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Memories of a King, the Beale Street Blues Boy

15 May

It’s possible that the first photo I ever saw of B. B. King was on the cover of Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues, an ethnographic study that spilled over into common discourse and made Charlie’s career. And I’m sure I read more about him in that book than I’ve read about him since then. But I don’t recall when I first heard King’s music and I only ever saw him live but twice in my life, once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in upstate New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s and then a bit later in Albany, New York, when I opened for him as a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.

I don’t remember much about the SPAC performance except that before long he had us dancing in the aisles, at least those of us close enough to the aisles that we could get out there and dance. The rest of the rather considerable audience had to be content with giggling and grooving in or in front of their seats. By this time, of course, King’s days of struggling were over and his audiences were mostly white, as are most of the people in the USA – though those days will come to an end some time later in this century.

Dancing in the aisles: that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enters your body, lifts it up, and you become spirit. The blues? Why not, the blues?

My memories of the Albany gig are a bit richer. To be sure, as I recall, King’s music was better at that SPAC gig, for the music comes and goes even with the best of them. Our manager (and saxophonist) Ken Drumm had seen to it that King had champagne waiting for him when he arrived in his dressing room and that got us an opportunity to meet him after the gig. But we had to line up with everyone else – mostly middle aged ladies in big hats and Sunday dresses – and wait our turn. We didn’t have more than a minute, if that, in the man’s presence.

And that meeting is worth thinking about in itself. King was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. I don’t know about the rest of his band, but I recall a thing or two about Out of Control’s line-up at the time: two lawyers (I suppose we could call them ‘Big City’ lawyers for contrast, though Albany isn’t that big of a city), an advertising executive (that would be Mr. Drumm), a commercial photographer, a Berklee College drop-out, a car salesman, and an independent scholar (me). All brought together in the same place at the same time to worship in the church of the blues. I suppose I could invoke the melting pot cliché, but there was no melting going on, though the music was hot enough. As for the pot, to my knowledge the Out of Control boys were clean that night. I don’t know about BB’s band. Continue reading

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Kids These Days: Media Use and Parental Fear

24 Mar

My colleague Charlie Keil is worried that kids these days spend too much time with media of one sort or another (as detailed, e.g. in this report) – TV, computer, video games, whatever – and not enough time interacting directly with one another (in particular, not enough time engaging in music and dance). Meanwhile danah boyd has been researching teen media use and discovers that one reason they spend so much time online is that they can’t easily get together physically. Their lives are tightly scheduled and meeting places are few and far between.

So, is children’s media-use the result of adult micro-management? That is, kids aren’t over using media because they’re so seductive, but because their parents won’t let them play out-doors and play together.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement in favor of so-called “free-range childhood”. As far as I can tell that means growing up like I did. As long as I was home for dinner, for bed, practiced my trumpet, and got my homework done, I could roam the neighborhood as I wished. And I could take public transportation wherever I needed to go. Of course, this was calibrated to my age. I had more freedom at ten than at five, and more at fifteen than at ten. Still, within fairly generously limits, I could wander at will.

Over the past several years I’ve been reading that this kind of childhood is disappearing in favor of one where kids are taken everywhere by their parents and are slotted into all kinds of activities where they are supervised by adults, having less time for free play among themselves.

I have no sense of how prevalent such restrictions are. Over at Free Range Kids I found this: “Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.” I haven’t tried to track down that first number, but following the link for the second didn’t get me to the source document. If true, it’s shocking.

Over at Inhabitots I find this:

Once in a while I see question like this on Facebook, “At what age is it safe to let your children play outside alone?” Without fail, many parents will answer, “After 13 years,” and “After 15 years,” and most alarmingly, “Never.” You always see a few parents who disagree, but not many. The fact that the majority of parents on Facebook think that kids require adult supervision at all times, matches up with national statistics. Surveys collected by Christie Barnes, author of The Paranoid Parents Guide, found that the biggest worry among parents is kidnapping. Another study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic, showed that nearly 3/4 of parents said they are afraid that their children may be abducted. In fact, parents in the Mayo Clinic study were more worried about kidnapping than car accidents, sports injuries, or drug addiction. Many other surveys show that as many as half of American parents worry about kidnapping often, which in turn prevents these moms and dads from letting their kids go outside to play.

And that takes us back to danah boyd, who is concerned that exaggerated fears of online sexual predation distorts our sense of real dangers.

So, we keep kids indoors because we fear what will happen to them outdoors and, once we’ve driven them to media, we worry about what will happen to them there.

Meanwhile another bunch of folks are concerned about not getting enough contact with nature:

Although human beings have been urbanizing, and then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture, social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change. Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media. An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity and overweight, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” as well as to a devaluing of independent play. Nonetheless, we believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.

What’s going on?

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity From Fossil Fuels – NYTimes.com

22 Sep

John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels.

The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil is planning to announce on Monday that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses.

The announcement, timed to precede Tuesday’s opening of the United Nations climate change summit meeting in New York City, is part of a broader and accelerating initiative.

In recent years, 180 institutions — including philanthropies, religious organizations, pension funds and local governments — as well as hundreds of wealthy individual investors have pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies from their portfolios and to invest in cleaner alternatives.

via Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity From Fossil Fuels – NYTimes.com.

Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death

17 Sep

Fascinating little post by Tyler Cowen:

Many political unions subsist on creative ambiguity.  That is, if the right question were posed, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control.

Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis.  It’s not quite that everyone thinks they are getting their way, but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system.  Certain rights are held in reserve, with the expectation that they probably will not be exercised, but they can nonetheless influence the final bargaining equilibrium.

Most international treaties rely on some degree of creative ambiguity, as do most central banks, with their semi-promises of bailouts but “not too much not too certain you know” as the default.  You might like the mandated outcome (or not), but I doubt if it would improve political discourse in the United States to have an explicit thumbs up vs. thumbs down referendum on abortion.

Many partnerships and marriages rely on creative ambiguity too.  Should the Beatles have forced Lennon and McCartney to specify who had the final say over each cut?  That probably would have led to a split in 1968 and there would be no Abbey Road.  Must parties to a marriage specify the entire division of chores and responsibilities in advance?

via Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death.

Aka, what you don’t say may keep you whole.

Taxonomy of a Landscape — re:form — Medium

10 Sep

The photographs are stunning!

The reader is left to infer that Sambunaris has stepped into the cartographer’s shoes as a 21st-century documentarian of human presence in the American landscape. The photos in this book, taken during half a dozen road trips over more than a decade, capture the massive scale of modern industry — mines, dams, freight trains, highways and logistics centers; the pipelines of Alaska and the Mexican border fence. She spent a particularly long period photographing Nevada, Utah, and the town of Wendover, which straddles the state line. She recorded the steam that rises from the ground at Yellowstone National Park, hinting at the massive volcano that sits beneath it. Each image conveys the tension between the epic timescale of geological features and the blink-short span of modern infrastructure’s tenure.

via Taxonomy of a Landscape — re:form — Medium.

U.S. Bombs, Which Helped Spawn ISIS, Can’t Crush It | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network

5 Sep

Swanson insists there are nonviolent options, which he spells out here, for quelling the violence of ISIS and other militant groups fighting in Iraq. At the same website, warisacrime.org, a group of 53 religious groups, academics and ministers proposes, in part:

*Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of

grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence

among its supporters.

*Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence.
Provide food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.

*Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the

international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq.

*Ensure a significantly more inclusive Iraqi government along with substantive programs
of social reconciliation to interrupt the flow and perhaps peel back some of the persons
joining the Islamic State. In the diplomatic strategy, particularly include those with

influence on key actors in the Islamic State.

*Work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria. The conflicts in Iraq and
Syria are intricately connected and should be addressed holistically. Return to the Geneva peace process for a negotiated settlement to the civil war in Syria and

expand the agenda to include regional peace and stability. Ensure Iran’s full
participation in the process.

via U.S. Bombs, Which Helped Spawn ISIS, Can’t Crush It | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network.

Five Easy Pieces: Race in the Symbolic Universe

29 Jul

A T&T working paper: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2473235. The five pieces have been previously published on New Savanna.

Abstract: How did Western culture get from Shakespeare’s Caliban to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable? This essay examines that trajectory by consider six imaginative works: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster’s A Passage to India, Faulkner’s Light in August, Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Cosby Show. The focus is on the projective dynamics of racisim where the racial Other is made to express feelings and desires that the dominant culture denies.

The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
– Toni Morrison,
Playing in the Dark

There’s a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can’t tell whether he’s coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats–you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
– Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney,
Drylongso

Introduction: A Universe of Symbols

Each culture has a universe of symbols through which its members understand themselves and one another. We use these symbols to elaborate our mental world and to communicate with one another, for symbolism gives graphic and linguistic form to our feelings and desires. The olive branch and white dove of peace, the blood-red planet Mars betokening war, the serpent of wisdom, or of life and healing, are examples of such symbols. American society is culturally diverse. While all Americans may share some symbols–perhaps the American flag, the Thanksgiving turkey–other symbols belong to specific cultures. Each subculture has its own symbolic universe, with its own symbols.

European-American culture includes a vast network of symbols, a network in which African-Americans have played, and continue to play, an important role. The way whites symbolize blacks has more to do with the hearts and minds of whites than it does with black reality. Thus if we are to understand the role that black culture has played in the development of general American culture, we will need to understand the role that white culture has already assigned to blacks. The subject is vast, but we don’t need to survey it all in order to get the lay of the land. A few examples will serve. Continue reading

The Absolute Dog

28 May

by Charlie Keil

Review of Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright by Luis E. Navia. Greenwood Press. 2001

“I share Bertrand Russell’s conviction that modern cynicism constitutes the very antithesis of classical Cynicism.”
– Luis Navia

A little poem to make the main point: 
		after the socratic crack
		the dogs continued to roam free
		plato the first fire hydrant 
		aristotle the nearest tree

We have been following the wrong ancient Greek philosophers for almost 2500 years because we have let words on the page speak louder than actions in the street.

Antisthenes, some say the most dedicated student of Socrates, became known as “the Dog” or “the Absolute Dog” because of his “absolute commitment to reason infused by a creative energy” (E. Bignone cited in Navia) for setting the world aright. Similarly, Diogenes became known as “the Dog” or “the Dog of Sinope,” and it was as “dogs” that a variety of popular or “street” philosophers found “a will to resist and to set the world aright by means of the application of rational principles to human conduct” (Navia, pg. 96) over an 8 century period from 5th century BC to 3rd century AD. Remember dogs were not the overbred poojies of bourgeois pet fetishism that we know today, but they did stand guard, sorted out friends from foes, lived lives without shame, indifferent to ettiquette and rules. The Dogs

“became, with pride and self-assurance, self-chosen dogs because that name reflected in some measure the way in which they presented themselves. In appearing in the garb of dogs or doggish people, however, their intention was not to abandon human nature and replace it with canine nature or to advocate the transformation of people into animals. In them, as can be gathered from statements attributed to Antisthenes, the point was to distinguish between nature (‘fesis’ in Greek) and convention (‘nomos’ or “law” in Greek), and to remain attached to the former, while setting aside the later. If a happy and virtuous life is to be attained, we must divest ourselves of the artificiality under which we have become buried through the influence of irrational conventions and atavistic modes of being. We must deface the currency that has made us what we were not meant to be. The flight from what is natural that characterizes the human condition is what needs to be corrected, and if the world is to be set aright, it is to nature that we must return.” (Navia, pg 100)

I really like just about everything I can find to read about the Dogs (see Bibliography below). Navia’s book about Antisthenes makes me understand how and why the Dogs were hidden from me during the 60 of my 65 years that I spent being taught and then teaching in schools. I could have been learning about why Diogenes chose to live in a tub when I was in Kindergarten; all the stories about Diogenes confronting the big men of his time convey simple lessons that a child in Kindergarten or first grade could learn: Alexander the Great to Diogenes, “Let me grant your greatest wish o wise man!” Diogenes to Alexander the Great, “Dude, could you move just a little to one side or the other? You’re blocking my sunshine.” Yet I didn’t figure out that the Dogs of antiquity were probably the first western anarchists and resisters, the prime or prototype opponents of civilization and class society, perhaps early western Buddhists and certainly the first beatniks, until after I had retired from academia. I took four consecutive semesters of philosophy courses at Yale in the late 1950s and never got to word one about the Dogs; none of my profs took their “black humor, paradox and surprise, ethical seriousness” (A.A. Long 1996:33) seriously. Graduate school in 1960s Anthropology did not steer me toward the Dogs as the first fieldworkers and participant-observer-critics in social and cultural anthropology, the first westerners to advocate for slaves, women and “barbarians” and against racism, sexism, and imperialism. Somehow, thirty years of research, writing and teaching at a university while working with left and anarchist colleagues didn’t encourage me to sniff out my ancestral Doggie ancestors. Continue reading

Walt Disney, Stephen Miller and the Future of Jersey City

2 Nov

Buildings … are not discrete objects. They are building blocks of a democratic society. W. H. Auden once proposed that a civilization could be judged by “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity attained.” In the spirit of service, architecture can contribute to both. Without the spirit of service, architecture can be a highly destructive force.

– Herbert Muschamp, Visions of Utopia

No doubt you are familiar with Walt Disney, the guy who made cartoons and nature documentaries, created the world’s first theme park, and gave his name to what is now the world’s largest entertainment company. But it’s been years since Disney himself appeared in the media – he died in 1966 – and his life story isn’t well-known, though there must be at least a dozen biographies of him (I’ve read four of them).

But what does Uncle Walt have to do with Stephen Miller and what do either of them have to do with the future of Jersey City?

And, by the way, WHO is Stephen Miller?

I don’t know how many laser cutters there are in Jersey City – 10, 20, 100, 763? I have no idea – but one of them is in his atelier off Harrison Street between Monticello and Bergen.

What’s a laser cutter?

It’s a high tech device used for cutting materials such as wood, plastic, leather, metal perhaps.

And what the h___ is an atelier?

It’s a workshop and design studio.

OK, gotcha, but what does that have to do with Walt Disney and what do they have to do with the future of Jersey City?

Let’s start with Walt Disney. Disney was an entertainer; he made movies and went on to build a theme park. Miller is an entertainer too, though of a different kind. He’s musician and a very good MC – he tells me he used to front a band. And he’s a slammin’ djembe player.

And I know a little about djembe players. When I lived in upstate New York I performed with Eddie “Ade” Knowles, a percussionist who toured as a percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron early in his career. I hear and feel the same power and nuance in Miller’s djembe playing that Ade has in his.

OK, so he’s an entertainer, there are lots of entertainers in the world…

Just cool your jets. Don’t go getting testy on me. I’m gettin’ there.

Take a look at this video (embedded below). It’s a promotional video that Disney prepared for Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and it shows a small city that’s very different from and far more interesting than what the Disney Company eventually built in central Florida.

Continue reading