Saturday, May 12, 2007

The New Yorker's covers about the ascent of man -- and the luxury cars he drives

I've always been both conflicted and beguiled by the contradictory double vision of The New Yorker. On the one hand, they offer some of the most incisive commentary we have about the social and environmental downsides of our advanced capitalist economy based on consumption and energy waste, an economy that pursues material acquisition with all the finesse of an out-of-control machine. On the other hand, their seductive ad pages help fuel that same consumption machine and help make sure it keeps humming right along. Spend too much time thinking about it and it just makes your head spin.

They really outdid themselves with their new three-part cover by Bruce McCall, titled "The Ascent of Man." This play on the old Darwinian phrase brilliantly portrays humanity evolving from the Stone Age into an ever more energy intensive way of life, which becomes a huge machine rushing through the pages of history, finally spinning out of control in the last panel, shown here (click photo to enlarge). You can see all three pages flip by in succession on the magazine's contents page. Bruce McCall is one of the magazine's quirkier contributors in both words and pictures, and this is a masterful visual portrayal of where our heedless consumption of energy is taking us.

But look at who's advertising on the alternating pages. It's Lexus extolling the evolution of their contribution to life on this planet, culminating with their luxury SUV hybrid RXh on the final spread. No, not a Prius. A big, honking 270-horsepower behemoth that's more about sheer power and performance than saving the planet. With a clean, spare layout featuring a gracefully arching flowering sprig that also sprouts miniature molecules that may or may not have something to do with emissions controls, the presentation elegantly presents this SUV as the peak of automotive evolution, the epitome of environmental friendliness. The ad copy is cleek and seductive.
Proof that nature and progress can coexist comfortably.
Very, very comfortably.
This is luxury hybrid.
This is the pursuit of perfection.
But is it? Evironmentalists don't think so.
"ONE question lingers after driving the 2006 Lexus RX 400h: How did it come to this, that Toyota is now selling a hybrid gas-electric vehicle with no tangible fuel economy benefits? In my test-driving, the Lexus hybrid, which is based on the gasoline-only RX 330, did not achieve better mileage than the 2005 RX 330 that I drove for comparison. My hybrid tester's window sticker did boast a federal mileage rating of 31 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, compared with just 18 and 24 for the RX without the hybrid drivetrain. But the government's testing procedure has a habit - one that seems to be exaggerated with hybrids - of rendering fuel economy numbers as relevant to the real world as national energy policies have been to actually reducing dependence on foreign oil. Speaking of which, isn't that what hybrids are all about: conservation, improved fuel economy, weaning the nation off its oil habit? Perhaps not any longer."
Like they say, there will always be a New Yorker. Just as there will always be people smart enough to see exactly where we're headed, and rich enough not to give a damn.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sundance 608 reservation screen about two and a half hours before first Friday night showtime

At last -- the benefit shows are over and Sundance 608 is open for regular business. It's like magic. Just go to the website, and with the click of a mouse you can order and print your reserve tickets for a seat at Robert Redford's place.

At the time I made the screenshot, nearly one third of the seats for "Waitress" were sold (gray circles). But since not many Madison moviegoers are used to spending an extra $3.00 per ticket (less for matinees) to make advance reservations, the rest of the seats should fill up quickly the old fashioned way -- by people standing in line. Looks like an opening night sellout. And online reservation system will be great whenever you want to make absolutely sure you get your favorite seats -- or any seats at all -- for a hot movie you really want to see.

Wondering what to see after you get tired of sampling the food and drink attractions of the Redfordplex, or plugging into the wireless connection in the lounge with your laptop? Kent Williams reviews his picks in Isthmus. Missing Robert Redford, who had a film conflict but says he'll be here in a couple of weeks? Dean Robbins has an interview
with the elusive star.
Correction: The reserved seating fee always applies, except for noon weekday showings. See UPDATE.

Flying United Express? Bring Kafka as a guide.

Madisonians know Raphael Kadushin as an editor for UW Press and a freelance food writer and restaurant critic. But in this week's hilarious Isthmus opinion piece about the perils of flying United Express in and out of Madison, especially via O'Hare, he reveals he is also a master of the Kafkaesque polemic. An excerpt:
My fellow passengers on the Madison flight occasionally walked up to the United Express representative to ask for updates, and his answers were so whimsical they bordered on the hallucinatory. “It will leave in 10 minutes.” “It will leave in an hour.” “It will leave shortly.”

But, as various passengers noted, there was no actual plane at the gate. This didn’t seem to faze the representative, and, in fact, nothing did. After waiting three hours for the imaginary plane, one of the stranded suddenly rushed back and announced the inevitable. “The rep just told me the plane was canceled, some time ago.”

“Why,” I went up and asked the clerk, “didn’t you announce the cancellation?”

“Why,” he parroted, “don’t you get out of my face?”

The herd knew their only option was a rental car or the last Van Galder bus, and they raced as a group to the exit. I followed, but I also, in the most incidental way, turned my head to the left as I rushed down the terminal and saw, like a sad joke, a gate posting a Madison departure, leaving in five minutes, wholly unannounced by a United Express representative and missing from O’Hare’s own departures board. When the plane took off, only three of the original 30-plus Madison-bound passengers were on board.
Check it out. There's more, and and you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Friday Photoshop Blogging: Indecision

Sometimes I just don't know which way to turn... Actually, I'm not all that indecisive. I'm just hypnotized by all the wavy arrows. (Click on photo to enlarge in Flickr or check out all the photographic collages in my Assemblages set at Flickr.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crowdsourcing and photography's future: Part 2

I've been posting photos on Flickr for a while now (clicking on photo will enlarge it in my Flickr account). This Sandhill Crane seemingly communing with the construction cranes on the isthmus skyline was shot from the bike path along the John Nolen Drive causeway here in Madison.

But I first visited Flickr to search for pictures, and I still spend a lot more time on Flickr as a consumer of images than as a maker. Flickr has become the functional equivalent of Google for image search.

Just as Google has a page rank, Flickr has a kind of picture rank (which they call "interestingness"), so that when a search turns up hundreds or even thousands of pictures, you're likely to see those you're most interested in first. This ranking is partly derived from the metadata like titles, captions and tags that users append, but mostly it's derived from viewers' responses -- including how often they click to enlarge the thumbnails, for example. These viewer responses are tracked and recorded by software.

The result is a kind of networked, distributed visual processor of awesome power. It's not perfect, but no one has ever figured out a better way to sort through millions of pictures in an instant -- and find usable results. The actual microstock agencies operate in much the same way, though the Flickr interface is probably by far the most elegant and functional. It's no wonder this is affecting professional photographers.

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian of the impact on photojournalism.
Half a dozen lurid and splodgy pictures in the local paper brought home to me the death of an honourable profession this week. I took them. I am in my small way responsible for impoverishing an old friend, because he, not me, is a professional photographer, and his living has been more or less abolished by the changing world. Just as film has been replaced by digital, professionals are being replaced by amateurs. The changes are partly technological and partly economic, but the final blow to his profession has come from Flickr and similar Web 2.0 sites.
Brown points out that the difference between an amateur and a professional isn't that the pro always takes great pictures -- it's that the pro always comes back with usable pictures. But the Internet is eroding the usefulness of this distinction.
A picture-sharing site like Flickr contains the work of tens of thousands of talented amateurs, all of them capable of producing one or two photographs a year that could be published anywhere. A British photographers' site, EPUK, has calculated that if only 1% of the pictures on Flickr are publishable, that would mean 1.5m usable pictures uploaded there every year. Most of the drudgery of identifying good, relevant pictures is also done here - by the photographers themselves, who tag them, and by the other users, who notice them and have their interest recorded by the software.

Perhaps none of these people could make a living as a photographer, but few want to. Any money they make is gravy for them - and bread taken from the mouths of professionals.
In effect, the same Internet-driven wave of change that disrupted the music business and its existing business models with the advent of MP3 file sharing is now turning the business of photography on its head.

(Part 2 of 3 Parts. Part 1.)

Crowdsourcing and photography's future: Part 1

I love the photo "Alien Arms" by Todd Klassy, which he has posted on Flickr, and which I've bookmarked so I can go back and look at it every now and then. Technically Klassy is an amateur photographer, but I think it's one of the most beautiful images I've seen by any photographer.

The Capital Times was struck by it, too. It's the lower of the two photos they ran on their front page story about the Madison Flickr group. Klassy, one of several local photographers featured in the story and one who has only been photographing for a few years, has clearly benefited from his Flickr association.
In three years of tooling around Wisconsin with his digital camera in tow, amateur Belleville photographer Todd Klassy has had requests from a book publisher in Chile, a bank in San Francisco and an environmental organization in Great Britain, among others, to use his photographs. He's also inked a "how-to" book deal on taking better digital photos.
Klassy is part of a worldwide trend. Amateurs are shaking up the field of professional photography, especially the stock photo market. Depending on usage, stock photos sell to major media markets for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. This is being challenged by the rise of so-called "microstock" agencies like iStockphoto that acquire photos over the Internet and sell them for as little as a dollar apiece. While Flickr was designed as a photo-sharing service, not an agency, there's nothing preventing photo buyers from finding a photo on Flickr and contacting the photographer directly -- as Klassy's experience illustrates.

The use of the Internet to aggregate and monetize the small, individual contributions of thousands, even millions, of people has been called crowdsourcing.
Welcome to the age of the crowd. Just as distributed computing projects like UC Berkeley’s SETI@home have tapped the unused processing power of millions of individual computers, so distributed labor networks are using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains. The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users.


Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.
Is crowdsourcing threatening the future of photography as a profession? Will a crowd of hobbyists from around the world armed with digital cameras and access to the Internet replace the professional photographer? Probably not, but the trend is making photographers nervous and changing the way the photography market operates. Stay tuned.

(Part 1 of 3 parts. Part 2.)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Condos after Dark: Monroe Commons Revisited

Life has become somewhat dislocated and topsy-turvy for residents of Monroe Commons, which kicked off our Condos after Dark series with this post a few weeks ago. According to a story in the Capital Times the other day, they've got some soundproofing problems.
Living in a luxury condominium in one of Madison's most desirable neighborhoods shouldn't mean hearing your upstairs neighbors walking on the ceiling.

But that's one issue facing residents at Monroe Commons, the $22.9 million mixed-use project that houses the Trader Joe's grocery store. Faulty soundproofing is now forcing developers of the high-profile project on the 1800 block of Monroe Street to move existing residents into unsold units while repairs are made.

"These are sound standards that need to be met and we weren't satisfied they were being met," said Bryce Armstrong of Trio Development Inc., the local firm that partnered on the project with the Keller Real Estate Group.

The developers hired a sound engineer, who analyzed the soundproofing system and decided what improvements were needed. Repairs could range from simply adding more insulation to pulling down sheets of drywall or ceiling material.

"Each unit is different so it's hard to generalize," said Armstrong. "The bottom line is we're going to do what we need to do to keep our customers happy."
One thing hasn't changed about Monroe Commons since the day it opened -- the success of the trendy Trader Joe's grocery store on the ground floor.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday bike ride around Madison

Began by taking the Southwest Bike Path, which actually has its own website. We followed this little passenger on the bike path of life. Who says dogs can't ride bicycles? The path is a great way to get downtown without ever encountering traffic.

We were headed for Olin Park via the John Nolen Causeway, but took a brief digression to visit the award-winning headquarters of Zweibel, Zweibel & Zweibel, which were just honored at the recent Madison Trust for Historic Preservation's 2007 awards.
Among the winners this year were Trainor's Store, an 1888 commercial property at 551 W. Main St. that had many different incarnations as a grocery store, and housed Uncle Jim's Pizza in the late 1980s. Now, the refurbished building is home to Zweibel, Zweibel and Zweibel: Purveyors of Fine Produce since 1421, otherwise known as the Madison office of The Onion ("T. Herman Zweibel" is the fictional founder of The Onion, and "zwiebel" means onion in German). There is a law office on the second floor.

Owners John Koffel and Bruce Wunnicke's project included sandblasting paint off old bricks, uncovering old windows that were bricked over, adding steel supports to the structure and replacing floors with recycled materials, including some salvaged from a middle school in Appleton that was to be demolished. An eye-popping total of 38 contractors worked on the building.
Long-time madison residents will add another occupant to that list -- Millins Supermarket.

As we wheeled out of the Zweibel, Zweibel & Zweibel parking lot, we faced the Bedford Street mural that covers the walls of the studio of WORT, Madison's community sponsored radio station. Since December of 1975, WORT has been serving listeners in the Madison area -- and now, streaming on the Internet, around the world.

(Click on photos to open in a larger size on Flickr.)

"Never trust a man who wears a pink tie and talks about war."

That's what T said about George Tenet's performance on Meet the Press this morning, and she nailed it. Christy Hardin Smith characterized his appearance as "Meet the Press continues the George Tenet buy my book travelling show," and we found it unwatchable.

How "Slam Dunk" Tenet can receive a $4 million advance for being disingenuous at best about his role in going to war against Iraq is beyond me. His book should have been called "I Didn't Start the War, but Here's How I Would Have Done It If I Had." Hard to see why, if O.J. couldn't profit from his proposed book, Tenet's ever got off the ground.

Ray McGovern and the other former intelligence analysts were right about the man they called "the Alberto Gonzales of the intelligence community." He should give a major part of his his royalties to U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq and families of the dead.

UW Cinematheque screens restored film by megastar whose dollhouse may have been viewed by more people than her movies

When this movie was made in 1927, Colleen Moore was the top box office draw in Hollywood, taking home $12,500 a week when that was real money. She was a star who knew how to manage her money, invested in the stock market, and wrote a book called "How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market." She invested some of that money in a magnificent dollhouse she designed and built with the help of studio craftspeople, at a cost of nearly $500,000 (again, when that was real money) -- which she sent on a national tour during the Great Depression to raise more than $650,000 for children's charities, and which she donated to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in 1949, where it is still displayed, now redubbed Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle. Colleen Moore made millions through her acting and investing, and her films had helped define the look of the flapper era. Yet by the time she died in 1988, nearly as old as the century, her dollhouse was remembered fondly but her films were almost entirely forgotten, especially as the best were hard-to-see silents.

So, what did audiences see when they watched Colleen Moore on the silver screen in 1927? Saturday night, the UW Cinematheque recreated the silent film experience with a newly restored print of "Her Wild Oat" and gave us a chance to see for ourselves. From the program guide:
Colleen Moore created the character of a vivacious flapper and went on to become one of the top-grossing stars of the 1920. One of the most talked about actresses of her day, she stars as Mary Brown, owner of a tiny lunch wagon. With savings from her operation, Mary attempts to enter an exclusive summer resort society. Snubbed by the other guests, she disguises herself as the Duchesse de Granville, staying at an elegant hotel, and accepting expensive gifts from traveling salesmen. The situation gets complicated when the son of the Duke of Granville shows up. Restored print! Live piano accompaniment by David Drazin!
We found out what the exclamation mark was about when clasically-trained jazz pianist David Drazin (shown at left before the show) began working the keyboard. Drazin, who came up from Evanston, has made a career over the last 25 years providing improvisatory scores for silent films all over the country and at film festivals abroad -- for films he often hasn't even seen before sitting down to play. The effect was delightful, as he provided a running musical commentary on the adventures of Moore's winsome gamine as she tried to pull of her masquerade among the rich folks. As if that wasn't enough, the show began with a locally made short film, "The Rent Party," shot in the style of an early, flickering silent, which at one point features a piano player entertaining the rent party (rather inadvertently). The pianist is played on screen by Drazin -- at the same time he is sitting at the piano in the theater, providing the accompaniment. A memorable, surprising film moment. Way to go, Cinematheque!

It was also miraculous that we were able to see "Her Wild Oat" at all. The film does not appear in most standard film histories, simply because no print was thought to have survived. The restoration is based on a print that was found in, of all places, a Czech film archive, complete with Czechoslovakian intertitles and inserts. Be sure to check out this Andre Soares post about the restoration in the Alternative Film Guide blog. It provides a wealth of information about the film, some terrific images of stills from the movie, and more about Moore's tempestuous career (she was not the first Hollywood leading lady to have bad luck in her choice of men).

Hollywood trivia buffs will also appreciate the still from "Her Wild Oat" that shows a 14-year-old Loretta Young in a bit part. Soares explains the role Moore played in helping to launch Young's career -- and stage name.