Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Honest Graft

Mr. Diamond, for his part, said Mr. McCain had only done his job. “I think that is what Congress people are supposed to do for constituents,” he said. “When you have a big, significant businessman like myself, why wouldn’t you want to help move things along? What else would they do? They waste so much time with legislation.”... Mr. Diamond is close to most of Arizona’s Congressional delegation and is candid about his expectations as a fund-raiser. “I want my money back, for Christ’s sake. Do you know how many cocktail parties I have to go to?”

- "A Developer, His Deals and His Ties to McCain", David Kirkpatrick & Jim Rutenberg (via)

EVERYBODY is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft – blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. – and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

-- Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, by William Riordon

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Because even though it is not Passover until tomorrow (Saturday) night, you still need to eat on Passover dishes and eat Passover food, since the cleaning has to be done before Shabbat. (If you're following the tradition, that is -- as we do in my house.) In fact, strictly speaking, you can't even eat Matza tonight, since you're not supposed to eat it until the first Seder.

So why is this night different from all other nights? Because tonight, you get Passover food without Matza.*

Unlike the seder, that's unique. Only one night a year -- not even: only one night in those years that Passover starts on Saturday night.

Anyway, since we have guests this weekend, let me prepare for the Sabbath, and the holiday, by wishing all of my readers to whom it applies (or who wish it to apply to them), a happy Passover. (And, since I liked 'em, I'll recycle my posters from last year.)

(Compilations made with this site; click images for larger versions.)

* You can eat egg Matza, apparently, which is one way to do lechem mishna. So that sentence is an exaggeration.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Art by Poll

Via Andrew Sullivan (and from there Arts Journal) comes a series of links to a pair of quite fascinating projects: attempts (no relation) to make the most -- and least -- appealing of all possible art, based on polls of what people say they want.

These come in two varieties (that I've seen so far, anyway): music and art.

Dave Soldier's "The Most Unwanted Song" (mp3 link) is described as follows:
The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and "elevator" music, and a children's choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance--someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example--fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population would enjoy this piece.
-- But, of course (and this is one of the points, I presume) putting all these things together make not only a truly bizarre piece of music, but also change the nature of the undesired elements in lots of ways -- including removing the characteristics that make them undesirable. Holiday songs are one thing; snatches of chorus about labor day (that was the part that had me literally laughing outloud) and Halloween in an otherwise bizarre mix of strange styles of music are something else again.

I listened to the entire piece, straight through -- yes, all 25+ minutes of it -- and actually liked it quite a bit. Oh, it's not a song I'm going to play over and over; but it is definitely worth listening to. It's a mix of lots of different things -- a funny and strange musical collage. The listening experience it reminded me of most closely was the Beatles "Revolution 9", although this probably says more about my limited cultural horizons than anything. (Still, I suspect that that's the piece of collage music (which probably has some standard, official name I don't even know) which the largest number of people are familiar with, since it is, after all, by the Beatles.)

But again: the assemblage is not the sum of its separable parts. The fact that I liked it doesn't make me one of a select 200 world-wide; it (as, I presume, intended) makes the point that this music is, in fact, better than it polls.

On the other hand, I could barely get through Soldier's "The Most Wanted Song" (mp3 link); it was too irritating and insipid. Now that's crappy music. Even though it was far, far briefer than its supposedly undesirable cousin.

I recommend the Unwanted Song. Really.

Soldier's music seems to have been inspired by a visual arts project by the artistic team Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who did a series of polls to determine the most wanted and least wanted elements in painting.

You can see all the various most wanted and least wanted paintings here; they did different ones for a whole series of countries, plus a pair for "the Web".

Here are the ones for the U.S. The U.S. painting, as this blog post summarizes, "has it all: an autumnal landscape with wild animals, a family enjoying the outdoors, the color blue, and George Washington."

The U.S.'s most wanted painting:

...and least wanted painting:

(I think the divergent sizes are part of the polling, incidentally).

Again, I prefer the least wanted -- although the most wanted painting isn't nearly as bad as the most wanted music, while the least-wanted panting isn't nearly as good as the least-wanted music; funny, that. Does this say something about the artists, or the mediums, or is it just a personal reaction on my part? I'm not sure.

But as before, smashing high-polling elements together robs them of what people like about them, but redeems poorly-polled elements through juxtaposition.

Now, who's going to do the narrative versions? Any takers?

...This, of course, has been a post about politics: the most wanted/least wanted experiment has been done far, far, far more often with politicians than with art or music; but with nearly identical results. A lesson for those who would heed it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vik Muniz: Drawing from Memory (from Life)

Vik Muniz (warning: irritating flash site) is a contemporary photographer (he was born in Brazil, currently lives in New York City). He's done a lot of fascinating things over the years -- explore his site for samples -- but one thing he's done (one of his early projects, from 1989) which I've never quite seen adequately presented (it probably was in a gallery show, but I haven't seen it) are his "memory renderings" from his series, The Best of Life. Here, from an interview with Peter Galassi, is Muniz's own description of his project:
The Best of Life Series, for example, are drawings of very famous photographs made entirely from memory. When the drawings were good enough to look like a bad reproduction of the original image, I photographed them and printed them with the same half tone pattern we usually see in these images for the first time in the papers. In these works I tried to find out what a photograph looks like in your head when you are not looking at it. They carried the structure of the famous news pictures but they were in fact very different.

The obvious way to show these drawings, it seems to me, is to show them side-by-side with the original photographs, so that one can see the similarities and differences. But while examples of the Muniz memory renderings -- and the famous originals -- are all over the web, I've never seen them paired. And since I live to serve, here we go. (Actually, showing first the memory rendering and then the original would probably be better. But there are limits to the blog format, and to my energy and time.)

In each case, click on the image for a larger version -- really, do: it's only worthwhile if you can see it.

Photograph of a kiss in Times Square on V-J day (August 14, 1945) by Alfred Eisenstaedt, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz. Interestingly, there seem to be a lot of claimants to be the sailor portrayed in this photograph.

Photograph of astronaut Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong, 1969, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz.

Photograph, "The Unknown Rebel", taken by AP photographer Jeff Widener in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and memory rendering of it by Vik Muniz.

One interesting thing going on in these pairings are the left/right reversals. Note that each of those three images are reversed horizontally: the tanks slope high left to low right in Muniz's memory, but the other way (and not as much) in Widener's photograph; Muniz remembers Aldrin's right arm, not his left arm, being bent up; and the kissers bend to the left not to the right. I wonder what's going on here (is there a cognitive scientist in the house?)

Photograph by Nick Ut (aka Huynh Cong Ut), taken June 8, 1972, showing Phan Thị Kim Phúc running after her clothes had been burned off by a South Vietnam/US Napalm attack.

By the way, while we're on the subject of that last, famous photograph: Kim Phuc's history, according to Wikipedia, is really fascinating and quite wonderful:
After taking the photograph, Út promptly took Kim Phúc and the other children to a hospital in Saigon where it was determined that her burns were so severe that she would not survive. However, after a 14 month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures, she returned home. Út continued to visit until he was evacuated during the fall of Saigon, 3 years after the picture was taken...
She then grew up, served as an anti-war symbol for Vietnam, spent some time in Cuba, converted to Christianity, went to Canada where she got political asylum; she now is a Canadian citizen and lives in Ontario with her husband and two children. There's a biography of her called The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War, by Denise Chong. Oh, and:
In 1996, she gave a speech at the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day... One Reverend John Plummer, a U.S. Vietnam War Veteran, had seen the photo and believed that he had a part in co-ordinating the raid with the South Vietnamese air force. He met Phúc briefly and she publicly forgave him.
From this page here, here are two photographs of Nick Ut and Kim Phuc together, first, from right after she got out of the hospital:

And, second, from a reunion of the two many years later, in London:

What can I say? I'm a sap: I love happy endings.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Do not attempt to adjust the internet...

I seem to have gone on an unannounced hiatus; sorry about that! Things here are fine: just busy. I do have several posts percolating in my head, and various links residing in my "recent link fodder" folder. But when I'll have the time and energy to put 'em up I don't quite know. (Didn't quite think I'd be silent this long!) All I can say is, I hope to be back soon. Please stand by...