Duchamp on change

Last time I was in San Francisco, I paid a ritual visit to City Lights bookstore, where I am usually able to find something I’ve not seen before.  On this occasion it was a book titled “Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance” by Herbert Molderings (2010).  This short work focuses on a single work by Marcel Duchamp, “3 Standard Stoppages” which was initially created in 1913 but not really exhibited until 1936, and by that time he had changed the format of the initial work considerably.  The basic idea of it is that he took a string one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter, and captured the random curve formed when it landed.

While the book takes a variety of interesting tangents and alleys in describing the work, and Duchamp’s various comments about the work, I particularly liked this simple quote from Duchamp:

“Change and life are synonymous. We must realize this and accept it.  Change is what makes life interesting.  There is no progress, change is all we know.” (p. 114)

And here’s one more:

“My work has been an attempt to show that reason is less fruitful than we think. We think we find solutions through this function of rational thought but we do not. The mind is much freer than this type of thought would indicate.”

An interesting book that challenges many opinions of what Duchamp was up to.

Understanding Money

For a long time I’ve been convinced that we mostly don’t understand how money really works.  It’s way to easy to think that the government must operate just like a household, and ensure that it doesn’t overspend – thus many of the current calls for austerity.  And obviously there are limits – we all know about 1920s Germany and Zimbabwe and many other examples of runaway inflation.  But typically there are additional circumstances driving such situations (such as reparation payments and crazy dictators)!

I found this column “Not Enough Money” from the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru interesting, because he believes many of the folks warning of impending hyper-inflation are probably fighting “the last war” instead of truly understanding the current situation.  Here’s a taste:

In warning about inflation, conservatives are crying “fire” in, if not Noah’s flood, at least a torrential rain. It may be that they are stuck not so much in the 1930s as in the 1970s — the time when conservatism forged much of its current outlook on economics, and a time when monetary restraint was badly needed. Conservatives also tend to think that loosening monetary policy is a kind of intervention in free markets, and therefore to be suspicious of it. But this is an error.

Conservative States / Liberal States

This posting over at Richard Florida’s Creative Class blog caught my eye: The Conservative States of America.  There he shows a number of statistical view of the 50 states, and some of the general trends that are evident.  Here’s an excerpt:

Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America’s least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservativism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind.  The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism’s hold on America’s states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.

Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama admiration and the Democratic Party moving forward.

But, the much bigger long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, open and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine.  And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.

In many ways I think this raises more questions than anything else:  is conservatism a reaction or a cause? how truly ‘conservative’ are conservatives, especially around programs like Social Security and Medicare?  But it’s all certainly worth thinking about!

Dion’s ‘Wonder Where I’m Bound’

I was quite happy to come across the CD re-issue of Dion’s “Wonder Where I’m Bound”, an LP issued in 1969 but featuring mostly recordings from around 1965.  Columbia wanted to piggy-back on Dion’s renewed success with the single “Abraham, Martin & John” and threw this together from sessions Dion had recorded with various folks including producer Tom Wilson.  I have a copy of the vinyl, but this CD has a nice booklet with detailed notes on Dion’s lost years in the mid-sixties.  It’s a good set of songs, with a couple Dylan covers – early folk-rock-blues that never got a chance at the time.

Here’s a site with the title song.

Climatopolis – Matthew Kahn (2010)

Climatopolis is a recent book by Matthew Kahn, an economist and ‘green’ thinker, focusing on the effects of climate change on cities (subtitle = How our cities will thrive in the hotter future).  It’s a fairly short and easy read, and has some interesting findings and ideas, taking some level of climate change as a given and suggesting that market forces will provide mechanisms of adaptation as city amenities (like weather and flood risk) change over time – leading people to move around as they see fit.

I find various passages in the book to be annoyingly glib however.  Too often Kahn simply parrots free-market ideas without much consideration or subtlety.  Here are a couple examples.  Page 27, he says that high taxes “encourages people to work less and take more leisure” – well, perhaps, for some portion of the ‘people’ who find that the marginal work effort is not worth the marginal gain, but most people have pretty fixed expenses and will probably work just as much if not more.  Page 45, at the end of a chapter on a variety of responses to city disasters, he writes “One theme that emerges from this chapter is that government policies can significantly increase the degree of climate -related risks that a population faces” – yet one of the sections in the chapter talks about the use of better building codes to increase the quality of buildings and reduce potential damages…  so obviously bad policies can make things worse and good policies can make things better – it’s not a one way street!

As noted on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there is also a rather casual treatment of past instances of mass violence and death, citing statistics that show that both the A-bombed cities of Japan and Vietnam got back fairly quickly to their longer-term growth rates.  Not much comfort for those in the midst of the onslaught.  And likewise for those caught in climate-change disasters, it’s not going to make the going any easier to realize that probably all will be back to normal in 15-20 years (assuming that’s true).

Kahn includes in the book some closer looks at issue that Los Angeles, New York and the new Chinese cities will be facing, and it is worth a read just to stir one’s thoughts on the future (with a critical eye open).

Here’s Matthew Kahn’s blog on Environmental and Urban Economics.

Christgau’s List

For many years now I’ve perused the Pazz and Jop best music poll results, but these days I find I get the most out of Robert Christgau’s yearly ballot, regardless of where it appears.

Today I picked up a few CDs from the list that I hadn’t heard about during the year, and so far they’re all good.  He’s got wide-ranging tastes – from contemporary country like Elizabeth Cook to Afro-pop, hip-hop and beyond.  Personally I think he’s got a very good ear and can distinguish between the merely good and the stuff that will stand up over the years.

30 Century Man – Scott Walker doc

I found this DVD ’30 Century Man’ at the library, and was interested to learn a bit more about the mysterious cult doom-crooner Scott Walker.  I knew he’d been in the Walker Brothers, but not much more.  This documentary is pretty good – a few too many celebrity cameos of people reacting to Scott Walker songs – and a solid review of his career.  Born Scott Engel in Ohio, he was busy recording as a teenager (there’s a pretty funny segment with a Walker Brothers memorabilia collector showing off all his very rare items, including very early acetates by Scott Engel).  Around 1964 he joined two other guys in the Walker Brothers (none brothers, none named Walker), and they were big in Hollywood in the day.  Then they moved over to London in late 1965.

There is quite a bit of interview footage with Scott filmed in 2004 as he was making his album ‘Drift’, and he talks about liking the dreary quality of most of England when they arrived, and finding that the people there seemed to be just what he expected from the black and white English films he had seen.  They were big pop sensations for another year or two, then Scott started his solo work, inspired at least in part by Jacques Brel.  He made 4 solo records in the period 1967-1970, and the first three charted well, then the fourth sort of dropped without a trace for no clear reason.  But it seemed to push him into a career of obscurity.  He refuses to allow re-release of albums he made in the early seventies, which did not feature any of his own songs apparently.

In 1975 the Walker Bros. reunited and made three albums.  Perhaps the most interesting was 1978’s  “Nite Flights” which started laying down the sounds that Walker’s been exploring ever since.  He works very slowly, allowing the ‘songs’ to take their time percolating, thus he’s done about one album per decade since.  In the interview he says that he has long had frequent nightmares, and the music seems to be the soundtrack.

A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge (1999)

I normally don’t read too much science fiction, but found out about this one from Brad DeLong’s blog and decided to give it a go.  A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge is quite a space saga (774 pages paperback), with two competing human cultures encountering an alien race out in the depths of space.  There was a lot that I liked about it; many interesting characters, compelling situation and plot, interesting ideas about technology and psychology.  The only real drawback was that I found things a little meandering for perhaps the 2nd quarter of the book.  But the finish is pretty rip-roaring.

Here’s a page on the publisher’s site discussing more aspects of the book – there are spoilers so don’t read too far if you want surprises.

Best of 2010!

It’s that time again – to look back and sum up some of the best books and music that I found during the past year. So here are some lists:

Best books I read in 2010 (publication date in parens). In order read.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010) – her memoir of her early days in NYC with boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe.
Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark (2003) – philosophical arguments about how we’ve been extending our capabilities with non-biological tools for a long time already.
The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin (1974) – a sci-fi look at a kind of anarchism.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – the prize winning novel
The Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010) – engrossing story of the folks who figured out the mortgage mess first and placed their bets on the blow-up.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas (2010) – a novel about stories and plots.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell (2010) – a historical novel set in the lone trading colony of Japan in the early 1800s.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007) – perhaps the best book I’ve found thus far about the possibilities of changing the brain through mindful exercise.
Everyday Quantum Reality by David Grandy (2010) – a philosophical look at how quantum science is perhaps not nearly as strange as we’re often led to believe.
LIFE by Keith Richards (2010) – the life of the rolling stone as only he could tell it.

Best Concerts of 2010 – saw lots, these were the most fun:
Sloan @ Doug Fir, Feb 17.
Lite @ Dante’s, March 11.
The New Pornographers @ Crystal Ballroom, July 16.
Lucinda Williams @ Roseland, Aug 22.
Pavement & Quasi @ Edgefield, Sept. 3.
The Thermals @ Crystal Ballroom, Sept 9.
Belle & Sebasian and Typhoon @ the Schnitzer, Oct. 19.
Robyn @ Wonder Ballroom, Nov. 20.
Leonard Cohen @ Rose Garden, Dec 8.

Some of the CD’s of 2010 I liked best:
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
Vampire Weekend – Contra
New Pornographers – Together
Robyn – Body Talk pt.1
Quasi – American Gong
The National – High Violet
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Black Keys – Brothers
and I have to admit I find Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to be kind of fascinating.

Tom McCarthy, Tintin

First learned of Tom McCarthy when I saw copies of his new novel, C, in the shops a couple months back.  The book got some interesting reviews, and made me want to learn a bit more about his work.  First I read his novel Remainder from 2005, and then found his litcrit book “Tintin and the Secret of Literature”.  I realized that I somehow had never read any Tintin books, written and drawn by the Belgian Herge between the 1930s and the 1970s (23 ‘adventures’ in all), so I figured it was about time to read a few.

McCarthy’s book is a close reading of the series, which involves the never-aging boy reporter Tintin, his white terrier Snowy, a blustery older sea captain, two bumbling ‘twin’ policemen, and sometimes the opera singer Castafiore.  When you look closely, as McCarthy does, it is all a bit mysterious and complicated!

Here’s McCarthy on his top 10 European modernists.  If you are intrigued, there’s lots more to investigate.