Terrifically Boring


The movements on the Green energy front (What does it mean?) have become complex, obscured tea-leaves reading exercises and here’s another one that will get little attention though it rolls disparate dynamics into one [silent] scream:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday unanimously rejected a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have propped up nuclear and coal power plants struggling in competitive electricity markets.

The independent five-member commission includes four people appointed by President Trump, three of them Republicans. Its decision is binding.

TL;DR – the commission endorses markets. ‘Sustainable’ was an iffy signifier until people. Started. Making. Money. Or put another way: Guy comes into his shrink’s office after a hundred sessions and the doc lays it all out. Everything comes down to: It doesn’t matter which green we’re talking about. They both point to the same place. Ugly, perhaps, and maybe not inevitable enough to happen in time. So parades and grandstanding will seem a little gratuitous and a kind of devolution at the hand of the money power. Again, hate the irony, not the player.

Image: future skate park?

Steps in Rome


Not to say ‘toward’ or ‘from.’ No need to be so speculative at the top of a New Year.
The Cavour is a neighborhood just to the north of the Coliseum. Steps leading down to a small street from the large excavation of the Imperial fora, backing up from the Trajan forum specifically.
The name Cavour seems to relate to the ancient neighborhood, Suburra, which has become kind of hothouse stand-in for over-charged criminality with new film and TV depictions. I had heard it was kind of red-light district in earlier times. Colleen McCullough mentions it as a densely-populated neighborhood of working people and perhaps a dozen or more different ethnicities where Gaius Marius bought apartments for his wife Julia. The area is still home to a lot people and not a few chic new restaurant of at least a dozen ethnicities.
But before you descend the steps down to the those places, or toward the metro stop of the same name, from the Via Cavour you can look back over those large holes of ruins and see Victor Emannuele and the remains of the Republican Forum and the Palatine Hill.
It was just that, turning around for another look prior to descent, which occurs now. We look up as we go down, even in the Eternal City. Remembering the way, learning, forgetting again old acquaintances, seeing them through the lens of the new.
Whether steps are old and cracked or well cared for, lead us forward or back, down or higher – they deposit on the fringe of a new space. There for decisions to then be made about joining the madness, skirting the trouble, perusing the menus or busting in and asking for a table. Reservations? Sure, you may have them. But don’t let that stop you.
Excelsior. And step lively.

Image: Plan of Rome and the area in question, approx. 350 A.D.

Eco Hustle, You’ll Tide edition

My Christmas column, originally published in Flagpole magazine in December 2008. Painfully, mostly still relevant.

In December 1843, Charles Dickens did a hell of a thing. The son of a debtor, Dickens found himself drowning in debt as well and penned a Victorian morality tale in a desperate attempt to ease his financial burdens. The story we have come to know as A Christmas Carol was written in the span of six weeks. No publisher would touch it and so Dickens published it himself. The book was ready just before the holiday that it celebrated and all 6,000 copies sold out in the span of a week. It became a holiday institution immediately, its popularity serving to “redefine the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday,” according to wikipedia.

Dickens’ hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, had lost all use for the human endowments of charity, community, friendship and love. In fact, he demonstrated contempt for anything but money – a pose that has been greatly admired in our own culture until rec… well, we have at least sought comfort in epithets like conspicuous consumption and luxury tax. The analogy brings up some uncomfortable comparisons to go with our holiday cheer.

With our ability to supply basic necessities at a zenith, we strain for meaning and stimulation, indebting ourselves to buy things for a holiday we swear is not about material objects. We accept gross inadequacies in national and local healthcare, energy use and environmental degradation; the plight of those beyond our borders reduced to fables. If the ghost of Jacob Marley returned tonight, what bleak landscape would he threaten us with as an eternal post-mortem walking tour? Wait. Don’t answer that just yet. Viewing the world through the lens of consumption, we interpret events in the language of commodities. We’re perfectly at home with these unimportant distinctions between consumers and citizens (neighbors?) yet the only thing that preoccupies us more at this time of year than Christmas are the moments of consternation at how crass and commercial it has become.

Instead of ghosts, perhaps our dreamscapes are inhabited with the representative elements that first appeared as improvements to daily life, only to become seeds for greed and short-sightedness as they gave rise to our modern society. Christmas Past might feature a child waking sweetly on a long drive with her parents to Grandma’s house. She might peer over the big backseat of a large automobile and ask, “Papa, are we there yet?’ and he might answer, “Yes, Angel. Thanks to the new Interstate road system we’ll be there in another few minutes!”

“If we only knew then what we know now,” we might say. But what would we do differently? If we could revisit critical junctures, would we choose to begin down a more sustainable path?

Christmas Future would surely take place in that green, green landscape of the BP and IBM commercials, where birds chirp and squirrels chase deer and all sorts of other nonsensical pastimes envelope us in open meadows while we pull on rainbow cigars. The future would have to be particularly incoherent and disorienting in order to be sufficiently post-whatever we’ll be over by then. To pull this off, the virtual reality rendering might crash into a smoky apocalypse to really get our attention. The idea that what we find would tug at our innocence enough to invoke a specter of regret is both the genius of the Dickensian cliché and wishful thinking. Scrooge was savvy for his day, but we have fourth graders who would have him for lunch.

It’s Christmas present that is the problem. How do we see ourselves at this particular juncture? More attention is being paid the loss and destruction of water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, soil and air than ever before. Yet the prices for most raw materials are near historical lows and continue to fall. Supplies are cheap and appear to be abundant as technology continues to stay just ahead of depletion. Richer on a more grand scale than ever before, the resources upon which civilization depends to create economic progress are declining at a rate proportional to the gains in material well-being. We are thriving and yet the quality of our finest moments seems diminished.

Do we admit the disjuncture about the way we live and all it takes to support it? How about the one that really makes a mockery of Wall Street, that the earth is a closed system? Would we be startled by a solution waiting just outside our reach, ready for us to take charge if we might dare?

A Christmas Carol is not known as irreligious text but note the lack of religion in Dickens’ tale. We get all exercised about presents but exchanging gifts was the birthright of the pagan holiday, Sol Invictus. Let’s give it back – or better yet, announce where it came from. Notwithstanding the nefarious ploys of being drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, do these not both attempt to consecrate the One and True Light?

Ah, the sun. Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun god, had already made December 25 a holiday; the early Christians were chastised for being unobservant until they begged and borrowed and made the post-solstice feast their own. The Romans were just the next in a long line of people trying to remain in good stead with our main star. Perhaps we would do well to take our place in that procession. The moral hymn of our day is waiting to be written or perhaps we just need to re-read an older one to be reminded that we, too, need to change our ways. Dawn we now?

Genet… Away


A young* man in dark slacks, white shoes, a blue button down shirt and vest walked up the steps of a library. A grand edifice equal to its holdings, the building featured a trio of main entrances and the man entered, knowingly, the one on the right with an automatic door. Past security to the bank of elevators, he waited only momentarily for the doors to open, close and transport him quickly up to the third floor. He found the PQ’s and three rows in walked all the way down the aisle, almost to the very end. He arrived at the section and began reading titles.

After a minute so poised, reading the spines as if making a selection beyond a single book he had come for, he pulled out one book, opened it, perused, but then replaced it. He took out another and put it back without opening. Then spying another on a higher shelf, he took down the book, opened it to the verso and just before letting out a startling loud sneeze, lofted the book high in one hand to avoid splattering it with the involuntary spray.

Involuntary, but not invisible. Because when quiet down the row resealed itself and he looked around and saw no one, the man spied the bit of phlegm he had caught in the other hand that covered his mouth, just as involuntarily. Now quite deliberately attempting to safeguard the books from the one soiled hand, he continued his quest for a few more minutes. When he had finally decided on a selection, the man took the book back down the long aisle. Before turning into the bank of stairs as though he studiously and by habit avoided the elevator on the way down, he turned into the men’s room just opposite the first shelf of PR’s.

Inside the empty lavatory, he shifted the book to hold it under the armpit of the left, soiled hand, while he turned on the cold water with his right. The handle was easy to turn, perhaps, easier than expected, and just as the water fired against the basin, the book came loose from the pit, as he leaned over the sink to clean his hand. Into the full spray and quickly filling basin it fell, splayed open at page 139.

He grabbed the book quickly, though damage had been done. He finished cleaning the hand and went downstairs to circulation.

“Can I help you?” the kind young woman asked.

“I….” and he proceeded to explain what had happened. She frowned, but not in the way he might have expected.

“What book is it?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s a novel by Jean Genet. It might actually have been a play…” he was saying but she shook her head.

“OH. Don’t worry about. No one reads that book,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of ruined. But really, no one is going to miss it. So don’t worry about it.”

“I came here for it, to get it,” he said, as though he stood for legions.

“It’s not even in English,” she assured, of which there was no need.

“No, Genet was… it’s in French.”

“Exactly.”

“How does that matter?” he asked but exasperation began to appear on the woman’s pleasant face. She seemed so understanding. Too understanding, such that her understanding seemed worth nothing at all.

“Look at the last time it was checked out,” she instructed, with a kind of obviousness the man felt he had little encountered. “1972?”

“What difference does that make? It was about to be,” he said and looked at the women checking out a book with the next clerk down, “tied for 1st as the most recent book checked out of this library.”

“Do you want me to ask my supervisor?”

“Ask her what?”

“it’s a him,” she pointed out and now the young man began to appear exasperated.

“Okay. Ask him if you can dry off the book and lend it out to me.”

“it’s pretty wet.”

“Indeed. Tell him I’m very sorry.”

“He won’t care. He’ll just say to take it out of circulation.”

“It’s the only copy you have.”

“Was,” she corrected him. The man sighed, handed over the book and felt a sneeze coming on.

By Alan Flurry
________________________
*Relatively

Plenty

Even when

Louise Bourgeois: Self Portrait, 2007
there’s plenty wrong, there’s still plenty of the other, too. It just gets crowded out, like blue sky by rain. No need to blow sunshine, just a little pushback – like this digression on the graphic sensibility of Louise Bourgeois:

Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois suffered more than the usual number of grievous blows to the psyche, and her inner life stayed tightly wrapped around their memory. War, illness, sexual jealousy, mental instability were all things she witnessed in her first decade, and she never forgot—or forgave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the attractive young Englishwoman who lived with the family as a tutor was also her father’s mistress, and this betrayal in particular was something she never got over. In addition, or perhaps in response, her mother was fragile and often ill, and young Louise became her companion at various spas and treatment centers; she was released from her caretaker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one.
After the loss of her mother, and encouraged by her charming and tyrannical father, Bourgeois started a small business selling works on paper, prints, and illustrated books out of a corner of the family’s tapestry workshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. To acquire her stock, she scoured the auction houses and book dealers, and she seems to have absorbed, almost overnight, the dominant graphic styles of the day. She had a particular affinity for Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the illustrated book form, which was then in vogue. Something about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they combined text and pictures, and the way the image was printed from engraving or etching plates, the whole satisfying feel in the hand of beautifully made paper embossed with rectangles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the template for how Bourgeois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

Have a template for how you think what matters most to you. Seems like all the advice anyone might need.

Image: Louise Borgeois: Self Portrait, 2007. MOMA

Wynema: A Child of the Forest

The illusion itself is a reasonable encapsulation of our fascination with Native Americans. And the unfortunate bigoted bullying that compels our childish attention to the sewer to and from which so much is presently flowing does also provide an opportunity to remind.
Despite even the earliest Experience of William Apess (1829) to reject the stereotyping of Indians, our wider ambivalence about native identity in the face of slaughter, genocide and Christianity (I know) has left most Americans on the wrong side of a deep divide. We need to learn so much more than our cartoon histories allow. So let’s do.

Creek writer Sophia Alice Callahan wrote the first novel written by a woman Native American called Wynema: A Child of the
Forest, which was published in 1891. The novel stresses how a white girl’s progressive adoption of an
identifiably Native American perspective enhances her relationship with a Native American girl named
Wynema.

By ensuring mutual comprehension and respect and, on a larger level, promoting intercultural
bonds they break down the barriers that their own cultures had enveloped them with. As the story
progresses, both the white girl named Genevieve and Wynema learn more about one another’s cultural
customs, and this cross-cultural appreciation fortifies their loving relationship.
While Wynema starts out as Genevieve’s student, she soon becomes her friend and her sister, which the novel suggests evolves not
simply with the passing of time but rather from Genevieve’s increasing understanding of and respect for Muscogee people. As
Genevieve becomes more assimilated into Muscogee life, she refers to Wynema specifically as “a friend” rather than as a pupil or
protege. Moreover, Genevieve’s acceptance of Wynema and Robin’s marriage and, thus, of Wynema as a sister coincides with a
profound shift in the way that Genevieve refers to the Muscogee. Whereas she once referred to them with the objectifying label of “this
people” (emphasis added), by the end of the story she tenderly deems them “my people” (emphasis added). The novel further
highlights that the Muscogee are “her people,” a sign of her acculturation, when they welcome her back after her return from a trip to
her mother’s home with all of the unbridled enthusiasm and “warmth” afforded to any member of the tribe, including Wynema.

Other Native American writers are listed at the link. A wonderful contemporary Native Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, is the author of an amazing novel about World War I, Three Day Road.
Familiarize yourself. Don’t let a stupid bully hung up on a childish reference be the stand-in for anything in your consciousness. Reject the caricature, if not on behalf of its target than in solidarity with its origin.

Image of Sophia Alice Callahan via wikipedia.

Banning the ban bans


In 2006, I visited a friend in France on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His girlfriend had purchased a painting from a friend in the states and I recklessly volunteered to hand delivery the gift. Much merriment on a short, extravagant trip ensued. I had been to France several times by then so the merriment included a souvenir shopping spree at the local supermarket in _____: wine, pate, chocolate and of course, our beloved cassoulet. Only the best for my girl.
But after I paid for the items, I reached down under the checkout counter to get a plastic bag for my prizes and… there weren’t any. Did I mention it was 2006?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 67, upholding a ban on single-use plastic bags passed by the state’s lawmakers in 2014. A year later, preliminary data from thousands of volunteers who collected trash during California’s Coastal Cleanup Day in September appears to show a remarkable drop in plastic bag refuse.

Compared to 2010, plastic bag litter has dropped by around 72 percent. Plastic bags now account for less than 1.5 percent of all litter, rather than nearly 10 percent. In Monterey County south of San Francisco, volunteers found only 43 plastic bags during the clean-up, compared to just under 2,500 in 2010.

The coastal cleanup, which covered some 1,800 miles across the state, had already shown a significant decrease in plastic bags thanks to educational efforts and local bans, and 2017 builds on that trend. In 2010, plastic bags came in third behind cigarette butts and fast food packaging as most frequently littered items, according to data from Coastal Cleanup Day. Now they appear to have fallen out of the top ten most littered items.

“For decades, plastic bags were one of the most common items collected during the annual California coastal cleanup,” said John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources, in a statement regarding the news. “This year, as California continues to transition to reusable bags, we are seeing a substantial decline in plastic grocery bag litter on beaches, rivers and parkways.”

As the article also documents, the rise of plastic bag bans in localities across the country has led to an commensurate rise in bans on plastic bags bans. Pre-emptive war against positive environmental trends and we are [still] so terribly petty and stupid. But good for California and its beaches. Reminds me of love notes, ibuprofen and white vinegar: stuff that actually works!

No Escape

Imagine there’s a video game, where the player must decide which tools to use to dig themselves out a hole without acknowledging that holes exist OR that the player is trapped in one and hence needs the tools. The point of the game (beyond your apparent need to never face 30 contiguous seconds of not looking at your phone) is to let players experience what it feels like to be a member of the House Science Committee:

Despite this reputation, the environment and energy subcommittees called four honest-to-God climate scientists to testify about one of the most controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. These technofixes, which could reflect sun back into space or draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all with the intent to cool the planet, were front and center. Committee members were actually eager to hear about it and where the federal government could spend to help prop up research.

There was just one tiny problem: None of the Republicans could bring themselves to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is the root cause of climate change. Nor could they bring up that reducing carbon emissions is a way more proven and cost-effective avenue to address climate change. It was at once comical and damn terrifying.

Level three is when comical and damn terrifying meld into one confused emotion. Welcome to level three.

The hazards of Political Art [part MCMXII]


Even for the most accomplished of smart ass, wise guy, artist provocateurs, political art is dicey. Art can be political. But if it is, it better also be very good.
So… Banksy has a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem called Walled Off. Okay. And he threw a street party to mock-celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration:

People from the nearby Aida refugee camp said afterwards they objected to the way the event had used Palestinian children as the centrepiece of the performance. “We came because we didn’t like the use of the British flags or the way they were using Palestinian children,” said Munther Amira, a prominent activist from Aida who planted a large Palestinian flag in the middle of a cake.

Banksy’s rendering of a British street party was intended to satirise other celebrations, including the dinner on Thursday, at which guests will include the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several dozen Palestinian children had been invited to the event, which included scorched bunting and flags, cakes and helmets painted with union flags set at a table beneath the looming concrete separation wall.
The event also included the unveiling of a new work by Banksy, etched into the concrete of the wall: a mock apology from Queen Elizabeth II to the Palestinians reading “Er … sorry”.

The Balfour declaration was the result of discussions between British Zionist leaders seeking political recognition of their goals for Jewish statehood and British politicians embroiled in the first world war.

Whoever Banksy is, his instinct to bring attention to Palestinian suffering is well-chosen but also lousy with pitfalls. Once any artist begins to make statements of expression using actual people, their stories, histories and emotions, they are using much more than words, paint, film or movement. I’m not convinced that it can’t or should not be done – it has and will again. But again: err first on the side of excellence. Good work is easily marginalized if it can be dismissed as manipulative self-promotion.

Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.