Category Archives: Environment

Scatter’s got fly IQ, Mahler 9 and other numbers

We are SO species-centric. It’s all about US, homo sapiens, and when it’s not about ALL of us, it’s about our specific, little cultural norms. The buzzing you hear in our cognitive apparatus? We’re it. Buzz. Buzz. More buzz.

I’m referring particularly to the post entitled “Dumb Flies Live Longer Than Clever Ones.” The key finding of the University of Lausanne study: “negative correlation between an improvement in a fly’s mental capacity and its longevity”. And what was the “improvement” in the fly’s mental capacity? Why, a course of study, Pavlovian in design, that “taught” the flies to connect certain smells with food. The life loss was significant. Natural flies live 80-85 days; the smart flies only 50-60.

The researchers accounted for the lifespan deficit with an obvious, to them, conclusion — that increased neuronal activity drained their life-support systems. Not so fast Swiss scientists! What about the Pavlovian training itself? The rewards and punishments. Learning “unhelpful” connections. The sheer fly confusion. The sheer fly coercion. That takes its toll — ask any high school student — and by itself could account for early death. I’m only half-joking.

Mahler 9 Not to be Art Scatter-centric or unduly self-referential or too much like a Swiss scientist, but we read with interest a recent review in the New York Times of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by critic Anthony Tommasini and noted that he had not taken to heart our own musings on the limitations of connecting biography to music. Frankly, I just don’t see what Tommasini has added to the discussion other than that he was pleased that Lorin Maazel’s clear or “Apollonian” approach seemed to work just fine with such “intense and transcendent” music. He spends most of the article rehashing the upsets in Mahler’s life at the time he composed the symphony and converting that biography into quasi-musical description: He imagines Mahler by turns gazing into the abyss with resignation and then sneering at death — in the music. I maintain that this is simply silly: Point to me the moment that you think he’s sneering at death and I will come up with an equally colorful, biographical and unprovable “explanation”: He awoke from his nap with a crick in his neck, for example. OK, maybe not colorful exactly. Or poetic. But it may be every bit as true as the “sneering at death” line.

94 in 4 To keep to our Scatter-centric theme: Our very unofficial record-keeping system at Art Scatter has revealed that we have been in existence something on the order of 4 months and we’ve formulated 94 posts. We’ve been SO busy! (Admittedly, some of these posts were merely stating the obvious: Hey, the server was down!) We’ve gotten lots of response, much of it positive (thank you!), and that has kept us bent to our chores. Is it possible to do somewhat longer, free-ranging “takes” on the web and find willing readers? Are we the right “Swiss scientists” to conduct the experiment? So far, the answers would be, in order, “yes” and “I dunno…maybe”. At any rate, we’ll keep at it this summer, though perhaps not at the same rate due to vacations, weddings, new grandchildren, anniversaries, grilling catastrophes, and other transitions. Stay tuned!

If stones could speak, perhaps I wouldn’t want to read

I’ve not traveled to Stonehenge, located west of London on the Salisbury Plain. Others have during the past 4,500 years; including, remarkably, the “Amesbury Archer,” a seemingly wealthy metalworker from the Swiss Alps, who made it to Stonehenge and was buried there around 2,400 BC, only to be unearthed in recent excavations, as reported in Caroline Alexander’s fascinating article in the June issue of National Geographic. Parts of the monument itself traveled far. Some 80 stones, the “bluestones,” weighing up to four tons each, were hauled in from Wales, 250 miles away. Larger stones, some weighing up to 50 tons, were hauled 20-30 miles.

How many theories dance on the head of a bluestone? We’ve studied Stonehenge enough to think it was built for a purpose, but what? Alexander summarizes the explanations, so far, of its origin and meaning:

Secure in its wordless prehistory, it can thus absorb a multitude of “meanings”: temple to the sun—or the moon, for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representation of the gods; symbol of status and power. The heart of its mystique is, surely, that it excites in equal measure both zealous certitude and utter bafflement.

Its very mystery leaves us free to steal some of its power. My favorite mystery-thriller, Joseph McElroy‘s Lookout Cartridge, has a scene set at Stonehenge, a group of late 1960s hippie-pagans exorcizing the evil spirits unleashed by the Vietnam War. East of Portland 100 miles, Sam Hill built a replica Stonehenge as a monument to soldiers killed in World War I. A pacifist, Hill thought Stonehenge a place of ritual sacrifice, and his Stonehenge is cold concrete, a bitter place overlooking the Columbia River.

“Carhenge” near Alliance, Nebraska is chief among the playful henges, to include “Foamhenge” in Virginia and “Fridgehenge” in New Mexico. My own modest proposal is a temporary public sculpture in the Park blocks, made from frozen sides of beef. In the middle of summer, Beefhenge could speak loudly if not necessarily eloquently for veganism, I think, something in the counter-spirit of Hill’s monument. And I wait for the inspired used car lot construction of “SUVhenge” or “PeakOilhenge.”

The current issue of Tin House sports a photograph of “Carhenge” on its cover, an example of “Outsider” art; that is, art created “off the grid” or outside traditional boundaries. Tin House‘s Elissa Schappel explains that Carhenge typifies the “eccentric, amateurish, maybe even laughable” art “created by folks who wouldn’t necessarily even call themselves artists.” The naive, of course, doesn’t exhaust the rather limitless possibilities of “Outsider” art. See, for example, the definitions in “Outsider” art’s institutional publication, Raw Vision. But perhaps it is true that “Outsider” art can be described and defined as such only by . . . “insider” artists and critics? And if you were to build a monument as a symbol of that kind of status and power, what would it look like? Would we recognize it had a purpose, but wonder what?

Scatter while you wait

That clown post we were talking about? It’s going very slowly. To tide you over (and let’s face it, tiding you over is right at the heart of our business!) we have a few quick scatter hits.

1. Penguin reports (via Publishers Weekly) that its eBook sales the first four months of the year already equal its sales all last year. I honestly don’t understand this, primarily because you don’t seem to get a price break from Penguin on eBooks versus paperbacks and the number of available books is pretty small. And I know very few people who have Microsoft readers (or Kindles, for that matter, though I did see a fellow reading his Kindle in the park the other day, and he looked very contented). Shouldn’t the price be MUCH lower?

2. If you haven’t already, please take a look at Randy Gragg’s response to my earlier post on PNCA’s Idea Studio panel led by Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy. I was hoping for more commentary about the notions expressed by the panel and to Randy’s rebuke of my contention that neither Tom McCall nor Neil Goldschmidt thought in the same full-throttled way about sustainability issues that our environmentalists do today. I wasn’t even nasty in my response: I am SO restrained. If i had been, the word “deification” might have slipped out. Oops. Anyway, these are important issues, and your thoughts would be appreciated.

3. I have absolutely nothing on my mind concerning the $7,290,000 that a Rufino Tamayo painting, Trovador, fetched at auction yesterday, part of Christie’s Latin American sale. I just liked the painting, above. I know there are worlds of painting about which I know nothing. For example, i have no idea who the best painters in Atlanta have been historically or even now, though a little research might generate some names (though not actual experiences). I know a few names of Latin American artists, the big ones, the Mexican muralists, Frida Kahlo (the Tamayo broke Kahlo’s auction price record), those working within the Western art tradition, at least to some extent, and embraced by the apparatus of that tradition, including its auction houses. Tamayo, for example, was a Zapotecan Indian who studied modern art at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and then created his own style from the collision. But enough, enjoy Trovador.

Ross Macdonald and the one-to-one ratio

“We’re all guilty.”
Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer

summit wildfire Every fire season in the West I think of Ross Macdonald. In his novel The Underground Man (1971), a wildfire burns an erratic swath through the steep canyons slicing the hillsides behind Santa Teresa, Macdonald’s mythical version of Santa Barbara, threatening to “strike across the city all the way to the sea.” At one time California wildfires erupted in late summer or early fall. Now they happen year-round. The NASA image above, taken May 23, is of the Summit fire east of Santa Cruz.

Macdonald’s Lew Archer detective novels span 1949-76. The last of them, The Blue Hammer (1976), is more than thirty years old, yet his stories read like yesterday’s news. And Santa Teresa is as much a character as any of Archer’s clients. In Sleeping Beauty (1973) an oil spill from an offshore oil rig threatens a private beach. It’s not just that Macdonald was something of an environmentalist, and held notions about the wholeness of nature, life as a seamless web. It’s that his prose, plain and lucid, let’s you breathe natural air. The physical world of his novels is rendered in precise, economic detail, but it’s a world of shades. Think of his California landscapes as Richard Diebenkorn paintings from which the color has been drained. In The Chill (1961) a murky fog surges through the city, as thick as the novel’s gray-toned plot.

I’m not sure what Macdonald would have made of climate change and other global threats. (He died in 1983.) He was not big on big issues; his focus was on individual responsibility. You see that in his hero and alter ego, Lew Archer. Macdonald is often described as the direct heir of Chandler and Hammett. But it’s more accurate to see Archer as the true heir. Archer reads and admires the hard-boiled crime novels, but with some skepticism about the tough, romantic life depicted in them. He realizes that while the art of private investigation may be morally ambiguous, its actual practice is mundane. Archer is knocked on the head now and then, but for the most part he avoids direct violence. In one revealing instance he is embarrassed when a client catches him aiming an empty target pistol at a rat eating kernels of grain in a bird feeder.
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Working for the green, a panel discussion

Here at Art Scatter central, we’ve always thought of ourselves as environmental. Meaning simply that we believe that we share and shape a variety of environments — physical, cultural, political, literary, etc. You can carve them up as thinly as you want, but you also have to realize that they don’t stay sliced — they intrude on each other, for better or worse. Maybe connect is a more value-neutral word than intrude. Anyway, yes, environmental, and even literally so. We even have an “environment” category.

But we don’t talk about it in a specific way. Art Scatter doesn’t know solar cells. Art Scatter doesn’t have a platinum LEED rating. Despite Art Scatter’s best intentions, we are sure that we are using non-renewable energy sources as we type. One way or another. In fact, we are pretty sure that this laptop is going to be the very devil to recycle, when it blows its final gasket. (This is how technologically bereft Art Scatter is: We think our computer contains gaskets that might be blown.) So, even this construct, Art Scatter, which you would think we could manage sustainably, isn’t green.

Which is all just the preamble to the topic at hand — a report from Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Idea Studio on Friday morning at the Gerding Theatre at the Armory. The panel discussion, led by Susan S. Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis Magazine, wrenched me into thinking about the environment, the physical environment, in a much more concrete way. I’ll discard my one disappointment first: The panelists really didn’t answer the question in the title of the program, “How innovative is Portland in the quest for a sustainable city?” — which led me to think we were in for some thoughts about how to stimulate creative engagement with the problem of energy use/greenhouse gases/global warming/sustainable living/etc. This didn’t happen.

What we got instead, though, was interesting in its own right: Several intelligent people, each deeply involved in thinking about and employing sustainable practices in the world, contributed their thinking about the provocative questions posed by Szenasy, who in her opening salvo ordered them to be honest and forthright. I knew I was going to like this panel! For those who want the short-form version, here’s what the group agreed on: Portland is still a national leader in green practices; a lot of the reason for this is historical, not just our own initiative; at this point, we need to think much more boldly about making our future much more sustainable than we are now, and the panel was optimistic that the stars were starting to align politically to help make this happen (Sam Adams as mayor on the local level, a possible Barack Obama Presidency); at the same time, we have to be practical about what improvements we can make at any given time; don’t build an 8-lane I-5 bridge (it just encourages driving).

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