapoor. There are also weak drawings by artists who excel at the medium, including Robert Gober and James Castle. Meanwhile, there is no room at all in the galleries for less fashionable high-powered draftsmen like Jim Nutt or Erwin Pfrang, whose work appears only in the catalogue raisonné this time around.

There are plenty of other artists in the catalog, both familiar and not, whose work looks as or more interesting than many drawings in the show. If they are included in the next excavation of this extraordinary deluge of drawings, we’ll know that the Modern is a few steps closer to getting over itself.

“Compass in Hand: Selections From the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection” continues through July 27 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.

April 24th, 2009
Reclaiming America’s Soul

NY Times Published: April 23, 2009

“Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” So declared President Obama, after his commendable decision to release the legal memos that his predecessor used to justify torture. Some people in the political and media establishments have echoed his position. We need to look forward, not backward, they say. No prosecutions, please; no investigations; we’re just too busy.

And there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who weren’t allied with the torturers but would nonetheless rather not revisit what happened in the Bush years.

Some of them probably just don’t want an ugly scene; my guess is that the president, who clearly prefers visions of uplift to confrontation, is in that group. But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

April 24th, 2009
The Quick and The dead


Stephen Kaltenbach, Time Capsule (OPEN AFTER MY DEATH STEPHEN KALTENBACH), 1970
mild steel 3 x 6 x 3 in.

April 24 – September 27, 2009

Walker Art Center

Surveying art that tries to reach beyond itself and the limits of our knowledge and experience, The Quick and the Dead seeks, in part, to ask what is alive and dead within the legacy of conceptual art. Though the term “conceptual” has been applied to myriad kinds of art, it originally covered works and practices from the 1960s and ‘70s that emphasized the ideas behind or around a work of art, foregrounding language, action, and context rather than visual form. But this basic definition fails to convey the ambitions of many artists who have been variously described as conceptual: as Sol LeWitt asserted in 1969, conceptual artists are “mystics rather than rationalists.” Although some of their work involves unremarkable materials or even borders on the invisible, these artists explore new ways of thinking about time and space, often aspiring to realms and effects that fall far outside of our perceptual limitations.

The exhibition title derives from a biblical phrase describing the judgment of the living and the dead at the end of time. But it has been used in innumerable ways since, including by the designer and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller, who in 1947 lauded what he called the “quick realities” of modern physics, condemning the “dead superstitions” of classical, object-based Newtonian theories. This distinction between objects and events underlined many conceptual practices of the late 1960s and ‘70s that pressed at the edges of the discernable—the work of artists like George Brecht, who seamlessly transformed objects into motionless events and asked us to consider “an art verging on the non-existent, dissolving into other dimensions;” Lygia Clark, whose foldable sculptures sought to dissolve the boundary between inside and outside, each “a static moment within the cosmological dynamics from which we came and to which we are going;” and James Lee Byars who, obsessed with a magically gothic idea of perfection that included metaphorical enactments of his own death, declared that “the perfect performance is to stand still.”

With an international group of 53 artists in a range of media, The Quick and the Dead expands beyond the here and now, reaffirming conceptual art’s ability to engage some of the deeper mysteries and questions of our lives. The exhibition brings together more than 90 works, juxtaposing a core group from the 1960s and ‘70s with more recent examples that might only loosely qualify as conceptual. Included in the show are new works made specifically for the exhibition and a number that have not been previously shown or realized. The presentation expands beyond the Walker’s main galleries to its public spaces, parking ramp, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and the nearby Basilica of Saint Mary.

Artists in the Exhibition
Francis Alÿs, Robert Barry, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, James Lee Byars, John Cage, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Lygia Clark, Tony Conrad, Tacita Dean, Jason Dodge, Trisha Donnelly, Marcel Duchamp, Harold Edgerton, Ceal Floyer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roger Hiorns, Douglas Huebler, Pierre Huyghe, The Institute For Figuring, Stephen Kaltenbach, On Kawara, Christine Kozlov, David Lamelas, Louise Lawler, Paul Etienne Lincoln, Mark Manders, Kris Martin, Steve McQueen, Helen Mirra, Catherine Murphy, Bruce Nauman, Rivane Neuenschwander, Claes Oldenburg, Roman Ondák, Giuseppe Penone, Susan Philipsz, Anthony Phillips, Adrian Piper, Steven Pippin, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Charles Ray, Tobias Rehberger, Hannah Rickards, Arthur Russell, Michael Sailstorfer, Roman Signer, Simon Starling, John Stezaker, Mladen Stilinović, Sturtevant, Shomei Tomatsu

April 23rd, 2009
Enzo Mari x Ikea Mashup


found on greg.org

So I’m finally going to make my Enzo Mari autoprogettazione table from Ikea components. A publicist from Ford had offered a Flex station wagon for a road trip, and last weekend, I took them up on it. Which meant I could bring back the 89-in pieces of wood I’d scoped out. So I did. Next I will cut and finish the pieces. Then I will assemble the table.

[Background: Last summer, I wrote about wanting to make an Enzo Mari dining table out of 1-by pine lumber, which Mari chose in the early 1970's because it was the humblest, most ubiquitous, undesigned, standardized material around. It was manifesto furniture, a counter to both industrial-scale production and the fetishization of luxury design. Well, we all know who won that fight.

Instead of my original plan, which was to follow the letter of Mari's instructions, and find some insanely rare, beautiful pine lumber cut from 500-year-old trees that have been submerged on a riverbottom for 200 years, I decided to go with the spirit. The character-free pine lumber on every corner today is Ikea furniture. So I combed through Ikea's entire product line to find the individual components that were closest in dimensions and finish to Mari's original low-grade pine boards. The result: the Ivar shelving system.]

One of the key principles of Mari’s autoprogettazione designs is that they required no complicated woodworking, just a minimal number of simple, straight cuts and some nails. As I was studying the Ikea parts and calculating the cuts and reworking necessary to fit it to Mari’s exact specifications, the process was becoming quite complex and forced, and I realized this entire point was being lost.


So I began seeing the Ikea lumber sui generis: it is not a source of raw material, it is the raw material. An Ikea Mari table would look like what it is, I figured. So I decided to adapt Mari’s table’s dimensions to the standardized dimensions of the shelf components.

I’d heard from other folks who built an EFFE table that the 1×2 boards don’t feel that sturdy for table legs. Most Ivar boards are even thinner, so I decided to use the thicker, square corner posts as legs. Rather than cut them down to boards and reassemble them as a 14-in. truss, I decided to leave the pre-assembled 12-in. Ivar sides intact, then double them up to use as trusses. All these minor changes in dimension and proportion rippled through Mari’s original design, requiring almost every cut to be recalculated.

Conveniently, Mari’s neat-but-arbitrary 200cm tabletop length was almost exactly the length of an 82-in. Ivar shelf with the metal bracket ends cut off. I’d just need three shelves to…whoops, in the intervening months since I began my calculatin’, the shelves were discontinued. So on the fly, I ended up buying four 33-in. wide shelves, which I’ll place width-wise to make a 72-in. long table. It’s the opposite of Mari’s long plank top, but it seems better than either a) scouring the country’s Ikeas for leftover shelf stock, or b) buying a finished tabletop, which Ikea merrily sells by the containerload.

But that means new proportions, new dimensions, and figuring out how to brace short, wide boards as opposed to long, thin ones. Which got me wondering about the table top’s functionality and stability. Do I need to end glue the shelves together for strength? Or is that kind of more involved woodworking a betrayal of Mari’s original knock-it-together concept? And what is the proper relationship between conceptual awesomeness and shitty workmanship? I know Mari’s autoprogettazione was a critique of mass production and consumption, but is it a renunciation of craft, too? If a laborer is virtuous for hammering together his own furniture at home, is he somehow less virtuous if he puts a hand-rubbed, organic tung oil finish on it?

As much as I embrace Mari’s principles and the raw elegance of his design, as I look at my pile of low-grade pine shelving leaning against the wall, I confess, I’m having a hard time giving up my desire for a sweet, luxe patina. So while I could break out my awesome new Japanese saws and pound this table together in a day–and I know it’d feel extremely Ikea if I did, and that’s tight–I can’t do it. I’m going to get all finish fetishy, and see if I can make this table beautiful as well as cool. We’ll see.


April 22nd, 2009
Hoping Mezcal Can Turn the Worm


NY Times Published: April 21, 2009

THE name Ilegal gives a sinister panache to the mezcal John Rexer will be selling in New York. It’s a wink to when he was smuggling the spirit from village stills in Mexico to his Guatemalan cafe.

Coy marketing, but it’s also an acknowledgment that compared with tequila, Mexico’s other spirit of the agave plant, mezcal is small time.

And that’s part of its appeal.

Most tequila is made by big companies with marketing budgets that have helped send its sales soaring. Fine mezcals, with a sliver of the market, are still made by Oaxacan villagers in virtual backyard operations.

But lately those mezcaleros have found friends to help them get ahead, particularly in New York.

Along with Mr. Rexer’s brand, which he hopes to import by summer, there’s the Sombra label that Richard Betts, a sommelier, began selling to bars, stores and restaurants in New York and around the country in November.

Philip Ward, the head bartender at Death & Co., has left that East Village spot to open Mayahuel, a tequila and mezcal bar, also in the East Village, with Ravi deRossi, one of Death & Co.’s owners. Ignacio Carballido and the painter Guillermo Olguín, who import Los Amantes mezcals, plan to open Casa Mezcal, a Oaxacan cultural center with a restaurant and mezcal bar, on the Lower East Side this summer.

Mr. Rexer was seduced by mezcal when he passed through Oaxaca while taking tequila to his bohemian outpost in Antigua, Guatemala.

“Mezcal is very small, very artisanal,” he said. “You can taste the difference from village to village, because of the water, because of whether is was processed in a clay pot or a copper pot. It’s handcrafted.”

In 2007 he became partners with fourth-generation mezcaleros in Tlacolula, a village about 30 minutes outside the city of Oaxaca, and started bottling Ilegal for export. (The label was certified by Comercam, Mexico’s regulatory body for mezcal, so now he’s legit.)

Like tequila, mezcal is distilled from fermented juice of the pineapple-shaped core — piña — of a succulent plant called the agave. (Tequila, made in Jalisco and a few other states, uses only a variety called blue agave.)

Tequila makers cook the piñas in ovens, sometimes in tequila factories. But mezcaleros roast the piñas in earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks. Each village can be home to dozens of small-market distilleries, called fábricas or palenques.

It’s this underground roasting that gives mezcal its intense and distinctive smokiness — one of the qualities that draws its most passionate fans.

Lorea Canales, a Mexican-born food writer in New York, said mezcal has a complexity she doesn’t find in tequila.

“For me, it’s saltier,” she said, “tequila’s sweeter. And it’s woody. You feel the barrel. You feel the earth.”

Still, the smokiness can be hard for some people to get used to.

“It’s something you have to work people up into drinking,” said Mr. Ward, of Mayahuel. “Like a lot of spirits, the best way to learn to drink them is to drink them in cocktails. Just to give people hints of it.”

While plenty of bartenders have been mixing mezcal, particularly on the West Coast, it does not have a singular liquid ambassador, a margarita or pisco sour.

Last fall, Jim Meehan, who runs the bar at PDT, a cocktail lounge in the East Village, helped the makers of Sombra come up with cocktails to promote their brand. The smokiness made it a challenge, he said. Few home bartenders are likely to make the one that ended up on PDT’s menu, the Pearl of Puebla, which combines mezcal with agave nectar, yellow chartreuse, pastis, fresh oregano and lime juice.

And don’t look south for help: Oaxacans generally drink their mezcal straight up.

These challenges are familiar to Ron Cooper, who began his Del Maguey line of mezcals in 1995. They were the first artisanal mezcals in the United States and are still the most widely known.

Back then, said Mr. Cooper, who is advising the Sombra importers, “there was no market — there was nothing except bad commercial mezcal.”

Mezcal suffered from its association with college binges on cheap mass-produced bottles, the ones with the agave worm in the bottom. (The worm, actually a larva that can infest the agave plant, is mainly a ploy to help sell lesser mezcals and — sorry, spring-breaker — is not hallucinogenic.)

It took a lot of promotion to get it accepted, he said, “accomplished by turning on one person at a time, face-to-face, sipping and talking.”

Mr. Carballido and Mr. Olguín think the best way to introduce people to mezcal is to help them appreciate Oaxacan culture. At Casa Mezcal, they plan to have an art gallery and screening room.

“You have a lot of culture, a lot of artists, and the gastronomy is the best in Mexico,” Mr. Carballido said of Oaxaca. “And they have great quality mezcals. So it falls in a perfect combination of art, food, mezcal.”

High-quality mezcal is not cheap, because it takes time to make. An agave plant produces fruit only after six to eight years, and then the plant dies.

Sombra retails for $47 a bottle; Los Amantes is $52 for the joven, which doesn’t receive any aging, and $57 for a reposado, which is lightly aged.

Some mezcal importers and fans worry that if a larger market for artisanal mezcals doesn’t open up in the United States, more companies might start making and exporting lesser quality mezcal from factories, and local traditions may be lost.

For Oaxacan mezcaleros, the spirit isn’t just a passion, it’s a way of life and a livelihood.

A few months ago, Mr. Rexer of Ilegal visited Real Minero, a small distillery in the village of Santa Catarina Minas.

Agave pulp with water is fermented in giant wooden vats. The resulting juice is then distilled over hand-fed fires. An elaborate two-story mural in the fermentation room tells the origin story of mezcal.

Mr. Rexer asked Graciela Angeles Carreño, who runs the distillery with her father, Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza, and brother, whether the lack of a market for high-quality mezcals like theirs would hurt mezcaleros.

“No,” she replied, “it’ll kill them.”

April 22nd, 2009
A Workers’ Paradise Found Off Japan’s Coast


NY Times Published: April 21, 2009

HIME ISLAND, Japan — If Marxism had ever produced a functional, prosperous society, it might have looked something like this tiny southern Japanese island.

At first glance, there is little to set Hime (pronounced HEE-may) apart from the hundreds of other small inhabited islands that dot the coasts of Japan’s main isles. The 2,519 mostly graying islanders subsist on fishing and shrimp farming, and every summer hold a Shinto religious festival featuring dancers dressed as foxes.

But once off the ferry, the island’s sole public transportation link to the outside, visitors are greeted by an unusual sight: a tall, bronze statue of Hime’s previous mayor, rare in a country that typically shuns such political aggrandizement. Rarer still is that the statue was erected by his son, who is the island’s current mayor.

In fact, the father, who died in 1984, and the son, who succeeded him, have won every mayoral election in Himeshima, the island’s village, for 49 years — without once being challenged by a rival candidate.

And it is not just the cult-of-personality politics that smack of a latter-day workers’ paradise. This sleepy island, just off Japan’s main southern island, Kyushu, has recently come under unaccustomed national media attention for a very different reason: it invented its own version of work-sharing four decades before the current economic crisis popularized the term.

Under Hime’s system, village employees earn about a third less pay than public servants elsewhere in Japan, though they work the same hours. This has allowed the village to create more jobs: it now directly or indirectly employs a fifth of all working islanders. Most of the rest are engaged in fishing, also government-subsidized. In fact, village officials say, there are few fully private-sector jobs on the island.

Islanders admit to the socialist parallels, even while proclaiming themselves political conservatives who vote for the governing right-wing Liberal Democratic Party. Some jokingly take the analogy a step further, comparing themselves to a much more repressive family-run regime in Japan’s geopolitical neighborhood.

“Hime Island is North Korea, just a livable version,” Naokazu Koiwa said with a laugh. Mr. Koiwa, 32, repairs fishing boats.

Unsurprisingly, the current mayor, Akio Fujimoto, flatly rejects the North Korean comparison. Rather, he and most other islanders call Hime a repository for traditional Japanese values, like economic egalitarianism and social harmony. They say the rest of the nation has lost these in an embrace of more competitive capitalism, especially under the prime ministership of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001-6.

“Our thinking is, ‘let’s all share the economic pie and get along, instead of giving all of it to the rich,’ ” said Mr. Fujimoto, whose father, Kumao Fujimoto, devised the work-sharing system in the 1960s. “Avoiding competition is the traditional Japanese way.”

Now, with the current crisis causing a national questioning of American-style laissez-faire economics, and business leaders and unions seeking alternatives to widespread job cuts, Hime’s work-sharing scheme is suddenly being held up as a new model. Islanders call it ironic that the current crisis has made traditional values appear progressive, even utopian.

Nor does the island’s penchant for equality stop at work-sharing. At an annual village ceremony to mark the coming of age of 20-year-old islanders, women are forbidden to wear traditional kimonos for fear the differences in quality could reveal their households’ economic status.

Dismayed by the inconsistent television reception across this mountainous island about half the size of Key West, the current mayor installed a free cable TV system that now reaches 97 percent of homes.

Even by clannish Japan’s standards, the island seems a friendly, close-knit place. Islanders cheerfully greet passing strangers. Roads, parks and even public toilets are immaculate. Doors are left unlocked, and the island has only one policeman.

Mr. Fujimoto also cites traditional attitudes to explain his own political longevity, a claim most islanders seem to accept. He says islanders shun public elections because of a deep-rooted abhorrence of confrontation. He said the last time the village held a mayoral election, in 1955, it split the island, creating ill feelings that took a generation to heal.

To avoid a repeat of such trauma, he said, the island decided to choose mayors by consensus, finding someone on whom everyone could agree beforehand. Last year, Mr. Fujimoto won his seventh straight four-year term, once again by default in an uncontested election.

“My job is to prevent elections by keeping everyone equal, and thus happy,” said Mr. Fujimoto, 65, sitting in a modest office in the village hall. His only visible sign of authority was a buzzer on his desk that he pushed to summon an assistant.

Mr. Fujimoto said he would resign immediately if a serious rival appeared in an election. “That would be a sign the village has lost confidence in me,” he said.

Many islanders say Mr. Fujimoto is able to stay in office partly because of the reverence still felt here for his father, who lifted Hime from postwar poverty by turning it into a loyal source of votes for the Liberal Democratic Party, which rewarded the island with generous public works.

“We have our own little personality cult,” said Shokai Dozono, a Buddhist monk who runs one of the island’s two temples.

The island and its mayor also have outside critics. Keizo Nagai, the ombudsman for Oita prefecture, which includes Hime, calls the island the least transparent local government in the prefecture. He criticized it for refusing to make information like detailed budget records available to non-islanders, which he attributed to a closed local culture rather than to a cover-up of wrongdoing.

“Hime Island acts like an independent kingdom,” Mr. Nagai said.

Many islanders say they accept the status quo simply because life here is comfortable. They say rocking the boat would only ostracize them on an island where everyone knows one another.

“Everyone is basically satisfied,” said Shusaku Akaishi, 29, who works at his family’s gas station. “This is a conservative place.”

That conservatism is strong enough at times to annoy even Mr. Fujimoto. His biggest complaint is that traditional attitudes prevent him from extending family control of the mayor’s office for another generation, because he has only a daughter.

“Hime Island can’t be run by a woman,” he sighed. “This place is too medieval for that.”

April 22nd, 2009
Swimming Without a Suit

NY Times Published: April 21, 2009

Speaking of financial crises and how they can expose weak companies and weak countries, Warren Buffett once famously quipped that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” So true. But what’s really unnerving is that America appears to be one of those countries that has been swimming buck naked — in more ways than one.

Credit bubbles are like the tide. They can cover up a lot of rot. In our case, the excess consumer demand and jobs created by our credit and housing bubbles have masked not only our weaknesses in manufacturing and other economic fundamentals, but something worse: how far we have fallen behind in K-12 education and how much it is now costing us. That is the conclusion I drew from a new study by the consulting firm McKinsey, entitled “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.”

Just a quick review: In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. dominated the world in K-12 education. We also dominated economically. In the 1970s and 1980s, we still had a lead, albeit smaller, in educating our population through secondary school, and America continued to lead the world economically, albeit with other big economies, like China, closing in. Today, we have fallen behind in both per capita high school graduates and their quality. Consequences to follow.

For instance, in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment that measured the applied learning and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, the U.S. ranked 25th out of the 30 in math and 24th in science. That put our average youth on par with those from Portugal and the Slovak Republic, “rather than with students in countries that are more relevant competitors for service-sector and high-value jobs, like Canada, the Netherlands, Korea, and Australia,” McKinsey noted.

Actually, our fourth-graders compare well on such global tests with, say, Singapore. But our high school kids really lag, which means that “the longer American children are in school, the worse they perform compared to their international peers,” said McKinsey.

There are millions of kids who are in modern suburban schools “who don’t realize how far behind they are,” said Matt Miller, one of the authors. “They are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs — not $40 to $50 an hour.”

It is not that we are failing across the board. There are huge numbers of exciting education innovations in America today — from new modes of teacher compensation to charter schools to school districts scattered around the country that are showing real improvements based on better methods, better principals and higher standards. The problem is that they are too scattered — leaving all kinds of achievement gaps between whites, African-Americans, Latinos and different income levels.

Using an economic model created for this study, McKinsey showed how much those gaps are costing us. Suppose, it noted, “that in the 15 years after the 1983 report ‘A Nation at Risk’ sounded the alarm about the ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in American education,” the U.S. had lifted lagging student achievement to higher benchmarks of performance? What would have happened?

The answer, says McKinsey: If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

There are some hopeful signs. President Obama recognizes that we urgently need to invest the money and energy to take those schools and best practices that are working from islands of excellence to a new national norm. But we need to do it with the sense of urgency and follow-through that the economic and moral stakes demand.

With Wall Street’s decline, though, many more educated and idealistic youth want to try teaching. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, called the other day with these statistics about college graduates signing up to join her organization to teach in some of our neediest schools next year: “Our total applications are up 40 percent. Eleven percent of all Ivy League seniors applied, 16 percent of Yale’s senior class, 15 percent of Princeton’s, 25 percent of Spellman’s and 35 percent of the African-American seniors at Harvard. In 130 colleges, between 5 and 15 percent of the senior class applied.”

Part of it, said Kopp, is a lack of jobs elsewhere. But part of it is “students responding to the call that this is a problem our generation can solve.” May it be so, because today, educationally, we are not a nation at risk. We are a nation in decline, and our nakedness is really showing.

April 22nd, 2009
To Tweet or Not to Tweet

NY Times Published: April 21, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock would have loved the Twitter headquarters here. Birds gathering everywhere, painted on the wall in flocks, perched on the coffee table, stitched on pillows and framed on the wall with a thought bubble asking employees to please tidy up after themselves.

In a droll nod to shifting technology, there’s a British red telephone booth in the loftlike office that you are welcome to use but you’ll have to bring in your cellphone.

I was here on a simple quest: curious to know if the inventors of Twitter were as annoying as their invention. (They’re not. They’re charming.)

I sat down with Biz Stone, 35, and Evan Williams, 37, and asked them to justify themselves.

ME: You say the brevity of Twitter enhances creativity. So I wonder if you can keep your answers to 140 characters, like Twitter users must. Twitter seems like telegrams without the news. We now know that on the president’s trip to Trinidad, ABC News’s Jake Tapper’s shower was spewing brown water. Is there any thought that doesn’t need to be published?

BIZ: The one I’m thinking right now.

ME: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?

BIZ: We definitely didn’t design it for that. If they want to use it for that, it’s great.

ME: I heard about a woman who tweeted her father’s funeral. Whatever happened to private pain?

EVAN: I have private pain every day.

ME: If you were out with a girl and she started twittering about it in the middle, would that be a deal-breaker or a turn-on?

BIZ (dryly): In the middle of what?

ME: Do you ever think “I don’t care that my friend is having a hamburger?”

BIZ: If I said I was eating a hamburger, Evan would be surprised because I’m a vegan.

ME: What do you think about the backlash to Twitter on the blogs? Isn’t that a bit like the pot calling the kettle black?

BIZ: If people are passionate about your product, whether it’s because they’re hating or loving it, those are both good scenarios. People can use it to help each other during fuel shortages or revolts or earthquakes or wildfires. That’s the exciting part of it.

ME: Why did you think the answer to e-mail was a new kind of e-mail?

BIZ: With Twitter, it’s as easy to unfollow as it is to follow.

(They’re spilling past 140 characters now, but it must feel good to climb out of their Twitter bird cage. Evan has to leave. Biz and I continue.)

ME: Don’t you get worried about being swallowed up by Google?

BIZ: They don’t swallow you up. They call you up.

ME: Why did you call the company Twitter instead of Clutter?

BIZ: We had a lot of words like “Jitter” and things that reflected a hyper-nervousness. Somebody threw “Twitter” in the hat. I thought “Oh, that’s the short trivial bursts of information that birds do.”

ME: Oprah unleashed mayhem in the Twittersphere last week when, in her first tweet, she greeted “Twitters” instead of “Twitterers.”

BIZ: I’m still kinda old-school. We’re twittering, and we’re all twitterers. And we write tweets. The only thing I don’t love is twits.

ME: Would Shakespeare have tweeted?

BIZ: Brevity’s the soul of wit, right?

ME: Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?

BIZ: You mean enhance civilization, make it even better?

ME: What’s your favorite book?

BIZ: I loved Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid.

ME: But you’ve helped destroy mystery.

BIZ: When you put more information out there, sometimes you can just put a little bit of it out, which just makes the mystery even broader.

ME: When newsprint blows away, I want a second career as a Twitter ghostwriter. Which celebrity on Twitter most needs my help?

BIZ: Definitely not Shaq. Britney, maybe.

ME: Gavin Newsom announced his candidacy for governor today on Twitter and elsewhere. Does that make you the new Larry King?

BIZ: Did he? I didn’t know.

ME: Have you thought about using even fewer than 140 characters?

BIZ: I’ve seen people twitter in haiku only. Twit-u. James Buck, the student who was thrown into an Egyptian prison, just wrote “Arrested.”

ME: I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account. Is there anything you can say to change my mind?

BIZ: Well, when you do find yourself in that position, you’re gonna want Twitter. You might want to type out the message “Help.”

April 21st, 2009





East Germany, Up Close and Personal, 1990

By Karlheinz Jardner
Spiegal Online


When a West German photographer set off on a trip to the East German island of Rügen just after the Wall fell in the spring of 1990, he captured a world that would soon disappear forever. Twenty years after the epochal event, he looks back on his journey in a first-person account.

I remembered the painting from art class in school: The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, by Caspar David Friedrich. It seemed legendary to me. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the colors, the pinks, the grays, the greens, and the shimmering blue of the water contrasting with the luminous white chalkstone. On the other hand, I was convinced that although I could always see the painting, I would never be able to contemplate the same scenery in reality. I wondered whether the landscape on the island of Rügen truly resembled the painting. It was a mystery to me.

And then the Berlin Wall came down. It was the spring of 1990, and I was 36 and living in the West Germany city of Essen. I was visiting a friend in Berlin when it all happened, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. It must have been May when I traveled to Rügen. I had grown up in the Ruhr region and all I knew about the other half of Germany — other than Friedrich’s painting of the chalk cliffs — were the images of East Germany I had seen on television. One was of the Palace of the Republic, an image that led me to conclude that the German mentality over there was no different than it was where I lived. In other words, everything was very orderly and tidy. Other than that, I had seen a small slice of East Germany several times while traveling on the transit route between the Marienborn border crossing and West Berlin. I wasn’t exactly tempted to see more.

There was only one occasion when I experienced a small fragment of the real East Germany. In 1985, I accompanied the singer Klaus Lage, as his photographer, on a tour through the East, but everything was set up so that there was little time to look around. It would be different the second time. Although my destination was Rügen and its chalk cliffs, the rest of my journey was more or less haphazard. I wanted to allow myself to drift around, to decide spontaneously whether to take a left or a right from the road I was driving on, to take pictures of whatever appealed to me and to spend the night wherever I happened to end up. How would people react, I wondered?

‘You Can Sleep in my Daughter’s Room!’

I encountered many a surprise as I traveled through the Mecklenburg Lake District, where I soon realized that some towns were quite depressing — and very much unlike the images I had seen on TV. In one village, I asked a woman on the street if she could recommend a place to stay, and she sent me to the district nurse. I rang the doorbell, and when the woman opened the door, I said: “Hello. I was told that I might be able to stay here?” She promptly responded: “Yes. My daughter is at the university in Leipzig. You can sleep in her room.”

That was exactly how it happened. Here I was, a total stranger, and this woman was inviting me to stay in her daughter’s room. I was very surprised, and I imagined what it would be like if someone were to ring a stranger’s doorbell back home in the Ruhr region. Would the person answering the door have said: “Of course! Please come in! You can stay here!”? This friendly reception was a very special experience for me, and it was with the same sincerity that I would be greeted again and again during my trip. Something else I noticed was the fundamental attitude of my hosts.
People apologized for what they had. At breakfast, for example, they would apologize for the butter being hard — and yet it tasted so good to me! Even when I would tell them that, it seemed that these people felt guilty because they were able to offer me so little. Of course, some were skeptical, especially men, and their skepticism became clear in many conversations. They wanted to know how they would benefit from reunification, and what would happen to their jobs “when all those people start coming over from the West now.” What would happen to their business, their agricultural cooperatives? They were worried about their livelihoods, and not without reason.

Everything Was So Attractively Kitsch

Their hospitality gave me the opportunity to see how people really lived. It is hard to discover anything about the way people live just by seeing their homes from the outside. But what I saw in the interiors came as a surprise to me: bookshelves with nutcrackers, bier steins and decorative plates, and entire sets of furniture that made me realize: You’ve seen this before! In the Ruhr region, they call it “Gelsenkirchen Baroque.” It all looked so tacky to me, and yet there was something private and cozy about the way they lived.

Something that I hadn’t experienced in the West was the world of East German merchandise. I wanted to take pictures of it, to document it, because I sensed that these were images that would change very quickly: a shop window with nothing but two lonely televisions sets in it, a carefully folded price sign with the words “Logic Circuit Board: 9.50 marks” written on it in felt-tip pen, Ata cleaning and scouring agents for 13 pfennigs, “Edible Legumes” and “Yorkshire Pudding.” It felt like a closing sale.

And then there were situations that were simply bizarre, like my visit to a café in Neustrelitz. The only other patrons that evening were a few women, who soon addressed me and asked whether I was from the West. Suddenly the door opened, and a man who had clearly had a lot to drink approached the women. He cursed “Wessis” (West Germans) and loudly accused me of hitting on the women. Then the door opened again, and five Soviet soldiers walked in. They walked past me, grabbed the man by the hair and threw him out. I was quite irritated and decided that it was a good time for me to leave. As I was leaving the café, the coatroom lady said to me: “Oh, are you leaving already, young man? That’s too bad, because it’s just getting interesting.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but I was happy to get out of there in one piece.

High Tides

And then I finally arrived on Rügen. East Germany was completely different there. My favorite place was the town of Sellin, with its old wooden villas from the days of the Kaiser, where the nobility used to go to escape the summer heat. Hans Knospe, a beach photographer, told me about the houses, and he explained that “nothing was ever done during the East German period,” which was why they were as run-down as I experienced them. And then he said: “Well, you know, somehow life wasn’t so bad for me. You’re always in a better mood on the beach.” I felt that his words were an apt reflection of a man who had worked as a photographer under an authoritarian regime.

I went to see the Cliff Hotel Rügen, where East Germany’s prominent politicians stayed, and the bedroom where Communist Party SED Chairman Erich Honecker supposedly spent his nights. By then, many East Germans were visiting the place. They said that they finally wanted to “see where they always stayed.” Before reunification, the hotel was off-limits to ordinary people.

On a nice day, I got up early and went to see the chalk cliff. There was no real path, and I couldn’t see it at first. But I persevered, and suddenly, as I looked out at the sea, I saw it. I had to sit down and say to myself: This is it, you’re really seeing it! It was a very moving experience. I sat there for about an hour, gazing at the big white cliff and the luminous ocean, and then I decided to look at it from a different perspective. There were some wooden ladders leaning eerily against the cliff, and I climbed down one of them and strolled along the water’s edge. The beach became smaller and smaller, narrowing to only two or three meters, and suddenly the disturbing thought hit me that there might be high tides on the Baltic Sea.
I was euphoric as I walked back. I had seen the cliff and the fascinating color of the water, its greenish shimmer against the white chalkstone, with my own eyes. It was exactly as I had imagined! I was thrilled by the landscape, and I wanted to go back. In retrospect, my encounters with people were perhaps even more important than the feeling of having finally reached a destination. Nature would remain the same, as I had learned from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, but the people were about to face great changes.

Adapted from an interview conducted by Solveig Grothe for einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE’s history portal. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

April 20th, 2009
Erin Go Broke

NY Times Published: April 19, 2009

“What,” asked my interlocutor, “is the worst-case outlook for the world economy?” It wasn’t until the next day that I came up with the right answer: America could turn Irish.

What’s so bad about that? Well, the Irish government now predicts that this year G.D.P. will fall more than 10 percent from its peak, crossing the line that is sometimes used to distinguish between a recession and a depression.

But there’s more to it than that: to satisfy nervous lenders, Ireland is being forced to raise taxes and slash government spending in the face of an economic slump — policies that will further deepen the slump.

And it’s that closing off of policy options that I’m afraid might happen to the rest of us. The slogan “Erin go bragh,” usually translated as “Ireland forever,” is traditionally used as a declaration of Irish identity. But it could also, I fear, be read as a prediction for the world economy.

How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like us, only more so. Like its near-namesake Iceland, Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets. Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. Ireland became in effect a cool, snake-free version of coastal Florida.

Then the bubble burst. The collapse of construction sent the economy into a tailspin, while plunging home prices left many people owing more than their houses were worth. The result, as in the United States, has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks.

And the troubles of the banks are largely responsible for putting the Irish government in a policy straitjacket.

On the eve of the crisis Ireland seemed to be in good shape, fiscally speaking, with a balanced budget and a low level of public debt. But the government’s revenue — which had become strongly dependent on the housing boom — collapsed along with the bubble.

Even more important, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers. Last September Ireland moved to shore up confidence in its banks by offering a government guarantee on their liabilities — thereby putting taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the country’s G.D.P., equivalent to $30 trillion for the United States.

The combination of deficits and exposure to bank losses raised doubts about Ireland’s long-run solvency, reflected in a rising risk premium on Irish debt and warnings about possible downgrades from ratings agencies.

Hence the harsh new policies. Earlier this month the Irish government simultaneously announced a plan to purchase many of the banks’ bad assets — putting taxpayers even further on the hook — while raising taxes and cutting spending, to reassure lenders.

Is Ireland’s government doing the right thing? As I read the debate among Irish experts, there’s widespread criticism of the bank plan, with many of the country’s leading economists calling for temporary nationalization instead. (Ireland has already nationalized one major bank.) The arguments of these Irish economists are very similar to those of a number of American economists, myself included, about how to deal with our own banking mess.

But there isn’t much disagreement about the need for fiscal austerity. As far as responding to the recession goes, Ireland appears to be really, truly without options, other than to hope for an export-led recovery if and when the rest of the world bounces back.

So what does all this say about those of us who aren’t Irish?

For now, the United States isn’t confined by an Irish-type fiscal straitjacket: the financial markets still consider U.S. government debt safer than anything else.

But we can’t assume that this will always be true. Unfortunately, we didn’t save for a rainy day: thanks to tax cuts and the war in Iraq, America came out of the “Bush boom” with a higher ratio of government debt to G.D.P. than it had going in. And if we push that ratio another 30 or 40 points higher — not out of the question if economic policy is mishandled over the next few years — we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.

Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s one reason I’m so concerned about the Obama administration’s bank plan. If, as some of us fear, taxpayer funds end up providing windfalls to financial operators instead of fixing what needs to be fixed, we might not have the money to go back and do it right.

And the lesson of Ireland is that you really, really don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to punish your economy in order to save your banks.

April 20th, 2009
Everyday Life Objects Shop


Opens Today!

April 20–28, 2009
Via Arena 19
20123 Milano, Italy

Reference Library

April 20th, 2009
Ronnie Lane . Done this one before

Thanks to Susan Hootstein

April 19th, 2009
Rebecca Morris

Picture 54.jpg

May 2 – June 20, 2009
Opening: Friday, May 1, 6 – 9 pm
Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11 am – 6 pm

Zimmerstr. 88-89 10117 Berlin

Barbara Weiss

April 19th, 2009
The Aura of Arugulance

NY Times Published: April 18, 2009

The first thing I wanted to do in the Bay Area was go out to Skywalker Ranch and ask George Lucas about a disturbing conversation we’d had at an Obama inaugural party in Washington.

Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” had told me that I had gotten Dick Cheney completely wrong, that Cheney was no Darth Vader. I felt awful. Had I been too hard on Vice?

Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader. “George Bush is Darth Vader,” he said. “Cheney is the emperor.”

I was relieved. In “Star Wars” terms, Dick Cheney was more evil than Darth Vader. I hadn’t been hard enough on Vice!

Lucas was on his way to Europe and didn’t have time to elaborate in person. But he sent me this message confirming our conversation: “You know, Darth Vader is really a kid from the desert planet near Crawford, and the true evil of the universe is the emperor who pulls all the strings.”

Sated, I went over to talk to the other celestial celebrity in San Francisco who inspires cultlike devotion for what she does with green cooking rather than blue screens: Alice Waters, who has created her own mythical empire of healthy food with her cookbooks, edible gardens in public schools and renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.

Waters has been much in the news lately as the fairy godmother of the White House organic vegetable garden, an idea she has been pushing since 1993. Instead, Bill Clinton installed a seven-seat hot tub on the South Lawn. Though he loved to eat, Bill was more a consumer of fast food than slow food, as Waters calls her movement to persuade Americans to sup on simple, locally grown foods free of pesticides and herbicides.

The 64-year-old Waters, who got her taste for revolutions in the ‘60s in school at Berkeley with the antiwar and women’s movements, wears a gold peace sign on a necklace. But with her radiant skin and her mesmerizing, hesitating arias about the sensual pleasures of food, she seems more like a ‘30s movie actress than a graying hippie. (I’m not surprised to find out she loves Turner Classic Movies and Hollywood’s vintage hotel, Chateau Marmont, that she named her restaurant after a character in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s trilogy of movies, and that she thinks of her restaurant as theater.)

She wasn’t invited to the opening of the White House garden, and she understands why the Obamas would want “to keep a kind of distance from me and from that whole celebrity chef” aura. Barack Obama got upset during the campaign that he was painted as a finicky elitist after he complained about the price of arugula at Whole Foods.

She’s well aware of the criticism leveled at her in blogs for condescension and food snobbery. In a post on Friday called “Alice in Wonderland,” National Review stirred the pot against her: “The truth is, organic food is an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources.”

She says wryly: “I’m just put into that arugulance place. I own a fancy restaurant. I own an expensive restaurant. I never thought of it as fancy. People don’t know we’re supporting 85 farms and ranches and all of that.

“And so my first thing I say, it’s going to cost more and I want to pay for my food. I go to the farmers’ market; it makes me feel like I’m making a donation.”

Since the Obamas haven’t taken her up on her offer of a “kitchen cabinet,” she wants to do her first TV show called “The Green Kitchen.” She can do a soliloquy on the “discernment” of choosing the most ambrosial orange. But she also says that a recession is a time when people need to learn the basics — “a kind of everyday cooking, in a really tasty way. We’re really trying to take the ‘ie’ out of foodie.”

She says she’s sick of hearing about diets and obesity in America, and believes neither would be so prevalent if her European-style “delicious revolution” succeeded.

Waters is a visionary. She imagines a “peace garden” on the Gaza Strip that would employ people “from all sides.” She imagines a high school where the kids could run the whole cafeteria themselves, learning math, nutrition, art and food. She imagines starting gardens at Monticello and Mount Vernon that would “become the source of all food in the White House.” She imagines food being covered on the front page and the business page — not the food page, or on TV by “lesser” reporters like “the weatherman.”

Her most ambitious vision involves President Obama, who didn’t want beets in his garden. “I would just like to serve him some golden beets sometime that were roasted in the oven, that were not overcooked, that were dressed with a lovely little vinaigrette, maybe even diced in a salad,” she says in her seductive way. “Squeeze ‘em with a little lime. It’s fantastically nutritious.”

April 18th, 2009
Stephen Prina


THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT first appeared in Stephen Prina’s work as the title of an unrealized sound installation, scored in 1979 for a re-spatialization of Arnold Schönberg’s “Sechs kleine Klavierstücke” (“SixLittle Piano Pieces”), 1911, for one thousand eighty-one loudspeakers.

Its next appearance was as a component of Haberdashery, 2002. THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT II, 2008, is a 35mm film, shot at Ford House, a Bruce Goff-designed home in Aurora, Illinois, with a musical score derived from fragments of music written by Goff before he abandoned music composition at the age of thirty, with the defense that there were fewer great modern architects than composers so that he would have a better chance at leaving his mark as an architect. A place is held for this film in the context of the exhibition by a poster announcing two screenings of it: one at Anthology Film Archives, Monday, March 30, 2009, and one at Harvard Film Archive, May 3, 2009.

THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT III, 2009–the first video installation Prina will have made since 1976–uses an outtake from the aforementioned film to give body to this work.

THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT IV, 2009, is an edition of twenty photographs, culled from yet another outtake of the film project, frame enlargements of which have been selected and assembled to encourage close readings of small details.

THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT V, 2005-09, is a series of watercolors with graphite, made en plein air in Los Angeles, using a retrospective of slogans and linguistic motives from Prina’s work–including “It’s in our own best interests.”, “It was the best he could do at the moment.”, “WE REPRESENT OURSELVES TO THE WORLD.”, AND “SJP”–as a scaffold of language, functioning
as a pre-existing scheme to which the artist must respond. Blind Painting, No. 3, Fifteen-foot Ceiling or Lower (THE WAY HE ALWAYS WANTED IT/Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York), 2009, completes the chiasmus, with surplus, upon which this exhibition is built.

March 28 – May 2, 2009
537 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Friedrich Pretzel

April 18th, 2009
Elad Lassry


Elad Lassry
Untitled (detail), 2008
16 mm film
9:20 minutes

Three Films Closes April 19 (Sunday) at The Whitney

Elad Lassry: Three Films is the first New York museum exhibition of this Los Angeles based artist who produces carefully crafted images in both photography and film. While often drawing on traditional photographic conventions, Lassry focuses his attention on the surfaces and histories of the objects and individuals he captures, asking the viewer to reassess even the most quotidian images. The three films in this exhibition draw upon the legacy of Structuralist film to examine and interpret modes of image production. Untitled (2008) reconstructs a series of 1970s photographs illustrating perception, using the film camera to shift the focus of the image from the mechanics of vision to the subjectivity of the individuals in the photo. Untitled (Agon) (2007) records two dancers performing the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Using a diagram from Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to determine the camera’s positions, Lassry examines the way cultural production is framed and transformed through different methods of representation. Finally, Zebra and Woman (2007) vacillates between two disparate subjects to both expose a synchronicity between forms and interrogate the construction of the image within the film frame.

the whitney

David Kordansky

April 18th, 2009


Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009

April 16 – June 27, 2009
555 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011


April 17th, 2009
Neu! – Negativland

April 17th, 2009
Dude, You’ve Got Problems

NY Times Published: April 16, 2009

Early this month, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself after months of incessantly being hounded by his classmates for being “gay.” (He was not; but did, apparently, like to do well in school.)

In March, 2007, 17-year-old Eric Mohat shot himself in the head, after a long-term tormentor told him in class, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself; no one will miss you.” Eric liked theater, played the piano and wore bright clothing, a lawyer for his family told ABC news, and so had long been subject to taunts of “gay,” “fag,” “queer” and “homo.”

Teachers and school administrators, the Mohats’ lawsuit now asserts, did nothing.

We should do something to get this insanity under control.

I’m not just talking about combating bullying, which has been a national obsession ever since Columbine, and yet seems to continue unabated. I’m only partly talking about homophobia, which, though virulent, cruel and occasionally fatal among teenagers, is not the whole story behind the fact that words like “fag” and “gay” are now among the most potent and feared weapons in the school bully’s arsenal.

Being called a “fag,” you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay.

It’s really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity – by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance or even having an interest in literature. It’s similar to what being viewed as a “nerd” is, Bennington College psychology professor David Anderegg notes in his 2007 book, “Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them”: “‘queer’ in the sense of being ‘odd’ or ‘unusual,’” but also, for middle schoolers in particular, doing “anything that was too much like what a goody-goody would do.”

It’s what being called a “girl” used to be, a generation or two ago.

“To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying that you’re nothing,” is how one teenage boy put it to C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at Colorado College, in an interview for her 2007 book, “Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.”

The message to the most vulnerable, to the victims of today’s poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.

It’s weird, isn’t it, that in an age in which the definition of acceptable girlhood has expanded, so that desirable femininity now encompasses school success and athleticism, the bounds of boyhood have remained so tightly constrained? And so staunchly defended: Boys avail themselves most frequently of epithets like “fag” to “police” one another’s behavior and bring it back to being sufficiently masculine when someone steps out of line, Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found while conducting extensive interviews in a southeastern urban middle school in 2003 and 2004. “Boys were showing each other they were tough. They were afraid to do anything that might be called girlie,” she told me this week. “It was just like what I would have found if I had done this research 50 years ago. They were frozen in time.”

Pascoe spent 18 months embedded in a Northern California working-class high school, in a community where factory jobs had gone south after the signing of Nafta, and where men who’d once enjoyed solid union salaries were now cobbling together lesser-paid employment at big-box stores. “These kids experience a loss of masculine privilege on a day-to-day level,” she said. “While they didn’t necessarily ever experience the concrete privilege their fathers and grandfathers experienced, they have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important. These boys don’t know how to be that something. Their pathway to masculinity is unclear. To not be a man is to not be fully human and that’s terrifying.”

That makes sense. But the strange thing is, this isn’t just about insecure boys. There’s a degree to which girls, despite all their advances, appear to be stuck – voluntarily – in a time warp, too, or at least to be walking a very fine line between progress and utter regression. Spending unprecedented amounts of time and money on their hair, their skin and their bodies, at earlier and earlier ages. Essentially accepting the highly sexualized identity imposed on them, long before middle school, by advertisers and pop culture. In high school, they have second-class sexual status, Pascoe found, and by jumping through hoops to be sexually available enough to be cool (and “empowered”) yet not so free as to be labeled a slut, they appear to be complicit in maintaining it.

Why – given the full array of choices our culture ostensibly now allows them – are boys and girls clinging to such lowest-common-denominator ways of being?

The strain of being a teenager, and in particular, a preteen, no doubt accounts for much of it; people tend to be at their worst when they’re feeling most insecure. But there’s more to it than that, I think. Malina Saval, who spent two years observing and interviewing teenage boys and their parents for her new book “The Secret Lives of Boys,” found that parents played a key role in reinforcing the basest sort of gender stereotypes, at least where boys were concerned. “There were a few parents who were sort of alarmist about whether or not their children were going to be gay because of their music choices, the clothes they wore,” she said. Generally, she said, “there was a kind of low-level paranoia if these high-school-age boys weren’t yet seriously involved with a girl.”

It seems it all comes down, as do so many things for today’s parents, to status.

“Parents are so terrified that their kids will miss out on anything,” Anderegg told me. “They want their kids to have sex, be sexy.”

This generation of parents tends to talk a good game about gender, at least in public. Practicing what we preach, in anxious times in particular, is another thing.

April 17th, 2009

via tagbanger

originally posted on arduousglamor

April 17th, 2009
Charcoal House by Terunobu Fujimori



“He lights newspaper at the base of three planks, coaxes the fire up the boards, then douses them with water after seven minutes. The primitive but painstaking process is said to protect wood against rain, rot, and insects for 80 years. It also gives the exteriors a reptilian texture that’s as striking as it is practical.”

Jamie Gross

“Fujimori wrapped his ‘cave’ with highly durable charred cedar boards; a traditional cladding material still used in Okayama prefecture. Normally, however, the boards come in lengths of less than two metres, for if they are any longer they warp with the heat of their production process.
Undeterred, however, the architect persuaded a group of ten friends, including the clients, to spend a whole day charring cedar boards by using a new experimental technique of his own. It took them one whole day to produce four hundred boards, all more or less eight metres tall, which were precariously but beautifully smoked in clusters of three.
The inevitable warping of the long charred boards was remedied by filling in the gaps with plaster, creating in the process the striking zebra pattern of the exterior walls.”

Yuki Sumner

found on dezeen


April 16th, 2009
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