Saturday, February 18, 2017

Generica vs. Sense of Place

I was reading the paper today and my eye fell on this photo:

I assumed it was somewhere in suburban America. Where do you think it is?

Answer below.

It's in Penang, Malaysia. (That's the police headquarters connected with the murder of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's brother.)  

It made me want to apologize to the world for the invasion of this ugly American architecture and generic sense of place. This is in Malaysia, a tropical environment. I imagine they have monsoons. Yet they've planted turf grass and paved almost everything in sight. The loss of sense of place is so, so sad. I hope it's not representative of Malaysia, though I have no idea.

This photo was on my mind when I happened to listen to an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible this afternoon. Called McMansion Hell: The Devil Is in the Details, it featured Kate from McMansion Hell, a hilarious, pithy blog.

Among many great points about what's wrong with McMansions, Kate pointed out that they are generic and have nothing to do with the place they are in. And that is not the way humans do things.

 Read up on Kate's blog if you get a chance. And be on the lookout for the scourge of generica. It's everywhere.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Something to Keep in Mind

Today a friend of mine shared these thoughts on Facebook. I am holding them close as Scott Pruitt is confirmed to destroy the EPA and Rump has the Homeland Security secretary drafting orders about using the National Guard to round up undocumented people:

there are a lot of reasons the left is losing but one of them is definitely that what we're trying to do is much, much harder. Diversity is more difficult than conformity; participation from the grassroots is harder than authoritarianism. When an injury to one is an injury to all, you have a harder fight than people who are only tending their own injuries.

also it's much much easier to create fascism through democracy than it is to create democracy out of fascism.

and leftists (by and large) are actually trying to learn something — you have white queers unlearning racism and straight Muslims unlearning homophobia and Christian Latinos unlearning Islamophobia and so on and so on and so on. it's fucking hard and necessary and it takes time and energy. if you don't believe any of those systems are real, you don't actually have to learn anything new or do any hard work on yourself — you can JUST fight for what you believe already.

anyway just have some love for yourself and your comrades — while we can all improve, this isn't our fault.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Alan Cober and Friends

When I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum last summer, it wasn't originally to see the Rockwell art. I had heard they were hosting an exhibit of work by illustrator Alan Cober, one of my all-time favorites (written about here).

Well, it turned out it wasn't just about Cober's work. While the exhibit contained a collection of Cober's notebooks and sketchbooks, it was accompanied by a number of other works by 20th century illustrators who moved illustration from the pictorial tradition of Rockwell to the provocative works we know today.

I only took a few photos, but here they are.

This self-portrait is from 1997, the year before Cober died at age 63. This was the accompanying text:

Alan E. Cober was a fearless and inventive artist who brought the precepts of modernism to published illustration. He rejected realism in favor of an expressive, symbolic approach to his art, which was designed to enhance and interpret rather than mimic textual content. In this captivating self-portrait, one of his last major works, skulls, skeletons, and shamanistic figures surround him — odd forebearers of the artist’s passing in 1998.
A case nearby held one of his president sketchbooks from 1980:

With this accompanying text:
A spiritual descendant of the nineteenth and twentieth century artist/journalis, Alan E. Cober loved to draw, and he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with everything from observational sketches and notations to more complete paintings. This compelling visual journal followed Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful second-term presidential campaign, and was signed by Carter himself. Cover’s sketchbooks also captured the experiences of institutionalized psychiatric patients, prison inmates, and the elderly — drawings published in The Forgotten Society, a book released by Dover Books in 1972 and reissued in 2011.
Cober kept special notebooks where he made sketches of friends and family on their birthdays:

It's a lousy photo but an inspirational idea.

I recorded only two of the images by other illustrators:

Brad Holland
The Metaphysician, 1991
Holland's career started in 1967, emphasizing the visual metaphor rather than literal representation or the rendering of other people’s ideas.

Anita Kunz
Silent Night, Endless Fight, 2005 (New Yorker cover)

Wow, that is a piece of art that does everything right, and that I bet could unite Red and Blue America.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Betsy, You're No Ruby Bridges

Yesterday, in the midst of the larger outrage about Turnip and the Russians, my Twitter feed blew up about this cartoon:

That's Betsy DeVos, our new Secretary of Education, infantalized and shrunk down to child size and being protected by burly white men as she tried to enter a public school in Washington, D.C. the other day.

I recognized the reference to Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With immediately, and shook my head:

This is what it actually looked like when DeVos tried to enter the school:

Note that she's accompanied by only one person, a black man, and he's shorter than she is. The people are not throwing things at her; they're blocking the entrance.

And this is what it looked like when Ruby Bridges tried to enter her school back in 1962:

The crowds were held back from the entrance:

(These photos are from Historical Photos. John Steinbeck was there that day in New Orleans. Some of his thoughts about it can be read here.)

The analyses that showed, in tweets or longer articles, why Glenn McCoy's cartoon is a vile piece of work followed soon after. (McCoy makes his money with stuff like this. Let's see... racist portrayals of Michelle Obama... ruminations on black-on-black crime... portraying Barack Obama as killing babies with a baseball bat... You get the idea. He keeps himself busy.)

What the cartoon made me think of, in addition to all of this, was my visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum late last summer. I never posted my photos at the time, but now here we are.

The museum is just outside Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which was long Rockwell's home.

My photo of The Problem We All Live With didn't turn out well, but I did get these two items on display that are much harder to find images of:

This is the tearsheet from Look magazine, and in the background the dress worn by Rockwell's model for the painting, Lynda Gunn. It's interesting that Rockwell chose a white dress, both for contrast and symbolizing innocence, when Bridges was never photographed that way.

The museum also displays these two studies of Gunn that Rockwell made before the final painting. (Note that he moved the bow from the top of her head in the studies to the back in the final painting. Interesting.) The writing on the lower right side of the study says this:

My very best wishes to one of my favorite models.
Lynda Jean Gunn
Norman Rockwell
Nearby in the museum is another painting named Moving In (New Kids in the Neighborhood), which was created a few years after The Problem We All Live With...

...which was also for Look magazine.

Rockwell's studio, which was moved to the grounds of the museum, is just down the hill from the main building. It was the last of several studios he built or used over the years; at least one of them had burned to the ground.

I didn't take a photo of the outside for some reason, but this is the inside:

The loft area was used to store paintings.

This photo by Louie Lamone, 1961, shows Rockwell working on his painting called The Connoisseur for the Saturday Evening Post (which ran in January 1962). It was shot from the loft, and shows him conferring with his son Peter as he works on the modern art painting-within-a-painting that is the focal point of the work:

I think this may have been one of Rockwell's last paintings to appear in the Post. He started working with Look magazine by 1963, which is when he painted The Problem We All Live With (which ran in January 1964).

Rockwell stopped working with the Post at least in part because (according to information on display at the museum) his contract prohibited him from showing black Americans in any way except as servants.


By the way, Ruby Bridges, who is just a few years older than Betsy DeVos, is on the board of directors of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Is to Be Done (re: Rural America)?

Today I read two interesting articles on what can be done about the urban/rural divide that gave us President Donald J. Turnip.

First, from Pacific Standard, Why aren't rural Canadians in favor of Trump? The writer reports on the people of the Change Islands in Newfoundland, who are culturally similar to rural Americans but who don't like Trump and support Justin Trudeau. The difference, she says, is that they know their central government has given them lots of things they rely on since they joined Canada around 1950: electricity, roads, bridges, a ferry.

She contrasts this with the rural Louisianans studied by Arlie Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land, who believe "they" get nothing from Washington and others are cutting in line ahead of them on the way to the American dream.

What can any of us do about it?

People and organizations who want to offer an alternative to Trump can take a page from the Canadian book by going beyond Trump’s symbolic support to both symbolically and materially invest in rural communities, such as the $1 trillion infrastructure program recently proposed by Senate Democrats. But such support is not limited to new governmental programs; local and state governments can also make efforts to remind rural residents of what they are already doing for them. Political action groups can canvas rural communities’ needs and visibly go to bat for them. Volunteer groups can do work projects in rural communities. There’s a lesson to be learned from Newfoundland: that even communities facing dire times will remain invested in a shared political project if they feel that the country is also invested in them.
I try to visualize how that would work in Minnesota. Groups of Twin Cities volunteers go up to the Iron Range to do what, exactly, that would compensate for not mining the Boundary Waters Canoe Area? Or we descend upon southwestern Minnesota to somehow help farmers not pollute the water with field runoff? Hmm.

The second article, This is why Democrats lose in "rural" postindustrial America, is from the Washington Post. Its main point is that Democrats don't lose the towns and small cities of rural America: it's just that voter turnout is significantly lower there than in the completely rural or suburban areas.

That means if Democrats could turn out voters (and register nonvoters) in the somewhat denser areas of Red America, it would make a big difference. Even county-level data is deceiving, since these towns and cities are surrounded by ruralness, so Keith Ellison's call for not just a 50-state but a 3,007-county strategy is right, but not fine-grained enough.

How bad is the turnout split? According to the article, whose author did detailed analysis of counties in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, it's as bad as 30 vs. 60 percent turnout in Terre Haute and Muncie and their surrounding areas, or 50 vs. 75 percent in parts of Pennsylvania.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hans Rosling, Storyteller of Facts Not Enough of Us Know

I can't believe I've barely mentioned the work of Hans Rosling on this blog, and now he's dead.

Just 68 years old, he died of pancreatic cancer on February 7. I don't believe he had let it be known he had been ill for about a year. He just kept going with his work in public health and what he called "edutainment." That term doesn't sound like a positive thing to my American ear (a bit too much like reality TV, a la The "Learning" Channel), but he really meant the "edu" part of it, combining data with appealing visuals to make it not just lively but also more understandable.

There are lots of videos to demonstrate this:

All of this information comes together in his work with Gapminder, which tries to educate all of us about the gaps in our knowledge of reality. For instance, is the number of people living in extreme poverty higher now or lower lower than it was 30 years ago? Or, what is the average life expectancy around the world? Almost everyone gets these questions wrong, and always in the more pessimistic direction. Take the Gapminder quiz here.

A few years ago, Rosling spent much of a year in Liberia, helping to fight the Ebola outbreak there. While many other Westerners were just talking, or even worse, making the situation worse with bans and unneeded quarantines, he was acting to help.

His work at Gapminder will be carried on by his son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Comfort, Comfort, Who Had the Comfort?

A week or so ago, there was this tweet, which I saw shared a lot:

Then there was this quote by Andrew Sullivan, from a New York magazine article about Turmp, that was getting a lot of approval on Twitter in the last couple of days:

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.
And I understand what both of them are saying. I identify with it. I long for that comfort, the ease of not having to think what malevolent thing my government could be planning any moment.

But the fact that I understand them both is just an indication that I am part of the large, privileged group of people who have not had to worry much about this in the past. Black people, native people, queer people, trans people, and people who are more than one of those kinds of people have always had to live in worry, if not absolute fear.

Welcome to America as many people have lived it. It sucks.

I hope we remember that, if we manage to survive this more or less intact.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Supporting Planned Parenthood on Saturday Morning

Five thousand people turned out in St. Paul this morning to say they stand with Planned Parenthood. It was scheduled to coincide with a defund Planned Parenthood rally, located just outside the clinic.

This photo was taken from the roof, and I got it from Twitter. It's larger if you click on it:

The rest of the photos are mine. This guy was one of the first people I saw:

The sign on the left has coat hangers dangling from the bottom edge. He had the forethought to wear carpenter jeans, so the bottom ends of his two poles are resting in the pockets.

This young person addressed the many kinds of people that Planned Parenthood helps, which is often forgotten in the midst of sign-making:

A favorite, pithy message:

Creative lettering and drawing:

Two women whose signs presented topics that are not as common:


Best use of a yard stick:

Sorry I cut off the top of her sign.

Finally, these three silent figures stood together watching the defund Planned Parenthood rally:

As I took this photo, they were asked to move away from the rally because their presence was too likely to cause a confrontation. Meanwhile, anti-Planned Parenthood demonstrators prayed in the faces of their counterparts half a block away at the barricade between the two groups.

A bit of a double standard.


According to the St. Paul police via today's Star Tribune, there were 6,000 people there, with 250–400 of them at the defend rally and 5,600–5,750 at the support march.

Friday, February 10, 2017

About that Wall Ad

I don’t watch the Super Bowl and so didn’t see the Lumber 84 ad until the next morning. Someone shared it enthusiastically on Facebook and I watched it. If you haven’t already seen it, here it is on YouTube.

My impression: It’s a bunch of movie-like footage, clearly designed to manipulate the viewer into sympathizing with the main characters, a Mestiza woman and her daughter. It’s nicely shot. The mystery of what the girl is doing with all that plastic film detritus along the way was a bit perplexing until it resolved.

There were also these oddly interspersed shots of a white guy building something somewhere. If I hadn’t known it was for a business called Lumber 84, I would have been totally at a loss about what that had to do with anything, and even knowing that, it was confounding.

Then suddenly, after trudging and struggling for what seemed like minutes of air time, mom and girl are confronted with a wall (Trump’s wall, obviously), blocking their path. Mom sadly freaks out. Daughter reveals that her found-object craft project was a tattered American flag all along.

For no apparent reason they walk to the left and find a giant door in the wall, which swings open to let them through as soothing music plays.

Finally, the camera cuts to the builder guy as he drives along some anonymous American highway in his pickup truck with tools and lumber in the back. Words appear over the final frame: THE WILL TO SUCCEED IS ALWAYS WELCOME HERE.

Generally, I thought the whole thing was kind of incoherent but moving. Trump built a wall, but this one symbolic guy made a door and these two people got through. (Though no one else appears to.) Weird, but okay.

Well, no. It turns out the owner of Lumber 84, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is pro-Trump, pro-wall, but also in favor of the “big beautiful door” that Trump talked about at some point during the campaign.

When I heard Trump use the “big beautiful door” phrase, I assumed he meant legal immigration through H1B visas for people with skills, or who want to work at places like Wisconsin Dells or Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. But the funder of this ad seems to think it means access for exactly the kind of people the wall would keep out: women who come over the border with kids, women with no apparent skills except survival. As long as they’re patriotic enough to make a plastic flag.

Which is highly unlikely, as we already were pretty sure, and now definitely know as ICE has begun deporting undocumented long-time residents with no criminal history of violence, like Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who came to the U.S. when she was 14 and who has two children who are U.S. citizens.

Buh-bye, Guadalupe! Guess you didn't make that flag fast enough! Don’t let that big beautiful door hit you on the way out!

It funny-unfunny that the ad is so incoherent it can't get across the point of view its funder holds, and Trumpians are angry at Lumber 84 for being pro-immigration. We can only hope this incompetence continues at all levels until they are all driven out of power.


Here’s what veteran journalist Maria Hinajosa has to say about the ad.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Pipelines Under Rivers

Writer Greg Seitz is the resident writer for the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, part of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and editor of St. Croix 360, community news and river stewardship for the St. Croix River region. For readers not from these parts, the St. Croix is a tributary of the Mississippi, forming much of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Seitz today tweeted this series of thoughts on oil pipelines:

Oil pipelines under rivers is a topic I've been researching and writing about since late 2014. I constantly hear how it can be done safely.

Yes, I think pipelines under rivers could be semi-safe. Could be. That safety depends on rules and oversight. Pipelines have almost none.

There are 2.5 million miles of pipelines in America. A small federal agency – part of the Department of Transportation – oversees much of it.

There are 90 inspectors in the agency assigned to making sure companies follow the rules about pipeline safety. 90!

So, because it's not realistic to enforce stringent regulations, there are not stringent regulations.

Pipeline companies mostly get in trouble when there's a spill due to negligence. But negligence must be proven. That's what lawyers are for.

Rivers pose a particular threat to oil pipelines: the power of raging water. In a flood, they can dig deep into their beds – scour holes.

If they expose the pipe, then there is torsion on it. Logs, boulders, ice, or other debris getting pushed down the river strike it.

So pipelines should be buried deeply, right? And we better make sure they stay buried over the years, right? Nope.

Pipeline builders should study any river's potential to flood and scour, and bury their pipe deeper, but they don't have to.

There is no requirement that they make sure their pipes stay buried sufficiently deep under rivers as the years pass.

Scour was key in both the big pipeline spills into the Yellowstone River in the last seven years. One of which was complicated by ice cover.

So: I stand with Standing Rock. Forcing a pipeline under a river, low safety standards are an affront to humans and the water we share. #NoDAPL

Something to know as we watch the Turmp administration force its will upon the native people in North Dakota.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


We all know the Dear Leader seems to do whatever he wants because “his base” agrees with him, and that’s all that matters.

Well, if his base decided (or is deciding) he’s a lunatic destroying our country, how could they communicate that to him?

He doesn’t believe in polls. There are no elections for two years. And I’m sure that any people who call or write to say they’ve changed their minds about him would be called liars when they claim to have been his supporters.

The Turnip has set up an unfalsifiable supposition: “the people” support him, and if a bunch of people say they don’t support him, they’re not part of “the people” or the “majority,” and so don’t count.

It can’t be disproven. It’s faith, not facts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Scary Trivia

Q: What is the longest running record of plant bloom times in the world?

A: The cherry blossom records in Japan, which were started in 850 C.E.

Why does this matter, you may ask? Because it shows how much warmer the world has gotten in the last 50 years:

You'll note that the labels along the left side are dates, with April 5 at the bottom and April 15 up around the red line. Somewhere around 1950 or 60 the black line went earlier than any previous date and then kept going.

For more than a thousand years, the date bounced back and forth between April 10 and April 20, but recently it headed down toward April 5. The data on this graph end in 2010, notably. When they are next updated, I imagine some new dates will need to be added at the bottom.