Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Barry Blitt, Invisible Man

While reading a Frank Rich op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend about the billionaire Koch brothers who've been funding the Tea Party movement, I fell in love with the accompanying illustration.

Drawing of a marionette figure walking over a tiny demonstration, sign in hand reading Honk if you fail to see the irony in any of this
Not surprisingly, it was by Barry Blitt.

Best known to the public for the controversial pre-election New Yorker cover that depicted the Obamas as radical fist-bumpers, Blitt is an illustrator who gets a lot of work published. Despite that, there's very little easy-to-find information about him on the interweb... no Wikipedia page, no complete bio, nothing.

All I can find out is that he's Canadian (from near Montreal) and lives in Connecticut. No idea how old he is or where -- or whether -- he went to art school. I believe the New Yorker covers on his portfolio website go back to 1994, so that gives some idea that he's not 23, I guess.

Here are a few of his less-political pieces that I particularly liked.

Children in bumpercars that have airbags triggered upon collision
This makes me think of Pete Hautmann's book Rash, which takes place in a future America where high schoolers running track have to wear helmets and padding.

Babies in the window of a store, like a pet shop, with a woman looking through as if she's thinking of picking one
A brilliant swipe at the baby-acquiring classes.
A naked man wearing only a box looks at a department store window featuring a man wearing a barrel
In this economy, everyone needs something to aspire toward.

Chimps at typewriters, each with a different expression, one is laughing uproarieously
An infinite number of monkeys might be able to write Hamlet, but they could never draw like Barry Blitt.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Counting Crowds

Restore America rally photo from above, Lincoln Memorial
Glenn Beck's Restore America rally at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday has once more raised the issue of how to estimate the size of large crowds. Attendance at events, particularly political ones, is contentious.

I don't know about you, but I heard numbers for Restore America that ranged from a noncommittal "10s of thousands" to Michelle Bachmann's clearly hyperbolic "We're not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million."

CBS News had the brilliant thought to pay some experienced crowd counters to estimate the crowd, based on aerial photos. One of the counters, Steve Doig, has explained how he came to his estimate (which was 80,000). A second counter, using the same photos independently, arrived at an estimate of 87,000.

Restore America rally photo from above, Washington Monument
Doig is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist (at the Miami Herald) who is now an endowed chair in the journalism school at Arizona State University. He started estimating crowds while in Miami, including a visit by Pope John Paul II. He also counted the crowd at Obama's inauguration, and came to a number of 800,000...which conservative commentators applauded at the time, since mainstream media outlets were using numbers like 2 million. Doig writes, "I am amused to see that those who embraced my Obama inauguration estimate as soberly realistic are now attacking the Beck rally estimate, produced using exactly the same methods, as deliberately biased."

Doig does not reveal his density methods, but he does note in the comments that 10 square feet per person is a fairly tight crowd and "5 sf would be mosh-pit scary."

I did some square foot appraising at my office today, using a ruler and our convenient carpeting, which is marked off in squares 18" to a side. A density of 5 square feet (a square about 27" on a side) would be fine for a few minutes, but I agree that it's not likely most people at an outdoor event would be comfortable remaining at that distance for long. A moderate-sized adult sitting in a chair requires just about exactly 3 feet x 2 feet from head to toe, with not much leg room, and elbow to elbow (6 square feet). That doesn't allow any space between the chairs or rows of chairs. So clearly it's likely to be more like 8 - 10 feet per person if the crowd is seated, even on the ground.

Part of the problem with the Mall space is that some crowd estimates from the past are still considered accurate, even though there's no proof they were based on anything but a wild guess. 200,000 are said to have been at the I Have a Dream speech; supposedly, Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration drew 1.2 - 1.5 million (what!?). I've seen estimates that the area between the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol can hold from 1.5 to 3 million people, depending on how densely they gathered, but no detailed mention of how this was arrived at.

So every time there's a large gathering on the Mall, organizers feel compelled to fluff up their event's metaphorical feathers to fill this mythically large space.

As a former professor of mine used to intone, "It's an empirical question." How hard would it be, really, to come up with some standards methods -- which are pretty likely to resemble Steve Doig's -- that we can all agree to?

Note: The photos above were supplemented with others to determine the size of the area and varying crowd densities. Unfortunately, the 16MB full-size versions of these photos have not yet been (and may never be) released for public viewing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jakob Jensen's Imperial ABCs

While I was in L.A. I visited Stuart Ng Books, which specializes in animation and illustration. So many cool books in a small place!

But the book that grabbed me enough to buy it was a picture book (meant for adults, I assume) called My First Imperial ABC, published in 2007.

The creator is Jakob Jensen, a Danish-born animator with DreamWorks Animation. It's his only book, and it's a howl of exquisite anger.

Cover of My First Imperial ABCs by Jakob Jensen
Study that dark flag carefully for details (click on it or any other image to see it larger), and think of Winston Churchill's aphorism, "I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down to us. Pigs treat us as equals."

Disheveled pig watching TV
A is for Activism

Kid-pigs packed into a school bus while a rich pig-kid in a stretch limo drives past
E is for Equality

Walled city with a small truck outside the slightly open back door, which is labeled Service Entrance
I is for Immigration Laws

Statue of Liberty as a pig, surrounded by a fence, with a sign saying Closed until further notice
L is for Liberty

Three pigs with flags across their mouths like gags
P is for Patriotism

A male and female pilgrim-style pig, standing happily atop a pile of dead Indian pigs
V is for Values

As Jensen notes in the acknowledgements, "Thank you to everyone who helped and encouraged me during the making of this book. You know who you are (unfortunately, so does the FBI, CIA, INS, IRS, etc.....Look behind you!)."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Commentary of Errors

Comment threads are generally not worth reading, as everyone knows, especially when the topic is political. And they're rife with incorrect examples of "your," "it's," "to," and every other garden-variety usage error common in the English language.

But sometimes comments are good for an unintended chuckle. Here are a few I've collected in the past few months.

1. Singing for suckers:

Comment including the phrase chorale a bunch of suckers, instead of corral a bunch of suckers

2. Crouching joke, hidden usage error:

Comment including the phrase crouched inside a joke instead of couched inside a joke

3. Whose jerk am I?

Comment including the phrase your just being a pomp's jerk instead of you're just being a pompous jerk

I've seen more than these, I know, but sometimes I neglect to take a screen snapshot until it's too late.

(Confession: I once wrote a paper where I referred several times to "blue collar" and "white collar" work, but somehow I had typed "blue color" and "white color." Over and over again, despite the fact that I thought it said "collar.")

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Rebuilt Greensburg, Kansas

Between visits to the outsider artists of Kansas, we made a stop at the town of Greensburg.

Completely destroyed by a tornado in May 2007, the people of Greensburg have rebuilt as a "green" town -- all new buildings are LEED-certified and the town will generate its own electricity from wind and solar. A nonprofit organization called Greensburg GreenTown supports and furthers this cause.

Heading into town... those are LED street lights.

The new downtown, with prairie grasses planted along the street.

A statement built into one of the new buildings.

While there, we noticed a set of small cube-like buildings on one block, and then this sign. So we stopped to check it closer.

Four cubes were built in 2008 by architecture students from Kansas State University, each to demonstrate a different principle of green building. I was fascinated by this one, called the WateringCAN.

The siding is discarded printing plates. The inside wall finishes are reused slate chalk boards.

The cube contains a shower (water heated by a solar panel), composting toilet and hand-washing sink.

As the sign outside says, "After the tornado, Greensburg spent over $10,000 on portable toilets in less than one month. For financial and environmental reasons, other means of dealing with waste should be identified. Kansas State recognized this as an opportunity to showcase rainwater collection systems, a composting toilet, solar heated shower, and hand-wash station and greywater use on site. The WateringCAN provides an educational service on the latest ecotechnologies and a functional demonstration for the town of Greensburg."

The town felt like a not-always-comfortabe amalgam of environmentalism and Kansan normalcy. This sign from the edge of town captures the defiance of the residents:

Sign reading We Will Rebuild, showing Calvin peeing on a tornado
After all, there's nothing like a peeing Calvin graphic to unite a town.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Leonard Pitts: Here's Who the 'We' Is

I got goosebumps reading Leonard Pitts today as he addressed Glenn Beck and his upcoming Washington rally. The column was titled Here's who "we" is:

A few words about who "we" is.

"This is a moment," Glenn Beck said three months ago on his radio program, "... that I think we 'reclaim' the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down.... We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place!"

Beck was promoting his "Restoring Honor" rally, to be held Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial, 47 years to the day after Martin Luther King famously spoke there. You'll notice he didn't define the "we" he had in mind, but it seems reasonable to suppose Beck was speaking of people like himself: affluent middle-age conservatives possessed of the ability to see socialism and communism in places where it somehow escapes the notice of others.

If you agree that assumption is reasonable, then you must also agree Beck's contention that his "we" were the architects of the civil rights movement is worse than nonsensical, worse than mendacious, worse than shameless. It is "obscene." It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr's graves.

We're in an odd moment. Having opposed the freedom movement of the 20th century, some social conservatives seek, now that that movement stands vindicated and venerated, to arrogate unto themselves its language and heroes, to remake it in their image.

Thus, you get claims that "racism" is now what Shirley Sherrod said in a speech to the NAACP. And people calling Sarah Palin the new face of feminism. And conservatives touting the likelihood that King voted Republican -- as if the party in 1957 bore any resemblance to the party now.

But even by those standards, Glenn Beck's effrontery is monumental. Even by those standards, he goes too far. Beck was part of the "we" who founded the civil rights movement?! No. Here's who "we" is.

"We" is Emmett Till, tied to a cotton gin fan in the murky waters of the Tallahatchie River. "We" is Rosa Parks telling the bus driver no. "We" is Diane Nash on a sleepless night waiting for missing Freedom Riders to check in. "We" is Charles Sherrod, husband of Shirley, gingerly testing desegregation compliance in an Albany, Ga., bus station. "We" is a sharecropper making his X on a form held by a white college student from the North. "We" is celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Pernell Roberts of "Bonanza," lending their names, their wealth and their labor to the cause of freedom.

"We" is Lyndon Johnson, building a legislative coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to defeat intransigent Southern Democratic conservatives and enshrine that cause into law.

And "we" is Martin Luther King, giving voice and moral clarity to the cause -- and paying for it with his life.

The we to which Glenn Beck belongs is the we that said no, the we that cried "socialism!" "communism!" "tyranny!" whenever black people and their allies cried freedom.

The fatuous and dishonorable attempt to posit conservatives as the prime engine of civil rights depends for success on the ignorance of the American people. Sadly, as anyone who has ever watched a Jay Walking segment on "The Tonight Show" can attest, the American people have ignorance in plenitude.

This, then, is to serve notice as Beck and his tea party faithful gather in Lincoln's shadow to claim the mantle of King: Some of us are not ignorant. Some of us remember. Some of us know very well who "we" is.

And who "we" is not.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shampoo the Pooch

Natural pet supply store sign with tagline, Self-Serve Dog Wash
Clearly, I am not a dog owner. Is this common?

Seen in Lawrence, Kansas.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Showing the Difference Between Correlation and Causation

BoingBoing guest blogger David Ng, a teacher of science literacy, posted the following illustration, which he uses to explain hypothesis-generation to his students.

The setup for the illustration is that a country has experienced a decline in its human birthrate and stork population at the same time, and the students are asked to think of a hypothesis to explain it.

The obvious thing to infer is that the two declines are related... since storks bring babies, of course. But that would be jumping to conclusions. Some alternate hypotheses:

Thanks, David!

Monday, August 23, 2010

L.A. Coincidental, Part 2

Here are a few more photos I couldn't find when I posted about Los Angeles a few days ago. I'm in western Colorado for the night on the long drive back.

Yellow Cadillac with a yellow and red rooster atop it
One of the birds of Santa Monica.

Movie marquee reading VAMPIRES SUCK SALT
Does anyone from the theater read these movie marquees?

Black mushroom-shaped cloud sculpture
This sculpture, seen in front of Santa Monica's City Hall, is titled "Chain Reaction." Installed by Paul Conrad in 1991, it is made completely from chains.

Sign reading California Cooperage
Isn't it odd that "cooperate" and "cooperage" share all of the same letters except a single consonant, yet one is a verb and the other a noun, and each is pronounced entirely differently?

Profuse bright pink/magenta blooms on a fence
The plants in Los Angeles are almost entirely different from the ones you see in Minnesota, but when they do overlap, the L.A. versions are overwhelmingly larger and more beautiful. This bougainvillea was one of the hundreds I saw growing as vines on fences.

Black and white abstract mural with colorful graffiti art along the bottom
I didn't get to see a lot of L.A.-style graffiti, but this mural brought it to mind.

Wood and corrugated metal house with odd shaped window
A glimpse of part of Frank Gehry's deconstructivist post-modern house in Santa Monica (1978). He lived here when his career began its rise from corrugated metal to stainless steel.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What IS That? (Part 2)

Heading out of L.A., we stopped at a fabric store to stock up on knitting supplies (yes, really). While waiting to check out, my eye fell on these unintelligible images:

Before and after shot of two bulbs of flesh, one all dry and cracked
What could those bulbous flesh lumps be? My mind sprang inexplicably to the concept of a unibutt. Oog.

But the rest of the "as seen on TV" display soon registered in my brain:

Cardboard box with the two images, plus headline Heel-Tastic
I still wonder how one is supposed to walk once the dry, cracked heels disappear, though.

(Here's the earlier What Is That? post from the very beginning of my blog.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

L.A. Coincidental

I promise not to bore you with all of my photos of interesting signs from L.A., but here are a few non-sign shots that were fun.

Logo with a half green, half orange circle with each half showing pain or pleasure
Well, okay, this is a sign. But it's in here because I liked the logo symbol, not the type. So that doesn't count.

Vertical, hand-lettered red sign reading Jewelry
Well, I guess this is a sign also. But it's the last one, I promise.

Colorful sculpture hanging high above an atrium that goes down five or six floors
The Tom Bradley wing of the main L.A. public library. A beautiful building in all its parts.

45' records 49 cents
Those are some really biiiiiiiig records! (At a thrift store.)

La Brea Tar Pits with fake mammoths in peril
It looks like a diorama, doesn't it? I had no idea the La Brea Tar Pits were still bubbling. And the elephantequins look almost real in the tableau, which shows a mama mammoth trapped while daddy and baby cry out in distress from the shore.

Gray-green agave leaves with names scratched into them
In L.A., agaves grow so big and so old there's time to carve graffiti into them. Who knew.

Restroom door with updated wheelchair user symbol, more active looking
I finally saw the more-active version of the accessibility icon in use!

Walk of Stars star for Edward R Murrow
We didn't traipse along the entire Walk of Stars... maybe a quarter of it. I'm amazed how many names I didn't recognize or only vaguely recalled. But others were worth taking a photo of.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Watts Towers

Most visitors to Los Angeles want to see the Hollywood sign or Grauman's Chinese Theater. Me, I wanted to see the Watts Towers.

Built between 1921 and 1954, the tallest one is about five stories. At a distance like this, they seem interesting but kind of grim, as if they were blackened rebar, left over from a series of torched minarets.

But as you get closer, the details start to appear:

And the colors become visible...

And then you realize how much there is to see.

The Towers were built by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia. He worked as a tile setter, and starting at the age of 42, spent 34 years building and decorating the Towers in the yard outside the small house where he lived alone.

Rodia built and left, built and left -- first his family with three children, whom he never saw again after he and his wife divorced in 1919 -- then the Towers themselves. In 1954 he gave his house and the Towers to a neighbor, and moved into a boarding house near his sister in northern California. He never saw his life's work again, but talked about it to anyone who would listen until he died in 1965 at the age of 86.

Within three years of Rodia's departure, his house had burned and the Towers had been vandalized. The city of Los Angeles ordered the house razed and the Towers demolished, but because they couldn't find the current owner, nothing happened.

Then in 1959, William Cartwright and Nicholas King, a film editor and an actor, visited the Towers and began working to save them. They bought the site and a citizens' committee was formed. (The L.A. Times has a nice article marking the 50th anniversary of the Towers' rebirth.)

By 1963 the Towers had been designated a Historic Cultural Monument.

In building the Towers, Rodia used...

...tools, faucet heads, gears, and heat grates to make impressions in concrete...

...broken china and 11,000 pottery shards...

...over 10,000 seashells...

...15,000 pieces of ceramic tile...

...and 6,000 pieces of broken glass (note the green bottle fragments near the top).

Over 100,000 fragments in all.

When Rodia finished, he named his work Nuestro Pueblo, which means Our Village in Italian.

The Towers are open for tours Friday through Sunday from 11:00 to 3:00. We, of course, managed to visit on a Thursday so we couldn't go inside the structure. It makes me sad that a fence is needed to protect something that is so obviously precious.

(All facts in this text are drawn from the wonderful explanatory panels that hang on the fence around the Watts Towers.)