Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Baseball Update (Cards, Rays in Playoffs!)

Albert Pujols, at potentially his
final game at Busch Stadium
in St. Louis, September 25, 2011
(Ed Szczepanski/Getty)

I'll keep this simple, but let me first note that although I'm not a superstitious person (yet grew up around quite a few such folks), I did fear that if I blogged at all about the amazing late-season comeback of the St. Louis Cardinals, who'd some St. Louis-area media and fans by early August had considered failures, I would somehow jinx their surge. I know, it's utterly ridiculous, but I decided not to post until things had sorted themselves out, and now, here we are, on the final day of the regular season and what a remarkable turn of events has occurred. Yesterday the Cardinals, had made up the 10.5-game deficit they had on August 26 to tie Atlanta, the National League Wild Card slot leaders, and today St. Louis defeated the Astros today 8-0 behind a complete game shutout by former Cy Young Award-winner Chris Carpenter, while Atlanta lost in 13 innings to the Philadelphia Phillies, the NL East Division winners, to fall out of contention. The Cardinals will now face the Phillies starting on Saturday in a best-of-five series to see who heads to the NL League championship series. In the other NL playoff game, the Milwaukee Brewers, the surprise NL Central Division leaders, will face the NL West Division leaders, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Pujols with Philly and former Cardinal
Plácido Polanco at Citizens Bank
Park, Philadelphia, September 25, 2011
(Jim Redkoles/Getty)
As astonishing was the American League's parallel, in which the Tampa Bay Rays experienced a late-season surge and ended up tying the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card slot. Today would determine either a winner or a playoff for the slot, and as Tampa Bay was poised to lose to the New York Yankees after being down 7-0, the Rays came back and won it in the 12-inning, defeating the Yankees 8-7. The Red Sox, a mainstream media favorite, had a 9-game lead over Tampa Bay on September 4, but thereafter stumbled, yet still had a chance at least to vie for a one-game playoff to make it into the post-season, yet their star reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, could not hold a 3-2 lead against the Baltimore Orioles, and lost the game 4-3. The Rays now face the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, a team rarely seen in the post-season, while the other matchup will pit the perennial champion New York Yankees, the AL East Division leaders, against the Detroit Tigers, who won the AL Central Division.

Pujols breaks his bat
against Chicago Cubs at
Busch Stadium, St. Louis
September 25, 2011
(Ed Szczepanski/Getty)
A few other notes: the Cardinals have unfortunately not yet signed one of the greatest players ever to grace one of their uniforms, Albert Pujols, a sure Hall of Famer, but he has again made a case for them to find the money to keep him. Pujols struggled early on and broke his non-catching hand mid-season, but returned to form by late July, and was trying to continue his career-long streak of at least 30 home runs, a .300 batting average, and 100 runs batted in. He finished the season, his 11th in the major leagues, with 37 home runs, a .299 average, and 99 runs batted in, just points below his empyrean standard. Thus far he has amassed a .329 lifetime batting average and a .617 slugging average, 445 home runs, 1329 runs batted in, and 975 walks. He is only 31. Since he joined the team in 2001 he has played a key role in every Cardinals post-season, including their World Series victory in 2006. They--the Cardinals, the wealthy DeWitt family that owns the team, their partners--must sign him if they want to remain competitive. Without him they'll be hard-pressed to keep up even with the middling teams in their division, let alone better teams across the league.

NY Mets shortstop José Reyes (r)
escorted back onto the Citi Field
lawn by teammate Willie Harris
Flushing, New York,
September 28, 2011 (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

A pitching rarity seems set to occur. Both the American League and the National League will have pitchers who will qualify for the pitching Triple Crown, which  comprising posting the highest win total, most strikeouts, and lowest earned run average. In the AL, Detroit's Justin Verlander posted 1970s-style numbers, going 24-5, the first pitcher to win so many games in decades, while striking out 250 (in 251 innings) and posting a 2.40 ERA. He allowed 0.92 walks and hits per inning pitched. Opposing batters hit only .091 against him. The next closest AL pitcher in wins was the Yankees' C. C. Sabathia, with 19. In the NL, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, only 4 years in the majors, went 21-5, tying Arizona Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy (21-4) for the highest win total, yet bested him by striking out 248 batters in 233.1 innings, with a 2.28 ERA. Kershaw allowed only 0.98 walks and hits per innings pitched, and opposing batters only hit .207 off him. Seldom to pitchers in either league achieve the Triple Crown; the last NL pitcher to achieve it was Jake Peavy, when he pitched for the San Diego Padres in 2007, while the last AL pitcher to do so was Johan Santana when he pitched for the Minnesota Twins in 2006. The last time pitchers in both leagues achieved this pinnacle in the same year was 1924 (!), when Walter Johnson did so for the old Washington Senators in AL, while Dazzy Vance did so for the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) in the NL. (The only pitcher to win it more than twice remains Sandy Koufax, who led the NL in all three categories during three of his final four seasons as a Dodger, in 1963, 1965, and 1966.)

Met José Reyes bunts a single in his only at bat against
the Cincinnati Reds at Citi Field, Flushing, NY,
September 28, 2011 (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Lastly, another player who may leave his longtime hometeam, José Reyes of the New York Mets, won the NL batting title for the first time in his career. The 27-year-old shortstop posted some of the best numbers of his career, hitting .336, scoring 101 runs, and stealing 39 bases. He edged the Minnesota Twin's Ryan Braun, who finished the day 0 for 4, leaving him with a .332 batting average.  Like Pujols Reyes hasn't been signed, and may leave the Mets for more lucrative environs. What a loss his departure would be for his team. In the AL, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, a regular sparkplug from his days with the Florida Marlins, finished the season at .344, putting him ahead of Boston's Adrian González and Texas's Michael Young, who both finished at .338. In both cases both leagues had new batting title winners for the second straight season. The AL home run king was Toronto Blue Jays outfield José Bautista, who hit 43 this year and had won last year, while the NL saw a new star emerge in the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, who hit 39 and also was vying for the batting Triple Crown. He finished with a .324 average, but also led the league in RBIs, with 126.

Finally, hits marvel Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners ended his streak of 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons this year, posting only 184. In 2004 Suzuki broke the single-season record when he gained 262 hits; his final batting average that year was .372. This year he managed only a .272 average, the lowest of his stellar career. His team managed only a 64-95 record, putting them 4th and last in their division, and second-worst in the AL. Only the Twins had a worse record (63-99).

Now let the playoffs begin! GO CARDINALS! GO YANKEES!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quote: Binyavanga Wainaina

"Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

"Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country."--from Binyavanga Wainaina, "How to Write about Africa," in Granta: The Magazine of New Writing 92: The View from Africa, Winter 2005.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Raúl Zurita @ Northwestern

Earlier this evening, the university's Poetry and Poetics Colloquium and Workshop held its first event of the fall, a reading by Raúl Zurita, accompanied by one of his many fine translators, Anna Deeny.  A number of units within the university, as well as the Poetry Foundation, sponsored Zurita's visit, and for their generosity I offer deep thinks. I have previously written a little about Zurita's work on this blog, noting his former compatriot Robert Bolaño's imaginative (mis-)treatment of his life in the former's novels, especially Distant Star (Estrella distante), and even translating (a very tiny example of) one of his works, "[Zurita]," myself. When Zurita came through Chicago several years back, I was away, so I didn't get to see him, but I was determined not to miss tonight's event. And he did not disappoint. I won't try to recap the reading, which lasted a little under an hour, but I will say that I felt moved in a way I haven't by hearing poetry in a while, at least since last spring.

One of the things that Zurita's poetry offers is an sublime gravity, a dizzying weightiness masked by humor, breeziness, riduculousness, absurdity--the absurdity of a world in which people are disappeared or dropped out of planes or tortured for disagreeing with a political dictatorship, and the society for the most part looks in the other direction, closes its eyes, talks in circles, and enjoys the "economic successes" the murderous regime touts, which primarily benefit those at the top of the social, political and financial pyramid. Zurita read from several of his books, including Purgatorio (1979), Sueños para Kurosawa (2009), and the often astonishingly beautiful La vida nueva (1994), which plays with Dante's legendary title in rethinking what a new life might mean under the circumstances in which Zurita and his fellow countrypeople were living before and at the time he wrote the book. It forms the final title in a trilogy that includes Purgatorio and Anteparaíso (1982), the first of Zurita's works I ever came across, and itself a rethinking, in so many ways, of Dante's worldview, while also drawing on the aesthetic daring of that great poetic ancestor.

After the reading, Zurita answered questions from the audience, including responding to a fine one, I believe by my colleague Jorge Coronado, in which he noted off the cuff that it was only the desert, the mountains, and the sea that showed "compassion" to those who were killed or dropped onto or over these natural sites. I am still thinking about that one.

Jorge Coronado introducing Raúl Zurita (at right)
Jorge Coronado introducing Anna Deeny (translator) and Raúl Zurita
Anna Deeny (translator) and Raúl Zurita (at right)

Anna Deeny and Raúl Zurita, reading his poetry

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Political Impressions (Saturday Silliness)

Some serious silliness for a Saturday.  Unfortunately for all of us, so much of the current rhetoric echoes what's being ridiculed and spoofed below (note how the recent GOP debates echo the UK conservative candidate impressions featured at the bottom of the page.) Plus ça change, plus ça reste, but nevertheless, enjoy!

From SNL: The real Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman)
From SNL: George H W Bush (Dana Carvey) debating Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz), with Diane Sawyer (Jan Hooks) moderating
From Dana Carvey show: H. Ross Perot (Dana Carvey) on Larry King's (Phil Hartman) show, 1996
From SNL: Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman), running for the Presidency, in 1992, stops in at a McDonald's
From SNL: Al Gore (Darrell Hammond) debating George W Bush (Will Ferrell) in 2000, on Bush's tax cuts and the "lockbox"
From SNL: Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) debating Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) in 2008, moderated by Gwen Ifill (Queen Latifah)
From SNL: Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) discusses her politics with Katie Couric (Amy Poehler) And from the UK:
Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown), the day after she became the UK's Prime Minister
Gordon Brown invades Dead Ringers Laurie & Fry, on Young conservative contest (watch till the end)
Rowan Atkinson, at a Conservative Party (UK) conference

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Classes Underway + End-of-Summer Poems: Basho & John Ashbery

September is nearly over, the quarter charges forward, my classes have begun.  This fall I am teaching two fiction classes, one undergraduate, the other a graduate workshop. The undergraduate course, "The Theory and Practice of Fiction," is a required course for all the fiction majors and minors, and runs into the winter quarter's midpoint, or early February, making it one of the rare semester-long classes in the university's undergraduate curriculum.  (All three major/minor required tracks, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, have this course.) As part of the class students read short stories by established writers (this year ranging from Anton Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor to Jhumpa Lahiri and ZZ Packer) and (practical) theoretical texts (including Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer) on fiction writing, and produce three draft short stories (as well as in-class reports, critical papers and commentary), which they'll revise and submit by the end of the long-course, at which point I guide them to my colleague who will lead through the writing of a novella, which they'll complete by next June.  They are a very sharp, talented group, and I'm greatly looking forward to working with them. I also have a wonderful MFA student who is conducting a practicum this quarter, and will be joining me as a teaching assistant.

The graduate course is the standard fiction workshop for all MA/MFA students, and it too brims with smart, skilled writers.  Earlier this year, at Reggie H.'s urging, I read Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, A Visiting from the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), and among the many things about this outstanding work that struck me, I realized it might offer another way of thinking about negotiating the relationship between writing short stories and novels, which the graduate students often are thinking about. Egan's consists of chapters that could work as free-standing short stories, and she has in fact said that she wrote two of them first, then thought about how to relate them to each other, which produced the inventive novel that resulted. In addition to Egan's book, with which we'll be concluding the class, I've assigned chapters from works that comprise interrelated short stories, novellas, or near-autonomous story-like texts that also have been termed, by the authors themselves, critics or readers novels. These include texts by Rebecca Barry, Ray Bradbury, Sandra Cisneros, J. M. Coetzee, David Mitchell, Nami Mun, Gloria Naylor, Tim O'Brien, and W. G. Sebald. I'm excited about the potential discussions to arise out of these works, as well as about the work the students will be submitting.

This year I have several graduate literature students I'm working with, several graduate fiction students, and one honors creative writer, who is writing a novel to submit as his thesis.  A lot of reading, and this is only one aspect of my job, but one I'm definitely glad about so far!


Today is the last day of summer. Could I have written that more prosaicly? What about: today summer's over. There's a touch of poetry there. Here, however, are two great poems elegizing summer's end. One by one of the greatest poets of concision, the Edo-era master of haiku no renga and other forms, Basho Matsuo (松尾 芭蕉, 1644-1694), the other by one of the most important living poets writing in English, American poet John Ashbery (1927-). Its opening sentence enacts what it describes, and is one of my favorites among all his poems. Enjoy!

A statue of Matsuo in Hiraizumi, Iwate (from Wikipedia)
[Farewell, my old fan]

by Basho

Farewell, my old fan.
Having scribbled on it,
What could I do but tear it
At the end of summer?



by John Ashbery

There is that sound like the wind
Forgetting in the branches that means something
Nobody can translate. And there is the sobering “later on,”
When you consider what a thing meant, and put it down.

For the time being the shadow is ample
And hardly seen, divided among the twigs of a tree,
The trees of a forest, just as life is divided up
Between you and me, and among all the others out there.

And the thinning-out phase follows
The period of reflection. And suddenly, to be dying
Is not a little or mean or cheap thing,
Only wearying, the heat unbearable,

And also the little mindless constructions put upon
Our fantasies of what we did: summer, the ball of pine needles,
The loose fates serving our acts, with token smiles,
Carrying out their instructions too accurately—

Too late to cancel them now—and winter, the twitter
Of cold stars at the pane, that describes with broad gestures
That state of being that is not so big after all.
Summer involves going down as a steep flight of steps

To a narrow ledge over the water. Is this it, then,
This iron comfort, these reasonable taboos,
Or did you mean it when you stopped? And the face
Resembles yours, the one reflected in the water.

Copyright © John Ashbery, from The Double Dream of Spring, New York: Dutton, 1970, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Davis, 1968-2011

"May God have mercy on your souls." -- Troy Davis's final words

I am opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. I do not believe any state or State should be in the business of executing anyone, for any reason. As more than enough investigations over the last three decades, including ones pursued at the university's Innocence Project, have shown, innocent people not only have been locked up for years, but have been put to death for a variety of reasons, because of serious flaws in our justice system. Claude Jones, the last person consigned to state execution by former President George W. Bush, when he was still Texas's governor in 2000, was later exonerated by DNA evidence. He is not alone in having lost his life because of shoddy prosecution, and the situation has long tended to be far worse for black men especially, but also latinos. But even in the case of people who have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be guilty of the gravest crimes, like the avowed white supremacist whom the state of Texas killed for his role in the brutal lynching of James Byrd, I do not believe capital punishment is warranted.

Tonight the country and world witnessed a travesty of justice and  a human tragedy mirroring what Claude Jones and countless others have unfortunately suffered. Troy Anthony Davis (October 19, 1968 - September 21, 2011), who maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested through his conviction for murdering a off-duty Savannah police officer in 1989 was put to death this evening. Davis's legal team, as well as supporters across the US and the globe, had called for a new trial based on the facts that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, he was convicted based on testimony that 7 of the 9 witnesses at his initial trial later recanted, and another man allegedly admitted to having shot the officer.  There had previously been three last-minute stays of execution, and numerous hearings before state and appellate courts, but these same courts repeatedly ruled against Davis's appeals. The US Supreme Court had earlier denied Davis's last minute petition to review the case without comment or dissent. With that non-intervention, Davis was executed beginning at 10:54 pm by lethal injection.

Putting anyone to death is wrong; getting even one of these cases wrong and thus consigning someone to prison for years, let alone death, is barbaric and unconscionable. Convicting anyone based on shoddy evidence, prosecutorial misbehavior or legal incompetence, or other mitigating factors that do not ensure a fair trial, like race and ethnicity, poverty and class status, religious background, or intellectual capacity, is wrong. Yet it happens in this country all the time, and it has to stop. It must stop and we must stop it. But it will not if we do not collectively speak out and act.  For every Claude Jones and Troy Davis, there are others who have almost no one to rally to their cause. We must speak out and act, en masse, because ending this barbarity is possible. From 1972 to 1976, capital punishment in the US was banned after having been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. It should be banned again. Troy Davis, Claude Jones, and many others will not have to chance to thank us, but there are many others who will.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DADT Finally DOA + OccupyWall Street Protests

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the failed "compromise" policy restricting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service people to serve openly, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993 after the Republican-controlled Congress passed it, is now officially no longer on the books.  As of today, LGBTQ people, who have been members of the US military since its establishment, can now serve without fear of prosecution simply because of their sexual or gender orientation, whether they announce it publicly or not. The policy also should end the costly witchhunts to root out queer servicepeople, and automatically halts all investigations currently underway.

( Matthew Cavanaugh / European Pressphoto Agency )
Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who lost a leg in Iraq, testified to Congress in 2008 that he told his fellow troops he was gay and that it didn't erode "unit cohesion" -- an argument used by opponents of gays serving openly in the military

The change occurred not because of the military's or politicians' benevolence, but because of intensive and sustained efforts, including militancy, to shift public attitudes on LGBTQ people, and to repeal an overtly discriminatory policy that never should have been enacted in the first place. A strong congratulations goes to all the LGBTQ and straight people, especially those in the service and veterans, who fought to end the policy, and a hearty thanks to all who have supported repealing the policy, especially the members of Congress who voted to end it; President Barack Obama, who, after some dillydallying, finally signed it into law; and the military leaders and officers who have taken steps to implement it.  All branches of the military are now taking applications for anyone who qualifies, and this includes LGBTQ people.

Now, if only we could end all the wars the US currently is engaged in and bring the majority of our troops, whatever their sexual orientation, home!


As I type this entry, thousands of people of all ages are participating in a public protest, Occupy Wall Street, down at Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan, against the past, current and likely future economic crises caused by Wall Street other other American and global financial firms. From 2007-2009, the United States and numerous other countries suffered the worst economic catastrophe since the Global Economic Crisis, also known as the Great Depression, which stretched from 1929 through the 1940s. The most recent crisis resulted from a number of factors, among the bursting housing bubble, the effects of deregulatory policies that loosened longstanding financial controls, overleveraging among consumers and banks, poor to non-existent government oversight, and a sense that our public tax dollars and private savings existed to be played as in a casino. We know the aftermath; we also know that Wall Street and foreign banks have received billions of dollars of taxpayer support, and continue to. In addition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), banks have benefitted from trillions of dollars in Federal Reserve-backed swaps, loans, and monetary policies. They contine to benefit, and yet despite destroying the lives of millions of Americans and people across the globe, there have been almost no prosecutions, let alone serious, sustained investigations, of the people involved.  Wall Street bankers continue to influence and shape policies in Washington, DC and in other government capitals, while also strongly shaping non-governmental, global banking policies.

This then is part of the background to the protests, which Adbusters and the online group Anonymous organized. Related are the ongoing trials of organized labor; public labor unions have suffered repeated legislative assaults to match the longstanding rhetorical ones in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Maine, and Ohio, and private ones are battling corporations like Verizon, Boeing, and Albertsons, to name just three. (The strikers and Albertsons have settled their issues for now, while the communication workers unions ended the Verizon strike without an agreement, and the legal issues involving Boeing's attempted job shift to South Carolina also continue.) The protests began on Saturday, and will continue for the foreseeable future.  The Occupy Wall Street site features live forums, chat rooms, phone conferencing bridges, photos, live streaming, and user maps for participants.  A number of protesters have been arrested (I can't verify the numbers so I don't want to post incorrect ones), some based on an obscure law preventing masks during protests. Others have been brutally roughed up (as the photos below show), including one who allegedly had police pile onto him as he was having an asthma attack. I've also posted below a video of the Verizon workers who on strike to keep their tenuous hold on the middle class.

A photo photos from @Hatofhornigold (with permission; thank you! If you Twitter, do follow this real-life mariner!) @OccupyWallStreet @occupywallstreetnyc @OccupyWallStreet Crowd raises hands to show they approve civil rights lawyer Sam Cohen's offer to represent us #OccupyWallStreet

Monday, September 19, 2011

2011 MacArthur Fellows Announced

Historian Tiya Miles
Tonight the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation announced its 2011 MacArthur Fellows, popularly known as recipients of "Genius" grants. Congratulations to all of them! As always, the new fellows comprise a mixed group of artists, scientists, activists, and people doing work that doesn't easily fall in any categories.  I am familiar with the work of several: Roland Fryer, a 43-year-old professor of economics at Harvard University, who studies the relationship between discrimination, social inequalities and educational attainment using economic experiments; Kay Ryan, the former US Poet Laureate and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in poetry; and Jad Abumrad, co-host of RadioLab, a radio show and podcast series that explores science and technology-related topics; and poet and translator A. E. Stallings, whose translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Naturum in 2007 received quite a bit of acclaim.  It's an amazing group, no doubt.

Computer scientist
Schwetak Patel

Several of the more unusual winners this year include metalsmith Ubaldo Vitali, who uses old and contemporary techniques to restore ancient and classical artifacts and to create new works of art, and "long-form" journast Peter Hessler, 42, whose work, as the MacArthur Foundation describes it, "whose three books and numerous magazine articles explore the complexities of life in Reform Era China as it undergoes one of the fastest social transformations in history." Especially timely, it strikes me, is the work of Kevin Guskiewicz, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Exercise & Science at the University of North Carolina, who looks at the causes and effects of brain injuries incurred during sports; and historian and University of Michigan professor of Tiya Miles's studies on the complex interrelationships between African and Cherokee peoples during the Colonial Era, especially now that the Cherokee have decided to expel the descendants of slaves from their communities.

The list of all the fellows is available here. Congratulations again to all of them, and here're 2 videos of 2011 winner, musician Dafnis Prieto doing what led to his being honored.

Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio (his solo is off the charts)
Dafnis Prieto at Modern Drummer Fest 2008 (with commentary by him)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Abramovic Video Game + Gamers Solve Difficult Chemistry Puzzle

In the spring of 2010, while I was teaching that wonderful Conceptual Art/Writing class, one of my most favorite of all the courses I've taught over the last 15 or so years, I had the good fortune to be in New York and go to the Museum of Modern Art to see Marina Abramovic perform "The Artist Is Present" live, and subsequently blogged about it. I even stood in line to participate in the face-off, but after waiting for a long while I bagged and instead caught some of the other exhibits, including the enthralling retrospective of her work. I did draw her on my iPhone, though, because the guard forbade me to take photos while in line (though as countless other blogs and sites demonstrated others present did not hesitate to keep photographing away, and, in any case, I did snap some pictures once out of his sightline). As I say, I was lucky; many New Yorkers and everyone who could not get to New York were unable to catch the performance, and have viewed it online, in still photos and via MoMa's servers, as well as via countless blogs. That was the way most of my students saw the performance.

Pippin Barr, a New Zealander now resident in Denmark who creates art and games, writes commentary about technological topics, blogs and teaches at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark, however, has come up with a video game, entitled "The Artist Is Present," that allows participants the virtual experience of facing off with (or against) Abramovic.  But, it has a few catches: as I and others experienced in real time, if you play the video game you must wait in line for a period of time, and it restricts the hours when you can play (to MoMa's). There are no guards preventing photos or screen captures for that matter, though.  The Village Voice's Rosie Gray, who tried to play the game, interviewed Barr last Friday for the Voice's "Running Scared" column, and he had some interesting things to say about it, his long interest in comics and how this translated into "The Artist Is Present," and what games he's planning for the future. Next year his book, How To Play a Video Game, will be published by Awa Press.  When I have a free moment I'm going to try out his game.  On a related note, I also take it that Abramovic (nor MoMa) is not hassling him for use of the name/concept/etc. "The Artist Is Present," which is great to hear.  But then doing so would not be in the spirit of conceptual art or Conceptual Art, wouldn't it?


Speaking of games, a remarkable story: a brilliant group of gamers using Foldit, an online collaborative game, solved a puzzle that had bedeviled researchers for years, and did so in astonishing time. Three weeks. As Alan Boyle relates it in this MSNBC article, what they did was to figure out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme, retroviral protease, from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. Doing so would aid researchers in designing drugs to neutralize HIV. Neither sheer mindwork nor computers programs geared towards protein folding, like Rosetta, sufficed in mapping out the right configuration, but Foldit, which has over 236,000 registered participants, allows players to tinker with virtual molecular structures--much as in chemistry classes with physical models, but with far greater complexity--and rewards those who devise the most "elegant structure[s]," according to chemical laws, with points, while subtracting points for designs tending toward the opposite direction.

A screen shot shows how the Foldit program posed the monkey-virus molecular puzzle. (University of Washington)

A small subgroup, the Foldit Contenders Team, comprising 12-15 regular participants living in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, other European countries, and New Zealand, solved the problem.  These players "worked as a tag team to come up with an incredibly elegant, low-energy model for the monkey-virus enzyme," astounding lead researcher, University of Washington biochemist Firas Khatib and his colleagues. notes that "The exploit [will be] published on Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, where--exceptionally in scientific publishing--both gamers and researchers are honoured as co-authors." Collaboration as a form of play, with incentives, apparently does pay off, and video games can be a serious epistemological tool. Foldit, which was developed and  by UW computer scientist Seth Cooper, and according to Boyle's article, it and similar games, forms of what he calls "citizen science," may prove vital in solving and resolving other scientific quandaries, whether they be pharmacological puzzles or bioengeering.  Boyle ends his article with an email from "mimi," one of the participants in solving the Pfizer-Mason enzyme problem, who notes that rather than receiving individual recognition within the article the gamers asked to be accredited as Foldit Contenders Team and tops off the missive by requesting that instead of a real name, Boyle use the gaming tag: mimi. Indeed.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quote: Isabel Wilkerson

"At one point in the research process, I was reading a book a day — books on citrus production or southern geology or obscure court cases in Florida. I took to paying close attention to the footnotes and actually enjoyed reading them. I was reading the footnotes of the annotated version of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, when I saw a passage that had been in the original published version of the book but omitted in the text of the current version. This passage had not been part of the original manuscript he had submitted, and he had had to write it in haste when he had been asked to cut the second half of the manuscript in order to get it published. Under deadline, he had to find the words to conclude his now truncated autobiography, and those words were succinct and beautiful:
I was flinging myself into the unknown, I was taking a part of myself to plant in alien soil…to see if it could grow differently…. If it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and perhaps to bloom.
"I came across this passage fairly late in the writing process. Until I saw that footnote, I had neither an epigraph nor a title. That passage gave me both."
--from "An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson," conducted and posted by Kim on Sophisticated Dorkiness, March 1, 2011. Wilkerson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, New York: Random House, 2010, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Mark Lynton History Prize, administered by Columbia and Harvard Universities.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Via the Wayback Machine

c. 1997
When I first started blogging in 2005 I had no idea who my blog visitors were outside of very rough statistics or posts in my comment section.  I still don't know exactly, apart from commenters or people who tell me in person, but it's quite easy now to view the weekly, monthly or yearly stats and get an idea. To give an example, this week my top 5 most visited posts have been 2007 Rugby World Cup (always high on the list since it first appeared, and I have a strong idea why), Poem: Julia de Burgos's "To Julia de Burgos" (also usually quite high, and it makes me especially proud that my blogpost about one of Puerto Rico's most important poets, an Afrolatina, tends to be regularly sought out), Poem/Translation: Claudia Roquette-Pinto (my translation of one of her many exquisite poems), Review: Homme au bain (Man at Bath) (my review of Christophe Honoré's film, which features a discussion of M. François Sagat, whose name I suppose generates the searches), and The High Line (my 2009 photos from a visit to one of New York City's contemporary treasures).

This week the top referring sites are all Google (US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India), no surprise there, but the top key searchwords bringing people to the site are a surprise: "a julia de burgos translation," "homme au bain," "roberto bolano," "mamuka gorgodze" [მამუკა გორგოძე] (? - yes, I had to look him up; he's a star of Georgia's 2011 Rugby World Cup team), "a julia de burgos," and "martin puryear."  Again, how wonderful that people are searching out films, writers and visual artists and coming across this site. J's Theater readers are overwhelmingly from the US, but the next highest groups of page viewers this week come from the UK, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and Brazil. Hello to all of you! Most viewers (40%) are using Internet Explorer on Microsoft Windows (66%), but Firefox (23%) and Safari (17%), once in the single digits, have crept up, as have the number of Macintosh (25%) and Linux (4%) viewers. iPhone, Android and iPad readers together make up about 3% of readers, which is 3% more than existed a few years ago.

My old web page banner
Before the blog, which I began in 2005, I did have an earlier Web presence, and the main way I knew who visited--beyond the Stat counter --was through the emails I would receive from time to time letting me know that a reader had taken interest in some aspect of my site.  I wantonly gave that out, and never received a single nastly post. Instead, I heard from people who shared my interests in architecture, who wondered what it was like to peer down through the glass floor in Toronto's CN Tower, and who wanted to offer thoughts on who'd win the Cy Young Award in each league. Via the Wayback Machine, the Internet archive, I came across my old page, which I started in 1997 while still in school, and which is archived, with selected posts and updates in 23 "captures," from 1998 through 2001.  Alma mater NYU's servers hosted it, and after I departed their urban groves they shut it down, though by that point it had already been preserved in Net amber. Interestingly enough, one of the first students I taught at the university knew about me and my work via that old website. She mentioned one my animated gifs, a poem I'd created in that format (another remains), and I was amazed that she'd come across it. This was pre-Google, so it might have been Yahoo! or one of the older search engines that summoned it up.

In my personal preamble, I included the following:

One truly scary sign is when one company owns a publishing house, newspapers, a movie studio, TV and radio stations, and on and on! And several companies (Rupert Murdoch's behemoth empire, Sony, Time Warner, etc.) now fit this description. We have to be vigilant as consu mers, as citizens, and one small step is keeping informed through organs such as Media Watchdog, reading everything you can, and resisting the increasing industrialization of our consciousness(es). So PLEASE READ a good book, magazines, newspapers, and buy them if you can from your local INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE, and articles and pieces on the Web. Whatever you do, don't surrender without a fight! RESIST! 
I'm proud to say I was calling out media consolidation and Rupert Murdoch quo ante. I admit to having not visited Media Watchdog (update: which no longer exists) in many years, though. In subsequent updates I removed most of the polemics and offered readers a less combative welcome. The final accessible main page is from 2001, just before I headed to the university for the first time. From it as from the earlier pages, you could reach my distinct pages set aside for books, sports, art (fascinating to me that some of the drawings have vanished, but one of Charles Bernstein remains), and poetry. Hmm, doesn't this all sound familiar?  Also, because I'd finally figured out how to create frames and tables (remember when those were the hot new thing?) in Html, I'd set up an "Notable African Americans" page, with those frames. This was pre-Wikipedia, so such pages weren't so easy to come by. I did update it a few times. Most of the links appear to have disappeared. Checking Wikipedia today, I note that there are pages for all the people I wrote entries for, including fairly obscure folks like composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, whose music my friend Byron M. turned me onto.

One of the drawings from my MIT days, c. 1989
Many of the files stored on NYU's server(s) are no longer accessible, so my 5 pages of photos from my first trip to Brazil (we went to Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in 2000, and ran into Sonia Sanchez and her son twice, once in each city!), are mere ghost traces. Though the captions remain I had to think for a minute about what they may have looked like, though in no time I recalled one of them featuring some of the enthrallingly grotesque statuary in Salvador da Bahia's Ordem Terceira de São Francisco, the monastery just off the Terreiro de Jesus, in Salvador's upper city.  Think ropes--velvet--of blood emanating from Jesus Christ's hands, stigmated palms, horror-film grimaces on the faces of Saint Francis and his life-size peers lining the room, and you start to get the picture.  C couldn't bear to spend more than a few minutes anywhere near these marvelously horrible creations, nor in the ossuary downstairs, but having grown up Roman Catholic and had more than a little exposure to the gory tales of numerous saints' martyrdoms, I found these fascinating. Other photos featured capoeristas, Rio tourist sites (the Rio page is riddled with grammatical and factual errors--Oscar Niemeyer did not design the city's new cathedral, though our guide told us this), and at some point I will have to scour my desk in NJ for the original prints--since I think this might have been just before I got ahold of a digital camera--to find them and scan them in. They also feature my dreadlocks, now a year gone, at their earliest stages. The memories!

One of the old poems, "Super Matrix," that appeared on old website, c. 1998
As Wayback Machine searches make clear, there's more of our earlier web presence than we might imagine, and things persist on the Net perhaps not eternally, but for a much longer time than they once did when they appeared only in print form or when they were passed along in the form of spoken or whispered tales and gossip. I do miss the informality, freedom and directness of that earlier pre-Google, pre-social networking site world, though. I also wonder what has happened to some of the people I used to correspond with, that is, the ones I wasn't fortunate enough to befriend and stay in contact with, no matter how far away they physically were.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Lanier Effect" + Authors Sue HathiTrust Over Digitization

J's Theater is not turning into the Jaron Lanier blog, but I came across the text and video link below (I've posted a screen grab but I cannot embed it) of a conversation--a monologue, really--he engages in with Douglas Rushkoff at Edge, the online tech site.  Entitled "The Local-Global Flip, or the 'Lanier Effect'," Lanier touches upon and goes far beyond some of the issues I previously mentioned in my review of his last book, as well as in my Labor Day post, while also offering one of the more idiosyncratic and intriguing readings of the global economic crisis. I'm not sure I fully grasp, let alone buy, his account of it, but some of his comments, like his reading of the dangerous effects of global networking on magnifying and engulfing the banks involved in it offer a different insight than I've usually read, though as the 1930s Global Economic Collapse and prior ones demonstrated, global financial networking and interdependence aren't new.

His thoughts about what will happen to people who cannot fit into the economic scenario he suggests will arise seems especially bleak, and has a strange, biological-eugenic edge. There's also a bit about automated cars, and another about electronic bread and circuses to anesthetize the masses who will be cut off from the possibility to earn a living.  Ultimately he returns to Ted Nelson's original plan to monetize Net transactions to preserve a middle class, or at the very least, generate liveable earnings for everyone who won't control the digital levers of power, be directly serving them, or be fortunately to live in a society in which other options--like natural commodities--underwrite more widely distributed wealth.  But do listen for yourself!

A snippet:
Ted's idea was that there would be a universal market place where people could buy and sell bits from each other, where information would be paid for, and then you'd have a future where people could make a living and earn money from what they did with their hearts and heads in an information system, the Internet, thereby solving this problem of how to have a middle class, and how to have liberty. To expect liberty from democracy without a middle class is hopeless because without a middle class you can't have democracy. The whole thing falls a part.
I remember when I first met Ted as a teenager, we talked about how you need to have some system like this where people are making a living with their hearts and heads, and trading online, and this was before the word "online" even existed in the way we know it today. It's the only way to have a future of liberty.
Silicon Valley totally screwed up on this. We were doing a great job through the turn of the century. In the '80s and '90s, one of the things I liked about being in the Silicon Valley community was that we were growing the middle class. The personal computer revolution could have easily been mostly about enterprises. It could have been about just fighting IBM and getting computers on desks in big corporations or something, instead of this notion of the consumer, ordinary person having access to a computer, of a little mom and pop shop having a computer, and owning their own information. When you own information, you have power. Information is power. The personal computer gave people their own information, and it enabled a lot of lives.

Related to what Lanier says here and to my Labor Day post is a link Reggie H. sent today: Jennifer Howard's Chronicle of Higher Education article, "In Authors' Suit Against Libraries, an Attempt to Wrest Back Some Control Over Digitized Works." Boiling it down, a group of eight individual authors, including the prominent Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, have joined with the Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, and the Quebec writers' union to file a copyright-infringement lawsuit against the HathiTrust digital repository and a consortium of over 50 university libraries with which it is working. These libraries include Cornell University, Indiana University, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan. The suit, which the guild and its co-litigants filed in US District Court, aims to stop the HathiTrust and library consortium from digitizing and releasing what are called "orphan" books, or works under copyright whose authors cannot be identified or located, until the US Congress passes guidelines to clarify the use of digital libraries and orphan works.

As things stand, HathiTrust can digitize the works and distribute them via participating libraries; anyone affiliated with those institutions will have access to them, at whatever cost they deem appropriate.  Indeed, the lawsuit states that the defendants, as well as Google, which produced most of the digital scans, have participated in "the systematic, concerted, widespread, and unauthorized reproduction and distribution" of about 7 million copyrighted works, of which the brief mentions only a few, without permission to do so.  It asks the court to impound and withdraw from circulation "all unauthorized copies" of copyright-protected works the defendants possess until Congress issues a law, and to stop them from working with Google to scan in more works. The suit asks that the University of Michigan's Orphan Works Project also be halted.

A major concern of the plaintiffs is an issue I discussed in the Labor Day post, the security of the digital copies. They fear that these versions of the books could distributed freely and without controls via the Internet. Should copyrighted works enter the filesharing mainstream, the authors could lose all control over their work, and apparently the state institutions could not be sued because they enjoy "sovereign-immunity" protection. I assume private institutions like my employer do not. (Cornell is both public and private, so I wonder where it stands legally in this regard.) The Authors Guild also believes that authors should have a say in what happens to the books in the HathiTrust's repository. For their part, HathiTrust and the libraries, which all participate both in the repository and the Orphan Works project, say they have done nothing wrong, and see themselves as engaging in the vital work of preservation and dissemination of knowledge, which certainly are the purview of libraries and universities, and a central aspect of the case will determine how far libraries can go in making materials available across non-print/codex platforms. HathiTrust and the libraries say they know of no security breaches thus far, and feel blindsided by the lawsuit, given that they have recently been in discussions with the Authors Guild over the digitization project. They nevertheless are planning to release the first run of 26 titles in the Orphan Works series on October 13, 2011. That is, if the court doesn't enjoin them before then.

The list of HathiTrust books is here.

A final note, Geoffrey James states in the article's comment section: "It took the Author's Guild exactly 2 minutes to find a living author, with an agent, who is currently making e-distribution deals, whose work is supposedly 'orphaned' and will be distributed for free by the thieves at HathiTrust." X. The author? J. R. Salamanca. The book? The Lost Country, which was made into a 1961 film, Wild in the Country, adapted into a screenplay by Clifford Odets and starring Elvis Presley! Salamanca, whose novel Lilith also became a major film (starring the young Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, and Peter Fonda, in 1964), even has his own page.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Photos: Life Burning In Every Moment, Part 2

Fulton St. station at John St. (there once was a bldg there)
_____ was here (building site, John St. at the Fulton St. station, lower Manhattan)
World Trade Center Freedom Tower, nearing completion
World Trade Center Freedom Tower, nearing completion
9/11 Memorial Museum, Ground Zero under construction
World Trade Center building site, with the 9/11 Memorial Museum visible on the right
Washington Square Mews
Washington Square Mews, at night
Washington Square Arch, at night
Washington Square Arch, now renovated, at night
Washington Square Arch, renovated
Washington Square Arch, by day
Washington Square North, at night
Washington Square North, where Henry James passed his youth, Edward Hopper painted for years, Catherine Sloper refused her suitor, Alvy Singer walked and chatted with Annie Hall....
9/11 memorial lights 

Lower Manhattan, with the 9/11 memorial lights visible
Women in Black Against War, NYPL 

Women in Black Against the War (in front of the NYPL)
Towards the Hudson River 

Beneath the High Line
Free Huggers, Union Square 

Free huggers (but their buttons were $2), Union Square
Live auction, 5th Avenue, NYC 

Live auction, 5th Avenue, near Midtown
Dancer-acrobats, Times Sq. 

Dancer-acrobats, 42nd Street Chalk drawing and its artist, Washington Square Park 
Chalk artist with drawing, Washington Square Park

Con Ed worker, after a shift, 23rd St.
Delivery, 6th Avenue 

Delivery, 6th Avenue
Construction on a building, 23rd St.

Construction underway, 23rd St.
History lesson, at Harsimus Cove, Jersey City 
Historical plaque, Harsimus Cove, Jersey City
Mercer Street Books 

Mercer Street Books

Monday, September 12, 2011

Photos: Life Burning In Every Moment, Part 1

Desperate for tenants
Desperate landlord
Décollage (with right-wing scribbling on it), East Village
Bang Bang (décollage with right-wing scribblings, East Village)
Shuttered Mars Bar
Shuttered Mars Bar (sic transit Gloria Mundi)
Tribute to the now closed Mars Bar
Mural tribute to the now-closed Mars Bar
Watchful eye
Watchful eye, East Village
East Village scene
East Village street scene
Photo shoot, outside the Cooper Union, East Village
Photo shoot, outside the Cooper Union
"There but for the grace of God...."
"There but for the grace of God....": West Village "Street poet," near NYU
Kumquats, on the High Line
Kumquats, on the High Line
Lafayette St.
Lafayette Street
[Z]ürcher Studio
Inside Zürcher Studio
Peering inside Zürcher Studio
BMX Guggenheim Lab, East Village
BMW Guggenheim Lab, empty today, Lower East Side/East Village
Announcement (Due to budget cuts....)
Announcement: "Due to State and Federal Budget Cuts...."
_____ used to be there
_____ used to be (t)here
SUV/anzilla, near Cooper Union
Don't Even Think of Parking Here
Don't Even Think of Parking Here
P E M E X - Graffiti, East Village
PEMEX'd building, East 10th St and 4th Ave.