Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Constant Blues and Battling The Art Of Portraiture

I haven’t posted for more than a week, the reason, either a case of the late winter blues, or one of being utterly spooked by LeBlanc’s Constant Battles. I took that sumbitch back to the liberry, leaving the last chapter unread. I did read the last couple of pages, so I know there’s no surprise happy ending.

LeBlanc is an academic, and the book, for him, is a way to show us what we’ve overlooked in studying our ancestors. For me, their benighted behavior is an allegory for our own, and it makes me think of something fictional adventurer Travis McGee said to Meyer, his economist sidekick: “Right now I’m...trying to work out a jigsaw puzzle where every piece is square, and when I get them in the right places, they make an abstract painting. But they also make an abstract painting any way I fit them together.” McGee settled on the right arrangement, and it was dangerous. For me the peril implied by our history of perfidy, is compounded with irritation. Where do we go from here? Not being able to solve the puzzle bugs the daylights out of me.

Enclosed, some recent drawings, good, bad, and promising.

The nice clean portrait of the young man with the soul patch, I did for the first of what I hope is a series of short newspaper pieces about busy and interesting neighborhood residents. Eric is a guitar teacher at the park building, with a plan to provide music instruction, something being scaled back in the financially strapped schools.

The double caricature is one whose subjects asked me to draw it. First iteration. The drawing of the man is on the money, the woman, recognizable, but hmm. Men are easier to caricature than women, because -- feminism notwithstanding -- even comical renderings must render them as desirable. How do I get a likeness of Lila that is as lush and alluring as she, and still a little goofy?

I think the messy one is the most exciting. I like the textures and contrasts. It is, in a word I have begun using to myself, painterly. On the other hand, I traded the clear and articulate quality, that I can get with simpler means, for excitement. I hope that the former will gel from the latter.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ramp Meter And The Counter-Intuitive

Some things surprise you. Sometimes, after you’ve thought about them, or somebody tells you how they work, they make sense. I’m not competent to do more than mention sub-atomic physics.

Once I was tutoring the adopted daughter of some friends. This kid was in the ninth grade, and had endured the kind of traumas you wish were media fantasies. She was bright, but had tentative diagnoses of all the mental disabilities about which you might’ve heard. Man, she could frustrate me. Areas. Volumes. Fractions. It was fascinating how much she couldn’t get, but I taught her to play chess, and she could clean my clock. That’s got nothing to do with things that are counter-intuitive, but once, probing a little bit, I asked her what weighed more, all the whales in the ocean or all the plankton.

I really didn’t learn anything. She answered wrong, but so would most of us. The answer is plankton. Why are there more foxes than mice?

Here’s one. Decades ago, a researcher at the University of Washington removed the (predator) starfish, Pisaster ochraceus, from an intertidal pool that contained fifteen species of marine invertebrates. You’d think that you’d get more of the starfish’s prey, or at least that the prey populations would rise until there was a crash. What happened was that the number of species dropped to eight. In fact, a kind of sponge, and its predator, neither of which had an obvious relationship with ochraceus, disappeared. The hypothesis is that the starfish cleaned the habitat for the sponge.

Here’s another. A. C. Crombie, of the University of Cambridge kept two species of beetles -- Tribolium and Oryzaephilus -- in flour. Usually I try to keep bugs out of my grain, but -- you know -- British academics have a reputation for eccentricity. Usually Oryzaephilus disappeared, and the Tribolium population would level off at about 125 beetles per ten grams of flour. Then old A. C. stuck some glass rods into the flour. (A. C., you maniac!) Oryzaephilus got up into the eighties or nineties per ten grams, and Tribolium -- wotta champ! -- leveled off around 225.

Here in Minneapolis, we have these things called ramp meters. Between us, St. Paul, and the suburbs, we have 433. They’re like stoplights, only there’s no yellow, just red and green. During rush hours, they act like valves, letting cars onto the freeway at measured intervals to keep us from bunching up. Actually, the one I use lets the cars through quickly enough that we end up queuing again right at the freeway. I can’t see how this helps, but I’m not a traffic engineer.

Anyway, ten or a dozen years ago, a state legislator from out in the country somewhere, didn't budget enough windshield time once too often, and made ramp meters his personal hobby horse. There was a bombastic morning-drive disc jockey who whined about them, too. In 2000, Minnesota paid a firm called Cambridge Systematics $650, 000 to turn the ramps off for eight weeks and write a report. During the eight weeks, freeway volume went down nine percent, travel time went up 29%, speeds dropped 7%, and the number of crashes went up 26%. So a politician’s and a disc jockey’s ignorant peevishness cost Minnesotans six hundred and fifty grand, plus whatever the price of those other inconveniences was. And the engineers shortened the ramps’ cycle times. Hmmm.

Dick Day could probably still get his constituents stirred up about ramp meters, but he has retired from the legislature. He’s now a lobbyist for the -- ahem -- gaming industry.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Earthquakes Cripple Haiti, Chile, Gotham City

I wanted to write about the Haitian earthquake, and then the Chilean quake came, five hundred times as powerful. The Richter Scale is base-ten-logarithmic, so a difference between a 7.0 and an 8.8 quake is ten to the one-point-eight, taken to the one-point-five. (I’d forgotten how logs work, and I only had the vaguest of ideas of how the Richter Scale works, so I had to look this up.) While the mechanics of the planet’s continental drift are interesting, what insensitive jerk keeps score, when human beings are getting kicked in the shorts.

Instead, I’m going to review a series of comic books. I discovered Batman: No Man’s Land at the neighborhood branch of the Hennepin County Library. Can you believe they have comics at the library? This is probably one of the more sophisticated ones. It comes in five volumes, and I read One and Four.

When Frank Miller wrote Batman: The Dark Knight twenty or so years ago, readers and the funny-book industry took notice. The Dark Knight is a gritty, noir thriller, and Miller has a feeling for character and plot, as well as a satirical outlook on our moment in history. DK was comic’s High Noon, an adult read in a puerile millieu, and it gave comic book writers and artists permission to examine the darkness in the souls of their characters, and our world, if few did it with Miller's art.

Batman is, of course, the masked and muscular vigilante who guards Gotham City -- a stand-in for the island of Manhattan -- from quirky supervillains like Two Face, the Penguin, the Joker, etc. He is aided by Robin the Boy Wonder, Commissioner James Gordon, Batgirl, etc., etc., and etc. No Man’s Land’s premise is that Gotham City has suffered a massive earthquake. The rest of the United States, presumably with problems of their own, have abandoned Gotham to its own devices, dynamited its bridges, and posted patrols to keep Gothamites on the island, and the infrequent smuggler or maniac out.

Each story begins, “...and after the Earth shattered and the buildings crumbled, the nation abandoned Gotham City. Then only the valiant, the venal and the insane remained in the place they called NO MAN”S LAND.”

Various gangs, including the police and a splinter faction of cops, neighborhood thugs, and the supervillains’ organizations, control territories within the city.

NML was published in 1999, and probably would have been different -- at least by not representing ruined skyscrapers as leaning, largely intact, above rubble -- if produced after September, 2001. The twenty or thirty writers and artists have imagined post-disaster poverty pretty well. Food, water, tools, and ammunition are all bought and sold at a premium. There is a barter network, ruthlessly controlled by the parasitic Penguin. People risk their lives and dignity for beans and bullets. A pacifist physician, friend of Batman’s murdered parents, operates a hospital under tents, giving what comfort she can to the teeming injured, and caring for their wounds with what few supplies Batman can find.

Writing is about on the prime-time soap level of Dallas or The X-Files. You have stock characters interacting, and revealing themselves, over time, within a difficult setting. Exposition is uneven. I found myself going “Who the hell is that,” or “What just happened,” on one page, and "Just shut up and tell the story," on the next. NML"s characters are, let’s just say, preposterous, and one way the comic medium advances a story is through speech balloons, so cut the denizens of Gotham some slack when they get a little windy. The most articulate of the characters, though, is the mute Batgirl, whose mask completely obscures her features.

Drawing, composition, and color vary, from the exaggeratedly veined musculature and color and value extreme contrasts of the Deodato, Parsons, and Rambo team in Volume Four's “Homecoming," to the decorative, almost anime, style of  Scott, Floyd, and Mulvihill in “Jurisprudence.”

Although the US abandons Gotham City for purposes humanitarian, Gotham is not forgotten by Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, who appears on the final page of Volume Four, ready to rebuild and claim it for his own.

Friday, March 5, 2010

March Comes In With Pruning Shears

We've had a string of beautiful blue-sky days, with highs in the mid-forties. Winter isn't through with us yet; March is usually the snowiest month, with a proverbial State Basketball Tournament Blizzard, but we can see the promise of La Primavera.

I took my pruning shears out to give the apricot, which you're looking at, and one of the plums their first haircuts. I don't know what I'm doing, but I have a few principles I'm trying to follow.

Prune the trees while they're still dormant. They stored a bunch of sap last year, and I want them to use it to heal, rather than make leaves.

Don't take more than a third of the branches.

Try for a chalice shape.

Make sure that remaining branches don't shade each other.

Cut just outside of the "bark collars." These are the wrinkled, folded-looking bark that covers the places where the branches leave the trunk. This is where the trees heal best, and prevents rot.

Some of my older trees suffered from having a chicken for an owner. I put off pruning them because I didn't know what I was doing, and when I finally pruned them I had to cut bigger branches and make compromises. You can see where there just has to be rot getting into their trunks. Ya live an' learn, but I'm sixty-one years old. Shoulda started this stuff in the Summer of Love.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Telstar And Constant Battles

An interesting idea in Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles is that farmers are harder on a region’s carrying capacity than foragers. Foragers, like the Kalahari’s !Bang or Australia’s various aborigines range over the landscape, picking fruit and vegetables and hunting game. They do eventually exhaust an area, and move on, but the farmer lifestyle is more resource intensive, and farmer populations are larger.

Forager women give birth about every four years. Children nurse longer, nursing depressing fertility, and there are several incentives for limiting family size. Foragers are mobile daily, as they search for food, and groups move periodically. Several small children are harder to tend on the move than one. Beside the logistical problems, children aren’t knowledgeable to be genuine contributors, and are liabilities until puberty or later.

Farm crops require more processing and cooking, and a larger tool kit, so farmers need fuel and materials that foragers don’t. Staying in the same place for generations, farmers deplete soil. LeBlanc documents soil depletion with the history of the Mimbres Valley in the southwestern United States, beginning in the early Common Era, and ending with collapse in the thirteenth of fourteenth century. Farmer populations are larger. Since farmers are sedentary, and since they get more calories out of an area than foragers would, they can afford more children. Ground and cooked grains make good baby foods, so children nurse for less time. There are farm chores that don’t require a lot of knowledge and expertise -- ones that children could do -- so there’s an incentive to reproduce to get more workers. There's an incentive to reproduce, as well, so that someone can take care of you in your dotage.

It might have seemed to early farmers, rubbing shoulders with foragers, that they were the ones who used their resources better. After all, they were providing for more people, living better, and staying in the same place for a long time. In fact, they were mining their soils.

LeBlanc explains the sudden shift from foraging to farming (10,000 years ago in the Middle East, soon after in China, 6,000 years ago in America), not with some teleological inspiration, or people’s recognizing a good idea and embracing it. He says that farming spread because farmers warred on foragers to take their territories, when farmer populations had exceeded their territories’ carrying capacities.

Buckminster Fuller liked to say that we would succeed by “doing more with less.” He called it “ephemeralization.” One example he used was Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite. Fuller said that this quarter-ton sphere replaced thousands of tons of transoceanic cable. I always wondered about the infrastructure supporting the two communications devices: ship versus rocket, steel mill versus transistor factory. Which industries use more water, fuel, noxious chemicals? What changes in society did each communications device inspire, and what were their consequences for the planet’s carrying capacity. Was Fuller correct that Telstar did more with less?

If Telstar did use more of the world’s wealth, I recognize that it could still have been benign. For instance, widespread, rapid, global, electronic communication might be necessary in an Earth which had recently experienced World War II, in which the United States and Soviet Union aimed hydrogen bombs at each other, and in which global commerce was introducing us all to each other. It’s the old conundrum in which you wonder if polio vaccine was worth Madison Avenue.

I wonder if it’s possible for us to find our way to a forager lifestyle, informed by what we’ve learned along the way. The foragers weren’t able to control their populations and stay out of conflict, but they might have, if they’d had our biological and technical knowledge.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Its Apostrophe: It's Not As Simple As It Used To Be

I learned when to put an apostrophe between the tee and the ess in its from Mrs. Stiffler in the Ninth Grade. The apostrophe is used with it to indicate the missing letter and space from “it is,” but not to indicate possession. This made sense to my tiny fourteen year-old mind. The rule reduced ambiguity, and seemed to indicate a hierarchy in which the contraction counted for more than possession.

Little did I know that it would make me gnash my teeth, as a working grownup, to see the rule casually flouted by e-mailing co-workers.

I know how it’s done. You can prove I’m right by scanning for its and it’s in edited copy. Here are two sentences from R. Fiore’s article about The Simpsons television show, The Glory that Was the Simpsons, in the Winter, 2004 Comics Journal.

“Because it had a satirical bent and lots of minutes to fill, its concerns of necessity became wideranging; developing into a comprehensive picture of its times.” (Its indicates possession -- and I would have punctuated the sentence differently.)

“The problem is that because it’s easy and imposes little up-front cost to the viewer, it causes more difficult and expensive cultural forms to atrophy.” (It’s is a contraction of “it -- meaning television -- is.”)

It’s interesting that I would get upset about such a small thing. I’m fairly easy-going about spelling. If you’re in the ballpark, great. I know spellings have changed over the centuries, America, Great Britain, and Australia currently spell some words differently, and a lot of English spellings don’t make sense anyway, except as indicators of source languages. (Another reason for my being laissez faire about spelling may be that I have a family name which is not usually spelled are-oh-ay-are-kay. I may have given up.)

I’m comfortable with -- at least -- archaic grammar, having once cultivated a hick persona who said things like “ain’t got,” and “that don’t scare him, none.”

I think my being a grammar nazi about its/it’s (and your/you’re -- although I have written yer for both) probably comes from some mild obsessive compulsive disorder. I correct as I type, not being able to let an error stand until I get to the end of a sentence, let alone until I finish the draft. Still, its and it’s have two entirely different meanings. You wouldn’t write “I rote my mother a letter.” Well, maybe James Joyce would have. Its is possessive -- a modifier, and it’s is a contraction for "it is" -- subject and verb.

Then I read this poem by that old Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson.

The Brain, within it’s Groove

The Brain within it’s groove
Runs evenly -- and true --
But let a Splinter swerve --
Twere easier for You --

To put a Current back --
When Floods have slit the Hills --
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves --
And trodden out the Mills --

Monday, March 1, 2010

Syncronicity With The Daily Dish

I promise I won’t ever do a story on Brad Pitt’s love life, but I can’t help myself about Sting. Graeme Wood, filling in for Andrew Sullivan on The Daily Dish wrote about Sting’s taking two million bucks to play a concert for Gulnara Karimova, daughter of brutal Uzbeck kleptocrat Islam Karimov.

Barbara says there are a lot more rich conservatives creating mischief than rich liberals, and that's probably true. Sting says that cultural boycotts are a bad idea, and probably believes that he could squeeze a few people (and the Aral Sea) out from under the iron boot heel of oppression by modeling a peaceful and ecologically-aware attitude for the self-deluded Karimovs.

It reminds me of a bumper sticker I gripe about around town now and again: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” That reminds me of the ancient Coca Cola commercial: lovely young interracial crowd holding hands in a circle in a beautiful meadow. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect har-Mo-neeeee...”

I don’t doubt that individuals who are calmer and less avaricious will commit fewer atrocities, or that seeing people with different skin as equally human will make it harder to kill them, but facing starvation, your basic tofu-eating, yoga-posing Quaker will be up for a little cross cultural mayhem.

The way to peace is economic. Figure out the planet’s carrying capacity for this species. Keep population within that capacity, globally and locally. Create abundance by integrating with and mimicking the local ecosystems. Share unevenly divided natural wealth, locally and between regions. Pay attention and allow for the counter-intuitive. Everybody gets fed, housed, and educated. Enforce all of the above, locally and globally.

People will complain, but if you think about it, the developed world will be getting a bargain.