Archive for the ‘Everyday garbage’ Category

Replace public advertising with art.

Imagine if all of the advertisements on billboards, in metro stations, on buses, inside buses, on walls, and on the sides of buildings were replaced with art. Imagine that as you stand on the train or drive on the freeway, instead of vapid images intended to manipulate and dehumanize you, you were shown art intended to inspire, challenge, entertain and enrich you.

Suppose that these artworks came from the same variety of sources and rotated with the same frequency as do advertisements. Many of the same graphic designers and photographers could be employed in this new enterprise. The billboard, as an artistic medium, would still lend itself to bold imagery that can be quickly absorbed, something former advertising employees would know how to make. Metro posters, on the other hand, can be studied for cumulative hours by commuters, who currently see the same ones daily for months. This medium lends itself to the complexity of more traditional visual fine arts.

You may object that it would be impossible to select art that everyone would like. True enough. We could use various voting-based selection processes but we might end up with the billboard equivalent of a lot of Thomas Kincaid. Likely, we would want to do some selections by committee, and have some element of competition among the artists. But more importantly, consider the status quo: the images currently displayed make people and neighborhoods worse off; as evidence, virtually everyone would prefer no advertisements if given the choice. It would not be difficult to do better than the current selection of images when freed from the profit motive driving them.

You may next ask, who pays for it? But of course, you are already paying. And not merely with your money, but with your free will and individuality, by buying things you don’t want and wanting things you wouldn’t have cared about. What I am suggesting is that rather than launder our money through corporations, we spend it directly and in our own collective interest. So the new enterprise would be publicly funded. One can imagine variations based on the public radio model or locally-minded foundations, but ultimately the citizens benefit and the citizens ought to pay.

How could this start? A city could do it. Transit agencies have great leeway to determine images in and on their property. Billboard restrictions remain legally contentious, but 4 states have long-standing bans, Los Angeles’ and New York’s restrictions have been upheld in court, and New York’s even distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial signage. The long-term benefits in population growth and tourism might very well outweigh the lost revenue from advertising on public property. Some local businesses might be hurt, but others would benefit from less attention being diverted to national brands.

No doubt, a transformation of our urban landscape from advertising to art would meet with challenges from vested interests. Yet, imagine a visual culture than inspires rather than manipulates. Isn’t it worth trying?

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Unprovoked pepper-spraying of UC Davis students

This excellent article about police spraying peaceful, seated UC Davis students with pepper spray brings up several important points missing from other OWS reporting:

  1. Standing arm-in-arm and sitting are the essence of non-violent protest tactics, widely used by Dr. Martin Luther King and others, against which violent police tactics are never justified. Authority figures are trying to call these tactics violent in order to justify police brutality.
  2. The vague and hypothetical threats to public health and safety posed by Occupations pale in comparison to the actual injuries inflicted by the police attempting to stop them. The “public health” threat has been evoked over and over by mayors and chancellors to justify breaking up the camps. Did anyone do the cost-benefit calculation? Police actions are far more hazardous and dangerous these days than protests.
  3. Police brutality in the face of Occupy protests is directly related to the militarization of police forces in the name of the “War on Terror”. Police departments bought all these fancy toys with Homeland Security money, and now they feel they have to use them. Glenn Greenwald makes this point in more detail.

Taxpayers, are you getting that? The police took billions of your tax dollars to outfit themselves with military-style gadgetry and now, as a reward, they are using them not on terrorists, or violent criminals, or even petty drug users, but on you, to prevent you from freely assembling and speaking.

Recent events give the impression that the world has lost its moral compass. You have Chancellors of UC Berkeley and Davis, who are probably very nice, intelligent, left-leaning people, authorizing violence against their own students and afterward asserting the necessity of the tactics. Why are authorities so scared to death of the Occupy protests? Why do the police keep fucking up and getting away with it? Are the violent suppressions going to work? I hope not.

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A few thoughts on Occupy Oakland

I went to Occupy Oakland last night for the celebration of their one-month anniversary. What was supposed to be a party with music, dancing, and cake, turned out to be a candlelight vigil. A young man was shot to death earlier in the day in the same plaza as the camp. And although the shooting apparently had nothing to do with the Occupy movement — an instance of neighborhood violence common in Oakland — the crowd showed profound sympathy for the victim and his family. After a couple of visiting union leaders and a clergy representative said a few words, we had a period of silence for the vigil. As I paced the perimeter of Frank Ogawa Plaza, carrying a candle in a paper cup, I had some time to observe the camp and contemplate its role.

It was a tumultuous day for the Bay Area Occupy movement. The previous night, a large demonstration in Berkeley followed when police beat UC Berkeley students with batons for trying to establish their own Occupation. In the afternoon, some Oakland City Council members and business leaders held a press conference about a mile from the Occupy Oakland camp to call for its removal. Occupy supporters showed up and shouted down the speakers. At the same time, Mayor Quan visited and the camp and, in an apparent change of heart 2 weeks after her last reversal, told the Occupiers they would have to leave.

The Mayor and other detractors uniformly say that they agree with Occupy’s message, and that they support free speech, but that sleeping in the plaza is causing the problems. It is a “safety hazard” and attracts the wrong element, hurting downtown businesses. They have a point. Oakland’s struggling downtown businesses are not helped by tear-gas raids, broken windows, or (additional) multitudes of homeless people.

From my own observations, the people at Occupy Oakland are not generally people you would want hanging out around outside your downtown sandwich shop or clothing store. But these are the people you would want to band with, post apocalypse. They are capable, practical people, with a diverse set of skills, able to take a small patch of mud and create all the elements of a functioning community: food service, with an elaborate pantry and kitchen; education, with the library and daily classes and trainings; government, with the General Assemblies and committee system; health care, with medics and the medic tent; entertainment, with the music tent and its ceaseless drum circle; and well-being, with their daily scheduled yoga and meditation. Some of these are also like the people you’d be stuck with, post-apocalypse: crazy people, mentally damaged by the apocalyptic trauma; leachers, looking out for themselves; and fringe types, who survived the doom because they were holed-up somewhere far from people and now they aren’t very well socialized.

But let’s set aside for a moment the question of ills wrought by Occupy Oakland’s choice of location. (Yes, one thing Occupy Wall Street has going for it is that no one cares about hurting the business of the adjacent megabanks.) One Oakland business leader had wondered bitterly to the press why protesters always choose 14th & Broadway to demonstrate when the rich people are all elsewhere. Here is the answer: the symbolism can not be beat. City Hall towers over Frank Ogawa Plaza, all white stone and columns, much like any capital building in Sacramento or Washington, looking every bit the seat of power that it was designed to be. Glass office buildings bear down on other sides and traffic lumbers by on Broadway, downtown’s central drag. A person standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza feels small and humbled. But a crowd standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza knows that everyone in all those window can see them — in fact, can’t ignore them — and feels empowered.

If I were Mayor Quan, I would look out the window of my mayoral office at the 180-tent encampment below and I would be afraid. Not afraid for my personal safety, but surely for my political future. I would be afraid because this ragtag bunch of unemployed kids has twice the proportion of public support that I do. I would be afraid because this scruffy homeless encampment can rally 10,000 to march on a week’s notice [3]. I would be afraid because every move I make would be scrutinized by the populist hoard below, each of them hungry for a reason to protest.

I don’t have a better answer than anyone else about how we can turn the Occupy movement into real change. But this is my feeling: When the President of the United States looks out his window at the masses and feels fear, when congressmen look down the Capital steps at the demonstrations below and feel fear, that is when we will get the change we’re looking for.

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We have time or we don’t have time. We buy time or we lose time. But time cannot be owned. And so, how can it be lost?

Often, I fight time. It is scarce. Internally, I rail against its scarcity. Externally, I go faster. Dangerously fast. Internally, I feel helpless. I grit my teeth. Externally, I do not do one third of the things I have planned. Meanwhile, I do other things. Useless things. Internally, I feel bad about this.

Time is a limited container. Fill it with what you will. Put in the large rocks of your schedule first: work, doctor’s appointments, crises, sleep. Sleep is sandstone, softer than the others. You may break off a peice here and there to make it fit. Then, add the smaller and rounder stones of meals, visits with friends, concerts, errands, showers. It is tempting to shake the container at this point, to settle the contents and make room for a few more. Do not do this. Leave room for travel time. Now, add the sand of daily life. Fill the space with e-mail, television, chatting in the hall, reading a few pages on the train, buying a candy bar. Finally, pour in the water of thoughts, paces, breaths, and sighs. Is the container full? Does it hold everything you want?

Of course not. But time is not a limited container. The containers are constructs of our own creation. A day is a basket, woven out of numbers and social conventions. I have woven a basket, and now I am upset that it doesn’t hold everything I want it to hold. The limits, I feel, are imposed by the fabric of the universe. Time is scare and I am helpless to stretch it, to wind it back, to own more of it. But really, I have just mismatched the basket and what I want to carry.

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Greetings and modes of transportation

To get to work, I have to pass through a guard station and have my badge checked. The guards are mostly big, beefy guys in SWAT gear, but friendly. When I drive in, I usually get a “Thank you, sir” or “Have a good day, sir.” When I bike in, however, I get a “How’s it goin’, man?” or “Hey, man,” followed with “Have a good one” or similar. Apparently on a bicycle I am more a man of the people. That, or I command less respect.

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I was listening to PBS NewsHour yesterday and was struck by some of the messages from corporate sponsors. For example:

…solving climate change is going to require energy. What if that energy came from an energy company? Chevron. Harnessing the power of human energy.

And then:

Bank of America. Helping America out of the financial crisis.

Apparently it was “corporations pretending to solve the problems they helped create” night for NewsHour sponsors.

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Liveblogging unemployment

When I was in the crunch of finishing several projects before my fellowship ended, I had all kinds of fantasies about the many things I would do during my partly-hoped-for, partly-fated break in employment. One of those things was a return to blogging, which I entirely neglected in said crunch.

Desire to be online as a function of time online

Desire to be online as a function of time online

However, oddly enough, I have less inclination to go online now in total than I used to during non-work hours (when I was already spending most of the day online). My friend put it this way, describing her experience on maternity leave: “You get inside your own bubble, and you don’t want anything to intrude on that bubble.” That includes news, phone calls, emails. I wonder if spending time online isn’t a diminishing returns phenomenon. Like you most want to spend more time online only after you’ve been online a lot (see figure).

One thing that has surprised me about unemployment so far: some things that used to seem hopelessly tedious are somewhat satisfying, such as practicing scales and reading bottom-of-the-stack, good-for-you books like “People’s History of the United States” and a macroeconomics textbook (after the financial crisis, I figured I should understand macro econ better).

Well, back to not working…

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Everybody say “queso”

International tourists are common near my office. This afternoon I was passing a group Spanish-speaking tourists taking a group photo. The woman holding the camera intoned “Uno, dos, tres … queso!” Now, I always thought the tradition of saying “cheeeeeese” while one’s picture is being taken stems from the approximation of a smile one’s mouth forms when making the “ee” sound. But could it be that cheese is simply a cross-cultural symbol of happiness? Or was the woman making an ironic cultural reference? Or is saying “cheese” for a picture something spanish-speakers have adopted from English in contradiction with the original motivation? Any of those explanations is kind of hilarious.

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Investment banking

Classical strategy: “Buy low, sell high.”

Enron executive strategy: “Buy high, hide your losses with phony accounting, collect your bonus and get out.”

Lehman Brothers executive strategy: “Buy high, hide your risk with complex financial instruments, collect your bonus and declare bankruptcy.”

Other large investment bank’s executive strategy: “Get ‘too big to fail’. Buy high, sell low. Make up the difference with government bailout money. Continue collecting bonuses.”

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Keep off the grass

A sign on a small patch of lawn outside my workplace reads “Keep off the grass. Motion-activated sprinklers in use.” Is this to keep people from walking on the grass? I think we can put this in the category of things we somehow allow machines to do, even though it would never be acceptable for people to do the same. Could you imagine a guy standing on the edge of the lawn with a hose, spraying anyone who stepped onto it? Also in this category: someone reading your personal email and then trying to sell you things based on the contents.

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Nonsensical hyperbole

I was thinking today about how I often find nonsensical hyberbole really funny, like “Christ on a stick! You are going to hurt your hand if you keep using your iPhone that way.” Or “That woman is dumber than a box of hair.” I appreciate this humor, but I would never use it myself. Somehow I don’t feel qualified to say something like, “Sweet barrels of oil, take a right turn already!” It’s best, of course, with confidant, over-the-top delivery. Perhaps I don’t feel I can pull that off. But, whatever the reason, it makes me wonder how much the humor we appreciate diverges from the humor we use.

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I love pockets.

Especially, I love being able to take things out and put things in my pockets without breaking stride. Like sunglasses or a hat. Or a cellphone, sometimes. If it is a text message, then taking the cellphone out, quickly checking the message, and slipping the phone back into a pocket is quite satisfying. Receiving a call or having to reply to a text while walking is too awkward, however, sapping all the pocket-satisfaction from the experience. Clothing without pockets, or without usable pockets, saddens me (in fact, fake pockets might be even sadder than no pockets). I would go so far as to say that the feminist critique of women’s clothing hasn’t given enough attention to the fact that women are so often deprived of the joys and utilities of pockets.

Since I’m on the topic of pockets, let me mention one other issue: boarding passes. Why aren’t they pocket-sized? Or at least one fold from pocket-sized (for instance, by creasing the standard ones in the middle instead of near the end)? You have to “hold on” to the damn things while you go through airport security. How many hands do they think we have that we can take off our shoes, empty our pockets, take off our coat, remove the liquids from our luggage, take the laptop out and put it in a separate bin, and load everything onto the conveyor belt while holding on to the boarding pass? And hurry up while you’re at it. Even if you have a pocket after taking off your jacket, the boarding pass will not fit in it. The breast pocket of a button-up shirt is a possible exception, depending on the width of the pocket and of the boarding pass. When it works out, having the pocket for the boarding pass makes the whole process significantly easier.

In conclusions, clothing makers, airline companies, you must respect the pocket.

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Refrigerator note

A note on the office refrigerator states that during the last fridge cleaning, “We can’t say for sure, but we know some items date from as far back as March, 2006. And while we realize this is EPA and we do believe in sounds science, this refrigerator is probably not the place to conduct experiments.”

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The sadness of Mann

I love Aimee Mann, but I can’t say her music has much emotional range. I feel like 90% of her songs convey the same dispirited sadness — quiet tragedy viewed through a lens of “oh well” nihilism. (I formulated this before realizing, via google search to determine if anyone else has had this thought, that she played a nihilist in The Big Lebowski. Coincidence?)

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Notes on losing your bag

My messenger bag was stolen recently, including my wallet and phone. The details are not really interesting, but more on that later. For now, a few observations:

  1. When you call a bank and say your card was stolen, the first thing they will ask for is your card number. At the end of the call, knowing it happened that night, they well tell you to “have a great night!”
  2. Cell phones are way more expensive than you think if you’ve only ever gotten one with a service plan (for example, $220 to replace the basic phone I got for $20). Phone companies are also heartless about stolen/broken/lost phones, probably in order to compel you to buy supplementary insurance. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep your old phone around. Thankfully I’ve been too lazy to recycle my old cell phone for the last year. I’m getting by with that now (not sure if I’ll make it 10 months though).
  3. Passports are good for more than just leaving the country. Having a second ID helps with a lot of things, like getting money from the bank when you have no cards, and buying liquor to drown your sorrow over losing your cards.

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Air conditioning and the rise of conservatism

I always felt there was something morally suspect about air conditioning. And yet here in the former swamp of the District, I submit. Check this half-serious Salon article: Does air conditioning make people vote Republican?.

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Return to the digital suburbs

After a long period of blissful ignorance of my Facebook profile and other social networking sites (and, well, let’s face it, my blog as well), I checked in again today, giving in to Moira‘s months of gentle nagging. I accepted a long list of friend requests, made a few trifling profile edits, and Facebook-chatted with my sister who told me Facebook is evil and I should turn back while I still can (it’s too late for her).

Anyone who uses social networking sites should read the Stuff White People Like entry on Facebook which chronicles my personal migration accurately and with clever metaphors. It unfortunately doesn’t describe where LinkIn lies in the digital landscape. I will venture something like a downtown financial district where everything closes up at 5:00.

I have to say, if people fled the cluttered MySpace for the clean design of Facebook, then Facebook is setting itself up to be the next last thing. It is way more cluttered and confusing than it was when last I used it. Especially with all the third-party apps, I get the feeling that if I leave the wrong box checked I’m going to give away my privacy, money, freedom, and probably a piece of my soul. Also pop-up dancing smiley faces will follow me everywhere I go on the web.

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Crocs: Why?


Ugly hunks of garishly-colored plastic. To put on your feet. Really?

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Quote of the day

In another court victory for California’s effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, a federal judge in Fresno threw out a lawsuit filed by the big automakers. (See story in the Sacramento Bee or LA Times.) The best quote on the matter comes from David Bookbinder of the Sierra club, after noting that the automakers keep losing in court, but will probably still file an appeal:

Sooner or later they’re going to have to stop throwing lawyers at the problem and start hiring engineers.

Damn straight.


Quote of the day

I have to share this bit of wisdom from my Good Earth tea bag:

Anything too stupid to be said is sung.


It reminds of the times I’ve tried to write lyrics of my own. I always get stuck because I don’t want to write something too cheesy. But when I read the lyrics of many songs I like without listening to the music, I tend to think, “this is so cheesy”, or “this doesn’t make any sense”.

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