Monthly Archives: January 2005

Books Square Off and Battle

Move over March Madness. Make room for the Tournament of Books.

But wouldn’t it be possible, exciting, and also fun to take 16 of the
most celebrated books of the year and pit them against one another in
an NCAA-style Battle Royale of literary excellence to see which novel
became The First Annual TMN Tournament of Books Champion? One that could be awarded some badge of high esteem, perhaps called “The Rooster” in honor of David Sedaris’s brother (surely the liveliest character in contemporary literature)?  Yes. This was something we could do.

The event is being hosted by The Morning News and sponsored by Powells. Judges include some of the better known literary bloggers, notes Laila Lalami of Moorish Girl.

You Said What? Reviewing the Reviewers

Ron Hogan reviews the book reviewers in his new blog Beatrix. "When I told folks last week I was doing this, one friend asked, ‘For the love of God, why?’" He explains why it complements his old blog Beatrice. (Mentioned on Mark Sarvas’ The Elegant Variation.)

Less Grammar, More Play

Matt Jones points us to this column by Philip Pullman in The Guardian, where he argues teachers place too much emphasis on grammar, not enough on writing itself.

What does work, the York
study maintains, is writing in a meaningful context: writing as a
practical hands-on craft activity. One of the implications of this is
that teachers have to be confident about writing – about play, about
delight. Too many are not, because they haven’t had to be; and the
result is the dismal misery of the "creative writing" drills tested in
the Sats, where children are instructed to plan, draft, edit, revise,
rewrite, always in the same order, always in the same proportions,
always in the same way. If teachers knew something about the joy of
fooling about with words, their pupils would write with much greater
fluency and effectiveness. Teachers and pupils alike would see that the
only reason for writing is to produce something true and beautiful;
that they were on the same side, with the teacher as mentor, as editor,
not as instructor and measurer, critic and judge.

Virtual Book Tour

Mark Sarvas, who writes one of our favorite literary blogs The Elegant Variation, points us to the Virtual Book Tour. Authors have "toured" literary-related blogs in the past, but VBT now offers such tours (which has the author both blogging and interviewing with bloggers) as a commercial service. MJ Rose is one author who has participated in the tours. The business is the brainchild of Kevin Smokler, who recently argued that the book business is picking back up. Kevin’s blog points us to a Chicago Tribune  profile of Jessa Crispin of Book Slut fame. (The article quotes Julia Bannon of Harper Collins, who lists Book Slut,,, and as the "top literary Web sites.")

Translating Photography, Part III

Another part of the dialogue between J.S. Oppenheim and me on the cultural and technological barriers that keep still photography from being more easily “translatable.”

J.S. Oppenheim:
Without question, the interpretive engine for all that we experience, music included, is the verbal part of language. In college academics, “comparative literature” has been around formally for more than half a century and pursued without being so defined from the moment the first scholar translated an ancient text to a modern language (or the first time a war chief intercepted a message from the enemy camp with the strange language).  At this juncture, it sounds like the field — Eastern semiotics with a branch in photography — is wide open for The English, lol,  at the primary level and ready for translation at the secondary.  I can pull one or two volumes by, for example, writer Yasunari Kawabata from my shelves: why shouldn’t I similarly see the works of Japanese photographers and others on the shelves at Barnes & Noble? I look forward to the day when the world that is becomes the world fully represented on my shelves. The double fate of English fits its people’s political predicament: how to have a dominant distributed tool or two without in fact dominating the diverse language cultures that access them for discourse, diplomacy, and trade.In that XP OS accommodates diverse language platforms, I suspect the search engines able to respond in kind and possibly in response to traffic. However, the greatest suspension of disbelief in the Star Trek shows so popular in the U.S. has been always the convenience of having other species speak English (and enjoying too the tools called “universal translators” that could find equivalence from any grammatical signal from any source in the infinitely multidimensional universe). In reality, it’s a tortuous issue with so much of every culture’s identity and value expressed through its language. We want a world better fit together.  While part of that may entail working through or sharing a common and expedient language–without evidence to the contrary, I believe it is indeed English–we do not want it to have the one outlook, political system, religious faith, or aesthetic drift imbedded in that language.

We are still far from perfect language translators, but they have come a long way. I marvel at what translation engines such as those on Google allow you to do, for instance: you can read through many European-language newspapers and get the gist of the articles. The stumbling block, of course, is that language is living and breathing:
ever changing as we invent new uses for existing words, incorporate slang and import words from other languages. Words, like people, change with context and time. Translation engines don’t yet cut it, because the AI behind them work on fixed meaning and context. (You get the gist, but grammar and nuance are garbled.) Because of those
challenges, we will continue to see friction in our lingual, textual–and it seems visual border crossings.

(I just finished reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenbery Galaxy, and one of his themes is that the invention of movable type pushed us into nationalism as language became more easily homogenized (repeatable). Readers and writers–and governments–came to demand standardization. Grammar and spelling became doctrinaire, where they used to change quite flexibly to suit the meaning the writer was trying to convey. The
book gave me newfound respect for James Joyce’s experiments in works like Ulysses. So I guess good literature gets us to think differently, and good photography gets us to see differently?)

What will get us to view images (and text) more readily across such lingual and textual boundaries, I think, is the serendipity that the Internet brings as it pulls us into contact with people who are able to navigate borders with which we would otherwise be unfamiliar.

[See also Translating Photography, Part I] and Translating Photography, Part I.]

Silicon Valley 100 Buzz

Auren Hoffman surveys the buzz created by his Silicon Valley 100 list. He also talks about the criteria that he used to generate his list.

1. Integrity.   These are people known for their high integrity, honesty, and strong commitment to ethics.
2. Connectors.
3. Salespeople.  They are naturally inclined to spread ideas.
4. they are all connected to the Bay Area.  I believe it is much easier to "tip" an idea in a few zip codes
5. early adopters.   they like to try new products and ideas.

Joi Ito has archived an audio file of an interview with Auren.

Translating Photography, Part II

Part of a dialogue between J.S. Oppenheim and me on the cultural and technological barriers that keep still photography from being more easily “translatable.”


I agree with most of what you say (I like especially what you say about context, which I hope to explore on my blog soon, since I recently read [Fernando] Pessoa‘s The Book of Disquiet [which employs the use of “heteronyms“]), but I am not sure that leading
technology explains why our knowledge of non-Euro-American [photography] remains
relatively narrow. In terms of industrial might and technology, Japan has ranked up there: both pre- (as shown by the creation of a Navy then-modern enough to defeat the Russians) and post-war (the auto and electronic industries: though the country’s defeat during the war certainly set it back). Additionally, if you look at some of the blogs
and web sites about the history of Japanese photography, you see that it extends pretty far back: certainly to have at least created a large body of work with which–I–feel I should be more conversant.

Instead, I think language intrudes. It is more obvious in film, of course. There are wonderful Japanese film directors (like [Yasujiro] Ozu) who are celebrated in smaller circles but are largely unknown among the wider Western public. (And it is not imitative of the West either, since many of the directors incorporated conventions from Noh and other Japanese theater.)

You would think that the transmitability of photography would be much more straightforward: certainly the rise of the Internet: websites, blogs and now photoblogs, is changing that. But I think language has interfered here as well. We “connect” with text and imagery to which we more easily relate (what some of the bloggers who write about “social networks” call “linkiness.”) How do search engines treat foreign languages, for instance? I know I tend to search on English-language sites first myself. And seemingly, text that explains a photographer’s biography and image are more important to his/her place than we might imagine.

[See also Translating Photography, Part I]

Translating Photography, Part I

Several of us on the photography wing of Zoetrope, the Francis Ford Coppola online workshop, recently got into a discussion of what constituted "good photography." I mentioned how woefully ignorant I felt about Asian and other non-U.S./Euro-centric photography: that I worried how my "aesthetic sense might be too culturally narrow." I referenced the Coincidences blog and Philbert Ono’s site on the rich history of Japanese photography. Eventually, fellow Zoer J.S. (Jim) Oppenheim and I began exploring the reasons for why linguistic and cultural barriers exist around still imagery, when you might think that it would be a more easily translatable medium. We also ultimately touched on points that I thought were relevant to the discussion of social networks and how they affect the transmission of content, so I thought it would be relevant to Jim was a good sport, and said I could quote him at length here.

J.S. Oppenheim:

Those who lead with a new technology, and photography was exactly that just 140 or so years ago, establish its benchmarks. Those who are able to promulgate their technologies similarly do that "show you how it’s done" thing because, well, they can literally do that through developed publishing and trade systems. Finally, ultimately, technology as language — how we exchange ideas with one another — may follow the language that as a technology establishes itself as lingua franca. The English, by hook and crook, blast and battle, and for a while not a little leadership in the opium trade as well, managed to make the world amenable to their presence. At the same time, it seems to have given the world some in-common tools — a dominant language and multiple modalities for communicating — that in turn has enabled the world to send a very strong bounce-back signal of its own. You can bet that American photographers, by and large, know very little about peer and peer philosophies elsewhere, and we/they are curious as all get out about that.

You know, you can’t tell the guy next to you about the fire you’re both watching.  In order to communicate, there has to be a more distant relationship between recipients in light of the content delivered. That is to say — in my infinitely parenthetical way — your photograph of my backyard does not qualify as travel photography from my perspective, but a photograph from your backyard appearing, and as it literally does, on my desktop south of Baltimore very much does.

This is a fascinating period to watch for how the world gets to know itself through other than the movement and mingling of armies and traders whose experiences and stories once framed what Everyman could know about other places.  There’s no precedent for the World Wide Web.  National Geographic? Life Magazine? Playboy and Vogue in every language? Not even close.  Heretofore, international publications represented, at best, the discerning but not omniscient minds of a comparative handful of editors; this medium has thoroughly democratized the development and distribution of content.

It’s not worse for "China, Thailand, and the Philippines" except where Draconian policies on speech squelch the signal: the web is the open gate to a gregarious species not only capable but perhaps destined to work out a plan for itself that knows no boundaries.

One of my favorite photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, might be called one of the forefathers of the Photographers of the World who may have lost whatever national character they had when they began their careers. One might expect to see more of such photographers but, lol, with different sounding names.

I have had a terrible time mastering even beginner French, but with photography among other arts, I say other languages (than Anglo-European) welcome here. As the vernacular goes, "Bring it on!"

Remaking Taiwan

I came across an interesting exhibition on Taiwan’s New Landscape Movement when I was visiting the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts  (KMFA) yesterday. Since the 1940-50s influx of refugees escaping the Chinese Civil War, Taiwan has struggled with the haphazard development of its housing, transportation and cultural centers. (I was once struck by how at the similarity of parts of Taipei and Athens, a city which once saw a similar influx of war refugees.) However, it seems that government and cultural leaders (for instance, those in architecture and landscape architecture) are now working in concert to develop more lasting and meaningful structures, while also figuring ways to blend them into the landscape. That includes reworking the country’s transportation gateways (renovation of the international airports, developing a bullet train that will cross the island from north to south) and seeking to attract more tourists to the island.

Predictably, the rather dry newspaper articles I have seen on the projects do not do them justice. Much better is viewing the KMFA exhibit, where you can see the drawings, computering renderings and models of the architects. The island is expanding its offering of cultural centers, and there seem to be a panoply of projects on the table.

Part of the KMFA’s current exhibition space is devoted to the design finalists for the planned National Palace Museum Southern Branch. Jurors asked that the teams come up with ideas that would be pan-Asian, while also retaining a regional flair.  A Japanese design team came up with the bizarre "idea" of building the museum in the shape of an old Chinese coin. (Was money the first thing that popped into their head when they thought of Taiwan culture!?) A Taiwanese team’s design was more subtle; they wanted to "hide" the museum in the landscape and allow the structure to surprise museum-goers as they approached the structure. (Maybe too subtle for the jurors? It seems like architects often want to find ways to leave a signature on the land.) One American  team’s design struck me as near imitation of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. In the end,  American architect Andrew Predock,  came out on top with his "Yu Shan" (Jade Mountain proposal). The proposed structure rises above the otherwise flat landscape, its centerpiece a "crystal" mountain that pays homage to Taiwan’s mountainous geography.  I was struck by Predock’s additional nod to local sensibilities, since his design proposes details like incorporating Taroko marble in the museum’s foundation.

Taiwan is also looking to redesign many of its university campuses (which were damaged during a recent earthquake) and reclaim certain rivers. Dialogue, Taiwan’s magazine on architecture, design and culture, also
has a good article on both the National Palace Museum – Southern Branch
International Competition and the Taiwan New Landscape Movement in Issue #87.


For those swimming in Apple hype, SJM points us to one possible antidote: Apple-related humor.

Woof, woof.