Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Video: How to Get to Mars

Earlier, here, I'd lamented the decline of American space exploration. Um, perhaps I spoke too quickly, because there is some interesting exploration of Mars going on right now.

Also, some very cool video simulations of those trips.  This clip is taken from the IMAX movie "Roving Mars."

The Spirit is a robotic rover on Mars, active from when it landed in 2004. The rover, after travelling 7.73 km (much beyond the planned 600m), became stuck in soft soil in late 2009, and its last communication with Earth was sent on March 22, 2010.

A formal farewell was planned at NASA headquarters after the Memorial Day holiday 2011, and was televised on NASA TV.

Thanks to IMAX, and to Norman Berke for tipping me off to this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In the Middle East, Where is the Indispensable Nation?

As President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly today many there were asking where does America stand on matters ranging from the crisis in Syria to Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons.  Others were asking where is President Obama?  He declined to meet any foreign leaders this week, averring with the excuse that if he met one, he’d have to meet ten.  He has nonetheless found time in his schedule over the last week to appear on the morning talk show The View, attend a fundraiser put on by rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyonce in a New York nightclub.  His multi-tasking White House staff found time in advance of the UNGA meeting to send out gags about the president meeting in the White House with a man dressed as a pirate (*).  

Of course, the President needn’t have met with ten leaders, but he might have met with the leaders of the handful of countries that are close American allies.

Meanwhile, across the pond two remarkable events have taken place in British diplomatic relations.  As reported in the Daily Mail, Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6), travelled to Israel, not a particularly close ally of Britain, to confer with its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Until recently the holder of that post was never referred to publicly by name, but only as “C.”  Historically, the chief of the SIS, unlike his American counterpart (the director of the CIA), never travelled as a diplomatic messenger for the British government.  As far as I know, such a trip is unprecedented.

Additionally, and so far unreported, is that at about the same time a very senior figure in the British military embarked on a whirlwind tour of Arab countries with which Britain has cordial relations. 

These two trips, taken together, bespeak A Moment.

The civil war in Syria has now become a grave humanitarian crisis; it will also soon become a serious political and security crisis for many countries in the Middle East, issues I addressed weeks ago in a post here.

What’s more, whereas the Iranian ambition to develop nuclear weapons has, in the American press, been portrayed as a problem primarily for Israel, a country that the Iranian president has threatened to wipe out; it is in fact a problem also for a number of Arab countries in the Gulf that Iran has been actively trying to destabilize.  Saudi Arabia and these other countries do not particularly desire to have nuclear weapons but have made clear that they will need to develop or acquire them for deterrence’s sake should Iran do so.

Neither the Obama White House, nor its State Department, have declared, let alone put up for debate, a comprehensive plan for helping to shape the future of a Middle East in flux, or upheaval, since the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring.”  If one peers closely one can see the outlines of a sophisticated, long-range strategic plan... but so far, in practice, this plan has only meant “When in doubt, do nothing.”  Unfortunately, the US at this moment seems only ever to be in doubt.  Worse, events in Libya and Egypt on September 11 this year have revealed unsteady hands in communicating America’s aims and values, as well as in providing security for our diplomats and those locally who engage with our diplomats.

Meanwhile, this week President Ahmadinejad threatened “World War III.” 

In the past, at times like these, the world looked to the United States.  This month, America’s long-time allies in the Middle East searching for counsel or solidarity of purpose have had to turn to Britain, a wonderful but small country that for some time has wanted to leave in the past the modifier “Great.”  Perhaps the US now does too.

When then-Senator Obama was running for office he suggested that because of his background, life experiences and understanding, many of America’s problems in the Middle East and with Islamic countries would, upon his becoming president, settle down.  What’s more, his first foreign trip on becoming president was not, as is customary, to close historical allies Britain or France, but instead to Cairo, Egypt, to deliver an address offering a new beginning, or a “re-set” as it were.  At this moment, it appears that today’s Middle East has instead become a hostage to this president’s dysfunction and his ambivalences about both Islam and America’s role in the world.

Breaking news: The Emir of Qatar has just called for military intervention in Syria.

                                                      + see note below

Daily Mail: "MI6 chief made secret trip to meet Israeli PM to head off plans to bomb Iran's nuclear programme" here.
Intelnews: "MI6 chief paid ‘extremely rare’ secret visit to Israel" (background) here.
Spiegel: "Obama's Middle East Policy Is in Ruins" here.
White House staff Pirate Photo Communique here.

* So far as we know the president met neither with pirate nor clown this week.  Presumably that will teach news organizations not to believe everything the White House staff says.

+  A note regarding the accompanying image… the image was created as a White House tribute to astronaut Neil Armstrong following his death.  Some uncharitable commentators, noting the image's the foregrounding of the President, suggested that it was another example of President Obama's supposed narcissism (ie, "Wasn't it great that Neil Armstrong traveled to the moon and then died just so Obama could have a chance to think about the heavens").   At the time, I didn't understand why no one noticed that with the crescent moon and single star at the focal point of the picture, the White House was also, inadvertently or not, channelling classic Islamic iconography.

Insta-lanche!  In fact, instant Insta-lanche.  Thank you Instapundit, Michael Totten, and Glenn Reynolds.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Arthur Conan Doyle in the Arctic... and Sherlock Holmes at the Beginning

An interesting literary artifact has come my way, a bit of text from Arthur Conan Doyle's Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, during which adventure the "biographer of Sherlock Holmes" shipped out as doctor on a far-flung trip at sea.  Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower have edited and provided notes.  Most intriguing is the diary's connection to "A Study in Scarlet," the classic short detective novel that introduced Holmes.

In the second to last entry of the Diary, dated August 10, 1880, Doyle notes that The Hope was returning home that day, when it stopped briefly at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to let the third of the crew who are Shetland Islanders off.  The entry reads:
Passed the skerry light, and came down to Lerwick but did not get into the harbour as we are in a hurry to catch the tide at Peterhead, so there goes all my letters, papers and everything else. A girl was seen at the lighthouse waving a handkerchief, and all hands were called to look at her. The first woman we have seen for half a year. Our Shetland crew were landed in four of our boats and gave 3 cheers for the old ship as they pushed off, which were returned by the men left. Lighthouse keeper came off with last week’s weekly Scotsman by which we learn of the defeat in Afghanistan.  Terrible news."
The editors offer this context:
“A terrible and most unlooked-for disaster has befallen the British arms in Afghanistan,” began the Scotsman account of July 29, 1880, headed “Disaster in Afghanistan / Severe Defeat of Burrows’ Brigade / Retreat on Kandahar.” A British force of some three thousand had been close to annihilated at Maiwand by Pathan tribesmen. It made a lasting impression. Six years later Conan Doyle started writing a tale called "A Study in Scarlet," set in London in 1881, and made his narrator a former army surgeon, Dr. John H. Watson.
In that story Watson offers this biography for himself:
“I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy's country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself….  The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines." 

Now home, uncertain about his future, and looking to share the expense of lodgings, Watson is introduced to someone described as “a little queer in his ideas—an enthusiast in some branches of science.”

“How are you?” says the man he meets in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

It is Sherlock Holmes, beginning the partnership that would bring A. Conan Doyle literary fame and fortune.

The book is published in the US by Chicago, and in the UK by the British Library.

More information here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Don't Tug On Superman's Cape

... Don't spit into the wind/ Don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger...

... And don't tease tigers.

At the New York Zoo this week a person intent on suicide dropped from the zoo's monorail into its tiger's den.  The tigers seemed willing to assist, and he lost his foot (link below).

In Thailand it's a popular tourist attraction to tease tigers.  The tigers here look teenager-ish, not fully grown, and not particularly angry, but they could in town grow frustrated.

The video "Tourists Teasing Tigers In Thailand" is below, with advice following below.

Some advice on How to Escape Dangerous Animals in the Wild:

Use your arms and clothing to make yourself look as big as possible, then back away slowly. When attacked: Fight back, striking the animal's eyes and mouth.

Further advice here.

And news of a New Yorker looking for the wild life here.

Hat tip for the tiger video to Ace of Spades HQ.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mexico and Its New Wave of Artists - Dulce Pinzon

My article about Mexico City and its Nueva Onda of artists is now up on the BA High Life magazine website.  In the piece I chart the recent transformation of Mexico City into a cosmopolitan city and a world-class contemporary art destination.  Here I highlight some of the artists:
... Then, there are the creators themselves, like Gabriel Orozco, the first Mexican artist to establish an international reputation since Kahlo and Rivera did so in mid-20th Century.  Now fifty, Orozco, a protean stylist, went to New York and painted, photographed, videoed, and made “found art” from objects picked off the street.  When he returned to Mexico City in 1999 he found that other young artists, like former cartoonist Damien Ortega (whose signature piece was a disassembled and suspended Volkswagen Beetle), and Dulce Pinzon, a photographer, had grown open to international influences and conceptual styles. 
Below is an example of Pinzon's  recent work, a self-portrait no less.  As the piece continues below she discusses her breakthrough photographic series.

Pinzon, while living in Brooklyn, made a tongue-in-cheek documentary series of photos showing everyday Mexicans as superheroes, the conceit being that Paulino Cardozo, a green-skinned, muscled Incredible Hulk, is an immigrant in NY who works long hours to send money home.  Pinzon told me: “When I moved to New York in the mid 1990s the art scene in Mexico was small and everything revolved around the established, consecrated artists who’d passed away decades before.  As the art market developed and young artists became open to ideas from New York, Berlin and elsewhere I saw that living in México again and producing art here was finally possible.”

Read the whole thing (a five page click-through) HERE.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Violence Interrupters... and the Untold Story of Chicago's Epidemic of Violence

A fascinating mini-documentary from VICE magazine about the untold story of an epidemic of violence in Chicago and the people who are working to end it.

Just last month producer Jedd Thomas and his team followed violence interrupters Ameena Mathews and Lamar Evans onto the streets of the South Side of Chicago, heading for places where violence is set to explode.  The two had been trained by Tio Handiman, the founder of Ceasefire Project at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  In an interview Handiman points out that there are on average ten murders and forty shootings every night in this neighborhood, a rate comparable to hotspots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hardiman and Mathews recount the story of Mathews' father, Jeff Fort, a one time gang-leader turned (supposed) progressive leader, now in prison for terrorism-related charges.  (Eh-hem, a different era!  See links below.)

Hardiman and associated researchers have been using techniques to disrupt gang violence borrowed from health science and epidemiology, and the two part documentary is worth watching for his interview alone.  Meanwhile resources remain scarce, and this story virtually unreported until now.

Part I is here:

Part II is here:

About Jeff Fort here and here.

Thanks to VICE and Jedd Thomas.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Did Romney Just Lose the Election... or Did His Campaign Just Punk the Media?

In the wake of a viral video of Governor Romney's off-the-cuff remarks to wealthy Florida donors about the supposed feckless nature of Obama voters, the Republican nominee's Intrade contract has just sunk to 32%, the first time it's been below 35% since March.  Accordingly, some say he just lost the election.  I wonder, instead, if his campaign didn't just "punk" the media.

David Brooks has commented in the NYT that Romney "violated the social contract." 

William Kristol, an actual supporter, chastises him:
It's worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes are Romney supporters—especially of course seniors (who might well "believe they are entitled to heath care," a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.
When Romney has lost Kristol...

Yet Romney's remarks in the video also highlight what has been an explicit appeal repeatedly made to Obama voters... and now Democrats themselves and the media (but I repeat myself) are the ones spreading this "meme," and reminding the electorate.

Meanwhile, it's worth flashing back to 2010 to watch another viral video, of Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of young voters about the appeals of the signature piece of legislation of President Obama's first term:

That's right.  She said: "You can quit your job, and not worry about paying for your own health care."  Of course, that's not precisely how things work.  And who in Pelosi's young audience for her speech has a job to quit?  And of course what she suggests here also violates the social contract.

Read William Kristol here.

Read David Brooks here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Billy Wilder on "The Lubitsch Touch"

... from my interview with Billy Wilder, in The Paris Review's Writers at Work Series:

Coming to the American movie industry at a time when many distinguished German directors were working, did you feel part of a special group?

There were some excellent German directors, led by Mr. Lubitsch, but I simply met him and shook his hand; he had no interest in me when I arrived. In fact, he was very reluctant to give jobs to Germans; it was only four years later that he hired me. I had written some pictures in Germany, usually working alone. But when I came here I had to have a collaborator on account of my unsteady English and my knowledge of only about three hundred words. Later I found that if I had a good collaborator it was very pleasant to talk to somebody and not come into an empty office. The head of the writers’ department at Paramount had the good idea to pair me with Charles Brackett, a distinguished man from the East, who had gone to Harvard Law School and was about fifteen years older than I. I liked working with him. He was a very good man. He was a member of the Algonquin round table. He had been the movie critic or theater critic on The New Yorker in the beginning, the twenties.
   One day, Brackett and I were called in to see Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire—a very straightforward law-abiding guy, who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times!
   That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
   Lubitsch, of course, would always find a way to make something better. He put another twist on that meeting. Brackett and I were at Lubitsch’s house working, when during a break he emerged from the bathroom and said, What if when Gary Cooper comes in to the store to buy the pajama top, the salesman gets the floor manager, and Cooper again explains he only wants to buy the top. The floor manager says, Absolutely not, but when he sees Cooper will not be stopped, the floor manager says, Maybe I could talk to the store manager. The store manager says, That’s unheard of! but ends up calling the department store’s owner, whom he disturbs in bed. We see the owner in a close shot go to get the phone. He says, It’s an outrage! And as the owner goes back to his bed you see that he doesn’t wear pajama pants either.

When you first met Lubitsch over lunch, did you think of that meet-cute on the spot?

No, I already had that. I had been hoping to use it for something, and when he told us the story of the picture I saw how it might fit. I had dozens of meet-cutes. Whenever I thought of one I’d put it in a little notebook. Back then they were de rigeur, a staple of screwball comedies. Every comedy writer was working on his meet-cutes; but of course we don’t do that anymore. Later, I did a version of the meet-cute for The Apartment, where Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who when they see each other every day have this little routine together. And in Sabrina, where she reappears and the younger Larrabee, William Holden, doesn’t recognize her—him not recognizing her becomes a kind of meet-cute. When Sydney Pollack was remaking that movie, I told him they should make the Larrabee family’s company a bankrupt company, and Sabrina’s competition for the younger Larrabee the daughter of a Japanese prospective-buyer.

You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. How Would Lubitsch do it?

When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, if I got stopped in the middle of a scene, I’d think, How would Lubitsch do it?

Well, how did he do it?

One example I can give you of Lubitsch’s thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy that Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commissar, and we were wondering how we could dramatize that she, without wanting to, was falling in love. How could we do it? Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
   Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
   It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
   I’ve got the answer, he said. It’s the hat.
   The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?
   He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter is about to carry her things from the train. She asks, Why would you want to carry these? Aren’t you ashamed? He says, It depends on the tip. She says, You should be ashamed. It’s undignified for a man to carry someone else’s things. I’ll carry them myself.
   At the Ritz Hotel, where the three other commissars are staying, there’s a long corridor of windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, “That is ludicrous. How can a civilization of people that put things like that on their head survive?” Later she plans to see the sights of Paris—the Louvre, the Alexandre III Bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she’ll visit the electricity works, the factories, gathering practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
   Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvyn Douglas, all sorts of little things that add up, but we haven’t seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room overlooking the Place Vendôme. It’s beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They’re finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, “No, no, no, it’s too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don’t you go to the races. It’s Sunday. It’s beautiful in Longchamps,” and she gives them money to gamble.
   As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That’s it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we’re going from there . . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. “Beautiful weather. Why don’t you go have yourselves a wonderful day?”

He returned from the bathroom with all this?

Yes, and it was like that whenever we were stuck. I guess now I feel he didn’t go often enough.

You’ve indicated where Lubitsch got his ideas. Where do you get yours?

Read Wilder's answer, and the rest of the interview HERE.

                                                                                       -- JSL

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Prime Function of a First-Rate Newspaper

H.L. Mencken, the greatest American newsman ever, recounting his newspaper work in the 1920s:

I believed then, as I believe now, that it is the prime function of a really first-rate newspaper to serve as a sort of permanent opposition in politics, and I tried to show that the Sun, because of its geographical situation, had a superb opportunity to discharge that function effectively. Baltimore was but forty miles from Washington — and the Washington papers were all third-rate, and seemed doomed to remain so forever, for the overwhelming majority of their readers were petty Federal jobholders, which is to say, half-wits. In consequence of their badness all Washington officials in the higher brackets had to read out-of-town papers, and not a few of them, including Wilson, read the Sun, for that was in the days before airships, and the Sun could get to Washington with news nearly five hours earlier than the news in the New York morning papers…The rudiments of the New Deal were already visible in those days, and I did not neglect to sneer at the “utopian ideas, economical, political, and ethical” that were going about…

– from Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir

(hat-tip Ed Driscoll)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mexico City and Its New Wave of Artists

I've written about Mexico City and its new wave of artists in the September issue of British Airways High Life magazine.  The feature should be on planes now and available on line soon.  I'll be writing more on that subject here, with interviews, artifacts, and a mini profile of photographer Dulce Pinzon.

What has driven this recent explosion of art in Mexico?  Damien Hirst, the original YBA (Young British Artist) has ideas what about the culture connects artists to the most chthonic streams of inspiration. For the last eight years Hirst has been living part-time in the country, collecting the work of Mexican artists, and of course his latest sensation, a diamond-encrusted skull entitled "For the Love of God," was itself a quotation of the Mexican tradition.

In an interview seven years ago for the Guardian he opined: "It’s about death. In England people hide or shy away from death and ideas about it, whereas Mexicans seem to walk hand in hand with it.  In that way I feel a bit liberated here."  Read the whole thing, at the link below.

This spring Hirst himself interviewed his dealer in Mexico Hilario Galguera, at a link below.

When I was in Mexico this May for the Zona Maco contemporary art fair, I spotted this (artist unknown to me) in the hallway of a patron's home. 

                                                                                                     Artist unknown.  Photo: JSL

Read Hirst in the Guardian here.

Galguera interviewed by Hirst here.