By PAUL KRUGMAN
NY Times Published: April 9, 2009
Thirty-plus years ago, when I was a graduate student in economics, only the least ambitious of my classmates sought careers in the financial world. Even then, investment banks paid more than teaching or public service — but not that much more, and anyway, everyone knew that banking was, well, boring.
In the years that followed, of course, banking became anything but boring. Wheeling and dealing flourished, and pay scales in finance shot up, drawing in many of the nation’s best and brightest young people (O.K., I’m not so sure about the “best” part). And we were assured that our supersized financial sector was the key to prosperity.
Instead, however, finance turned into the monster that ate the world economy.
Recently, the economists Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef circulated a paper that could have been titled “The Rise and Fall of Boring Banking” (it’s actually titled “Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Financial Industry, 1909-2006”). They show that banking in America has gone through three eras over the past century.
Before 1930, banking was an exciting industry featuring a number of larger-than-life figures, who built giant financial empires (some of which later turned out to have been based on fraud). This highflying finance sector presided over a rapid increase in debt: Household debt as a percentage of G.D.P. almost doubled between World War I and 1929.
During this first era of high finance, bankers were, on average, paid much more than their counterparts in other industries. But finance lost its glamour when the banking system collapsed during the Great Depression.
The banking industry that emerged from that collapse was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending: Household debt, which had fallen sharply as a percentage of G.D.P. during the Depression and World War II, stayed far below pre-1930s levels.
Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans.
After 1980, however, as the political winds shifted, many of the regulations on banks were lifted — and banking became exciting again. Debt began rising rapidly, eventually reaching just about the same level relative to G.D.P. as in 1929. And the financial industry exploded in size. By the middle of this decade, it accounted for a third of corporate profits.
As these changes took place, finance again became a high-paying career — spectacularly high-paying for those who built new financial empires. Indeed, soaring incomes in finance played a large role in creating America’s second Gilded Age.
Needless to say, the new superstars believed that they had earned their wealth. “I think that the results our company had, which is where the great majority of my wealth came from, justified what I got,” said Sanford Weill in 2007, a year after he had retired from Citigroup. And many economists agreed.
Only a few people warned that this supercharged financial system might come to a bad end. Perhaps the most notable Cassandra was Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, who argued at a 2005 conference that the rapid growth of finance had increased the risk of a “catastrophic meltdown.” But other participants in the conference, including Lawrence Summers, now the head of the National Economic Council, ridiculed Mr. Rajan’s concerns.
And the meltdown came.
Much of the seeming success of the financial industry has now been revealed as an illusion. (Citigroup stock has lost more than 90 percent of its value since Mr. Weill congratulated himself.) Worse yet, the collapse of the financial house of cards has wreaked havoc with the rest of the economy, with world trade and industrial output actually falling faster than they did in the Great Depression. And the catastrophe has led to calls for much more regulation of the financial industry.
But my sense is that policy makers are still thinking mainly about rearranging the boxes on the bank supervisory organization chart. They’re not at all ready to do what needs to be done — which is to make banking boring again.
Part of the problem is that boring banking would mean poorer bankers, and the financial industry still has a lot of friends in high places. But it’s also a matter of ideology: Despite everything that has happened, most people in positions of power still associate fancy finance with economic progress.
Can they be persuaded otherwise? Will we find the will to pursue serious financial reform? If not, the current crisis won’t be a one-time event; it will be the shape of things to come.April 9th, 2009
By NICHOLAS KULISH
NY Times Published: April 4, 2009
BERLIN — A dingy line of red tile runs across the otherwise brown floor of the men’s changing room at the public swimming pool in my Berlin neighborhood. It tells you where to take your shoes off and, in the meantime, a fair amount about German thinking.
As their eyes alight on the small sign that goes with it, which reads “barefoot zone” in German, grown men freeze as though they have hit a force field, or had an electric shock administered for being foolish enough to try to pass it still shod. But I can not say what the repercussions would be. This being Germany, I have never seen anyone wearing shoes on the far side of the line and certainly would not risk it myself.
Such strict obedience is all the more impressive when you realize that the red line’s ruthless effectiveness comes with no staff members watching over it, no video camera in evidence, nor, as far I am aware, even any electric shocks. Yet I am certain that in a changing room in Paris, much less Rome, the narrow little line’s authority would be nonexistent, a half-hearted suggestion or maybe just a joke.
I thought of that dull line of tile as American policy makers tried last week to persuade the German government to cross a psychological threshold, and break fiscal discipline to spend their way out of recession.
In most daily interactions, the Germans do not need anyone to enforce their rules. They follow them — and remind one another to follow them through impromptu lectures that are often heated — because they are raised to know that is what they are supposed to do.
What the Germans call Ordnung (the usual translation is “order,” but it is a much broader concept) is the unwritten road map of one society’s concerted effort to permanently banish the instability and violence that have marked its history. That sense of insecurity includes Germany’s forced division in the cold war, the Nazi era and the hyperinflation of the 1920s, but it also stretches at least as far back as the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, which decimated much of the German territories and population, and was a formative trauma.
The response has been to develop a national knack for sticking to the program, not just in specific areas, but in most aspects of life. The autobahn is more than just a highway with stretches where you can drive as fast as you want; it is also a marvel of self-organization. Old Fiats chug along in the right lane, while newer Volkswagens cruise the middle one, allowing sparkling Porsches to zoom by in terrifying blurs on the left. Everyone is in their assigned places, except for the fact that places have not been assigned.
More endearing to me are earnest Teutonic attempts to be laid back, as when a young would-be tough at a local basketball court — mistaking Berlin’s Volkspark Friedrichshain for upper Manhattan’s Rucker Park circa 1970 — boasted that I had better brace myself for the playground game, because “in street ball, there are no rules.” He then proceeded to enumerate carefully and politely which rules were ignored (e.g., three seconds in the lane), which were laxly enforced (non-shooting fouls) and which were still obeyed (traveling).
A German friend disagreed with my broadest stereotyping, pointing to the profusion of German tax dodgers who rush to Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and the exceptional number of people here who cut in line. “You say Italians have no respect for rules, but they will actually kick you out of a restaurant for asking for parmesan on your tuna pasta,” he pointed out. But he admitted that Germans were more likely to trust that each rule was probably written for a good reason, intended for the greater good.
Living in Germany, a foreigner quickly learns to appreciate the precise punctuality of trains and trams, but also to have a healthy fear of that same punctuality in dinner guests who appear when they were invited, instead of 20 minutes later. A group of Germans lined up on an empty street corner, even in the middle of the night, waiting for a light to change before crossing, is one of the favorite first impressions taken away by visiting Americans, who are usually jaywalking past as they observe it.
For self-reliant Americans, the German devotion to all manner of precise rules and regulations is impressive and stifling in equal measures. For American policy makers, it appears to have bred no small amount of exasperation recently.
During the often heated trans-Atlantic debate over the financial crisis, and how to respond to the worsening recession that has grown out of it, I often have felt as though the American side sometimes fails to take into account that it is talking to Germans. Indeed, if there was going to be a disagreement between the United States and Germany over stimulus and regulation, one could guess just by looking at the words, stripped of their economic context, who has been on which side of the divide.
President Obama’s approach to the financial crisis has been typically American — bold, improvisatory and on the fly. The Germans have been studied and measured, evincing a far greater trust than the Americans in their social-security system to patch the cracks in the foundation of their economy.
Of course that is due in part to the famed German aversion to excessive deficit spending, stemming from gut-level fear of a repeat of the hyperinflation of the 1920s. But there is also the German adherence to rules, love of a good plan and cautious, thoughtful approach when it slowly becomes apparent that a return trip to the drawing board may be necessary.
Can we really blame them? They tried improvising once, tearing up the rule book in the first half of the last century, letting a little charismatic speaker with an even littler mustache tell them how to get out of a tough economic pinch. He, too, posed as a man of order, but everyone, and especially the Germans, agrees that led only to chaos and destruction.
But today’s Germans also love keeping to the slowly forged consensus because, as the last 60-odd years have demonstrated, it really does run pretty well for them. Despite reasonable working hours and long vacations, this country of 82 million people is the largest exporter of goods in the world, beating even China. But the kind of society built to excel at tinkering with precision-tuned industrial machines may not be so good at retooling policies on the fly.
German stubbornness in resisting a shift of responses to the current economic crisis has led more than a few Keynesians to pull out more than a little of their hair. It might be for the best if those fans of vigorous impromptu spending came along to the pool with me — not to relax, but to learn how to coax Germans to cross a red line, rather than expect them to do what is hardest for them, which would be to just jump over it with both feet.April 9th, 2009
So Mei, 5, and So Sei, 12, at the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh. A survey found that few Cambodians under 30 were aware of the current Khmer Rouge trials.
By SETH MYDANS
NY Times Published: April 7, 2009
TRAPAENG SVA, Cambodia — Sum Touch has stopped trying to tell her grandchildren about the killings, starvation and terror she lived through when a Communist Khmer Rouge regime ravaged Cambodia 30 years ago.
“It seems that even if I tell them they don’t believe what I say,” said Mrs. Sum Touch, 71, who lost many members of her family. “It hurts my heart that they don’t know what happened.”
There is a former killing field nearby and a shed filled with the skulls and bones of some of the victims. But many of the young people here, it seems, have no idea why or how they got there.
As it struggles to leave its past behind, Cambodia today suffers from a particularly painful generation gap: those who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and their children and grandchildren, who know very little about it.
“I don’t like it, but what can you do?” said Ty Leap, 52, who sells noodles and fruit drinks from a roadside stall. “It really is unbelievable that those things happened.”
For nearly four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, overwork and disease as well as torture and execution as they tried to construct a harsh peasant utopia.
Almost everyone here of a certain age has stories to tell of terror, abuse, hunger and the loss of family members. But those stories often fall on the deaf ears of a new generation that either cannot conceive of such brutality or seems unwilling to learn about it.
“Some older people get so upset at their children for not believing that they say, ‘I wish the Khmer Rouge time would happen again; then you’d believe it,’ ” Mr. Ty Leap said.
As much as 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30, and four out of five members of this young generation know little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge years, according to a survey last fall by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
That ignorance — among both young and older — seems also to embrace the trials of five major Khmer Rouge figures that began last month, a process that is meant, in part, to begin a process of healing and closure.
Parts of the trial sessions are being broadcast, and newspapers are carrying reports, but even in this village at the edge of a former killing field 25 miles south of the capital, Phnom Penh, many people said they were not aware that they were under way.
“I miss some programs so I don’t know about that,” said Khieu Hong, 36, who was listening to a small transistor radio. “If you want to know about the trials you should ask the police or the old people.”
Hun Ret, 36, a cattle trader who lives nearby, said he strongly supported a trial in order to punish Khmer Rouge perpetrators. But he was surprised when he was told that the trial had already started.
Again the Berkeley study seemed to support the perception of widespread ignorance. It found that only 15 percent of the people it surveyed said they knew much at all about the trials, although that number is likely to have risen since the hearings began. The study was based on personal interviews with 1,000 people during the last three weeks of September.
Beyond the question of age, ignorance about the past appears to be a combination of culture and policy and perhaps also the passivity of a people too exhausted by history to confront its traumas.
The trials are being held under pressure from the United Nations and Western governments in a nation that might have preferred the approach of its prime minister, Hun Sen, who once proposed that Cambodia “dig a hole and bury the past.”
Mr. Hun Sen was a mid-level Khmer Rouge commander, though there is apparently no evidence that he committed major crimes. Several ranking members of his ruling party and the military are also former members of Khmer Rouge.
Because of these cross-currents in recent Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge period has not been taught in school, causing some teachers who are survivors to feel orphaned by their students.
A new high school text book that discusses the Khmer Rouge years has been prepared, but it will reach only a portion of the country’s students.
“I talk to them, but they don’t always believe what I tell them,” said Kann Sunthara, 57, a chemistry teacher. “My father and husband and brother and sisters and many others died. Sometimes when I’m telling about them I have to turn my back and cry.”
Another teacher, Eam Mary, 41, who was severely tortured as a boy under the Khmer Rouge, said he can only catch the attention of his class when he tells weird stories, like the times he was forced by hunger to eat baby mice or lizards or worse.
“They say ‘Ew, disgusting!’ ” he said. “And at the same time some of the kids in the back of the class are playing and not paying attention.”
The generation gap seems evident here at the former killing field where dozens of skulls and bones have been preserved in a makeshift memorial — one of hundreds around the country — as evidence that the massacres really did happen.
Some older people say they still hear the cries of wandering ghosts whose bodies have not been properly laid to rest.
“They come out at night and frighten people,” said Mr. Khieu Hong, the man with the radio. “They cry ‘Whoo, whoo!’ It sounds like somebody is being tortured and crying out.”
But the children who graze cattle nearby seem deaf to the moans of ghosts.
For some of them, the bones are playthings. Sometimes they stick their fingers into the eyes of the skulls, like bowling balls. Sometimes they put them on their heads like scary caps, the children say. Sometimes they kick them.
But they seemed confused when they were asked whose skulls these were.
“They are the skulls of ghosts!” said Prok Poeuv, 11, standing near the small stupa that houses the bones. But he said he did not know whose ghosts these were, and he said he had never heard of the Khmer Rouge.
Sok Dane, 12, said she knew a little more. “My grandmother tells me that in the Khmer Rouge time some people hit other people,” she said. But that was all she knew, and the meaning of “Khmer Rouge time” was unclear to her.
Chhun Sam Ath 42, a mother of six who lives in a shanty beside the collection of skulls, is one of the better informed villagers. She has a glossy handout about the tribunal although she does not read very well.
She said some children here, deep in their souls, may know more about the past than they seem to.
“I think some of my children are reborn from the victims in the killing field,” she said. “When people come and leave offerings for the skulls, my daughter always runs to get the food, as if they were bringing it for her.”April 8th, 2009
Florian Pumhosl, Plakat (#2) and Plakat (#1)April 7th, 2009
In Detroit, three downtown businesses have created a local currency, or scrip, to keep dollars earned locally in the community.
By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
A small but growing number of cash-strapped communities are printing their own money.
Borrowing from a Depression-era idea, they are aiming to help consumers make ends meet and support struggling local businesses.
The systems generally work like this: Businesses and individuals form a network to print currency. Shoppers buy it at a discount — say, 95 cents for $1 value — and spend the full value at stores that accept the currency.
Workers with dwindling wages are paying for groceries, yoga classes and fuel with Detroit Cheers, Ithaca Hours in New York, Plenty in North Carolina or BerkShares in Massachusetts.
Ed Collom, a University of Southern Maine sociologist who has studied local currencies, says they encourage people to buy locally. Merchants, hurting because customers have cut back on spending, benefit as consumers spend the local cash.
“We wanted to make new options available,” says Jackie Smith of South Bend, Ind., who is working to launch a local currency. “It reinforces the message that having more control of the economy in local hands can help you cushion yourself from the blows of the marketplace.”
About a dozen communities have local currencies, says Susan Witt, founder of BerkShares in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. She expects more to do it.
Under the BerkShares system, a buyer goes to one of 12 banks and pays $95 for $100 worth of BerkShares, which can be spent in 370 local businesses. Since its start in 2006, the system, the largest of its kind in the country, has circulated $2.3 million worth of BerkShares. In Detroit, three business owners are printing $4,500 worth of Detroit Cheers, which they are handing out to customers to spend in one of 12 shops.
During the Depression, local governments, businesses and individuals issued currency, known as scrip, to keep commerce flowing when bank closings led to a cash shortage.
By law, local money may not resemble federal bills or be promoted as legal tender of the United States, says Claudia Dickens of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
“We print the real thing,” she says.
The IRS gets its share. When someone pays for goods or services with local money, the income to the business is taxable, says Tom Ochsenschlager of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “It’s not a way to avoid income taxes, or we’d all be paying in Detroit dollars,” he says.
Pittsboro, N.C., is reviving the Plenty, a defunct local currency created in 2002. It is being printed in denominations of $1, $5, $20 and $50. A local bank will exchange $9 for $10 worth of Plenty.
“We’re a wiped-out small town in America,” says Lyle Estill, president of Piedmont Biofuels, which accepts the Plenty. “This will strengthen the local economy. … The nice thing about the Plenty is that it can’t leave here.”April 7th, 2009
By DAVID BROOKS
NY Times Published: April 6, 2009
Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.
One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”
Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.
As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but … what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”
Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.
Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.
In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”
The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.
The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.
The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.
The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.
Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.April 7th, 2009
By RICHARD MOE
NY Times Published: April 5, 2009
NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.
Let’s begin with energy consumption and emissions. Forty-three percent of America’s carbon emissions come from heating, cooling, lighting and operating our buildings. Older homes are particularly wasteful: Homes built in 1939 or before use around 50 percent more energy per square foot than those constructed in 2000. But with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures could perform on a par with newer homes.
So how does a homeowner go green? The first step is an energy audit by a local utility. These audits can be obtained in many communities at little or no cost. They help identify the sources of heat loss, allowing homeowners to make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way.
Homeowners are likely to discover that much of the energy loss comes down to a lack of insulation in attics and basements. Sealing other air leaks also helps. This can be done by installing dryer vent seals that open only when the dryer is in use, as well as fireplace draft stoppers and attic door covers.
Experience has shown that virtually any older or historic house can become more energy-efficient without losing its character. Restoring the original features of older houses — like porches, awnings and shutters — can maximize shade and insulation. Older wooden windows perform very well when properly weatherized — this includes caulking, insulation and weather stripping — and assisted by the addition of a good storm window. Weatherizing leaky windows in most cases is much cheaper than installing replacements.
The good news is that the administration is taking steps to help homes save energy with a program that will invest almost $8 billion in state and local weatherization and energy-efficiency efforts. The Weatherization Assistance Program, aimed at low-income families, will allow an average investment of up to $6,500 per home in energy efficiency upgrades.
My organization is also working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and members of Congress on legislation to help cover the costs of making all older homes more energy-efficient. Under this proposal, a homeowner would receive a $3,000 incentive for improving energy efficiency by 20 percent, and $150 for each additional percentage point of energy savings. If 3,000 homes could be retrofitted each year, we estimate that after 10 years we could see a reduction of 65 million metric tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the equivalent of 200 million barrels of oil saved.
The labor-intensive process of rehabilitating older buildings would also create jobs, and this labor can’t be shipped overseas. The wages would stay in the community, supporting local businesses and significantly increasing household incomes — just the kind of boost the American economy needs right now.
Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.
Richard Moe is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.April 6th, 2009
By Steve Hadley
Jim White is an Australian drummer, and the longtime drummer for the musical group Dirty Three. Formed in Melbourne, the band now reside in different continents with Jim White reportedly residing in New York at present.
As well as his work with Dirty Three, Jim White also plays with a number of other groups, including;
* Tren Brothers, consisting of Jim White and Mick Turner
* Boxhead Ensemble, a musical collaboration including Jim O’Rourke, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Mick Turner, amongst others.
* Cat Power as member of the Dirty Delta Blues
* Smog (Bill Callahan)
* White Magic, plays drums live with this New York based group from time to time, having recorded on their debut record.
* Essie Jain, drums on this New York singer songwriter’s record We Made This Ourselves.
* Has played live with Nina Nastasia since 2003 and on her albums Run to Ruin and On Leaving. In 2007 the collaborative album You Follow Me was released under the name Nina Nastasia and Jim White.
* PJ Harvey’s album White Chalk
* C.W.Stoneking’s 2008 album Jungle Blues
* Marianne Faithful’s 2008 album, Easy Come, Easy Go
PJ Harvey has compared him to a ballet dancer—but in the vastness of the Garden’s backstage, the drums sound thunderous.
The Melbourne native and current Brooklynite, who first came to note in the mid-’90s with the instrumental trio Dirty Three, has become the most in-demand drummer in town.
In addition to Cat Power (with whom he has played off and on for a decade) and Harvey (who employed him on her new album, White Chalk), White has performed with everyone from Nick Cave to local psych-folk band White Magic. Those who play with White speak of him with the ardor of religious converts. “Drummers are one thing and Jim is another,” Will Oldham says. “He takes a song apart, element by element, and then rebuilds it with his parts incorporated.
In an e-mail, Joanna Newsom writes that White “drums like somebody who is working with pitches as well as rhythm. He’s definitely a virtuoso player. He can cling, with a palpable, high-stakes looseness and gorgeous blind faith, to the downbeat, sounding for a moment like he’s dropped his sticks before resolving into shockingly metronomic precision.”
Now, for the first time in a long and varied career, White receives cobilling on an album: You Follow Me, a series of duets with local singer Nina Nastasia. “Nina was playing a ballad and it got me thinking about the drums,” White says, sitting in the Cupcake Café in Hell’s Kitchen hours before his Garden debut. “I wanted to see if they could fill the same role and emotions that strings and stuff normally would. It could be very subtle and still, but in the starkness you could hear what I was doing.”
via; time out new york…
note; White and the Dirty three have always been influenced by The Bad Seeds , in particular White’s drumming and Mick Harvey. Still, in my opinion, he’s moved on with his own style and nobody around has it. From a stoned burlesque sloppyness to groove based orchestral busyness, and all seems to work.
He’s the man in demand for now as just years ago it was Joey Warnoker, during his Beck days. Warnoker was different though, as a much more polished studio man, while White just knows how to keep his own style in every band he plays in.
Listening to him play…. around the corner there is always a pleasant surprise.
Arthur Russell, New York, ca. 1985.
Rhys Chatham and Chistian Wolff on Arthur Russell
APRIL 2009 ARTFORUM
I FIRST MET ARTHUR RUSSELL in New York in 1973, after a concert of Jackson Mac Low’s sound poetry at the WBAI Free Music Store. As Arthur was studying uptown at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM), and I had recently founded the music program at the Kitchen (still at its original Mercer Street address in SoHo), our conversation soon turned to the contemporary music then emerging from classical traditions. I immediately noticed that Arthur’s interest included not only the highly cerebral and atonal postserialist composers of MSM, such as Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, but also the new tonality that was being explored downtown by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.
Like many of us making music in the early 1970s, Arthur and I felt that “art” music had become something that only other composers could appreciate, and we were therefore interested in moving away from serialism and toward tonality. It can’t be emphasized enough what an important issue this was at the time, and establishing a music program at the Kitchen in 1971 had everything to do with giving these younger composers a place to play.
After I had served as the Kitchen’s music director for its first two years, a composer named Jim Burton took over, followed by Arthur in 1974. Arthur’s programming resonated with that of the previous years, but occasionally rock appeared in the mix—notably with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
Perhaps the roots of this endeavor lay in the European groups of the late ’60s such as Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) in Italy, which included a number of expatriate Americans living in Europe—Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum—and AMM in London, which counted among its members Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, as well as Christian Wolff. After John Cage’s use of indeterminacy and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s early attempts at introducing random elements into his scores, this seemed like the next logical step. The musicians of MEV and AMM thus began working within very loose structures, or no structure at all, to produce a free, immediate music made on the spot.
Taking note of America’s own great tradition of improvisation—namely, African-American composers coming out of the jazz tradition, such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry—Rzewski returned to the States and started the markedly influential New York version of MEV. The city’s free jazz loft scene was at its height then, and people such as Rzewski, Anthony Braxton, Garrett List, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Karl Berger were breaking down the hierarchical barriers between jazz and the Western European classical mode.
In 1975, a number of musicians in their early twenties, such as Peter Gordon, Jill Kroesen, Ned Sublette, and Peter Zummo, arrived in New York from the West Coast and elsewhere. Gordon, in particular, was doing something that I had never heard before: making compositions that worked perfectly well in an avant-garde context, yet using a vocabulary overtly drawn from rock. Shocked, I was hesitant to support this mix. But before long, I ended up playing in Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra, which consisted of his friends drawing variously on rock, dance, Minimalist, experimental, and even disco music. That year, List took over from Arthur as music director of the Kitchen, giving more than a quarter of his program over to improvisation, a clear influence of MEV and AMM. In addition to booking downtowners such as Arthur and Gordon, List also invited jazz musicians/composers to the venue—and not just a few. (Many in the community couldn’t understand his reasoning for this, feeling that jazz composers already had places to play.)
In the meantime, Arthur was living on East Twelfth Street between Avenues A and B; he had an extra room and needed someone to help pay his rent. As it happened, I was looking for a place, so we became roommates for about a year. Allen Ginsberg and Richard Hell lived there as well. I’d get up in the morning to go out for coffee and sometimes see these weird guys all dressed in black with shades—they turned out to be members of Television.
Around the corner on Houston Street, Arthur had a rehearsal studio that we shared with Gordon. It was there that Arthur developed his composition Instrumentals (1974). Maybe I only noticed because I was studying jazz and tenor saxophone at the time, but the piece made heavy use of the chord progression ii⁷-V⁷–I (two minor seven, dominant seven, one) found in many jazz standards. The way Arthur put these chords together was highly idiosyncratic and produced a sound not normally associated with the genre. This approach to composition—the mixing of varying separate traditions—felt transgressive and fresh to us, yet occasionally may have been too much for a regular concert audience. In those days, I was bartending in the East Village and couldn’t resist asking my friends to play. I invited Jill Kroesen to perform and gave Arthur a regular gig, but I was used to thinking of Arthur as a classical composer, and here he was, singing what sounded suspiciously like folk music. He played there every week and definitely raised some eyebrows.
Watching Arthur, Peter, and Jill mixing all of these elements in their music, I finally went to see the Ramones in 1976 at CBGB’s, the month after they released their first album. I was twenty-four at the time and had never been to a rock concert. Until then, I had considered myself a hard-core Minimalist, having studied with La Monte Young in the early ’70s, tuning his piano in just intonation in exchange for lessons and playing in his group, as well as performing with Tony Conrad’s Dream Syndicate. Hearing the Ramones changed my life. I thought, Wow, I may be playing only one chord in my music, and these guys may be playing three, but I can really relate to this stuff. I reasoned that if Glass could use jazz instrumentation in Music in 12 Parts (1971–74), and Reich could use elements of Ghanaian music in Drumming (1970–71), why couldn’t I use rock instrumentation for my work?
What came about was a piece I composed in 1977 called Guitar Trio (G3), for three electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. While its melodic content used the musical vocabulary of New York’s downtown avant-garde scene—consisting entirely of the overtone series generated by the E string of the electric guitar—its rhythmic thrust and the way the musicians played together came out of rock. In 1979, we included the visual artist Robert Longo as one of the guitarists, and he created a set of handsome slides to be projected during the performance, titling them Pictures for Music, 1979. Just as Longo used preexisting images as the subject matter of his visual work, it felt perfectly natural for me to use sounds commonly found in electronic media as subject matter for musical compositions. Though I began to think of G3 more as a representation of rock than actually rock itself, I went on to play the piece in places like CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Tier 3. But where was Arthur?
One evening in the late ’70s, we ran into each other at the Kitchen. It was then that he told me about his interest in disco; about the huge subwoofer speakers they had in these clubs, and how the disco composers were making compositions especially for these frequencies. He encouraged me to check this out, saying, “They’re like temples for music, Rhys!” Though I didn’t tell Arthur at the time, I remember thinking, I’ve heard of composers coming out of a classical tradition being influenced by jazz or rock as a primary compositional direction, but disco? To this day I’ve never understood why Arthur took up disco the way a number of us had taken on rock and punk. However I once asked Peter Gordon and he suggested,
Disco was joyous, fun, and social. Arthur never embraced the nihilism and negativity of punk rock. He never felt comfortable with the darkness and angry dissonance of (what was later called) “No Wave.” Note that when Arthur brought rock to the Kitchen, it was with the Modern Lovers, and with Jonathan Richman’s unabashed positivism and innocence. Arthur was drawn to the bacchanalian aspect of the dance clubs—initially at the Loft and later at Paradise Garage. He was also beginning to openly embrace his gay identity and there was a feeling of communality on the dance floor. In contrast to the punk/rock scene (typically angry, white, and heterosexual), disco was a culturally diverse party.
With the generation immediately preceding ours, the various camps of composers—whether conservatory, jazz, or rock—kept to themselves, maintaining barriers between forms. By the ’70s there were many people attempting to dissolve these lines, yet it is the sheer number of areas in which Arthur did significant work during that era that remains amazing.
Rhys Chatham is a musician and composer from Manhattan residing in Paris since 1987.April 5th, 2009
By MAUREEN DOWD
NY Times Published: April 4, 2009
Barack Obama grew up learning how to slip in and out of different worlds — black and white, foreign and American, rich and poor.
The son of an anthropologist, he developed a lot of “tricks,” as he put it, training himself to be a close observer of human nature, figuring out what others needed so he could get where he wanted to go.
He was able to banish any fear in older white folk that he was an angry young black man — with smiles, courtesy and, as he wrote in his memoir, “no sudden moves.” He learned negotiating skills as a community organizer and was able to ascend to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review by letting a disparate band of self-regarding eggheads feel that they were being heard and heeded.
As Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor who mentored the young Obama, put it, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.” He can leave you thinking he agrees, when often he’s only agreeing to leave you thinking he agrees.
He privately rolls his eyes at the way many in politics and government spend so much time preening and maneuvering for credit rather than simply doing their jobs. Yet with that detached and novelistic eye that allows him to be a great writer, he is also able to do a kind of political jujitsu, where he assesses the bluster and insecurities of other politicians, defuses them, and then uses them to his advantage.
Gabriel Byrne’s brooding psychoanalyst on “In Treatment” might envy Barack Obama’s calming psychoanalysis in Europe. He may not have come away with all he wanted substantively. His hand was too weak going in, and there was too much hostility toward America, thanks to W.’s blunders and Cheney’s bullying. But he showed a psychological finesse that has been missing from American leadership for a long time.
“Each country has its own quirks,” he said at his London press conference, indicating that you had to intuit how much you could prod each leader.
W. always bragged about his instincts, saying he knew whom to trust based on his gut. But even with the help of psychologists putting together profiles of dictators and other major players for our intelligence services, Bush and his inner circle were extraordinarily obtuse about reading the motivations and the intentions of friends and foes.
How could it never occur to them that Saddam Hussein might simply be bluffing about the size of his W.M.D. arsenal to keep the Iranians and other antagonists at bay?
W. bristled at French and German leaders because he thought they were condescending to him. He thought he saw into Vladimir Putin’s soul until the Russian leader showed his totalitarian stripes.
W. and Condi were so clueless about the mind-set of Palestinians that Condi was blindsided by the Hamas victory in 2006, learning the news from TV as she did the elliptical at 5 a.m. in the gym of her Watergate apartment.
The Bush chuckleheads misread the world and insisted that everyone else go along with their deluded perception, and they bullied the world and got huffy if the world didn’t quickly fall in line.
President Obama, by contrast, employed smart psychology in the global club, even on small things, like asking other leaders if they wanted to start talking first at news conferences.
With Anglo-American capitalism on trial and Gordon Brown floundering in the polls, Mr. Obama took pains to drape an arm around “Gordon” and return to using the phrase “special relationship.” He gave a shout-out to the Brown kids, saying he’d talked dinosaurs with them.
He won points with a prickly Sarkozy when he intervened in an argument about tax havens between the French and Chinese leaders, pulling them into a corner to help them “get this all in some kind of perspective” and find a middle ground. Mr. Obama also played to the ego of the Napoleonic French leader, saying at their press conference, “He’s courageous on so many fronts, it’s hard to keep up.”
Soon Sarko was back gushing over his charmant Americain ami.
Having an Iowa-style town hall in Strasbourg with enthusiastic French and German students was a clever ploy to underscore his popularity on the world stage, and put European leaders on notice that many of their constituents are also his.
Like a good shrink, the president listens; it’s a way of flattering his subjects and sussing them out without having to fathom what’s in their soul. “It is easy to talk to him,” Dmitri Medvedev said after their meeting. “He can listen.” The Russian president called the American one “my new comrade.”
Mr. Obama, the least silly of men, was even willing to mug for a silly Facebook-ready picture, grinning and giving a thumbs-up with Medvedev and a goofy-looking Silvio Berlusconi.
Now that America can’t put everyone under its thumb, a thumbs-up and a killer smile can go a long way.April 4th, 2009
April 3, 2009, NY Times Magazine
By Sacha Z. Scoblic
Lots of addicts in recovery worry that they might relapse if they hang out with old friends, if they lose their job, or if a loved one dies. I worry I might relapse if an exciting opportunity to get wasted with a celebrity comes along.
Recently, a friend told me an amazing story. During the summer of 2004, she had been in Aspen, Colo., when her pal’s cell phone rang. The pal answered the phone, explained the situation to my friend, and said, “Are you in?” The next thing she knew, she was at a house known to many as Owl Farm. There, she and a small group of people clustered around a bald man with tinted glasses and a penchant for pills. It was Hunter S. Thompson. And, while my friend and a few others smoked pot and drank wine, Thompson actually read to them — excerpts of his own work from original 1970s issues of RollingStone magazine. Several months after my friend had met him, the great writer died. “Huh,” I said. After composing myself — I wavered in a kind of stunned jealousy for a few moments — I became consumed with just one thought: obviously, in that situation, I would have to relapse.
I was and am a Thompson fan. Perhaps because his addictions and his prose were so entwined and so visceral. Perhaps because he was writing during a time I always wished I had come of age in. And so, for several long days, I obsessed over what avenues I might have taken in life to put me in a position to meet Hunter S. Thompson and have him read to me from an original Rolling Stone magazine while at Owl Farm. I even realized that — ha! — the night in question was almost a year before I quit drugs and alcohol. As if the fantasy could now be guilt-free. As if now, should time travel suddenly exist and should I be able to become my friend for a night, I’d be good to go.
And I can imagine it so well! While Thompson tells me about the Vegas articles, he hands me some patented cocktail of substances; maybe I demur at first, but then he says, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals—and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”
More and more, it began to seem prudent to plan for such an evening, not of time travel and body-swapping, but of not-to-be-missed relapse opportunities. I thought I should make a top-five list, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card should the chance arise to, say, party and jam with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. I would flash my relapse pass to the heavens and say, “It’s cool. I’m allowed to drink in this situation.” But then I realized I hadn’t listened to Parliament-Funkadelic since college and I don’t actually play an instrument, so jamming would just be embarrassing. Really, Clinton and crew just seem like a fun bunch, but they’re not actually relapse-worthy. In fact, the more I tried to create a relapse pass, the more I realized how few potential scenarios excited me.
The truth is that there is no one alive I want to lose my sobriety over. Who is there? Amy Winehouse? We could spend the night shooting up while she nursed a pet mouse and I slouched on her tanning bed and waited for dawn. It just seems like a waste of a trip to London. Lindsay Lohan? We could drink vodka and Red Bull, dance until we sweated out our glitter body lotion, and then drive her Bentley into her beach house. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. While there are plenty of living artists I would love to meet, I cannot think of any with whom I would need to have an exotic chemical experience. Now, if Jack Kerouac passed me “tea” and whiskey at a jazz club, Truman Capote offered me a cocktail, or Dorothy Parker ordered a bottle and then asked what I was having — well, those are different stories altogether. Clearly, I’ve romanticized drinking with dead writers.
Alas, with my living celebrity relapse dance card still empty, I thought I might plan for a more realistic scenario. Like nuclear holocaust or asteroids. So I briefly flirted with including the end of the world on my relapse pass. But then I remembered that I was not 16 years old, and I would much rather spend time with my husband, dog, and family in my final hours than with a bottle of vodka and a gallon of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. If anything, I’d like to be so sober at the end of the world that I can clearly communicate to my loved ones how much they mean to me and be open to receiving that kind of message, too. I’m all about soaking up the love. (Even now, though, I can hear a former version of myself gagging a little and saying, “Oh, puhlease!” Of course, that’s the same version of myself who thought that it was just hysterical when I almost burned down my apartment building. Whoops!)
But these days, I am mostly out of the habit of thinking about the next raging party. When I watch a movie with lots of drugs and alcohol, I squirm. When I see friends drunk, I want to flee, not join in. These days my fantasies are more likely to be about the single glass of wine with dinner, the cold beer on a hot day, the champagne flute raised in a toast. And, apparently, anything Hunter S. Thompson hands me. But there are no get-out-of-jail-free cards for this disease. There are no relapse passes, because once I take that drink, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Thompson’s party, after all, ended with a gun in his mouth. And my experience tells me that as soon as my brain gets a taste of that witch’s brew, wires will crisscross, sanity will bend, and reason will wither. Experience tells me that sobriety isn’t something I can slip in and out of without consequence.
So I have to ask myself, what am I willing to lose for this relapse? Am I willing to lose my husband? My job? The small world of good friends and neighbors I have created around me? My self-respect when I look in the mirror and realize I have to climb once more from the depths of addiction? Relapsing might come easy, but how many recoveries do I have in me? That’s why I’m giving up on the top five relapse pass — even the time-traveling, body-swapping Hunter S. Thompson relapse fantasy. Because, when the weasels close in, I am way better equipped to handle them sober.April 4th, 2009
Marty Kairey, owner of Atlantic Bottling in Ocean, N.J., makes a sugar-cane-based premium vodka under the Zachlawi label that is kosher for Passover.
LA Times By Jerry Hirsch
April 4, 2009
How about a margarita with that matzo ball?
Until recently, syrupy sweet wine was a staple of the Passover Seder, the ritual meal that celebrates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But now Jews who observe the stringent food restrictions of the holiday have climbed a culinary Mount Sinai to find more kosher alcoholic choices than ever before, including a premium vodka, a $200 Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous To Kalon vineyard in Napa Valley, and even specially prepared pure agave tequila from Mexico.
The offerings are part of what “Kosher by Design” cookbook author and food maven Susie Fishbein calls a “renaissance” in kosher foods and drinks in America.
“Upscale drinks have a place at a table where you are serving lamb shanks and osso buco instead of the traditional brisket smothered in onions and cabbage,” Fishbein said.
Sales of kosher products grew 41% from 2003 to 2008 to $12.5 billion, according to market research firm Mintel International in Chicago, driven by a rising number of observant Jews as well as gentiles who perceive the kosher designation as a stamp of quality.
A good chunk of that spending is on foods formulated specifically for Passover, when, with the exception of unleavened bread known as matzo, anything made from grains is off-limits. Most Jews of European ancestry also refrain from eating food containing rice, peanuts, beans or corn.
That’s bad news for schnapps lovers. Passover prohibition extends to most forms of hard liquor — including whiskeys and many vodkas — fermented from grains. Because it is made from agave, tequila would seem to be kosher for the holiday. But to make the grade for Passover, the spirit must carry a seal or symbol that certifies rabbis have supervised the preparation to ensure that it does not contain any grain alcohols or flavorings from prohibited foods.
As for wine, only kosher vintners are permitted to make wine that’s drunk during Passover. It too carries a kosher seal of approval.
No one tracks sales of wine and spirits produced especially for Passover consumption. But there’s no doubt that many Jews will offer up a mazel tov to the widening selection.
Better Passover alcoholic offerings will improve what’s consumed during the Seder, but will have even more use for the “kiddush clubs,” informal drinking groups that meet during and after Saturday morning and holiday services at Orthodox and traditional synagogues across America, said Gary Landsman, a 35-year-old writer who frequents the West Side International Synagogue in Manhattan.
“The options have just not been that great previously,” said Landsman, who plans to bring Casa Vieja-brand tequila made from blue agave in Mexico’s Jalisco state to a kiddush club this year. “This fills a real void for Jews.”
Landsman now can follow Casa Vieja’s recipes for the Moses Margarita, the 10th Plague — with tomato juice and horseradish — and the Egyptian Sunrise, a haimish take on the classic resort drink.
Kosher, also called kashrut, is a set of dietary restrictions observant Jews adhere to year- round. For example, they don’t mix milk and meat products in the same meal. Foods from animals such as pigs and shellfish are forbidden. Cattle and sheep must be slaughtered by a cut with a sharp knife to the neck. Even then only some portions of the animal are kosher.
The rules at Passover are even more complicated. During the eight days of the festival, Jews refrain from eating any leavened breads. Matzo, the flatbread, is eaten to commemorate the hurried fashion in which the Israelites escaped the Pharaoh’s bondage; they fled without waiting for their bread dough to rise.
“Kosher for Passover” tequila is a godsend for Laura Kerr of Orange, who developed an allergy to wine about six years ago that prevents her from drinking the traditional four cups of wine Jews are told to consume at the Seder. That limits Kerr to drinking grape juice instead of wine — which rabbis say allows her to fulfill the commandment — but left her without the celebratory kick to remember the Jews’ freedom from captivity.
This year, Kerr said, she will buy a $43 bottle of Casa Vieja from Glatt Mart in Los Angeles.
“It’s a little pricey for tequila, but if it’s very good tequila, then it’s worth it,” Kerr said.
Marty Kairey, owner of Atlantic Bottling in Ocean, N.J., hopes to make a few shekels off increasingly sophisticated kosher palates.
Intrigued by a former landlord in Brooklyn who made liquor in his basement, Kairey developed a sugar-cane-based vodka and started marketing it to observant Jews under the Zachlawi label.
“It is a very niche market and new. Most people won’t even know to look for it,” Kairey said.
But thanks to word of mouth, the sleek glass-bottled Zachlawi Premium Vodka — which brags “seven times distilled” on the label — has caught on.
“It’s only 2 years old and we did over 1,000 cases just in March, in the middle of a recession,” said Nathan Herzog, executive vice president of Royal Wine Corp., which distributes the vodka.
Casa Vieja tequila, whose label depicts a building reminiscent of the Southwest’s Catholic missions, has not sold as well. Herzog suspects that observant Jews don’t know that kosher-for-Passover tequila exists.
How much tequila or vodka should be passed around the table at Seder is likely to set off some debate, said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz of Los Angeles, a national kosher expert.
“Generally, people should drink the best wine they can for the traditional four cups of the Passover Seder,” Eidlitz said. If they can’t drink wine, grape juices works. Shots of vodka or tequila would not be an appropriate substitute, he said.
However, raising a “L’chaim!” to freedom during the meal would fulfill the concept of mitzvah yom tov, or honoring the holiday.
“One margarita is great; 10 might be an issue,” Eidlitz said. “You don’t want to get drunk because you will never make it through the Seder.”April 4th, 2009
March 20th 2009 – April 25th 2009April 4th, 2009
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Ny Times Published: April 3, 2009
he iPhone was charging. Refined, introverted, mysteriously chilled, my new $200 tile of technology lay supine on a side table, gulping power from the wall.
Actually, the iPhone probably sips, like a lipsticky girl with a vodka drink. It usually does things in a cute way. Whatever. At 4 in the morning, I was in bed, fighting rage. I couldn’t stop thinking about that device’s tarty little face and those yapping “apps” you can download for it. The whole iPhone enterprise seemed to require so much attention, organization, explanation, praise, electricity. I know — I know: in the morning, Apple’s latest miracle machine would fill my palm with meaning and magic. So why couldn’t I contain my annoyance? I had no new-thing excitement. It dawned on me: I hated my iPhone.
I was late to get one — and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe my hopes for the iPhone curdled in the time it took for my perfectly good T-Mobile plan to expire so I could switch to balky AT&T and purchase one. But I had bided my time. And, really, my enthusiasm survived right up to the moment at the AT&T counter, post-sale, when a saleswoman transferred my address book from my battered BlackBerry to the sweetie-pie iPhone.
“Can you set up my e-mail too?” I asked. She handed me the phone and told me what to type. Pressing her good nature, I asked if she’d do that part too, since I wasn’t yet handy with the iPhone’s character-entry system — the 2D screen-based simulation of the qwerty keyboard.
She gave me a hard look. Truly, as if she was supposed to be on the lookout for people like me. “It’s your phone,” she replied briskly. “It’s time you started typing on it.”
It’s time. She was like a nurse for newborns, urging me — a new mother — to step up and change a diaper or something. And I felt just like a sullen new mom, not ready for her role. “Can you just do it this one time?” I said weakly. She poked in the necessary codes. She didn’t trust me, but she let me take the iPhone home anyway.
I didn’t trust myself, either. There were warning signs. I didn’t rush to explore the phone or load it up with apps. I didn’t fantasize about its features, as I did with the feedable Baby Alive doll when I was 6 or with my first Macintosh, when I was 19. Instead, the iPhone stayed in my bag. A hard weight with glossy surfaces, it kept aloof from the animal warmth of my leather wallet. I didn’t even face the iPhone again until it rang, or chimed — or produced some audio confection that seemed cloyingly churchy.
You can see I wasn’t thinking clearly. To answer the phone, I had to touch the screen. Years of not touching screens — so as not to smudge or scar — made me wary. But I brushed the “answer call” and up came fragments of my mother’s cheerful voice. AT&T no doubt works like a charm in other areas, but as I’d been warned, it wasn’t so hot on holding calls where I live. I let it drop my mom. I hunted for a keypad to call her back, but it was gone.
The morning after my sleepless night of charging the phone, a text message arrived from a colleague, about breakfast. It came up in a little dialogue bubble, as if we were characters in a comic book.
Now I had to reply. My throat tightened. “Running late,” I decided on. “See you in 15 min.”
What came out was this: “Runninlate. See you in 15 Mon.”
Why? Why, because of course that’s what I typed! What did I know of this wacko kind of typing? I spent my adolescence touch-typing, convinced my life would be passed secretarially, my left pinkie building novelty muscle manning the A. Then the technology changed, and I improvised an inelegant three-finger style for computer keyboards.
Then years ago, when I bought a BlackBerry, I adapted again. My two hands met as if in prayer, as the thick thumbs took center stage. I liked it. Thinking with my thumbs made sense in a way that thinking with nails and feebler fingers never would or did. And the transformation of thumb-twiddling into typing! Nervous motion was turned productive, as it is in knitting or whittling. Ingenious.
Oh, God. I really was losing it. As I composed my running-late text, the iPhone’s iciness deepened my revulsion. Did this device, which was built never to be cradled, ever warm up? I was also mortified by my illiteracy. My right index finger — the only digit precise enough to hit the close-set virtual iPhone keys — seemed an anemic, cerebral thing, designed for making paltry points in debating club. I repeatedly stabbed to the right of my target letter. It was like being 4 again — or being 90. I couldn’t see, it seemed; I couldn’t point; I couldn’t connect.
And so the iPhone made suggestions. Did I want to say Ride? Ripe? Ruin? No. I wanted to say Running. You know, the way a human might. But with its know-it-all suggestions, the iPhone seemed to want to be more human, more helpful, jollier than I was! The vaunted Apple user-friendliness was exposed, before my eyes, as bossiness and insincerity.
I refused to fight further with the smug phone. Off sailed my text — the work of a blithering idiot.
At breakfast, my colleague said she loved her iPhone. She insisted my typing would improve, but she clearly has more native index-finger skills than I do. I asked her if she thought the iPhone was “coy” or “cold,” and she looked at me blankly. As I spoke I felt like a chippy freak — one of those people too intransigently cranky even to like Barack Obama, or recycling, or the Internet. I thought of how clearly the iPhone suits the moment: Apple once again getting ahead of the game, offering something cuter and funner and more Appley than anyone else.
The failure to appreciate the iPhone was all mine. But I decided not to dwell on that. “I thought you might be back,” the AT&T saleswoman said as I walked in the door. “So?” I said. “You were right.” With some satisfaction, she took the iPhone, and I walked away with a new BlackBerry and money to spare.April 3rd, 2009
Kevin Ryan, trail coordinator for the Catalina Island Conservancy, pauses along the 37-mile Trans-Catalina Island Trail, which officially opens Saturday.
Officials say the 37-mile hiking route spotlights the dramatic changes in elevation and different ecosystems of the island’s interior, where most tourists never venture.
By Louis Sahagun
LA Times April 4, 2009
Wildlife biologist Kevin Ryan stood on the edge of a rocky ridge in the heart of untamed Santa Catalina Island on Friday, inhaled deeply and admired a vista rimmed in cobalt blue that has changed little in thousands of years.
Fog drifted off green hills bristling with cholla cactus and spiced with the scent of sage. The loudest sounds were the songs of meadowlarks. About 600 feet below, the ocean crashed on the boulder-strewn base of steep mountains riven by wind and water.
The view lies at the 20-mile mark of the new Trans-Catalina Island Trail, a 37.2-mile hiking route that Ryan, trail coordinator for the Catalina Island Conservancy, designed and helped build with pick-axes and spades.
“In a place like this, it’s hard to complain about coming to work every day,” Ryan said with a smile.
The trail officially opens today. A decade in the making, it climbs, dips and winds through backcountry largely unknown to the public and essentially unchanged since Tongva Indians roamed the 76-square-mile island.
An hourlong boat ride from Long Beach and San Pedro, the trail should prove irresistible to hikers seeking panoramic scenery and solitude, conservancy officials believe.
The trail was built to show off Catalina’s dramatic changes in elevation, which make for a surprising variety of ecosystems and landscapes: muscular peaks, scalloped beaches, lush ravines and grasslands enlivened by an array of spring flowers, including Indian paintbrush, Catalina mariposa and sticky monkey flowers.
Conservancy officials figure that the whole trek, which features several long, steep climbs, will take about two to four days to complete. But the trail also weaves past nearly every campground in the island’s interior, while steering clear of Native American sites and sensitive species.
Tramping along a stretch of trail cut over a mountaintop covered with spiny plants, Ryan said: “Watch out for that cholla cactus. It makes prickly pear cactus seem gentle.”
Up ahead, the trail evened out on a windy plateau. A bald eagle soared overhead.
Catalina is visited by about 1 million tourists each year, yet most never set foot on the unpaved, 42,000-acre interior, which is protected by the conservancy. Most of Catalina’s estimated 5,000 residents live in Avalon.
Essentially, the island’s culture is split: part tourism, part conservation of wilderness.
“A big part of the future of visitation to this island will be ecotourism,” said Scott Dennis, director of the conservancy’s visitor and volunteer services. “When most people think of Catalina, they think of Avalon. This trail shows us what California used to be, and could be in the future.”
In the first organized hike along the trail, 27 people hit the path Friday in honor of legendary yachtsman Thad Jones. On May 26, 1956, Jones hiked the entire length of the island in 11 hours and 20 minutes.
If all went according to plan, the current group hoped to complete the journey in less than two days, just in time to participate in the trail’s grand opening celebration at noon at the Haypress Recreation Area, about four miles west of Avalon.
By noon Friday, they still had about 20 challenging miles to go.
“At one point, we came to place where the trail went almost straight up, and I began to have doubts about the whole thing,” said Dennis Moran, 60, a Newport Beach yacht broker.
“There was an easier route around the hill, which looked tempting,” he added. “Ultimately, we were true to the trail.”
That kind of talk delighted Bob Rhein, a spokesman for the conservancy.
“The trail is already bringing out the best in people,” he said. “It’s a terrain like no other.”April 3rd, 2009
Shortly after this photo was taken the raccoons peed on the photographer.April 3rd, 2009
Walead Beshty: Passages
March 21, 2009 – May 2, 2009
Artist Talk April 3rd at 7:30 pmApril 2nd, 2009
April 2nd, 2009
The poppies are here! We don’t have carpets of orange yet, but we have brilliant patches starting to fill in the south facing slopes, with blinding yellow swaths of goldfields covering hillsides and along the North Poppy Loop trail. The west-facing slopes seem to have succumbed to grasses this year, and the flowers are buried among them. Many other small wildflowers can be found along the walkways, such as tiny blue pygmy lupine, white forget-me-nots, yellow goldfields and wild parsley, and red maids. The upper part of Lightening Bolt Trail is a good place to see wildflowers, with a beautiful purple field of lacy phaecelia at the top of Kitanemuk Point. The South Poppy Loop has fields of poppies and goldfields that bring a rich floral scent when the wind blows.
Many of the poppy plants still have buds on them that look like they’ll be blooming in the next week, so it appears that the peak will be during the next week or two. The weather is expected to be nice this weekend, so carpooling is recommended and arrive early before the parking lots fill. If the gates close to one-out, one-in, there is parking on Lancaster Road and you can walk up the entrance road for free. Remember, there is only one legal entrance to the reserve, and entering the park at any other points along the boundary fence will be cited.
Poppies curl up when the weather is cold and windy. The wind at the reserve is usually exponentially stronger than in Lancaster, so check our weather station for real-time wind speeds updated every hour. The wildflower blooms generally last from mid-March through mid-May; the peak bloom is usually around mid-April.
Each spring, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve comes alive with the seasonal surprises of the Mojave Desert Grassland habitat. The duration and intensity of colors and scents vary from year to year, affected by differences in winter’s precipitation. Wildlife includes gliding hawks, singing meadow larks, lots of side-bloched lizards zipping across the trail, gopher snakes and rattlesnakes. If you’re lucky, you may spot a coyote or bobcat. Benches located along the trails make good places to sit quietly and watch for wildlife. Numerous burrows around the trails may house mice, gophers, kangaroo rats, beetles, scorpions, or snakes that have taken them over.
The Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center, offering a short video, wildlife and plant displays and gift shop, will be open daily for the duration of the wildflower season. Nearby, shaded picnic tables are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with an interpretive display and a serene view over the valley to the San Gabriel Mountains.
During the wildflower season, free guided public tours are offered at:
10 AM & 2 PM weekends
11 AM on weekdays
Private tours for groups of 15 or more can be reserved for Tues and Thurs at 10 AM & 2 PM, and Sunday at 11 AM. Private tour reservations must be made 1 month in advance by calling (661) 942-0662 or email MDIC@parks.ca.gov. For-Profit groups and tour companies will be charged $5 per person in advance, in addition to parking fees. There is no per-person fee for schools, non-profit organizations, clubs, etc. Carpooling is recommended.
The park is open sunrise to sunset.
The Interpretive Center will be open through the wildflower season:
Weekdays 10 AM – 4 PM
Weekends 9 AM – 5 PM
via la timesApril 2nd, 2009
April 1st, 2009
For Hawksmoor restaurant in London, they created a ziggurat inspired by the steeple of an 18th-century church. “We know from history that jellies were once considered to be the pinnacle of sophistication,” Mr. Parr said. “They were used as very lavish centerpieces, the way marzipan and sugar were used, but then jelly became corrupted by children’s parties.”
By FLORENCE FABRICANT
NY Times Published: March 31, 2009
SAM BOMPAS and Harry Parr have built painstakingly correct models of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge, and a Madrid airport terminal complete with tiny airplanes.
Unfortunately for anyone curious to see these extravagant works of architecture, they were eaten long ago.
Shimmering, brightly colored gelatin is the chosen medium of Mr. Bompas and Mr. Parr, two young products of Eton and University College, London, who have quickly become England’s leading jelly artists, or as they call themselves, jelly mongers.
Mr. Parr, who was trained as an architect, and Mr. Bompas, who was in public relations, thought it would be cool to open a jelly stand in the Borough Market in London, near where they live.
“All the desserts in the market were very stodgy, and we know from history that jellies were once considered to be the pinnacle of sophistication,” Mr. Parr said. “They were used as very lavish centerpieces, the way marzipan and sugar were used, but then jelly became corrupted by children’s parties.”
The market turned them down, so they took it on themselves to restore jelly’s tarnished reputation.
They began getting private commissions, and about a year ago they went into business on their own as Bompas & Parr. They have made molds for Heston Blumenthal, the chef and owner of the Fat Duck near London, and Gordon Ramsay. A “wedding cake” consisted of tiers of small molds as did a similar party jelly for hospital patients.
They made a multicolored structure for the architect Sir Richard Rogers’s birthday. “That one took us weeks and it was demolished in 15 minutes,” Mr. Parr, 26, said. “We love that.”
Mr. Bompas, 25, said: “We’ll do pretty much anything. We’ve made an entire jellied Christmas dinner, hundreds of layers, each a different course, for television as the ultimate Christmas jelly.”
For Hawksmoor restaurant in London, they created a ziggurat inspired by the steeple of an 18th-century church.
“We were impressed with the quirky, slightly eccentric things they were doing,” said Huw Gott, an owner of the restaurant. “We have a touch of English eccentricity of our own, so we thought it would be a good fit.”
In February, the two came to New York for their first job in the United States, an interpretation of the Marinettian Bombe from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Futurist Cookbook,” the 1932 treatise on food by the Italian Futurist.
The occasion was a dinner at Inside Park at St. Bart’s, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism.” Bompas & Parr were hired by Performa, the performance arts group that organized the event, to make the dessert.
They arrived a few days in advance, suitcases bulging with equipment. “We were very concerned going through airport security with all the strange plastic and metal things we were carrying,” Mr. Bompas said. “But they didn’t stop us in London or New York.”
About an hour before the 100 guests arrived, Mr. Bompas and Mr. Parr started unmolding the jellies, setting them on plates and sequestering them in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator. They were focused on their work, tightly wound and impossible to distract.
“This is the first time we’ve done a double mold,” Mr. Bompas said. “The outside is the Campari and the inside, which had to jell after the outside was finished, is orange.”
With Campari and sugar for one of the jellies and orange juice for the other, the result was something like the drink Campari and soda, in jelly form.
They make their own molds, designing them on a computer in the workshops of University College that translates them into three-dimensional models and transfers the specifications to a machine that makes plaster casts of the molds, called plugs. Once the plug is made, thin, malleable high-impact polystyrene plastic is applied to it in a vacuum to form the individual molds.
“At first we thought we’d buy old copper molds,” Mr. Parr said. “But they were too expensive and some of the best ones were owned by collectors. So we started making our own.”
A commission usually starts at about $450 and can take a week or more. Information is available at jellymongers.co.uk.
Although they work in a traditional medium, some of their projects verge on the avant-garde. In collaboration with a chemistry professor at University College, they used food-safe quinine to make jelly that emits a bluish glow under black light. Other experiments are in the works, including growing crystals inside the jelly.
Besides chemistry, they have had to learn engineering and also cooking. At the end of the day, or rather at the end of the meal, a jelly has to be tasty.
Nonetheless, Mr. Bompas said that the pleasure of the jelly is not necessarily in the eating.
“It’s watching it wobble,” he said.
Mr. Parr agreed: “You’ve got to have the wobble.”March 31st, 2009
A live 5-day blogathon of back-to-back discussions, interviews, panel talks, slideshows, films and parties with scheduled and unscheduled guests, themed around landscape and the built environment.
Mar 31 2009 – Apr 4 2009
Rooftop Terrace at The Standard, Downtown LA
On the occasion of Los Angeles Art Weekend, Storefront for Art and Architecture and ForYourArt are pleased to announce Postopolis! LA, a live five-day event of near-continuous conversation about architecture, art, urbanism, landscape, and design to be held in Los Angeles from 31 March to 4 April 2009. Six bloggers, from five different cities around the world, will host a series of discussions, interviews, slideshows, panels, talks, and presentations, fusing the informal energy and interdisciplinary approach of the architectural blogosphere with the immediacy of face-to-face interaction.
Over the course of five days, the six host bloggers will invite 40+ participants from a multitude of fields including architecture, urban planning, geology, defense, publishing, game design, artistic practice, oceanography, music, politics and many others to give brief presentations, each followed by a public discussion.
Postopolis! LA follows in the footsteps of the first groundbreaking edition of Postopolis! held in New York in May 2007, hosted by BLDGBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat and Subtopia and attended by several thousand people over a period of five days. Postopolis! LA takes place during the 2nd annual Los Angeles Art Weekend, highlighting the city’s vast array of creative talent.
The following lineup of speakers for Postopolis! LA was curated by the authors of the six host blogs.
05:00 : Fritz Haeg Artist and Writer
05:40 : Patrick Keller Architect and Principal, Fabric
06:20 : Yo-Ichiro Hakomori Architect and Principal, wHY Architecture
07:00 : BREAK
07:20 : Dwayne Oyler Architect and Principal, Oyler Wu Collaborative
08:00 : Michael Dear Professor of Geography, USC
08:40 : Jeffrey Inaba Architect and Principal, Inaba Projects
09:20 : BREAK
The evening will end with brief back-to-back presentations by the organizers and host blogs:
09:40 : Joseph Grima Storefront for Art and Architecture / Bettina Korek ForYourArt
10:00 : Geoff Manaugh BLDGBLOG / David Basulto Plataforma Arquitectura / Bryan Finoki Subtopia
10:20 : Jace Clayton mudd up!/ Dan Hill City of Sound / Regine Debatty we make money not art
10:40 : OPEN QUESTIONS
05:00 : Mary-Ann Ray Architect, Writer, and Principal, Studio Works Architects
05:40 : David Gissen Theorist and Historian, CCA
06:20 : Whitney Sander Architect and Principal, Sander Architects
07:00 : BREAK
07:20 : Sarah Johnston & Mark Lee Architects and Principals, Johnston MarkLee
08:00 : Robert Miles Kemp Designer and Principal, Variate Labs
08:40 : Freya Bardell & Brian Howe Principals, Greenmeme
09:20 : BREAK
09:40 : Ted Kane Architect and Writer
10:00 : Stephanie Smith Founder, Ecoshack
05:00 : Austin Kelly Principal, XTEN Architecture
05:40 : Orhan Ayyüce Architect, Blogger, and Senior Editor, Archinect
06:20 : Ava Bromberg Just Space(s)
07:00 : BREAK
07:20 : Ben Cerveny Strategic and Conceptual Advisor, Stamen Design
08:00 : Steve Roden Musician and Artist
08:40 : Gary Dauphin Writer and Critic
09:20 : BREAK
09:40 : Benjamin Ball &Gaston Nogues Architects and Founding Partners, Ball-Nogues Studio
10:00 : Mike the Poet Poet and Writer
05:00 : Michael Downing LAPD
05:40 : Bryan Boyer Organizer, Helsinki Design Lab 2010
06:20 : Ari Kletzky Founder, Islands of LA
07:00 : BREAK
07:20 : Eric Rodenbeck Founder, Stamen Design
08:00 : Matthew Coolidge Director, Center for Land Use Interpretation
08:40 : Christopher Hawthorne Architecture Critic, Los Angeles Times
09:20 : BREAK
09:40 : David Burns, Austin Young & Matias Viegener Founders, fallen fruit
10:00 : Ken Ehrlich Artist and Writer
04:20 : Benjamin Bratton Architect and Theorist
05:00 : Christian Moeller Artist
05:40 : Sean Dockray / Dan Goods / Daniel Rehn / Jay Yan
06:20 : Media Panel ( Matt Chaban (Architects Newspaper), Curbed LA, Alissa Walker, Greg J. Smith, Christina Ulke)
07:00 : Photography Panel (Catherine Ledner, Misha Gravenor, Dave Lauridsen, Tom Fowlks, Gregg Segal)
07:20 : BREAK
08:00 : Paul PetruniaFounder, Archinect School Bloggers Panel
08:40 : Magazine Panel Sam Grawe DWELL, Zach Frechette GOOD , & t.b.d
09:20 : CLOSING PARTY
Amy Seidenwurm, left, and Russell Bates, in full beekeeping garb, check on their hive in the backyard of their Silver Lake home. The couple started keeping bees last September, and they consider the insects their pets. They now have 50,000 honeybees in the backyard.
by Lori Kozlowski
LA Times March 31, 2009
Kirk Anderson bought his first honeybees from a Montgomery Ward catalog in 1970.
The 3-pound cage came in the mail, and as he opened it and fed the bees sugar water, his lifelong passion with Apis mellifera began.
Nearly 40 years later, Anderson, 61, calls himself an urban beekeeper, and he cares passionately enough about bees that he does house-call rescues throughout Los Angeles County.
Anderson gets 20 calls a week. He fishes the insects out of Jacuzzis, removes them from chimneys and shakes them from trees.
His efforts come amid a growing interest in beekeeping in urban areas, as word of the mysterious collapse of bee colonies has spread.
Honeybee colonies pollinate a third of the nation’s food supply and are crucial to California’s agriculture industry. Hives from around the country are brought in each year to pollinate almond trees and other crops. Central Valley farmers have struggled in the last three years as the cost of renting hives rises and the number of bees nationwide dwindles.
On a hot afternoon in a dusty hillside yard in Silver Lake, Anderson dons a netted hood and white jumpsuit, pulls on big yellow gloves and then places a box next to a dried-out pear tree. He shakes the trunk, and, like a maestro conducting a choir, uses a wooden stick to lead the bees into their new abode.
“They want to have a home. That’s their purpose. I’m just providing it for them,” Anderson said.
Once the bees are captured, Anderson “re-purposes” them, selling them to beekeeping club members who pay $75 for a box of the insects and some instruction.
The Backwards Beekeepers formed their club last year, taking their name from writer-beekeeper Charles Martin Simon’s philosophy of “beekeeping backwards” — working with nature and not thinking that keeping is just about money and honey.
Anderson, who likes to jest that “backwards is the new forward,” waxes rhapsodic about the revival of a lost art. “We’re resurrecting beekeeping as a profession,” he said. “You don’t see people talking to kids at a job fair about beekeeping, do you?”
A house painter by trade, Anderson hopes to be able to make enough money from beekeeping to call it his full-time work.
Scientists nationwide are struggling with the mystery of “colony collapse disorder” (CCD); for Anderson, the answers are simple.
“It is obvious that bees are dying from being fed unnatural substances and being exposed to pesticides,” he said. “I think everything commercial beekeepers are doing to the bees predisposes them to whatever they got going on. If you’re moving them around and feeding them chemicals, to me it is not a mystery.”
Anderson’s backyard biology is not far from the mark. Scientists are focusing on mites, diseases, pesticides, global warming and overworked commercial colonies, among other factors.
“We’re starting to see how the pieces fit together instead of examining them individually,” said Dr. Dewey Caron of the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium.
“When you are exposed to a lot of somethings, together, finally it is the proverbial last straw,” Caron said.
Russell Bates and Amy Seidenwurm, a married couple living in Silver Lake, are new keepers. Their five-box hive sits on the third tier of their lush garden of lemon trees and purple flowers.
They began last September, and since then they’ve grown attached.
“At first, we thought: ‘We’re gonna get honey! We’re gonna get honey!’ ” Bates said. But now the couple are excited about the bees themselves.
“We have a lot of affection for our bees. They’re like our 50,000 pets,” Seidenwurm said.
Bates explained that beekeeping in the city not only provides a pesticide-free environment for bees, but allows residents to delve deeper into organic living.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about bees,” he said. “And people are freaking out about the economy. So because of that, people are thinking about their home environment a lot more. Beekeeping fits right into that because it doesn’t require a lot of money or outside investment. It’s way less work than having a cat or a dog.”
Anderson, Bates, Seidenwurm and the Backwards Beekeepers are not alone.
Keepers from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley gather in recreation rooms, hillside homes and community gardens. The Beekeepers Assn. of Southern California is 100 members strong. Beekeepers — backyard and/or commercial — cite media coverage of colony collapse disorder as the reason for burgeoning interest in local beekeeping.
Will this surge in urban beekeeping beat back CCD or save California’s food supply? Hardly, said Chris Heinz, bee task force liaison for the Almond Board of California.
“It’s a good thing, but L.A. beekeepers aren’t going to help commercial beekeeping in the Central Valley,” she said. “Hopefully, it is good for genetic diversity, but it won’t make a significant dent in agriculture pollination.”
While commercial beekeepers struggle to stay in business and bees strive to stay alive, Anderson and his counterparts continue to preserve the local honeybee population, one insect at a time.March 31st, 2009
Aron Ralston has found celebrity on the adventure sports and motivational speaking circuits six years after cutting off his own hand to free himself from a boulder.
By MICHAEL BRICK
NY Times Published: March 31, 2009
BOULDER, Colo. — He called it “my accident.”
On Saturday, April 26, 2003, without telling anyone his plans, Aron Lee Ralston set out alone through Robbers Roost, a steep, treacherous, largely abandoned parcel of southeastern Utah backcountry last bent to human will by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who had found its forbidding terrain favorable to hiding from the law.
Five days later, after several unsuccessful attempts to dislodge an 800-pound boulder that was crushing his right hand, Ralston snapped first the radius and then the ulna of his forearm near the wrist, applied a makeshift tourniquet, sawed through the cartilage with a throwaway multitool, rappelled to the base of Blue John Canyon and hiked until he came upon a rescue helicopter.
“It was a blessing in a way,” Ralston, now 33, said in an interview. “It made me think about the way I was living.”
The story of the crucible in Blue John Canyon has resonated through countless discussions of fortitude, indomitability and the will to live. But for Ralston, who has found enduring celebrity on the adventure sports and motivational speaking circuits, it has produced a struggle to divine some transformative meaning.
“He’s more serious now, and by that I mean not somber but intense,” said Ralston’s younger sister, Sonja Ralston Elder, 28, a law student. “He does things with more focus, more purpose than before.”
Raised partly in a farmhouse in Ohio, Ralston moved around as a boy before enrolling at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied mechanical engineering, French and piano. Among the East Coast intelligentsia, he said, he carried his Rocky Mountain home address as a badge of honor and a shield. He caught the ski bug, spent summers rafting the Arkansas River and set out to make his name as the first mountaineer to summit all 59 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains alone in the wintertime.
But the episode in Blue John Canyon brought him a different sort of fame.
To some, Ralston’s story was an inspiration. His 368-page account, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” rose to No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list. Corporations paid him $15,000 to $37,000 for motivational speeches. Wilderness conservation groups deployed him to raise donations. Schools invited him to speak to children, who often asked to examine his prosthetic hand. Travelers recognized him at airports. Strangers sent him letters. A film version is in the works.
To others, though, his story was the cautionary tale of a heedless fool. By Ralston’s own written account, he had already nearly drowned, disturbed a bear and stumbled into an avalanche on earlier adventures. Failure to leave word of his whereabouts in Utah, ignoring one of the most basic rules of hiking, drew sharp rebukes.
“Aron Ralston has a death wish,” one book reviewer concluded.
A month after his rescue, Ralston appeared before a gymnasium of students at his childhood middle school, where he was greeted with enthusiastic applause. But the eighth graders asked probing questions, according to a transcript of the session. Ralston, still wearing a sling at the time, was prompted to discuss his reasons for venturing out alone, his thoughts on death and his prospects for a movie deal, to which he responded, “I don’t think I can really talk about that.”
So went the early appearances for a public speaker whose presentation, as described in promotional materials from his handlers at the Harry Walker Agency, “redefines the understanding of sacrifice, goal-attaining, and what is truly important in our lives.”
By owning up to his mistakes, Ralston has managed to deflate some criticism. But even as he goes about sharing his life lessons, he has returned to unaccompanied wilderness adventure. He has entered several long-distance endurance races. In 2005, with the aide of his prosthetic, he completed his effort to solo-climb the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado.
Last year, Ralston signed on to advise the arctic explorer Eric Larsen in his preparation to ascend Mount Everest. He has not decided whether to join the expedition. On the side, he has been organizing an African safari and an 18-day rafting voyage through the Grand Canyon.
“Before the accident, he had quit his job as an engineer and moved to Aspen to be in the outdoors and do what he loves,” Elder, his sister, said. “It’s just that what happened to him has vindicated this choice about doing what you love and not being defined by other people’s expectations.”
When he arrived for an interview on a cold morning in this college town, where he has been house-hunting with his fiancée, Ralston bore little resemblance to the photograph on his book jacket. In place of the all-American farm boy displaying his prosthetic under a golden sky in quiet defiance, he appeared as some hoary woodsman emerging from the snow with long, stringy hair, an untrimmed beard, a flannel shirt, an arrowhead necklace and a silver bracelet depicting a raven, a symbol familiar to his readers.
Talk soon turned to the series of events Ralston calls his accident. He was reminded that the only part of his ordeal that could properly be termed accidental, the falling of the boulder, came just after his infamous blunder and just before he performed one of the most astonishing acts of deliberate will ever undertaken.
“There’ve been times when I’ve called it an incident or an episode,” Ralston said. “There’ve also been times when I’ve agreed with people that said, ‘Aron, I’m glad this happened to you,’ because of the gift the story was to them. There are portions of it that are willful acts. It’s tough to blend all that into one word.”
As he spoke, he ate and drank with his left hand. His prosthetic right, he said, he has come to regard as a piece of athletic gear to be worn only for climbing or rowing. He makes an exception for speeches to children. But the absence was telling: for Ralston, examining the lesson of his severed limb seems to have become a life’s work.
“It’s not about what you do; it’s about who you are,” he said. “And I went right back into the mode of being about what you do. That went into all these adventures, finishing the 14-ers, doing the ultra-races.”
In 2006, Ralston said, three of his friends committed suicide within a few weeks. Wrestling with mortal thoughts of his own, he tried again to shift his focus.
“I still do like adventures,” he said, pausing awhile. “But it’s different. It’s not coming from an esteem-building, need-fulfillment place, like my life won’t amount to something if I’m not the first person to make some major accomplishment.”
But shedding the role of unreconstructed vagabond has proved to be no small task. His audiences have certain expectations. This is a man whose e-mail address includes the words “captain” and “fun.” Last year, by his own estimate, he was home five days a month between speaking engagements, climbs, races and the like.
Though strength and courage remain a focus of his speeches, Ralston said, “Now I’ve identified what that source is, and it’s love. We’re tapping into that source of strength and courage when we feel love, and we do it for our families and our friends and hopefully for the world at large. Those opportunities are out there all the time, and hopefully we’re doing it for that instead of just our own egos.
“To choose to tell people that, there was first the choice and then there was figuring out, ‘What does this mean?’” he said. Walking out of Blue John Canyon those five years ago, “I was still going to die. I just wasn’t going to die by that rock.”March 31st, 2009
March 31st, 2009
Plaza de los Fueros, 1979
A Collaboration between Luis Peña Ganchegui and Eduardo Chillida JuanteguiMarch 30th, 2009
New York, Boys with Pigeons, 1963
New York, children on stoop wearing masks, 1939
Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-1948
By MARGARETT LOKE
NY Times Published: March 30, 2009
Helen Levitt, a major photographer of the 20th century who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York, died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan on Sunday. She was 95.
A 1939 image of trick-or-treaters by Ms. Levitt was part of the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department in 1940.
Her death was confirmed by her brother, Bill Levitt, of Alta, Utah.
Ms. Levitt captured instances of a cinematic and delightfully guileless form of street choreography that held at its heart, as William Butler Yeats put it, “the ceremony of innocence.” A man handles garbage-can lids like an exuberant child imitating a master juggler. Even an inanimate object — a broken record — appears to skip and dance on an empty street as a child might, observed by a group of women’s dresses in a shop window.
As marvelous as these images are, the masterpieces in Ms. Levitt’s oeuvre are her photographs of children living their zesty, improvised lives. A white girl and a black boy twirl in a dance of their own imagining. Four girls on a sidewalk turning to stare at five floating bubbles become contrapuntal musical notes in a lovely minor key.
In Ms. Levitt’s best-known picture, three properly dressed children prepare to go trick-or-treating on Halloween 1939. Standing on the stoop outside their house, they are in almost metaphorical stages of readiness. The girl on the top step is putting on her mask; a boy near her, his mask in place, takes a graceful step down, while another boy, also masked, lounges on a lower step, coolly surveying the world.
“At the peak of Helen’s form,” John Szarkowski, former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, once said, “there was no one better.”
The late 1930s and early ’40s, when Ms. Levitt created an astonishing body of work, was a time when many noted photographers produced stark images to inspire social change. Ms. Levitt also took her camera to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, where people treated their streets as their living rooms and where she showed an unerring instinct for a street drama’s perfect pitch. In his 1999 biography of Walker Evans, James R. Mellow wrote that the only photographers Evans “felt had something original to say were Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and himself.”
Helen Levitt was born on Aug. 31, 1913, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her father, Sam, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, ran a successful wholesale knit-goods business; her mother, May, was a bookkeeper before her marriage.
Finding high school unstimulating, Ms. Levitt dropped out during her senior year. In a 2002 interview with The New York Times in her fourth-floor walk-up near Union Square, she said that as a young woman she had wanted to do something in the arts though she could not draw well.
Her mother knew the family of J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx, and in 1931 Ms. Levitt began to work for him. “I helped in darkroom printing and developing,” she said. “My salary was six bucks a week.”
With a used Voigtländer camera, she photographed her mother’s friends. Through publications and exhibitions, she knew the documentary work of members of the Film and Photo League and of Cartier-Bresson, Evans and Ben Shahn.
In 1935 she met Cartier-Bresson when he spent a year in New York. On one occasion she accompanied him when he photographed along the Brooklyn waterfront. She also trained her eye, she said, by going to museums and art galleries. “I looked at paintings for composition,” she said. In 1936, she bought a secondhand Leica, the camera Cartier-Bresson favored.
Two years later, she contacted Evans to show him the photographs she had taken of children playing in the streets and their buoyantly unrestrained chalk graffiti. “I went to see him,” she recalled, “the way kids do, and got to be friends with him.” She helped Evans make prints for his exhibition and book “American Photographs.”
Both the quintessentially French Cartier-Bresson and the essentially American Evans influenced Ms. Levitt. Cartier-Bresson had a gift for catching everyday life in graceful, seemingly transparent flux; Evans had a way of being sparingly, frontally direct with his commonplace subjects. Ms. Levitt credited Shahn, whom she had met through Evans, with being a greater influence than Evans. Photographs Shahn took of life on New York sidewalks in the ’30s have an unmediated, gritty spontaneity.
James Agee, a good friend, was also a major influence. She had met him through Evans, who noted, “Levitt’s work was one of James Agee’s great loves, and, in turn, Agee’s own magnificent eye was part of her early training.”
The kind of pictures Ms. Levitt took demanded a photojournalist’s hair-trigger reflexes. But photojournalism didn’t interest her. She was too shy, she said, and lacked the technical proficiency that is a must for any practicing photojournalist. “I was a lousy technician,” she said. “That part bored me.”
Fortune magazine was the first to publish Ms. Levitt’s work, in its July 1939 issue on New York City. The next year her Halloween picture was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department. In 1943 she had her first solo show at the Modern.
To support herself, Ms. Levitt worked as a film editor. Her friend Janice Loeb, a painter, introduced her to Luis Buñuel, who hired her in the early ’40s to edit his pro-American propaganda films. By 1949, and for the next decade, Ms. Levitt was a full-time film editor and director.
With her friends Agee, who was also a film critic, and Ms. Loeb, she started filming “In the Street” in the mid-’40s. Ms. Loeb was financially well off and was for a time married to Bill Levitt. Mr. Levitt survives his sister, as do several nieces and nephews.
“In the Street,” released in 1952, is the way one imagines Ms. Levitt’s photographs would look if they were to spring to life. The 14-minute documentary of Spanish Harlem, with a piano playing on the soundtrack, is antic, droll, artless and dear.
When Ms. Levitt returned to still photography in 1959, it was to work in color; she was among the first notable photographers to do so. She was helped in this project by Guggenheim fellowships that she received in 1959 and 1960. But much of this early color work was lost when her apartment was burglarized in the late ’60s. In the ’90s she gave up color, she said. She had to go to special labs to get prints made, and the colors weren’t always what she wanted.
Intensely private, Ms. Levitt shunned the limelight and seldom gave interviews. Comprehensive surveys of her career were held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1980 and at the Laurence Miller Gallery in 1987. But she remained little known to the general public even as late as 1991, when the first national retrospective of her work was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to major museums.
From the 1930s through the 1990s, Ms. Levitt permitted the publication of only a few books of her images, among them “A Way of Seeing” (Duke University Press, 1965), which includes an essay by Agee; “In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-48” (Duke University Press, 1987); and “Mexico City” (Norton, 1997), revisiting her one trip abroad.
Recently, though, PowerHouse Books has published several volumes of her work: “Crosstown” (2001); “Here and There” (2004), black-and-white work not previously published; “Slide Show” (2005), showcasing her color work; and “Helen Levitt” (2008).
Ms. Levitt stopped making her own black and white prints in the 1990s, she said, because of sciatica, which prevented her from standing for long. The sciatica also made carrying the heavy Leica difficult, and in recent years she used a small automatic Contax. She had other health problems. Her lungs were scarred by a near-fatal bout of pneumonia in the 1940s or ’50s, she said. And she was born with Meniere’s syndrome, an inner-ear disorder. “I have felt wobbly all my life,” she said.
Changes in neighborhood life also affected her work. “I go where there’s a lot of activity,” she said. “Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.”
Despite her many pictures of children, she had always been “an animal nut,” Ms. Levitt said. Driving in New Hampshire in summer 1985, she recalled, she asked a man near a barn if he had any animals. They’re coming in now to feed, she was told. Sure enough, an enchanting trio traipsed single file down the country road: a thoughtful-looking Shetland pony, a sedate sheep and a frisky mountain goat. She took the picture.
“It was luck,” she said. “Luck, as James Agee said in an essay, is very important in this kind of stuff.”March 30th, 2009
The Whimsical Gaze Dyson still travels widely, giving talks at churches and colleges, reminding people how dangerous nuclear weapons are.
By NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF
NY Times Published: March 25, 2009
FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Princeton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country’s most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming “out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned,” as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors’ letter boxes and Dyson’s own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as “a pompous twit,” “a blowhard,” “a cesspool of misinformation,” “an old coot riding into the sunset” and, perhaps inevitably, “a mad scientist.” Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred “carbon-eating trees,” whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded — there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford — and suggested that “perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers.” Dyson’s son, George, a technology historian, says his father’s views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind.
But in the considered opinion of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson’s friend and fellow English expatriate, this is far from the case. “His mind is still so open and flexible,” Sacks says. Which makes Dyson something far more formidable than just the latest peevish right-wing climate-change denier. Dyson is a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists — William Press, former deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, calls him “infinitely smart.” Dyson — a mathematics prodigy who came to this country at 23 and right away contributed seminal work to physics by unifying quantum and electrodynamic theory — not only did path-breaking science of his own; he also witnessed the development of modern physics, thinking alongside most of the luminous figures of the age, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Witten, the “high priest of string theory” whose office at the institute is just across the hall from Dyson’s. Yet instead of hewing to that fundamental field, Dyson chose to pursue broader and more unusual pursuits than most physicists — and has lived a more original life.
Among Dyson’s gifts is interpretive clarity, a penetrating ability to grasp the method and significance of what many kinds of scientists do. His thoughts about how science works appear in a series of lucid, elegant books for nonspecialists that have made him a trusted arbiter of ideas ranging far beyond physics. Dyson has written more than a dozen books, including “Origins of Life” (1999), which synthesizes recent discoveries by biologists and geologists into an evaluation of the double-origin hypothesis, the possibility that life began twice; “Disturbing the Universe” (1979) tries among other things to reconcile science and humanity. “Weapons and Hope” (1984) is his meditation on the meaning and danger of nuclear weapons that won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Dyson’s books display such masterly control of complex matters that smart young people read him and want to be scientists; older citizens finish his books and feel smart.
Yet even while probing and sifting, Dyson is always whimsically gazing into the beyond. As a boy he sketched plans for English rocket ships that could explore the stars, and then, in midlife, he helped design an American spacecraft to be powered by exploding atomic bombs — a secret Air Force project known as Orion. Dyson remains an armchair astronaut who speculates with glee about the coming of cheap space travel, when families can leave an overcrowded earth to homestead on asteroids and comets, swooping around the universe via solar sail craft. Dyson is convinced that our current “age of computers” will soon give way to “the age of domesticated biotechnology.” Bio-tech, he writes in his book, “Infinite in All Directions” (1988), “offers us the chance to imitate nature’s speed and flexibility,” and he imagines the furniture and art that people will “grow” for themselves, the pet dinosaurs they will “grow” for their children, along with an idiosyncratic menagerie of genetically engineered cousins of the carbon-eating tree: termites to consume derelict automobiles, a potato capable of flourishing on the dry red surfaces of Mars, a collision-avoiding car.
These ideas attract derision similar to Dyson’s essays on climate change, but he is an undeterred octogenarian futurist. “I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” Formed in a heretical and broad-thinking tradition of British public intellectuals, Dyson left behind a brooding England still stricken by two bloody world wars to become an optimistic American immigrant with tremendous faith in the creative imagination’s ability to invent technologies that would overcome any predicament. And according to the physicist and former Caltech president Marvin Goldberger, Dyson is himself the living embodiment of that kind of ingenuity. “You point Freeman at a problem and he’ll solve it,” Goldberger says. “He’s extraordinarily powerful.” Dyson seems to see the world as an interdisciplinary set of problems out there for him to evaluate. Climate change is the big scientific issue of our time, so naturally he finds it irresistible. But to Dyson this is really only one more charged conundrum attracting his interest just as nuclear weapons and rural poverty have. That is to say, he is a great problem-solver who is not convinced that climate change is a great problem.
Dyson is well aware that “most consider me wrong about global warming.” That educated Americans tend to agree with the conclusion about global warming reached earlier this month at the International Scientific Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen (“inaction is inexcusable”) only increases Dyson’s resistance. Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology and has a withering aversion to scientific consensus. The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson’s physics — he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize — but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility: “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”
Dyson says he doesn’t want his legacy to be defined by climate change, but his dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science. Dyson has said he believes that the truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won’t come to pass. In “Infinite in All Directions,” he writes that nature’s laws “make the universe as interesting as possible.” This also happens to be a fine description of Dyson’s own relationship to science. In the words of Avishai Margalit, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study, “He’s a consistent reminder of another possibility.” When Dyson joins the public conversation about climate change by expressing concern about the “enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories,” these reservations come from a place of experience. Whatever else he is, Dyson is the good scientist; he asks the hard questions. He could also be a lonely prophet. Or, as he acknowledges, he could be dead wrong.
IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO that Dyson began publicly stating his doubts about climate change. Speaking at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, Dyson announced that “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.” Since then he has only heated up his misgivings, declaring in a 2007 interview with Salon.com that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all” and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books, the left-leaning publication that is to gravitas what the Beagle was to Darwin, that climate change has become an “obsession” — the primary article of faith for “a worldwide secular religion” known as environmentalism. Among those he considers true believers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s “chief propagandist,” and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”
A particularly distressed member of that public was Dyson’s own wife, Imme, who, after seeing the film in a local theater with Dyson when it was released in 2006, looked at her husband out on the sidewalk and, with visions of drowning polar bears still in her eyes, reproached him: “Everything you told me is wrong!” she cried.
“The polar bears will be fine,” he assured her.
Not long ago Dyson sat in his institute office, a chamber so neat it reminds Dyson’s friend, the writer John McPhee, of a Japanese living room. On shelves beside Dyson were books about stellar evolution, viruses, thermodynamics and terrorism. “The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models,” Dyson was saying. “They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.” Dyson speaks in calm, clear tones that carry simultaneous evidence of his English childhood, the move to the United States after completing his university studies at Cambridge and more than 50 years of marriage to the German-born Imme, but his opinions can be barbed, especially when a conversation turns to climate change. Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. “The biologists have essentially been pushed aside,” he continues. “Al Gore’s just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers.”
Dyson agrees with the prevailing view that there are rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human activity. To the planet, he suggests, the rising carbon may well be a MacGuffin, a striking yet ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still “a relatively cool period in the earth’s history.” The warming, he says, is not global but local, “making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.” Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious — a sign that “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields. “Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now,” he contends, “and substantially richer in carbon dioxide.” Dyson calls ocean acidification, which many scientists say is destroying the saltwater food chain, a genuine but probably exaggerated problem. Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend “cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes.”
For Hansen, the dark agent of the looming environmental apocalypse is carbon dioxide contained in coal smoke. Coal, he has written, “is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Hansen has referred to railroad cars transporting coal as “death trains.” Dyson, on the other hand, told me in conversations and e-mail messages that “Jim Hansen’s crusade against coal overstates the harm carbon dioxide can do.” Dyson well remembers the lethal black London coal fog of his youth when, after a day of visiting the city, he would return to his hometown of Winchester with his white shirt collar turned black. Coal, Dyson says, contains “real pollutants” like soot, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, “really nasty stuff that makes people sick and looks ugly.” These are “rightly considered a moral evil,” he says, but they “can be reduced to low levels by scrubbers at an affordable cost.” He says Hansen “exploits” the toxic elements of burning coal as a way of condemning the carbon dioxide it releases, “which cannot be reduced at an affordable cost, but does not do any substantial harm.”
Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data. Climate change is an issue for which Dyson is asking for more evidence, and leading climate scientists are replying by saying if we wait for sufficient proof to satisfy you, it may be too late. That is the position of a more moderate expert on climate change, William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, who says, “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure. Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.
Embedded in all of Dyson’s strong opinions about public policy is a dual spirit of social activism and uneasiness about class dating all the way back to Winchester, where he was raised in the 1920s and ’30s by his father, George Dyson, the son of a Yorkshire blacksmith. George was the music instructor at Winchester College, an old and prestigious secondary school, and a composer. Dyson’s mother, Mildred Atkey, came from a more prosperous Wimbledon family that had its own tennis court. Together they raised Dyson and his sister, Alice, in what Dyson calls a “watered-down Church of England Christianity” that regarded religion as a guide to living rather than any system of belief. The emphasis on tolerance, charity and community — and the free time afforded by the luxury of four servants — led Mildred to organize a club for teenage girls and a birth-control clinic. These institutions meshed uneasily with her patrician Victorian sensibilities. The girls were never, Dyson says, “considered equals,” and Mildred told him with amusement about the young mother who walked in carrying a red-headed infant. “What a beautiful baby,” Mildred reported saying. “Does he take after his father?”
“Oh, I couldn’t tell you, Mum,” came the reply. “He kept his hat on.”
Winchester is a medieval town in which, Dyson writes, he felt that everyone was looking backward, mourning all the young men lost to one world war while silently anticipating his own generation’s impending demise. He renounced the nostalgia, the servants, the hard-line social castes. But what he liked about growing up in England was the landscape. The country’s successful alteration of wilderness and swamp had created a completely new green ecology, allowing plants, animals and humans to thrive in “a community of species.” Dyson has always been strongly opposed to the idea that there is any such thing as an optimal ecosystem — “life is always changing” — and he abhors the notion that men and women are something apart from nature, that “we must apologize for being human.” Humans, he says, have a duty to restructure nature for their survival.
All this may explain why the same man could write “we live on a shrinking and vulnerable planet which our lack of foresight is rapidly turning into a slum” and yet gently chide the sort of Americans who march against coal in Washington. Dyson has great affection for coal and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says. (“Many of these people are my friends,” he will also tell you.) To Dyson, “the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.” That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In “roughly 50 years,” he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and “there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal.”
THE WORDS COLLEAGUES COMMONLY use to describe Dyson include “unassuming” and “modest,” and he seems the very embodiment of Newton’s belief that a man should strive for simplicity and avoid confusion in life. Dyson has been in residence at the institute since 1953, a time when Albert Einstein shared his habit of walking to work there, which Dyson still does seven days a week, to write on a computer and solve any problems that come across his desk with paper and pencil. (In his prime, legend held that he never used the eraser.) He and Imme have spent 51 happy years together in the same house, a white clapboard just over the garden fence from the stucco affair once inhabited by their former neighbors, the Oppenheimers. On some Sundays the Dysons pile into a car still decorated with an Obama bumper sticker and drive to running races, at which Dyson can be found at the finish line loudly cheering for the 72-year-old Imme, a master’s marathon champion. On many other weekends, they visit some of their 16 grandchildren. During the holiday season the Dysons routinely attend five parties a week, cocktail-soiree sprints at which guests tend to find him open-minded and shy: when friends’ wives give him a hug, he blushes. One of Dyson’s daughters, the Internet vizier Esther Dyson, says her father raised her without a television so she would read more, and has always been “just as interested in talking to” the latest graduate student to make the pilgrimage to Princeton “as he is the famous person at the next table.” Oliver Sacks says that Dyson has “a genius for friendship.”
But the truth is that Dyson is an elusive particle. To Edward Witten it is clear that Dyson has little use for string theory, the cutting-edge “theory of everything” that links quantum mechanics and relativity in an effort to describe no less than the nature of all things. Even so, Witten admits that there is a fever-dream quality to his conversations with Dyson: “I don’t always know what he disagrees with entirely. His attitudes are complicated. There are many layers.” Other people can be similarly intrigued and baffled. When I began spending time with Dyson and asked who his close friends are, the only name he mentioned was John McPhee’s, which surprised McPhee since he said he doesn’t often speak with Dyson even though McPhee teaches nearby at Princeton University. All six of Dyson’s children describe him as a loving, intensely devoted father and yet also suggest that this is a parent with, in the words of his son, George, core parts of him that have always seemed “remote.” William Press said he finds Dyson to be both a “deep” and “magnificently laudable person” and also mysterious and inscrutable, a man with contrarian opinions that Press suspects may be motivated by “a darker side he’s determined the world isn’t going to see.” When I asked Sacks what he thought about all this, he said that “a favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”
Dyson says it’s only principle that leads him to question global warming: “According to the global-warming people, I say what I say because I’m paid by the oil industry. Of course I’m not, but that’s part of their rhetoric. If you doubt it, you’re a bad person, a tool of the oil or coal industry.” Global warming, he added, “has become a party line.”
What may trouble Dyson most about climate change are the experts. Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” The men he most admires tend to be what he calls “amateurs,” inventive spirits of uncredentialed brilliance like Bernhard Schmidt, an eccentric one-armed alcoholic telescope-lens designer; Milton Humason, a janitor at Mount Wilson Observatory in California whose native scientific aptitude was such that he was promoted to staff astronomer; and especially Darwin, who, Dyson says, “was really an amateur and beat the professionals at their own game.” It’s a point of pride with Dyson that in 1951 he became a member of the physics faculty at Cornell and then, two years later, moved on to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became an influential man, a pragmatist providing solutions to the military and Congress, and also the 2000 winner of the $1 million Templeton Prize for broadening the understanding of science and religion, an award previously given to Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — all without ever earning a Ph.D. Dyson may, in fact, be the ultimate outsider-insider, “the world’s most civil heretic,” as the classical composer Paul Moravec, the artistic consultant at the institute, says of him.
Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous. As he warned that day four years ago at Boston University, the history of science is filled with those “who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions,” and he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler’s atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug. “It’s always possible Hansen could turn out to be right,” he says of the climate scientist. “If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.”
Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, “There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson,” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the “open-mindedness” of Dyson, “if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming.”
When Dyson hears about this, he looks, if possible, like a person taking the longer view. He is a short, sinewy man with strawlike filaments of excitable gray hair that make him resemble an upside-down broom. Every day he dresses with the same frowzy Oxbridge formality in L. L. Bean khaki trousers (his daughter Mia is a minister in Maine), a tweed sport coat, a necktie (most often one made for him, he says, by another daughter, Emily, many years ago “in the age of primary colors”) and wool sweater-vests. On cold days he wears a second vest, one right over the other, and the effect is like a window with two sets of curtains. His smile is the real window, a delighted beam that appears to float free from his face, strangely dynamic with its electric ears and quantum nose, and his laugh is so hearty it shakes him. The smile and laughter have the effect of softening Dyson’s formality, transforming him into a sage and friendly elf, and also reminding those he talks with that he has spent a lifetime immersed in efforts to find what he considers humane solutions to dire problems, whose controversial gloss never seems to agitate him. His eyes are murky gray, and whatever he’s thinking beyond what he says, the eyes never betray.
A FORMATIVE MOMENT in Dyson’s life that pushed him in an apostatical direction happened in 1932, when, at age 8, he was sent off to boarding school at Twyford. By then he was a prodigy “already obsessed” with mathematics. (His older sister Alice, a retired social worker still living in Winchester, remembers how her brother “used to lie on the nursery floor working out how many atoms there were in the sun. He was perhaps 4.”) At Twyford — like George Orwell, who was flogged, starved and humiliated by masters and bigger boys at St. Cyprian’s — Dyson says he felt brutalized by a whip-wielding headmaster who offered no science classes, favoring Latin, and by a clique of athletes who liked to rub sandpaper on the faces of the smaller children. “In those days it was unthinkable that parents would come to see what was going on,” Dyson says. “My parents lived only three miles away. They never came to visit. It wasn’t done.” Dyson took comfort in climbing tall trees, reading “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which gave him a first sense of America as a more “exciting place where all sorts of weird things could happen,” and Jules Verne’s comic science-fiction descriptions of more “crazy Americans” bound for the moon. His primary consolation, however, was the science society he founded with a few friends. Dyson would later reflect that from then on he saw science as “a territory of freedom and friendship in the midst of tyranny and hatred.”
Four years later he entered Winchester College, well known for academic rigor, and he thrived. On his own in the school library, he read mathematical works in French and German and, at age 13, taught himself calculus from an Encyclopedia Britannica entry. “I remember thinking, Is that it?” he says. “People had been telling me how hard it was.” Another day in the library he discovered “Daedalus, or Science and the Future,” by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who said that “the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe,” an appealing outlook to Dyson, who had found his muse. “Haldane was even more of a heretic than I am,” he says. “He really loved to make people angry.” It wasn’t all science. On trips into London he spent entire days in bookstores where William Blake “got hold of me. What I really liked was he was a really rebellious spirit who always said the opposite of what everybody else believed.”
That defiant sensibility hardened further when the second war with Germany began. Dyson says he can “remember so vividly lying in bed at age 15, absolutely enjoying hearing the bombs go off with a wonderful crunching noise. I said, ‘That’s the sound of the British Empire crumbling.’ I had a sense that the British Empire was evil. The fact that I might get hit didn’t register at all. I think that’s a natural state of mind for a 15-year-old. I somehow got over it.” At Cambridge, Dyson attended all the advanced mathematics lectures and climbed roofs at night during blackouts. By the end of the school year in 1943, which Dyson celebrated by pushing his wheelchairbound classmate, Oscar Hahn, the 55 miles home to London in one 17-hour day, Dyson was fully formed as a person of strong, frequently rebellious beliefs, someone who would always go his own way.
During World War II, Dyson worked for the Royal Air Force at Bomber Command, calculating the most effective ways to deploy pilots, some of whom he knew would die. Dyson says he was “sickened” and “depressed” that many more planes were going down than needed to because military leadership relied on misguided institutional mythologies rather than statistical studies. Even more upsetting, Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”
Then came two blinding flashes of light. Dyson’s reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was complicated. Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. When he was interviewed for the 1980 documentary “The Day After Trinity,” Dyson addressed the seduction: “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles, I would say, this what you might call ‘technical arrogance’ that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”
Eventually, Dyson would be sure nuclear weapons were the worst evil. But in 1945, drawn to these irreducible components of life, Dyson left mathematics and took up physics. Still, he did not want to be another dusty Englishman toiling alone in a dim Cambridge laboratory. Since childhood, some part of him had always known that the “Americans held the future in their hands and that the smart thing for me to do would be to join them.” That the United States was now the country of Einstein and Oppenheimer was reason enough to go, but Dyson’s sister Alice says that “he escaped to America so he could make his own life,” removed from the shadow of his now famous musical father. “I know how he felt,” says Oliver Sacks, who came to New York not long after medical school. “I was the fifth Dr. Sacks in my family. I felt it was time to get out and find a place of my own.”
In 1947, Dyson enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Cornell, studying with Hans Bethe, who had the reputation of being the greatest problem-solver in physics. Alice Dyson says that once in Ithaca, her brother “became so much more human,” and Dyson does not disagree. “I really felt it was quite amazing how accepted I was,” he says. “In 1963, I’d only been a U.S. citizen for about five years, and I was testifying to the Senate, representing the Federation of American Scientists in favor of the nuclear-test-ban treaty.”
After sizing him up over a few meals, Bethe gave Dyson a problem and told him to come back in six months. “You just sit down and do it,” Dyson told me. “It’s probably the hardest work you’ll do in your life. Without having done that, you’ve never understood what science is all about.” This smaller problem was part of a much larger one inherited from Einstein, among others, involving the need for a theory to describe the behavior of atoms and electrons emitting and absorbing light. Put another way, it was the question of how to move physics forward, creating agreement among the disparate laws of atomic structure, radiation, solid-state physics, plasma physics, maser and laser technology, optical and microwave spectroscopy, electronics and chemistry. Many were working on achieving this broad rapport, including Julian Schwinger at Harvard University; a Japanese physicist named Shinichiro Tomonaga, whose calculations arrived in America from war-depleted Kyoto on cheap brown paper; and Feynman, also at Cornell, a man so brilliant he did complex calculations in his head. Initially, Bethe asked Dyson to make some difficult measurements involving electrons. But soon enough Dyson went further.
The breakthrough came on summer trips Dyson made in 1948, traveling around America by Greyhound bus and also, for four days, in a car with Feynman. Feynman was driving to Albuquerque, and Dyson joined him just for the pleasure of riding alongside “a unique person who had such an amazing combination of gifts.” The irrepressible Feynman and the “quiet and dignified English fellow,” as Feynman described Dyson, picked up gypsy hitchhikers; took shelter from an Oklahoma flood in the only available hotel they could find, a brothel, where Feynman pretended to sleep and heard Dyson relieve himself in their room sink rather than risk the common bathroom in the hall; spoke of Feynman’s realization that he had enjoyed military work on the Manhattan Project too much and therefore could do it no more; and talked about Feynman’s ideas in a way that made Dyson forever understand what the nature of true genius is. Dyson wanted to unify one big theory; Feynman was out to unify all of physics. Inspired by this and by a mesmerizing sermon on nonviolence that Dyson happened to hear a traveling divinity student deliver in Berkeley, Dyson sat aboard his final Greyhound of the summer, heading East. He had no pencil or paper. He was thinking very hard. On a bumpy stretch of highway, long after dark, somewhere out in the middle of Nebraska, Dyson says, “Suddenly the physics problem became clear.” What Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga were doing was stylistically different, but it was all “fundamentally the same.”
Dyson is always effacing when discussing his work — he has variously called himself a tinkerer, a clean-up man and a bridge builder who merely supplied the cantilevers linking other men’s ideas. Bethe thought more highly of him. “He is the best I have ever had or observed,” Bethe wrote in a letter to Oppenheimer, who invited Dyson to the institute for an initial fellowship. There, with Einstein indifferent to him and the chain-smoking Oppenheimer openly doubting Dyson’s physics, Dyson wrote his renowned paper “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman.” Oppenheimer sent Dyson a note: “Nolo contendere — R.O.” If you could do that in a year, who needed a Ph.D.? The institute was perfect for him. He could work all morning and, as he wrote to his parents, in the afternoons go for walks in the woods to see “strange new birds, insects and plants.” It was, Dyson says, the happiest sustained moment in his life. It was also the last great discovery he would make in physics.
Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. “He did some things in physics after the heroic work in 1949, but not as much as I would have expected for someone so off-the-scale smart,” one physicist says. From others there are behind-the-study-door speculations that perhaps Dyson lacked the necessary “killer instinct”; or that he was discouraged by Enrico Fermi, who told him that his further work on quantum electrodynamics was unpromising; or “that he never felt he could approach Feynman’s brilliance.” Dyson shakes his head. “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says. “I think it’s almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get ahold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for 10 years. That wasn’t my style.”
DYSON HAD ALWAYS wanted “a big family.” In 1950, after knowing the brilliant mathematician Verena Huber for three weeks, Dyson proposed. They married, Esther and George were born, but the union didn’t last. “She was more interested in mathematics than in raising kids,” he says. By 1958, Dyson had married Imme — he has the brains, she has the legs, the Dysons like to joke — and they settled “in this snobbish little town,” as he calls Princeton. They had four more daughters. All six Dysons describe eventful childhoods with people like Feynman coming by for meals. Their father, meanwhile, was always preaching the virtues of boredom: “Being bored is the only time you are creative” was his thinking. George recalls groups of physicists closing doors and saying, “No children.” Through the keyhole George would hear words that gave him thermonuclear nightmares. All of them remember Dyson coming home, arms filled with bouquets of new appliances to make Imme’s life easier: an automatic ironing machine; a snowblower; one of the first microwave ovens in Princeton.
Beginning in the late ’50s, Dyson spent months in California, on the La Jolla campus of General Atomics, a peacetime Los Alamos, where scientists were seeking progressive uses for nuclear energy. After a challenge from Edward Teller to build a completely safe reactor, Dyson and Ted Taylor patented the Triga, a small isotope machine that is still used for medical diagnostics in hospitals. Then came the Orion rocket, designed so successions of atomic bombs would explode against the spaceship’s massive pusher plate, propelling astronauts toward the moon and beyond. “For me, Orion meant opening up the whole solar system to life,” he says. “It could have changed history.” Dyson says he “thought of Orion as the solution to a problem. With one trip we’d have got rid of 2,000 bombs.” But instead, he lent his support to the nuclear-test-ban treaty with the U.S.S.R., which killed Orion. “This was much more serious than Orion ever would be,” he said later. Dyson’s powers of concentration were so formidable in those years that George remembers sitting with his father and “he’d just disappear.”
One idea pulsing through his mind was a thought experiment that he published in the journal Science in 1959 that described massive energy-collecting shells that could encircle a star and capture solar energy. This was Dyson’s initial response to his insight that earthbound reserves of fossil fuels were limited. The structures are known as Dyson Spheres to science-fiction authors like Larry Niven and by the writers of an episode of “Star Trek” — the only engineers so far to succeed in building one.
This was an early indication of Dyson’s growing interest in what one day would be called climate studies. In 1976, Dyson began making regular trips to the Institute for Energy Analysis in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the director, Alvin Weinberg, was in the business of investigating alternative sources of power. Charles David Keeling’s pioneering measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, showed rapidly increasing carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere; and in Tennessee, Dyson joined a group of meteorologists and biologists trying to understand the effects of carbon on the Earth and air. He was now becoming a climate expert. Eventually Dyson published a paper titled “Can We Control the Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?” His answer was yes, and he added that any emergency could be temporarily thwarted with a “carbon bank” of “fast-growing trees.” He calculated how many trees it would take to remove all carbon from the atmosphere. The number, he says, was a trillion, which was “in principle quite feasible.” Dyson says the paper is “what I’d like people to judge me by. I still think everything it says is true.”
Eventually he would embrace another idea: the notorious carbon-eating trees, which would be genetically engineered to absorb more carbon than normal trees. Of them, he admits: “I suppose it sounds like science fiction. Genetic engineering is politically unpopular in the moment.”
In the 1970s, Dyson participated in other climate studies conducted by Jason, a small government-financed group of the country’s finest scientists, whose members gather each summer near San Diego to work on (often) classified (usually) scientific dilemmas of (frequently) military interest to the government. Dyson has, as he admits, a restless nature, and by the time many scientists were thinking about climate, Dyson was on to other problems. Often on his mind were proposals submitted by the government to Jason. “Mainly we kill stupid projects,” he says.
Some scientists refuse military work on the grounds that involvement in killing is sin. Dyson was opposed to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but not to generals. He had seen in England how a military more enlightened by quantitative analysis could have better protected its men and saved the lives of civilians. “I always felt the worse the situation was, the more important it was to keep talking to the military,” he says. Over the years he says he pushed the rejection of the idea of dropping atomic bombs on North Vietnam and solved problems in adaptive optics for telescopes. Lately he has been “trying to help the intelligence people be aware of what the bad guys may be doing with biology.” Dyson thinks of himself as “fighting for peace,” and Joel Lebowitz, a Rutgers physicist who has known Dyson for 50 years, says Dyson lives up to that: “He works for Jason and he’s out there demonstrating against the Iraq war.”
At Jason, taking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, “Oh, that’s not difficult,” allow two short beats to pass and then add, “but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.” When this happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, “the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.” The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like “brilliant,” “Nobel” and “MacArthur” quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew.
These days, most of what consumes Dyson is his writing. In a recent article, he addressed the issue of reductionist thinking obliquely, as a question of perspective. Birds, he wrote, “fly high in the air and survey broad vistas.” Frogs like him “live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby.” Whether the topic is government work, string theory or climate change, Dyson seems opposed to science making enormous gestures. The physicist Douglas Eardley, who works with Dyson at Jason, says: “He’s always against the big monolithic projects, the Battlestar Galacticas. He prefers spunky little Mars rovers.” Dyson has been hostile to the Star Wars missile-defense system, the Space Station, the Hubble telescope and the superconducting super collider, which he says he opposed because “it’s just out of proportion.” Steven Weinberg, the Nobel physics laureate who often disagrees with Dyson on these matters, says: “Some things simply have to be done in a large way. They’re very expensive. That’s big science. Get over it.”
Around the Institute for Advanced Study, that intellectual Arcadia where the blackboards have signs on them that say Do Not Erase, Dyson is quietly admired for candidly expressing his doubts about string theory’s aspiration to represent all forces and matter in one coherent system. “I think Freeman wishes the string theorists well,” Avishai Margalit, the philosopher, says. “I don’t think he wishes them luck. He’s interested in diversity, and that’s his worldview. To me he is a towering figure although he is tiny — almost a saintly model of how to get old. The main thing he retains is playfulness. Einstein had it. Playfulness and curiosity. He also stands for this unique trait, which is wisdom. Brightness here is common. He is wise. He integrated, not in a theory, but in his life, all his dreams of things.”
IMME DYSON REPORTS that her husband “recently stopped climbing trees.” Dyson himself says he’s resigned to never finishing “Anna Karenina.” Otherwise he still lives his days at mortality-ignoring cadence, aided by NoDoz, a habit he first acquired during his R.A.F. days. He travels widely, giving talks at churches and colleges, reminding people how dangerous nuclear weapons are. (“I think people got used to them and think if you leave them alone, they won’t do you any harm,” he says. “I always am scared. I think everybody ought to be.”) He has visited both the Galápagos Islands and the campus of Google and attended “Doctor Atomic,” the John Adams opera about Oppenheimer, which disappointed him. More fulfilling was the board meeting of a foundation promoting solar energy in China. Another winter day found him answering questions from physics majors at a Christian college in Oklahoma. (“Scientists should understand the human anguish of religious people,” he says.)
Lately Dyson has been lamenting that he and Imme “don’t see so much of each other. We’re always rushing around.” But one evening last month they sat down in a living room filled with Imme’s running trophies and photographs of their children to watch “An Inconvenient Truth” again. There was a print of Einstein above the television. And then there was Al Gore below him, telling of the late Roger Revelle, a Harvard scientist who first alerted the undergraduate Gore to how severe the climate’s problems would become. Gore warned of the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, the vanishing glaciers of Peru and “off the charts” carbon levels in the air. “The so-called skeptics” say this “seems perfectly O.K.,” Gore said, and Imme looked at her husband. She is even slighter than he is, a pretty wood sprite in running shoes. “How far do you allow the oceans to rise before you say, This is no good?” she asked Dyson.
“When I see clear evidence of harm,” he said.
“Then it’s too late,” she replied. “Shouldn’t we not add to what nature’s doing?”
“The costs of what Gore tells us to do would be extremely large,” Dyson said. “By restricting CO2 you make life more expensive and hurt the poor. I’m concerned about the Chinese.”
“They’re the biggest polluters,” Imme replied.
“They’re also changing their standard of living the most, going from poor to middle class. To me that’s very precious.”
The film continued with Gore predicting violent hurricanes, typhoons and tornados. “How in God’s name could that happen here?” Gore said, talking about Hurricane Katrina. “Nature’s been going crazy.”
“That is of course just nonsense,” Dyson said calmly. “With Katrina, all the damage was due to the fact that nobody had taken the trouble to build adequate dikes. To point to Katrina and make any clear connection to global warming is very misleading.”
Now came Arctic scenes, with Gore telling of disappearing ice, drunken trees and drowning polar bears. “Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice,” Dyson said. “A year ago when we went to Greenland where warming is the strongest, the people loved it.”
“They were so proud,” Imme agreed. “They could grow their own cabbage.”
The film ended. “I think Gore does a brilliant job,” Dyson said. “For most people I’d think this would be quite effective. But I knew Roger Revelle. He was definitely a skeptic. He’s not alive to defend himself.”
“All my friends say how smart and farsighted Al Gore is,” she said.
“He certainly is a good preacher,” Dyson replied. “Forty years ago it was fashionable to worry about the coming ice age. Better to attack the real problems like the extinction of species and overfishing. There are so many practical measures we could take.”
“I’m still perfectly happy if you buy me a Prius!” Imme said.
“It’s toys for the rich,” her husband smiled, and then they were arguing about windmills.
Nicholas Dawidoff, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of four books, most recently “The Crowd Sounds Happy.”March 30th, 2009