Monthly Archives: February 2010

End of February – Spring Colors

Just wanted to share a few shots I took this afternoon in the neighborhood.

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Friday Night Lights

Well, it’s Friday but it’s no longer football season… unless you’re watching old seasons of ‘Friday Night Lights’ which I have to admit has been consuming a fair amount of my time lately.  I just finished watching season 2, which I found to be a little less satisfying than the first season, if only because it felt like some of the episodes were a little too ‘cleverly’ plotted instead of just organic developments of the characters.  Apparently they give the actors quite a lot of latitude to ‘feel’ their way into scenes, not forcing them to read the lines as written, and this gives things a nice freshness (along with the fact that it’s all shot on real locations near Austin, TX, not studios), even though it’s basically a bit of a soap opera.

The show has a big cast of about 10 main characters and probably 10 more people who appear regularly, and actually it’s not really about football (very much).  It does center on a football coach and his family, who live in a football-crazy Texas town called Dillon, where there’s a long track record of success on the field, and high expectations.  It follows a number of the high school kids, parents, coaches, teachers as they make their way through life.

Friday Night Lights had gotten a lot of critical acclaim but not great ratings, and I do wonder if it’s a show that kids could watch with their parents – seems to me that it may feel a little uncomfortable for both parties, as the kids in the show get into the usual troubles of drinking, sex and so forth.  But in any case I think it’s well done and worth watching. The fifth and final season will be starting in April.

Sloan @ Doug Fir, 17-Feb-2010

Finally saw the Canadian pop band Sloan last night at the Doug Fir Lounge, and they put on a great show.  The core group got together in Halifax in the early nineties, and their years of playing together make for a tight sound.  Somehow I never managed to see them until now, but I hope to catch them again next time around!

Snidely and Dudley

The other day I found this lovely old postcard of a Canadian Mountie on a horse in the Rockies, reminding me of Dudley Do-Right.  I sent it off to my friend Phil, who somehow still has in his possession a Snidely Whiplash puppet.  Thus the photo above, which I love.

Natural-Born Cyborgs – Andy Clark (2003)

The author of Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark, is more philosopher than science fiction writer, though as the cover indicates he does cover some pretty far out technology in this book.  He’s most interested in the notion of the ‘expanded mind’, by that meaning the way we incorporate not only biological but also technological tools to navigate in the world.  By this he means not just the cinematic cyborg concepts like implants into the brain, but also simpler tools like pen and paper, and anything else we use either consciously or unconsciously.  I found this book really interesting for a number of reasons, and I’ll try to cover a few high points.

1.  On language:
“The deepest contributions of speech and language to human thought, however, may be something so large and fundamental that it is sometimes hare to see it at all! For it is our linguistic capacities, I have long suspected, that allow us to think and reason about our own thinking and reasoning. And it is this capacity, in turn, that may have been the crucial foot-in-the-door for the culturally transmitted process of designer-environment construction: the process of deliberately building better worlds to think in.” (p. 78).  What he’s getting at here is language as a tool that gives us the ability to examine concepts and generate ideas that could not have been conceived of without language.

In a somewhat similar fashion he mentions how we use mathematical shortcuts and paper-based tools to, for example, multiply two large numbers, like 147 * 382.  Most of us cannot do that calculation in our heads, but with a piece of paper and a pencil and the mental math tools of breaking the problem down into simple integer multiplication (7 * 2, then 7* 8, etc.) we can solve the problem.  So is the calculation simply in our head, or is it in fact a collaboration of brain and pencil and paper (or these days brain and calculator).  The tools expand our mental universe, give us access to areas that we could not get to without them.

2. On extended mental worlds, Alzheimer’s example:
“These patients were a puzzle because althoushould not have been able to do sogh they still lived alone, successfully, in the city, they really should not have been able to do so. On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally. They should have been unable to cope with the demands of daily life. What was going on? A sequence of visits to their home environments provided the answer. These home environments, it transpired, were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive props, tools and aids. Examples included message centers where they stored notes about what to do and when; photos of family and friends complete with indications of names and relationships; lables and pictures on doors; [etc.]” (p. 140).

Here again he is making the point that we put ‘intelligence’ out in our environment, and our brains and bodies work with these tools to make sense of the world.  Note that none of this involves ‘biological implants’ but in principle these too are tools that can feed us more useful information, just the way a cane can provide information to a blind person.

3. The extended mind:
“What we really need to reject, I suggest, is the seductive idea that these various neural and nonneural tools need a kind of privileged user. Instead, it is just tools all the way down. Some of those tools are indeed more closely implicated in our conscious awareness of the world than others. But those elements, taken on their own, would fall embarrassingly short of reconstituting any recognizable version of a human mind or an individual person. Some elements, likewise are more important to our sense of self and identity than others. Some elements play larger roles in control and decision making than others. But this divide, like the ones before it, tends to crosscut the inner and the outer, the biological and the nonbiological.” (p 137).

“Tools-R-Us. But we are prone, it seems, to a particularly dangerous kind of cognitive illusion. Because our best efforts at watching our own minds in action reveal only the conscious flow of ideas and decisions, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the stream of conscious awareness.” (p. 137).

There is plenty more to chew on in this book.  This argument about the extended mind is similar to the points made by Alva Noe in his book Out of Our Heads.

R.E.M. to remember

I first saw R.E.M. in summer 1981, opening up for Gang of Four at the Ritz in NYC.  At that point I think they only had their first single out, and Mr. Stipe still had lots of bushy hair flying around.  Chronic Town EP came out the next year, and of course lots more over the years.  I liked their music, saw them a couple more times, but the records in the last 10 years or so have been disappointing mostly – not quite the same magic anymore.

So I was a little skeptical about last years double live CD, R.E.M. Live at the Olympia in Dublin, but saw some good reviews and figured I should check it out.  And it is well worth hearing for any long-time fan of the band.  In fact, I’d have to say that if I could only have one of their recordings, it would be this one.  The band played five nights in Dublin, testing out new songs for what became their Accelerate album, and playing lots of old ones.  They sound energized and tough, putting new life in songs going back all the way to that Chronic Town release – check it out.

Democracy in action

Photo by Jonathan Maus / bikeportland.org

Today I went down to Portland City Hall to participate in a rally in support of the passage of the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 to build out a more comprehensive network of bike routes through the city.  The rally was followed by the City Council meeting to hear citizen testimony and vote on the plan.  It was the first time I had attended such a session, so kind of interesting.  Many of the initial speakers were clearly ‘insiders’ who had worked in various areas of city government and knew the players.  But there were plenty of neighborhood association representatives and others who mostly spoke in favor of the plan, with a few raising concerns and a few outright objecting to it.  Here’s more coverage from bikeportland.org.

Unfortunately because of the big turnout and the large number of speakers (probably 30+ got two minutes each), and followup questions from city commissioners, the vote was not held today and will be held next Thursday.  Democracy, not always pretty, but it’s hard to find better alternatives!

Update: A week later the City Council did approve the bike plan, and the next challenge is to find funding to ‘Build it!’

Point Omega – Don DeLillo (2010)

In recent years DeLillo’s output has been frequent but very condensed, and his new novel, Point Omega, is the most spare and dense so far.  While only 117 pages, I found it hard to read more than about 20 pages at a sitting.

I don’t consider myself much of a literary critic, but here are a few thoughts on the book.  It is bookended by scenes set at MOMA in NYC in 2006, where a screening of the real-world video piece 24 Hour Psycho was shown.  DeLillo attended, and apparently the novel began from the seeds of writing about it (he said to Thomas DePietro, “It was only after I finished work on the prologue that I began to think seriously about what would follow.”).  The piece takes Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho and lengthens it to run for an entire day – which boils down to slowing it by a factor of twelve, so that each frame lingers for about half a second.

I have seen the piece at a museum as well, and it does have a strange impact.  By slowing down the film, it seems to slow down one’s experience of time. Simply waiting for a character to complete a simple movement might take a minute or more.  In the book, a strange character lingers in the room with the film, coming back day after day, wanting to watch the entire thing in one 24 hour stretch.  He observes other people coming in and out of the room, he moves from one side of the projection screen to the other, sees how the polarity (right hand to left hand) flips.

In Psycho, we have three (or is it four) main characters. Everyone remembers Norman Bates, but as DeLillo notes no one really remembers the name of the character played by Janet Leigh, it is simply Janet Leigh.  Then there is Detective Arbogast, and there is ‘mother’.

It feels to me almost as if DeLillo has mapped these film characters into the main desert section of the novel, but not in a literal way.  Elster is perhaps the detective, an old scholar who appears to be near an end, exhausted. His daughter Jessie is almost not there at all, she’s like ‘mother’ or perhaps like Janet Leigh after the shower scene (which occurs fairly early in the film), a spectral presence. Jim Finley, the filmmaker, doesn’t really seem like Norman, but he is a bit inexplicable, in his willingness to simply hang out at the desert home with Elster without really pushing very hard to make the film happen. Then there is also the mysterious Dennis, perhaps the man watching Psycho at the museum, perhaps seeing Jessie in NYC, perhaps following her out to the desert.

The whole thing seems like a kind of meditation on time and space, how we play with it in our media (and we can even speed it up or slow it down), and how there is a sense that some places embody deep time.  The desert seems to be particularly resonant for DeLillo, it’s a place where time seems to run at a different pace than we’re used to in the cities, it’s a place where one can think differently, ponder the unknowns.  To note that “the three characters here do not live in a recognizable America or recognizable reality” (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times review) strikes me as  beside the point.  DeLillo is not depicting ‘reality’ rather he seems to be depicting thinking and time itself, through his spare yet dense prose.