Jan 302013


Since we had the Congressional hearings today with the incredible testimony of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, it’s worthwhile looking at a map of gun violence in United States cities compared to the rates in other countries. I am a realist here – I don’t see a reason for high capacity clips and assault rifles but the data is clear that most gun violence is due to handguns. NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelley was on CNN tonight and admitted as much – shootings here would drop less than 3% with a ban on assault rifles as it’s concealed handguns that are the weapon of choice. But tracking sales and background checks would help – as would addressing mental health issues. Ultimately, there is no single answer here.

The sports announcer Bob Costas was on The Daily Show January 28th and said in response to the recent controversy he stirred up: it is the culture of violence and permissiveness that needs to change. Smoking has gone from being cool to seriously not cool and we’ve managed to limit verbal bullying of people without taking away the First Amendment. But in too many subcultures in the U.S. it’s cool or hip to have a gun . . . and in some cases to use it (or at least threaten to). This is what has to change dramatically.

The map on gun violence in American cities published in the Atlantic comes from a number of sources – data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with work done by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute using additional data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and collated by The GuardianOf course, the map is comparing urban areas to entire countries but it still reveals the staggering level of gun violence there is in some cities. I’m sure many residents would be fearful of traveling to some of the countries they are in line with even though, paradoxically, they have the same average number of deaths within their own cities.

New Orleans, sadly, takes the top honors for having the highest gun homicide rate, the same as Honduras:

Gun Violence Map of United States Cities

Gun Violence Map of United States Cities

A few more details from the article by Richard Florida:

The pattern is staggering. A number of U.S. cities have gun homicide rates in line with the most deadly nations in the world.

  • If it were a country, New Orleans (with a rate 62.1 gun murders per 100,000 people) would rank second in the world.
  • Detroit’s gun homicide rate (35.9) is just a bit less than El Salvador (39.9).
  • Baltimore’s rate (29.7) is not too far off that of Guatemala (34.8).
  • Gun murder in Newark (25.4) and Miami (23.7) is comparable to Colombia (27.1).
  • Washington D.C. (19) has a higher rate of gun homicide than Brazil (18.1).
  • Atlanta’s rate (17.2) is about the same as South Africa (17).

This level of violence should has no place in the United States. But like the issue of smoking, laws and restrictions are only part of a much larger, and much needed, cultural change.

Jan 132013

Yes, I understand the hectic pace of life in NYC. New York is a crazy place with seven million hyperactive people packed together in too little space with too much to do and not enough time. And yes, I understand that in this setting people can easily lose site of what’s going on around them – like the people who left their cars in underground garages a block from the Hudson River when Hurricane Sandy rolled ashore with a 13 foot storm surge the other month.

On the other hand, with Sandy people were at least reacting to a prediction of a storm that the City had not experienced in literally decades. What’s harder to fathom is when the circumstances are in your face and you still persist in the task at hand.

So yesterday, there is a fire in Whole Foods down by Houston and Bowery. Not a major blaze. No billowing smoke or flames shooting out the windows. No one screaming to be rescued by a hook and ladder ruck as they dangled from a windowsill six floors up. No, this wasn’t a huge deal as far as urban fires go. But when the fire alarms go off in a building and the fire sprinklers start spraying water from the ceiling, it’s probably time to get out to the street – quickly.

Seriously – the people at the bottom of the screen are standing in line, unfazed by the equivalent of a light rain and the smell of smoke, hoping to still check out before they are forced to leave. Yes, I could have shot some video, but honestly, I think I’ll watch my fires from the sidewalk. Video via The Gothamist.

Dec 312012

So we come to New Year’s 2013, surviving the (pseudo) Maya Apocalypse, going to the brink with the fiscal cliff in the United States and now lurching into a another year. I’ve been busy with friends and family (finally getting my brother to leave his live-aboard life on a boat in Key West for once and visit New York). Whatever you are doing this evening, I wish you peace and happiness in 2013.

A couple of things from around the Web on this New Year’s 2013 . . . .

Unusual Celebrations

The world abounds in unusual New Year’s celebrations – no, it isn’t all fireworks in Sydney or ball dropping in Times Square – and here’s a list of some of the stranger things that people do. From celebrating in a cemetery (Chile), torching scarecrows, a completely bizarre TV show in Germany (Dinner for One), wearing polka dots in the Philippines, to leaving mistletoe under pillows in Ireland, there’s bound to be something you haven’t done here. Details at smashinglists.

New Year's Eve Cemetery Celebrations in Chilie

New Year’s Eve Cemetery Celebrations in Chile

New Year’s 2013 in Times Square

The Atlantic magazine has an interesting piece on why we watch an 11,875 pound ball drop on New Year’s Eve in New York. Originally celebrations took place at Trinity Church downtown but moved up to the newly renamed Times Square once the New York Times built its headquarters there. Yes, it’s a media event that has its roots in one of the most venerable of media institutions. Historically, newspapers did much more than simply report the news (hint to management as they enter yet another year with dim prospects).

New York Times Building in the New Times Square

New York Times Building in the New Times Square

We Could Do better

Finally, a riff on New Year’s celebrations also from the Atlantic and via Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Dish. Yes, if there is one thing about New Year’s in America, it’s that we could do so much better. For a country that draws people from cultures all over the world, a world rich in different forms of celebration, our New Year’s seems to be one of the lamest of holidays:

On December 31, mediocre restaurants throughout America string absurd velvet ropes outside their doors, inflate black and white balloons as decoration, and charge three times the usual price for the same old fare plus bad champagne. Is it any wonder that our elders, as they grow older and wiser, opt to stay home and turn in before midnight? America’s most iconic New Year’s Eve celebration, the one that captures the attention of the whole country, has massive crowds gathering in New York City’s most garish neighborhood, where they watch a large ball drop as C-list celebrities narrate on TV. The typical NYC dweller can’t be lured to Times Square for dinner on an ordinary evening, so I can’t imagine how pre-New Year’s conversations go for those who attend. “Would you like to stand out in the freezing cold for hours with no place to sit or use the bathroom and drunks pressed against you on all sides?” 

So my wish for New Year’s 2013 – that we have a more global perspective. Technology is surely pushing us this way, but we could do our part to move it along instead of waiting to be pushed another step forward.

So think outside your national and cultural borders this year – they become ever more porous as technology transforms the way we communicate, share and interact with each other. If you do, we’ll all benefit.


Dec 152012
A young boy is comforted outside Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut,

A young boy is comforted outside Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012 (Reuters / Michelle McLoughlin

More gun violence. My heart goes out to those affected by the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut as 20 small children and seven adults die in one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. One recoils at the horror of what the children in that school went through; and it’s impossible to fathom the pain and suffering that the families, the communities and so many others will feel.

Already the political snipping have started – Huckabee’s bizarre remark that the killings are due to God being removed from the schools ( as if this has anything to do with it) to those who argue for tougher gun control (Connecticut already has tough gun laws and the guns used were registered). There will be time enough to talk about solutions but the underlying issue here is a strain of violence that runs deep through our culture and people who can act out their mental health issues with immense firepower at their disposal.

At the same time (or the same day more or less), a man in China walked into a primary school in the Henan province village of Chengpin and attacked 22 young children and one adult. We don’t know what was troubling him, but the difference was that all the children are still alive.

He used a knife.

Here, someone picks up a Glock semiautomatic pistol and puts on a military vest before entering a primary school to shed blood. Glocks seem to be a favorite of those bent on a deadly rampage, used in killings in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Perhaps because they’re so effective.

But I don’t see an easy answer to the gun violence here. It goes beyond access to the weapons themselves – it’s not video games, movies, or television but something else. Those are all the easy targets, the easy answers to something we do not understand.

For now, a short piece by Roger Ebert from his review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and reposted in Kottke.org:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Everybody was happy, indeed.

Sadly, we’ll probably make ourselves happy again, finding something easy to condemn for the shooting, bemoaning the gun violence we hear about so frequently and missing the deeper issue entirely. But there will be no comfort for the people in Newtown.

Nov 232012
Customers wait in line for doorbuster deals at the Kmart on Addison Street in Chicago on Thanksgiving Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.

Customers wait in line for doorbuster deals at the Kmart on Addison Street in Chicago which opened at 6:00 am on Thanksgiving Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.

Thanksgiving is over and now Black Friday is here – an American social phenomenon I’ve never quite understood. I get waiting in line for a good deal (though it would have to be a really good deal) yet this seems much more about the mass psychology of the good deal rather than any real bargains. The numbers are fairly staggering: in 2011, an estimated 226 million people spent an average of $398 dollars each.

But did they get a deal?

A study in an October Wall Street Journal article revealed Black Friday shoppers often pay more than they would have if they waited until closer to Christmas or even bought what they wanted three or four weeks prior to Thanksgiving. Yes, there are many cases where there’s an increase in prices in the weeks leading up to the infamous Friday ordeal.

After crunching two to six years’ worth of pricing data for a number of typical holiday gifts, The Wall Street Journal has turned up the best times to go deal hunting — and they almost never involve standing in the freezing cold all night.

It turns out that gifts from Barbie dolls to watches to blenders are often priced below Black Friday levels at various times throughout the year, even during the holiday season, and their prices follow different trajectories as the remaining shopping days tick down.

Watches and jewelry, typical last-minute quarry for well-heeled shoppers, get more expensive as the season progresses, according to Decide Inc., the consumer-price research firm that gathered and analyzed the data for this article. Blenders, which might sit around for months if they aren’t bought in the holiday window, get much cheaper at the end.

The results reveal a lot about how retailers plot pricing strategy ahead of the year-end shopping frenzy that can account for a fifth or more of their sales. They also highlight how the industry has managed to use more sophisticated technology to turn Black Friday into a marketing bonanza by carefully selecting items for deep discounts while continuing to price broader merchandise at levels that won’t kill profits. 

So a few deep discounts can lead to a “marketing bonanza” as prices generally do not fall that much. Quite possibly the scarcity aspect factors into this – that limited quantities create the illusion of value greater than the actual discount.

Decide Inc., the consumer-price research firm, crunched the numbers for the Journal and came up with this chart of daily prices of seven popular products ranging from toys to electronics. Suffice it to say, there were multiple times during the year when prices were cheaper, especially if you’re shopping online:

Chart of Product Prices of Seven Popular Items Throughout 2011

Chart of Product Prices of Seven Popular Items Throughout 2011

So my plans for Friday? Go for a walk, see some art, and spend a little time in a cafe writing. And avoid the stress and the chaos that will be particularly acute in Manhattan. Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving.

Sep 242012

Toy train goes to space - at least to the stratosphereThis is so touching – a father sending his 4 year old son’s toy train in space, attaching an HD camera to video the trip, and then recovering the train through GPS. It’s no small achievement but much easier than it would have been a decade ago. All that was needed was the dearly beloved toy train, a weather balloon, an old iPhone for the GPS, and a HD camera.

The father, Ron Fugelseth, sent it up on an hour-long, twenty-seven miles (across the ground) flight and after recovering the camera, set the video to music. Fugelseth, who works at a digital agency, also added some animation to the face of the train when he processed the video:

My 4 year old and Stanley are inseparable like Calvin and Hobbes. He’s been attached to him since he was two, and they play, sleep and do everything together. I animated Stanley’s face with After Effects and Photoshop to bring him to life how I imagine my son sees him. (YouTube)

You just have to love the way the Stanley the train is smiling on the way up and then frowns as the balloon bursts and begins the bumpy trip back down to the ground. Only to smile again once a successful landing has taken place.

In truth, the toy train is not really going into space, but just some 18 miles up into the stratosphere, the layer right above the troposphere which extends 11 miles above the earth’s surface and is what we depend on to survive. The stratosphere extends some 50 miles above the earth and where space technically begins is an ongoing debate (not surprisingly, the boundary keeps getting extended). But for a young child this is close enough to space.  What’s really important here is that the project itself is both impressive and heartwarming.

And, of course, the child’s reaction is priceless. A toy train in space – this is a joy to watch.

Sep 232012

Say what you will about South Korean rapper PSY’s Gangnam Style video, but will probably have over 250 million views by the time you read this and interest hasn’t faded yet. The video is a strange sequence of moves, a horse-riding like dance that combines odd scenes – trash blown in his face, dancing on a tour bus, in a car park building, singing on a toilet, in a horse stable, and on it goes.

You don’t need to understand Korean to enjoy the entertaining PSY or the repetitive chorus of the song that has become the surprise viral hit. But there’s more going on here then just the odd moves as the video picks apart a fault line in Korean society.

No this didn’t come out of someone’s utterly wild imagination; it’s done as a spoof of a small but very influential segment of Korean society.

So video first, if you haven’t seen it, and then the Christian Science Monitor’s (CSM) effort to unpack the context:

Here’s the analysis from CSM:

Gangnam is the most coveted address in Korea, but less than two generations ago it was little more than some forlorn homes surrounded by flat farmland and drainage ditches.

The district of Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river,” is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 percent of Seoul’s population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about $716,000, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.

The seats of business and government power in Seoul have always been north of the Han River, in the neighborhoods around the royal palaces, and many old-money families still live there.

Gangnam, however, is new money, the beneficiary of a development boom that began in the 1970s.

As the price of high-rise apartments skyrocketed during a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s, landowners and speculators became wealthy practically overnight. The district’s rich families got even richer.

The new wealth drew the trendiest boutiques and clubs and a proliferation of plastic surgery clinics, but it also provided access to something considered vital in modern South Korea: top-notch education in the form of prestigious private tutoring and prep schools. Gangnam households spend nearly four times more on education than the national average.

The notion that Gangnam residents have risen not by following the traditional South Korean virtues of hard work and sacrifice, but simply by living on a coveted piece of geography, irks many. The neighborhood’s residents are seen by some as monopolizing the country’s best education opportunities, the best cultural offerings and the best infrastructure, while spending big on foreign luxury goods to highlight their wealth.

“Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” said Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic. “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”

In a sly, entertaining way, PSY’s song pushes these cultural buttons. 

PSY – his name coming from the first three letters in “Psycho” pulls this off with finesse. His Gangnam Style is anything but Gangnam, as he pokes fun at a community that many Koreans see has having unearned wealth, of having been the recipients of lucky breaks in real estate deals that now lets them afford plastic surgery, spend their time in spas, horseback ride, and enjoy a life of luxury.

PSY may look and act Psycho, but he’s unraveling a seam that lays bare the conflict between rapid gain of economic wealth and a society’s cultural traditions.

Sep 212012

Kate and William greeted by topless islanders

The effort to block the spread of nude photos of William and Kate’s vacation in France is doomed to fail, and frankly, the significance of nudity all depends on its context as the Duchess so easily saw on the remaining days of their tour. The topless photos of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, continue to spread with their publication by a gossip magazine in Denmark, Se och Hoer, following on the heels of their sister magazine in Sweden.

Legal Action

In France, the magazine Closer was fined and ordered to hand over all copies of the photos:

A French court ordered a magazine publisher to hand over all digital copies of topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge within 24 hours and blocked furtherpublication of what it called a “brutal display” of William and Kate’s private moments.

Under the ruling Tuesday, the publisher of the French gossip magazine Closer faces a daily fine of €10,000 ($13,100) if it fails to hand over the photos featured in Friday’s “world exclusive” issue of Prince William’s wife Kate. The photos were taken without authorization during the royals’ vacation at a private residence in southern France.

The court also handed out an injunction to stop Closer France from republishing the offending pictures — including on its website and its tablet app — as well as re-selling them.

A statement Tuesday from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge said they “welcome the judge’s ruling.” Maud Sobel, a lawyer for the royal couple, described it as “a wonderful decision.”

“We’ve been vindicated,” Sobel said.

Calling that “vindication” is a hollow victory.

Even if the Royal Family wants to continue legal action, it’s becoming impossible. First, there’s the obstacle of national borders – which the Internet simply ignores and courts simply have to abide by – and the laws in each country. In Italy, paparazzi can take photos as long as they’re standing on public property. The nude photos of Kate were taken from almost a half mile away(!) with a telephoto lens (nice lens, essential hardware for any paparazzi) , but the photographer wasn’t on the property of the chateau. And anyways, an injunction by a French court is not enforceable in other countries.

All Copies?

Secondly, no one knows the source of the photos in the Danish magazine. Possibly they were sent prior to the injunction. Perhaps after. Handing over “all copies” is near impossible unless everyone who had the digital copies cleaned out their computers along with the Sent box of their email accounts and the Temporary directory in their operating system.

And how would you enforce this? Send someone in to go through everyone’s computer at Closer? And how would that keep someone from passing it on through a USB key or similar portable storage?

Give me a break.

There are no originals photos here. As Walter Benjamin would appreciate, the image you view on your screen is already a copy. Everything is viral-like even at the most basic level of our operating systems.

UK Press Left Out Again

We’ve been here before. The Mirror notes that:

It is worth noting that the pictures remain unpublished by the UK press. As with the pictures of Prince Harry , where The Mirror and most other papers did not publish, William and Kate’s privacy is being respected.

Here in the UK, self-restraint is working more effectively than supposedly strong European privacy laws.

Restraint is more effective than privacy laws in the digital era, but the images are easily accessible online and the UK press is heading toward the same situation it was in with the Prince Harry images – they’ll be available everywhere but in the UK, driving more readers to pass on the papers and grab their “news” (such as this is) from online.

But in a way, the position of the UK press is admirable, even if there’s a bit of not wanting to anger the Royal Family or run up against UK regulations. If almost everything “public” (even at a half mile) can be recorded, it can be distributed and restraint becomes the last remaining drawbridge in the castle of privacy.

Chill Out

Calming down and letting it go may be the best advice. Trust me, the news cycle will soon move on to something else. Maybe even something with more substance and consequence for us all – such as Syria or a downward spiraling EU economy.

Tom Sykes in the Royalist on the Daily Beast has best comment on this entire affair:

In his editorial, editor Signorini argues that “instead of getting angry with the media, who are just exercising their right to report, the royal family should, in my humble opinion, run with the ball and react with typical Anglo-Saxon humour, saying ‘So what?’”.

The Royalist agrees.

Anything else is a waste of time in a deeply interconnected digital world.

Sep 172012
Britain's Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wave to staff as they leave Hospis Malaysia, the largest hospice in the country, in Kuala Lumpur September 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Samsul Said

Britain’s Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wave to staff as they leave Hospis Malaysia, the largest hospice in the country, in Kuala Lumpur September 13, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/Samsul Said

As if there were not enough problems with the nude photos of William and Kate in the French magazine Closer, the Italian magazine Chi published 18 images over 19 pages on Monday of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While it’s an issue for the Royal Family, there are more basic privacy issues that affect us all.

The Scandalous / Not Scandalous Photos

The defiant editor of Chi, Alfonso Signorini, has already tweeted that “not even a direct call from the Queen” will stop publication. Chi‘s Monday’s cover with three images of a topless princess was already available by Saturday in the Italian press and on TV.

And the headline from Monday’s edition? “Court Scandal: The Queen is Nude!’ This, of course, from an editor who also claimed that:

These pictures are not offensive or in poor taste, they are not morbid and they do not damage the dignity of anyone. (USA Trends)

Clearly some words – perhaps all – have no meaning. Or to put it differently, meaning here is as pixelated as the photos which really don’t reveal all that much.

Good Taste or Not, Royal Nudity is Viral

Obviously, there’s a difference in the latest scandal from the recent situation with Prince Harry in Las Vegas. Those images were not in good taste, there were major security concerns, and one had to wonder about Harry’s own lack of good judgment (Yes, one really had to wonder about the latter). The William and Kate images, already published by Closer and the Irish Daily Star, are just ordinary scenes from their vacation at the Chateau d’Autet, east of Avignon. Okay, most of us don’t stay in a Chateau, but we do the sunbathing part, and in Europe, often topless.

The Royal Family took legal action against the French publication and tried unsuccessfully to stop the Chi publication. But Chi is owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, shall we say, is no friend of moderation. And now interest is coming from other magazines, including some in the United States.

Good taste or bad taste, if people want them, the images will go viral and have a life of their own.

Two Points – the Web and Privacy

Two points here that go beyond the issue of royalty revealing a little flesh.

The House of Windsor ‘s efforts to stop the publication of the photos – through public expressions of dismay and legal action – is essentially futile given that the images are coming online. Even if not directly posted on the tabloid websites, someone will scan them. And once online in the  highly distributed network of the Web, you might slow their distribution but it’s near impossible to stop. Once the images are out of the hands of the photographer, your leverage – both moral and legal – is gone.

Secondly, the episode with Harry in Las Vegas and now William and Kate in France is just further confirmation that we are entering a radically different era, one that will challenge our understanding of personal space and public personas. The blurry telephoto images of a Prince and Princess – however offensive to some sensibilities, however pointless to others – are just one more crack in the crumbling dam behind which is a deluge that marks the end of privacy as we know it.

Think this is a major issue?  Wait until Google Glass comes out. Are you photographing me? Am I videoing you? Is a corporation analyzing my every move? Our interaction with each other? For an overview of some of the challenges here, see the recent article in The Next Web, “Google’s Project Glass is Cool, But It Raises a Number of Privacy Concerns.”

And the recent news on webcam dating blackmail just adds to the opportunities where you may find yourself in a compromising position.

Celebrities tend to get impacted sooner as they are public figures but we all are stepping into this realm together, one that is remarkable for the reach and access that each of us have not withstanding our physical location, but one that simultaneously undermines the notion of physical space and the individual privacy embedded within it. Back in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg basically announced that privacy as a “social norm” is dead. It was a clarion call to a future that we may not like but seemingly cannot avoid.

The Duke and Duchess are fighting a minor skirmish that – as important as it is to them and others – I suspect will seem laughable a decade from now. So in the words of Prince Harry, it’s time to “keep calm and carry on” over this little kerfuffle, for it’s only the beginning.

Aug 022012
Afghanistan. Photo credit: Steve McCurry

Afghanistan. Photo credit: Steve McCurry

You probably know Steve McCurry’s photographs – or at least one very famous one, the Afghan Girl photo that was on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June 1985 – but he has continued to produce a remarkable body work. He latest effort on his blog is a series of photos of people reading in various settings around the world. Add in the quotes from a number of famous writers and you have a thought-provoking visual essay.

A quote by Victor Hugo from the site:

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.

In the image above, you cannot help but wonder where these young Afghan girls will be in twenty years. Hopefully the future will live up to the potential in their eyes.

Jul 232012
Pink Slime

Photo: danieljordahl/Flick

Of all the things that bother me about our food, pink slime - or as the industry refers to it: “lean finely textured beef – has to be one of the most troubling. Something about having waste meat and other parts of beef on my plate I just can’t handle. But this is one case of a technological advance (if one can dignify it with that phrase) where the public backlash is having an effect. Here’s the deal from Mother Nature Network in an article on “The Nine Nastiest Things in your Supermarket.”

The meat industry likes to call it “lean finely textured beef,” but after ABC News ran a story on it, the public just called it what it looks like — pink slime, a mixture of waste meat and fatty parts from higher-quality cuts of beef that have had the fat mechanically removed. Afterwards, it’s treated with ammonia gas to kill Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. Then it gets added to ground beef as a filler. Food microbiologists and meat producers insist that it’s safe, but given the public’s reaction to the ABC News report, there’s an “ick” factor we just can’t overcome. The primary producer of pink slime just announced that it’s closing three of the plants where pink slime is produced, and Kroger, Safeway, Food Lion, McDonald’s and the National School Lunch Program (among others) have all pulled it from their product offerings.

The other eight are pretty gross – jet fuel in your lettuce, perhaps? – if you care to see what else is in your diet.

Jun 232012
Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi

Most innovative tall building in 2011: Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi

As cities continue to grow and run out of space, one solution is to build ever taller buildings – despite the poor economy, 2011 set a record with 88 new buildings over 200 meters (656 ft.) high (compared to 32 back in 2005). If all goes as planned we’ll approach a hundred new tall buildings this year.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), the more or less official judge of building height (they were at the center of the which-is-taller- controversy of the Sears Tower versus the Petronas Towers a few years back), has recently tried to determine what was the most beautiful tall building completed last year. This is actually a topic dear to my heart since my grandfather was a well-known (and very controversial) architect in Rhode Island – I spent my summers as a teen working at his firm, visiting construction sites, and watching him battle government and private officials as he argued for both utility and beauty in the commissions he worked on.

Three points stand out in the CTBUH competition:

  • Almost everything highlighted in the competition had dropped the rectangular form of the traditional skyscraper. A nice change that may finally mark the death-knell of Modernism (at least the Modernism of the minimalist box). The new buildings tend not to be heavy on decoration but through their unique forms, they are becoming decoration in themselves, accents on the skylines of the urban environment.
  • There’s finally some real innovation going on in terms of incorporating natural light and minimizing heat from the sun. Some of this may be due to the number of tall buildings completed in the Middle East where sun is a major factor, but most of the buildings on the list actually seem to be situated in the surroundings – perhaps not down at street level, but at least terms of the overall building and the environment.
  • Open space in the interior has returned. Given the economic pressures to maximize the use of every available square foot this is remarkable. No, we’re not building more Grand Central Terminals, but at least the dreary low ceiling entrances seem to be on their way out.

And the winner of the competition? Actually there are four as they selected one from each of four geographical areas. But I’ll go with the building singled as the most innovative tall building in the world – the Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi. It has a dynamic façade that opens and closes with the movement of the sun across the sky (thus reducing solar gain siginifcantly). My grandfather who was way ahead of his own time – and actually designed his own home around a stately old oak tree that shaded the entire structure – would have loved it.

A nice set of photos will be found at Business Insider.

Jun 072012

Groupon Deal

I’m not sure what to make of this as a few sites have described the latest offer by Groupon in Chicago as a moment of levity. But I’ll go with the Chicagoist and others who see it as the “creepiest deal ever” offered by the online daily deals site, Groupon.

Yes, you read it right – an offer to be tucked into bed by a stranger. I’m trying to imagine how those in other parts of the world might see this if they stumbled across it online. The 800 million living on a dollar a day? The unemployed in Spain and Greece? Those hiding in village streets in northern Syria? Take your pick or add your own.

I know, I know, it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s incredibly hard to get the image out of your head. Not to mention how he might get out of your house once you’re “tucked-in.” As the Chicagoist noted:

Groupon is offering a deal today that pushes the boundaries of the forced-quirkiness of its sense of humor. It reads like an NSA Craigslist ad that we don’t want to know the end of. . . . 

. . . Thanks for the nightmares, Groupon. There’s something about the tenderness of a warm tuck-in that makes this extra weird.

As for the deal itself, here’s Groupon’s description:

Upon entering your bedroom, Ben Kobold immediately begins to analyze your linen seams and pillow placement, planning a tucking strategy as you enjoy a glass of water he has poured for you. After you hydrate, Ben’s sinewy, well-groomed fingers delicately raise each sheet and blanket over your body until you’re comfortably bundled. Careful not to disturb any children who may be in the adjacent room, Ben leans in and uses his summer-breeze-like voice to gently sing you one of the five lullabies he has authored. 

Good grief . . . nightmares, indeed.

May 302012
People standing in the middle of an NYC street to view Manhattanhenge.

Photo: aonghais's flickr

UPDATE: When the sun doesn’t shine, Manhattanhenge is a bit of bust. Well, it’s twice a year so everyone will have another shot later this summer. I was going to try a shot through the windows from the inside of Grand Central on the balcony of the Apple store (as the station is aligned with the street grid) but didn’t wait around with the cloud cover. 

It’s that time of the year again when NYC has it’s own encounter with the path of the sun aligning with the east-west street grid in Manhattan - Manhattanhenge - a term coined by the astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Manhattanhenge – our own little Manhattan Solstice – is a semiannual occurrence named after Stonehenge, where the sun aligns with the stones twice a year on the solstices.

The light is beautiful during Manhattanhenge as we get some incredible sunsets in Manhattan (though I’ve always suspected that is due to the chemicals in the air on the New Jersey side of the river). But since Tyson named it, it’s become something like a community event.

What’s most peculiar of course is that the alignment has been here ever since the street grid was laid out in the early 1800′s. No doubt the view is more remarkable due to the development of high-rise buildings in the 1920′s and later. But honestly, when I first came to Manhattan in the 1980′s, it was not something anyone made a big deal about. I suppose we noticed it off and on, but conceptualizing it in the press and giving it a name transforms its significance. Of course, this is not just true of astronomical events as naming helps any phenomena rise to the surface of our cultural consciousness.

Not to quickly change the topic (but I will as – sorry – it’s bothering me ), sometimes one feels that the events in Syria require a new name since we’re dealing with something uniquely horrifying. It’s not ethnic-cleansing nor is it simply genocide – though that may be the closest term we have. It’s large-scale state-sponsored slaughter in response to peaceful revolt and we lack a term for a government that practices this with apparent impunity. Especially when they have the backing of one of the major members of the UN – Russia. Last night CNN was referring to Russia as Syria’s “lawyer”. Surely we can come up with a better term than that. Defender? Not strong enough. Enabler? Closer, but we use this for individual psychological issues. Naming it won’t stop the violence, but it might help impress upon us the urgency of the situation. There has to be a better term here. More on that later.

Back to the sun and Manhattan. If you’re in NYC this evening, take a look toward the west a few minutes before 8:16pm. But a word of caution applies – it’s not wise to stand in the middle of a Manhattan street. Trust me on this one. More details on this evening’s Manhattanhenge at the Gothamist.

Manhattanhenge - Sun setting in alignment with Manhattan street grid.

Manhattanhenge - Sun setting in alignment with Manhattan street grid. Photo via michaelnyc's flickr

May 022012

I’ve been meaning to write about the recent release of 870,000 digitized photos from the New York City Municipal Archives database of over 2.2 million images of New York in the 20th century but the NYC website has been overwhelmed with visitors. The images cover a vast range of everyday life in New York, from early technology and scenes on the streets to aerial photographs and will be an incredible resource for faculty and students and anyone with a curiosity about the City or American life during this period.

I’ll come back to it later when the access improves but for now, two of my favorite photos reproduced in The Atlantic where you can see a few more. The first is painters on the Brooklyn Bridge and the second, the Fire Department showing off its “new” steam-powered pumper – a behemoth of technology, recently converted (1912!) from horse-drawn. Ah, the wonders of modern technology!

Painters suspended on cables of the the Brooklyn Bridge, on October 7, 1914. (Eugene de Salignac/Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

Painters suspended on cables of the the Brooklyn Bridge, on October 7, 1914. (Eugene de Salignac/Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)


New York Fire Department demonstration of a steam pumper converted from horse-drawn to motor-driven, at 12th Avenue and 56th Street. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

New York Fire Department demonstration of a steam pumper converted from horse-drawn to motor-driven, at 12th Avenue and 56th Street. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)


Apr 182012
Norway Killer Breivik Gestures in Court

Norway Killer Breivik Gestures in Court

Looking at Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who massacred 77 people in an attack designed to rid Norway of Islam and multiculturalism, you see his cold calculating cruelty and the sheer horror of that day on Utoya island, outside the Norwegian capital. In his first session of his trial, he announced he would do the same thing again if given the chance.

Oddly enough, he has pleaded innocence even though he acknowledges killing eight people at a government headquarters in Oslo and then 69 people at the youth summer camp. His only fear seems to be an insanity ruling, that somehow, he must prove his own sanity to vindicate what he has done. In court, he said that to be labeled insane is “a fate worse than death.”

Wisely, the court sessions are not broadcast so that he might use them as a platform for his sick views. It’s hardly the media circus a trial like that would engender over here, but bad enough by Scandinavian standards. In defending his anti-Muslim and anti-immigration beliefs, Breivik stated that:

I have carried out the most sophisticated and spectacular political attack committed in Europe since the Second World War. . . . The July 22 attacks were preemptive attacks to defend the Norwegian people and the Norwegian ethnicity.

Breivik faces a maximum 21-year prison sentence but Norwegian law has a provision that would allow his indefinite confinement if he is still considered a danger to society. If ruled insane, he would be held in a psychiatric institution indefinitely.

Unlike in the United States and other countries where an event like this would bring dramatically heightened security, Norway remains an open society, but one struggling to come to terms with an incomprehensible event. Under the courtroom decorum and politeness on the streets, there is drama here, a cultural tragedy in need of healing. Perhaps the article in Reuters stated it aptly:

The trial has been touted in Norway as a way to bring emotional “closure” to a country proud of its tolerance and determined not to let the threat of attacks destroy its open society. But it also has observers, especially foreigners, wondering if Norway’s legal system – which can formally impose a maximum penalty of just 21 years in prison – is being manipulated by a cunning madman to broadcast his racist message.

At times during the courtroom broadcasts, some have felt echoes of the plays of Norway’s great dramatist Henrik Ibsen, where comfortable daily routines are shattered by deep crisis and emotional maelstroms break through the icy veneer of pious, 19th-century bourgeois life. 

And indeed, with all the tensions in Europe over immigration, it was in comfortable security of Norway that the calm was shattered so deeply. And continues to be so with his clenched fist salute, his defiant rejection of the authority of the Norwegian legal system and his insistence that his unspeakable crimes were for the “good” of Norway.


Apr 172012

So the rumors of slain rapper Tupac Shakur playing Coachella turned out to be true – or at least there he was on stage as a hologram with Snoop Dogg to close out the night. Is this the first full-blown hologram on stage to do a performance? As the technology gets better there will be more.

Here’s a few snippets of the four minute performance – the original video has been taken down due to a copyright claim:

Apr 102012

UPDATE (04/10/2012): The garbage dump fire was finally brought under control on Tuesday afternoon. It wasn’t strictly just trash that was burning as it appears the fire began in a mulch pile that underwent spontaneous combustion. Seems to be something that happens fairly often – but this one got out of control due to the wind.

New Yorkers don’t think a great deal about their garbage. We produce enough of it – almost 13,000 tons of residential trash but closer to 32,000 tons when you add the commercial and construction trash every day. If you live in New York City, you become accustomed to the sound of commercial garbage trucks making their rounds late at night. In fact, sleeping for a night in the quiet suburbs is almost scary – there is no noise, no sound of life as there is in Manhattan.

For a long time we did worry about our trash, mostly because we were in the process of building the highest mountain on the East Coast – a towering mound of trash known as the Staten Island Dump. But the dump was closed during the last decade and a comprehensive waste management program put in place – garbage would be compacted or incinerated and hauled out of NYC by rail and truck. Part of that is happening, but much of the plan is tied up in litigation. No one wants a transfer station in their neighborhood and the poorer areas of the City have finally said “Enough!” when it comes to hosting the entire City’s sewer and trash infrastructure projects. In the meantime, we continue to recycle little, toss a great deal, and hope the problem goes away.

No surprise, it doesn’t.

But in the midst of all this, we forgot about all the decades of trash still on Staten Island in a dump now renamed Fresh Kills. With an environment cleanup and new soil on top, it’s become something of a stopover for birds. However, underneath, there’s still trash and on Monday it started burning. As of 5:00pm, it was a 5-alarm fire with 200 firemen on duty and with the winds, there is little prospect of it going out by morning.

I know this hardly looks like a picture of NYC, much less a garbage dump, but indeed it is. It will be a bad commute for many and for those of us in Manhattan, a reminder that the garbage problem is alive and well. You can smell it in the air.

Fresh Kills Trash Fire in Staten Island

Fresh Kills Trash Fire in Staten Island

Feb 152012

Whitney HoustonI’ve never had much sympathy for the music industry but this may just  shatter what little positive feeling I might harbor in the inner recesses of my memory. From the Guardian:

Sony Music UK has apologised for raising the price of Whitney Houston albums following the singer’s death on Saturday night. A spokesperson for the company called the move an “internal mistake due to an employee error”, insisting the elevated prices remained in place for only a few hours.

Whitney Houston product was mistakenly mispriced on the UK iTunes store on Sunday,” Sony told Billboard, the US music industry newspaper. “When discovered, the mistake was immediately corrected. We apologise for any offence caused.” 

An “employee error”?

While Sony says this only affected iTunes downloads for a brief period, it appears that the UK retailer HMV may have also been pressured to raise prices. No hard evidence of this, but when you already have a “mistake” on the one hand, it would not be surprising to find the error was much broader than acknowledged.

Okay, I’ve read my Adam Smith and realize that this is just capitalism at work, the traditional dynamic of supply and demand. Just ask anyone who has tried to buy groceries (or something as necessary as clean water) in the midst of a hurricane). Except in a digital world, supply is no longer the issue – at least until the servers crash and the bandwidth chokes. This is simply capitalizing on demand and at its most cynical, one could say: capitalizing on the grief of Whitney Houston’s fans.

The music industry still doesn’t get it – even in adjusting to the new economics of digital downloads. Doing business online also means upholding your reputation. It’s just as important as the goods or services you offer. Shatter that and your customers will very quickly go elsewhere.

And elsewhere in this case can well mean illegal downloads. Sony, are you really that eager to dig your own grave?

Feb 062012

Not every ad makes it to the Super Bowl and the “Veggie Love” ad from PETA got a response from NBC detailing what needed to be removed (pretty much every scene). People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has over 3 million members and supporters and is the largest animal rights organization in the world. And they are well known for their controversial tactics in fighting to end animal cruelty in factory farms, the clothing trade, testing laboratories, and entertainment.

The supposedly offensive content is listed in a email from NBC – honestly, the list seems more explicit than some of PETA’s commercials – and includes the following:

  • licking pumpkin
  • touching her breast with her hand while eating broccoli
  • pumpkin from behind between legs
  • rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin
  • screwing herself with broccoli (fuzzy)
  • asparagus on her lap appearing as if it is ready to be inserted into vagina
  • licking eggplant
  • rubbing asparagus on breast

Whew! And all that in a couple of 30 second spots. But you can see for yourself if the commercial managed to portray what NBC saw. I don’t find the ad particularly compelling, but given how much sensuality has us on edge in our culture, the network’s response is not surprising. Interestingly enough, comments on PETA’s site are pretty much split down the middle both for and against the ad. Here is the “Veggie Love” ad and a couple of other banned ads on the PETA Website. Your thoughts?

Jan 222012
Paper iPad for Chinese New Year

Paper iPad for Chinese New Year

Fascinating how culture adapts to, and assimilates, objects in the environment.

The Chinese New Year, or “Spring Festival” involves a number of rituals including the burning of joss, or fake money and other objects made of paper. But one of the big items this year are iPhones and iPads, elaborately constructed out of  paper and placed on a fire to send to the departed. Via The Next Web.

Have to make life easier for those who have passed on. Thankfully, Apple products tend to be free of viruses, if that’s still a problem in the Afterworld. On the other hand, there’s probably still a need for a Genius Bar if the lines in the New York are any indication.



Jan 152012

Aljazeera visits the small town of Sidi Bouzid one year after the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as a result of the revolution in Tunesia. The town was the home of Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire on December 17th in the local market after having his vegetable cart confiscated by the police, sparking an uprising that continues to shake the Arab world.

And a year later? There is justifiable pride and still a degree of hope, particularly in this small town – that much is undeniable. But there is also frustration and growing anger at the lack of change, a perception that despite all that has happened, jobs and education are still scarce, especially outside the capital city:

Jan 132012

No, consumers are not turning against Apple, though you wonder when that day will come (and some day it will). These are just angry Chinese consumers who cannot get their hands on a new iPhone. The iPhone 4S went on sale in China, crowds lined up, and the stores remained closed “. . . to ensure the safety of our customers and employees.”

From BBC News:

An Apple store in the Sanlitun area of Beijing failed to open after a large crowd gathered outside in anticipation of the launch. The crowd became unruly, throwing eggs. Scuffles broke out with police. 

You can still order the iPhone online in China but Apple is currently out of stock. Below is a video of the not-so-happy crowds that waited all night for the store to open. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of them sound just like angry consumers in the States . . . waiting to crash the doors at a Walmart or BestBuy for the Thanksgiving deals. Soon they’ll be taking tips from American shoppers on how to get to the front of the line. Pepper spray anyone?

Sometimes you feel like the ultimate ideal of humanity is to end as a consumer. No doubt there are far worse fates to be had, however . . .

Jan 122012
Japanese Department Store Ad

Japanese Department Store Ad

This came up a few days back due to the language (see the original ad here) but the Osaka, Japan department store has now redone their storefront windows. Never done as an online advertisement, it was photographed and distributed via Jake Adelstein’s Japan Subculture blog. Ironically, the phrase “fuckin sale” is simply a pun on fukubukuro—”lucky bags,” where stores put left over merchandise into discounted grab bags. Even Apple does it and draws unbelievably long lines for their expensive bags of Apple products that you can’t see until after you purchase them. But sorry, there was no “fuckin’ Apple” sale.

This is hardly the first time that words haven’t translated as intended in the global business environment (though Snopes.com completely debunks the oft-cited example of the Chevy Nova), but this one never intended to go beyond its immediate context. Until, that is, it hit the Web.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year in Japan – either there will be no signs like this or absolutely hundreds given all the free publicity the store generated.