Sunday, October 30, 2011

Light Housekeeping

I keep meaning to post something up here but one thing or another keeps getting in the way; working Saturday and late on the weekdays is part of it, family and kiddos is another, pure laziness a third. I should have something for Halloween, since that's always good for kiddo pictures, if nothing else.

The other issue is that I just don't have much worthwhile to say at the moment. I don't want to repeat and you don't want to hear anymore moaning about the irritating combination of incompetence and moral corruption (that is, not the taking of actual payoffs but, rather, the complete voluntary subordination of the "public good" to the greedy desires of the oligarchy) that seems to comprise the U.S. government circa 2011. I've hammered away on wars and foreign policy, had the usual utter lack of effect, and am frankly bored and tired of both the moron-grade imbecility of the former and the nuclear-red-ass-grade irritation of the latter.

I have some idle thoughts, but so do you and there is no reason to assume that mine are any more worthy of consideration than yours; it's that sort of thing that gives blogging the bad name for self-indulgence it has.

Here's one thing I would like some suggestions on.

I'm also coming to the end of the "Decisive Battles" arc. No so much because there are no more battles to write about - as long as there are humans there will be battles to write about - but because the remaining engagements are either already thoroughly discussed by better writers than I or because I'm just not interested in the affairs. I haven't touched on, say, Stalingrad, or Agincourt, or Gaugamela and that's because I really have nothing to add to the mountainous scholarship already expended on them, and as a result I have no interest in even trying.

But there are a few remaining days of battle I AM interested in. I thought I'd throw them up here and let you give me some ideas, either for engagements I haven't listed or some insights on the ones I have. So, in order by month:

October - two; Milvian Bridge, more for the religious politics involved than from the fairly straightforward combat involved (how the FUCK do you take position with your back to a major river AND compromise the crossing point to ensure maximum carnage if you lose? If I were one of your troops I'd have killed you twice, Maxentius...) and Tours.

November - two U.S.-native tribe engagements; "St. Clair's Defeat" in 1791 and Tippicanoe in 1811.

December - to be honest, I got nothing for December. Any suggestions?

January - the Fall of Granada, as a discussion of the Reconquista in general and its effect on the military politics of Spain and the Spanish colonies

February - Verdun; again, not so much for the battle itself, a boring and horrific meatgrinder, but for the combination of the transition of German strategy from maneuver to bloodletting by 1916 and the terrible long-term effects the slaughter had on French politics and military preparedness (and to some extent has to this day).

March - Adowa, and the foreshadowing of the post-colonial wars of "liberation", and the "non-battle" of the Rhineland, 1936 because it SHOULD have been a battle...and that is wasn't set Europe on course for WW2 - an object lesson that peace isn't always "better" than war.

April - I've done pretty much all the battles for April I'm interested in: Panipat, Shanhaiguan, Lexington/Concord, and Culloden.

May - Canton 1841 (as the end of the Qing and a harbinger of the internal disasters that kept China in a mess throughout the next 100 years). And possibly the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, agian not for the battle itself but as the culmination of two centuries of declining Byzantine and growing Ottoman power, setting the stage for the wars of religion in southeastern Europe that culminate in the Siege of Vienna in 1529.

June - Chalons 451 (again, more as the exclamation point at the turning of the tide of Hunnic invasion of the West AND the decline of the Western Roman Empire) and the Philippine Sea (the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" - again, not so much as a battle but as the symbol of the barrenness of the Japanese war plan and the beginning of the end for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere).

July - the Armada, 1588, and Königgrätz 1866

August - the only thing I can think of for this month is Stalingrad, and I just don't really have anything to say that hasn't been said. Any ideas?

September - Sedan, 1870.

And that's it.

So...any ideas, or suggestions?

Gotta go - have a good book that's calling to me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Last Summer Days

Gorgeous Indian-summer day in Portland; I had work up in the far northeast of Vancouver, Washington, monitoring infiltration tests though the lazy, sunny afternoon. Cool enough for crispness - the meadowgrass was white with frost when I arrived in the predawn - but warming to pleasantly shirtsleeve temperatures by afternoon. A light wind from the south bringing on it the dry tartness of fallen leaves, the sultry scent of woodsmoke, and the high, clear iciness of the late October sky.

It gave me time to sit on my tailgate, book neglected at my side, and just enjoy the beauty of the last of summer and the brief, bright autumn we pass through so quickly before the gray rains of winter begin.


When summer's end is nighing
  And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
  And all the feats I vowed
  When I was young and proud.

The weathercock at sunset
  Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
  That looked to Wales away
  And saw the last of day.

From hill and cloud and heaven
  The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
  And hushed the countryside,
  But I had youth and pride.

And I with earth and nightfall
  In converse high would stand,
Late, till the west was ashen
  And darkness hard at hand,
  And the eye lost the land.

The year might age, and cloudy
  The lessening day might close,
But air of other summers
  Breathed from beyond the snows,
  And I had hope of those.

They came and were and are not
  And come no more anew;
And all the years and seasons
  That ever can ensue
  Must now be worse and few.

So here's an end of roaming
  On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
  For summer's parting sighs,
  And then the heart replies.

~A.E. Housman (Last Poems)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

GFT's Greatest Hits: Occupy Wall Street, 2008

The discussions we've been having over at MilPub about Occupy Wall Street got me thinking "Hmmm...didn't I write something about that..?" and eventually I went rummaging around in the back of the packrat portion of my mind and, sure enough, here it is from August, 2008.

"The Public Be Damned"

Every so often I run across something that reminds me so forcibly, so violently, of the present desuetude of our republic that I lose my wind just for a moment.

Here's Glenn Greenwald describing the scene at the current Democratic National Convention, where the telecom giant AT&T throws an intimate little shindig for the very people - imagine that - who helped them evade lawsuits for their lickspittle subservience to the criminals in the Bush White House and the NSA who believe that the laws of the land are, in the immortal words of Leona Helmsley, "for the little people".

I challenge you to read it and not throw up a little in the back of your mouth. It's sickening. It's the real face of "American politics".

It's not like this is something new in American politics. The rich are always with us, and the only difference between the New Gilded Age and the Old was that back then, a man like Mark Hanna could openly say; "Come on, you've been in politics long enough to know that no man in public life owes the public anything."

Today we have to pretend to "care" about the Great Unwashed, but the reality of America is that unless we're in the top 1% of all American incomes many of us have much of the freedom of a polled Hereford being prodded up the chute towards that dark building where we await our political and economic fate. Are we better off than some Ukrainian peasant or Zimbabwean prole? Sure. Will that mean much when our job is offshored, or we get sick and run through our insurance, or the highway to our parents' falls apart and we have to drive a 40-mile detour to visit?


Here's Andrew Bacevich talking some hard, cold sense that most of us will close our ears to:
"The military-industrial complex will inhibit efforts to curb the Pentagon's penchant for waste. Detroit and Big Oil will conspire to prolong the age of gas guzzling. And the Israel lobby will oppose attempts to chart a new course in the Middle East. The next commander in chief will inherit an intractable troop shortage. The United States today finds itself with too much war and too few warriors. That alone will constrain a president conducting two ongoing conflicts. A looming crisis of debt and dependency will similarly tie the president's hands. Bluntly, the United States has for too long lived beyond its means. With Americans importing more than 60% of the oil they consume, the negative trade balance now about $800 billion annually, the federal deficit at record levels and the national debt approaching $10 trillion, the United States faces an urgent requirement to curb its profligate tendencies. Spending less (and saving more) implies settling for less. Yet among the campaign themes promoted by McCain and Obama alike, calls for national belt-tightening are muted.

Will we listen? Will we act? No.

Because, in the end, short of violent revolution, with the monetary grip on the levers of power, what CAN we do?

And because, in the end, we'd rather pretend that the future holds "freedom" and green pastures and sunny skies and try not to hear the cries of the other steers and the whisper of the killing knife.

And here's the interesting thing; we had a lively little exchange in the comments section, where, among other things, I wrote this: "...our economy is deeply unsound and shortsighted, our public uninformed, venal and stupid and our "leaders" corrupted and dysfunctional and then somehow insists that our nation will slip under this scylla of disaster.

I have no doubt that there will be a thing called the "United States". I'm not so sure we will like it, or possibly even recognize it. More and more I am convinced that the grand bargain forced on the Wealthy by FDR - that they would restrain their rapaciousness in return for labor peace and domestic tranquility- has broken. The rich will soon force the middle class into genteel poverty or economic servitude. The poor (flayed by immigration, crushed by hopelessness) will become little but serfs, in fact if not in name.

In short, we are returning to the U.S. in the 1880s and 1890s.

Fabius denies this, but his arguments boil down to, in essence, "America is stronger than that."


We've been there before and there's no reason we won't return."

Now...not to toot my own horn - though this blog IS my little horn and I'm gonna toot it - but with the U.S. of 2011 looking ever more like the U.S. of 1929...and the GOP bound and determined to return it to the U.S. of 1899...should the New York Times not be hammering on my door asking me to write for them, or what?

Fuck, but sometimes I'm just that GOOD.

And ask me what that's worth and I'll cadge a buck off you for a cup of coffee. I'm just as much part of the 99% as the rest of y'all.

Update 10/23: I was listening to the kiddos play LEGOS and eat seaweed for breakfast (the Little Girl, anyway - anyone else have a child that likes dried nori for breakfast?) and blogreading when I came across this, from David Atkins at Hullabaloo, which is so good that I have to quote it at length. To wit:
Simply put, in the 1970s America was hit with an inflation crisis that quickly became a stagflation crisis. There were also oil shocks involved. Simulataneously, the world was becoming increasingly globalized, which made it more difficult for American corporations to compete using American labor. Finally, as Hacker and Pierson have persuasively argued, big business banded together to begin more aggressive and cohesive lobbying efforts. These four trends were devastating politically for the middle class.

American public policy on both sides of the aisle reoriented itself away from a focus on wages and toward a focus on assets. Specifically, the idea was that wage growth was dangerous because it led to core inflation in a way that asset growth did not. American foreign policy became obsessed even more than it had been with maintaining access to oil, both to prevent future oil shocks and to prevent inflationary oil spirals. Wage growth was also dangerous because it would drive increasing numbers of American corporations to employ cheaper overseas labor.

But that left the question of how to sustain a middle class and functional economy while slashing wages. The answer was to make more Americans "true Capitalists" in Reagan's terms. Pensions were converted to 401K plans, thus investing about half of Americans into the stock market and creating a national obsession with the health of market indices. Regular Americans were given credit cards, allowing them to take on the sorts of debt that had previously only been available to businesses. Most crucially, American policymakers did everything possible to incentivize homeownership, from programs designed to help people afford homes to major tax breaks for homeownership and much besides.

Low prices on foreign-made goods were also a policy priority. This had a dual benefit for policymakers: lower prices offset stagnant wages, while keeping core inflation low. Free trade deals were also a major centerpiece of public policy in this context. Few politicians actually believed that these deals would help increase wages and jobs in America. But what they were designed to do is keep low-cost goods coming into America, while increasing the stock value of American companies exporting goods overseas, thus raising asset values.

Low interest rates were also important. Renters and savers suffer in a low-interest rate environment, but borrowers and asset owners do very well. Tax cuts, of course, are also helpful in offsetting the impact of wage stagnation.

Houses and stocks, then, are assets that rise independently of wages. Low-cost overseas goods and the easy availability of loans and credit provide offsets to low wages. Low interest rates and tax cuts help as well keep assets afloat as well. The bipartisan idea from a public policy standpoint was not simply to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. The idea was to make the American middle class dependent on assets rather than wages. I was at a conference many years back, the purpose of which was to bring corporate bigwigs together in defense of free trade against what they feared might be a protectionist backlash. One executive told me point blank that if only enough Americans were invested in the stock market, they wouldn't gripe about Halliburton and other similar companies because they would say, "Hey, I own part of that company!" When I objected that that only half of Americans were invested in the market at all, and of that figure far fewer had significant assets invested, he retorted that more Americans were invested in the market than I thought, and that policy needed to be designed to push more Americans to invest.
I've often looked at our public policy and tried to figure out "What sane polity would enact policies seemingly designed to return itself to what may have been the least-stable political conditions (the openly-oligarchic period between about 1870-1930) since before the Civil War?" And here's the answer. And Atkins has a simple and exceptionally sane solution:
"The recklessness and stupidity of this sort of approach to public policy should have been proven by the 2008 financial crisis that saw the rapid destruction of asset values in stocks, bonds, and housing. Predicating economic health on asset growth is a pipe dream: most people will never have enough assets to make it work, and asset growth is far too unstable to serve as the basis for a functional economy.

Whether they can articulate it or not, what has most progressives most incensed about the Obama Administration's domestic policy is that it has ultimately hewed to the same asset-based economic model. When the Administration could be progressive on cutting costs or ensuring equality without negatively impacting assets, it did so. That's what the ACA, the Ledbetter Act, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and numerous other left-leaning Administration moves were designed to do. But the Administration has been very reticent to take any actions that would negatively impact the value of assets.

America will only return to real economic health when the asset-crazed insanity of the last 30 years is brought to heel, and America returns to a public policy that is far more interested in wage growth and economic stability than it is in asset inflation. Until then, we can expect continued political and economic shocks from an angry electorate and an economy that has run off the rails due to 30 years of deeply misguided anti-inflation, pro-asset-growth ideology."
But sane or not, my skepticism remains. The wealthy have their hands around the neck of the government; they will not be pried loose. And they are no more prescient that their counterparts were in St. Petersburg in 1917 or Paris in 1789. They will destroy the village in order to save their privileges. And the extraordinary coalition that pulled our nation away from the totalitarian abyss that awaited it in 1932 - Soviet communism on the one hand, Italian (and, later, German) fascism on the other - shows no signs of being there to ride to the rescue.

In other words?


Friday, October 21, 2011

Cat-faced Eagle

Jim Fallows posted this, with the comment
"...owls are cats that happen to have wings. And thanks to various Chinese friends for the reminder that the Chinese word for owl, maotouying, is written 猫头鹰. Which character-by-character is "cat head eagle," or more vividly "cat-faced eagle." Long before slo-mo they got the point.

And that it's a good thing they are not much bigger than their real size."
Ummm. Yep. That'd make the whole "you humans REALLY need to get up earlier and put the fucking cat food in the fucking bowl" issue a lot more fraught.

Anyway, it's a cool video.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Grows Up

Remember reading those old “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” stories when you were a kid? With opening sentences like “You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis” or “You stand on the deck of the RMS Titanic, the brand new White Star ocean liner,” you knew immediately that there was adventure in store. And then there’s the added thrill of getting to decide what happens next: “If you choose to return to the island, go to page 12. If you decide to follow Jenny into the abyss, go to page 38.” The adventures were straightforward, the choices were good or bad—ah, how simple life was. But now that you’re an adult, choosing your own storybook adventure is more complex, sassier, sexier, gorier, and helluva lot more interesting.

Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel by Heather McElhatton, 2007, Harper Books (Interactive Books/ Fiction).

Ah, high school graduation, that time when “the real world” seems to contain every and any possibility. This hopeful moment is where Pretty Little Mistakes begins. A few key life choices can result in your shacking up with a handsome Italian, blown to bits by a pipe bomb when you’re working as a doctor in Africa, running away to join the circus, or pecked to deaths by ducks when you become a meth addict after flunking out of college. The choices here will lead you all over the world and into a variety of professionals ranging from sex-phone operator to scholar. You’ll get married, impregnated, and divorced (not always in that order). You’ll be a rousing success and a miserable failure. The possibilities are endless. And if you don’t like where life leads you, you can always go back and start over. After all, everyone deserves a do-over.

You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero! by Bob Powers, 2008, St. Martin’s Griffin Press (Interactive Books/ Humorous Fiction).

You’re a loser. You’re a thirtysomething wannabe actor, working as waiter, and the girl you went out with last night has been kidnapped. Her kidnappers call you in the morning, waking you up and demanding fifty thousand dollars for her safe return. You don’t have fifty thousand dollars. You don’t even know if you like this girl all that much. But you could be a hero…or you could get drunk and go back to sleep. There are happy endings here, where you got to grad school and raise a family and make a life for yourself surrounded by loved ones. There are also really sucky endings, with torture and murder and unwanted pregnancy. But most of all, there’s plenty of sarcasm, dark humor, and utter nonsense. It’s everything your average childhood “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” story is not, and that’s what makes You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero! so addictively entertaining.

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster, 2007, Riverhead Books (Interactive Books/ Historical Fiction).

If you love Jane Austen, if you’ve read all her novels, watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice until you know it by heart, if you long to go to Lyme to see the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell, then Lost in Austen is the book for you. As Elizabeth Bennett, you have intelligence and wit and some portion of beauty, but not a lick of money. You wish to marry for love; your meddling mother wants you to marry for money. As you make choices that may lead to dashing Mr. Darcy or to drippy Mr. Collins (and every other Austen hero from steadfast Captain Wentworth to caddish Willoughby) you gain or lose points for Accomplishments, Connections, and Fortune that will attract or repel possible suitors. There’s a delightfully wicked sense of humor at play as well, with plenty of sass and tongue-in-cheek criticism. Austen fans will happily get lost over and over again.

Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier, 2011, Gallery Books (Interactive Books/ Horror).

How many times have you found yourself hollering at the idiot characters in horror movies as they insist on finding the source of that creepy noise when they should be running for their lives? Well, here’s your chance to set things right. You’re a young businessman in the city when all hell breaks loose and zombies take over Manhattan. You’re first choice: get to your apartment, catch the next taxi, or take the subway out of town. These three paths lead to such life-and-death decisions like: Ax or shotgun? Run or stand your ground? Save the girl or save your ass? Sometimes you end up just another zombie, stumbling around and moaning for brains. Sometimes you’re the big hero, guns blazing as you lead crowds of grateful schoolchildren to safety. It’s action-packed, gory as all get out, and every bit as much fun as the best zombie horror flicks on the big screen.

The Raging Tide, or The Black Doll’s Imbroglio by Edward Gorey, 1987, Beaufort Books (Interactive Books/ Picture Books/ Humorous Fiction).

Edward Gorey is well-known for his grown-up picture books and his macabre sense of humor. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an entire alphabet of small children meets their makers in all manner of devilishly entertaining ways. In The Doubtful Guest, an surprise visitor makes himself quite content in the midst of a household that’s too polite to tell him to go away. And in The Raging Tide, Skrump, Naeelah, Figbash, and Hooglyboo engage in nonsense, guided by your very own expertise. If you think it is clever when Hooglyboo crams Figbash into a vase, turn to page 11. If all this seems “too terrible to contemplate,” turn to page 29. You may also, on another page, choose to visit the Dogear Wryde Topiary Gardens (page 26) or tour the Villa Amnesia (page 23). Nonsense indeed, but in the grand tradition of Edward Gorey, it’s nonsense that you can’t get enough of.

Meanwhile: Pick Any Path—3,856 Story Possibilities by Jason Shiga, 2010, Amulet Books (Interactive Books/ Graphic Novels/ Children’s Science Fiction).

On the first page of this intricate, creative comic book, you’re a little cartoon boy in an ice cream shop deciding between chocolate and vanilla. If you choose chocolate, you follow a brown tube-like line that leads up and around to a tab on a different page. The vanilla line leads you straight off one page and onto another. You continue to follow these lines up, down, right, left, backwards, and forwards as you jump from page to page and wind your way through panels that feature a mad scientist, parallel universes, quantum mechanics, and a giant squid. Sometimes, you save the world. Sometimes, you destroy all life on the planet. Either way, you learn about math and science and—believe it or not—have a whale of a time doing it. Ostensibly for children, Meanwhile will captivate readers of every age with its mind-bending tricks, wily ways, and unexpected endings.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Here, There, and Marshmallow Mateys

I suspect I don't have much worthwhile on my mind tonight.

Largely because I've started with a new outfit (my old boss sold our little engineering firm to a much larger company based in Seattle) and I'm having to continue to do my job whilst adapting to the Corporate Engineering Way of Doing Things. Doesn't leave much time for more than work, family, and sleep.

So the glamorous fever of blogging is not on me.But I did have a couple of random things that I wanted to talk about. So.

Remember back in September when I whined about my hip packing it in? Well, in the big picture of physical health suckitude, I have it pretty damn sweet. There are other people who have it much, much worse.

"Fibromyalgia" sounds like Satan's Getaway Weekend.

I'm often amazed how MANY people I know, or have met, or see, who are really, seriously emotionally or physically fucked up. I think one of the aspects of modern urban life that is at the same time wonderful and terrible is the change that it has brought to people with awful chronic emotional problems or physical pain.For most of human history these people would have had relatively brief, thoroughly miserable lives. Unable to fend for themselves they would have been at the mercy of overwhelmed families, unscrupulous "caretakers", callous landlords, employers, and neighbors. If lucky they might have been able to exist as almost helpless wards of their families, or the state, or charity cases in crowded religious shelters, or taken to the road to beg or steal.

The combination of things like disability insurance, government "safety-net" programs, better-educated families, and modern medical care can make the lives of these poor people something less than a living hell. But nothing can make that sort of pain bearable. I still can't figure out if that's a good thing...or a great evil.

Good, on the whole, I suspect. But, still...what a shitty deal.

Oddly, while at some remove I understand the wild desire many of these poor bastards have to just have it over, there's still a big part of me that has a deep respect for the ones that keep on going.

I mean, in a case like that there's no real "hope". Sure, there's always the odd miracle, or the freakish medical breakthrough. But for most of the people with stuff like chronic pain or severe depression, they're gonna fight that all the way to the Big Sleep. When you wake up every day in pain you've been dealt a shitty hand. Period.And if you don't choose to suck the shotgun there's no real alternative except to play it, and before you lay down the first card you already know you're going to lose.

But, least to me, there is something in HOW you play out that shitty hand. It may not matter in the Big Picture. But I'd like to know, when I get the cancer that kills me and finally get laid out for my dirt nap, that I fought like a sunuvabitch over every. damn. card.

Even knowing all I was holding was a pair of deuces. I'd like my kids to think of me as someone who never gave up. Never gave in. Toughed it out.

I'd like to think of them coming to put a shot of Talisker and a rose on my headstone, look down, and say; "You done good, numbnuts. Take a break in place. Sorry you went so hard, but we miss you."

Stopped into a late-night gas station on the way back to the shop the other night. It was dark night, well towards midnight. All I wanted was to pick up the tools I needed for the next day and get on home. So I skimmed the nozzle jockey two twenties and went inside looking for something wet.

There's a sameness to those places; racks of cheap, nasty processed food under the hard florescent lights, coolers full of brand colas and beer. A bored man or woman behind the counter. The smell of linoleum and sharp cleaning fluids. I didn't think I could ever be surprised in one of them unless the Virgin of Guadalupe chose to manifest herself to me in the Greeley Avenue Kwik-Mart.

But I have to say that the shave-headed little man managed to surprise me with his choice of late night pick-me-up; "Ma's Mango" flavored Joose, which turns out to be a jacked-up sort of brewed thing whose only virtue appears that, at 12% alcohol by volume, it will get you drunk quickly.This character had two monstrous cans of this awful juice joose and a pack of Menthol Kools, which seemed like a peculiar way to celebrate a random Tuesday night in Oregon City, but, hell, nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus.

-- --

Found out today that my daughter has been turning in her kindergarten "homework" - did you know that kindergarten now comes with "homework? - dutifully every Friday like a good little student.

Only one problem; she never completes any of it.In fact, she never works on it at all.

Just turns in the blank sheet.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as some extreme form of passively naive obedience to authority or some sort of incredibly devious, extremely complex and subtly subversive anti-authoritarian defiance.

-- --

Stopped off at our local wholesale-retail grocery tonight. Do you know what I'm talking about? Our version is called "WinCo". We also have "CostCo", the national chain, and used to have something called "Cub Foods" which worked on the same principle; buy in huge job lots and sell cheap. This includes a lot of generic brands like the "Marshmallow Mateys"

, Malt-o-meal's knockoff of Lucky Charms with parrots and treasure and swords (at least, that's what the styrofoam-textured sugar lumps advertised as marshmallows are supposed to look like. The only time I ever really scrutinized them I found one that looked a bit like a bell pepper and...well, actually, if you're interested (and God knows why you should be) you can try here, where Rita, the genius behind "Fighting off Frumpy" goes waaaaay further into the whole "Marshmallow Matey" thing that I ever wanted to) in place of the bigger brand's hokey-Irish-leprechaun theme.

Anyway, this isn't really about "Marshmallow Mateys". It's about people-watching at the WinCo.

Because WinCo is, well...downmarket. It's not where you get your groceries if you can afford to get better groceries. So many of the people you meet there are in the subspecies of homo sapiens Americanus vulgaris, the common, or garden, variety of American.

And everything you've read in those dire magazine articles about "American society" you can see right there.

It's the heavy woman with the four kids who is clearly barely maintaining control of the mob; a tired and frightened lion-tamer with a cageful of energetic carnivores who are momentarily cowed only by her size. But you can see in their eyes, and in the slump of her shoulders, that the day is coming and that day, soon, when she will not have whip or chair big enough to defend herself.

It's the couple with the tats and the Orange County Chopper gear that are buying a case of Smirnoff Ice and two frozen dinners.It''s mostly just the way we look. Was there really once a time when people in the U.S. wouldn't go out in public without a tie? Or a clean shirt and a dress? Christ, we look terrible, and I include myself in that. We clomp around in saggy pants and tatty shirts, in pajama bottoms and nasty flip-flops. And don't even get me started on the condition of people's feet; damn, guys, if you're gonna go out in public in flips at least cut your nasty nails. Euugh.

Every time I think I'm living in some sort of rarified liberal bastion of effete Portlandness I go shop at WinCo. Cures me every time.

-- --

Speaking of fat, I'm losing some. Yesterday morning I weighed in at 208.4, down from over 235 about a year ago and 225 earlier this summer. I'm still working, though, since I'm hoping to get down to 200 or below.

The frustrating part is that it's not to look better or to troll for chicks (the one I'm trolling for is lying on the couch right now reading some sort of odd sci-fi novel about a woman who talks telepathically to cats, although what the cats would say other than "feed me some of THAT shit" and "lie down so I can sleep on your belly 'cause it's warm and soft" I haven't the vaguest idea) but because my orthopod warned me it was that or off to the hospital to have my entire hip pulled over and replaced with a titanium-and-plastic monstrosity.

The REALLY frustrating part is realizing that almost everything that tastes good is horrifically fattening, while everything that doesn't, isn't. It's not just the losing the weight, it's realizing that keeping it off means never being able to just drop into Saint Cupcake to see what's good on the special shelf.It's having that Moonstruck chocolate bar once a month instead of once a week. It's...well, it's changing the way I have eaten for thirty years. And that kinda sucks.

But then, so does a hip replacement.

-- --

Speaking of things that change - did I mention that the Peep is off "Star Wars"?

Yep. SO over that. And whilst I can't grieve that I don't get to hear George Lucas' awful dialogue every Saturday or three, I find that part of me misses the littler kid who was all about blasters and lightsabers and spaceships.Now? It's all about soldiers. He's all wrapped up in Army games and videos, likes his soldiers (and in a weird reversal, what's left of his SW fandom is about the clone troopers because they're soldiers) and battles and all things war.

I find myself reminding him that real war is not like movies or TV, and that real soldiers don't get up and run away after getting killed like in games.

And I don't think he hears a word.

-- --

And that's all I got. But I have a couple of nice images culled from around the Web - largely, I must say, from the creative folks at "deviantart". If you like, go, check them out - many of the artists there sell their work, and I'm sure they'd appreciate the visit.

So, in no particular order and for no particular reason, here they are.("Biker in Winter" by "rockmylife")(This is the Templo Mayor at Chichen Iza, a photograph taken by my talented and lovely friend, Britt)(simply called "Desert Rain")

A couple of images from this passed Timbers footy season at the old Shed:and a pensive Coach Spencer in the rain:

(Another wonderful image from Britt, this one of the city of Lisbon from the old fortress walls)

Talking about the Peep's journey away from "Star Wars" made me think of this one:

Here's a couple of images of legs and feet that intrigued me.

This one is called, simply, "The Kiss" -(by "jezustin")("Little Miss Homewrecker" by "tjosphoto")Another sexy image, this one by "The Goddess Willendorf" - I think what I love about this one is that she's obviously a big girl, to the point where she would probably be considered "unappealing" in a sexy outfit. But here she is, and every bit the seductress - proving, again, that the most erogenous zone is inside your head...)(This one I've shown before - it's Thomas Voeckler on the podium at this year's Tour, along with one of the "podium girls". I just love the contrasting shoes and contrasting lives...)(And I'll leave you with "Autumn Green" by my own Little Miss!)

Looks like I had a bit of the bloggage in me after all! A candle to Saint Kilda, then, and thanks for stopping by.

How Things Look, Not What They Mean

Many years ago, when trying to figure out how to teach two-dimensional design (a subject, like most I profess, I never studied in school) I became convinced that cognition can be an obstacle to seeing. I recognize that such a statement is probably physiologically nonsensical, so let me explain. We are so eager to figure out what things mean that we ignore other things in the visual field. Makes sense if you are trying to avoid being eaten by a tiger or hit by a bus. But it works against you if you are trying to assemble a whole system–a visual image or arrangement of elements. Which is too bad, because the way things are put together is a critical part of what they mean. Hierarchies and contrasts can and should be seen independent of content–e.g., by squinting–because then and only then is it possible to see how formal relationships work. The tyrant cognition suppresses vision. If the king goes unchallenged, he will make mistakes.

At the top of this post: a classic example of such an error, aided and abetted by the pretending prince of the real, photography.

I took this photograph at a Phillips 66 gas station near my home. It's an oval-shaped sticker slapped on the gasoline pump, presumably printed in a run of thousands. It seeks to warn us of dangers associated with static electricity, though it doesn't exactly say that. Rather we receive two instructions: 1) touch some metal thing other than the pump before grabbing it, and 2) don't get back in the car after you've started, because that could produce undesirable electricity. If I don't do 1 or I do do 2, will I blow up? Not sure.

Of course, the dominant message is BE SAFE WHEN FUELING, which isn't so much an instruction as an exhortation. And the goof-ass centered type that rolls around the perimeter of the oval is hard to gather into a reading experience.

In short: the copywriting, design and typsetting are awful. But that's not why I noticed the sticker in the first place, nor why I whipped out my phone to "snap" (quaint verb) the photograph.

No, I documented the sticker because of the picture within the upper portion of the oval.

One day, following a planning session for Static Electricity Liability Week, whoever art directed this thing tapped a pencil against his head and said, "We need a picture of a hand putting gas in a car." Soon after that, such a photograph was produced, possibly by the very same art director, who in all likelihood was the one guy in the office who had used Photoshop. And because he knew that was what he had done, and because he could see the picture right there, he popped that photo into a semicircular hole and called that sucker done.

Alas. The fact is, he didn't really see the photograph. He looked at it, but he didn't see it. Because the visual image shows something that is considerably less than clear. At the left side of the image we see an arm/hand holding a metallic hose-looking thing. But halfway across the format, the form of the hand abuts a dark value mass. The dark mass has a few lighter passages, most notably an elliptical light spot that reads like a cartoon nose.

It takes sustained effort to make out that the dark mass consists of black and dark blue elements. Once we figure that out, we can reason our way to a conclusion that hand is holding a black nozzle, and the dark blue must be the side of a vehicle being fueled. But that's like perceiving a toad on the brown mottled ground. If we're not looking for it, we won't see it. (If the car had been light blue or tan or red, we'd have gotten separation between the parts of the visual field: arm/hand, hose, nozzle, car, non-stuff).

A safety message has been fatally undermined by a failure to contemplate how something looks independent of what it means. Which takes me back to my original point. You can't design if you can't stop thinking about what things mean, because then you can't focus on how things look.

Informational pictures must be lucid. There's much to be said about them, including how things can be broken into parts, how space can be manipulated, how contrast can be managed, how attributes of pictures and charts can be combined successfully as well as less so.

I have been writing on informational images since I started this blog. Because our students are at work on a problem that requires them to construct such things, I've assembled a set of prior posts below.

On the basic attributes of informational pictures, see my first post on the subject, from 2007. Here, a reflection on the pleasures of lucidity. Here some writing on maps as images, and representations of processes. On making informational images as a way to gather information, an account of star-watching in the Utah desert. And finally, a set of images that present data in comparable ways, from Matisse to Chrysler.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Please, sir, I want some more.

The other day the kids were a complete, utter pain in the fucking ass for the better part of the morning. By noon Mojo had just about had it as they were loading up the car to go home from downtown.At which point Missy decided she had had just about enough, too.Missy: "I wish I was an ORPHAN so you couldn't tell me what to do!"
Mojo: "Fine. You can stay here, then. Somebody should come along in a while and maybe they'll take you home with them." (Missy's eyes go wide) "So, Peep, do YOU want to be an orphan, too?"
Peep: Naw. The food sucks."For once, I was wise enough to say absolutely nothing.

Lost In Translation

There are probably a million dumb-ass stories in the Naked City of Portland. This is just one of them.

I moved to Portland in the summer of 1990. When the van loaded with household goods, me, and my ex-wife rolled to a stop it was way out in darkest Beaverton in the western suburbs of Portland proper. We lived there for almost a decade, so I didn't get to know the city the way I do now.

But driving about the town in that first autumn I noticed two things; that there were a LOT of homeless people in Portland for a place that gets something like 200 days of rain a year. And probably because of that every freeway underpass had big white signs that read "No Trespassing" in English and Spanish.

Sort of.

Because here is one of those signs;Now I drove past these things for what must have been several years without really "seeing" them. They were just part of the scenery, like the scruffy winos, the pierced hipsters, and the coffee kiosks that are "Portland". So I never really thought about them. And neither, apparently, did anyone else including the people who made and set them up.

Until the World's Worst Newspaper printed a letter that read something like;
"I'm bilingual in English and Spanish and just moved here from (blank). So imagine my surprise when driving on I-405 the other day to spot a sign that advises me that "Traspasan" is prohibited. Now I have no idea what "Traspasan" is, but I know what it isn't, and that's a Spanish translation of the word "Trespassing". Just thought that you might want to let someone at the Department of Transportation know that."
So you can imagine the result. A whole bunch of people at the City and the Oregon DOT had to go on record as saying, basically "Ummm...errr...gubaduh!"

The "No Traspasan" signs began to disappear later that year, without publicity, and it's been probably five years since I've seen one. I thought that they were all gone. Until I biked downtown with my bride (whose replacement of the woman I was married to when I first saw one, the woman we like to call "pre-mommy", is one of the great miracles and blessings of my life - you know that, right, honey?) who knew my love for the ridiculous No Traspasan story and saved this little sign as a special treat for me.

And indeed it was.

And now I pass it on as a special treat to you.

Portland; the City That Works But Not On Its Spanish Language Skills.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spartan Holiday Wordmark

A few months ago I posted on the topic of wordmarks for periodicals. At the time I was deep into the design process for my own project, Spartan Holiday. I have been loath to mention it, wanting to roll it out once the print copies were in hand. But I am in striking distance of finishing, and I have a splash page up at that I would like to show up on Google searches. At the moment, you get 300 spoofs and Christmastime at Michigan State.

There's much more to come. I am extremely excited about this project, which represents an integration of longstanding interests within a durable format. The identity was inspired by mid-century package design, and was a collaborative project between Scott Gericke and me. I'm working with Scott on the design standards for the journal, and pretty intensively on the first issue. I won't publish any images from the mag until it's out, but I can say that the image in the banner above is a crop from a page in No. 1.

The identity is designed as variable two-color system. The palette at the top is the Richard Petty version.

For now, do me a small favor and click over to Spartan Holiday to goose the search numbers as we near the release date (sometime in November). The page gives some sense of what we're up to. Thanks in advance for the click.

Sucks for Southern Europe

Courtesy of one of my favorite blogs, Mondorama 2000. Somehow I suspect this would qualify as a negative event most everywhere: having a balled-up elephant the size of the former Yugoslavia land in precisely that place. Bottoms up!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Buzz cuts, longhairs, and the bouffant puff

The last post got me thinking; why should I, or any sane citizen of a democracy, want to use the full majesty of the law to force his or her fellow citizens into the armed service of our nation?

I mean, isn't the whole point of a republican form of government - and isn't the definitive point of the United States form of democracy - that the individual citizen should have the broadest individual liberty consistent with the function and survival of the community and/or the nation?

And what is a military draft, if not the very lowest form of coercion? You and I in the form of our government are saying "You, other citizen, will place yourself under the military authorities of the nation (and in so doing be subject to a military law vastly more dictatorial, abrupt, and draconian than any possible under the civilian federal Constitution or any state legal system) and continue as such, hazard to injury or death, until such time as we may choose to release you" and if that other refuses we permit ourselves the authority to seize him/her by force and inflict punishment on him or her.

A draft is perhaps the antithesis of patriotism. It forces a citizen who may have vitally sound reasons for refusing to join a fighting service to do so, and in so doing forces others, who might have joined on their own terms, to join will-they-nil-they on the terms our government sets for them.

And commentor Ael pointed out on the comments or the previous thread: traditionally a draft has been used to build up a large standing Army, perhaps among the most reviled of the aspects of British rule rejected by the Founders and Framers. It was for this reason more than any other that drafting citizens was generally rejected during our wars prior to 1917. Only in the Civil War did the federal government finally accede to a draft and then only after all other methods of enlistment were tried and failed.So not just the intent of the nation's creators, not just the legal and philosophical arguments against it, but the weight of U.S. history weighs against the idea of a draft.

Why recommend it?

To explain myself, I need to...well, explain myself.

I'm a pretty white-bred sort of guy. Father a corporate type, mother a classic Fifties stay-at-home housewife. Raised in nice little suburbs, went to nice little suburban public schools with nice little suburban kids. Went to a nice-little-suburban-sort-of-college - actually a very small, very spendy, very private Eastern liberal-arts school known as a "safety school" for the Ivies with lots of people who were and are my intellectual and social superiors.

And then I enlisted in the Army.

I had a nice couple of hitches of nice little semi-peacetime active service and then got out and spent another nice little decade-and-a-half or so in the Reserve Component back when the RC really WAS a "reserve component".Here's the thing.

I've noticed that at my college reunions I'm one of a tiny handful of graduates with service time. When I go to professional meetings, or spend time with others in my social peer group; middle- to upper-middle-class white guys with college degrees - I'm often the ONLY one who spent any time as an enlisted soldier or a noncommissioned officer.

There's usually a smattering of commissioned types - though my college alums tend to have the "courtesy commissions" of JAG and medical corps officers. But I'm often the only one in a group of 200 or so with any first-hand experience as a private soldier, a dogface G.I.Think about how odd that is.

Look back, for instance, at the so-called Greatest Generation. My father - who was and is as solidly upper-middle-class as a brushcut American could and can be - was an officer-cadet, a V-7 pilot trainee in 1945. But he was called up as a draftee in 1944. His uncle died as a draftee battalion runner in the Argonne the generation earlier, and his brother was a draftee sailor in WW2 before going career as a pilot (they like to fly, my family; dunno why it passed me by. The only use I had for the contraptions was as a taxi I jumped out of when I got to where I was going...)

This sort of stuff makes me thing that the Americans of the Forties and to some extent the Fifties had less elitist notions than we have today. The idea of young men of "good families" going into the fighting services was accepted as part of being an American. Everything I've seen, everything my parents' generation says, makes me think that the idea of a well-bred young man serving as a private soldier or a foremast sailor was considered perfectly acceptable after WW2 made it acceptable.

Take, just as an example, the servicemen in William Wyler's 1946 movie "The Best Years Of Our Lives". It's a movie, yes, but it wasn't wartime propaganda or a feel-good morale-boosting fairytale; it was intended as serious postwar drama and therefore had to be recognizably realistic enough for Forties audiences, familiar to sickness with war and soldiers and soldiering, to accept with no more than moderate suspension of disbelief.

The story revolves around three men; an Army Air Corps pilot, an Army sergeant, and an enlisted sailor.The commissioned pilot was a soda jerk before the war. Okay, we're on familiar "Officer and a Gentleman" ground here. But here's where it gets interesting; the sergeant - an E-7 platoon sergeant - was a minor executive, a loan officer in the local bank.

Can you imagine that today? A banker going to war as an enlisted troop? My friend Lisa has mentioned someone she's met who was doing Wall Street-type financial work and got called up with his Guard unit. And certainly there are still a handful of unusual "social" Guard outfits like the "First City Troop" of the Pennsylvania ARNG.

But in general the guys I served with were, and the studies I've read suggest that most U.S. soldiers still are, from small towns or the rougher parts of cities. A lot of them are from the South and interior West, with a fair number from the big cities of the West. Midwest, and Northeast. Most of them are from middle- and lower-middle-class families. Even the officers are not from the sort of place I went to college - though Franklin & Marshall had a sizeable V-12 training program in the Forties it has no ROTC today - but from ag schools, Southern and Western state colleges, and places like Brigham Young University.No bankers. None of the kids I went to college with. No congressmen's kids, or senators' daughters. No doctor's sons, no lawyer's. None.

So when I think of the benefits of a draftee versus a self-selecting Army I think of the benefit more to the country than to the Army, or to the people drafted. Of having bankers serving with soda-jerks, urban tough kids with suburban mall rats, of spreading the franchise, as it were, to a wider spectrum of Americans than we take in today.Anything that forces young people into a uniformed service, or to fight, is an evil thing. But we do "evil" things all the time to keep our republic working. We force people to serve on juries. We force them to pay taxes, to submit to regulations that deny them things they want or need to do. We don't force them to vote and as a result find ourselves at the mercy of the small percentage - almost always less the half, often WAY less than half - that do vote. And now we no longer require people to serve regardless of their social class.

Which has led to the better outcome?

I honestly am not sure I'm right about this.

But when I look around me at all the other well-bred, well-fed, well-paid, white men who, like me, have to be considered the "well-born and able" who have a hell of a lot to do with running my country and don't see anyone else with a Good Conduct ribbon on their lapel...

I wonder. I really do.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Periodicals and the History of Illustration

I am teaching a group of senior illustrators and cartoonists in the Communication Design major. The class, Visual Worlds, is really a methods course in drawing. A series of “diagnostic” problems, followed by a individual tutorials played out within a group. The critical question: how and under what circumstances do I, the student, put things together well? followed by a second: how does the answer to that question help me choose what to make and with which tools? and then a third: given all that, how shall I build a direction that I own?

One of the ways to get access to a student’s predilections involves seeing through their eyes, on the basis of what they collect. We ask them to build clip files of things they love, no matter what they are. It’s quite helpful: of all the images floating around in digital ether, which ones does the student choose? There are always clues to that student’s way of seeing embedded in that set, though typically they escape her understanding at first. (I am speaking especially of the pictorial carpentry, less than an editorial p.o.v. While the latter is important, it’s more obvious; the former is more technical and harder to see, but–strictly speaking–more useful.)

From whence do these images come? Nowadays, from the interwebs; typically via Google, which offers plenty to the poser of narrow questions, less to one pursuing broader ones. (Try entering “visual art” in a search engine and see what you get.) Plus, those images arrive sans context, sans grounding of any kind, a perfect postmodern blizzard of rootless pixels.

It requires at least some background to know what to search for, whether in a library or a on a search engine. These students have taken an art history survey and a required modern art course, plus other bits of this or that art historical period. On the basis of these experiences, they know zilch of the history of illustration and cartooning, save for a brush with Daumier. Some have taken my commercial modernism course, and have a basic familiarity with their tradition, but half have not, and don’t.

As these students’ primary visual concerns are beginning to emerge, it becomes increasingly important for them to have a cultural context. To which creative strands or traditions might they belong?

Which brings me to my problem: how to provide a history of illustration in an afternoon? To be clear, I am mostly disinclined to construct such a thing, as it threatens to devolve into poor man’s art history. The narrative of Significance and Influence sets up a frame for looking at artifacts that directs attention away from the cultural transaction. I have neither space nor time to develop that theme to an appropriate degree, so it will have to wait for another day. But in an underdeveloped field, it likely that a canon will be necessary, at least as a start. Yet I stressed to my students that even as I prepared to run them through a set of things that attach to Significant Practitioners, I did so doubtfully.

As a hedge–maybe better than that–I constructed the narrative as a tale of industry: American periodical publishing. For the geeks out there: can you write a (versus the) plausible narrative of American illustration using these seven magazine covers as data points?

We could do the same with a set of advertisements or book illustrations, which would make for interesting parallel problems. In any case, in my view it's folly to look at the history of illustration as a freestanding narrative of aesthetic achievement. Rather, these images occur at the intersection of technology, commerce and social history. Aesthetics is a small part of that equation.

Images: designer unknown, ornamental typographic cover design, St. Nicholas, November 1875 (the issue in which Howard Pyle's first published illustration appeared); Jessie Willcox Smith, Mother and Child with Easter Lily, cover illustration for Collier’s, 1904; F.X. Leyendecker (troubled brother of J.C.), The Flapper, cover illustration of Life Magazine, 1922; Norman Rockwell, The Double Take, cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941; Al Parker, Groucho Marx, cover illustration for TV Guide; April 27, 1957; George Lois, art director, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, cover photograph for Esquire, April 1968.