Monday, 30 June 2014

gypsy rose or pharmacological merits

AlterNet’s health and wellness desk sends well-timed reminder of how it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature—at any time, but the discussion of insecticides and repellents comes just as the mosquito and tick season is starting.  Tragically, many regions have suffered from mosquito-borne diseases for generations, and as humans encroach further into the last untouched patches of the wilds and more and more goods and people are shuffled around, a bug bite is feared as something more than an annoyance and tropical ailments are infiltrating populations once sheltered.

While the chemical cauldron may offer initial relief, there are a host of undesirable side-effects, among those that are known, for those who douse themselves with repellant—plus the balance of their internal-flora—and the ecology when manufactures run with the hint of nominal efficacy straight towards expanding into pesticides for crops, and waning returns.  The article explores the different mechanisms that make us appear attractive, lumbering targets to bites and stings and how a selection of natural products—like a suspension of lemon and eucalyptus essence, have a far greater and enduring success rate, without the dangers of pests building up immunity.  Lavender, despite claims that is is something emasculating for pre-pubescent boys, is a perfect substitute for deodorisers and air and fabric refreshers described as works of sorcery—though lavender, used as a condiment in powdered form until tomatoes and ketsup were discovered, and complementary aromas have positive psychotropic benefits, melaleuca (tea tree oil) is a much more effective antiseptic as a antimicrobial agent that is not a barn-burner, and essential oils seem better at prompting the body to metabolise what it needs than artificial cues, which are always more than a subtle hint. Growing acceptance of traditional and alternative medicines makes me wonder how the chemical business (as distinct from the science of chemistry) got a foothold in the first place—not that we ought to be faulted for trying to harness qualities found in Nature, but rather it just seems that what we make, that is—at least what’s going to interact with our bodies or environment eventually, or try to deliver is so fundamentally flawed and no matter how ingratiating or convincing, is ultimately barred from mingling with its biological counterpart.

ætherial or to catch a thief

Technologically savvy forensics experts in Germany (the broadcast is only in German) see great potential in exploiting inchoate but measurable aberrations in the environment—specifically the electromagnetic fields generated in any indoors area by electrical sockets.  The not completely hypothetical situation that researchers hope to stage and test the refinement of their gauges involves the story of a murder most-foul.  A woman has been killed, the experiment supposes, and in the absence of any physical evidence, damning or exonerating, the investigators have no way to eliminate or prosecute one of the suspects over the other, the woman’s husband or their neighbor.

Screams and a struggle, without corroboration, however do not go without an audible-footprint, at least indirectly—thanks to the unique and indelible cycling of electricity delivered over alternating current, there’s a time-stamp running in the background of any audio or video recording—that can pinpoint when and where the recording was made and if it was edited, no matter how cleverly or professionally done.  While Big Foot and UFOs are not necessarily in the vicinity of AC power sources, informants and confidential sources usually are and governments are hoping to be able to catch whistle-blowers in the act.  So much for crime-solving, but the poor woman’s death was not captured by any means—conventional at least, but supposing the attacker carried on his person some sort of electronic device, that electric hum would echo in a complimentary way to the method of exposing a snitch.  Though any change or disruption power would be infinitesimally small, one’s devices and electronic accessories can also be exploited, like seismographs, picking up any change in the electromagnet landscape.  Even though the mobile phone forgotten (given that that cell-phone is not already tattling or building an alibi in other ways) in the attacker’s pocket derives no charge from the electricity lurking in the wall socket, via induction, that external power source disrupts the phone’s internal current, in tiny but telling ways, and imprinting the signature of one’s whereabouts at any given time.  Atoms are judged to be perfectly elastic, capable of forever bouncing off one another without drag one experiences on the macroscopic level, but there are certain tell-tale stress-marks that have to do with the optimal, most efficient alignment of a wire in a circuit. While these are not measurable performance-metrics at the moment—that we know of, and exceedingly small it looks like such static might be of vital interest in the near future.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

null-set or zero, my hero

Brain Pickings, using a speculative survey of the nature of nothing and how chaos, harnessed for opportunity can come of that void as a provocative point-of-departure for talking about mindfulness, aggrandizement and general overall well-being and resiliency.

Research shows that the placebo-effect (from the Latin, I will please) is not negated after all when subjects know that they are part of an experiment and are taking an inert little helper, and the essay goes on to address those obvious but escaping maxims of circumspection, curiosity, hope and a sense-of-purpose that are so fundamental and basic to the good life. I know, easy to say and it's the most difficult thing in the world not to be an existential brat and hold everything in perspective—despite numerous studies showing that these clinical zeroes, just thoughts, calm and collecting, and the real negating notion that a disclosed sugar-pill is still not too much of a let-down, it is the concept of zero (from the Arabic, it is empty) that is really novel and interesting when applied philosophically. Maybe all other achievements, progress is really not due to complicity, cooperation or incorporation but the ability to dismiss that direct chemical intervention as a placebo.  Though we can relate to nothing left or even indebtedness, nothing and nothing as a place-holder is a pretty abstract idea to grasp. It has developed significantly over the generations but I think a really concrete understanding of a void eludes us. What do you think? Can fulfillment or genuine needs be answered by a series of nothings?

carillon

The Local's Austrian edition has a curious dispatch from the city of Graz, regarding a compromise struck between community planners, the majority of the resident and the Muslim population of the city.

The Islam Cultural Centre of Graz, whose grounds house the mosque and minaret, the tower where the muezzin traditionally announces the call to prayer to the faithful, will signal prayer time—inaugurated with the start of Ramadan over the weekend, but with a beam of light, like a light-house and supplemented by sending an alert to the mobile phones of subscribers. Being the first mosque in the region (and also because it is the first and only, not all the twenty thousand estimated members of the community would be in ear-shot of the call), the cultural centre did not want to be overly intrusive and commissioned this silent invocation. What do you think about that? Is this a mutually acceptable solution? No one is proposing to mute church bells—which are much more pervasive—but what if someone did?

pavlovian response

In the name of science, a popular social media platform conducted a massively multiplayer experiment on unsuspecting users, to see if they could engineer an individual's behaviour through being selective on what updates it spoon-fed from ones constellation of contacts. According to disclosures, which only makes one wonder what might lie beneath and what other mind games we are exposed to—outside of those socially-acceptable forms of manipulation that we deal with, like marketing and politics—several hundred thousand users had a particularly inauspicious week, as only bad news from their friends was filtered to them—while the other half enjoyed a seemingly manic, rollicking good time, at least vicariously.
Certainly, attitudes and emotions are contagious and one ought not to derive all one's stimuli and emotional modelling from the computer—and I do question the scientific rigour of this study as we don't really know what algorithms or protocols were used to gauge the the affective timbre of one's activities. I guess there is no accounting for envy, Schadenfreude or sour-grapes.  If social networks feel that they have stumbled across some new and powerful way of toying with the masses, do you think indoctrination and brain-washing could be that far behind, since one's sphere of acquaintances, no matter how small or reticent do usually have a far greater representational impact? I am feeling more and more suspicious about the headlines are being plied.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

pataphor or décervelage

There is a branch of philosophical thought that transcends metaphysics (hard enough in itself to define but dealing with fundamental laws and first principles) developed by a French avant garde artist and his followers called ´pataphysics. Though it is a challenge to imagine much less convey what this discipline deals in, one meaning is that it is the study of imaginary solutions, answers without questions, and the science that governs those exceptions that make the rules.

The prime or apostrophe that precedes the word signifies that the pataphysican adheres to Alfred Jarre's original school of thought, and not some unorthodox sect of pataphysics—unscored, but I suspected it had something to do with the soft-breathing diacritical marker of classical Greek orthography. Growing out of the movements of theatre of the absurd and dadaism is media, an institute of higher learning, the Collège de ´Pataphysique based on Jarre's philosophies was founded in Paris in 1948, and attracted such pupils as the Marx Brothers, Joan Miro and many of the artists of the surrealist movement. During the 1960s and 1970s, campuses opened up around the world and there are still some formal classes held, dealing with concepts like clinamina, from the early atomists which describes the smallest possible swerve that can translate to the biggest impact, antimony—duality, mutual-incompatibility or cognitive discord—and of course the pataphor, a figure of speech that departs from the literal message two-fold but more than a stretched-metaphor. The crest of the college and associated organizations is the image of the greedy and wanton King Ubu, the title character of Jarre's play that was on the surface some strange, juvenile pastiche of King Lear, Hamlet and Duck Soup but was a powerful and discomforting social-commentary on avarice in war (and was never produced again, except in puppet form).

tea and trost

The ever-excellent Neat-o-Rama features a brilliant lexicon of beautifully artificial, though authentic and convincing sounding to define types of forlorn feelings had not yet been named. Carefully crafted by a former English language dictionary editor, this growing and expansive collection surely gave the author the creative outlet to be expansive with words. I am particularly fond of the first three entries:

Sonder n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your

own.

Vemödalen n. The frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.

Vellichor n. The strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

Be sure to check out the link for the complete list and etmyologies and the website that gives names to those vague sorrows. Trost is a real German word, meaning solace or sympathy, that I thought was a good fit.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

briar rose or aarne–thompson taxology

Bob Canada has presents a brilliant, clever cinematic review of the film Maleficent, a retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale from the perspective of the evil fairy god-mother.

This trend of letting the villains present their side of the story is just the latest installment of what the author refers to as Wicked-ization in story-telling, alluding to the novel and successful adaptations on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and has been applied to several fables. The results are mixed—Hook (Peter Pan), Into the Woods (various), Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror (also Snow White), and in a similar vein, Hansel and Gretel: Witch-Hunters, Saving Mister Banks (Mary Poppins)—and sometimes the original versions are sacrosanct and don’t need improvement but it’s always fun to revisit these characters and learn more about the original sources, portrayals and motives.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

federales or blazing saddles

The first mechanised incursion of the United States of America into battle, with motor vehicles, aircraft and even the first incidence of intelligence gathering in the form of wire-tapping and radio interception—in the name of national security, occurred in 1916 with the so-called Punitive Expedition against Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa.  After the exile of the monarchy, a dictatorial government took hold of Mexico, which supported the lingering high level of gentrification among peasants and wealthy estate-holders for some thirty years.  The Villistas sought to break-up the Hacienda-System, and enjoyed the materiel support of the US government for these raids—the intent being to install a friendly and democratic government.  Once that objective was met, however, the support of the US withered and publicly backed the less radical faction of the Revolutionaries, who did not share the vision of Pancho Villa of social equality nor his violent tactics (with a lot of horse-robbery), as more politically palatable.
The casus belli that followed is of course debatable, but America mobilised some 5000 troops to hunt down Villa and his com- patriots—dead or alive, after Villa reputedly pillaged a border town in New Mexico, killing dozens of US citizens.  If Villa personally directed this attack, it was due—or exacerbated at least, to the munition supplier there either demanding payment in gold, though they had already paid thousands in US dollars and/or delivery of defective merchandise. As the chase was being prosecuted under the leadership of General John Pershing—curiously with the help of mercenaries from China that comprised more than ten percent of the fighting force at a point in US history where immigration for persons of an Asian background was banned completely, which were rewarded after the mission with citizenship, provided they work in army mess halls—several other border towns came forward, claiming to be victimised by Villistas though these other incursions into US territory were later disproven. The hunt continued for months but the wanted individual evaded capture, and the adventure was eventually called off due to the US entrance in World War I. Officially, the mission was declared a success, since no other US towns were terrorised, but privately Pershing held that it was a shameful failure and a dangerous precedent for American chest-pounding, despite the logistical baptism of modern warfare.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

gold doubloons and pieces of eight

Kottke shares an interesting project to help pull up its boot-straps about the developing phenomenon of alternative currency. Using Bit-Coin as a point of departure, the documentary in the making aims to not just demonstrate how any one with a computer can create a tiny bank in full faith and with credit but also to question what the public deign as fiat and therefore trustworthy and exchangeable.

What is it that makes a government mint any more or less legitimate than any other up-and-comers? It is a funny thing that these producers are soliciting donations in order to finish their project and would probably prefer actually recognised money over a trillion PfRC lira. What do you think? Are imagined curries as good as the real thing so long as one believes in them? Would you want the security that your investments, wealth are redeemable in at least food and shelter?

émigré

The Local (Germany's English daily) has a provocative op-ed piece reflecting on the distinction among the German terms Ausländer, Zuwanderer, Einwanderer and the self-styled ex-patriate and the connotations the words carry.

The adopted designation of expat, in general, is usually reserved for communities of professionals, sojourners under contract and with a housing-allowance, retirees or self-exiles (like the French equivalent) from lands less exotic and swarthy in German eyes. Moreover, ex-patriate conjures up romantic ideas of the Lost Generation and cafe-culture in Paris, Berlin and on the Italian riviera—whereas the words for foreigner and immigrant, while not necessarily with mean intent or like the politically-correct classification of mit Immigrationhintergrund that seems to suggest the opposite of good-will, are selectively applied to unwilling refugees and to guest-workers, who generally take on unskilled jobs. There are the same nuances in English, of course, and many loaded ways to not talk about xenophobia. I usually consider myself having gone native—or as a legal alien. What do you think, and how carefully do you choose your words?

humdrum

Maria Popova from Brain-Pickings has crafted another brilliant and consciousness-expanding on the formative and soulful importance of boredom. This is simple boredom being addressed here, restlessness and not ennui, world-weariness, which Oscar Wilde quipped as the one unforgivable sin.

The essay examines the nature of being bored through the lens of various writers and disciplines, showing how it is disdained as childish thing, something to be beaten back post-haste with one’s full quiver of distractions and shiny-objects and something that one ought to out-grow as soon as possible. Not a disheveling feeling that necessarily matures into quiet meditation or offers more than a vague sense of irritation of not knowing precisely what one wants, expects or can look forward to, boredom is nonetheless developmentally critical and something that ought to be cultivated—and not repelled, especially in children though that irritability that comes of unsure footing can quickly escalate. Boredom is essentially attention untethered, and when indulged, it allows care and courtesy to bob along until it can leash itself to something new and novel—in new and novel ways. The full article is an inspired and rewarding read, and makes one pause to think about how quickly one reaches for any number of pacifiers when made to queue-up.

Monday, 23 June 2014

ad confluentes

We had the chance recently to visit the city of Koblenz, where the Moselle joins the Rhein, and survey the colossal monument to Prussian Emperor Wilhelm I, designed by the architect Bruno Schmitz who collaborated with other artists to build other gigantic monuments in the area, from high above on the cliff-top campus of Festung Ehrenbreitstein (Fort Honoured-Broad-Stone). This ruler wanted more than cooperation, strategic partnerships and petty tyrants but unity among the peoples of Germany.
Wilhelm never realised this goal during his reign and more democratic institutions were responsible for that, as for the Weimar Republic that followed soon afterwards, but the monument was erected originally to commemorate the decisive Battle of Sedan. Successive governments then used the monument as a call for unity.
It was the figure that is evoked in the patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein and during the 1980s, an image of the sculpture was used in West Germany as a rallying point for unity, with the iconic symbol of the Deutsches Eck being the standard sign-off signal for television stations at the end of the broadcasting day (before the advent of 24 hour, continuous programming) shown, from this vantage point with the national anthem. Herman Melville, along with other contemporary writers, makes mention of the fortress above in Moby Dick, “this pulpit, I see, is a self-containing stronghold—a lofty Ehrenbreitstein,” and the massive installation is a venue for exhibits on art and history.
Though the fort was never taken in battle, the statue below was heavily damaged in 1945, less than fifty years after its dedication, by an American bomb-run and the French administration of the Trizone forwarded a proposal to demolish the giant completely and put a peace memorial in its place. Those plans were never realised and the decision to restore and rededicate the monumental statue at the head-waters was announced in 1990, just after Reunification.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

manifest-destiny or the pineapple speaks

At the risk of being accused of crying sour-grapes—and despite being very glad that I tried to refresh my knowledge of US history and civics, reviewing world capitals, major treaties, colonialism, recent wars and trying to memorize the amendments to the US constitution and presidential line-of-succession—I found myself really at a loss as how to rate my experience essaying the diplomatic corps' written exam. The anticipation and being escorted through the cavernous consulate compound and speaking to the other hopefuls, who were mostly young, recent international relations students with interesting backgrounds, was really exciting and memorable. The test itself, however, struck me as a bit of a disappointment—not implying that I aced it or completely bulloxed it up, since it was one of those standarised exams where it is difficult to differentiate between the best or the right answer and the test's author's intent. A few questions seemed so poorly constructed, I could only guess at the question, and I got several verbatim repeats, plus technical difficulties at the start did not exactly instill confidence when it came to the custody of the proctors. Next, there was a whole battery of biographical questions, some of which required a narrative though many did not, that was mostly just a self-assessment of ones leadership ability.

Those questions that did call for some contextual justification were limited to two-hundred characters—barely more than a tweet, and generally fell far short, in my opinion, of soliciting any sort of complete or insightful answer. Though this exam was only the first step of many in the selection-process, it did seem like an unnecessary and expensive obstacle, not really any sort of value-added or scientific sieve for potential candidates. It all seemed a little naïve, like realising that the motives that run economies into the ground are really, really basic and nothing more than greed and corruption and one expects such a grand failure to have a better rationale. Noticing that the practise drills were more rigorous and old-school (peppered with questions that some might consider trivia, whereas the only question that could not be answered without basic literacy or elimination had to do with the Thirteenth Amendment), I come to find out that this was one of the first iterations of the exam to be given by an educational corporation recently awarded the government contract to administer and grade this entry test for the US Department of State. This concern is infamous for its mismanagement of standardised testing in public schools, for requiring teachers to teach to the test and the expense of genuine education and for introducing such confounding concepts as fuzzy maths, known as Common Core. I am no educator or social-engineer, but I do strongly suspect that it is more indemnifying for pupils to struggle with straightforward logical operators, for instance, before inventing their own short-cuts to cope with basic arithmetic. Though students, teachers and parents in America alike are pretty helpless against such tyrants, the question that really tested everyone's patience was a strange fable (the company later admitted to plagiarising from a real American story-teller, Daniel Pinkwater) involving a sessile pineapple that challenged a rabbit to a race. Suspecting that the pineapple had some trick (or sophistry) to ensure its win, the other animals of the forest bet against the rabbit. When the rabbit actually won in the end, however, the animals ceremoniously devoured the pineapple. The test then asks grade school students to divine the thoughts of the characters of this poorly re-told story and imagine, under the category of reading-comprehension, what would have happened the pineapple not challenged the rabbit. Maybe that is an apt parable for the commercialization of teaching and learning. Education and experience are not in themselves limited and have to wonder, cringing loping up to fear, what it means to put bounds (or to take them away wholesale) on what is supposed to be a meaningful assessment.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

michigan j. frog

I had often heard the phrase Wetterfrosch (Weather Frog) used as a segue to the weather forecast—I, however, assumed it was a gimmick, mascot or inside-joke and never imagined that term referred, at least figuratively, to an actual prognosticating frog.

Similar to the principle that the rise in temperature can be heard in the tempo of the chirping of crickets and locusts (though there is some scientific truth to this method), the frog was not the actual barometer, but it was the key part of a closed-environment, kept in a terrarium of a weather-station with a branch or ladder to scale and a supply of flies. People constructed these little biospheres in the belief that the flies responded in a predicable manner to up-coming changes in temperature and conditions waxing fair to rainy by either hovering higher or lower, and the resident frog would position itself accordingly to catch its prey. There is also a folk-belief that certain birds are also pretty good forecasters—for the keen-observer—by flying lower to the ground when the air pressure falls. The idea of harnessing the predictive powers of the Wetterfrosch (and all of Nature, by extension) may certainly have something to it but it does remind me of the Warner Brothers' cartoon character: the singing frog that can belt out rag-time numbers, but who proves quite taxing for the individual and his visions of fame who discovered this amazing creature, since the frog will only perform in front of him, alone. Ehi, Figaro! Son qua.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

zwerg is the word

Apparently, in a generational strife that has been taken up by by the up-and-comers with a similar sort of twisted and mean sense of house-proud that is the domain of so-called home-owners' associations in the States that would treat pink flamingos and old jalopies on cinder-blocks with the same jurisprudence, younger people in Germany are beginning to vocally regard the de facto and traditional eye-sores with less and less tolerance.
Some creative outlets are made endearing by their distance—even if that's all in the neighbourhood, the convention of populating ones garden with gnomes (Gartenzwerge, but promulgated the world around) goes back a long way with the history of kitsch and camp modeled off Renaissance ensembles that included endless Puti and Gobbi (as does the controversy) and clever ceramic manufacturers that plied their seconds for reasons of fostering an imaginative and creative environment for children—the claims backed by eminent pedagogues. Fortunately, nothing can be leveled by the renters and the mortgaged on how people choose to decorate their lawns on private and established properties and resistance is staunch.

potentiation or college-try

Human memory and learning, as opposed to artificial means of storage and retrieval, are usually dependent—only brought to mind—on association. Though single and isolated impressions can seem, especially under sharp focus and scrutiny and when one wonders how one got there, to be thinking about that subject over another (the same with a fleeting phrase that seemed forgotten only to be recalled later and one wonders where it was hiding when first beckoned), to be quite independent entities, self-sufficient, and not part of a long chain of events (and equally as non sequitur, defying belonging or following), there is a whole entourage of attendant thoughts and recollections.

Though no measure of the content of one’s mind or character, drills in recall and rote (something quantitative) are effective ways to study how these connections weave, unravel and hang together. Cues are not exclusively semantic (mental symbols and what they denote) and drawn from experience itself, but also based on the state one was in during the cementing of the memory. I have noticed that I don’t remember my dreams very well—except when I am buoyed between sleep and waking, just emerged from another dream. It seems in those moments, the whole Parnassus returns—though not to linger for long. Research shows—and of course there is more than one way to conduct this sort of thought experiment, that those cramming for exam perform better on the actual test, if proctoring can be held in the same physical and chemical state, be that groggy, drowsy or over-stimulated with caffeine. Alcohol and designer psychotropic drugs take advantage of this phenomenon, as well. I am myself trying to study with a furor right now, and I wonder what it means that one can imagine one’s memories as a filing-cabinet, as something episodic rather than relational. I suspect that it is always richer (infinitely so, and that is where imagination, which is not just a addictive response either, and consciousness comes from, since infinite is always infinitely bigger than the speed records of brute force) to be able to triangulate into and out of context and would forego precision, always (or settling for one uniformly hazy ambiance) in order to be properly schooled.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

colour by numbers

There was a radio special on the air driving this afternoon that paid tribute to gay musicians and featured a great canon of songs and genres. I had tuned to it after the introduction but I believe the programme—Queer Sounds was aired this day to acknowledge the anniversary in June 1969 (45 years ago) when East Germany, in a frank move that was not reciprocated by the West, struck down one of the old laws (the so-called infamous § 175 in the German Criminal Code) had inherited outlawing homosexual relationships.

Though West Germany had the same explicit laws on the books to, symbolically at least, repeal, it did not happen in reunited Germany until 1994, and the host pointed out that Germany does indeed lag behind most of the rest of Europe when it comes to legislation for equal rights and equal recognition, though society gladly does not need the mandate of government. Spain, France, the UK, the low countries and the Nordic nations allow gay marriage, although that decision did not come without without growing pains and a high cost, but have had icons and champions for years. The show segued into a into a number from String: An Englishman in New York (I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien) that was dedicated to an individual named Quentin Crisp, who then was then an eighty year old gay activist (and to some an anti-hero at times who'd taken his lumps and was the subject of much bullying—this was still only 1987) whom had moved to Manhattan a few years prior. I had no idea—but listening to the lyrics—“If manners maketh the man as someone said/Then he is the hero of the day/It takes a man to ignore ignorance and smile/Be yourself no matter what they say,” one realises what a fine and unhailed tribute it is.

canvas or call for submissions

Google geo-caching is making a virtual gallery out of urban spaces in an ambitious attempt to curate street art and graffiti from around the world. You can find out more about the project's special exhibitions and acquisition techniques at the link from Laughing Squid.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

italy week: testing the waters

In the province of Pistoia in Tuscany, there is an ancient storied town called Montecatini, known since pre-history as a strategic stronghold, with the oldest parts of the settlement built on the high (Alto) promontory, and later renowned for its ensemble of spas.
The thermal springs were harnessed for years with the plumbing of different civilizations but evolved into their current form during the height of the Art Déco movement. There are several resorts within the city, all ornate and inviting but designed to cater to different classes, from the proletariat to the upper-crust.
This most luxurious playground is a period folly called Terme Tettuccio, with its grand porches and galleries, like a very fancy neo-Classic train-station of the age except open and with that invisible fourth wall surely for those relaxing and testing the waters to be seen by their peers and passersby in the gardens.
There are quite elaborate and old baths in Germany but none with such an airy design that we have found yet. There is also of course the therapeutic waters on tap from several fountains lining the arcade, decorated with these beautiful mosaics that suggested the different waters were ideal for the different ages of life.
 Only a few taps were open at the time and youth tasted of sulfur—and smelled of eggs a bit. There was an authentic café, cavernous and fully lined in dark-stained wood, dating from the time with all the classic fixtures and fittings of the associated culture and ceremony and we were able to enjoy a coffee in the sun.


italy week: along the ligurian coast

Primarily, we came to the town of Rapallo in order to take the ferry to Porto Fino but it turned out to be an interesting destination in itself, including a lesson in relatively recent recent history formative to world geography and political developments.
 There were two treaties of Rapallo in quick succession: the first was a settlement in 1920 between the Kingdom of Italy and the lands that would become Yugoslavia in the aftermath of WWI to allow Yugoslavia access to the sea and repudiate the secret agreement made between Italy and the UK during the fighting that promised Italy retention of its historic holdings in Croatia; the second Treaty Rapallo in 1922 was between the Germans (the Weimar Republic) and the newly established Soviet Union.
The delegates of these two powers retreated to a sea-side hotel, actually in neighbouring Santa Margherita Ligure, and during what became known as the Pyjama Conference as the Communists, fresh from the October Revolution found themselves basking in the luxury resort, began their own negotiations, the main meeting in nearby Genoa having not proved favourable to either party. Because of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union was not able to fulfill commitments it had made to the Entente powers, as the Russian Empire, and France demanded that the new government stick to the previous obligations and that Germany pay right away for war damages. Also due to the revolution, the retreating tsarist powers had no choice but to abandon their western provinces to the Central Powers, Germany Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Bulgarians, which temporarily gave them a great swath of Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine until their the surrender to the Allies when these territories were created as independent states. Separately, the German and Soviet negotiators agree to pact where neither side would demand reparations from the other and that Germany would recognise the Bolsheviks as the legitimate government and normalise diplomatic relations, as both countries were isolated as an outcome of the war.
This agreement led to secret military cooperation and the partitioning of this buffer zone in later years. These heady circumstances were not weighing us down, however, as we explored the bay with evidence all around of more ancient history to consider, defense from marauding pirates and connections to Columbus' voyages. We did not come to this area during high-season but the crowds were already encroaching a little, but we came also to learn that Rapallo and the neologism Rapallizzazione, referring to indiscriminate building up and catering to the tourist industry (which came after the Gilded Age addressed above) made this place on the Ligurian coast a symbol for contention between locals and the throngs of holiday-makers.

al-sham

An organization deemed too violent and radical, by some accounts, for al Qaeda called currently the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham) have barnstormed the country, catching many observers in the West completely off guard, capturing major cities and advancing to Baghdad virtually unopposed. The Iraqi armies, trained and equipped by the American occupying forces that mostly left in 2011, have folded and are surrendering en masse as the fully-pledged military force of the militants moves through the land, increasing its strength en route as it acquires materiel for fighting and conquest in the form of installations, vehicles and supplies that the American's left behind for the Iraqi's own peace-keeping mission. The group's wider aims extend to Syria and establishing a caliphate under strict Islamic law and banishing the West from the region. It was not enough to revive the language and rhetoric of Cold Warriors with tensions returned to make their world-view yet relevant; now it seems that all the old lessons not learned and debates surrounding Iraq and Middle East policy are back en vogue as well.

There is an exodus of refugees fleeing ahead of the violence and it is an unqualified crisis—however, even if the US could scramble its military might and again deploy to the region (much of its key infrastructure already lost to rebel control and no reliable native fighting forces to supplement their mission), there is insufficient means to judge the situation and the ramifications of intervention, which could well make the situation much, much worse. I had believed that the all-seeing eyes of the US intelligence communication could have delivered some form of warning—which, even if unheeded, might have made decisions better than reactionary. The situation is, I think, not so simple as the sectarian violence among two different traditions of the faith—which would surely not welcome the arbitration of Christendom or of McWorld, again, in any case, but is complex, what with Kurdish separatists in the north taking advance of the chaos to secure independence, Iranian overtures to help quell the violence and the most likely outcome of air-strikes for a nation weary of being the world-police being protracted commitments and deepening the divide between traditions, whereas the US wants a unity government among all peoples and keep together the lines in the sand drawn as borders for these nations that the West itself demarcated after the end of (traditional) colonialism and the World Wars.

Friday, 13 June 2014

italy week: acheiropoieton or bank on it

We had the chance to visit the ancient city of Lucca and first took a nice stroll atop the medieval walls, really berms, grassy with great inviting shade trees and took in an overall of view of the sites. Lucca was one of the rare places that preserved its fortifications and it certainly gave it a characteristic look and one could image that all the other places we visited were similarly defended.  We headed down into the city to explore and spent some time in the Duomo of San Martino and surrounding piazza.  The storied church houses the acheiropoieton (from the Greek term meaning not made by human hands—usually referring to a holy item that was crafted by angels) called the Volto Santo (Holy Face).
Tradition holds that Nicodemus, the individual who helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, and began carving the massive crucifix shortly after. Nicodemus completed his masterpiece, all but the face, and went to take a nap. When he awoke later, the face was finished and many miracles have been attributed to this relic. The surrounding piazza, during the Middle Ages, hosted a bustling market and currency-exchange. There is an oath written on the Cathedral exterior exhorting merchants and these emergent bankers not to commit any commercial transgression—no trickery, that’s still visible to this day. The adjacent counting house became the Bank of Lucca in the mid-fifteenth century, among the oldest banking institutions in the world.
The concept of a network of banks came about during the Crusades, as it was too risky and impractical to carry too much coin for what could be a long, long mission, and branches were established by crusading knights that could extend credit to their clients. Would that they had kept their oath.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

italy week: high-rise or equus caballus

After passing Liguria and on to Tuscany, we made our first stop in the town Pietrasanta (meaning Holy Stone) to admire and take note of the transition in architectural styles.  The piazza, high brick tower (campanili or more generally torre), cathedral and church were certainly unique but also a highly typical ensemble for the towns and villages of the region and distinctive different than the layout for settlements elsewhere in Italy.
This place on the Italian Riviera on the foothills of the Alps neighbours the marble quarries of Carrara, which is the main building material and artistic medium for the whole area.  The main square featured also a rather brutal-looking exhibition of sculpted skeletal horses—including one huge steel installation with human skulls in the mid-section, like some dread, decaying Trojan horse.
The high tower was an impressive landmark and its design was promulgated to towns throughout the region, like the proto-skyscrapers of San Gimignano (which we visited later) whose skyline is unique for the Tuscan countryside and is visible for great distances with fourteen tall structures, commissioned by competing wealthy families, despite an ordinance issued by Florentine authorities in Middle Ages that buildings ought to be no higher than twenty-six meters.  Abstract artist M.C. Escher made an early wood-cut of the fine towers.
The towers of this region not only the free standing belfries of the adjacent churches, many eventually installed with a clockworks but were also strategic look-out points, with vantage from sea to mountains.



Wednesday, 11 June 2014

amnestía or the children's crusade

The United States has a penchant for decades of turning a problem into an absolute disaster, although these upgrades seem to be happening at a much quicker pace lately—mass surveillance, Iraq, Afghanistan, the health care system, kleptocracy, gun control, environmental stewardship.   And now America is fomenting a grave humanitarian crisis with immigration policy with an overwhelming (if the medium is to be believed) incursion of children and youth walking great distances, unaccompanied, to cross into States.  It not as if this situation materialised overnight but tens of thousands of young people have been placed in temporary shelters or released to live with friends or family.  As attention turns to this situation, the government has responded by designating military bases as temporary homes, flying the children away from the border region, and providing legal champions to assist the young people with the naturalization process.  Politicians, from all persuasions, are afraid to say anything cross about the situation and broader repercussion it inevitably bring for fear of appearing racist or xenophobic—or simply uncaring for these refugees that have walked, alone, from Central America to Texas.  Parents apparently were willing to abandon their children to such an arduous and dangerous march lured by promises of a better life in America and what’s being interpreted as a lure, an open invitation to come to America, where no one—especially children, is being turned away.

This is unspeakably irresponsible in the short-term and in the long-term, as immigration authorities do not have the means to keep track of all these young people (as they are undocumented and unlikely to have already surrendered their identities to the internet and competent authorities) as they arrive and are sent off to destinations unknown.  There is no process in place to handle this sort of influx, or fairly apportion benefits and support promised which the US cannot or is lacking the political will to provide to its own citizens and no way to follow up on these baptisms by trafficking.  Aside from an already over-burdened delivery system for financial support (backed by script that’s of highly subjective value), what about America’s schools, hospitals and jobs-market?  Those institutions, failing by many estimations already, I think, would completely buckle under the added weight.   More immediately, the conditions under which the children are sheltered are rapidly deteriorating and there is a very serious threat of disease, not to mention the crowding and the heat.  Such a welcoming reception is dangerous and underhanded and most cruel.  America has long gone overboard with its security theatre but these measures run counter to its enshrined institutions of bullying and limitless scrutiny—undignified treatment by deputized goons at the airport, the need for vetting of clearances for any regular person to gain access to military installations (or to be a day-care provider) that’s applied universally yet lifted in this circumstance.  Governments like to poor-mouth when social programmes are mentioned yet there seems to boundless optimism in this situation.  What do you think?  How did the US come to this point and who manufactured the crisis and was the migration really in response to dire conditions in Central America or because of touts?

italy week: backseat driver

Though I am sure my perspective as just a passenger was quite different, driving in urban Italy was certainly a challenging and formative experience.

We have visited other parts of the country before but had not yet been confronted with the swarms of Vespas zipping pass on both sides and the fact that although lanes were clearly marked, there was no customary lane usage.  Somehow it all worked and we are certainly not ones to buck the system and impose an order to perceived chaos or road-anarchy.  I guess the biggest huddle to overcome was the change in attentiveness and reaction—certainly it is difficult to forecast ones next move but it was easier in the end to relinquish trying to make a prediction.
Also, those mopeds deftly negotiating are not wanting or expecting special accommodations—and to try to yield to them would be a unwelcome kindness, with more potential to cause an accident.  I found these traffic sign decals by a Florentine graffiti artist profiled on-line some time ago and was pleased to see in person that some of the clever additions still remain.  I can appreciate the humour and message even more now.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

italy week: la superba

The city of Genoa is known as La Superba, the proud one, for its illustrious history punctuated with many treasures and landmarks as testament to its past and current achievements. The name of Genoa, like Geneva, means the knee—but possibly not because the Italian peninsula below looks like a boot.
We toured the old harbor with its ancient and iconic light house and wide berths.  The galleon that was the principle setting of Roman Polanski’s swashbuckling film Pirates is moored there as well.   The Port of Genoa, though with a lot of quays for cruise ships and flashy yachts, is one of the most logistical sophisticated and well-designed cargo marinas in the world, and also features a very fine aquarium that we’ll have to make it a point to visit next time—when we have more time to see it and the wealth of museums here properly.
We also visited Piazza de Ferrari with its large fountain, behind the Duomo and buffered by the Palace of the Doges and the Genovesi Bourse and get our bearings.
The fountain’s water was dyed orange for, as stated, multiple sclerosis awareness.  We strolled in a covered arcade and we walked through the maze of narrow alleyways (caruggi) of the oldest parts of the city to admire the rows of aristocratic palazzi along Via Balbi, constructed as residences for the Republic’s powerful families.  Cristoforo Colombo also hailed from Genoa (though there is some dispute among scholars and various countries and regions try to claim him as their own, like Charlemagne), though voyaged West to reach the East under the patronage of the Castillian crown.
Other powers rejected his requests for financial aid not because they believed the world was flat but rather that the explorer had majorly under-estimated the accepted size of the globe, known since antiquity.
In fact, Columbus never did acknowledge the existence of the intervening continent as anything other than an unknown part of Asia.  Against the advice of council, the Spanish court eventually agreed to fund the exploration, including Columbus’ request to be named admiral of the seas and royalties from any property claimed for the monarchs.  Some scholars believe that Spain conceded to such terms because they did not really expect him to return—and just in case, did not want him to take his plans elsewhere.
Despite Genoa’s decision not to vet its native son, the republic’s independent existence that spanned almost eight hundred years saw many conquests and colonies and outposts a world away, including Galata in Constantinople, the Crimea and other lands on the Black Sea, much of the Greek Isles, Flanders, Tunisia, Algeria, and Gibraltar (though often these colonies were just gated communities, sometimes just a single building, but with extra-territorial rights for merchants and their families—like a consul), with trade connections extending La Superba’s influence even further.

Monday, 9 June 2014

italy week: square of miracles

Even for the Ancient Romans, Pisa was considered an old city and the glory and tumult comes through with its architecture. The chief draw—though there were many other treasures to discover, is of course the so-called Piazza dei Miracoli, which was began in the year 1076 and went through nearly two centuries of refinement before taking its present form but has always been an allegory of the life of man, beginning with a charity hospital in the front adjacent corner (now housing a museum) and across the lawn, a baptism fount, preceded by a cathedral, with its free-standing belfry to herald important events like marriages and funerals, and finally a peaceful and serene cemetery for the symbolic ensemble.
The tower was raised here despite warnings that the foundation was too weak to support such a structure, and I seem to recall that native son Galileo Galilei helped prove that gravity was a compounded constant by dropping and timing canon balls and prop wooden ones off the tower, whose exaggerated angle of pitch helped with the calculations—as well as being mesmerized by the pendulous motion of the incense chandelier in the Duomo so as to describe it mathematically and reverse-engineer periodicity.
This city on the confluence of the Arno and Serchio rivers—though without direct access to the sea—albeit the sea itself might have receded over the millennia, was a mighty maritime power, culling the marble for its showcase square from exploits in the Holy Land and recycling building materials from its conquests.
Pisa also had far-flung colonies in Jaffa and Constantinople among other places. Pisa lost prominence under constant one-upsmanship from the neighbouring sea-going republics of Genoa and Florence but fared better than others during the following economic collapse and unrest that came after the Crusades, by controlling the inland waterways that linked former rivals, spanning all the way from the Genovesi to the Venetians and profiting from trade and tariffs, and retaining its importance through the ages.