Thursday, August 28, 2008

golden age of illustration

I've mentioned before my obsession with all things 1920s, when Victorian daintiness had given way to art nouveau and then to art deco. The art and fashion going on from the 1880s through the 1930s was splendid.

Especially beautiful was the book illustration of the period, now referred to as the golden age of illustration.

Children's books, and the images they hold can have a lasting influence on young readers. Our imaginations are thrilled by images of dragons, trolls, and magical landscapes. I can see my own ideals of beauty stemming directly from the illustrations of princesses and heroes in the books of my childhood. And for me, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz will always be blond, the way she looked in 1910, drawn by John R. Neill.

Neill is a fine example of Golden Age illustration, and he is in good company. As book printing techniques advanced during that era, illustrators were able to take more liberties with color and style, and the public responded with enthusiasm. How could they not? Look at some of the classic works of the era:

Edmund Dulac

Kay Nielsen

John Bauer

Sarah S. Stillwell

Arthur Rackham

William Timlin

Of course, there are many other wonderful illustrators from that time period. I suggest you take a look here, and here, for some more web pages on the subject.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

southwestern new mexico

Some pictures from our recent trip to visit friends and family...

(Rainy Creek trailhead, Orien & Oscar)

(Mogollon Mountains, Gila, NM)

(Aili & Bella cooling off in irrigation ditch)


(a New Mexico sunset)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

all quiet on the western front

Every summer, I indulge myself by largely avoiding scientific writing and reading predominantly pulp fiction (see my earlier post on Jack Vance's The Demon Princes, for a prime example). Aili suggested that I tackle All Quiet on the Western Front, since, embarrassingly, I had never read it before. While it doesn't quite qualify as "light" summer reading, it was a quick, intense read. I don't know what I expected. Not only a damning condemnation of the horrors of war, All Quiet... is also an insightful commentary on the psychological impact of combat: one clearly apropos to our time.

A central theme of the book is that war also ruins those soldiers fortunate enough to survive. This motif is introduced in the "dedication" of the book:

"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war."

The author, Erich Maria Remarque, was a German soldier in World War I and clearly serves as a model for the protagonist and narrator, Paul Baumer. Both men came from working class families, and had aspirations of becoming playrights and writers prior to the war. In an early chapter, Baumer comments on how the war has transformed these early dreams into something incomprehensible and absurd:

"It is strange to think that at home in the drawer of my writing table there lies the beginning of a play called 'Saul' and a bundle of poems. Many an evening I have worked over them - we all did something of the kind - but that has become so unreal to me I cannot comprehend it anymore. Our early life is cut off from the moment we came here, and that without our lifting a hand... For us young men of twenty, everything is extraordinarily vague... All the older men are linked up with their previous life. They have wives, children, occupations, and interests, they have a background which is so strong that the war cannot obliterate it. We young men of twenty, however, have only our parents and some, perhaps, a girl - that is not much, for at our age the influence of parents is at its weakest and girls have not yet got a hold over us... Kanotorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept up away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land. All the same, we are not often sad."

I find this a striking observation, and one that continues to ring true through the modern age of warfare. How many of our young soldiers find themselves stripped of all but their animal nature by the toils of war? How many struggle to reintegrate into a society which both admires and detests what they do?

The men of Baumer's squad sit around discussing their former and future lives, when the bombs quiet and the front is distant. They cannot wait for the war to end, but fear their personal aftermath. What will they do? How could they possibly find meaning and solace in the world after seeing what they have seen?

"'...All I do know is that this business about professions and studies and salaries and so on - it makes me sick, it is and always was disgusting. I don't see anything at all, Albert.' All at once everything seems to me confused and hopeless. Kropp feels it too. 'It will go pretty hard with us all. But nobody at home seems to worry much about it. Two years of shells and bombs - a man won't peel that off as easy as a sock... The war has ruined us for everything.'

He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begin to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."

With our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's been a lot of talk about PTSD and "damaged" soldiers coming back to the States. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Remarque suggests that something deeply horrid happens to soldiers forced to witness the worst of human violence - they lose their not only their capacity to function in a "normal" society, but their desire and motivation. War ruins these young men and women, even if they come back with all their limbs intact.

At one point, Baumer is given leave to see his family, far from the front. He is surprised and depressed to discover how alienating an experience it turns out to be:

"I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval... I find that I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.

I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me... They are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. "

As the war drags on and more of Baumer's childhood friends fall to bullet, bomb, and gas, he becomes despondent, enters into existential despair. He desperately hopes this is a passing phase, but you can sense his pessimism:

"But perhaps all this that I think is mere melancholy and dismay, which will fly away as the dust, when I stand once again beneath the poplars and listen to the rustling of their leaves. It cannot be that it is gone, the yearning that made our blood unquiet, the unknown, the perplexing, the oncoming things, the thousand faces of the future, the melodies from dreams and from books, the whispers and divinations of women; it cannot be that this has vanished in bombardment, in despair, in brothels."

I was surprised at the eloquence of this work. Several times I had to stop reading because a particular phrase or paragraph forced upon me an uncomfortable train of thought. All Quiet on the Western Front has been described as one of the most powerful anti-war novels written, and certainly, it is difficult to walk away from this book with anything but disgust and fear for warfare. But it seems clear that humans are not yet capable of controlling their most violent emotions - and that our society must face up to the psychological and philosophical challenge presented by the return of thousands of young men and women who will struggle to rediscover their soul in a homeland become strange.

Friday, August 8, 2008

radiohead in montreal

Aili and I just returned from a brief jaunt to Montreal, primarily to see Radiohead play at the Parc Jean Drapeau. I admit to having steadily lost interest in live shows as I've grown older - in part because of absurd ticket costs, but mostly because the bands I am most motivated to see (Tool, Radiohead, Beck, etc.) are all big-stadium draws now. And there's only so much enjoyment I can get out of watching the silhouette of Thom Yorke, or Maynard or whomever, do something not quite discernible from a long ways away. Plus, I've always been one of those concert-goers who closes their eyes through a lot of the songs, just so that I can absorb the music a little more fully. One eventually begins to wonder why you're standing in the mud along with 30,000 idiots who, for some reason, feel it necessary to sing along with every song even though their voice makes you want to club baby seals.

But it speaks to Radiohead's brilliance that, even through the idiocy of the crowd, and the bullheaded security guys who kept trying to kick us off the stairs where we had a good view of the show, and the light drizzle that kept up for nearly 3 hours, their music sang clear and true and touched us both. Here's the set-list, in case you want to load up an identical playlist in Itunes:

01. 15 Step
02. There There
03. Morning Bell (*not sure about this one*)
04. All I Need
05. My Iron Lung
06. Nude
07. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
08. The Gloaming
09. The National Anthem
10. Fake Plastic Trees
11. Reckoner
12. Like Spinning Plates
13. Jigsaw Falling Into Place
14. Lucky
15. Optimistic
16. Idioteque
17. Bodysnatchers

Encore 1
18. Faust Arp
19. Videotape
20. Paranoid Android
21. Bangers and Mash
22. Karma Police

Encore 2
23. House of Cards
24. You And Whose Army?
25. Everything In Its Right Place

I think I'm correct in saying that all of In Rainbows was covered (but only Bangers & Mash off the "B-sides" CD). I was actually surprised at the number of old classics that were played, including Paranoid Android & Karma Police off of OK Computer, and (both highlights for me) My Iron Lung & Fake Plastic Trees from The Bends. National Anthem was fucking brilliant, of course, and The Gloaming made my skin crawl. Other surprises: You and Whose Army?, which is a great song but odd to play in a live set, and another experimental track off of Amnesiac, Like Spinning Plates.

For a large segment of the show, fireworks were going off nearby that, oddly enough, had nothing to do with the concert. This pleased both Aili and me greatly, although at one point Thom commented how he wished they would have saved them for the end. There is no doubt that Radiohead gives you a complete experience - even when I saw them in Santa Barbara back in '01, I remember being impressed by how long they entertained us peons.

The light show was exquisite, and perhaps our distance from the stage gave us a nice perspective. Here's a pic that I blatantly stole from some guy's Flickr site (thank you Maczag):

I know I'm not alone in my love of Radiohead. Every time I listen to them, I can't help but feel that they're the most thoroughly modern band out there. They are of our time. If a host of alien invasion ships appeared tomorrow, hovering over our major cities threatening absolute annihilation unless we can somehow convince them of our worth in the universe - I would send them some Radiohead CD's. There is no doubt in my mind that they'd leave us be, to wallow in our own collective fate.

While you make pretty speeches,
I'm being cut to shreds
You feed me to the lions,
a delicate balance

And this just feels like spinning plates
I'm living in cloud cuckoo land
And this just feels like spinning plates
My body is floating down the muddy river

Friday, August 1, 2008


I don't even know how to categorize this. So I shall quote: "an augmented-reality spatial-memory game by Julian Oliver."

levelHead v1.0, 3 cube speed-run (spoiler!) from Julian Oliver on Vimeo.

Each cube is a separate puzzle which the player navigates by tilting and shifting - as you leave one cube, you enter the next (which increases in difficulty). There is a spatial memory aspect to the challenge, since you need to remember which doors lead to what rooms.

"levelHead deploys three small (5x5x5cm) plastic cubes with a unique image (marker) on each face. A computer running the Linux operating system is fitted with a Sony EyeToy camera sitting on a clean white surface. Computer Vision software on the host computer is trained to recognise the marker such that it can overlay 3D content on a per-face basis. This software has been designed to produce the convincing impression that each room is somehow inside the cube."

The artist plans to display this as an installation in several electronic shows, and eventually make it available for free download (you would print and fold your own cubes). You can read about the project, and its inspiration, here. Lots of fun pseudosensible artist/compu-geek babble to read, like...

"Similarly, navigating in the real world increasingly tends toward dependence on external media and locative technologies, remembering not just places but even describing vectors of movement and spatial associations for us. It is in the spirit of Memory Loci, of the configuration of place as both an associative location and container of memories, that the design for levelHead begins. It prioritises the notion that moving from one site to another inevitably produces an imaginary architecture of varying clarity and positions this memory architecture as the primary means of navigation. Only one side of the cube will reveal a room at any given time and so a memory of the last room - of the positions of entrances and exits, stairs and other features - is necessary in order to build a logic of safe forward movement."

I am duly fascinated.